It was almost by accident that Tom Hosmer got into the violin repair business. Almost five decades later, he’s still at work. Hosmer Violins in Fayetteville, NY, will be 50 years old in November; his shop is Central New York’s go-to place for the repair and restoration of violins, violas, and cellos.
After studying photography in college, Tom faced a hard time finding gainful employment in that field because, as he put it, “I had no talent.” Instead, he continued working on guitars, an instrument he began playing and repairing at age 15.
“I started my business after college,” he explained. “I was working on the back porch of my apartment. I was able to drum up some repair business because there was a need and I filled it. Working on guitars was pretty straightforward as I played guitar reasonably well and had a good idea of what made them work correctly. Then people started bringing me violins.”
Learning the trade
Back in the early 1970s there was, of course, no Internet and no easy way to learn how to become a luthier. Tom started playing the violin at age 19; he learned a few tricks of the repair trade here and there from other luthiers but didn’t receive any formal training right away as there were no violin schools in the U.S. – they were all in Europe.
In 1974, Tom attended a seminar taught by William Salchow on repairing and re-hairing violin bows.
“He was the dean of American bow-makers,” Tom said. “He was very free with information. I asked lots of questions and learned a lot from him. We maintained a collegial relationship for many years thereafter.”
Three years later, in 1977, Tom attended a summer violin craftsmanship program at the University of New Hampshire. The course was conducted by Karl Roy, director of the German violin-making school, and was originally focused on basic violin maintenance.
“But we wanted to learn to make instruments, so that’s where the course wound up heading,” Tom said. “I learned enough to be dangerous in making violins.”
While he did experiment with building a few of his own instruments, Tom’s last building project was a viola he constructed in 1983. He is holding an earlier instrument in the picture at the top of this article.
Today, he spends his time setting up new instruments while repairing and restoring older ones. He works exclusively on violins, violas, cellos and their related bows. “Double basses are too big – I don’t have the space,” he said, gesturing around his cramped two-room shop.
He also sells violins, violas, cellos and bows.
For bow maintenance, Tom works closely with Michael Hattala, whom he called a “world-class” bow restorer.
“I’m lucky he’s working here – he could be successful anywhere,” Tom said.
Tips and advice
Tom offered several simple maintenance tips for MakingMusicMag.com readers.
“Keep [your instrument] in its case, closed and latched,” he said, adding that this not only protects the instrument from damage but also keeps it from falling out if the case is picked up without being securely shut.
“Any wooden instrument is going to shrink in the winter – the problem is if it shrinks too much, which can cause open seams and, even worse, cracks.” Tom recommends using an internal humidifier such as Dampit or Humitron to keep your instrument from drying out.
“In summer, it’s the opposite problem,” he continued. “Wooden instruments can swell, causing pegs to stick and the action (string height) to become too high.”
Tom urges players to keep their instruments clean.
“If you let rosin sit on the instrument in some cases it may become part of the varnish and be impossible to remove,” he said. “Wipe off fingerprints and bodily fluids – it’s amazing how much spit and tears can get on the surface.
Wipe off the strings too.”
Excessive use of rosin is Tom’s pet peeve: “Don’t use too much rosin – you only need a little,” he urged. “You don’t need to rosin your bow every time you play – it’s still there from yesterday.”
“Wipe off your bow and loosen the hair before putting it away,” he continued, adding that the bow should really be “over-loosened” – especially in the summer – to combat the potential tightening of the hair once the humidity decreases.
Tom especially encourages players to learn to keep their bridges from warping.
“Whether you do your tuning with the friction pegs, as most experienced players do, or you use the fine tuners on the tailpiece, the top of the bridge always migrates in the direction of the pegbox,” he explained. “When the top of the bridge moves and the feet stay in one place, the face of the bridge eventually begins to resemble a parenthesis. All players need to learn how to avoid this problem right from the start.”
Buying a violin?
As for beginners looking to purchase a violin, Tom offered this advice: “Buy an instrument from somebody who knows what they’re doing. Don’t expect to pay less than $400 and expect the instrument to function. Don’t go online, go to a violin shop.”
“I spend as much time looking at the inside of the violin as the outside,” he continued. “If the workmanship is sloppy where you can’t see it, how long do you think it’s going to hold up where you can?”
One further piece of advice for the older adult beginner – see if you are actually capable of holding the instrument in place. “Hold your left arm out in the playing position for five minutes,” he suggested, holding his arm in an L-shape. “Can you physically do it? There is potentially a lot less pain in playing a cello.”
Check out Tom Hosmer’s web site at: https://www.hosmerviolins.com/