String Surgeon: An Old World Crafsman Maintains Premium Instruments

When priceless stringed instruments need anything from a checkup to major surgery, their owners often turn to Hans Nebel, an Old World craftsman still in demand at age 73.

Photo by Keith A. Muccilli.

With Hans Nebel, it is always about his hands, whether pushing a mower north by northwest across the front lawn of his home in Harrington Park (“This way I feel like Cary Grant”) or theatrically touching his chest while unfurling a story or telling what he admits is a bad joke from his voluminous file.

But most of all, it is the 73-year-old’s hands on wood, meticulously repairing or restoring another priceless 18th-century Stradivarius or Guadagnini, that continually enhances his stature as a fourth-generation violin maker and dealer.

“I cannot mix fiddle-fixing with my manly work,” Nebel says of a strict routine that confines stringed instruments to daytime, leaving evenings and weekends for outdoor activities—often with a wrist protector (when skiing or cutting wood) to guard against “undue damage.”

“He has been the only person I go to for violin needs,” says Allan Schiller, a Teaneck resident who played with the New York Philharmonic for 35 years and owns a David Tecchler violin that is celebrating its 300th anniversary. He has known Nebel for more than 40 years. “He’s a wonderful craftsman, one of the best in the world. Very honest, very caring about his clients, and a true friend.”

Nebel’s faithful include accomplished concert and amateur musicians, music teachers and shop owners who attend his summer workshop in Massachusetts; advanced violinmakers who trek to Parma, Italy to study with him in the fall; and even a 93-year-old nurse from Queens, whom he visits annually to pick up her violin when he is en route home from Kennedy Airport. Their needs can range from minor maintenance, which Nebel equates to filling a dental cavity or an “oil and spark plug change,” to a major restoration that is booked far ahead, requiring a year or more of precise work and costing as much as six figures for a cello.

The 30-year-old, bi-level home that Nebel designed, built and shares with his wife, Ingeborg, reflects his attention to detail. There are five separate heating zones; three outside compressors combat summer heat and, to some degree, control humidity. “Violins do not like excessive humidity,” Nebel says. “My hot glue does not dry properly during the summer months if it would be too humid.”

Then again, dry violins are not happy either, Nebel says. In what he calls ye olde workshop, on the lower level of the house, electronically controlled aluminum shutters can be raised or lowered to fine-tune temperature. One paneled workroom with a butcher-block bench faces north for optimal daylight and holds neatly arranged closets full of clamps, chisels, gauges, planes and handmade, stainless-steel springed gadgets. A second room is home to assorted machines and a glass case filled with varnishes and glues.

There is also a paneled conference room filled with historical reference books and a steel-doored, fireproof, climate-controlled, walk-in vault with 10-inch-thick, steel-reinforced concrete walls and a dehumidifier that preserves and protects instruments in various stages of repair.

Nebel’s wife handles banking and postal chores. She met her future husband in Kew Gardens, Queens, one day while walking a German shorthaired pointer; they were married months later. That was 46 years ago. “We have a very good working relationship,” Ingeborg says. “He’s downstairs, I’m upstairs. We communicate via intercom. Once the sun goes down, I get into action and do the typing and e-mailing and whatever needs to be done. He’s allowed to dictate.”

Born in Mittenwald, a small German town south of Munich at the foot of the Alps, Nebel has been playing the violin since age seven. His father was a violin maker whose family history in the town can be traced back to 1482. He encouraged his son to become an engineer or architect, but Hans preferred playing with his father’s tools to kicking a soccer ball. “My father’s definition of a musician was not the kind who played in the philharmonic,” Nebel points out. “My father’s definition was the kind who played in the local café, local bar, played on guitar for local entertainment, and would come home at 2:30, drunk.”

Nebel came to the United States in 1957, was drafted into the Army for two years, and then spent 18 years with a New York City company that specialized in appraisals, certifications, restoring and repairing bowed string instruments before he moved to New Jersey in 1971. “I haven’t taken any vacation since 1979,” he says, “but not once did I go into the workshop and say I wish I could do something else.”

Greeting visitors in a gray or white medical-style smock, tie and dress shirt, Nebel could easily be mistaken for a surgeon. And in a way, that’s what he is. The margin for error in tending to a 300-year-old Strad that may be worth millions is slender, to a tenth of a millimeter. The many priceless classics on which Nebel has worked include the 1740 Guarneri del Gesù that Isaac Stern used for much of his illustrious career; in 1995 Stern sold one of his two Guarneris for $3.5 million.

Most violins are made of maple (for the back, ribs and scroll) and spruce (for the top), in part because of their sound qualities and attractive appearance. “All wood shrinks,” Nebel says, “regardless of age.” The degree of shrinkage affects every aspect of a repair or restoration. Nebel compares an old violin’s changing shape to a skier who carries skis on one shoulder and, after years of carrying the skis, “his one shoulder will sink a little bit lower than the other shoulder. On the violin, this is, of course, unacceptable.” A chin rest designed in the 19th century by Louis Spohr permits easier holding of the violin to eliminate any compression on the side where the violinist squeezes it under his chin.

“It’s quite an experience when I go to his workshop,” says violinist Dimitri Hadjipetkov, the Bulgarian-born concert artist and teacher, who lives in Verona and directs the department of strings at Montclair Kimberley Academy. “He will explain things and go into very elaborate detail that I don’t even understand, but I’ve learned so much about the violin from him.”

An appreciator of Old World craftsmanship, Nebel has a passion for collecting vintage bows, which might strike the uninitiated as a mere sideshow to the art of the instruments. But Nebel can expound at great length on the amazingly subtle workmanship and distinctive features of each bow. In his collection of more than 20, many are worth up to $200,000 each.

Nebel often wonders how Antonio Stradivari, at age 93, managed to maintain such consistently high quality with his tools. “It’s very delicate work,” he says, his long, limber hands gesturing to underscore the point. “When I do retouching, I’m very aware of my breathing. Just the way if you are a sharpshooter, proper breathing affects your effectiveness. I do very fine drawings, little lines, little grains with the brush, and put certain shading into the grain, because we are not just painting a dark line. You have winter grain, and you have spring-summer grain. In winter, there is little growth; hence the fibers are very closely bunched, producing a dark line. In spring and summer, the tree grows very rapidly; hence the fibers are very loosely connected, producing a white, wide grain.”

What makes a great violin? “It’s very much a personal choice,” he says. “Some people like a very bright-sounding violin. This is normally the younger person that wishes to project in a large hall. Then there may be an older person that strictly plays in the living room. Older ears are not that crazy about too bright-sounding violins. Sometimes the older person with a more sensitive ear may possibly choose a more mellow, darker-sounding violin.”

Stradivari, who worked in the northern Italian town of Cremona until his death in 1737, remains Nebel’s lodestar—“the Michael Jordan of Cremona,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. While Stradivari made his reputation with original creations, Nebel, despite having built his share for clients, says, “My calling is the restoration of old instruments.” Nebel has his own goal—to “outwork Stradivari,” which, of course, would mean another 20 years in ye olde workshop.

“They just fade away at the bench,” Ingeborg says fondly of the energy and enthusiasm her husband shares with other violin craftsmen. “There are very few that actually retire. It’s a calling rather than a profession. They enjoy it. It’s what keeps them going.”

Neil Amdur, a former sports editor of the New York Times, is the author of five books. He writes about sports, movies and culture from his home in Harrington Park.

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