In a small white house at the end of gravel road near Anchor Point, Ray DeMeo has been making instruments in an attached workshop for nearly a decade. He carefully crafts violins, violas and mandolins, mostly from local wood, some of it found in his own backyard.
Inside DeMeo’s house, a large work table sits in the middle of a room that doubles as the kitchen and workshop. The walls are lined with shelves that hold tools, works in progress and completed instruments. Ray’s first instrument is included in that collection.
“I just had an interest when I was a young kid, I grew up in Chicago and I used to play hooky and hang out in places where they made ‘em, and museums, and I just had an interest in [it],” DeMeo said. “So I actually started making them in high school and that was one thing I did in high school – that lute.”
Since that lute, he’s made another 58 instruments. When he was in high school, Ray would go to one of the libraries in downtown Chicago with pockets full of quarters and copy pages out of the instrument-making reference books.
He tried college after high school, but it really wasn’t for him. Since then he’s worked in construction, drove truck, served as a soldier and was a logger in Canada. Eventually he decided to put his focus back on instruments, so he went back to school to learn how to repair violins and violas.
“The teacher was a master violin maker, and she taught me, at the same time I was learning to repair on my own time, kind of. I was able to make a violin with her. She showed me how to make a violin and then there was a night class at the same time of mandolin making,” DeMeo said.
Ray also has learned from masters from places like Japan and India. That’s translated into a more traditional approach to instrument building, which he says some people shy away from these days.
DeMeo: “So I cook my glue. This is just hide glue.”
Van Cleave: “It kind of smells sweet.”
DeMeo: “Yeah, it does. It’s just from the animal parts.”
Van Cleave: “You make your varnish? Out of what?”
DeMeo: “Ever hear of lac? It’s a bug. So they leave this hard secretion. I use seed lac, because it looks like little seed, and then it’s mixed with a couple other things.”
Those more traditional methods, like making your own glue, tend to make the business of putting an instrument together that much harder. Everything Ray does has to be deliberate and controlled.
“This, you have seconds, you only have a minute at the very top. And a lot of time you’ll heat the parts to give it a little extra time. You know, we’re talking seconds,” DeMeo said.
But he says the easiest way doesn’t always mean you’ll get the best result.
“There’s modern stuff, and modern ways and bolts and new kinds of glues, but there’s a reason the 1960s Martins sound so nice and going even further back in time, you know, the 20s, all mahogany, you could buy them for $30, there’s a reason they sound really good,” DeMeo said.
Ray couldn’t give me an exact time for how long it takes to make each instrument. But from what I saw, it take a while.
“This is how it starts, this is the roughing out of a violin, mandolin, arched up mandolin, cellos, it’s all the same, and it starts out just like this,” DeMeo said.
The sound you’re hearing is Ray basically scooping pieces of wood away from the body of what will eventually be his personal viola. And he makes it look really easy.
“It’s not necessarily the strength, it’s the control,” DeMeo said as he scraped.
Ray says the building process starts with selecting a piece of wood. Maple and spruce are pretty typical choices. And some of those pieces come directly from Ray’s yard. He draws lines with a pencil on the wood to tell him where not to go, then gets to cutting.
Ray says it’s part science, part instinct. He tests his work by tapping the board to hear certain tones.
“These are tap tones for viola, the top of C-sharp and the back is a D. Mandolins are different, they’re a full step away,” he said.
Ray loves what he does. And you can really tell as you talk to him about his craft. And when you hear him play and instrument he’s made.