By John McNeilly, Contributing Writer
When Joshua Henry was a child he took apart everything he could.
He disassembled clock radios, old telephones, anything that roused his curiosity. Once he understood how they worked, he’d put them back together.
“I’ve always been drawn to using my hands,” the Purcellville resident said.
So it’s no surprise that as an 11-year old, while awaiting music lessons in a violin repair shop in his hometown of Boise, ID, he was mesmerized by the room’s diverse tools, the various pieces of mysterious wood lying about, the dust and smells of lacquers and varnishes.
It all intrigued him. More so than the violin lessons, he says.
Henry was soon asking his teacher, whose husband ran the shop, if he could have a job. He was persistent until, at the age of 15, they hired him to sweep floors and empty garbage. His responsibilities increased over time, and he began handling violins. Henry cleaned them, learned how to fix their various parts, and re-strung bows.
“Whatever came through the door I got to deal with,” he said. “The shop owners taught me how to treat each instrument with care and respect.”
By the time he finished high school, he was an able violin repairman, also capable of re-stringing bows, practically in his sleep. Little did he know how these skills would ultimately lead him to his life’s true passion and profession.
Henry headed off to college at Boise State, and eventually graduated from school, set on becoming a geologist specializing in volcanic hazards. He continued to work for the violin shop back home on breaks and obtained violin side work at school through connections made playing weekend gigs (he still plays violin and mandolin). It helped supplement his meager graduate student stipend at Washington State University.
“That’s when I knew I loved working on violins. I realized I had a gift for it,” Henry said.
After graduate school, when Henry realized his geology job prospects were slim, “There aren’t many jobs for volcano specialists,” he laughs. He returned to Idaho to take a position with the violin shop that gave him his start. But, after a couple of years, the store side’s sales and management responsibilities didn’t take. Although he valued his experiences at the shop and considered the owners as family, Henry was antsy, ready to dirty his hands again.
He applied for and was accepted to a violin bow-making program in Salt Lake City, UT, only one of three in the United States. For two years he studied with the renowned French bow maker Benoit Rolland, toiling to learn every aspect of the history and art of making, restoring and repairing violin bows.
“There were only two of us in the program, so it was like having one-on-one instruction directly from the master,” Henry said.
In 1999, he made his first violin bow and was officially a craftsman.
He stayed a few years in Salt Lake City, teaching in their well-paying public school music program. A corporate job in the violin business lured him to the Maryland suburbs in 2003. But, once again, the urge to engage his hands in violin work called out, and he resigned the position.
Like the graceful arc of a violin bow, Henry’s passion for craftsmanship kept rearing up during key moments of his life. So, with the encouragement of his wife, he decided to embrace his calling as an artisan.
He gave himself six months to achieve his dream.
On a whim in 2006, Henry walked into the Potter Violin Company in Bethesda, MD, to ask about subcontracting opportunities to repair and re-string violin bows. After interviewing him on the spot and recognizing the depth of his experience, they immediately hired him.
“Josh was always focused on constantly learning and being the best craftsman he could be,” said Jim Kelly, partner and vice president of the Potter Violin Company. “He generated a strong following with our customers. We always knew he wanted his own career, and when he moved to Virginia, we knew he’d do well.”
Kelly’s admiration for Henry’s artistry is personal, too. As a professional violist, he entrusts Henry with his treasured antique bows. He also enthusiastically promotes Henry’s hand-made violin bows which he says sell quickly in the Potter Violin store.
“I totally believe in Josh’s talents,” he said.
Things weren’t initially easy for Henry. As most artists experience, there were times of feast and famine. It takes time to build a reputation and devoted clientele–not only those who return, but who will also recommend your work to others. Henry said there were also the normal pangs of self-doubt and stress related to starting a family.
When Henry met his future father-in-law and explained what he did, he responded, “You can make a living doing that?”
In fact, one can.
Henry is only one of 75 craftsmen in the U.S. making personally crafted violin bows. His custom bows are played in symphonies all over the world. He even spotted one on the David Letterman show, played by the former fiddler for the country music band, Rascal Flatts.
“By 2007, I no longer had to advertise,” Henry says. His repeat business and referrals from teachers, musicians, and violin shops keep him plenty busy.
Top classical musicians also send him their vintage bows for repairs and re-stringing. These bows can be extremely costly. While Henry’s custom bows start at $4,000, it’s not unusual for professional classical musicians to own vintage bows worth $10,000 or more. And there’s no telling what those bows might be worth some day. Henry said a bow made in the 1800s by the esteemed French master Francois Tourte sold at an auction a few years ago for more than $200,000.
“Pretty impressive for a stick with some hair on it, right?” he laughed.