Instrument maker, apprentice attuned


CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Of the seven people Sam Knepper has trained as luthiers - someone who makes or repairs stringed instruments - he said one, Brandon Senior of Chambersburg, stands out as the best.

"Brandon will be a great violin maker someday. He'll go into the books," said Knepper, owner of Zinn Valley Music Service.

Knepper and Senior create, repair and restore instruments at Knepper's shop in downtown Chambersburg.

"Our shop has a reputation for repairing instruments that 'can't be repaired,' " the 72-year-old professional musician said.

"Very few people can learn to repair stringed instruments correctly," he said.

He ought to know. Knepper learned the art when he was stationed with the U.S. Army in Austria and became friends with a local violin-making family. In the 1950s, he was apprenticed to a family of German refugees who repaired violins in Philadelphia.

Senior came into Knepper's music store one day in 2000 to buy guitar strings.


"I was complaining about the job I had," Senior recalled, "and Sam said, 'Why don't you come here and work for me?' And when I saw what he was doing (in the workshop), I wanted to try my hand at it."

Knepper teaches Senior both the theory and craftsmanship of instrument-making. "He doesn't stand over you," Senior, 21, said. "He lets you find and fix your own mistakes. (But) he's there when you need help."

Senior carved the body of his first guitar from a solid block of curly maple, then stained it red mahogany.

"I've never seen exactly that cut of body before," Knepper said. "It's beautiful."

It took Senior a month of part-time work to complete the electric guitar.

He did not make the neck, as fretting it is extremely precise.

"The frets must be perfectly spaced or a guitar is useless," he said, referring to the ridges of metal set across the fingerboard of a guitar which help the fingers to stop the strings at the correct points.

He plays the guitar on stage in his rock band, Messenger.

"This one will never be sold," he said. "It's my baby."

Senior is working on his first violin now, and is learning to fret a guitar.

Membership in the International Luthiers Guild, the professional organization of stringed instrument makers worldwide, is contingent upon making an acoustic instrument that meets the guild's standards.

"He'll be a certified luthier within a year," Knepper said.

On a recent workday, Senior held a guitar neck against his work bench and pounded the narrow metal frets into grooves with a small hammer. Knepper had previously cut the grooves.

"It's a precise art. There are templates and mathematical equations that determine how the frets are spaced," Senior said. "The twelfth fret must be in the exact middle. It must be perfect. The neck can make or break an instrument."

While there are no frets on a violin, the arch of the fingerboard and the arch of the bridge have to match perfectly.

Also on his workbench is an unfinished violin whose flamed maple wood was joined by a professional wood joiner in the 1930s. Senior plans to complete the instrument.

Senior estimates he has made five guitars from scratch and performed hundreds of repairs. He prefers making instruments over repairing them.

"It's much better to see it grow, and give birth to an instrument," he said.

He is very grateful to his mentor.

"He offered me something that no one else could have or would have," he said.

The gratitude is mutual.

"I'm so pleased to have him working in the store," Knepper said. "He restores my faith in young folks. He's marvelous. He doesn't drink, smoke or curse.

"Brandon has the hands, heart, soul and patience for this," Knepper said. "That's why he'll be great."

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