mcinbass.com

Robbie McIntosh, Luthier

Specializing in the Double Bass

About

How I got started in bass repair

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A neck graft

Twenty two years ago my daughter said she wished she could play the bass. At the time I was a cabinetmaker and I figured I could save some money by fixing up an old bass. A friend, fiddler George Wilson, gave me an old bass that was in his woodshed. Another friend, violinmaker Geoffrey Ovington, offered his guidance. The bass was made in Germany in 1933. Its neck was broken and the top was gone. I repaired the ribs and back and made a new top from some quarter-sawn white pine. Geoffrey’s tutelage carried me as far as setting the neck, for which I would need the advice of a bass expert. As it happened, John Feeney was in town to play the Dvorak Quintet. Geoffrey introduced me to him we talked about my project. John urged me to call Lou DiLeone, the master bass restorer who worked on his own bass. So I did.

Lou invited me to bring the pieces of my bass to his workshop in Orange, Connecticut. He said I needed to do a neck graft and showed me how he did it. I went home, made the graft, set the neck, and a some weeks later I visited Lou again for advice on the next step. Let’s just say that I passed the graft test because he  said, “You should be doing this professionally, and I will teach you.” That was the beginning of my ongoing apprenticeship with Lou.

Lou has worked on basses all of his life. His father was a bassist and owned a music store in New Haven, Connecticut. He made and repaired basses in addition to selling and servicing every instrument in the orchestra. Lou grew up in the store and in his father’s workshop. His understanding of the bass and of the people who play them is deep and heartfelt. Lou taught me much more than the techniques and tools of the trade. He taught me about the soul of the bass and about the important role the luthier plays in a bass player’s life.

The time Lou and I have spent together has been mutually gratifying. We speak the same language – of tools, jigs, wood, and  glue – and we both enjoy inventing the right tool for the job – that job being, ultimately, a strong repair that will maximize the tone of the instrument. Much of the information Lou gave me was transferred with a minimum of words. He would simply show me the problem he was working on and then show me the jig he made to accomplish the task. Often it was an elaborate contraption that would hang on the wall after it was used once.

During the twenty years that I have been a full-time bass luthier I have had the privilege of working on many very fine and venerable instruments that get played by some of the best players in the world. Each one of these instruments is an education in itself, affording me the opportunity to read the tool marks and and re-create the maker’s process.

I also consider it a privilege to work with many fine, accomplished players as well as students and amateurs, all of whom carry with them an enthusiasm for music and for playing the bass that delights me and inspires me to do my best to make their instrument as responsive as I can make it. I learn something from each one of them.

Perhaps the most gratifying work I do is for the local high school students who bring me their first bass which is almost always grossly out of adjustment. It is a wonder to me that some of these students continue their lessons under such duress. But with a fingerboard dressing, a new soundpost, and adjustments to the bridge these students can begin to cultivate playing habits that can be transferred to any bass.

About Craftsmanship

There is a lovely book, The Wheelwright’s Shop by George Sturt (1863-1927), in which he describes in detail how a farm cart is constructed from local timbers whose various characteristics are matched to the demands of the various parts – elm for wheel hubs, ash for spokes, etc. He also portrays the changing ways of life in a small English farming village at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Sturt eloquently describes what motivates the craftsman:

“The Moment of Production, when the Craftsman is actually getting his effects – this Moment which has been at the heart of Village life or of all the labor of Peasants….. is misunderstood by most academic minds.” *

“At the very moment of change, when the effort actually comes off and has its effect – this keeps the “peasant” more or less satisfied, but “superior” people never experience that satisfaction.

The moment of effectiveness, when skill is changing the raw material into the desired product is always worth ‘realizing’. It is momentous every time…..”

– from George Sturt’s Journals edited in two volumes by E. D. Mackerness, Cambridge University Press, 1967

* – from E. P. Thompson’s foreword to a 1992 edition of The Wheelwright’s Shop by George Sturt

 

Background

I was born and grew up in Lynn, Massachusetts, where my parents grew up, and where my mother’s Rhodes ancestors lived since 1640. I graduated Lynn English High School in 1969. I studied architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, where I earned a Bachelor of Science in the Building Sciences after completing four  years, class of 1973. Architecture proved to be a viable choice for me even though I never practiced professionally. The structures and strength-of-materials training, coupled with the art, history, and design classes, prepared me for a lifetime of designing and building things and solving structural and mechanical problems.