Violin-maker's work combines art, history, math and science


JOHN SCHMIDT could best be described as a Renaissance man. With degrees in physics and psychology, the Town Center resident works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But it's his hobby that truly defines him. Schmidt, 55, is passionate about making violins.

Making violins appeals to Schmidt on many levels. "There's the artistic aspect and the historical aspect," he said. "There is mathematics involved, and the physics of sound. In the varnish, you've got the chemistry. You get a complete package when making violins."

Schmidt said his fervor for fiddles began about 20 years ago when his daughters Caitlin and Gillian took Suzuki violin lessons.

"I got to looking at the violin and went to the library and got a book about violin-making," he said. "There was a picture of a box fiddle. I made one and had a violinist play on it. He was taken by the tone. He couldn't believe these sounds were coming out of a box fiddle."

Since then, Schmidt has made 10 violins in the basement workshop of the townhouse he shares with his wife, Jan. The couple, married 37 years, have a grown son, Evan.

Schmidt fashions his violins from Norway spruce. He said it takes him 100 to 200 hours to finish one instrument.

"A violin can be made in about 27 hours, but that's by somebody who does it all the time," he said. "It takes me a lot longer because I don't do it all the time. I have to think about it and plan each step."

Schmidt says skilled violin-makers charge $5,000 to $15,000 for their instruments. "The best professionals can get $20,000 to $30,000," he said.

Schmidt dreams is not about making a lot of money from his hobby. One day, he hopes to make a violin that will sound good enough for a professional musician to use as a primary instrument.

"You need players who want to try your instruments," he said. "Violin-makers desperately need players to try out instruments and tell them what's wrong with them."

For now, Schmidt tests his violin-making skills by playing for his grandchildren. And, on occasion, he takes one of his violins to work.

"I work in a building that is 15 stories tall," he said. "Sometimes I sneak into the stairwell, which is all concrete, to play my violins. The acoustics are marvelous."

Looking for ways to share his interest, Schmidt founded the Capital Area Violin Society two years ago. The group meets twice a year.

On Friday, Tom King, a violin-maker from Potomac, will address the group on the use of curtate cycloid curves, drawn with a device that can be used for modeling arches for instruments of the violin family. The meeting will be held at the home of Raymond Hardy, a maker of violins, violas and cellos in Catonsville.

Information about the Capital Area Violin Society or directions to its next meeting: 410-730-5869 or e-mail John Schmidt at

Young author

Madison Lee, a sixth-grader at Clarksville Middle School, has been selected as a finalist in the State of Maryland International Reading Association Council's Young Authors contest. Her story, "The Adventures of Spike Lee," is about Madison's pet rat, named Spike Lee.

"It's about the rat getting loose from her cage, and she runs all over the house," Madison said. "Spike Lee was the strangest rat I had. She could push open the door of the cage and let all the rats out."

Spike Lee died last year. Madison still keeps six rats as pets. "I think rats make good pets because they're small and can sit on your shoulder," Madison said.

As a finalist at the county level, Madison's story has been entered in the state contest.

"We're very proud of her," said JoAnn Cohee, reading specialist at Clarksville Middle School. "Last year we had a winner from our school. We just hope for the best when she goes to the state level."

High school nights

Howard Community College will hold High School Nights for prospective college students and their parents beginning at 7 p.m. Thursday in the HCC Galleria.

Participants will be invited to tour the campus and get information on HCC's programs and services.

Other sessions are scheduled for Feb. 14 and 21. Information: 410-772-4599 or 410-772-4856.

Poetry contest

The Howard County Library is sponsoring a poetry contest for children in grades six through 12. Winning entries will earn budding poets cash or gift certificates.

Entry forms will be available after Monday at Howard County libraries and on the library's Web site, The deadline for entries is March 14.

Information: 410-313- 7715.

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