Published February 24, 2023

Violin Building & Repair

Daniel Smith of Lynchburg found his way into becoming a luthier while he was working full time for the local fire department. After discovering Cajun music while serving in the Army in Germany during the Vietnam War, Daniel fell in love with old time music—especially the fiddle.

Upon returning home, Daniel, whose father was a machinist, developed his hand skills as a “jack of all trades”—road construction, brick laying, carpentry, carpet cleaning—before settling into a career with the Lynchburg Fire Department.

“If you do something with your hands in your mind together, it is a good antidote for the misery of the world. You get lost in what you do,” Daniel said.

Daniel became interested in instrument repair when he saw Dolly Parton play a guitar made by a friend of his, Donald Watts, on television. Watts taught Daniel a few foundational skills and introduced him to his nephew, Russell Burford (brother to renowned Virginia apple scholar Tom Burford).

When Burford passed away, his family bestowed his tools to Daniel, who soon began to build and repair violins full time following an early retirement from firefighting. Daniel has built seventy-five violins, repaired hundreds of instruments, and is currently building his second cello.

“[Working with your hands] is a good antidote for the misery of the world. You get lost in what you do.”

Daniel Smith

Richard Maxham has spent his life with the violin. “It’s something that has always been in my blood,” he shared.

The fifth generation in his family to make or play the instrument, he began playing at the age of three and performed extensively as a soloist, chamber musician, and orchestral violinist. As he grew up, he also watched his grandfather make, repair, and adjust violins.

After inheriting his grandfather’s tools, wood, patterns, and violin book library, he began the lifelong process of studying all aspects of the violin world. He attended the University of New Hampshire’s Violin Craftsmanship Institute as well as the Violin Society of America’s summer workshops at Oberlin College.

Close up of a violin with intricate detailing
Daniel Smith holds one of his violins that has scrimshaw detailing from his sister.

After graduating from college and coming home to the Lynchburg area, Richard set out to develop his foundational woodworking skills before pursuing violin making further. He came upon a photo of a “stunningly beautiful” violin online, noted it was made by Daniel Smith of Lynchburg, looked him up in the phonebook, and gave him a call.

“We hit it off immediately,” Richard said.

With that, a lifelong mentorship, friendship, and comradery over “being eaten up by fiddles” (as Daniel puts it) began. Richard worked with Daniel to make his first violin, then apprenticed on repair techniques, which enabled him to launch his career in the workshops of Potter Violins, Violin House of Weaver (which he still supports), and Day Violins. In 2019, he founded his own business, Maxham Violins, in Alexandria.

“You never stop learning,” Daniel said. “The more you see, the more you learn. Rich has become the teacher and me the student.”

Richard Maxham was among the Virginia luthiers who were highlighted at the 2022 Richmond Folk Festival during a jam on the Center for Cultural Vibrancy stage.

During their Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship, Richard and Daniel will continue their collaboration, using the time and platform to focus on instrument building over repair and restoration. They shared their practice in the Instrument Maker’s Workshop at the 2022 Richmond Folk Festival, with Richard taking the stage for the Instrument Maker’s Jam. Richard is also encouraging Daniel to build his first viola.

“He’s made cellos, and he’s made violins, but he hasn’t made the last instrument you need for a quartet,” Richard said.

In 2021, Richard began to support a Ukrainian violin maker, Andrash Taras, by selling his instruments on his website. “He sent me a violin and I was blown away,” Richard said. The second violin Richard sold for Andrash narrowly escaped damage from Russian artillery shells.

As both Daniel and Richard like to say: “Every violin has a story.” 

A violin rests in a pair of hands
Daniel Smith holds one of his violins.

Celebrate the accomplishments of Daniel Smith and Richard Maxwell and three other apprenticeship teams at the Taubman Museum of Art on Thursday, August 17 (more details).