WHEN SOMEONE SAYS they're in the "family business," handmade violins are not what come to mind. Henry Bischofberger is a third generation violin-maker, descended from Swiss roots.
Though he was born in the U.S., Bischofberger studied the trade of crafting violins in Switzerland. In fact, it was his studies abroad that led to his nearly four decade marriage to Debbie. She worked for Bischofberger's father during college and always felt sorry for the boy across the sea whose father refused to send him more cash.
"I was probably out of beer money," Bischofberger says with a little smile.
He returned to the States and worked in the family business for many years until he says his brother eventually let him go.
"He fired me," says Bischofberger, who used the opportunity to start his own business in 2004.
TODAY, HIS VIOLIN shop, located at his Houghton home, rents stringed instruments to nearly all of the Eastside schools in addition to violin sales and repairs. He often does appraisals on instruments people pick up from garage sales or have inherited from a relative.
Most of the appraisals are run of the mill with average violins, but occasionally he sees a treasure come through--like the one time he got to break the news to a customer that she owned a piece worth $70,000.
The actual task of making a violin is not something Bischofberger does much of anymore. Though the materials are simple--a bit of maple for the sides and neck; spruce for the top; ebony for the fingerboards--it takes about 250 hours to create one 9-ounce full-size violin. Imagine the price tag on such an instrument!
Most of the instruments he sells are made by others now with a starting price of around $1,200. Sure, you can get a violin elsewhere for a couple of hundred dollars, but the quality is very low. Bischofberger sees many of these cheap violins at his repair shop, though there isn't much he can do about them as he makes no miracle-working claims.
THE BISCHOFBERGERS LOVE music of all kinds. It often suprises his classical music customers that he played the saxophone in addition to the violin all through high school. These days, Henry uses his musical energy on his ukulele.
He never pushed the violin on either of his sons, who both gravitated to the guitar. And he expressed no disappointment whatsoever that there will likely be no fourth generation of violin-makers. With one son in a touring rock band and the other making organic cheese in Switzerland at the moment, violins will have to be made by someone else.
Not to worry, the Bischofbergers are cultivating love for stringed instruments right here at home. They often bring an assortment of instruments to schools and events for children to touch, play and experiment with. He refers to it as "the petting zoo."
Since violins last for a good 200 years, there are not a lot of repeat buyers for the instruments themselves. But, Henry does good business re-hairing bows. He takes great pride in the quality he provides.
One of his most frequent re-hairing customers is electric violin sensation , who plays every Monday night at his hometown pub, . Castle plays lightning-fast riffs, so it's no wonder that he needs Bischofberger's service!
VIOLINS COME IN all sizes, even tiny versions for 3-year old children. It may be ideal to begin violin lessons as a child, but many adults take up the instrument successfully. It's never too late to bring a little more music into the world.
Henry Bischofberger would love to outfit you for the journey, renting his instruments in three-month increments. You'll probably screech like a banshee at first, but just maybe you'll discover a new passion.
Contact Henry Bischofberger at 425-822-0717 to schedule an appointment for sales, rentals or repairs. He meets with customers between 2 and 4 p.m., Mon.-Sat., by appointment only.