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Dedicated to tradition: Hastings woman makes fiddles by hand, just like her grandmother

Down in the Ozarks, Amanda Neuharth's grandmother is practically a living legend. Violet Hensley, now 96 years old, has been nicknamed the "Whittling Fiddler," the "Stradivarius of the Ozarks," and the "Fiddle Maker," and with good reason.

Hensley builds fiddles by hand, using techniques taught her by her father and some of the simplest of tools. She's made 74 fiddles and still does some work on them today. Each year since 1967, she can be found at Silver Dollar City National Craft Festival in Branson, Mo., whittling away at a fiddle and playing for the visitors.

Here in Hastings, Neuharth is picking up her grandmother's tradition. At age 14, Neuharth made her first fiddle under the tutelage of her grandmother. Now 35, she's in the process of making another, using nearly all the same techniques as Hensley.

Neuharth grew up with her grandmother always nearby, and there were a few points in her life that she lived with Hensley.

"She and I were really close," Neuharth said.

Neuharth joined the family music tradition early, learning to play the fiddle when she was 3 years old. Pretty much everyone in the family plays music, she said, and family get-togethers tended to turn into a giant "jam session." She also learned to play piano, cello, organ and the autoharp. When Hensley would make her regular trips to area music and craft festivals, Neuharth would go with her. Every year until she was 19, Neuharth attended the Silver Dollar City festival and helped run Hensley's booth.

When she was 14, it was time to make a fiddle of her own. She chose soft maple and basswood for the majority of the instrument. The back piece had a few wormholes in it, and her grandmother and others in the family told her it wouldn't sound very good, but she thought it looked neat, so she made it anyway, she said. It took about three years to finish it, and the fiddle sounds great. It sounds so good that her grandmother decided to make one herself out of the same marred wood.

But by the time Neuharth came to Hastings, fiddle making wasn't a top priority. Although she had learned the tradition growing up, she didn't always have a choice in the matter. She quit playing when she was 18, and here in Hastings, her attention turned more to her own children.

Now at age 35, she's returning to the old fiddle whittling tradition, not unlike her grandmother did. Hensley quit making fiddles when she started her family and started again after 27 years.

For Neuharth, it's a way to connect with her grandmother even though they're not near each other anymore.

"I miss my grandma," she said. "This is a way to not miss her."

It's also a way to make Hensley proud. Neuharth said that her grandmother has always wanted her to keep the tradition going. Hensley has 10 children, 32 grandchildren, 54 great-grandchildren and 13 great-great-grandchildren, but only a few have made their own fiddles, and out of them all, only Neuharth's dad has made an effort to continue making fiddles.

"She always wanted me to carry on," Neuharth said.

The process

Fiddle-making the Hensley way is far from easy. The only power tool used is a bandsaw, and that's just to cut out the basic shapes.

The first step is cutting out the back from a wooden board. A hatchet is used to cut off some of the bulk, and then it's time to scrape. Hensley and Neuharth use either a small piece of shaped metal or a piece of broken glass to scrape away wood dust until the outside of the back piece has its rounded shape. Once the shape is there, it's sanded down with progressively finer sandpaper, starting with 60-grit and finishing with 2,000-grit. It's polished using a piece of felt. On the inside, the wood is carved out with a small curved blade to match the outside curve.

Next is the sides. Thin, flat pieces of sanded wood have to be boiled until their flexible. Then they're put into a side bending jig, which forces the pieces to bend to the shape of the fiddle. While the sides are setting, blocks of wood are fit into the corners and ends for support. Hensley uses horse-hide glue to hold it all together; she makes the glue by melting down dried bits of hide into a paste. Clamps help keep the sides in place, and even those are handmade out of wooden spools and leather strips.

While the sides set, work starts on the neck. It's roughly sawed out with a bandsaw, but all the detail is done by hand, using the metal or glass scrapes, a pocket knife, chisel and files. Neuharth's next neck is roughly shaped like a horse head, in honor of her grandmother's old horse, Tony.

The sides are attached to the back and the neck notched in, and then it's time to carve out the top piece, much in the same way as the back. F-holes or sound holes are carved in using a pocket knife, and the edges are filed down to within an eighth of an inch of the sides. Then it's time for the fingerboard and all the little pieces that will hold the strings in place and help achieve the right sound. The whole thing is sanded a final time and a chin rest installed. As a final touch, Hensley and Neuharth put a rattlesnake tail inside the fiddle. The reason is largely unknown; Hensley has said it keeps evil spirits away. Neuharth said she isn't superstitious, but she'll continue the tradition.

From start to finish, Hensley can make an entire fiddle in 240 hours. Neuharth said it takes her quite a bit longer. She doesn't have as many tools as her grandmother, "but you just make do with what you have," she said.

Library presentation

Neuharth will be showing off her fiddle and talking about the process she uses to make fiddles at a presentation at the Pleasant Hill Library. The program, "Whittling and Fiddling," will be held from 1 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, May 25.

For more about the program, call the library at 651-438-0200.