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A custom sound

 

Martin Brunkalla stands in his workshop where he makes instruments

Few artisans in northern Illinois are as accomplished as Martin Brunkalla. As a woodcarver, engineer, technician, musician and full-time luthier, Brunkalla has made a prosperous career out of building things from scratch. It’s clear that he took a cue from his father, an independent machinist who taught his son at the age of nine how to use a lathe in the family garage. Under the guidance of his father, the young Brunkalla crafted a variety of objects, including a glider with a 22-foot wingspan. He and his friends surprised everyone on their block by achieving a stunning manned flight with the glider. 

Though the glider ended up in a nearby elm tree, the event proved to be emblematic of Brunkalla’s success at creating functional and durable machines and instruments by hand. He’s followed in the footsteps of the life philosophy passed down by his father, who managed to provide for his wife and eight kids, despite the low income brought in by his business.

“Whenever my dad couldn’t afford something, he would figure out how to make it,” Brunkalla said.

Apart from his love of engineering, Brunkalla has also sported a lifelong interest in the music produced by instruments such as the guitar, violin and fiddle. This led the expert builder to found his own business, Brunkalla Fine Stringed Instruments, where he sells a variety of hand-crafted instruments. 

Though he didn’t start building instruments from scratch until 12 years ago, Brunkalla’s musical research began back in high school, when he felt unsatisfied with a guitar he had purchased. After reading various books on the art of luthiery, Brunkalla had gleaned enough information to enable him to fix guitars. Yet it wasn’t until he reached the age of 46 that Brunkalla decided to refocus his efforts on instrument-making. A performance by Al Byla of the bluegrass group Piper Road Spring Band inspired Brunkalla to take up fiddle playing. 

“I went out and spent $250 on a Japanese student instrument, not knowing that it was built like a truck so kids could sit on it and not break it,” Brunkalla laughed. “Consequently, it didn’t sound very good, so I looked for [a fiddle] that sounded like the ones I admired and I found that the ones I liked the most cost as much as a house. So I decided that I had only one choice. I was going to have to learn how to make one and hope for the best.”

Though Brunkalla’s website, www.brunkalla.com, has assisted him in garnering international customers, his best marketing tool has proved to be customers. An acoustic folk pop quartet was so taken with the fiddle Brunkalla had made for singer-songwriter Sara Watkins that they not only purchased Brunkalla’s instruments but urged him to create others as well.

“The first guitar, mandolin, bouzouki, and ukulele I made was for Tripping Lily,” Brunkalla said. “They pushed me into all kinds of territory that I never anticipated, and they’ve done a lot of the marketing that I couldn’t buy if I wanted to.”

Brunkalla prefers traditional spruce and maple construction for violins since they are, in his words, “the most standardized instrument in all of instrument making.” Yet Brunkalla is not opposed to investigating exceptions to the rule, particularly after ancient kauri wood was discovered in the north island of New Zealand. Brunkalla purchased the wood purely out of curiosity to see what kind of instrument it would make. It turned out to be an excellent material for violins, and one of his kauri instruments was eventually purchased by bluegrass singer Rhonda Vincent. When asked what the most difficult instrument is to make, Brunkalla doesn’t hesitate in responding.

“The F-style mandolin is the toughest one to fix and the toughest one to make,” Brunkalla said. “It takes six weeks to made from scratch, and it’s very hard to work on because they were never meant to come apart, whereas violins were built to come apart. There are almost no straight lines anywhere on an F-style mandolin, so there are very few points of reference.”

Though Brunkalla has been greatly rewarded by expanding his horizons in instrument-making, he says the basis of his business is still in violin production, and he considers five-string string violins and violas to be his niche. When his first five-string viola went to the New England philharmonic, the conductor was surprised to see a viola that was actually designed for five strings and not merely converted from the usual four-string model. His innovative designs have allowed his instruments to gain a great deal of exposure at orchestras and on television.  

“There’s a big demand for tenor ukuleles, particularly the ones with a design I came up with called a ‘freedom top,’” Brunkalla said. “It’s a unique bracing system and it makes a ukulele have something more than that rubber-bandy, plunkity plunk [sound]. It’s a louder, more sustaining instrument that’s vernacularly made to be quite good in performing and recording situations. I’ve made a lot of those in the last few years, and they’re on a lot of recordings right now, including a Blue Cross Blue Shield commercial.”

At the Woodstock Farmers Market, Brunkalla has set up a booth to display the few instruments he currently has in his inventory and offers repair services as well as on-the-spot evaluation of string instruments. He can also be seen in melodic action on the Square when he performs the mandolin and fiddle as a member of the band Big Fish. Brunkalla says he appreciates the opportunities for local artisans that the Woodstock Farmers Market provides.

“We can only sell what we’ve grown or made,” Brunkalla said. “Otherwise you’d end up with a lot of resellers and retailers and other stuff that really wouldn’t be local. The idea is to bolster the local economy, and it does just that.”

For more information on Martin Brunkalla, visit www.brunkalla.com. To schedule a visit to Brunkalla’s shop, call 815-977-7045 or email martin@brunkalla.com.