Ryan McLaughlin: Perfectionist
by Charlie Monte Verde
Be demanding his business card commands of you, right at the top. The way Ryan McLaughlin talks about being a luthier makes you think it’s for life. It’s almost as though the word patience has a hidden definition underneath our lay definition. Ryan reeks of the kind of calm that people coming to peace with a long prison sentence can understand. A calendar that only displays years. Patience without a push notification.
For Ryan, there’s something inherently joie de vivre in the delayed gratification aspect of his craft. A true artist, withholding from the self to the benefit of strangers who won’t die just because you die.
BOYS WILL BE BOYS
If there’s anything certain about American boys, it’s that we love a good workbench. And the more gizmos, widgets, sprockets, woozits, and flockets spread across it in various states of of dis-or-reassembly, the better. For that moment, if only that moment, we fully intend to switch our careers to repairing whatever is on that workbench.
Ryan was born and raised in Baton Rouge, which in my Yankee fantasy means he was a gifted-yet-troubled blues artist from right out of the womb. With great affection and clarity he remembers sitting at his grandfather’s workbench watching the man meticulously break-down and build-up whatever needed fixing. The two hallmarks of The Greatest Generation seem to be listening instead of talking and a do-it-yourself spirit borne out of financial pragmatism.
His journey to master luthier really began near the end of high school, when he took his upright bass to the Brevard Music Festival in North Carolina with every intention of being the next Charles Mingus. At Brevard he had the good fortune of being exposed to people that genuinelyknew what it takes to be a professional musician. For Ryan, the missing ingredient was discipline. “I could practice for fifteen minutes if you nailed my feet to the floor,” he says. “[At Brevard] I was the lowest performer; even the next lowest performer was practicing two or three hours every day.”
Shortly after that awakening, Ryan took a routine jaunt to a local repair shop to get a new bridge for his bass. Perhaps his eyes were a little more open on this visit, because when he feasted them on the guitar guy’s workbench, Ryan’s formative experiences watching his grandfather problem solve and create came back in a flash. Then and there a flame was lit within him that probably won’t go out until the big flame does.
At college time he moved to Salt Lake to attend the Violin Making School of America, perhaps the most literally-named higher education institution in the galaxy. After four enjoyable years and with a degree and base competency in tow, Ryan made his first Chicago appearance, apprenticing at a shop in suburban Park Ridge. He returned to the Dixie capital of Atlanta and in 2012 set out on his own, shifting from being an apprentice to being the competition.
F. A .B. CHICAGO
2013 brought Ryan back to Chicago, and he set up shop in the Fine Arts Building*, an icon of the historically significant (and protected) ‘Boul Mich’ portion of Michigan Avenue. Since he’s from the deepest of the south, I asked why if he prefers Chicago over the Confederacy.
The first reason (which I picked up right away) relates to the true artist: he needs his four seasons. Additionally he loves the size and feel of Chicago. But when you put ‘be demanding’ on your business card, there’s more to it than that.
He’s lost count, but he thinks there’s about 12 other violin shops, just in the Fine Arts Building! “That’s really what I was most interested in,” Ryan says, “throwing in with the really, really high performers in this field and just seeing if I can keep up.” His knowledge and the level of his craftsmanship have arced upwards in his few short years at the F. A. B.
He was surprised to find out how collegial the dynamic was among the luthiers at the F. A. B. You have to imagine violinists and cellists as quirky and particular; niche. Since ‘violin repair’ is not a sizable section at Guitar Center, you’re going to need your luthier to be niche as well. In that way, one of the dozen luthiers at the F. A. B. is a fit for each and every customer, to wit that one shop might recommend a potential customer utilize the services of a competitor if the shoe fits.
If your job duties include ‘craft repair of 17th century string instruments’, the only people that you can have a bitch session with will be the competition. Ryan talks about the “glaze that comes over [his] wife’s face,” when the string and sound-post boys start talking #luthierproblems. As a railroader (another niche demographic) I can relate.
“There are a lot of broken violins…you can’t fix all of them…and some people really aren’t that interested in restoration or even basic repairs…” Some people want to flip the instruments and some people, like Ryan, succumb to the allure of perfection.
HONING HIS CRAFT
And that drive to perfect means that so far he’s a fixer, not a maker. His lone viola from-scratch since finishing school (closing photo) is suspended in the ancient leaded glass overlooking the parks and Lake Michigan. That window is one of many homes that Ryan’s work-in-progress has had in the 16 years since he started building it. “I now have to sell it for like a quarter-million dollars to keep up,” he says with a laugh. Of course, he only needs to sell it once, and ‘hand-crafted over a period of two decades’ is as much a price point incentive for Ryan as anything else.
In the long run he’d like to increase his inventory which, as you can imagine, takes an inordinate amount of capital to achieve. In true craftsman form, he wants to acquire string instruments that are by all appearances in playable condition and take them to the next level. And while Ryan’s concept of time is expansive, his concept of perfection is measured in nano-meters.
With play and age string instruments will expand and the sound posts need to be be moved “a tenth of a millimeter or less according to the season.” I immediately try and imagine a tenth of a millimeter, but the smallest size I can envision is probably…five millimeters or so, AKA fifty-times the amount that Ryan will move a sound post! I ask that man if he means ‘a tenth of a millimeter’ (1/4000th of an inch) literally. “Yeah that’s kind of a lot, actually,” he replies, pouring it on a bit. At that moment in the voice note I decide to abandon any seedling fantasies I had of becoming a luthier.
“You can do a lot with a little and it pays to be careful when you’re doing that kind of thing.”
To wit, on the rarest occasions he’ll use a bamboo sliver to insert “a dot of carbon” for a marker as he makes adjustments. The more the man gets into it, the more I appreciate that there are people in the world that know that Pi is much more precise than 3.14. The true measure of success is the client’s reaction when they play their instrument again for the first time.
Perfection is a word with no objective definition. For Ryan, the hardest part of the job is letting go. As much as something can always be further fine-tuned, even a true believer like Ryan has found a way to accept ‘acceptable’ as being that which keeps the lights on and his family fed.
So next time you slap on the tux or gown and get your ‘first-world’ on at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, close your eyes and open your ears. If you want to impress your date, tell them ‘I think that’s a McLaughlin.’