(Still) Made in Cincinnati: Meet Damon Gray, maker of fine violins, violas, and cellos

Damon Gray didn’t inherit a family business, but he did inherit music from his family.

Damon Gray didn’t inherit a family business, but he did inherit music from his family.

Gray’s father was an opera director; his mother was a school music teacher. As a child he was a boy soprano and then became a cellist.

He graduated from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music in 1993 and has played cello professionally in various capacities since then—often alongside his wife, Melissa, who plays viola.

He didn’t set out to become a craftsman.

“I was a tinkerer,” Gray explains. “I was always messing around with instruments when I was a kid, but I never thought I’d get into it professionally.”

He continues, “I started playing cello when I was ten or eleven years old. I wrote a paper about violin makers (luthiers) when I was in about sixth grade, but forgot about it… I guess it was always in the back of my mind.”

While in graduate school, Gray got a job at a violin shop and learned to build and repair instruments. He worked there for a few years but left the job and started practicing cello again, thinking he might dive into a music career. As he remembers, he didn’t love it.

Though no longer working at the violin shop, he was making violins as a hobby. While he attended a convention of the Violin Society of America, his wife and friends conspired against him to encourage his next step in luthier training. They knew it was the right career for him.

“I was gone for a week, and I came home and there was literature from the three [luthier] schools sitting on the coffee table and [Melissa] said, ‘You have to pick where you’re going to go.’”

So, in 1997, the Grays moved to Utah for Damon to study at the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City. After that, he worked as an apprentice, gaining hands-on training in lutherie.

There are a lot of violin makers in that region of Utah, Gray explains. So, when he was ready to launch out on his own, it meant moving again.

“I always assumed, after I finished my training, I’d need to go work in a reputable shop in a big city like Chicago and get more on-the-job training,” Gray says.

“But, everything I was making [in Utah], I was flying back and selling in Cincinnati just because I knew people here.”

With so many local connections already established, the Grays decided to move back to Cincinnati to launch the business. It was an easy transition.

“I just set up shop and started making instruments,” he says.

Gray makes a few pieces a year and they can takes months to complete. He also does restoration and repairs.

Building his business in Cincinnati

Over two decades later, Damon Gray still builds violins, violas, and cellos out of the small, homey workshop and studio behind his house in Prospect Hill, just steps from Over-the-Rhine and downtown. He and Melissa bought the house in 2000 and purchased the building to its rear—now his workshop—from a neighbor in 2005.

Gray makes a few pieces a year and they can takes months to complete. He also does restoration and repairs.

The work is meticulous.  Even though modern technologies like CAD software, digital cutters, and 3D printers can be used for instrument-making and repairs, Gray’s methods are low tech. He does his work by hand, using traditional methods and hand tools.

His designs are traditional, as well. In fact, Gray says most hand-built instruments are modeled after design standards created hundreds of years ago by famous makers like Antonio Stradivari and Andrea Amati.

While there is room for customization in his trade, instruments follow predicable designs.

“Since we’re building tools for players,” he explains, “they have to look and feel and sound familiar. On violin, in particular, you can be just a millimeter off in the setup and people will know it doesn’t feel right. Something like viola is a little more forgiving because it’s not as standardized in its size. Cello is more like that.”

When a customer orders a custom piece, they need to know that it will play just like the other instruments they’re used to.

He is currently working on a cello, for example, that is sized smaller for its player.

“This model I’m making for her is still a full-sized instrument, but it will be easier to get around.”

He continues, “It’s fun to work with people when they’re commissioning stuff, to tailor it to them… But they have to be able to be used as a musical instrument, so I can’t get too creative.”

Like in other industries, luthiers have opportunities for professional growth and continuing education.

Gray is active in the violin-making community, attending national and international conferences, trade shows, and competitions. He also attends restoration workshops and trade events where craftsmen show their work and work on projects together.

He says the community has been “invaluable.”

“I’m still learning,” he explains, “and I have these relationships where I can hit up people when I feel like I’m stuck on something.”

Damon Gray is still a way’s away from retirement. But, when asked about a succession plan, he says it’s certainly on his mind.

Looking past tomorrow

Damon Gray will turn 53 this year and he’s still a way’s away from retirement. But, when asked about a succession plan, he says it’s certainly on his mind. His teenage son and daughter haven’t shown much interest in taking on the business, but that could change over time. He isn’t going to pressure them.

He has had other people express interest in working with him, but he hasn’t had the capacity for it. Once his kids are out of the house, he’ll have more time to spend in the shop. At that point, he’d like to find one or two people to help him in exchange for learning the craft.

In a trade like his, hands-on training is essential.

“I wouldn’t be able to do what I do now without my apprenticeship,” Gray explains.

“It was really important for me. I had a base of knowledge, but he gave me the extra to be able to really do it. There are some schools but, by and large, you can’t learn everything you need to know in just three or four years of school.”

Lutherie is not a common professional, but it’s a valuable skill. Gray says that it’s not as essential as it was “when there was no radio and almost everyone was an amateur musician” but, as long as arts and music are thriving, there will always be a need for custom instruments, restoration, and repairs.

“The cool thing about this [trade] is that it’s so closely tied to the music community,” he says.

“Whenever I get discouraged about how another school has cancelled a strings program—then I meet the kids and they are so talented—and I know people are still interested in playing music. I think, as long as that interest is still there, they’ll be interested in what I’m doing.”

People like making things. It’s in their nature. But the kind of working knowledge acquired over a lifetime—rather than an afternoon on Pinterest—cultivates a different kind of fine craftsmanship than the average DIYer.

Handicrafts and homemade goods are abundant at urban street fairs and on Etsy, but skilled tradespeople like tailors and carpenters seem few and far between. In an era of throwaway fashion, fast food, and MDF furniture, is it even possible to commission a truly custom dress suit or a hand built coffee table?

Cincinnati has a long heritage of tradespeople and artisans. Its historic buildings and urban infrastructure speak to this heritage—everything from the stonework to the street lamps say, “someone made me.” But the modern absence of skilled craftsmen becomes apparent the moment a favorite pair of boots needs a repair, a family heirloom needs reupholstering, or the neighbor kid busts a hole in a stained glass window.

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Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.