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Fine tuning: Violin maker calls Duluth home

Photo by f

Photo by f

DULUTH -- A viola hums in a small downtown Duluth store. Inside Huthmaker Violins, a bespectacled, short Korean man with wavy, dark hair is playing.

Ok Kyum Kim's face is staid as he drags the bow across the viola's strings. The rest of his body is still, only one hand guides the bow while the other carefully dances around the fingerboard. The bow moves faster. His face strains as he plays the crescendo. But his serious disposition doesn't reflect the joyous harmony reverberating throughout the room.

Kim isn't a typical viola player. In fact, he insists he's not very good. But the instrument he is playing is one he made from hand over four monotonous, focused months.

"When I decided to make the violin, that's when I started playing because you need to understand the sound," he said.

A kid's first violin in orchestra class is usually made by an automated machine. But before the Industrial Revolution, craftsmen made the string instruments by hand in a tedious, laborious process lasting months. That process is still used today to make the best violins.

Kim is an internationally acclaimed violin maker. By day he repairs and restores string instruments for Huthmaker Violins, a Duluth violin shop. When he's not working he makes custom ordered violas and violins. It usually takes him about three or four months to complete one, and they sell for $10,000 to $12,000.

The violin-making process tests patience and conscientiousness. People spend months, even years, designing the best instruments -- sometimes toiling for decades to become outstanding. But Kim has bucked the trend in a career filled with success, reaching the heights of his profession in just 10 years.

Every three years, more than 500 violin and viola making greats of the world compete in Cremona, Italy. It's the Olympics of violin-making.

"If you are normal maker, you are never going to make it," Kim said.

With awards from other contests, Kim spent an entire year crafting his best viola for the Cremona contest in 2009. He wanted to see how he would fare his first time, and almost forgot about it.

Then he got a phone call saying he won the bronze medal from a field of 200 entrants, many of whom had decades of experience.

"It was an unbelievable thing. I'm young, now I'm 36 years old, and only have about little more than 10 years working in this area. Violin making takes a long time to do, to understand," he said.

Kim first laid his hands on a violin a little more than 10 years ago. His parents never played instruments, but his oldest brother was a trumpet and guitar player. Kim wanted to be a pianist until he decided he didn't have enough talent.

So he left Korea and went to Sydney, Australia, to study marketing. There he met violinists and a violin maker and was impressed by what he saw.

"How wood changes to instruments made a big impression to me," Kim said. "I decided that is going to be my job. My goal and my dream."

The closest violin maker willing to teach Kim was 12 hours away in Melbourne. So he abandoned his studies to pursue the craft. He met several violin makers and his future wife, Su. But he realized there was only so much one person could teach him, so he set his sights on the International School of Violin Making in Cremona, Italy, -- also the site of the grand competition.

First he worked at Italian restaurants to refine his Italian and then returned to Korea to prepare for the grueling five-day entrance exam. He not only passed the test, but did so well he was allowed to complete a five-year program in just three. His wife joined the same program but stopped working as a violin maker after their daughter Susan was born in 2008.

Cremona -- a city smaller than Duluth -- is the violin making capital of the world. Even the shoe shops are decorated with the instruments. It's where legendary maker Antonio Stradivari set up shop in the 18th century.

"You walk down the street and you're like: That guy's a violin maker, that guy's a violin maker," Kim said. "You know each other because it's a very small town and (there's a large) concentration of instruments"

Outside of class, 300 violin makers can help students. Although Kim had only three years to study, he studied twice as much time as many full-time students, spending 16 hours a day while typical students worked eight.

After graduating, he rejected an opportunity to work with renowned-maker Bruce Carlson repairing violins worth millions of dollars. Instead he chose to go to America, and came to Gwinnett.

Dixie and Roland Huthmaker, a former professional violist and violinist, founded their Duluth store in 1993. Now it's the largest violin shop in the Southeast, doing business nationally and internationally. They searched all over Europe for a violin maker before Kim approached them in 2006.

"He's more interested in creating a beautiful violin that has beautiful sound. He's not real concerned about selling a lot of violins," said Dixie Huthmaker. "He is a star, probably one of the most gifted young violin makers in the country."

Kim has a small workshop in the Huthmaker's backroom. Several mugs are filled with paintbrushes (a dozen for glueing, 10 for varnishing), wooden sticks and scissors. A leather pouch holds five wooden tools with metal blades protruding. Another dozen cylinders no bigger than a Play-Doh container are filled with murky, dark liquids. A purple Teletubby doll rests nearby.

In Carlson's shop, Kim might have had a bigger workshop or higher quality tools to play with. But Kim wanted a chance to grow as his own man. That's because he wants to open his own school one day.

"I want to share the feeling of making instruments. It's not only just woodworking. Making instruments makes also sound and emotions," Kim said. "If a parent makes a violin for their daughter and son, it would be really nice. It would be priceless."