Constable: $275,000 guitar just part of luthiers' magic work in Wauconda
Tucked away in an old converted aluminum foundry in this unremarkable Wauconda business park is a father-and-son workshop where magical things happen.
The haunting melody of Bach's "Partita No. 2 in D minor" flows from the violin played, and made, by the son, Marshall Bruné, 37, who lives in Lake in the Hills with his wife, Stephanie, and their seven kids. Bruné earned a degree in violin performance in 2006 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"I made money in college playing violin," Bruné says. "But I made more money driving up here and working a day a week."
He is a luthier -- making, repairing and restoring wooden musical instruments, sharing a workshop and a passion with his father, Richard Bruné, who taught himself the luthier business as a teenager out of necessity.
"I made money playing the guitar in coffee houses," says the elder Bruné, 72, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and now lives with his wife, Pauletta, in North Barrington. "I decided I needed a better guitar, and I couldn't afford one. So I made one."
Using wood he cut from a discarded dining table in the basement, Bruné crafted his first guitar at age 17. "I had no woodworking experience, but I knew, as a player, what I wanted," he says. He mastered the fast fingering of flamenco music and "people dug it," says Bruné, who dropped out of Indiana University in 1972 to turn pro. He signed a contract to play flamenco music at Chicago's Cafe Barcelona, but he soon discovered that making guitars paid more and had better hours than playing guitars.
A fine guitar generally takes between 100 and 200 hours to make.
The elder Bruné, whose website is rebrune.com, has made 804 guitars, 50 lutes, a dozen harpsichords, two Arabian ouds and one violin. His son, whose website is mebrune.com and has a Marshall Bruné YouTube channel, is finishing up his 103rd guitar and has made seven violins and a cello. While their creations start at about $9,000 and increase steadily, much of their work is restoring classic guitars.
"This is like a mid-sized house in a nice neighborhood," Marshall Bruné says of the 1888 Antonio de Torres No. 124 spruce and maple guitar he and his father spent nearly a year and a half restoring before selling it for $275,000.
A handful of luthiers in the world do this level of work, and the Brunés don't shy away from suggestions that they are the best in the world.
"Every day, that's our goal," Richard Bruné says. "We have customers in Chicago, South America, Spain, all of Europe and even right here in Wauconda."
His cellphone rings with a call from a customer in a shop in Barcelona, Spain, who is thinking of buying a 1907 Enrique Garcia guitar and wants to know if it's worth the more than $50,000 asking price. From the photos he texts, the Brunés determine it has the original frets, notice some old repairs that could be done better and advise him to spend the money.
They've spent a lifetime perfecting the craft.
"I started sweeping the floor around the shop at age 3," Marshall Bruné says. "At age 4, I did my first repair. I did my first crack repair at age 5. I did my first re-fret at age 7. I did my first major restoration on a very rare Martin mandolin at age 11. I built my first guitar when I was 18."
He got his master's degree at the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City, and he uses that knowledge daily. But, as is the case with his dad, much of the information comes from voluminous reading of everything from an 1830 book titled "Fundamentals of Musical Acoustics" to a more modern manuscript titled "Bug Poop," which delves into the resinous secretions of insects used in shellac.
"It starts with a plank of wood and a bandsaw," says Marshall Bruné, who notes they also use drill presses, sanders, a table saw, a uniplane, clamps, their own special glue recipe, files, gauges, pliers, nylon strings, chisels and an assortment of Japanese steel knives to carve the wood. He discovered a spinnaker pole from a sailboat makes the perfect tool to bend wood when he heats it with a torch.
"Most of our work is hand work," Richard Bruné says.
A backroom holds a supply of wide planks of wood, including cedar, spruce, mahogany, yew, ebony, rosewood and more.
"I bought a lot of these instruments when nobody knew what they were," Richard Bruné says of the classic guitars they repair, restore and resell.
"If a guitar has a crack, I know what the sound change will be," Marshall Bruné says. "My ears are my living, along with my eyes, hands and brain."
The repairs are so seamless, buyers can't tell what's been fixed, which is why the younger Bruné calls that "ninja work."
Musicians often reach a level of fame where everyone knows their names. But luthiers can top that. You probably can't name the greatest violinist from the late 1600s or early 1700s, "but you can name the greatest violin-maker," Marshall Bruné says of Antonio Stradivari, the Italian instrument-maker whose Stradivarius violins are still in demand.
Music is a staple in Marshall Bruné's family. Stephanie Bruné, who grew up in Mundelein, plays piano and is the music director at St. Peter Catholic Church in Volo, where all the children sing in the choir as soon as they are old enough, and their dad serves as co-director of a choir that performs 15th century polyphonic tunes. Peter, 12, also plays the guitar. Sophia, 10, plays the violin. Joseph, 8, plays the cello. Titus, 5, is choosing between the violin and cello. Maristella, 4, is starting violin, and Thaddeus, 2, and Edmund, 5 months, will get their chance at an instrument, too.
Richard Bruné remembers the moment when his only child was destined to follow in his luthier footsteps. Marshall Bruné had been making money doing odd jobs and mowing the lawn when the dad gave the 16-year-old the chance to apply finish to one of his flamenco guitars, using the French polishing method that is labor-intensive but makes the instrument look and sound better. The younger Bruné did a fantastic job.
"I paid him 500 bucks," Richard Bruné says. "And that's the last time he ever cut the grass."