Brian Lisus, instrument maker

Brian Lisus, instrument maker

In his sun-drenched workshop in his old-world garden in Plumstead, Cape Town, Brian Lisus draws, cuts, planes and varnishes fine, fine string instruments. Then, he sends them off to enthrall, entertain and inspire musicians and audiences across the globe.

Brian’s most recent project, for the newly formed String Quartet of Peace, was to create four instruments in honour of the four South African Nobel Peace Laureates. The Quartet was founded upon the ethos represented by Dr Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, Archibishop Desmond Tutu and FW de Klerk and the project has been fully endorsed by the Desmond Tutu Foundation, the FW de Klerk Foundation and the Nelson Mandela Foundation. spoke to Brian about his work in general and this fascinating project in particular.

Where did your interest and passion for string instruments originate?
From when I was about 5 years old neighbour who was also my godfather Joe Sack got me interested.

Where did you train and what does training to be an instrument maker entail?
I trained in England at the Newark School of violin making. It was a three year course and covered everything from learning basic woodwork to making out own tools.
You specialise in the making of new instruments. Do you adhere to a specific model or style?
I make my own models however they are very much in keeping with traditional principals as one can see in old Italian violins. I have developed my own style as the years have gone by.

How many parts ‘recipe’ and how many parts ‘gut feel’ does one employ?
A bit of both. I adhere to very accurate measurements but employ my gut feel to fine tune these measurements.

Tell us about the material you use and prefer, and where do you source it from?
I use maple for the back and sides and spruce fro the fronts. The wood I source from an instrument maker in Italy. He personally goes into the woods and cuts down his own trees.

What are the biggest challenges - technically and creatively - in creating an instrument?
The most challenging part of making an instrument is carving out the outside shape known as the arching. This one cannot really measure and you need to rely a lot on your eyes and feel. Creatively ... varnishing would come into that, trying to get that warm appearance.

On your website, you write in length about varnishing options - possibly the last thing a lay person such as myself would think important! What’s the big deal?
The big deal, is SOUND! Varnishing has a huge impact on the sound of an instrument. If too hard it won’t allow the parts to vibrate freely, if too soft it will mute the sound. Then of course it needs to protect the wood for at least 500 years or so!

How long, on average, does it take to produce a violin or cello?
 Violin, 2 to  3 months.
Cello, 3 to 4 months.

Who are your clients and how much involvement do they have in the making of an instrument?
Some of my clients can been seen on the ‘reviews’ and ‘email’ links on my web site. They don’t have much involvement although I do send them pictures as I go along. The things that I discuss with the musicians are things like string heights, colour and neck thicknesses.

Once an instrument is done and delivered, do you still get to ‘keep in touch’?
Yes. Most of my clients usually send me a mail from time to time to let me know how their instruments are sounding or invite me to their concerts.

Where did the idea for a String Quartet of Peace originate?
The original idea was initiated by a friend of mine many years ago. If you go to the first or second post on my blog* I write a bit more about this. The the actual names - Hope for Nelson Mandela, Peace for Bishop Desmond Tutu, Reconciliation for FW De Klerk and Freedom for Dr Albert Luthuli - were decided by another friend when I began working on the idea of a quartet. When the project start to come to life and we began speaking about musicians for the quartet David immediately came to mind as the first violinist.

David Juritz has spent a considerable amount of time, busking, ‘Round the World and Bach’, on an instrument made by Brian, to raise money for Musequality.

Are the Peace Quartet instruments done and delivered? And what has the journey been like?
Almost done. I will probably finish the cello half an hour before the concert… joking! Although that has happened before! They will all be ready in time for the first rehearsal on the 10th of October. It has been an inspiring experience working on them and have been listening to quartet music day in and day out whilst working!

Do you train aspiring instrument makers?
Yes. I have trained quite a few people over the years and at the moment run part time classes on a Wednesday evening and Thursday morning. Really wonderful group of people and classes are lots of fun.

*Visit more detailed insight into Brian’s work, a wonderful gallery of pictures, a violin making video, sound clips, messages from Brian Lisus instrument owners from around the world, and much more.

 Visit for more information about the newly formed String Quartet, the charity Musequality and its scheduled concerts.

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