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Monday, July 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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One man's heartstrings: He found his voice through making violins

Seattle Times music critic

It all started with a madrigal.

Vern Jaynes was smitten with a music-loving girlfriend who majored in piano and voice at the University of Washington, and sang in the Madrigal Singers there. They married — even though Vern "couldn't carry a tune in a bucket," he could be the "official audience," as he puts it.

"Josephine's friends would come over to our house, and sit around and sing eight-part madrigals," remembers Jaynes, who is now 87.

"I envied them."

He couldn't sing, but after growing up in the Depression era, Vern was pretty handy around the shop. He decided to try to make a violin. After hitting several dead ends, he found encouragement in the violin shop of the late David Saunders, who helped him a lot — and Vern helped back, when Saunders got a contract to repair school instruments.

Gradually, over the years since 1956, Jaynes produced 25 violins, along with a cello and a viola. A harpsichord, also of his own making, sits in the living room. Beautifully made tables and other furniture further attest to his woodworking skills. Vern has kept all the instruments; he's not interested in selling them.

JIM BATES / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Jaynes helps Shawn Smith with a cello kit he is building. Smith is placing the sounding post in his cello, which transfers vibration from the front of the instrument to the back.
We walk through his cozy Eastside home to his workshop, which is as clean and tidy as an operating theater. Violins and bows are lined up against one wall in a display case, all secured by padded latches. Woodworking tools and metal fittings are immaculately arranged on the walls, each tool in order of graduated size. Small pieces and little hardware go in jars on a display rack with a bar across the front, so they won't spill in the event of an earthquake. Worktables and table saws are pristine. The tiled floor is clean as a whistle. It's almost a shock to see a small pile of actual sawdust on the floor over in a corner.

Jaynes, a retired supervisor in Boeing's model shop, says you can't make a violin in a messy workroom. The violins are lovingly detailed, in a range of natural wood colors from reddish to lighter or darker brown. Some of the fiddles' backs glow with a patterned woodgrain that suggests the semiprecious stone tiger-eye.

The sound is resonant and responsive. Over the years, Jaynes says there has been "quite a bit of change" in his style; the later violins are more detailed (though he went back and made modifications to earlier ones as he went along).

JIM BATES / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Jaynes has made 25 musical instruments. He does not sell the instruments: Since each one takes at least two years to build, he feels like they are his children.
He doesn't make violins any longer, because his hands aren't quite steady enough for the exacting work. But he has made 17 little wooden chairs of his own design, for the children of friends and neighbors. The most recent one, cute and sturdy and just the right size for a toddler, waits on his bench for the final finishing touches. Three beautifully inlaid wooden trays will go to lucky young couples as wedding gifts.

Life has not always been easy for Vern. His beloved Jo was stricken with brain cancer in the early 1950s, and while she recovered from the cancer (she died just five years ago), treatment left her seriously ill. She required round-the-clock supervision. Vern converted two extra bedrooms to his violin shop, with windows that allowed him to keep an eye on his wife while he worked.

"That motivated me to build violins," he says, "though when I taught myself to play, I'm sure I drove her crazy — but she helped me learn."

JIM BATES / THE SEATTLE TIMES
On Saturdays a string quartet gets together at violin maker Vern Jaynes' home in Kirkland. They are, from left to right, Suzanne Ruff of Seattle, Jaynes, Nancy Dosch of Renton and Shawn Smith of Kirkland.
His two daughters, four grandsons and four granddaughters-in-law ("I love them all dearly") are the light of Jaynes' life, along with good friends who come by to take him grocery shopping or out for a walk. Three other musicians join him at his home on Saturdays to play string quartets. He loves keeping an eye on the neighborhood children, who wave to him on their way to school.

"I don't think I'm a safe driver any longer," Jaynes explains, "so I don't drive. But the car is licensed and it has a full tank of gas — which is like gold with the prices these days!"

Meanwhile, there are always woodworking projects to complete, and friends and relatives to see. Life is good. Jaynes has a twinkle in his eye as he says, "I try to stay out of mischief."

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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