Holding up a Neapolitan mandolin he’d made, Brownsville resident Dr. Darrell Smith played a lively Italian tarantella for an audience of potential do-it-yourselfers and those interested in woodworking.
“Generally, a hand-made mandolin will cost in the vicinity of $20,000,” he said. “The ones I’m selling go for $1,200.”
Smith spoke last week at the Mon Valley Academy for the Arts’ new location in Brownsville, discussing his passion for woodworking and music, and displaying an array of violins, violas, ukuleles, mandolins and guitars, most of which he crafted from scratch. He even brought along an oddly-shaped oud, a short-neck instrument that resembles a lute.
A graduate of California University of Pennsylvania (now known as PennWest California), with a doctorate in industrial technology from Texas A & M, Smith focused on the history of stringed instruments, beginning with the great violin makers: Guarneri, Amati and Stradivarius of the 1500s,
“Usually, the top of a violin is made of spruce, while the back and sides are made of maple and the finger board is made of ebony,” he said.
One of the violins he brought along for attendees to see was a replica of a 389-year-old Maggini that his wife’s aunt gave him. Another instrument that really got his audience’s attention was a miniature, but playable, child’s violin. Along with various stringed instruments he also showcased frames, tools, and other materials used to hand craft a musical instrument.
Moving on to more contemporary times, he discussed well-known guitar makers like Martin and Gibson. Smith showed off a Martin guitar he made from a kit, calling it one of his most prized possessions.
Hand-crafted mandolins are relatively new to Smith’s repertoire, he said, as he just started making those this year.
A member of the American Federation of Musicians and the National Association of Woodworkers, Smith started playing the violin at age 10. A recipient of the Pennsylvania Governor’s Arts Award, he’s also a published author on the subject of woodworking.
During a break, Smith encouraged attendees to get a close up look at the items he brought along, including some photos of his workshop and some of the complex doll houses he makes.
He also engaged with his audience in a question and answer session near the end of his talk.
Smith’s was the first talk sponsored by the MVAA in its new location in the former American Legion Post at 119 Brownsville Ave. MVAA Board President Annette Buffer said they’re considering featuring his many talents in a series of talks in the future.
“Dr. Smith’s craftsmanship is unparalleled. His attention to detail and his artwork on each instrument is amazing. Dr. Smith is a true musician and artist,” she said.
For aspiring woodworkers who’d like to try making a string instrument, Smith recommended a ukulele because it is the simplest to construct. During the Great Depression, when money was scarce, he said the Martin Guitar Company started to make ukuleles, when other business slacked off.
“It really helped save the company,” he said.
Rostraver resident George Felder heard about the talk from a friend and fellow guitarist who discovered the event online by searching for things to do in the area.
“We were looking for something interesting to do and the talk caught our eye,” he said.
Another attendee, Kristen Emrick of Hiller, is the pastor at the Fort Burd United Presbyterian Church, where Smith attends church.
“I knew Darrell is a woodworker,” she said. “He showed me some of his musical instruments before at his house, but didn’t explain how he makes them. I found his talk fascinating to listen to.”
The MVAA offers a variety of music and art lessons, a floral design class, a beginning crochet class and sessions designed for beekeepers.
“We’re trying to represent all the arts,” Buffer said.