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January 18, 2014

 

A virtuoso of restoration

MacBlaneJoe McIntyre/staff photographer
Stringed instrument craftsman Bob MacBlane, of Preble, talks about the wide range of repairs he makes on new and old instruments throughout the year.

By STEVEN HOWE
Staff Reporter
showe@cortlandstandardnews.net

PREBLE — Bob MacBlane found his profession in a way that most people would envy: combining his passions and practical interests into a viable trade.
While MacBlane, the owner of MacBlane Stringed Instruments, has always had a passion for musical instruments, his first instrument wasn’t one that falls under his professional jurisdiction. MacBlane, 55, started off as a drummer but found his interest in stringed instruments while he was still in high school.
“I started playing guitars and stuff when I was a teenager,” MacBlane said. “I just liked them and this (repairing instruments) was a way of doing something with them.”
Preble is off the beaten path for customers in major upstate cities but MacBlane said he sees plenty of business from throughout the state and Pennsylvania.
“I get a lot of people from Binghamton. I had one today from Utica,” MacBlane said. “I do quite a bit from the Rochester area and Buffalo.”
It is the same formula that has made his business, which opened in 1987, a success with a broad customer base.
His father and other members of his family had experience with machinery from their professional careers, something MacBlane picked up to use in his business.
“I come from a background with machines, my dad and everyone were machinists,” MacBlane said.
In addition to an early interest in playing instruments, MacBlane wasted no time beginning to practice the tools of his future trade.
“I found my first violin when I was a teenager, about 14, 15 years old and fixed it up,” MacBlane said. “I just liked doing that stuff.”
All told, MacBlane sees more than 1,000 instruments a year come through his shop, which he works in every day.
“I work all of them but I love it in here,” MacBlane said. “I’d rather be here on Christmas morning.”
MacBlane’s shop at 6487 Corl Lane in Preble contains a sea of different tools, most for woodworking, some hand tools, as well as lathes and belt sanders.
There’s even a collection of dental equipment to provide lighting and specialty tools for the delicate work that MacBlane must use when repairing and restoring violins, cellos, guitars and more.
The diversity of talents and interest required to successfully repair the mandolins and violas that come through his shop means that MacBlane’s job requires a broad range of experiences.
“You get to work with the tools, the machinery,” MacBlane said. “We make our own varnish, so you get a little chemistry. You’re working on someone’s precious little baby.”
While he had the option of working in the same business his father had, MacBlane chose to attend college. After graduating from Spencer-Van Etten Central School in 1976, MacBlane took his passion and turned it into an educational pursuit.
“I went through (SUNY) Morrisville, which actually had a two-year program in musical instrument technology,” MacBlane said.
As a result of his business, MacBlane has seen some unique and valuable pieces, which includes doing restoration work on pieces from the 16th century. While the task of working on any older instrument can be daunting, MacBlane said he takes the time to be familiar with the background of each piece he works on.
“I like to know what I’m working on, have a good idea,” MacBlane said. “Some instruments from a manufacturer might be worth a few hundred dollars, but there’s another model from the manufacturer worth thousands of dollars so it’s nice to know the difference between the two.”
MacBlane prefers working on older pieces and not just for the fascination of working on an instrument older than himself.
“An older instrument is easier, in a certain respect, because you know it was put together with hide glue,” MacBlane said. “If it’s put together with that kind of glue, it’s stuff you know how to take apart and you know it will come apart. When you get in trouble is when you get this cheap stuff put together with white glue.”
Hide glue is an animal glue that has traditionally been used in woodworking that must be used hot, heated to at least 150 degrees.
It’s not all repair work for MacBlane though, who constructed a second story to his shop over five years ago to serve as storage space for instruments he sells.
W. Stephen Harrington, owner of Harrington Brothers Music on Central Avenue in Cortland, was at the shop on Jan. 10 to pick up a half-size cello from MacBlane. He had praise for MacBlane’s ability.
“He’s a terrific workman,” Harrington said, before correcting himself. “He’s a craftsman.”

 

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