The Stringed Instrument Company was formed by Peter Madill in 1975, but its roots go back further, to Norman Smith, Auckland’s most skilled violin maker and repairer in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. Visitors reached his amazingly Victorian workshop up two steep flights of stairs above Swanson St, in central Auckland. As a young violin student, Cath Newhook used to climb up there often, to ask Norman for advice and help and sometimes be allowed to perform simple repairs such as changing the worn eyelet on a bow.
After Norman’s death his tools and other equipment were bought by Colin Smith, and for a short while Colin and his new instrument making partner, Peter Madill, continued working in the same dark, evocative workshop before moving up an equally steep and characterful flight of stairs to lodge in the top floor of the old Brown’s Mill building in Durham Lane, behind His Majesty’s Theatre.
It was here, in 1977, two years after Colin’s retirement, that Cath began her apprenticeship with Peter. She found, to her delight, the same tools and cabinets that had fascinated her back in Swanson St, along with the mix of smells and textures that have continued to delight her to this day.
Brown’s Mill, one of Auckland’s earliest flour mills, was a wonderful old building, full of the remnants of its original role. If you looked up from Cath’s bench, you could have seen the huge wooden pulley wheels under the roof, with scraps of the millers’ old ropes still hanging from them. But Auckland in the late 1980’s had no care for its heritage buildings and Brown’s Mill followed His Majesty’s into dust in 1988.
By then The Stringed Instrument Company – Cath and her husband, Ken Wilson – had moved ahead of the bulldozers to their present and equally characterful location in Charles St. Here in this 125 year old cottage they decided to focus all their attention exclusively on the violin family. Their colleagues in the general music trade gave them 6 months to fail, but despite such gloomy predictions, they built workbenches, opened a showroom by the end of that same year and followed it with Auckland’s first violin, viola and cello hire fleet in 1990.
After Ken’s death in 1995, Cath recruited a steady flow of experienced graduates from major European violin making schools to take his place on the workshop bench. This brought in new knowledge and insights as well as the chance to pass on Cath’s own expertise. Her connections with Mittenwald in particular have been stimulating and fruitful, creating strong, ongoing friendships.
Placed close to popular performance and rehearsal venues and at a meeting point of Auckland’s major motorways, the company has thrived, buoyed by Ken’s vision of what can be achieved in both quality and service.