From 1978 to 1981 René Zaal(Wageningen, 18 september 1956) followed a violinmaking course at the Newark School of Violinmaking in England. He then worked for 2 years with violinmaker Loerakker in Haarlem, where he gained additional experience in repairing and restoring stringed instruments. In 1983 he set himself up as an independent violinmaker in Arnhem. He later moved to Doesburg and, in 1997, to Bemmel. René Zaal is specialised in making, restoring and dealing in double basses.
Interview 400 years of violinmaking in the Netherlands:
At least once a year I unplug the telephone in my workshop and leave my mail unopened. Then my friend and colleague Hans comes over to work with me. We only make new instruments. He makes violins, violas and cellos, I only make double basses. It’s great to work undisturbed for a couple of weeks, comment on each other’s work, exchange little tricks asf.. Normally speaking I work on my own and receive clients by appointment. That suits me fine. But now and then such a “workholiday” is very refreshing and an enormous stimulation.
I trained as a teacher, but never actually taught. After Teacher Training College I had all sorts of jobs – in the building trade, in a health food shop, at a bank. Actually, I can’t remember how I arrived at the idea of violinmaking – if it was something I read in the paper, concerts, television, or something else. In any case, it wasn’t because I came from a musical or violinmaking family. As a child I loved tinkering about and making things, and I played the guitar. But there was nothing to suggest I would become a violinmaker. Whatever it was, there came a moment where I just knew. I went to visit a few violinmakers and they were kind enough to show me things. I made a scroll and showed it to them, I read some books….And then I enrolled in Newark.
The fact that I now only make double basses came about slowly. At first I made all kind of stringed instruments. Many colleagues don’t have the space to make these huge basses, and even don’t particularly care about them. They fascinated me, and furthermore, I had the space. I repair and restore double basses, make new instruments, and deal in basses, bows and accessoires. I really enjoy the alternation between making new instruments and repairs. At the moment I spend more time doing repairs than making new instruments. Nevertheless, both disciplines are higly satisfactory. Making a bass is a huge project, and when finished, going back to repairs is great. I always build to order. Some clients choose from a number of my own modells, decide on the thickness of the neck and whether they want an arched or flat back. But there are also clients who want a copy of a specific instrument. For example, they have a bass at home and they want exactly the same instrument for their work in the orchestra. Of course one doesn’t think about esthetics only, but even so on sound. Over the years, by experimenting, you develop a way of working which results in a particular sound you like. But it is hard to fully control it altogether.
In making double basses you are less influenced by the old masters than might be the case with other stringed instruments – simply because there are far fewer classical Italian double basses about. And precisely because there are so few, I go through a great deal of trouble seeing instruments, to picture and measure them. One of the least pleasant things in the job is that basses always crack or break. They are big and clumsy, carried around only in covers, fall over easily, are susceptible to humidity changes. Many great instruments have been ruined because there was no money to repair them properly, as it was always the black sheep of the family. Luckily that has changed. But if what is still left falls apart…..Look, it is my work, of course, and I enjoy doing it, but I still think it is a such a pity.