The centuries-old melodies of Johann Sebastian Bach filled Mark Moreland’s brightly lit Battle Ground workshop last Wednesday morning as he leaned over his workbench. Woods chips blended with tools and a coffee mug around him.
His focus was intense as he gracefully peeled imperfections away from the block of wood he held with a chisel. The soon-to-be violin he was working on will sell for around $20,000 and could be played in one of the finest orchestras or chambers in the world. Many of the 83 instruments he’s built in his life already do.
But Moreland, one of only a handful of violin makers in the Pacific Northwest, is no stranger to maintaining the highest level of focus while working. It’s all he’s ever known.
For the last 42 years, handcrafting, repairing and restoring violins, fiddles, violas and cellos has been his life, including the last eight years at the shop he and his wife own on Grace Avenue in Battle Ground.
That intense focus, though, was born not from long hours of building instruments as a child, but from playing them.
Musician before craftsman
A Kansas native, Moreland excelled as a musician before deciding to trade out his tuxedo and bow for an apron and a chisel at age 19. He began playing the piano at 5 years old before picking up the violin at 8. Countless hours of practice followed as he mastered his craft, leading him to eventually gain acceptance into a prestigious Vienna orchestra.
But after traveling throughout Europe and observing the culture of violin-making and its rich history with his father as a teenager, Moreland began to develop a passion for the instrument beyond the music. Soon thereafter, in 1975, he began his apprenticeship in Portland, training in the French tradition.
He was completely captivated by the work as a young man, and his passion has persisted.
“It’s like an addiction,” he said.
He stayed in Portland for the next 23 years as a manager and foreman at Schuback, but as the economy took a downturn following the events of 9/11, he and his wife decided a change was in order. They found their way to the District of Columbia, where they both began work at one of the largest violin distributors in the world at the time. After a tenure on the East Coast, they moved to New Mexico where Moreland oversaw the making of some of the world's most prestigious cellos, ranging from $5,000 to $20 million.
But Moreland’s goal was to open his own shop and focus on the craftsmanship, not the business side, and he wanted to do that in the Pacific Northwest.
In July of 2010, they sold their house in New Mexico and bought a house in Battle Ground in one week.
The Moreland home is bulging with all things violin. Along with the garage that now serves as a shop, three of their rooms are used for work-related storage, and their spare bedroom is used by visiting buyers. Along with building, Moreland serves as a broker for other sellers and buyers, and Sharon manages rentals and varnishes some instruments.
A rare breed
Landing in a place relatively near a major airport was no accident. Moreland will not finalize a sale until the musician has played the instrument. Given that his talents are few and far between, musicians travel thousands of miles to meet with him and play his instruments.
Moreland estimates that there are around 12 violin makers in the Portland-Vancouver area, but it’s unlikely they are all currently practicing. In North America, he knows of 190 violin and bow makers.
Moreland does his best to follow each instrument he builds throughout its life.
He keeps a ledger of all 83 instruments, recording who bought them and where they are being played. Although some have been sold or are being played elsewhere now, Moreland also tries to make it to concerts featuring his instruments when he knows they are happening.
Musicians also search out Moreland for servicing and the restoring of instruments, including the artist playing the aforementioned Bach piece Moreland was listening to on the morning The Reflector visited. It was Zuill Bailey, a Grammy Award-winning American cellist.
But what makes Moreland stand out the most is his ability to make cellos in-house.
Because of the machinery required, Moreland said there is a shortage of cellos, putting them in high demand. The machinery required to make violins and bows is much smaller than that of a cello, which results in many craftsmen having their cuts done elsewhere — but not Moreland. His workshop houses all the necessary equipment. He makes around two and a half cellos a year and three to four violins. One Cello will go for around $45,000.
At 61, Moreland is nearing a time when most consider retiring, but he said he’s having too much fun to quit.
He is established and known in the industry now, and with contacts across the entire world, it’s not a matter of having enough work, but a matter of enough time.
“I turn away more work than I get,” he said.
He spends four to seven hours, six days a week building, but as a business owner, he said he can really never clock-out for the day.