Hans Nebel
Photo: John Nantes, A.P.S. Hans Nebel

It's not what Hans Nebel does with his tools that's important. It's what the tools do for him.

In Nebel's 48-year career as a violin maker and restoration master, he has rescued and repaired some of the most treasured violins on the planet, including the celebrated Stradivarius and the incredibly scarce Guarnerius. To revive and retune these amazing instruments, Nebel uses delicate and specialized instruments–a shaving-sharp collection of chisels, saws, and more than 50 block planes from less than 1 inch long to a Stanley #5 arching plane, along with an amazing array of specialized clamps. Then he matches the finishes so repairs disappear into the history of the instrument like a sound into the air.

Nebel requires the right wood, too. He matches age and grain to the age of the ailing fiddle. Since you can't run to the lumberyard for 300-year-old spruce, he says he befriends old violin makers. "They have a stash of old wood. Every year I send them Christmas cards and a bottle of cognac," he smiles kindly, "to hasten their demise."

To test his work–which can take a year for one instrument–Nebel plays. "I am the world's lousiest violinist," he says. But he loves what he does. He calls the bright days when the light spills into his shop from the north "pennies from heaven" because that's the best light to finish by. His favorite part of all: "After I've worked on a violin for a year or more and I hand it to the client–and they say, 'Wow!'" Stradivari would be proud. –Mark Clement