The making of a violin |

The making of a violin

by Laura Brunzlick, Staff Writer

Using a gouge, Nelle O’Neill shaves wood from the violin’s plates in just the right amounts. With each curl of wood, the sound of the finished product will change.

“The more wood removed, the lower the sound,” said O’Neill, owner of Carson Valley Violin Shop.

She has crafted violins and violas in her Minden home since 1992.

O’Neill, one of only a handful of female luthiers in the country, received a first place award in October for the fine tone of her latest viola, at the Violin Makers Association of Arizona International 2002 Competition.

She named the viola after her granddaughter, Liane.

O’Neill, 68, also took second place for tone for another violin.

A viola she made took first place overall at the competition a year ago.

O’Neill competes each fall in the event held in Tucson, Ariz.

She travels to Tucson each spring to study violin making and restoration with master luthier, Edward Campbell of the Chimneys Violin School.

O’Neill crafts her violins and violas with traditional materials. Most orchestral string instruments are made with spruce for the top of the instrument and maple for the back, neck and scroll.

O’Neill’s violins sell for between $2,500 and $3,500 a piece. Violas sell for $3,500 to $4,500 each.

It takes 200 hours to make an instrument by hand, she said.

O’Neill has been playing the violin since she was 9 and attending a public school string program in New Jersey.

She became interested in making violins at 11 while working in her father’s woodshop.

“I used a jigsaw to make lawn ornaments,” O’Neill said. “I always liked working with wood.”

Before opening Carson Valley Violin Shop and Carson Valley Violin School, O’Neill worked as a string teacher at public schools in New York and in the San Francisco Bay area for 30 years. During that time, she did minor repairs on various wood instruments.

“It was a natural step to open a violin school,” she said.

She owns both the school and the shop with her husband, John “Jack” O’Neill.

The O’Neills opened the businesses in 1992, the same year they moved to Minden.

“It’s my passion,” O’Neill said.

“Making instruments and teaching is a therapeutic thing to do.”

The Douglas County School District stopped teaching music year-round during the 1995-96 school year, said Lisa Fontana, director of curriculum and instruction for the district.

O’Neill does her best to fill in the gap and expose students to the fine arts.

“So many kids want to play the violin and they don’t offer it in public schools,” she said. That’s why I hold classes.”

Carson Valley Violin School is the only comprehensive string program in rural Nevada, O’Neill said.

Students come from the Carson Valley, Dayton and Carson City to learn the violin, viola and cello.

Former students have made a musical name for themselves including Alyse Tom, a sophomore at Douglas High School. Tom was the assistant principal Cellist for the Reno Philharmonic Youth Chamber Orchestra. She joined the Reno Philharmonic Youth Symphony Orchestra this year.

Rose Barrett, a 2002 DHS graduate, was one of Carson Valley Violin School’s first students. Barrett, a five-year member of the Reno Philharmonic Youth Symphony Orchestra, won first place in its Concerto Competition this spring. She is now a music major at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Ore.

O’Neill’s children and grandchildren have inherited her musical interest. Son Michael O’Neill, is first violinist for the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra. He also performs as a strolling violinist each Sunday at the Sterling Buffet at Reno’s Silver Legacy Resort Casino.

It is clear that O’Neill has found her niche in life with the violin, as both a teacher and a maker.

“The secret to living is finding something you’re into and that you can do,” she said.


O’Neill shares her knowledge in classes held at her home Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

The O’Neills maintain a Web site at

The phone number for Carson Valley Violin Shop and Carson Valley Violin School is 267-3495.

n R-C Staff Writer Laura Brunzlick can be reached by e-mail at