|International Vegetarian Union (IVU)|
Life as a Vegetarian Instrument Maker
Reproduced with permission from The Vegetarian, February 1992
Bill Russell discovered the ethical problems confronting musical instrument makers.
Life hasn't been the same for Bill Russell since he took a holiday in 1983. The week's holiday was enough to convince Bill to sell his share of a partnership in a garage and embark on a career as a self-employed musical instrument maker. "I'd always been interested in musical instruments such as violins but I'd never really done anything about it. During my holiday I realised I was wishing my life away at work. I was just getting up in the morning and wishing it was the evening or the weekend."
There's no such thing as routine since he started making musical instruments. "Every day is different but the main thing is that I get up in the morning actually looking forward to the day ahead".
From his home in the outskirts of Manchester, Bill makes violins, violas and cellos. A violin costs from about 1,500 pounds -- cheap compared to the prices charged by many other violin makers. "I'm not interested in making lots of money; I'm more interested in job satisfaction." Generally he sells through recommendations from satisfied customers but Bill has also taken part in a Royal Northern College or Music exhibition, and had a stall at the Vegetarian Society's open day last year.
It takes four to five weeks of solid work to make one violin. Bill starts by carving the basic shapes from specially cut blocks of spruce, maple and sycamore wood.
The next stage of work reveals the major difference between Bill and most other instrument makers. According to his vegetarian beliefs, Bill finds it unethical to use commercial glues made from the by-products of animals to join the various parts of his instruments.
A vegetarian since birth, and a vegan for the last eight years, Bill is well aware of the ethical issues concerned with the use of animal products.
The moral dilemma first arose when Bill was a student of violin making at Newark College from 1986 to 1989. Despite the fact that his enthusiasm for the subject convinced the tutors to take him on at the age of 54, when the usual age limit for students was 30, within the first term Bill ran into problems about using animal glue. "I almost had to leave the course because of the problem about glue." he remembers.
The problem is that animal glues have various advantages over their vegetable counterparts, at least when it comes to making and repairing violins.
Animal glue, made from material such as rabbit skin, bone, tendon and gut, is used in making and repairing instruments. Unlike vegetable glue it is completely soluble in water. In comparison, vegetable glues often leave a film on the surface being treated which cannot be removed without damaging the instrument's wood or varnish or both.
Varnish presents similar problems for strict vegetarians as it is usually made from ingredients including crushed insects. Bill makes his own varnish from materials such as linseed oil. "The problem with varnish on musical instruments is experimenting until you get the thickness just right. If the varnish is too thick it affects the instrument when it's played by dampening the sound of the instrument."
Eventually Bill came up with glue-making alternatives that didn't offend his vegetarian principles in the same way. He now makes his own glue from waste materials such as discarded leather, and his varnish from linseed oil. Although other vegetarian instrument makers exist, Bill knows of no others who are so keen to find animal friendly methods.
"I know the implications of this method of glue-making, but I think it's morally more acceptable as the material has been thrown away and I don't pay for it. So I don't feel as if I contribute in any way to the meat industry or animal cruelty -- I've merely recycled waste materials. "It's not a perfect solution and I'm still experimenting with various all-vegetable glues, but at least it's a step in the right direction. I'm trying to find something that's 100 per cent vegetarian but acts in the same way as animal glue.
"I realise my method may not be acceptable to other vegetarians and vegans but we all draw our own lines on these ethical questions." Bill is currently experimenting with products such as gum Arabic, carrageen and bluebell bulbs in the search for the perfect vegetable glue. It boils down to a lot of trial and error.
"I don't have any expertise in this field and I'd be glad to hear from anyone else with relevant experience," says Bill.