Thomas & Vessel Bring Artisan Luthiery — Yes, Luthiery — to Downtown Modesto
By Justin Souza
The first thing your eyes are drawn to upon entering the Luthier shop of Thomas & Vessel Stringed Instruments in Downtown Modesto is a large wall hung with antique violins, their burnished wood grains reflecting a swimming amber light from a window set in the opposite wall.
Outside that window, a different world goes on turning. Cars drive down dusty summer streets, a handful of passersby amble to and from Downtown shops. The Modesto you know is just there, just beyond the glass. But having stepped inside, you can hardly shake the feeling of having been transported somewhere slightly more exotic, more European than a city in the Central Valley.
Unless you belong to a very small subset of musicians or collectors, Thomas & Vessel is like nothing you’ve encountered before. The Modesto shop is the business home of a pair of artisan Luthiers, stringed instrument makers, who are not only unique for their profession—there are just a handful of Luthiers in the whole country—but also for their skill. The two artisans handcraft violins, violas, cellos and—uniquely enough—mandolins from raw wood. After more than 30 years of experience, Gary Vessel is counted among the best in the world at the trade.
Vessel was raised here in Stanislaus County, and fell into his life’s work after high school when his parents looked into buying him a violin. “In the process of shopping for a violin, I went to a shop in San Mateo run by a Luthier named Boyd Paulson. There were all these violins hanging up and instruments taken apart in his workshop. I was fascinated, and Boyd could tell,” remembers Vessel. “He said ‘you know, you can learn how to do this. The Violin Making School of America is in Salt Lake City. I could give them a call and see what it takes.’”
“At the same time I had just gotten a small scholarship to a music school in Leveland, Texas. At the time, I was still under the delusion that I was going to be a musician,” laughs Vessel, whose thick wavy hair has streaked with gray since then, and his hands have worn workmanlike to the handles of his chisels. “I obviously chose the violin making school.”
This tension between the art of music making and the art of making musical instruments has been a constant companion for Vessel over the years. His interest in bluegrass led him to build a mandolin for himself, but it turned out so well that he put it on the market and eventually sold it to David Grisman, one of the most important living mandolin players in the world (“At the time, it was like selling something to God,” says Vessel.) which in turn led to him building and selling mandolins to musicians across the country. Vessel estimates that he’s the only Luthier in the world who manages both a violin and a mandolin business. “The two fields never cross, except for with me.”
After he graduated from the Violin Making School of America—the youngest Luthier ever to do so— Vessel moved on to a position with one of the world’s premiere artisans in Germany. From there, he returned to make instruments under his own name in Salt Lake City before the call of home brought him back to Turlock in 2007. It was here in Stanislaus County that Vessel met Steve Thomas, a former Anthropologist and University Professor who discovered Luthiery late in life.
Thomas’ journey echoes Vessel’s: it starts with music. “About 12 years ago, I decided that I wanted to learn to play the violin. I started looking at violins and thought ‘wow, these things are made out of wood!’” laughs Thomas. He shows off a 150-year-old violin that he’s recently finished rebuilding, pride evident in the warm glow from the lacquered maple. “I’d made some furniture and thought that I’d see if I could learn to repair and make violins. One thing just led to another. Now I wish I’d been able to do this my entire life. Having the ability to take an instrument and fix it, put it back together and have someone come along and play it and really like it…that’s something special. When you teach you don’t know if you’ve had any impact until years later. With this, it’s immediate. When you do it right, the art is just in it.”
Thomas & Vessel opened their first shop together in 2010 and relocated to their current building on 15th Street in Modesto this past February. The pair sell custom hand made violins, violas, cellos and mandolins that range from about $7,500 to more than $30,000 depending on accessories. They handle repairs on stringed instruments and accessories and also rent out practice rooms in their building to music teachers. “When you come in in the afternoon, you get to hear people playing the violin, you get to watch people make the instruments.” says Thomas. “This isn’t work for us. This is heaven.”
STOP INTO THOMAS & VESSEL’S DOWNTOWN MODESTO LOCATION at 1110 15th Street in Modesto or reach them at 209.578.5345.