It’s mid-July and David Finck has just finished reading his maternal grandmother’s memoir. The youngest of 13 children, she grew up in Czarist Russia and was a pianist and top student at St. Petersburg State Conservatory. She gave recitals to Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra, hung out in the Winter Palace, met Rasputin and walked hand-in-hand with Grand Duchess Anastasia.
“It’s stunning,” he says.
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David’s aunt, a gerontologist, helped write the first-person memoir. It reads like historical fiction, David says. Which is interesting, because after spending a couple hours talking with David, and seeing the circles and ties to generations past, present and future, one could almost say the same about his life, too.
Many know David as author of “Making & Mastering Wood Planes,” a classic in woodworking circles first published by Sterling and now sold under the Lost Art Press imprint. But since David first wrote that book he finds himself in a different place entirely, making violins and violas beloved by musicians. He talks a lot about luck but between his words is a lot of time, talent and skill. It’s a story that begins with his grandparents and now rests with his daughters. It’s about paths chosen and paths neglected, finishing what was left behind and following passions, all interconnecting to form a beautiful tale.
A Childhood Filled with Art & Music
David’s paternal grandfather, a paint chemist by trade, was a hobbyist woodworker. His grandfather also wrote, acted and directed Yiddish theater, and was founder of the Vagabond Theater in Baltimore, Maryland, the nation’s oldest continuously running community theater. His paternal grandmother was a trained sculptor. David has a couple little dovetailed boxes his grandfather made, with chip carving on them by his grandmother. David’s maternal grandfather, a doctor, was trained in St. Petersburg and cared for immigrant families in Baltimore’s Canton neighborhood.
David grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father, Henry Finck, had a small woodshop in their basement and his mother, Paula, had an art studio in their home. David’s dad, academically gifted, was a professor of anatomy at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, although academia didn’t suit him.
As a child David recognized his parents were unique. His mother, a substitute art teacher, always had projects for him and his two older sisters. He laughs, remembering how they used to melt packing peanuts with candles, creating all sorts of things with long strings of burnt plastic in the basement of their old house, a dungeon-like space with low ceilings and thick cut-stone walls. They would play with clay and origami. With a friend, David would use cardstock from old computer programs to create taped-and-glued-together cars for play.
“I was into making stuff as a kid but it was just a part of life, something you didn’t even really think about,” he says.
In high school, he took a woodshop class taught by “a very nice man who didn’t know a lot about woodworking.” While his teacher spent much of the class dealing with discipline issues, David managed to build a few projects.
“They were laughably bad, really bad,” he says. “No portent of the future came out of that shop class.”
David’s first foray into music was the recorder. At the time, his parents were secular Jews. While his mom was still interested in some of the Jewish traditions, his family didn’t belong to a temple. When David’s friends began attending Hebrew School, his mom gave him a choice: He could go to Hebrew school or learn to play an instrument. Hebrew School was a three-day-a-week proposition, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., following full days of school.
“Guess which one I did?” he says, laughing.
He took recorder lessons for about a year – then something introduced him to the world of string instruments, which would become a significant part of his life ever after. That something? The movie “Deliverance.”
“I don’t know why my folks let me see it but I had watched ‘Deliverance’ with my dad when I was about 11, which is pretty intense, but you know the scene in the beginning where the Appalachian kid is sitting on the porch playing banjo and one of the characters starts backing him up on the guitar? Well, I just thought that was the most incredible thing I had ever heard.”
Later, David learned there were issues with that scene: While the music you hear is Scruggs-style three-finger bluegrass picking, the kid on the porch is playing a totally different style. What David did know at the time was that he wanted to play that tune. “It totally inspired me,” he says.
So his folks bought him an inexpensive plastic banjo that sounded, actually, pretty good, he says. It was the early 1970s and Pittsburgh was experiencing a folk revival – in fact, his sister, Tina, was playing guitar, mandolin and accordion in one of the city’s first old-time string bands. David began taking banjo lessons at a local music shop. Six months into them he realized there were different styles of banjo playing, and that he was never going to learn dueling banjos from his teacher, from whom he’d been learning a style called frailing (also called clawhammer). David was disappointed. And he probably would have found a new teacher and kept up with banjo had his dad not taken a sabbatical that resulted in his entire family moving – to New Zealand.
Dunedin’s Star Basketball Player (For a Short While)
Watergate and the Vietnam War filled the news. David’s parents, who were pretty liberal, wanted to leave the U.S. His father found a part-time job at a university on the South Island of New Zealand, in a town called Dunedin. New Zealand, David thought, offered a kind of paradise. This feeling was dashed a bit when the family arrived only to be greeted by a rare traffic jam caused by, of all things, the opening of a Kentucky Fried Chicken. His parents, believing they had left U.S. culture behind, were chagrined. They also were unsure about New Zealand’s political future.
Years later, David came across a passage in one of his father’s many notebooks about their time in New Zealand. His dad was a prodigious collector of clippings, pasting hundreds of them into dozens and dozens of composition notebooks, along with his own comments.
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“There were a series of newspaper clippings related to Watergate that he had clipped out of the New Zealand newspaper,” David says. “And he was teaching anatomy at this university and he’s writing, ‘I can’t wait to be done with this. I want to do things with my hands. I want to make things that are tangible.’” (Eventually, he would.)
Grades were organized differently in New Zealand, by forms. The form David was initially placed in proved to be a little too easy; they moved him to the high school, which proved to be a little too hard. But there was a bright spot: For a short time, David was Dunedin’s star high school basketball player.
“I think basketball had been introduced in New Zealand three or four years earlier and I was one of the few people in the nation, it seemed, that knew how to dribble,” he says. “They put me on the varsity basketball team. I was like 100 pounds, 5’2”, 11 years old or something. But I could dribble circles around all these people. No one else really had any kind of dribbling skills at that point, but I quickly got beat up pretty bad by these much older kids and they put me in JV. But for a little while there, I was reveling in my athletic prowess. It was pretty thrilling.”
David’s true athletic passion had always been baseball. It was the early 1970s, the heyday for Pittsburgh teams. And in Pittsburgh, David lived two miles from the old Forbes Field. Like most 11-year-olds he wanted to be a major league baseball player – woodworking wasn’t even a thought. “The only trouble was I wasn’t very good and didn’t know it,” he says.
After a year in New Zealand David’s dad realized his part-time position wasn’t going to become full time anytime soon. So the family moved back to Pittsburgh, where David finished high school.
A Crooked Course Through College
“I hated high school,” David says. “But coming from an intellectual, academic-minded family, I was totally geared to go to college because I didn’t have anything better to do. And I sure wish that was not the case. I wish I had figured something else out.”
At the time Pittsburgh had a scholars program, which essentially meant starting high school in eighth grade if you maintained a B average – and David was a straight B student. He completed his high school courses by 11th grade and, not wanting to spend a year in high school taking AP courses, he graduated. Without a real plan he enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh.
“My parents were really laissez-faire when it came to guidance,” he says. “Either that or I didn’t seek them out and they didn’t impose their will on me. I don’t remember having heart-to-heart talks about this sort of thing at all. I just sort of plotted my own course in a really poor way.”
David, 17, was miserable in his big introductory college classes. But then he met Tom, a guy in his late 20s who had just earned his undergraduate degree in marine biology in Santa Barbara, California. David already had a vague interest in marine biology. Jacques Cousteau was big at the time. And David had spent several summers in Cape Cod, mucking around in estuaries and mud flats, and snorkeling while his dad worked in a lab at the Oceanic Institute. Tom told David he should go to UC Santa Barbara and study marine biology. And so, David did.
He ended up in a house with friends of Tom’s, all in their late 20s. A quarter-mile from campus, the house was two blocks from the beach and half the guys were surfers. It was paradise, David says, really beautiful. But yet again he found himself in huge general science classes. The beach was distracting and he worried he wouldn’t be successful in the environment.
He got in touch with a cousin who lived in Big Pine Key, Florida, about 20 miles from Key West. David’s cousin was taking marine technology classes at a small community college. Instead of sitting in auditorium-style classrooms, students at this college were out on boats doing sampling.
“Man, that sounded like a great idea to me,” David says. “So I took a leave, got myself all the way down to Big Pine Key, Florida, in time for the winter semester.” The problem? He hadn’t read the course catalog – no one was out on boats doing sampling in the winter. Despite this disappointment David continued his studies and spent a nice six months with his aunt, uncle and cousins in Florida.
Still unsure about his path in life, he decided to pursue a liberal arts education, and he transferred to UC Berkeley. Unfortunately, his guidance counselor told him a liberal arts degree didn’t exist. Together they came up with environmental science, and despite all the jogging around, David graduated with an environmental science degree four years after starting college.
David’s First Guitar
Before David and his family moved to New Zealand, his father had started – and stopped – building a classical guitar. The guitar was intended to be a stepping stone. After completing it his father wanted to build a viola da gamba. And if he accomplished that, he’d build his dream project: a violin. The move to New Zealand had interrupted the next step in the guitar, cutting a channel in the edges for inlaying the binding. After returning to Pittsburgh, David’s father, a cautious man with myriad things on his plate, found ways to put that step off for close to 20 years.
“It was during high school when I really started bugging him to finish that guitar because I thought it was good,” David says. “He was very meticulous.”
At the time David was a fan of James Taylor and Cat Stevens. He began playing pop folk on guitar, eventually moving to classical guitar and taking lessons. Another reason David wanted his dad to finish the guitar? He wanted it.
“It would have been way better than the hand-me-down guitar I was playing,” he says.
With a dream to join the back-to-land movement, David’s dad hunted for years for a farm. The family finally found a place in West Virginia, about 110 miles south of Pittsburgh. The plan was to spend six or seven years fixing it up, then move there once David’s dad retired. But a year later, his father had had enough of academia. He quit his job and David’s parents began a new life in West Virginia.
Throughout college David and his sisters would visit and help out on the farm. David and his dad turned one of the outbuildings into a shop and in it sat the unfinished guitar, along with all the forms that had been used to build it, a how-to book and extra wood. Having grown tired of trying to convince his dad – who had plenty of other work to do on the farm –to finish it, David decided to build his own.
“It was nothing I was passionate about,” he says. “Just when we had a little bit of down time it was something to do. But I really think at the heart of it I was still trying to manipulate him to finish his own instrument. I had a lot of confidence that it would be a nice, playable instrument and I thought this might inspire him to get started.”
David says his dad was a good craftsman – the kind who could take construction lumber and build a really nice trestle table with well-fitted joinery. He built a floor loom once, with six harnesses, because one of his interests was weaving. Without a background in fine woodworking, his dad simply figured out how to do stuff, building all sorts of things including small kit sailboats in the family living room. He also suffered from a bad back and spent a lot of time on his back reading – he was incredibly well-read. And busy. David mostly built the guitar on his own.
Turns out, he loved it.
“It was just inspiring for me,” David says. “Really, it was the first time I found something I was as passionate about as baseball. It just really felt like a real love, not just like, ‘Oh, this is kind of interesting.’ It was something like a bonfire, pushing me ahead.”
Comparatively, environmental science offered him little to no passion. He remembers a “horrible” work-study job at UC Berkeley, working with a young hotshot professor.
“He had a gazillion little surf creatures preserved in formaldehyde and I had to peer between the legs of each little one of them and tell him if it was a male or female and I would do that for 10 hours a week and it drove me nuts.”
Fortunately, while at UC Berkeley, a fortuitous meeting with a young woman changed the course of his life.
In Meet the Author: David Finck (Part 2) (coming December 9) you’ll learn about David’s switch from environmental science to woodworking, the birth of ‘Making & Mastering Wood Planes’ (while caring for two young children), his family band and pivot into violin making.
— Kara Gebhart Uhl