HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Like anyone who goes to war, Sgt. Geoffrey Allison worried about making it home alive.

But the Army medic also found a sense of urgency in Iraq that drove him to work harder and faster than ever before.

As bombs exploded and the ground shook around him, Allison carved and shaped violins. He couldn’t block out the violence or the death around him (his job was tending to the sick and the wounded), but it gave him a newfound focus.

“It became more serious,” says Allison, a talkative man with glasses and a crew cut. “I thought, ‘Hey, I’m in combat. These could be the last fiddles I ever make in my life. I’m going to make them really count this time.’ That was my attitude — take it to a different level of seriousness.”

Allison, 40, is a self-taught luthier in the tradition of Stradivari and the other 17th and 18th century Italian craftsmen who set the standard for violin making.

Now stationed at the Redstone Arsenal outside Huntsville and nearing retirement, he’s begun turning his passion into profession. He’s already sold some of his violins, and with his military pension he plans to support himself as a violinmaker when he retires from the Army next spring.

In the meantime, he’s converted his kitchen into a workshop where he spends at least five or six hours a night. It’s an inviting space that smells of spruce and maple. A half-dozen violins and violas dangle from wires above his workbench. An assortment of hand tools — planes, gouges, chisels, knives, rasps — are neatly organized, all of them finely crafted instruments in their own right, from places like Japan, Germany and Great Britain.

He works from photos and blueprints of 17th and 18th century masterpieces. Recently, he sat hunched over the shell of a violin shaving thin strips of wood with a tiny gold plane. The son of a concert violinist, he comes across as a meticulous man who loses himself talking about the merits of a particular wood or tool.

“See here,” he says clutching a large piece of wood, “I’ve got this wood and piles of it back here. It’s cello wood. This board alone costs $700. I’m just dying to make cellos. It’s probably the most beautiful instrument, maybe even surpassing the violin. When you hear a cello play, you know that’s a cello. It’s got a rich, deep sound.”

He does most everything by hand and with the same materials the masters used 400 years ago. He believes every violin has a soul — not an original thought, he allows, but one that guides his work nonetheless.

“I’m not going to compromise. There are some so-called violin makers who put a board into a milling machine device and walk away and come out with a copy of something. To me, that’s just a copy.”

Fred Carpenter, a touring violin player and owner of The Violin Shop in Nashville, Tenn., where Allison sells some of his instruments, says the soldier’s craftsmanship is remarkable.

“Most people who don’t have some kind of professional luthier guidance don’t end up with anything near the success he’s had,” Carpenter says.

“You can tell he loves what he does in the way his instruments end up. Some makers have an absolute form they follow to the letter, to the T. I think Geoffrey likes to get outside the box a little. Not so far that he doesn’t comply with standard measurements to qualify as a legitimate instrument, but he’s not afraid to try something.”

Allison was born and spent the first few years of his life in Clinton. Later, as a boy of five or six, his mother played violin in the Phoenix Symphony. He remembers holding the instrument and wondering how someone could possibly make something so detailed.

But he didn’t think of trying to build one until many years later, after he’d joined the Army to get money for college. While taking a music class, he saw a program called “The Great Violin Mystery.”

“I said, ‘That's it. I’m going back into the Army and buy these tools wherever they are in the world and hopefully get back to Europe and become a violin maker.’”

The Army sent him to South Korea instead of Europe, but his path was set and he didn’t stray. Learning from books, he’s built 30 instruments since he began in 1991. He’s destroyed a lot of his early work — ‘hiding the evidence,’ he calls it — but still keeps a scrap from his first one.

When he was deployed to Sinjar, Iraq, near the Syrian border in January 2006, he figured he wouldn’t have much time for his hobby and toted only enough wood to make several violins.

But he had more downtime than he’d expected, and within a few months had to order another batch of wood from a U.S. supplier.

He transferred to Ramadi, where the violence was more intense, and when he finished his 13-month tour in February, he had six instruments nearly completed.

“I didn’t need any modern conveniences. I didn’t need any electricity at all. There was just barely enough light coming through the sandbags of our bunker-type dwelling in Sinjar where I could see.”

It’s not unusual for soldiers to have hobbies in wartime, but Allison is probably the only one who builds violins, says Maj. Steven Hankins, chief of business operations at the Fox Army Health Center where Allison works.

“Having been in combat myself, everybody needs some type of stress relief. There are moments of sheer terror surrounded by endless amounts of downtime, and in some cases boredom,” Hankins said.

After leaving Iraq, Allison mustered the nerve to call on Roger Hargrave, a world-renowned violin maker in Germany. Hargrave was skeptical at first, but intrigued by Allison's story; he agreed to see his work.

“He brought me four instruments with craftsmanship that sort of blew me away,” Hargrave said from his studio in Germany. “It was really quite astounding that this guy was making instruments under that kind of pressure.”

Since their meeting, the master has publicly praised Allison’s violins and encouraged him to continue.

Back in Alabama, Allison is doing just that. He says his craft isn’t so much about talent as it is about patience, and he has plenty of that.

“Once I finish a violin, I pretty much lose all interest in it. There’s nothing more to do. It’s done. It’s the getting there that’s so much fun.”

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