MARENGO – As the name Brunkalla became more reputable among musicians serious about their stringed instruments, the company’s namesake was asked why he wasn’t expanding his operation.
Considering Martin Brunkalla worked as director of engineering for an automation company before starting Brunkalla Music 12 years ago, it wouldn’t have been overly difficult to figure out how to produce his product on a grander scale.
But it would have meant stepping away from the hand-crafted approach that made him popular in the first place.
“I wanted to make good instruments. I wanted them to be the best I could make, and I still do,” said Brunkalla, 59. “I couldn’t do that on an automated basis.”
Brunkalla Music began as a retailer of handmade violins, but has grown to include guitars, mandolins and a few other specialty instruments. Brunkalla also does repairs, working in the basement of his Marengo home.
“I’m primarily a violin maker,” he said. “My customers drag me into the rest of it.”
Brunkalla, who grew up around Medinah, has made a career out of designing everything from the interior of luxury boats to a conveyor belt used by Motorola. He taught himself guitar at age 9, and picked up fiddle in the mid-1990s. He’s been “moonlighting” as a luthier along the way.
The hobby became a business in 2001 after Brunkalla designed a fiddle for Sara Watkins of the band Nickel Creek. Watkins used the instrument on “This Side,” which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 2003.
Well-known musician Alison Krauss, who produced the Nickel Creek album, said good things about Brunkalla’s work. Soon the Marengo man built a new career, merging his love for bluegrass music with his skills as an engineer.
“Once you establish yourself as a luthier and gain a little bit of a customer base, competition becomes less of a factor because of the loyalty,” he said.
Brunkalla spends between 120 hours and 150 hours on a single guitar, and 160 hours on a violin. A mandolin can take more than 200 hours to complete, spanning about six weeks.
Instead of simple maple wood, Brunkalla often substitutes walnut or cherry. He also cuts instruments from a slab of ancient kauri wood, which is the oldest known wood in the world.
“I do stray from tradition a little bit,” he said.
The advantage to hand crafting each instrument, Brunkalla said, is that you can treat each piece of wood differently. Larger manufacturers make each instrument the exact same way. Usually, that means the instrument will produce an average sound, Brunkalla said.
His added attention produces a more consistently top-notch sound, but it shows on the price tag. A Brunkalla violin ranges in price from $6,000 to $30,000.
Brunkalla’s customer base – 85 percent of which is east of Ohio, keeps him plenty busy. He also has a booth at the Woodstock Farmer’s Market, which brings him “more repair work than I really need.”
Brunkalla is happy with where his business is overall. He’s contributing to a style of music he loves.
“You get to meet a lot of interesting people,” he said. “And hear a lot of really good music.”