Meet the Maker: Douglas Cox, Luthier

Meet the Maker: Douglas Cox, Luthier

“I think I can make a good instrument out of just about anything,” says Douglas Cox, a Brattleboro-based luthier who has been making stringed instruments for over 50 years at Cox Violins. “And it will work and it will be pretty good. But making a great instrument, I think that is beyond my ability to do through intention. That comes around to something like luck.”

But luck, as the Roman philosopher Seneca said, is when preparation meets opportunity.

Douglas’s preparation began in Germany in the late 1960s. “When I left high school, I knew I wanted to work with my hands and I liked music,” he says. “So that, through a series of things, ended up sending me to Germany to study violin making, because it seemed like a neat thing to do.” From there Douglas moved to Boston, where he finished his journeyman training during the 1970s, and there followed a year in Greece and then more time in Boston, before he and his wife, who got a job teaching Latin in Putney, relocated to Vermont.

That move to Vermont turned out to dovetail nicely with what Douglas feels it means to be a maker. “Part of it is making useful and beautiful things,” he says, “but part of it is also trying to make the world a better place and thinking that making useful and beautiful things and having them be as local and non-impactful as possible is a positive contribution. And it feels even more important now, I think, as we move into a new relationship with our environment and the human condition. So, part of my work is also trying to, well, help people grow, to give people an opportunity to grow, to have another story, another way of looking at things that can influence the way that they see their own lives. So that's part of the Vermont brand as I see it.”

Douglas’s workshop sits atop a garage with large windows looking out toward the hills and Brattleboro beyond. “It's a community that cares,” he says through his Tolstoyan beard, “and it's a community that loves music.” And the best reflection of that may be the esteemed Marlboro Music Festival that takes place here every summer. “Part of the reason that I'm here,” Douglas says, “is that I have a sign on Route Nine that everyone who's going up to the Marlboro Festival sees as they go by.”

Finished violins hang like golden, ripening fruit around the perimeter of Douglas’s workshop, waiting to be discovered and adopted. Their sides and backs are made of red maple, the tops of spruce – 98% of it harvested locally.

“I think I've always been interested in promoting the Vermont brand,” Douglas says. “I use it regularly. Part of clients feeling that they have a relationship with the product is that it is not just a good product, but that they know the story behind it, and it feels good and it makes sense. And, when they visit, he says, “they get the Vermont experience, and that gets added to their instrument’s story.”

“And the brand does have a good deal of value out there,” Douglas adds. “That is, I think that most people do connect Vermont with things like that. And it makes my work easier, that ultimately I am making a tool for musicians to play, to make music. And it just has to work like any good tool and it has to feel comfortable. It has to feel right for the player. And that's something that just happens on its own. And the main thing is not to get in the way.”

Douglas keeps a detailed database of all his violins, violas, and other stringed instruments he has made (over 1000 to date), their sonic qualities, who bought them, and where they are now. Because, to him, they are very much like his children. And, like children, he says, “when they go out the door, they're only half done. What I do here is just half the process of making the instrument. The other half will be what happens to it out there in the world as it's played, as it's damaged and repaired… If I look at a 100-year-old or a 300-year-old instrument, I can see what the maker did, but I can also see what time has done. So that's also, well, it's humbling, but it's an inspiring process to be part of.”

And this relates to one of the particular challenges surrounding what Douglas makes. “One of the problems with violins is that they last a long time,” he says. “They were made to be sort of a rough and ready instrument, more designed for a street musician out playing for dances, rather than someone playing in a courtly setting. And therefore, they were designed to take a lot of abuse and a lot of wear and tear. So they're repairable. They do take a lot of abuse. So that we do have 400-year-old instruments that are still quite serviceable.”

As a result, the market has come to attach a certain prestige and higher value to older string instruments (despite blind testing showing that audiences and even top players cannot tell any difference in sound). And that makes it more challenging for a producer of new instruments like Douglas (he estimates there are probably only 50 luthiers making violins at this level in the US). “The market for good, new instruments,” he says, “is when there is an expansion and people need instruments that aren't already there.” Luckily, he says, the span of his working life has been “a period of expansion. And so that's led to a demand for high-quality instruments.”

In the end, Douglas says, crafting violins and helping match them to their players is a “very intimate” process. “It is giving people their voice and it's somewhat unpredictable – what is going to work for what person, what is going to be their voice that they find. But it's a wonderful process to be part of.”

The Vermont Maker Project

Telling stories about makers across the state of Vermont. Photographed and written by StoryWorkz. Learn more at

Vermont makers wear Vermont Flannel.

Back to blog

Leave a comment