News & Politics

Sweet Music

Dalton Potter makes violins by hand—and then gives some of them to deserving children.

Photograph by Matthew Worden.

Dalton Potter always thought he’d go into music. He just wasn’t sure how. The violin maker, who owns Potter Violin Company, was a choirboy at Washington National Cathedral and studied jazz guitar at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. In his early twenties, he repaired guitars. When William Weaver opened the Violin House of Weaver in Bethesda, he hired Potter to do repairs. In 1996, Potter took over the service operations. With 18 employees, he repairs, sells, crafts, and rents thousands of instruments a year. The company also donates violins to needy students.

Do you play violin?

Well enough to adjust them. The relationship between a violinist and a violin maker is a symbiosis, like two trees in a forest.

How long does it take to make one?

About 40 hours over three weeks. We also fine-tune and repair 12 to 15 per day and rent 3,000 each year. One guy’s whole job is tying the hairs on. I don’t think we’re going to be replaced by computers.

Is there a memorable instrument you’ve worked on?

The violin that was played in Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot.

Do you get tired of hearing violin?

Never. I get butterflies in my stomach when a symphony begins tuning. That time before they start playing is so exciting. There’s so much possibility.

Why do you give away violins?

In Kansas City, this man came up and thanked me. His daughter had received one of our violins and had gotten into college on a music scholarship. Makes you feel like you’re doing something worthwhile.

Has the recession slowed business?

A little. But when times are bad, people play music. When times are good, people play music.

This article first appeared in the June 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.