Rye’s Violin Maker, Robert Isley, Quietly Draws a Crowd

Musicians tell him that coming to Rye, often by train, is a “relief,” because they find a friendlier environment than in Manhattan.

Robert Isley has quietly made violins in a small shop on Purchase Street for more than 30 years. Photo Alison Rodilosso
Published May 23, 2024 9:35 PM
3 min read

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“Go see Isley in Rye.”

Those are the words that have kept Robert Isley in the business of making violins, violas, and cellos on Purchase Street with great success for the last 32 years.

Players of stringed instruments share information about who can make a violin, or who can fix a broken bridge. And in a community where many commute to New York City, Isley is responsible for reverse commutes. From student musicians to members of the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, they make their way to Isley for the care of their instruments.

Musicians tell him that coming to Rye, often by train, is a “relief,” he said, because they find a friendlier environment than in Manhattan. Isley himself has a “reverse commute,” traveling six days a week from his home in Putnam County near the Connecticut border.

There is a simple sign on his door, something that could be from another century: “Robert Isley, Violin Maker.”

Inside, the light above his wooden work bench is bright. Handmade violins hang from the walls like soldiers, along with an orderly array of wooden tools. In the adjoining room, stringed instruments wait their turn.

Isley crafted the heavy bench where he works, as well as the handle of his favorite knife. As he speaks, he briefly waves the knife through the air like a baton. After so many years, the handle conforms to his palm.

Slats of “tone wood” for the instruments fill the corners. Isely has acquired them from specialists, including a shop in Stowe, Vt. The back of a violin is often made of spruce; the neck and scroll are maple. Everything in the studio is custom made.

Isley arrived in Rye after his wife spotted a classified ad for office space. He was working in the area already and was ready for his own shop.

He had studied violin in college in North Carolina, and had taken a job helping care for the instruments owned by the school. Music students practiced day and night, he recalled, and late one night he realized that while he was good at the violin, he would never be great. He credits a college teacher with helping pave the way to this specialized career. With his parents’ approval, after graduation he made his way to Salt Lake City to the Violin Making School of America.

Now 71 years old, he looks around his studio at the picture of a famous Italian violin maker and notes that he is as gray as the man in the photo. But life on Purchase Street has been good to him. He has enjoyed his time in Rye, and noted fondly that he has worked with Framing Corner and Rye Camera Shop for many years.

From student musicians to members of the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, they make their way to Isley for the care of their instruments.
Photo Alison Rodilosso

He may be a long-time Rye merchant, but Isley’s violins are still considered new. He makes many of them to specification (for example, to compensate for an injured shoulder). He has a group of collectors who buy his instruments and then bring them to him for repair on his beloved wooden bench. To build a violin or viola costs $22,000; a cello is $45,000.

Isley recalled that his most unusual request was from a woman who wanted a blue violin, as a tribute to Picasso’s blue period. It was early in his career, and he declined. “Today,” he says, “I would do it.”

Someone climbing the stairs to his studio might hear the sweet strains of violin or viola music as Isley tests the instruments he is building or repairing. It’s a surprising sound from a unique business in downtown Rye.

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