Lawrence resident H. Brooks Herndon has been involved in designing coffee-processing plants, wind turbines, semiconductors, microprocessors and computer circuit boards.
But his next venture, which will happen in a rural shop south of Lawrence near Vinland, is a combination of high-tech and old-school: It involves an attempt to refine what happens when hair from a Siberian stallion is pulled across a string, causing the vibrations to travel through wood.
In short, he is trying to build the perfect violin. He's spent years studying the proportions of the great Stradivarius violins, using self-taught chemistry knowledge to develop his own proprietary varnish, and looking for any spot on the instrument where the wood can be carved or fit together differently to improve the sound.
"My intent is to make instruments for professionals - fine instruments, as fine as they can possibly be made," he said.
He plans to produce 25 violins in coming months, similar to a prototype he's already built, as well as two cellos and two violas. The price is yet to be set, but high-end violins can sell for five figures.
Herndon's shop is an addition to the strong community of luthiers already in the Lawrence area. Luthiers are people who build and repair stringed instruments. A handful of people who live in this area are known nationally for their work.
"I've had calls from Florida, Georgia, California. That's bizarre to me," said Leo Posch, who operates the Versatile Workbench repair shop in McLouth and recently started building his own banjos and guitars. "How can they not have someone to take it to? Why would they send it to someone in Kansas?"
The scene gets an occasional boost when someone relocates to Lawrence. Mandolin and guitar maker Jim Triggs, whose customers include country singer Alan Jackson and rocker Steve Miller, moved about a year ago from Johnson County to Lawrence.
"Down one here, up one there," said Jim Curley, owner of the Mountain Music Shoppe in Shawnee. "Jim is one of the finest in the country."
Another example is Dave Wendler, who makes "electroCoustic" hybrid acoustic and electric stringed instruments. He moved back to Lawrence in 2003 after a brief stint in Branson, Mo.
In 2001, violin maker Amos Hargrave moved here from Mission and now has a downtown shop on Massachusetts Street.
Try to list them all, and you'll leave out someone who either is starting to build the instruments or built them years ago.
"There's an uncanny number of luthiers in Lawrence, and nobody seems to be starving to death," said luthier Steve Mason, who, like many other string-music aficionados, is preparing to head to Winfield next week for the Walnut Valley Festival, where he has a merchant's booth. "The type of people that do lutherie are kind of college-town-type people."
He's no rookie
Even though his violin-making operation is not yet fully running, Herndon is far from a rookie in the world of musical instruments. Like Mason, he once worked building guitars at the legendary S.L. Mossman Guitars factory in Winfield.
Mason credits the 60-year-old Herndon with a handful of innovations in the world of stringed instruments. For example, the common method to take apart wood joints in instrument repair is by using a heater-blanket made of wires embedded in silicon.
"The technology was designed to warm barrels of oil in Alaska," Mason said. "Brooks was the one that translated that from oil-warming to lutherie."
About a year ago, Herndon finished his first violin. He said that in a world dominated by hype - with violin makers constantly saying they've unlocked the secret of the Stradivarius - he prefers to let his instruments speak for themselves.
"Every last little bit of that instrument, I spent time studying," he said. "I hadn't done it by hand before. I was making up the process."
Herndon's pursuits as a scientist range from public health research (he co-authored a 1973 article called "A Prospective Study of Cytomegalovirus Infection in a Volunteer Blood Donor Population") to telecommunications (he designed an emergency "load-management system" for AT&T in the mid-'80s).
So why instruments?
"It's not working on nuclear weapons," he said.