A John Deere Publication
Fire lookout with pine trees and blue sky behind

Kevin Prestwich adds violin to the symphony of forest noises from atop his 30-foot lookout perch. He scours the forests in his home state of Idaho for the perfect trees to make his instruments.

Specialty/Niche   March 01, 2024

A Lookout and a Luthier


Remotely stationed fire lookout fills solitary summer hours crafting fine violins.

Kevin Prestwich's existence is an anomaly. A glitch in the matrix of a society so overwhelmed by technology they're largely unaware of the multitude of inroads advancements like artificial intelligence have made into their daily lives.

"There's beauty in simplicity," he says. It's a beauty that must call to Prestwich as it pops up everywhere in his life—his jobs, hobbies, dwellings, and tools.

Summers are spent perched atop a secluded 30-foot U.S. Forest Service fire lookout tower in southeastern Montana. Residing in a 100-square-foot room where every wall is a window makes—nearly forces—taking full advantage of the 14-plus daylight hours.

When lookout responsibilities are complete, Prestwich walks, reads books (up to 30 per summer), spins tales on his vintage Underwood typewriter, studies sailing, and crafts fine violins with a small collection of simple but sharp hand tools.

"Antonio Stradivari [17th century] could walk into my shop, sit down, and build a violin. I could do the same with his. The tools and process are the same," Prestwich says.

The same is true for his lookout predecessors. They would instantly be able to oscillate the sights around the fixed circular tabletop map dominating the center of the lookout. With cross hairs of the Osborne Fire Finder locked in they could triangulate with another lookout to relay a fire's exact location even at night.

"This is technology from 1910, but it works beautifully," he says.

Above. A finger plane is used to precisely peel another layer before thickness and graduation is carefully checked with simple guides. Terrain surrounding Poker Jim Butte lookout is embedded in Kevin Prestwich's mind. Any change is quickly detected. The 360-degree windows allow him to continue keeping watch even as he carves violins in his free time.


Seeing detail. Prestwich's analog lifestyle slows action and the flow of information, allowing for nuance and detail to infuse his knowledge and creations.

For example, after 10 years of firefighting and 12 summers as a lookout Prestwich can see and understand the weather. Not clouds—conditions and cues.

If the wind is blowing south to north but smoke from Canadian wildfires still moves in, he doesn't need a forecast to tell him there's a low-pressure system.

"With low pressure the air rises and the smoke rushes in from the north to fill the void even if the wind is against it," he says.

He's noted flying ant activity often precedes lightning—a useful indicator for a fire lookout.

Attention to detail is also critical in handcrafting soloist-quality violins. Prestwich has researched and refined every part of the process.

It starts with the right wood. Being a lifelong forester, Prestwich goes straight to the source making him one of few—if not singular—makers that build violins truly from scratch.

"I spent a lot of time researching and figuring out how to identify good trees," he says as he checks angles on the rough start of a violin top made from an Engelmann spruce he harvested in Idaho. "I like that it's outdoor work. It's good to have that balance so you don't feel stuck at the workbench all the time."

While Prestwich makes roughly two violins per summer in the lookout tower, more are crafted in his Boise, Idaho, home.

Once cut and hand split, two small planks are joined edge to edge ready to be matched to a template—if their density is right.

"Wood density affects how sound is transmitted. Average density of a Stradivarius is .36, so that's what I use," Prestwich says.

Next the shape is traced on the planks and Prestwich saws, gouges, chisels, and planes meticulously prising a violin top from the generic slab.

Each layer removed is checked with templates to ensure precise arches and hollows. "A violin will never sound right if the graduation and thickness is off by even a couple millimeters," he says.

It's a precision job he argues anyone with patience could do. "It seems artistic and freestyle, but making a violin is just following a series of regimented steps."

It's simple and straightforward. Like being a fire lookout or sailing. As Prestwich battled the diesel engine on the sailboat he hopes to make his off-season home, it struck him that a simple piece of fabric was capable of doing the same job as the engine.

"There's always a call to modernize, but why if we have a simple solution already," he says. ‡

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