Carving Their Own Niche: Studio City Music handcrafts and repairs violins, violas and cellos — an age-old art that is enjoying a renaissance.

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Hans Benning sits in his shop, applying a finger plane to the backside of a cello. He taps the wood, cocking his ear to hear the dull thump of mountain-grown maple.

"Each piece of wood that goes into making an instrument is individual," said Benning, owner of Studio City Music, a Los Angeles violi shop whose staff makes, repairs and restores bowed string instruments like fine violins, violas and cellos. "Making an instrument is actually quite simple. I simply cut away everything that doesn't look like a violin."

The method of making violins hasn't changed much since Benning, a native of Germany, attended the Bavarian State Trade School for Violin Making in Mittenwald, Germany, from 1962 to 1964. The trade, in fact, hasn't changed much in the past 300 years.

It was in Mittenwald that Benning met Nancy Toenniges, sent to the school by her father, Paul Toenniges, who opened Studio City Music in 1953. After Benning and Nancy Toenniges graduated from the Mittenwald school, they moved to the San Fernando Valley, married, and began working at Studio City Music. When Toenniges retired in 1973, the Bennings took over the shop.