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Break from tradition sounds even sweeter

Luis Leguia is polite and unassuming, with the manners of an old-school gentleman. He insists that a visitor have coffee before conversation, wrestles down his feisty, friendly dog Teddy and restrains him, and modestly leaves out the details of the poverty-stricken childhood that he rose above to become a musician with the Boston Symphony Orchestra -- until his wife, Stephanie, prods him or fills in the gaps herself.

But when it comes to his cello, there is nothing quiet about the Milton musician. He wants to be heard. He wants to stand out in a crowd. For years, he had searched for a cello that would be powerful enough to distinguish itself amid the sea of sounds in an orchestra and still maintain its subtle sweetness.

He never found it. So he invented one himself using an unlikely material -- carbon fiber. And now he designs, manufactures, and sells carbon fiber cellos, violins, and violas through Luis and Clark Carbon Fiber Instruments, a company that he started five years ago and runs out of his home. Carbon fiber, strong but flexible, is strands of carbon tightly woven and set in resin. He has sold 100 cellos, 12 violins, and 20 violas. He designs the instruments, and they are fabricated by a Rhode Island boat maker, Matt Dunham.

His instruments are a bold idea in a world of traditionalists who are used to brown wooden ones. Leguia's sleek black instruments with their flashy weave pattern don't blend into an orchestra; they visually scream, ''Look at me." He says their advantages over wooden instruments include a bigger sound, imperviousness to harsh weather conditions, and lower cost (around $5,800 for a cello, compared with $20,000 to $50,000 for concert quality, on average). His website boasts plenty of testimonials. Renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who played one of Leguia's instruments on the Mall in Washington, touted it in a 2002 interview with Paula Zahn on CNN.

''It is actually a carbon fiber cello that works in the sun, designed by Luis Leguia in Boston, and it is great," he told Zahn, according to a transcript of the interview. ''I really love this instrument. . . . It's one way of suggesting that we can play music that's traditional, but actually we're always using technology to make things a little better."

Some string instrument dealers say it's debatable whether the instruments have a more powerful sound than a traditional one. Also, it is less about whether one is better than the other and more about a musician's taste, said Rebecca Shannon, who owns Shannon Strings in Concord with her husband, Andy Weinstein. They prefer the process of making instruments out of wood, and the individual personality the instruments develop as the wood ages, is handled, and even as it is affected by weather.

''Some people like chocolate, some people like vanilla, and some like strawberry," Shannon said. ''With the carbon fiber process, you are so far removed from that whole experience."

Don't tell Leguia that. In 1989, when he got the idea for the carbon fiber instruments, he spent five years in his basement developing the process and risking his health as he breathed the fumes it produced. He says the instruments are fabricated using molds and identical patterns, but each is still handmade.

''He was always trying different cellos for sound," said his wife recently, sitting with him and Teddy in a sparsely furnished living room. ''He became a boating enthusiast. He was out on his catamaran and he could hear the waves resonating against the hull. . . . Tell her," she said, urging him to jump in.

''I would hear the resonance of the waves against the hulls," he said, picking up the narrative, ''and I wondered, what would a cello sound like that was made of this material?

''I just went down to the basement and started building," said Leguia, 70, who has had no training in design or engineering. In fact, he dropped out of high school in the 10th grade. Leguia said as a youth he was only good in two things -- sports and music -- and knew that college was not in his future because his single mother couldn't afford it. Growing up, they were so poor, they rarely lived in more than a one-room apartment, said his wife. He left school and decided he would become a musician. His mother helped him buy his first cello for $100, earned with money from shining shoes. He now has a wooden cello insured for more than $1 million.

He usually plays the traditional instrument for the BSO, which he joined in 1963, because the orchestra insures it. When he is on the road he plays his carbon fiber instruments. Three of his carbon fiber cellos were featured with the Boston Pops, and they are professionally played in orchestras in Germany, England, Canada, and Mexico.

Initially, Leguia built three carbon fiber cellos in 1991, working around his concert and practice schedules. ''Each cello got better progressively," he said. But there came a time when he wanted them to be even better. So he began working with a carbon fiber expert -- Steve Clark, the head of Vanguard Sailboats in Rhode Island, one of the largest manufacturers of small sailboats, including the C-Class boat that holds the Little America's Cup. Eventually Clark led Leguia to Dunham.

The structure of a traditional instrument requires a lot of wood to maintain its structure. The strength of carbon fiber frees the designer from using so much wood, which means the violins, violas, and cellos he makes can be thinner and played closer to the body, which places less strain on shoulders. That means more control and less fatigue, say musicians.

''It's really a breakthrough," said Jim Bentson, an amateur cellist who lives in New York. ''He has altered the shape and used new material and found a way of producing a cello not affected by humidity and that has an exquisite sound."

Standing at the window with a viola in his hands, Leguia shifted the instrument in the light. ''If you look closely, you can see the weave. That's the natural carbon in it," he said. ''It's a unique structure. It's our patterned design. I invented the thing. The back, sides, neck, peg box are all one piece."

Next month he will play his carbon fiber cello with the national symphony in Lima. It will be his 13th tour in South America.

When he travels he doesn't worry about his cello. Two years ago, he did an eight-country concert tour across Central and South America. ''It was 25 plane rides and my cello went into baggage the whole distance. No problem," he said. ''That's a big deal," his wife pointed out.

Sandy Coleman can be reached at sbcoleman@globe.com.

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