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Improving A Violin ?

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Hi all,

I have never tried to ask a luthier to improve a violin. If I don't like a violin after

a few years I upgrade it by buying a more expensive violin.

So, in my closet has been storaged with a number of violins and actually one or two violins that I am needing currently using.

Most luthiers in a violin shop have no interest to help improving a violin. Maybe the result is hard

to predict or the customers' complaints are not pleasant to deal with.

On the other hand for the sake of ecology and my pocket book, as a consumer, I would ask, why not?

If the neck of my violin needed be pulled back at a cost of $150, I would be delighted to spend

the sum, instead of buying another violin.

If my violin needs a thinning on top, I don't mind spending $50-$70 to have somebody else do it.

I think I can do it myself but the thought of buying the tools, clamps, messing around with everything in a tiny condo and that after the improvement, where I should keep these tools,is terrifying.

Are there such places where luthiers who do "violin improving" (like home improvement )?

Put a fake Strad label (just kidding) in my violin?

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I don't think there is a violin that cannot be "improved" to some extent if it has been played for a while. Newer factory violins can be improved a considerable amount. You need to find a good luthier in your area who will spend the time with you and your instruments to find out exactly what you want. First, you need to decide exactly what you want as far a playability, tone and volumn, and be able to communicate your preferences. Everyone has different preferences to the sound they want from the instrument. You probably won't be satisfied if you just hand your instrument to a luthier and tell him or her to improve it. It could also get costly. If you have a good instrument to begin with, it will be cheaper to have it set up exactly as you want than to keep buying and trading trying to find what you want. You may already have what you want and it just needs a good setup.

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You will find people to do that.

But I think top luthiers will refuse to do that... It would be like studying high cuisine in the Cordon Bleau and eventually work as a cook in the Mc Donald's...

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From the descriptions you've given of how much you've paid for various ones of these violins, it's possible that repairmen just think that they're not worth spending the money on. In order to improve something, it has to have an abundance of good qualities, first, with problems that are obviously getting in the way of performance. In my shop we have a more or less set routine we do on non-functional instruments that usually ends up costing $1500-$3500, and has had very good results, but it would be unthinkable to do all that to a $1000 violin.

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You need to find an "amateur maker" who also does repairs. Someone who is willing to sell his new violins for under $3,000 and to do repair work for $20/hr or less. This makes it affordable to do otherwise economically pointless repairs or adjustments.

A friend of mine, who is such a maker, did repairs on my 1876 cello about a dozen years ago, when his violins were cheaper and he charged my 11 hours at $10/hour for the serious repairs it had needed for 30 years. (By now he has made and sold 3 cellos, 9 violas, and up to 80 violins.) I have also had him regraduate one violin - I'm still not sure that was the right thing to do.

Keep in mind that a professionally done setup can sometimes help a lot too.

Andy

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I find the same problem when a customer buys a "bargin" violin off of an auction site. I tell them up front that the repairs it needs exceed the value of the instrument. Then it's up to them whether they want to spend the money.

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folks,

this is kinda in an area i've discussed a couple of times here, and

i still don't really understand (i'm a permanent resident of the

state of Confusion!)...

i realize that putting several hundred to several thousand dollars

in a $1-2000 seems the wrong way around economically, and certainly

won't increase the monetary value of the instrument by the amount

of money spent....

the part i still can't quite wrap my mind around is why it's not

worth it from the perspective of having a really nice sounding and

playing instrument from a good maker for a lot less than it would

cost them to build one all the way from scratch, since (i assuming)

most of the time-consuming mass wood removal and shaping has

already been done...it's kinda like the instruments people import

in the white and do the final graduation and adjust things that

weren't done quite right, then finish and set up...it wouldn't have

the same quality of wood and such as one started from scratch by

the master maker, or his touch throughout, so it wouldn't be the

same level of instrument, but it still should be oodles better than

it was...

maybe this is much less rewarding than building an instrument from

scratch, or working to resurrect or maintain a really outstanding

instrument so people would rather spend their time working on those

activities than messing about with a cheap no-name fiddle? i can

certainly understand that--given only so many hours to work on

things, i certainly prefer to do what i find the most interesting

and rewarding!

please realize in this that i'm *not* saying $15,000 is too much

for an instrument built by a good maker, who starts by selecting

the right materials and a good pattern even before they pick up the

first tool! i feel they are definitely worth what they cost! i'm

thinking more for someone like me or yuen who will not be able to

buy such a thing for a long time, if ever, especially all at

once...  

to me it's kinda like with cars (and this may be a poor analogy,

feel free to point this out!), many people who can't afford a

speedy $40-50,000 car buy a cheaper one, then customize it to make

it more powerful, handle better, and look better (i'm thinking in

particular of the import tuners)...in my mind, it's never really as

good, because the basic car they started with wasn't designed for

that purpose, but at least they wind up with a fast, good handling

car, and best of all, they can do it over time as they have the

money...

anyway, it's definitely *not* my intention to offend anyone, or to

accuse anyone of anything, it's just something i still don't quite

understand! i understand that i may be *totally* out of line, or

*totally* misunderstand the situation, so please feel free to

disagree! if this strikes some kind of nerve, and people react

emotionally, that's ok with me! (i suppose others, including the

moderators, with have to decide this for themselves!)  

thanks for your patience with such a clueless person!

cassi  

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Cassi, your questions are good ones. My opinion is that it is worthwhile to try to improve a cheap violin, but at what cost? The problem is the amount of time involved in trying out different things and doing some of the major surgical work, if needed. Just like hourly labor at car shops is $80/hr (? or higher?). You know, you take your car in for a headlight swap and they charge you an hour of labor on a $3 part? Or $160 for 1-1/2 labor for $30 worth of Freon.

A violin is so much more complicated than swapping air filters, changing oil or recharging Freon. And the repairer has to spend time talking to you, listening to you play, thinking about what to do, then tweaking, adjusting the setup. If that doesn't satisfy, then a neck reset is major money, as is regraduation. All this is no guarantee that YOU will like the violin after they are done with it.

I think if you're willing to spend the hourly rate of a skilled luthier, AND he/she doesn't have tons of work piled up on their bench already, then surely go ahead and commission someone to do the work. It may end up like retaining a lawyer, you pay for certain # of hours on retainer, and then keep adding hours as you need more work.

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Cassi

It is worthwhile improving even modest violins to provide the best sound that can reasonably be obtained for the pleasure of the owners and their audience. It is not a commercially sound investment to pay a lot of money for these improvements on modest violins. That is certainly the catch.

If the violin was well made in the first place with correct graduations; then the correct fit of a soundpost, tailpiece and bridge together with a good quality set of strings should bring out the optimum performance. Many players choose to do this themselves, if they were correctly taught or studied the principles; others choose to visit a luthier that they trusts and can afford.

There are really low cost violins and violas that are mass produced for schools and novices that are not correctly made in the first place (Chinese currently, German early 20th C). These instruments are impossible to improve by the above simple checklist alone. I have experimented with many of them and even if the response and the volume is improved the sound remains nasal and lacks any warmth. The prospect of more invasive work on these holds no appeal for amateur or professional.

I hope this helps.

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When customers have asked me to do something like regraduate an

instrument I'd always suggest they first get the instrument into

its best playing state. This would include a new bridge , sound

post (adjustment), strings, etc. If at that point the instrument

still did not suit the customer I'd suggest rather than paying

money trying to force the instrument to sound or play a

certain way,  just sell the instrument  and use the money

to buy an instrument that already suits them.

There is nothing more unpleasant  than a customer who has

spent a large amount of money and is still not satisfied.

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Cassi wrote: "maybe this is much less rewarding than building an instrument from scratch, or working to resurrect or maintain a really outstanding instrument so people would rather spend their time working on those activities than messing about with a cheap no-name fiddle? i can certainly understand that--given only so many hours to work on things, i certainly prefer to do what i find the most interesting and rewarding!"

That's certainly a good portion of the "problem" for those who want to improve lesser instruments. Once you've had enough experience to know what to do and when to do it, you naturally want to do it on good things. Add to that, what the person doing the work wants his/her name on... and what type of client the word of mouth brings in. I don't know a good restorer who is under booked at the moment.

The other part is that most bargain hunters (parents who don't play, avid, but uninformed visitors to e-bay) wouldn't know a violin with "good bones" if it bit them... and those violins with workable design are generally not hundreds of dollars to buy, but thousands (unless their condition is so far gone that they are hopeless). Altering an instrument with problems (like the violin GMM mentioned in the arch repair thread) isn't worth the effort, much less the money (sorry GMM). Cassi was wondering what I found "really ugly". It's that type of fiddle.

The idea home improvement for violins that Yuen mentioned might better be thought of as self home improvement for violins (like the movement on house/home improvement)... as you, yourself can decide on what you wish to spend your time on.

The other thing that I think I should mention is the actual cost of work that is required to "improve" an instrument. Yuen mentioned he wouldn't mind paying $50 to have a top thinned. $50 will get a good size seam glued in my shop, but it won't be enough to start just the removal the top. If you go to someone who really knows what they are doing, you're not going to be paying minimum wage for the service. I charge about what the local BMW mechanic does. I can't really afford to charge less. What many don't understand is that what is charged for a restoration is absorbed into all the other things a small business owner does. I also pay insurance on the shop, my family's health, maintain the building, maintain the books, pay state, federal, FICA and sales taxes, purchase & maintain tools, equipment & supplies, manufacture some of the materials I use and pay my accountant, lawyer and other pros to keep up on stuff I'm not good at... and the time spent on these projects is "unbillable".

The idea of amateurs has been mentioned.... Fine if it's not above the ability of the person... Another alternative might be students of violinmaking schools... but neither of these options are sure bets. You won't be paying as much, but you won't be buying experience.

Yuen also mentioned ecology. Pardon me, but I think the ecological sin was made when the instrument was produced. Putting more resources in doesn't sound like ecology to me.

I still think the best of all possible things to do is to buy an instrument you like in the price range you can afford... and maintain it properly.

OK... now you can throw things at me through the screen if you wish.

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Cassi,

Let's go with your car analogy: after a bad accident, the insurance will make the a whether the car is to be repaired or replaced. If the car is a genuine classic, and you or your insurance can afford it, no stone will be left unturned to repair the car: even if new parts have to be manufacured, so be it. It may be a lot harder to find a place which will rebuilt an average Subaru at twice the cost of a new one.

Anybody can spend as much money on any violin as they like, but finding a good luthier to do a $2,000 job on a $1,000 instrument might be more difficult. To be frank, I myself would have some questions about a luthier who would be prepared to do that as a matter of course.

"Expensive" white violins normally don't go for more than $400 (yes, I know if you try hard enough or are stupid enough you can find more expensive ones) but fairly decent white violins are available for around $100 or less. Re-graduation and re-barring, fitting- and setting-up, and varnishing is often a lot less trouble than opening up and messing with a finished violin. Working on a varnished violin requires much more care than working on one in-the-white.

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Cassi, you can't turn a sow's ear into a silk purse. The type of work I recommend doing only helps instruments which are essentially good ones, with specific flaws. For instance, all early Roth violins have ribs that are 50% too thick, or many older violins are basically good, but with a neckset which is representative of their time, but not now functional. These are the types of things you can fix and end up with a much better instrument--because the underlying violin is good, except for fixable details. A violin made of crummy wood with a bad arch is going to stay that way, no matter what you do, and those are the ones that should be left alone. The bulk of cheaper violins are like that--with untreatable problems that will make them always be bad violins, regardless of how much work you put into them.

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quote:


Originally posted by:
Michael Darnton

The type of work I recommend doing only helps instruments which are essentially good ones, with specific flaws. For instance, all early Roth violins have ribs that are 50% too thick, or many older violins are basically good, but with a neckset which is representative of their time, but not now functional.


= instruments with "good bones"

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The hourly rate for the skills and experience required to complete this work should certainly be much higher than the car mechanic (or his manager). No argument there.

I only started repairs because of good advice from a luthier in Glasgow. He told me that my great, great grandad's violin wasn't worth restoring. He was of course correct commercially, but to me there is no point having the family "strad" broken in the attic. So after much reading and library searching I brought it into basic playing condition.

Much later another repairer in Edinburgh bushed all the pegholes at a reasonable price, but left an imprint of a file on the fingerboard. Later this fingerboard came unglued during an orchestra rehearsal prompting the investment in hide glue crystals. Repairing this and a long succession of other instruments belonging to friends, family and orchestra members turned into a fascinating pastime.

A few years ago I took the old fiddle back to Glasgow to the luthier for an insurance valuation and even as an heirloom, the hourly rate wouldn't come close to a minimum wage.

(He did offer me a job in his workshop however!)

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You take a very sharp, flat gouge, and pare away the extra from the inside, between the linings, very carefully, across the grain, then scrape and sand smooth. It's tedious, but the benefit/hour ratio is highly desirable.

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to all,

thanks to you all for being so kind and helpful with your answers!

i appreciate all the well thought out, well-intentioned

replies!

Jeffery, what did you say that you thought would be so offensive?

it seemed to me you were just being honest and open?

 

first, lastchair (Clare, correct?) and Jeffery, let me say that i

wouldn't expect a luthier to charge less because the instrument was

worth less! to me, if i'm looking for a first-rate bridge job, i

should pay for that, no matter if i'm putting it on a $10 e-bay

 fiddle! (on the other hand, i'm sure you all do cut-rate work

for people to help them out at times! at least my shop does!)

 

also, Clare, i would think that if significant reworking were to be

done, it would have to be done with the advice of the luthier, who

can't really guarantee anything, but could hopefully give an idea

of what to expect...in the end, though, i personally feel you have

to take ownership of the choice, and live with it...i just thought

some of the cheaper violins might have good wood (that seems to

be a big selling point), just not such good workmanship, and

might be worth reworking...

in the end, it sounds like the wood and the basic structure of the

initial build limit any help you get from high quality work at a

later time...in other words, birth is mostly destiny, kinda like

with a horse, if you have one with good genes, it may not be a good

runner because it's never been properly trained, but with skilled

training, it can improve considerably because it has

potential...however, if you have a horse with poor genes, a lot of

skilled training will make it better than it was, but it will never

be that great...  

finally, i realize i'm pretty hard-headed! Michael D. has pointed

out to me *many* times that putting a $200 or $400 bridge job on a

$2000 fiddle doesn't really help it that much, whereas it will make

a noticeable difference on a nice one! i guess it's hard to let go

of wishful thinking!  

i think i kinda fall into a category similar to scratchy (except i

don't have the skills to take on a DIY re-graduation or such!), i

have an instrument i really like, and at some point it would be

nice to put it in better working order, rather than just replace it

with a different instrument...

thanks, all! i appreciate your comments, and you taking the time to

write them!  

cassi  (kisses to all!)

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quote:


Originally posted by:
Cassi

to me it's kinda like with cars (and this may be a poor analogy,

feel free to point this out!), many people who can't afford a

speedy $40-50,000 car buy a cheaper one, then customize it to make

it more powerful, handle better, and look better (i'm thinking in

particular of the import tuners

cassi  

Hi Cassi:

Your analogy with import tuner cars is actually very good. It will cost more to duplicate the performance than to buy one new from the factory. To take a Civic or Eclipse and turn it into a 12 second car will cost you about $40,000. After that you will have a car that might be worth about half of that in the resale market and one taht is going to be a nightware to take through emissions inspection. The "mods' on a tuner car could even be a negative on resale.

The idea of a tuner car is to have something different and personal instead of plunking down $35k for an STi or an EVO that everyone else has.

I just paid close to $2000 to get my 91 Mazda Protege through state inspection - no additional modifications or anything. THe car is worth about $1000. It would have been much cheaper for me to buy a new car long ago. But I make enough money to afford to drive an old car.

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Finprof,

you must be in California!  

you also must really like your Protege! i actually have a Mazda3,

which i really love except for a couple of irritating things

 (it was either that or by a really good violin, and i choose

unwisely, what can i say! ) i liked The Proteges, they were cool

little cars! (still are!)

you are right about the personalization thing! that is one of the

big draws for the tuners, plus the challenge, plus having more

choice of what you have, versus a hopped up Impreza or Lancer

(puh-leese!)...

however, this seems a bit like one thing i was saying...yes, you

put $2000 in a car that was worth $1000 on the market, and the

resulting car was not worth $3000, but could you have bought

another car that was as good as your Protege, and would pass the

specs, for the $3000 you would have had if you sold the car and

didn't spend the $2000 on it? (does this make any since?)

smiles,

cassi  

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Penny wise and pound foolish is what most people do on their way to getting their violins. Ironically, they end up spending the same or more if they add up all the expenses. In the long run, a good fiddle from a repected maker will be a good investment and you could actually get what you want. Moreover, a great instrument will make you a better player over time. People waste so much money on items that loose value and become worthless over time. Buy the best fiddle you can from a respected maker and you have also made an investment. Lesser violins, even if they sound good are not going to appreciate much over time. That BMW will loose the same money that a high quality fiddle would cost in one year. If you are serious about music, priorities are #1 good violin, #2 everything else.

Mike

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I agree. I have an old friend who is in her late 70's. Her family

came to America in the 1920's as Russian migrants. They had almost

nothing and lived in the slums of New York which was really rough

and dangerous. When her family realised Sonia had a gift for

playing the violin, her parents put all their money together and

even sold a lot of their possessions so they could buy her a really

good violin. Her dad secretly went to a music shop and bought the

best violin they had (an Italian violin from the early 1900's) He

gave it to her as a birthday present, and the next week she left

home (aged 16) to audition for the conservatory. She got in. And

for the past 60 years she's travelled the world with that violin

and is one of the most respected players and teachers here in

Perth. If her parents had bought her a cheaper instrument her life

might have taken a different turn. I think it's a nice story of how

a good violin can encourage a person.

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Of course, to improve or not to improve is a matter of degrees and desired result and business plan.

By most estimates there are ..maybe.. ten luthiers working in this country (Norway). There are about 4.7 million people here with above average violin consumption. One luthier I met won't rehair bows he feels are unworthy even if you beg and launch into a story about family heirlooms. He is busy enough and can choose his projects.

On the other hand, when I lived in the U.S., I knew a very talented repair person in a smallish city without much of a musical culture. His work was very good and he did it quickly and inexpensively. If you were looking for improved performance from a modest (but not totally junky) violin, he would do it for you without breaking the bank. He would even do weird little stuff like recut bridges on $80 ebay fractionals - banking, I assume, on the families returning to him when they were ready to purchase a 'real' violin.

We all bought other stuff from him - cases and bows, rosin and strings - at rates a bit higher than we could have paid elsewhere.

R

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