Salary for today's violin makers


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I would like to broach this subject with all due fear and trepidation.

What should be the reasonable expectations of a violinmaker/ repairer and a "full time" violin maker in today's economy.

I sometimes feel that some of those just leaving a VM school have a high expection of either being a full time maker (of which there are very few) or what they might be worth to a violin shop.

What do you feel the median income for a violin maker is today?

How does this fit with Rembert Wurlitzer's reported philosophy of paying the shop staff more than they would think they could make by leaving or going out on their own?

Of course he was talking about the company such as morel, sacconi, dario and the like.

But how do other shop owners view this? I know of shops that have had turn over at te rate of almost one a year . As well as other shops that have these same staff 20 yrs later.

How would this have played out in morel's shop or weisshaar's ship back in the day? David?

Or the "firms" hey day- with all the high rollers working there...

Thanks for the input!

Charles

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The income for a violin maker is essentially what they can get for their violins and how many they can sell.

The best asset a new violin maker can have is a wealthy spouse, or a nice pension. ;)

The income of a shop employee varies a great deal ,depending on experience, the location of the shop, the level of instruments, etc.

My feeling is that any job in any shop is a good start for one that wants to make a living in this field. Violin makers often have to scale back their production for many years as they build their reputation and put food in their belly.

I think that the median income would be very hard to accurately determine, as the field is so wide, with violin makers making nothing from their instruments to the high rollers you see buying drinks and dinner at the VSA conventions.

On a related point, I wonder about the saturation of violin makers looking for work in the Chicago/Boston/ S.L.C. areas. Do people that live there find that there are just too damn many makers about?

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There are very few full time makers, that is, a maker who makes only new instruments.

The income will depend on the quality of your work and your sales abilities, but if you want to be a full time maker you have to be in the top, there is no place

for makers in the middle or lower part of the market today.

Sometime here Jeffrey mentioned that the number of full time makers in the USA is less than 20. I would add that most full time makers are over 40 years old (with the exception of

the "forever young" David Burgess...), so it seems it is a tough market to enter.

Wurlitzer lived in another time, the time of "Made in USA". Today's market has much more competition, I think.

Just my two cents.

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Interesting and good subject for discussion, Charles,

Surely you'll get more informed comments from others. I am answering from generalities.

Over the years, I've always heard that shops don't pay very high salaries (I don't know what standard was used to make these statements). Also, that shop owners have to be aware of their needs and look for people who can work fast. The way it was put to me was that a new employee has to make money for the shop the minute he sits at the bench. Someone just out of a school, when it comes to the work a shop requires, is more likely to need some on-job-training, so he might even be a net drain at first. One of my friends who used to be a major shop owner said he always first simply looks at an interviewee's tools, then, if satisfied, has him cut a bridge. He looks at the quality of the work and how long it took. That gives him enough information to make a decision (I'm sure personality plays a part, too).

If I were young and starting out, I think I'd want more money from some unknown shop, and would practically pay to work at a "Wurlitzer's." :)

As for making, I just did a little math. If we say the costs of materials and shop costs are $1,000 for a violin, and if it can be made in 150 hours, and the violin can be sold for $10,000 ( big IF), then the work is worth $60 per hour. That isn't getting rich! And the time spent trying to sell the violin, then servicing it, makes the per hour rate go down.

I think you're right about expectations. I think that's just human nature. And I assume the schools are not going to discourage filling their benches by presenting a worst case scenario. I haven't spoken to the directors of any school, but I know a teacher at a massage school, that points out how many students come in with "dollar signs" in their eyes when they hear they can make $60 an hour, not aware that even a successful masseur with a large clientele can only do about five massages a day, and not all days are full, and there are expenses. I'm sure that the average guy going into violin making is wiser than that, but, again, there's some human nature involved. And, in my opinion, just like becoming a violinist is a calling, so is making. Rational arguments that you might starve aren't going to stop someone who is called.

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Entering the market as a violin maker and expecting a salary is folly.

Will, you forgot to subtract, from the 10k number, the percentage that the shop takes (just in case you can't manage to sell it yourself), and taxes.

I won't reveal the names of the 2 individuals involved, since they are both alive...but, recently, a friend who is a violin maker, who has not sold anything in a while, and bills were piling up, well, he called a larger shop and asked about consignment. The reply was that they already had too many violin. How, he asked, might the dealer suggest that he dispose (his choice of words)of some violins, being a newish maker without a large reputation. The suggestions were, in this order: 1-Burn them all. (ouch), 2-Find a rich patron, and, 3-Get lucky and find a musician who is looking for a good violin, who also has the money, at that time. Perhaps it was his blood glucose level being low.:)

I'd rather be making violins and violas. I have a shop, and do lots of repairs. That pays the bills. I agree with the spouse needing to be wealthy, I'd prefer well-employed (health insurance, you know) and very tolerant. Trust funds work.

I try to make a couple of instruments a year, have a large pile of wood, just drying away, and hope that in retirement that I can make more instruments.

The market is flooded with new makers. This isn't something that you do for 20 years and retire. This is something that you do for 20 years and perhaps begin to think that you are getting somewhere, and if you live long enough, you might actually be satisfied with what you've done. Except for the first 10 years worth. You'll always feel bad about those.

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i think were getting a little elitist if were bitching about $60/hr, problem is its not $60/hr take home, thats gross, before expenses, not net income after expenses, which might be closer to $20/hr take home, when i was building clavichords, after all expenses i was netting 1-2$/hr, outrageous, of course for a new violin to sell at a similar price with regards labour to a clavichord, it would be 2-3,000usd/violin, so there is much more hope for the violin maker than the clavichord maker, at least if you can get 10,000usd for your instruments

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Charles, I'll guess you know the business pretty well.

I think that someone who has college and violin making school under their belt deserves to make a good living. Unfortunately, not all types of education set you up to step into a good paying job. We once had a guy sweeping floors and emptying waste baskets, an American with a PhD in German language. He couldn't find a job in his field.

Weisshaar didn't pay very well, and the turnover rate was pretty high. Not that I think he was necessarily being stingy. It was when I went out on my own that it really hit home that you need to be fast, or good and fast (good alone probably isn't enough, at least until you have an established reputation) to make ends meet in the repair business. I don't know whether Hans made money off us or not. He may not have. For one thing, prices probably weren't high enough. If some hack across town was charging $10 for a bridge, believe it or not, it sucked away business if Hans was charging $50. So maybe he needed to charge $25, and that's where he was stuck. There were enough people who couldn't tell the difference in quality. (these would be 1970 ish prices)

When I was on my own and hiring, I sometimes ran into situations like,

"So I've got a bachelors degree, a violin making school diploma, and I'm only worth blankety blank?"

Yeah, pretty much. We have a reasonably good idea how much money you can bring in, and can't afford to pay you much more than you can bring in. Maybe you'll surprise us though, and then we'll pay you more.

I don't know how the Wurlitzer shop pulled it off. My guess would be that the dealing was profitable enough to subsidize everything else, and they didn't mind rolling that money back into the employees, rather than running off with it.

I'll leave it to one of the Francais/Morel people to talk about the situation there. If no one shows up, I can say a little about it.

What should a full time violinmaker make? That's even harder to pin down. Lots of people can make violins, and I don't doubt that many more would be made than are now, if the money was decent and the market was there. The bottom line is that there are only a small number of full-time makers who are significantly back-ordered, regardless of how many may claim to be. But I mostly just talk to the makers, while Jeffrey gets things in for sale from them, so he'd be in a better position to comment on that. What I can say for sure is that there some makers with big enough reputations that one would assume they have plenty of business, and they do not.

Is it anything I would have wanted my kids to go into, if I wanted them to have the slightest financial security? Heck no!

I do OK, but I've been at it for 35 years, started out with good credentials, keep my overhead low, and live pretty simply. I've probably just been lucky too.

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Hi Charles;

I don't think you should harbor fear or trepidation. It's a good question.

I agree that satisfaction in the business has a good part to do with the "calling" rather than the income... though I know a good number of makers who have carved out (excuse the pun) a good living, raised families, and have little to complain about. I also know a number who are no longer "in" the business.

I think the income expectations right out of school have been, and should be, pretty low. Probably best to think of the first few years of work in a shop as continuing education with a small stipend rather than "income". :)

As far as making a living just making (and nothing else), few are really are able to pull this off in the states. Of those, let's say we consider someone very well established (decades) but not at the top end of the market. Maybe a maker who sells for around 15K. I can think of a few of good makers in this category.

This phantom maker might make 6 (probably normal) or 8 (doable, certainly) instruments a year. In order to preserve precious bench time, they may sell one or two directly, but probably rely on a shop (dealership) or two to sell the remainder of their work. The shop takes between 25% and 30%, leaving the maker with about $10,000 per instrument with the exception of the direct sales. That's roughly $60 to $90K gross, by my figuring. Take off costs of materials, space, new tools, utilities, business insurance, shipping, etc.... let's say $20K, shall we? I think that's "light" in terms of expenses, but it will do for now. That leaves $40 to $70K. If self employed, the SS tax doubles, so that's another 7.5%. We're down to around $37,000 to $64,000 before what most expect to pay in SS taxes, income taxes, etc. Maybe deduct another 25% or so? We're in the $20s to the high $40s after taxes. Keep in mind, we're talking about a well established maker.

In certain areas of the country, this income might be OK. Wouldn't want to try living in one of the big cities for that... tough going, I think. We are also assuming everything sells on a regular, reaonable basis, however. Probably not a completely safe assumption, especially in this economy and with the current level of demand. If one or two fiddles don't grab market appeal, this maker is probably going to have to consider taking in some repair work to ease their cash flow problems.

Also, I haven't mentioned health insurance or any of the other "benefits" one gets when working for a firm. That comes away from the net. Hopefully, this phantom maker is married and their spouse has some of those benefits. Life would certainly be a bit easier that way. Hope the spouse doesn't mind the pile of wood-chips in the corner of the apartment. I suppose the bansaw tble could double as a bar?

As far as working in an established shop: There are certainly fewer quality employment opportunities for a school grad now then when I graduated. A number of the bigger dealerships have "cut their shops loose" and deal with things on a contractual basis. There are still a few places to go, however. The competition for these spots is naturally high (the shops are selective), and networking and preparation are probably the keys to getting a position... not even considering pay. It's going to be a good deal less that what the phantom maker brings in for a while... even if one is gifted.

I've watched this trend develop, and the schools are slowly responding (including more repair in their curriculum). I'm sure the Oberlin workshop isn't alone in seeing healthy registration numbers for summer programs, in part because of this situation.

I've been at this for few decades myself. Personally, I do fine... as David put it, I've been pretty lucky... and I like my "job". :)

Cheers!

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Thanks to all for the replies thus far.

I think David and Jeffrey hit more on the intended topic.

I agree with Jeffrey, his numbers look about right. The situation tends to be finding a maker/repairman that does not have his head in the clouds (yes, a gross overgeneralisation) but can see future benefits.

This is not a field that one would get rich in, but the longterm could hold the future ownership as the current desires to retire.

David - I think you touched on a good point. How should a shop view the " repair dept"? Is it expected to be a cash cow or atleast self supportive or should one expect to subsidise the shop payroll from rentals and sales in order to have the ability to provide this service?

I would like to find a competent person that could see the forrest through the trees. But it seems hard to find the magic number that will keep them satisfied while being fair and hope to remain in Business.

I threw the nod to strictly new making as an aside to garner some of the realities on the subject.

It would be interesting to find out how many Professional makers are not the main bread winner in the family or at this as a second career after retiring from a very lucrative first.

I can think of a couple examples from both... That would be an interesting perspective to find out.

Charles

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It would be interesting to find out how many Professional makers are not the main bread winner in the family or at this as a second career after retiring from a very lucrative first.

I wouldn't call myself a "Professional" maker (yet), but rather one of the vast army of retired guys who thought making violins would be a good thing to do. It seems as if the disease comes on with advancing age, or possibly an alien plot to destroy luthierie civilization by turning otherwise ordinary people into would-be violinmakers (substitute "violin maker" for "Scotsman"):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxzdkaaafms

In any event, the following applies in my case:

- second career after retiring from decent-paying first one (I'd hesitate to use "lucrative")

- health insurance part of retirement package

- wife working, with good income

Without having all of these pieces in place, I'd still be at my previous job.

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dont forget the rentals,

i constantly see rentals worth less than 5 bucks rented out for 30 bucks a month,for the whole season

just about every shop in my area has a few hundred instruments out on a rental

you do the math

The “Math” as the americans call it, for renting out several hundred instruments, would involve employing a secretary to keep tabs on everything, and someone to service the instruments, so I hope that there is still some space on the back of you’re envelope.

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The rentals can really help with the overall financial health of the shop. Remember, your cost of goods on a rental is capitalized over the years and the profit margin is high (especially once they are paid off ) :rolleyes: . This is where the real money's made from the movie (quote from Spaceballs, sorry). The rentals lead to alot of step up sales. I do about 1000 rentals a year and paying the repair staff (on topic) has alot to do with it. It's hard to balance my stock, vs outside repairs for the repairman. Over the years, I have pretty much used a combination of commision on the customer repairs and an hourly for my stock work. This creates an imbalance as they get paid much better for the outside repairs. It's not uncommon in the band instrument repair field to charge around $60 an hour and the repairman gets about 1/2, to 60% of that, if they work in that stores shop. Closer to 80/20% if the repairman has their own shop and drops off the instruments. Frankly, after all the years of doing this in the music biz, I much admire the small simple one/two man shop. Grass is always greener.........All this is way outside of what A maker would make, I would imagine that is all over the map, as we've seen posted here. Hope I'm not gettin' off topic, but I thought some might want an owners perspective....whatEVerrr :P jeff

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Hi Charles;

I don't think you should harbor fear or trepidation. It's a good question.

I agree that satisfaction in the business has a good part to do with the "calling" rather than the income... though I know a good number of makers who have carved out (excuse the pun) a good living, raised families, and have little to complain about. I also know a number who are no longer "in" the business.

Cheers!

Jeffery,

You nailed it with the "calling".....

This is a conversation I have very often. Especially when working with students as I am right now. Had a scotch this evening with a budding bass maker who is trying to figure his next "move" out of violin making school.

A couple observations.

The violin making/repair programs that I know well regularly place all of their students after graduation.

There is a significant group of people who make full time in the US. My guess would be 300 - 500. A significant number of these folks make violins as their primary focus...but also make other instruments often mandolin...in addition.....and this does not figure in the guitar world. The 'below the radar' group most often does not attend conventions or competitions, does not advertise in trade journals, and seldom appear at workshops or other trade functions.

The "fiddle" market is different from the "violin" market. Fiddlers will not pay as much for an instrument as a rising student or serious adult violinist will pay. However there are a lot of fiddlers out there.

I always ask 3 questions: How much doe you think your instruments are worth in the market place? How many can you make, well, in a year? And given the answers to these 2 questions...Can you live on 1/2 of the number we just established?

Often we are able to live on what our calling will bring in rather than not listening to that calling. Not good business...maybe even not good sense....but if not this, what else will you do?....I could still be a greeter at Walmart..........

on we go,

Joe

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There is a significant group of people who make full time in the US. My guess would be 300 - 500. A significant number of these folks make violins as their primary focus...but also make other instruments often mandolin...in addition.....and this does not figure in the guitar world. The 'below the radar' group most often does not attend conventions or competitions, does not advertise in trade journals, and seldom appear at workshops or other trade functions.

Hey Joe;

You'd know far better than I about the group you mentioned... but just so we get criteria right for purposes of comparison, the small number I was talking about (that Manfio eluded to, that was brought in from previous thread) are luthiers who make violin family instruments for their primary living... and do not augment their income by taking on repairs, other misc. tasks (accessories, etc.), or dealing other instruments (older fiddles, other peoples work). If you think about it, that criteria, many of the best known makers don't qualify. Many diversify a bit to keep the mortgage paid, or bcause they have other interests (Bill Scott modifies & sells a line of student instruments, Joe and Sigrun take on restorations, Gregg Alf deals a few things... you get the idea).

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I started doing repairs before I finished my first violin, mostly on trade instruments, family heirlooms so to speak but I did them, learned and continue to learn. I have been repairing for 15 years now and have little time for making. I have finished my professional career and saved some money and now I repair at least 30+ hours a week and charge NLT $60 per hour, more on basses, work for a shop part time and charge a percentage of the ticket. I have spent a lifetime in the lumber business doing everything from logging to sawmilling to running a furniture factory and dry kilns; I know wood, love wood and feel that repair/building is a perfect marriage of my musical abilities and woodworking skills. I sometimes wish that this had happened to me 40 years ago but it didn't and probably for the best for me and my family but as I work through my weekly worklist I feel honored to be entrusted with the instruments submitted for my care and get warm and fuzzy just holding these marvelous little instruemnts in my hands.Every now and then a real nice instrument comes in for work but not often, mostly student and semi pro instruments but most of them leave sounding a lot better than when they arrived. Shop owners make it by using their witts and working hard but don't look for a large return on employed assetts as a measure of success. Be careful hiring someone by the hour to fix instruments as the amount of work to do often expands to fill the hours of the day. Enough for now.

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Hey Joe;

You'd know far better than I about the group you mentioned... but just so we get criteria right for purposes of comparison, the small number I was talking about (that Manfio eluded to, that was brought in from previous thread) are luthiers who make violin family instruments for their primary living... and do not augment their income by taking on repairs, other misc. tasks (accessories, etc.), or dealing other instruments (older fiddles, other peoples work). If you think about it, that criteria, many of the best known makers don't qualify. Many diversify a bit to keep the mortgage paid, or bcause they have other interests (Bill Scott modifies & sells a line of student instruments, Joe and Sigrun take on restorations, Gregg Alf deals a few things... you get the idea).

Jeff,

I see what you mean. So if we take the narrowest criteria...eliminating those who make the violin family but also make other stringed instruments....I'd say the number is around 300.

And now off to talk to the next generation!

on we go,

Joe

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The advice I would give is "Marry a computer systems administrator."

I know at least 3 violin makers whose wives do this for a living. And I don't know very many violin makers. Is there something about the compatibility of sys. ads and violinmakers?

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Jeff,

I see what you mean. So if we take the narrowest criteria...eliminating those who make the violin family but also make other stringed instruments....I'd say the number is around 300.

And now off to talk to the next generation!

on we go,

Joe

Very interesting... Many more than I would have expected. A conversation worthy of having over a beer during the next convention, I think. :)

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The advice I would give is "Marry a computer systems administrator."

I know at least 3 violin makers whose wives do this for a living. And I don't know very many violin makers. Is there something about the compatibility of sys. ads and violinmakers?

Both careers deal with problem solving on more predictable subjects. More predictable meaning not human. I find violin makers/restorers are usually a lot better dealing with problem solving related to their craft than human drama. Most of them I know despise drama and avoid it like the plague. Computer sys. ads. are often the same way. Get married and both enjoy no drama at home.

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Interesting subject, and a very talented maker who is looking for an ideal location would want to be around a Major Music School, so that the students would buy their instruments.

My guess is that the hourly rate will be highest there.

Can anyone tell me where are the big Music Schools in America?

Thanks.

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Hello to All...,

I'm usually a lurker.

Few here, or anywhere else for that matter, know less about violin making than I, but I try to read here every day.

I've mentioned that I do that because I am fascinated by the generosity I see here, but now, thanks to Jeffery and Joe, I understand something more about my connection to these discussions:

It was their use of the word "calling."

My work is totally unrelated to the world of music. For many years I have offered a free weekend workshop to those, usually younger than I, who want to establish businesses similar to my own. (Oh OK, now, it seems that everyone is younger than I.) I do it because of my recollections of an interesting commonality in the many people who supported my professional development as I came up as a young man: With very few exceptions, those more highly experienced folks were incredibly generous with regard to their contributions to my development in terms of professional substance. But they were equally consistent in their avoidance of any discussion about my desire to establish myself as a business person... I wanted to "go out on my own" doing work that was similar to work they did in universities.

Typically, those attending the workshop I mentioned have jobs in large organizations and are considering such a career change.

One of the things I often say to participants in those workshop is that "If you are asking yourself whether is is a good idea to leave the professional role you now have so that you can go into this business on your own, my answer is no. That is, if you experience it as a choice it is probably best to stay where you are.

But if, instead, you feel a pull so strong that you simply can't stay in your current situation; if you consider the issue not as a 'choice' but instead, as a 'calling' then there might be ways that I can lend a hand."

There is a generosity of spirit in those who have responded to their "calling" to the world I visit here and, as in the past, I thank Joe, Jeffery, and the many others who share so freely...

(Oh Lord... I hope I have not tilted this in the direction of another dreaded appreciation thread...)

All the best,

A.C.

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