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JBiggs

Starting salary for violin shop tech

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I have a question for shop owners or managers or violin shop repair techs: What should a recent graduate of a three year violin-making course expect to earn as a repair/setup person at your shop? What about after, say, two years shop experience? Five years? Many thanks!

PS I posted this same question on the Violin Business Professionals page on Facebook, usually a very good source of information and got zero replies.   Have I uncovered some dark secret of the violin trade?

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I don't have an answer to your big question but certainly part of the consideration has to do with where the shop is located, without that info I would think there would be quite a bit of variation.

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The VSA emails job postings that I read out of curiosity.  Most say salary commensurate with experience.  However one recent advertisement said:

"...has an immediate opening for an experienced violin luthier/maker. Efficient time management of multiple projects and repair/restoration work of the highest level is required. Job responsibilities include, but not limited to: managing customer and store instrument repairs and restoration, new instrument setup, assist with rental fleet maintenance, and potentially in-house workshop instrument making.

Requirements: Minimum 3 years previous workshop experience and a graduate of a Violin Making or Repair program. Attention to detail and a positive mindset is essential.

Benefits: Salary range $50,000 - $60,000 (based on experience), Paid Time Off (PTO) and BXBS Gold Plan 100% paid employee-only premium, as well as professional development opportunities.

I have no idea how  typical this salary range is.

-Jim

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Thanks, Jim and Mike.  Of course, salary definitely depends on location.    Jim, did you happen to see where the shop in your posting was located?

 

 

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8 minutes ago, JBiggs said:

Thanks, Jim and Mike.  Of course, salary definitely depends on location.    Jim, did you happen to see where the shop in your posting was located?

 

 

I'll PM the Advertisement to you.

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In a very general sense making things with our hands doesn't pay that well especially to begin with. Lots of trade offs like not telling says. I'm sure there are good violin shop owners out there if you look around. Like Jim posted, some shops post openings with VSA and if you're a member those ads come up on email. The one Jim posted was obviously one of the  higher paying positions that I've seen come up. Good luck!

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Not so long ago I collected some comps for a wage negotiation with my employer. Personally, I don't see violin making school as the ideal route to a career in repair because after 3 years in violin making school you've learned a lot about the instrument, but most people still have poor setup and haven't learned a lot about repair. You'll get there reasonably quickly with the background knowledge that you have about the instrument, but not everyone wants to take on the task of doing that initial training. 

In general, if you are able to do student quality setup, but not up to speed, then you're looking at $14-$15/hour.

If you're doing student quality setup and are fully up to speed you'll be in the $15-$16 range.

If you're also able to do the following up to speed and appropriate quality for entry level professional instruments; professional quality setups, basic crack repair, simple edge repairs, pegbox bushings etc... you could be from $17-$20/hour or so

If you can also do more complicated repairs appropriate for entry level professional instruments; 2 piece corners, neck resets, and clevettes could put you up to $21-$25/hour

If you can do even more complicated repairs such as cheek patches, soundpost patches, edge doubling etc... you could be up to about $26-$28/hour

And if you're able to do the full range of repairs including high quality retouch, neck grafts, breast patch, etc... then you could be up to $29-$55/hour

These figures are based on some research from a previous shop, which was a bit out dated. When I did my comps in 2016 I spot checked their list (which is much more comprehensive than what I mentioned here) and adjusted it by CPI, which seemed to match the comps that I found. Many shops did have some small benefits, perhaps not healthcare, but sometimes a retirement contribution, vacation, paid training etc... If you're in a bigger city with high cost of living adjust it up a bit and if you're out in the sticks and cost of living is low, then it may be a bit lower. I should also point out that folks working in the sort of shops that deal with fine Cremonese instruments on a regular basis may fall on a different payscale, but that's outside the scope of what was reviewed because the readily available information is the more 'average' violin shop.

Also keep in mind that the type of work that the shop does will matter both for your ability to grow in the field and in increased wages. If the shop needs 3 luthiers doing rental work and the head of the shop does all the customer repairs it's likely that you'll get hired and do nothing but low level setup and repairs. The can't really pay you $30/hour to work on rentals, so you can think of it almost as tiers and until there's an opening your wage may not match your skill.

Wages for luthiers in my area are a bit low because there isn't much competition for the one big shop in the area. They get away with low wages and poor treatment of luthiers, but the clientele is spread out over a wide, rural area, thus it is hard to build a sizable shop to compete. In each area that you consider you'll find different economic challenges, so you'll need to consider that when looking at comps. One thing that I've picked up on as I was setting up my own shop is that the shop's labor rate can give you some clue as to where you're likely to cap out as an employee. You'll probably make somewhere between 20%-35% of the labor rate or up to about 1/2 of the labor rate if you're the head of a shop. That figure does not include benefits, but most shops are pretty limited in the benefits that they offer. So if the shop that you're looking at charges $60/hour for labor you don't have much chance of being paid a competitive wage if you're building your skills and intend to grow to a high level of craftsmanship. While those figures may make it look like the shop is raking in big bucks for every hour of your labor, charging 3 times the employees wage doesn't leave a giant profit margin once you consider cost of space, insurance, time lost to non-billable things (customer consults, sharpening etc...) but that's a whole different topic.

I hope that helps. I do have some data that I don't want to post publicly, but PM me if anyone wants more data and comps.

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Thanks, TimDasler, that is a lot of very useful information!   

I agree that violin school isn't necessarily a great starting point if one only wants to work in a shop.   You should certainly know how to use your tools and how instruments are put together, but in three years a person might only cut a half dozen bridges and soundposts, with no real time pressure, and never try the more difficult repairs.   A dealer I know of in CA has bought a number of really fine modern Italian violins, but usually had to do the set-up as these excellent makers weren't skilled at this.   If you only make 4-6 violins a year you'll never get good at set-up and I would say the same for repairs. 

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1 hour ago, JBiggs said:

Thanks, TimDasler, that is a lot of very useful information!   

I agree that violin school isn't necessarily a great starting point if one only wants to work in a shop.   You should certainly know how to use your tools and how instruments are put together, but in three years a person might only cut a half dozen bridges and soundposts, with no real time pressure, and never try the more difficult repairs.   A dealer I know of in CA has bought a number of really fine modern Italian violins, but usually had to do the set-up as these excellent makers weren't skilled at this.   If you only make 4-6 violins a year you'll never get good at set-up and I would say the same for repairs. 

While the OP question is a good one, it is important to think about the next career moves after the first job when considering whether a structured school program makes sense.

A lot of folks get into the repair end of the trade without a certificate from a school program.  But between learning the tools -- including sharpening them well -- and the woodworking, the schools do prepare you to learn repair and set-up.  And most mid- to high-end shops are going to want a blank slate on those fronts anyway because they have their own ways of doing things.  Another invaluable asset with which students can come away from the schools is a well-trained eye -- from doing the work and from seeing good instruments.  While that may come with shop experience, it is a skill that can be immediately helpful to a new employer.  The final pitch I'll make for a program of structured learning is the relationships that are formed and on which someone entering the trade will fall back repeatedly over the years.

Few of those advantages are going to translate into a higher first-job wage.  But they can be a faster path to moving up the wage scale than if one came in without the school experience.

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On 12/15/2017 at 7:30 PM, Mike Spencer said:

In a very general sense making things with our hands doesn't pay that well especially to begin with.

Manual/personal labor is not a way to get "rich". A few individuals will do exceptionally well, the majority will get by with a middle class income (assuming they are competent. This is true in almost any field of personal labor, including performance arts. To make money one must use others labor and share in the income from that work - use others labor either directly via hiring people to do the work, or via investing.

Edit: Someone once said no employer can ever pay you what you are worth, because they would not make a profit if they did.

 

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6 hours ago, Julian Cossmann Cooke said:

A lot of folks get into the repair end of the trade without a certificate from a school program.  But between learning the tools -- including sharpening them well -- and the woodworking, the schools do prepare you to learn repair and set-up.  And most mid- to high-end shops are going to want a blank slate on those fronts (the setup fronts) anyway because they have their own ways of doing things.  Another invaluable asset with which students can come away from the schools is a well-trained eye -- from doing the work and from seeing good instruments.  While that may come with shop experience, it is a skill that can be immediately helpful to a new employer. 

Agreed.

It's interesting to take note of some major people in the violin business who have sent their own kids off to violin making school, including Hans Weisshaar, Charles Beare, and John Becker. Perhaps they were clueless, but more likely, they were not. ;)

On my end, I've had two hires out of the Chicago school, one out of the Cremona school, and one out of the Salt Lake City school. I don't have regrets about any of these major school hires. Those I've hired who never attended one of the major schools have been more of a mixed bag, although I've had a couple, extraordinarily gifted, who have managed to take places near the top of the heap without that  background.

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4 hours ago, David Burgess said:

On my end, I've had two hires out of the Chicago school, one out of the Cremona school, and one out of the Salt Lake City school. I don't have regrets about any of these major school hires. Those I've hired who never attended one of the major schools have been more of a mixed bag, although I've had a couple, extraordinarily gifted, who have managed to take places near the top of the heap without that  background.

I should clarify that I didn't mean to suggest that violin making school isn't worth it. I've seen lots of skilled luthiers come out of the great programs we have here in the US. I just meant to say, as JBiggs also mentioned, that you aren't going to cut a lot of bridges and do a lot of repair in violin making schools, so you won't be ready to hit the ground running in a repair shop. They'll need quite a bit of training on the repair side of things, but should be in a position to apply it well given the general knowledge and tool skills that come with 3 years of education. 

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I don’t think you’ve unconverted any dark secret in the trade except that things are extremely varied depending on the indovidual nature of each small business that sells and repairs violins. 

Remember that experience is worth everything - if after college you end up being poorly paid but doing a lot of setup work, then in two or three years time you can find yourself in a different shop with better pay because you are more experienced - a significant number of good restorers have travelled around different shops early in their career, and it seems to be the way of things - as you’ve already figured out, you are only part of the way along your initial learning. 

I’m not surprised you have little response. It might be worth turning the question back on you (or on any graduating student) - what are you willing to accept as pay? What opportunities below that level can you view as “investments” in your future, though until you get your first offer, you won’t know what’s worth accepting. 

My first ever job (an apprenticeship) was £7500 per year in the mid-1990s when a graduate starting salary was £14k. Under the circumstances it was worth it. Each weekend I would pass the vacancies board of the local supermarket and see that I would have earned more stacking shelves and running the tills (not even mentioning nearly £2000 in train fares that they didn’t have to pay) £11000 plus overtime - but the training I got was of immmeasurable value and set me up for the future. Nevertheless, on pay like that, I left the moment it ceased to be in my favour. In another job I had years ago, after a long negotiation I got double the salary they wanted to pay me, plus a company credit card, because it was the right thing to do. 

If a company undervalues you after you have obtained skills, find another job that pays better. At the end of the day a company benefits from you being the right person for the task, so if after 1000 student setups in a row you want to diversify and do higher payment by Work - there are plenty of people who will enthusiastically take your place :)

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There's one guy in this field, high up enough to lure recent grads with $8\hour. But then he has the unhappy saps getting his coffee and picking up FedEx deliveries, and shows them virtually nothing. Great guy. If you compare that situation with an honest apprenticeship where nothing in the Weisshaar book is out of bounds, it's wonderful to be paid to get that, even if it all starts at zero. Ultimately some shops can't pay a lot no matter what, but if you can learn edge doubling from a professional while you're being paid something, that's really good. If you aren't paid, you are getting something worthwhile if you get to watch.

I really do hope that you find something that will work both financially and career wise, but my guess is that at first it's a trade-off. I really don't believe that someone who can't even do quality and fast setup work is worth $14 or $15 an hour to most shops unless it's not a good shop. That low end is just not realistic. It doesn't match any of the experiences I am aware of, except when someone just out of school is hired as the main luthier somewhere. It's arguably not where you want to be.

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