Setting up a violin - questions

June 28, 2012 at 04:44 PM · A friend gave me an old 3/4 violin. It's not in great shape and I'm told it would cost more to have it properly set up than the instrument is worth. So, I thought I might try to do it myself. I cleaned it up, put on an old set of (4/4) strings and an old 4/4 bridge that I had laying around. It all seems to work and for a beginner instrument, it might not be all that bad as my grandson decides if the violin is something he wants to pursue. My questions are: 1) If I buy a 3/4 bridge on ebay, what should I know first and will it be better than the 4/4 one that's on it now? The finger board seems set high so the bridge will need to be a little higher than customary.

2) The pegs on the instrument are mis-matched and not great. If I buy a set of ebony pegs on ebay, what should I know first and will I be able to fit them?

3) Is there anything wrong with using 4/4 strings on a 3/4 instrument?

Thanks in advance for any guidance.

Replies (21)

June 28, 2012 at 09:16 PM · Can you do it yourself? Sure. Will it be a decent job? Obviously not. A bridge that has not been fitted will sort of work, but pegs HAVE to be fitted. For that you need pegs that are sufficiently oversize, a reamer to true up the holes (assuming the holes aren't already too big) and a peg shaver to make the pegs fit the holes. Then you need quite a bit of practice using the tools. Much better to find somebody who already knows all this and will do what is needed at a reasonable cost. I work on too many that have been made worse by such "fixing."

Nothing wrong with using 4/4 strings on a 3/4. That is my standard practice.

June 29, 2012 at 11:33 AM · Oh, great -- here we go again with the anti-Chinese rant. Get over it, Lyndon.

Both of my violins are 3/4 size -- I use a 4/4 E string because the brand of E that I use (Pirastro) doesn't make a 3/4. It works fine. The other 3 strings (Dominant) do come in 3/4, so that's what I use for the G, D and A. But Lyle seems to have had success using all 4/4's on a 3/4 instrument, so heck -- go for it.

I watched my luthier fit a set of pegs once -- not something I'd want to attempt myself. You do need special tools and expertise.

It seems to me that using a 4/4 bridge on a 3/4 instrument could put the strings in sort of strange alignment with the rest of the instrument. This is just supposition on my part, though -- someone with experience on this want to weigh in? But just shponking on any old 3/4 bridge straight from the mailbox isn't going to be the answer either -- bridges should be fit (cut and ground thinner) to the individual requirements of the instrument they'll be used on.

If your grandson is considering studying the violin, it'll help him SO much if the instrument is set up to it's full potential. As long as there aren't any structural problems (crooked neck, fingerboard flaws, major cracks, etc.), and since the violin was given to you, it would probably be OK to sink a little money into it to get him off to a good start.

June 30, 2012 at 02:19 AM · No, Lyndon. I'm simply going back to your comments about all Chinese violins being the equivalent of junk (or words to that effect). Now you bring human rights into the mix. Is this the rant of the week? :)

June 30, 2012 at 02:40 AM · Rae-ann, if you give a violin with ill-fitted bridge and pegs to your grandson, you are not giving him a fair chance to decide if he likes the violin. I'd say don't do it yourself!

Lyndon, just because Chinese labor is cheap doesn't mean they are working under inhumane conditions. It's true that the average Chinese worker's standard of living is lower than the West, but if you have ever been to China, you will find that most people (at least in the cities and towns I have visited) are living quite decently. The disparity in prices between Chinese goods and the West is largely due to low cost of living, and that the Chinese government keeps the value of the RMB artificially low..

The average Chinese works 40-hour week, as regulated by the government. Factory workers and other non-professional jobs receive overtime pays if exceeding that limit, just like in the West.

(This is coming from someone who grew up in Taiwan, so you can hardly call me pro-China.)

June 30, 2012 at 02:44 AM · Come on, children! Let's get back to answering the question!

I think the short version of the answer is already provided. You will probably not do an adequate job of setting it up.

There is a better answer, which is also true.

Use this violin as a practice ground! You received the violin for free, so if you can do so without offending the giver, practice on this one.

You may see what a luthier suggests as the biggest problems, and go from there. If there are no defects that need repair, then the sound post, the nut, the bridge, the tailgut, the pegs, and the strings are probably the things you may consider working on. If it has fine tuners, you may consider changing them, or if you get the pegs working smoothly, removing all but the E string tuner.

I would approach the question differently, and ask your luthier:

Using this as a practice violin, not to play, what changes can I make that could improve the sound? Working with the luthier, and purchasing any materials from them would probably be the best way to go.

If you do this, even if the instrument is unplayable when you are done, at least you know a lot more about what the process entails!

June 30, 2012 at 03:02 AM · Slavery? Methinks he doth protest too much.

June 30, 2012 at 03:07 AM · Joyce-

I'm not defending Lyndon, but there are many place that's still under condition like that in China, Taiwan is relatively far off the true China, which is someplace you not only have to visit but also have to speak the languages and willingly sleep on an infested cot to understand to. China isn't a pretty place.


oh and Joyce, is there by any chance the town and city you visited are a part of your tour? Because if it is, then you're far from the truth.

June 30, 2012 at 03:13 AM · Skylar, I was not talking about Taiwan, which is more well-off than most European countries...

I've been visiting China since 1994 (and most recently in 2010). I can tell you that their standard of living has improved tremendously since the 1990s, and most people in the cities live a middle-class life style. However, I'm aware of social issues such as rural-urban divide and income inequality - these are nothing new in the West, just not as magnified...

I didn't travel with tour groups. Since I speak the language and can pass as a local (not always successfully), I took public transportation whenever possible... And I have worked with locals (granted these are not low-pay laborers), and been invited to their homes, so I have a fairly good idea what average people live like, at least in cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and other more developed areas.

Most of Chinese violins are made in a village near Beijing and towns in southern China (Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces - the richest parts of China), so it's pretty safe to say that your Chinese violins are not made by starving slave labor. According to this report:

"A competent Chinese craftsman or woman in this factory earns perhaps $800 a month – a good middle-class salary here, especially since many of these violin-makers are former farmers."

June 30, 2012 at 03:12 PM · Well-said, John. Sorry I joined the melee, but just got tired of the constant bashing of Chinese violins (and new violins, and under-$1000 violins). I've had one Chinese violin that was unplayable, and now have one that I really love. I just want to see each judged on its own merit. I'll try to behave. ;)

June 30, 2012 at 06:38 PM · Eh, was I in a fight?! Why did I not notice?! :) I was just trying to address some misconceptions here, albeit off-topic... I hope my posts are at least educational to some. Sorry to the OP (but I think she has gotten lots of good answers already)!

July 1, 2012 at 01:08 AM ·

July 1, 2012 at 02:27 AM · Skylar, my understanding is that it means RMB$800 (yuan), not US$800. In the link earlier in the same paragraph (the YouTube video) - it said that "the workers earn around 1,000 to 2,000 yuan (150 to 300 U.S. dollars) a month," so I thought it's pretty obvious... Anyway, how much their income is equivalent to the US dollars is irrelevant! The main point in the quote is that earning 800 yuan (~US$126) per month in that village as a violin-maker is a solid middle-class income. (The definition of middle-class here is: "having a reasonable amount of discretionary income, so that they do not live from hand to mouth as the poor do.")

Also, it seems that you either have trouble understanding my posts, or you need to look up the map and see where Taiwan is. I only brought up my Taiwanese heritage to make the point that I would be the last person on this forum to speak in favor of the Chinese government and fall for their propaganda (Read about modern Chinese history if you don't know what I'm talking about)... I try to present unbiased personal accounts and the information that I believe to be factual (judging from my experience, of course). It's very rude of you to attack my credibility before you are able to read and comprehend my posts and the information I put forth!

It's funny that you call cities "STAGED PLACE FOR FOREIGNER" - are you still living in the China of the 1970s-80s? Have you ever been to China lately? True, I have never visited poor remote villages, and I'm aware of the many social issues that China faces, including poverty in the rural (and to a lesser extent, urban) areas. I never said China is perfect, did I? It still has a long way to go, but it has come a long way since the '90s, as I'm a witness...

All I was trying to say was that Chinese violins, which, by the way, are made in the "developed" (more precisely - developing) regions, are not made by slave labor. Prove me wrong if you can, but save the personal attacks and the tone!

July 1, 2012 at 05:07 AM · Oh dear, my apology Joyce, I was under my uncle influences when I wrote the post. At least you could have mention the Yuan part.

Anyway, I'll excuse myself from this topic now. In prevention of my mouth flying off again.

July 1, 2012 at 04:51 PM · Well said, John. I've always felt that what we fear defines us more than it defines the object of our fears. Today's political rhetoric on all sides seems to support that (Not only US, but internationally).

July 2, 2012 at 04:51 PM · Wow! I love where this thread wound up!! But anyway, thanks for all the good info. I am going to just try messing around with this little guy and what I especially like about it is that I don't have to worry about how he handles the instrument. It does have problems with the fingerboard and the neck --the shape, thickness and angle! He likes the idea of having his own violin (even tho it is still too big for him) and I'll just wait to see if he begins to agitate for lessons before getting a 'real' violin for him.

(Another interesting thing is that even though it traveled overseas with no bridge, and no case, the sound post is still in place. At this point, however, I can't worry about sound post adjustments!)

July 2, 2012 at 07:48 PM · Lyndon,

While it is true that there are some really junky Chinese violins, the ones in the $1000-$3000 price range are very compelling. I have played Chinese violins under $2000 that sound and play very nicely. I would even say that if you have less than $3000 to spend on a violin, and you want the best bang for your buck, you should focus your search on Chinese instruments.

July 3, 2012 at 05:42 AM · I say go for it, but don't measure the task by the quality of instrument you end up with.

I have a little guy I spend a lot of time with (9 year old grandson with Aspergers). Since we are so close, I got him a 1/4 violin a couple years ago, in the white. Spent a bit of time sanding, smoothing (I no nothing about graduating, so I didn't try), and spent about as much time or more on the finish. Sides and back were stained with about 8 or 10 layers of my own mix (mineral spirit and linseed oil, with varying colors and saturations of oil-based pigments). The front was his favorite color; red. That was the tough part; getting a good red stain without using Cadmium-based stain.

Overall, it looks nice, but has about 30 minutes of playing after about 80 hours of work. With decent strings, it is still just a nice looking VSO, but it is a VSO with some meaning behind it.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat! It was fun, and he enjoyed getting it.

July 3, 2012 at 11:51 AM · @ Rae-ann, I'm so glad that you have overcome the difficulty about setting up this violin. When I read that you had been told the cost of the set-up would exceed the violin's value, I feared that you might be in for the problem situation of having, ultra-tactfully, to give it back to the donor. (Not possible to dispose of it otherwise: donors of such things tend to ask where they have got to or want to see them in use.) However, I'm very happy to read that you have sorted things out and are getting the violin working.

July 3, 2012 at 08:02 PM · Hi again,

So, in case you're interested, the violin actually traveled from Greece to NY, (sans bridge) to get to me; returning it to the giver was not even an option since paying more shipping costs didn't seem to make much sense. Its history as far back as I know is that it was given to the daughter of a Greek friend by a friend of her mother's, probably 25 - 30 years ago, in the same condition then as it's in now. At that time, in Paris, I'm told it would have cost them the equivalent of about $100 to fix but they didn't do it since the intended recipient showed no interest in playing. It's clearly an old violin and I kind of like it... but not enough to sink any serious money into it--having been told it wouldn't be worth it. Having said that, I really dislike having objects around that are in need of fixing up so I've gone ahead and ordered a 3/4 bridge and a set of ebony pegs, on ebay. Even the way it is before the new bridge and pegs, it doesn't sound terrible -- it actually has a nice warm sound. I've heard a lot worse from fractional sized instruments. And... I'm really liking the idea of the "do-it-yourself" approach, but only under these circumstances. I would NEVER attempt to do it on a serious instrument.

July 3, 2012 at 08:03 PM · Which, of course, brings me next to getting a bow. Any suggestions on internet (ebay?) options for an inexpensive but fairly decent 3/4 bow?

August 9, 2012 at 08:41 PM · I was reading this thread and I just wanted to saw that you don't need special tools to shape pegs. Those tools are expensive and hard to come by. I recently started restoring a violin, I got new pegs off ebay and all you have to do to shape them is to use sand paper and twist it in your hand, (like you are sharpening a pencil) it takes some time, but it works just as well. Of course, you still have to drill the holes, but that's something else.

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