Advice on commissioning a new violin

March 4, 2018, 12:38 AM · Hi! There have been some great posts in the past from other members who are in the process of getting a new violin and their search. I've already decided on the violin maker so that fun part of the search is over.

My question is for those that have commissioned a violin in the past, any advice? With a few years time, looking back what do you wish you had known or done differently if you could do it over again?


Replies (44)

Edited: March 4, 2018, 1:56 AM · For me one of the most important lessons is: No compromise! I bought a quite nice violin some time ago knowing it was not completely perfect for my desires, and the compromise I made at that time lead to a second violin last year.

I hardly dare to say what it mainly was in my case because it is not rational: The first time I told myself "Italians are over-rated"... but then I kept wanting one... So better know what you want and how much ;)

Edited: March 4, 2018, 3:00 AM · I have kind of agreed to buy an instrument which is not yet finished--so commissioned albeit after it was started. A close copy of a famous Strad by a skilled copyist. So I started a thread on Maestronet recently suggesting that most players cannot really judge how an instrument will sound after top quality setup, and several years playing. Mr Darnton, who used to post her more often, mentioned several times that many players reject his Cannone copies with thick plates which are hard to make sound good at first, but some advanced players get their potential. However, who wants an instrument whose potential lies decades away? Maybe it depends how old you are. Perhaps an instrument with over-thin plates is a better buy if it suits your skill set better and if it stays healthy for the rest of your natural life?

The maker of the instrument I have in mind told me that the professionals who buy his instruments often say that they will never trade it for an old Italian, but when they come into some money they often do. He implied that it is partly peer pressure. Though he accepted that age makes a difference.

Also in that Maestronet discussion was some exchange about that fact that some instruments have a resonance which seems to help you play in tune. Others can make you struggle, but actually be better instruments in terms of the voices you can produce.

One conundrum is that you do not wolf notes, but the most resonant instruments are the most susceptible to them.

You probably know what you want. If you were like me you probably want an instrument which looks great :-) For the sound I mainly blame or praise the player, the strings, and the setup, not the woodwork.

March 4, 2018, 8:43 AM · A "commission" can mean many different things, so find out exactly what you're getting into. In some scenarios, you may be taking on a firm obligation to purchase an instrument which you have not yet tried, and may or may not like.

Do you need to pay for it up front in full, before you have had a chance to try it?

Is there a deposit, and must you forfeit this if you end up not liking or purchasing the instrument?

Under what circumstances are deposits, or prior payment in full refundable?

If deposits or full payment up front are refundable, will these be returned in short order, or is there a stipulation that you must wait until the maker has managed to sell the instrument to someone else? (which may or may not take a very long time)

If you end up not purchasing the instrument, does the maker charge a fee or commission for finding another buyer?

March 4, 2018, 8:54 AM · Less successful makers than you, David, may not be able to offer the same generous return policy, but their prices may well be lower.
Edited: March 4, 2018, 9:07 AM · I know you buy back instruments you built, I just bought back my 2nd largest clavichord I built 20 years ago, for the price I sold it for 20 years ago, which is a very good price, but also all I could possibly afford, $5500. I had wholesale $10000 of my inventory to come up with $4000 for the downpayment and my dad loaned me the rest, but I am very happy, now I have a top playing instrument in good condition, the best of the work I did years ago. By the way I am not a violin player, just a repairman, but I was a pretty serious keyboard player that hasn't had a good clavichord to play for 18 years. SO this was a big step for me, now I have to rely on my struggling violin business to pay for it. Wish me luck
March 4, 2018, 9:19 AM · Best of luck! I looked at your website. Like you, the maker I contemplate buying from went from art to violins (though to making, not repairing, which he likens to sculpture).
March 4, 2018, 9:43 AM · Make sure you're clear on the model, size and dimensions you prefer...and if you don't have a preference, then chances are you haven't thought about it enough! Del gesu, strad, amati...bout size, body size, shape of neck...these are often overlooked by players when considering everything else, i.e. sound, response and all the visuals, etc. Maybe it's just me, but you probably don't want to end up with a great sounding violin that's hard to play physically...
Edited: March 4, 2018, 10:32 AM · I wouldn't go overboard in trying to tell a maker exactly what model etc. to make. In my opinion, and having judged many violin making competitions, a maker will usually do best making the model he/she has used the most and has the most experience with. In many cases, this will be their own model. This "making their own model" strategy seems to have worked well for both Strad and Guarneri....
Edited: March 4, 2018, 10:48 AM · I agre with Michael: no compromises.

Kind of hesitant to say this... one has to be ready as a musician to commission the instrument. Here is my laundry list:
1. have a quite solid inner concept of sound - know what are you looking for
2. know how to describe those very personal "sought after" sound properties to the maker
3. be ready to say "no" after trial period- collect the deposit money and write-off lost time (this can be a substantial loss: wait lists are long and plus the actual time to build the violin)
4. be aware that new instrument is like a newborn baby -it has the seeds of undeveloped temperament and personality, but it is "work in progress" and may sound differently as a toddler, teenager or adult.
5. be ready to play your violin (walk with a toddler) even if it does not sound perfect, and wait until your violin sounds at its best; this may take years and a few adjustments
6. have at least 2 references with zero conflict of interest; the best are from musicians who are in no way affiliated with the maker
7. try at least 2 instruments made by the same maker and love them both with no "buts"!
8. make sure that maker will honour the agreement, and is willing to correct major mistakes, such as neck angle.
9. last, but not the least, have a lunch with prospective maker; see how do you relate as 2 human beings - you are about to enter a potentially life-long business relationship and it does not hurt to know your partner. Ask yourself: can i trust this person? Will he/she walk with me if the time gets rough? How do we communicate?

Having said all of the above, the most problematic part is #2; most makers will claim that they can carve a customized instrument, but we all know that all of them also have ups and downs in their opus. If you get lucky, you may get a violin of your dreams... if not, you will suffer through a long process of grieving and possibly loss of money due to depreciation.

I have commissioned instrument once and will think twice before (if ever) I do it next time.

March 4, 2018, 10:33 AM · I'm curious. Why would you not just try a bunch of violins and pick out a favourite?
March 4, 2018, 10:46 AM · I agree with what David says about letting the maker chose the model etc, some of the biggest mistakes I have made as an instrument maker is letting the customer influence things like choice of wood etc. Customers know next to nothing about building violins, best if you leave that part to the maker, if the maker says their best sounding wood has less flame, well then believe them,etc
March 4, 2018, 10:50 AM · I think the customer should have a say in things like neck dimentions (thickness/width) for comfort.
March 4, 2018, 11:07 AM · Yes it's true, makers have their preferred models, and know what they make best - it is wise to let them do their thing. The commissioner should just know what that is and be clear about it beforehand. I think Rocky's post is excellent. And if you work with a maker like David Burgess, you probably won't have to stress too much about #3 in Rocky's post...;)
Edited: March 4, 2018, 1:42 PM · As you narrow it down to a few makers, I would say to try to play several violins by the maker and find someone that consistently gets a sound and feel that you like. I did this with my Burgess violin, completed in 2014, and couldn't be happier with it. I had played 4 Burgesses by the time I contacted him about making a violin.

If you pick a maker you have complete confidence in and you have done the above, you shouldn't have to do a bunch of sound describing. Sound describing is dangerous because they are not well-defined terms. It was very hard for me as I am very picky, but I think I just told David to "make a great violin".

As for commissioning, do your research and do it! It was one of the best decisions I have made and I continue to be thrilled with the violin each time I open my case.

PS -- I just commissioned a bow, too, that I'm very excited about. Fingers crossed!

March 4, 2018, 12:24 PM · Ella: A key reason to commission is value. Great contemporary instruments often beat out what's available in antique instruments in that same price range (call it $10k-50k or so). And great contemporary instruments aren't often for sale -- they're in the hands of players who are going to keep them for a lifetime (or at least until, as John Birchall says, they luck into the money to buy an old Italian). So if you want one, you probably have to do a commission.

Makers let you customize, but as noted, you probably don't want to stray far from what a maker has previously had success with. For instance, if you want a more petite instrument (or other adjustments such as a narrowed neck), or even a 7/8ths, you want to look for a maker who's been successful building instruments in that way.

Edited: March 4, 2018, 12:53 PM · Check out this book: "The Violin Maker," by John Marchese, in which Sam Zygmuntowicz* is commissioned by Eugene Drucker** to make him a violin.

* Zygmuntowics of Brooklyn, NY has made violins that sold for the highest prices recorded for violins that young to many professionals including the like of Isaac Stern.

** Eugene Drucker was the first violinist of the Emerson Quartet; his "work violin" at the time of the commission was a 1686 Stradivari.

Another book I guess I'll have to reread!

Is there a difference between commissioning a violin and just getting on a maker's waiting list? I have done the latter twice (one violin and one viola). No matter how how much you like one or two of a maker's existing violins, just remember that no two violins are likely to be exactly the same.

The book was published in 2007, after I had bought both of those instruments.

March 4, 2018, 12:58 PM · Lydia, another reason is simply to have the opportunity to buy the maker's instrument. Many highly regarded makers in the mature part of their career simply don't have anything to sell you unless you get on the list and put down the deposit. David I hear keeps a few older instruments around to try but I'm not sure that's typical. I'm running into that with bows right now, but I'm also a little skeptical that we'd get the optimum match for the instrument on the first or second attempt.
Edited: March 5, 2018, 1:04 PM · I need to confess that Mr. Bevan was very patient with me. The violin was delivered well after my estimated delivery date.

At the moment, I'm estimating a seven year time between a commission and delivery, which may be optimistic, and may also exceed my working-life expectancy, so I am not encouraging any more commissions at this time.

March 4, 2018, 1:48 PM · It was worth the wait. A little longer than expected :-D

I see some good advice in this thread. Most important might be taking some time to play a lot of violins and refine your desired sound profile. This will allow you to narrow it down to a particular maker and give you reasonable confidence in accepting the instrument once it is completed.

March 4, 2018, 2:31 PM · Thank you Lydia and Stan for answering my questions.
Edited: March 5, 2018, 2:05 PM · Andrew asked:
"Is there a difference between commissioning a violin and just getting on a maker's waiting list?"
____________________________

Terms like those are not well defined, and that's why I recommended checking out carefully what sort of situation one might actually be getting into. "Commissions" are not without varying levels of risk.

If anyone thinks older instruments are safer, there are many instances of older instruments being sold as having been made by a particular maker or shop, and not passing muster when the owner attempted to resell them.

I KNOW who made my instruments, and most of the major dealers and appraisers can nail it too, from having seen one or many of them out and about in circulation.

March 5, 2018, 3:59 PM · Perhaps 90% (or more) of all art works we have in Italy were commissioned, and that includes violins.
Edited: March 5, 2018, 6:38 PM · One reason you will find violins made by award-winning living makers on sale at dealers only very seldomly is precisely because their owners are waiting the maker to die so that the price will go up. When you do find one it's probably because the owner didn't like it. Which doesn't mean it's a bad violin, of course. Probably they were just playing it with the wrong bow or the wrong strings or the wrong rosin or the wrong shoulder rest or some combination thereof.
March 5, 2018, 6:56 PM · Paul, good point. Possible reason for sale could be just anything, from financial problems to mismatch between internal concept of sound and the actual instrument. As mentioned, it is a matter of luck and good knowledge of one's preferences. Sometimes instrument do change over time, for better or worse. Sometimes violinist and his / her sound preference change over time.

David, it is good to know that no minions are used to produce your instruments!

Edited: March 5, 2018, 7:23 PM · "One reason you will find violins made by award-winning living makers on sale at dealers only very seldomly is precisely because their owners are waiting the maker to die so that the price will go up"

I don't know which is more morbid, the idea itself or the matter-of-fact way of expressing it.

There must be a quite a few people in the business wishing others an early death to profit from their demise.

March 5, 2018, 7:28 PM · Paul Deck said "One reason you will find violins made by award-winning living makers on sale at dealers only very seldomly is precisely because their owners are waiting the maker to die so that the price will go up."

That is a terrible thought, Paul. I don't think players think that way at all, and I'm sure they would like to have a good and ongoing relationship with the maker. That sounds more like the way an investor or dealer would think about an instrument than a player.

March 5, 2018, 8:34 PM · I don't think it's untrue. If you've upgraded to another instrument but you have a fine contemporary violin that you don't need to sell, it's worth keeping as an investment, especially if the maker is elderly.

March 6, 2018, 1:55 AM · This may be true of a few contemporary makers (can anyone cite specific examples?) but I've been advised by makers and dealers at the sharp end of the business that generally speaking if you have investment in mind a newly commissioned instrument isn't the way to go. Most violins by quite highly regarded British makers of the last generation (which admittedly wasn't a very distinguished one) can be bought at auction (and in good condition) for considerably less than a new commission.
Edited: March 6, 2018, 2:42 AM · "One reason you will find violins made by award-winning living makers on sale at dealers only very seldomly is precisely because their owners are waiting the maker to die so that the price will go up"

Another reason may be that some makers make an effort to keep their instruments out of auction, perhaps by a buy back policy.

I contemplate buying a second instrument. The maker's instruments auction for a fraction of retail price. Most makers who don't feel the need to keep their instruments out of auctions, fetch a fraction of retail price at auction. The exceptions are those where demand is stratospheric, and those whose supporters will bid to support the auction price (and perhaps some who enjoy both advantages).

I have not noticed auction prices for recently deceased makers rising. Is that idea supported by those who actually follow auctions, rather than by owners who merely hope?

Remember the 20th century maker whose instrument was mistaken for both Strad and Del Gesu in the 1970s blind test on BBC radio by an expert panel (Charles Beare, Isaac Stern, and Pinchas Zuckerman)? His auction value now is around $1000. One of his instruments is being offered retail in a UK shop for under £5000. Food for thought.

March 6, 2018, 3:20 AM · "Probably they were just playing it with the wrong bow or the wrong strings or the wrong rosin or the wrong shoulder rest or some combination thereof." Good one Paul :-)
March 6, 2018, 3:36 AM · John, yes, it's possible for a maker (or any sort of artist or craftsman) to arrange to have their work bid up to any price they want at auction.
March 6, 2018, 4:54 AM · John - as I'm sure you know the maker whose violin did so well in the 1975 BBC blind test was Ronald Praill, an amateur who was active between about 1948 and 1976. I was recently tempted to bid on a viola of his which looked fine although it was sold "as seen" and I had no chance to inspect it (I also heard "do you need another viola?"). If I remember correctly the hammer price was around £500. Sic transit gloria mundi.
March 6, 2018, 6:15 AM · A V.com blog from 2012 summarizing some of the various comparisons:

http://www.violinist.com/blog/BormanViolins/201210/14040/

Edited: March 6, 2018, 8:49 AM · Lydia said: "I don't think it's untrue. If you've upgraded to another instrument but you have a fine contemporary violin that you don't need to sell, it's worth keeping as an investment, especially if the maker is elderly."

That may be true in some fringe cases, but it's not the norm. I know and play with many musicians using contemporary instruments. They might be worried more about how they will pay for them than having any thoughts about selling them!

March 6, 2018, 8:52 AM · I thought most contemporary violin values go down after the maker dies, partly because they're no longer around to promote them.
March 6, 2018, 8:56 AM · The first two makers that come to mind as "instruments appreciated enormously post-death" are Sergio Peresson and Carl G Becker. (I think Carl F Becker's work has also appreciated since his passing about five years ago.)

Of course, not all contemporary violins appreciate. (Indeed, I would guess that the majority of them don't.) But I was thinking specifically of top makers, whose commission prices also tend to rise significantly during their lifetimes, which in turn may increase the value of their earlier output in the market.

March 6, 2018, 8:56 AM · The first two makers that come to mind as "instruments appreciated enormously post-death" are Sergio Peresson and Carl G Becker. (I think Carl F Becker's work has also appreciated since his passing about five years ago.)

Of course, not all contemporary violins appreciate. (Indeed, I would guess that the majority of them don't.) But I was thinking specifically of top makers, whose commission prices also tend to rise significantly during their lifetimes, which in turn may increase the value of their earlier output in the market.

March 6, 2018, 8:56 AM · Depends. I wish I still had the Carl Becker Jr. I used to own. I could sell it now for about eight times what I did then.
March 6, 2018, 2:08 PM · Has the name recognition increased to such an extent that buyers from Asia are looking for the name is probably an accurate gauge on the price going up. That new source of demand is where all of the price appreciation in violins in the past several decades has come from, and the resulting speculation buying frenzy that has poured gasoline on top. Before then, Strads cost as much as they had for centuries (or a small multiple above), adjusted for inflation.
Edited: March 6, 2018, 3:45 PM · "That new source of demand is where all of the price appreciation in violins in the past several decades has come from..."

Also has pushed the price of the best Scotch whisky, and Medoc wines, out of reach, annoyingly.

Asian interest in European culture is to be welcomed, even though the revolting disparities of wealth which these spending patterns reflect make me fear the great states of the East will soon be at risk of falling to Communism.

March 8, 2018, 10:25 AM · Thanks everyone... really thoughtful insights

@David Burgess - The commercial terms the luthier is giving me seems fair and thankfully didn't have any of the traps you warned about. I'm getting a couple of few months to try after completion, and all money back minus any repair needed in case I damage it etc. Your point on not going "overboard in trying to tell a maker exactly what model etc." makes a lot of sense. If you were the maker, what input (if any) would be useful from the potential player? Thank you!

@Rocky Milankov - Those are good advice... I visited the maker and really liked him as a person. Instruments sounded amazing. Wait list was more reasonable than some others.

@Andrew Victor & @Ella Yu - Part of the reason I'm getting a violin made is because of that book "The Violin Maker"! The process of creation in a new instrument is appealing. I have a couple of fine violins already. None of them were made for me so that's part of the appeal (egotistical perhaps?:) Hopefully bring something new and amazing into the world.

@Douglas Bevan - I like your advice on just telling David to "make a great violin" and advice on the selection process. So of the 4 Burgess violins that you tried, how similar/different did you actual own violin turn out?

March 11, 2018, 12:45 AM · Out of curiosity, Dave, how do you pick who you sell your violins to?
Edited: March 11, 2018, 4:10 AM · First come, first served. It's not the most ego-boosting way of doing things, and I lose some sales to high-profile players by having this policy, but the feedback I've gotten is that this is the highest-integrity way of doing it. Most pros simply won't wait seven years or so for an instrument, and it's gotten to the point where I'm discouraging new commissions anyway.

My wife is an amateur guitar player, and she would be really pissed to find out that she either wasn't eligible to buy a guitar by a certain maker, or got bumped back on a waiting list because some more famous guitar player came along.

The exception I make is that if I find one of my violins for sale somewhere and purchase it, I figure it's mine to do with as I wish. Does that seem reasonable?

March 17, 2018, 10:40 PM · @Andrew, "The Violin Maker" is one of my favorite books and was on my mind as I read these posts. (BTW I just checked the Emerson website and Drucker still has that violin.) After borrowing it from the library twice, I bought a used copy on Amazon.

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Metzler Violin Shop
Metzler Violin Shop

Yamaha YEV Series Violin
Yamaha YEV Series Violin

Dimitri Musafia
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Gliga Violins
Gliga Violins

Corilon Violins

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases

Fiddlerman.com

Fiddlershop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Los Angeles Violin Shop

Pluhar Violins

Pro-Am Strings Ltd

Violin Lab

Violin Pros

Wangbow Violin Bow Workshop

Subscribe