12 things to look out for when buying a second hand violin

November 12, 2014, 4:35 AM · There is endless discussion in the media about the price and value of violins at the top end of the market. In recent years the Guadagnini that belonged to renowned Juilliard violin teacher Dorothy DeLay sold for $1.4 million and the ‘Lady Blunt’ Stradivarius violin was auctioned for a staggering $16 million. Experts tell us that attribution, condition and sound of an old violin are the key factors in determining its value.

But where do we go for advice about buying a second hand violin for a child? Centuries of violin making means that there is a large selection of pre-owned instruments on the market. The quality of these instruments varies widely, however, so although we faithfully drive our kids to music lessons each week and put our best efforts into finding quality, good value instruments for them, we still come up short when it comes to finding good information on buying second hand children’s violins. When the time comes for our child to start lessons or change to a bigger size and we hear of a used instrument for sale it’s tempting to think: Well that’s easier than going shopping, it also sounds pretty cheap – just tell me where to pick it up!

So how do we know if an instrument is worth the price being asked? Are old violins better than new ones? Should I expect to pay more or less for a second hand violin than a new instrument? Is a second hand student violin a good investment? What should I look out for when buying a second hand violin? To help those in the market for a change in instrument, I’ve written down some thoughts.

How do I know whether buying a second hand violin is the right choice?

Generally speaking, violins (or violas or cellos) are like almost any other purchase you make: except for certain professional instruments, they are most valuable when they are new and will not increase in value over time. This is especially true for beginner instruments. With good care, however, they can last for many years. This means it’s entirely possible for buyers to find a good deal in a second hand violin. To help you get started in your search, here is my checklist of 12 things to look out for when buying a second hand violin:

1. If you are buying a pre-used instrument privately, then you’ll want assurance that it has been well cared for. Is the body in good condition? Minor scratches or chips on the varnish are not serious but cracks or chunks out of the wood will need to be repaired or they tend to get worse.
2. How does it look overall? Looks will matter more for those making more expensive purchases, but even beginner instruments should be attractive, and look sturdy and well-made. It’s also much nicer to play a violin that you like to look at!
3. The fingerboard should be straight, smooth and even, or it may need to be re-planed or replaced.
4. Set-up: good fittings mean the instrument is easier tuned, maintained and played. Is the bridge correctly placed and shaped? Look at it from the side – is it straight up and down or bending towards the fingerboard? If starting to lean forwards it may be possible just to straighten it up but if it’s bending heavily it will need to be replaced. If the bridge is too tall, the strings will sit too high above the fingerboard making it difficult to place the fingers. Also look inside the violin to check the sound post is fitted upright. It definitely should not be missing or rolling around inside the violin!
5. Are the pegs in good shape? Are the holes for the strings running directly through the pegs and consistently placed throughout all four pegs? The pegs should turn smoothly but still stay in place. Stiff pegs will probably be fine with some peg paste, easily found in a music store.
6. Old rosin on the violin and bow can most likely be removed with violin/bow cleaner.
7. How does the instrument sound? Think about this: everyone in the house is going to hear this violin being played. You want an instrument that sounds pleasant, and that you will be happy to hear in practice!
8. Are the strings fairly new and of good quality? Very thin, old, steel strings will sound poor. So replacing these with a high quality set could make a world of difference to the violin. You’ll most likely want to replace the strings on any instrument you buy second hand. Someone who doesn’t need the violin and is therefore selling probably won’t have changed the strings on it for a while.
9. The bow hair should be loose and the screw easily turned. Do also check that the hair is not too long: Let the bow down as far as it can go. If the hair is like a hammock, it is too long. Over tightening and age make the hair stretch.
10. Hold the bow out in front of you and look down the stick. Is it perfectly straight? If it bends to one side, or the wood is warped, then it’s no good any more. This can happen when the bow has not been well maintained.
11. The condition of the case: Does the zip go all the way round without getting stuck? Does the buckle work? Are the handle and straps still properly attached? Are the bow clips (inside) in place and turning easily (these are cheap so easy to replace, but they are needed for the security of the bow when it’s packed away). Is it light enough for your child to carry comfortably?
12. Keep in mind you can easily find a new bow and case so if you really like the violin, then it’s not too important if the outfit isn’t perfect.

Are these points deal breakers?

While some of the above issues may be easily fixed, too many things needing changed could add up to more hassle and cost than the instrument is worth. It might also be a sign that the owners haven’t really understood how to care for the instrument, so it may not be a great prospect to start with. Of course you may well find a great second-hand violin, with no work needed, the above is provided so you know what to look for. If you have already bought a second hand violin and it looks to be in good condition but doesn’t sound great, try fitting it with a quality set of strings. This is one quick and relatively cheap way of making an instant improvement to its sound and playability.

When buying a second hand violin, it is wise to think through the above points. Know what you are prepared to take on and how much work you are happy to do to bring the instrument up to a good playing standard. Good luck and happy shopping!

What's your experience in buying a second hand violin? Would love to hear your thoughts on the subject - please leave a comment below, thank you! ~ Rhoda

Rhoda Barfoot is a violinist and experienced strings teacher and is Director of The Strings Family. If you have a question about stringed instruments or music study Just Ask Rhoda at thestringsfamily.eu/ask-rhoda The more qu's I receive the better the resource will be so please don't be shy!


November 12, 2014 at 04:52 PM · Rule number 1, for used OR new:

1. You will only get 50% (if that) of what you paid for it, should you decide to sell it later.

2. The more expensive the violin, the greater your loss exposure.

3. Until you are good enough to make use of a really good fiddle, you won't know what a really good fiddle is, anyway.

4. If you become a serious player, in all likelihood you will be "trading up" (or selling / buying) later, as your skills and sense of sound evolves.

5. There isn't anything worth playing that is new and full sized, for less than $500, even for a beginner. Unless you get a lucky "under the bed" find.

6. Setup is incredibly important and expensive. And it costs just as much to set up a $200 violin properly as a $1000 one. The condition before purchase is KEY to whether you waste a lot of money.

November 12, 2014 at 07:29 PM · "There isn't anything worth playing that is new and full sized, for less than $500"

Umm, not true.

You can find some rather good instruments for under $500 bux, last week I found a 1878 German conservatory violin with very rich and full sound at my local luther's shop for a mere $365 plus cost of a new set of strings. (He only wanted 40 for a set of D'Addario Pro-Arte strings and offered to put them on for free.) It sounded very good, warm and subtly complex with the old strings on it and I am quite sure that it would have blown minds with new strings on it.

Just look around and listen to the violin before you buy it. If the sound is good with lame strings on it, well you most likely got yourself a real stunner.

This is just me personal experience, your mileage may very.

November 12, 2014 at 08:05 PM · There are some expenses that you can just expect to have for every used violin that you buy. For a young student you need a Wittner tail piece (the kind with the four tuners built in), so if the violin does not have this, then you are going to need to buy that part and have a luthier put it on for you. You probably need the bow re-haired, and you probably need new strings.

Another thing to look at is the bridge. When you run your finger across the top of the bridge, can you feel the strings protruding *above* the bridge? If not, then the strings have cut too far into the bridge and you'll need a bridge cut. Measuring the string clearance from the fingerboard is an easy thing to do and the violin won't be playable if it's too far off (usually too low). New bridge cut is maybe $120.

November 12, 2014 at 10:20 PM · To Reply #2: Note that I said "New" for less than $500 isn't worth it. Your $365 19th century fiddle is what we term an "under the bed" find (used--sorry if I didn't make that clear).

But I also suspect that Eugene OR has better deals than Boston, MA in this regard, too...

November 13, 2014 at 01:58 PM · Hey, did you buy that German violin? Sounds too good to pass up.

November 15, 2014 at 07:35 AM · Best thing is to steal one. All profit then. I got a couple of passable Strads that way. (wink)

November 15, 2014 at 07:48 AM · I wish I could have snapped up that sweet instrument, but alas it sold before payday. I know some one got a screaming deal on that thing tho.


As to nothing new under $500 being worth it, again I beg to differ as Fiddlerman has a few on his web-store that are rather nice as a starter instrument for a fair bit under the $500 mark as example. So you can find good new ones for not that high of a price. Also some of the ones from China are extremely good quality and while I will give you that quite a few China violins are not very good, this is not true for all of them.

So really the best advice for anyone looking to buy a violin is to google the heck out of how violins are made and what makes one well built and the other not. There really is no quick guide for what a good violin is because it's a very complex instrument and if any of the parts are sub par the entire thing will preform in a diminished way.

November 15, 2014 at 02:15 PM · In point number 10, regarding the bow, it states: "If it bends to one side, or the wood is warped, then it’s no good any more." Straightening the stick on a bow is a commonplace repair activity when working on bows. When creating the bow, the stick is curved using heat - giving it the correct camber. A stick that has bent to the side (say, from being held in a too-restrictive case) or has straightened out because it was left with the hair tightened after playing can be restored to the proper curve using the same methods as used in its creation. I'd hate to think someone might pass up a decent instrument if the otherwise good bow needs work. If it's obviously a cheap bow, or pieces are missing from the frog, the button is missing or wrong, head of the bow was broken and poorly repaired, head plate missing or any number of other issues are present, yes - perhaps you should keep looking.

November 15, 2014 at 10:20 PM · Most of your observations are right on; however as an experienced dealer I have seen great successes and failures in private purchases.

If you have a reliable dealer, take the instrument to them. Often the cost of refitting is similar to the cost of renovation of a old home, higher than new making.

I guess I would recommend not buying anything privately without the attitude that it could be a 100% loss.

When my customers come in and want to sell privately, I recommend a reduced price from what the violin would cost in a shop, since there is no future to the instrument such as warranty, service, and trade in. Let the buyer beware!

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