Likely problems with brand new luthier made violin?

September 4, 2007 at 04:30 PM · How likely is a new violin to develop problems?

I've recently bought a brand new violin (finished July 2007)from a luthier who lives some distance away. How likely is it that the bridge will get warped, cracks will appear or the sound post fall?

Will it be OK if I always keep it in its case when not in use and mostly in the same room/similar temp etc?

What experiences have other people had?

Replies (26)

September 4, 2007 at 04:53 PM · ??? none of this should happen unless your luthier is inexperienced and has no idea what he's/she's doing and you have no idea what you're doing.

September 5, 2007 at 03:12 PM · If the old Strads and del Gesus didn't develop such problems even for centuries, in many cases, I don't think your new baby's gonna have such issues, either, unless the wood wasn't seasoned enough before it was used, bad glues were employed, or the luthier just didn't really know yet how to make a good, solid instrument.

Beyond these things, I think the biggest danger to your instrument will be what happens to it now that it's left his shop. You needn't always keep it in the same room, in the same temperature, etc. Just don't subject it to extremely cold or hot temperatures, and try your best not to let it change temperatures too dramatically/quickly. I'd say, given what I know from wood-working, if the difference in temperature from one place to another is more than ten degrees or thereabouts, you'll want to keep your instrument in its case for about an hour to let it SLOWLY adjust to the new temperature. I don't think it would really hurt it to take it out and immediately start playing it in such situations, but it's better to be safe than sorry. Also, beware of taking it from a rather cool area to a rather warm and humid area. Condensation could pose a bit of a problem if allowed to soak in, then putting it away "wet." The occasional incident like this probably won't do anything of significance to it, but repeatedly subjecting it to such trauma could take its toll.

Also, don't let it get too dry or too humid for too long. Even new violins need to be treated as well as antiques if they're to be expected to live long enough to become such down the road.

Just take really good care of it (honestly...treat it like a real baby...GENTLY), and it should still look almost new even long after you're dead. But, don't NOT play it for the sake of trying to preserve it, or it'll die too.

The Messiah violin, perhaps the most valuable instrument of any kind in the world (from a collection standpoint), is also probably completely worthless as an instrument, because it never gets played, and is never to be played again. Without being handled and played, everything will just sort of become brittle and too fragile even to be handled, let alone played. Things that are designed and built to be used MUST be used, or they simply die--just like cars. The whole reason Strads became popular in the first place was because of their tendency to have amazing sound. They're nothing really special to look at, as there're equally beautiful instruments being made today--some even moreso, if you ask me. In trying to preserve its value as a piece of art simply to be looked at, they destroyed its value as anything else. That, to me, has nothing to do with posterity...only stupidity. ;)

September 4, 2007 at 05:06 PM · If you live where the humidity is very dry or very wet part of the year, you may want to place this violin in a more controlled atmosphere. For instance, use one of the better case humidifiers or place in a humidified room if you live north where indoor humidity can be very low once the heat is turned on. Otherwise, a newly-built violin shouldn't be any different than an older. Ditto, unless inexperienced builder, green wood??? other weird something...

September 4, 2007 at 07:28 PM · The varnish on new violins can sometimes take many years to cure completely, so check regulaly that interior of the violin case is not making indentations on the back of the violin....enjoy your new violin!

September 5, 2007 at 04:57 AM · Thank you all for your helpful comments. Where I live, southern Poland temperatures fall very low in the winter (to minus 25 sometimes). It was helpful to read about letting the instrument warm up slowly - it may mean getting somewhere 2 hours early though to wait one hour before I can tune up and practice:)

Interesting comment about the varnish - I did notice on the back - in the middle where it curves outwards that marks were appearing after it had been in its new case. It was the case from my factory made previous instrument and that had no marks on it. But with this it appeared like there was a reaction to the 'fur' in the case. I then wrapped the instrument in a cotton tea towel before putting it in the case but that too seems to be leaving a slight 'imprint'. Anything else I can do or just live with it?

September 5, 2007 at 05:04 AM · Oh, er, no chance of me not playing it though! That's what I got it for! Haven't even taken my old one out of its case since newbie arrived and feeling a tad guilty cos it was broken in nicely!

September 5, 2007 at 11:55 AM · As far as I am aware, most violin finishes dry rather rapidly. Sure, they fully cure to the touch first, with a skin on the outside; but do the lower layers (if more than one layer applied) truly stay soft for so long? I don't believe so.

I'd fault the case for any damage to the finish. If you've ever painted plastic and had it become eternally tacky to the touch, it's probably this kind of reaction (a softening reaction) that's damaging your instrument.

Why are fake velvet and felt used to line cases? I relined an older case with quilted cotton, and haven't had any problems with it marring the finish.

I guess it's time for someone to market non-leaching/organic cases.

September 8, 2007 at 01:29 AM · It seems every luthier has their own pet varnishing system, and some of them do indeed take a very long time to cure. Many makers use UV light cabinets to speed up the cure, but varnishes on good violins tend to be thin and soft.

New violins actually change quite a bit over the first year or two. There is quite a bit of "settling in". The back and top often distort just a little bit due to string tension, calling for bridge adjustment and perhaps a new sound post. If possible you would do well to have the maker check the violin after one month, six months, and a year, and at least annually after that. The maker should be able to touch up any varnish problems, too.

By the way, almost all old violins show significant distortions of the plates due to string tension, sound post and bass bar issues.

September 8, 2007 at 03:41 PM · Commenting on several writers in this thread:

1. A well-made violin by a reputable luthier should be made with seasoned wood which has dried sufficiently so as not to crack or warp. One still needs to keep the instrument at a regulated humidioty so it doesn't get too humid or too dry, and, especially, doesn't fluctuate from one to the other. Also avoid extremes in temperature or changes in temperature that are too rapid. NEVER leave your instyrument in an automobile where the temperatures can approach those of an oven on sunny days!

2. The Messie Strad HAS been played in the past. It used to be used for concerts. (One of my college professors got a chance to play it in the early 60s there in the Ashmolean Museum at "changing time" when they rotate the position of the instrument in its case so the still soft varnish doesn't settle to one part of the instrument.) They were getting more protective of it at that time, so I don't know if it has been played since.

3. Oil varnishes can stay soft for a long time. I picked up a Gliga copy of the Hellier Strad three years ago. I put it in a soft flannel-type bag that barely fit in the case (it was thick flannel and a tight fit in the case). When I got home from the shop, there was the faint pattern of the weave of the cloth in the varnish, and the mark of the screw on the bow holder. I had a fit! The violin sat out on the table over night. Next morning, the varnish had flowed back and the surfaces were smooth as glass again. I still bag the instrument, but with a thin silk bag now, and it was only the extra thickness of the flannel bag which caused it to press into the screw. The nice thing about some oil varnishes is that they can self-repair minor scratches like that.

September 8, 2007 at 05:07 PM · Joel,

Yes, the Messiah Strad has been played, but not since it was given to the Ashmolean. One of the conditions of its being given to them was that it can never be played. That was quite a while ago. It is, practically speaking, a dead instrument, since it will likely never be played again, thereby negating the very thing for which Strads became so popular/valuable. Such a tragedy, too. :(

September 8, 2007 at 05:15 PM · The tragedy would be if it was handled and over the years accumulated the inevitable degradations. Thinking it isn't played is a tragedy is a little like thinking it's a tragedy the official metre stick in Zurich or wherever can't be used to measure the siding for your house.

September 8, 2007 at 05:39 PM · Yes-- nice comparison, Jim!

September 8, 2007 at 08:44 PM · Jim,

Good point, but I do disagree with it. Again, the reason Strads became so popular and valuable was because of their propensity for producing amazing sound. A Strad that never gets played is, according to the values by which it gained such fame, worthless. That's like covering up the Mona Lisa with a curtain and never allowing it to be seen again. For all we know, it's just a painting-shaped object under there. Paintings were meant to be seen. Without being visible, they're pointless. Violins are meant to be heard. Without being audible...

September 8, 2007 at 09:26 PM · Larry, it's not like covering the Mona Lisa, because covering the Mona Lisa would be pointless. You aren't allowed close to the Mona Lisa, for the same reason no one should play the violin you're talking about. It would become damaged, and it's nearly undamaged. That's its value, its value in every sense. That shouldn't be hard to understand. "Why strads became famous" is irrelevant. You can't let some generality like that override the requirements of a specific case, now can you? It's basic conservation. If you had a pristine 1935 Indy car in 2007 would you say it's a shame not to race it? Whales became famous for oil, therefore its logical to turn them all into oil. Sheez.

And in conclusion :) if light damaged the Mona Lisa like playing would damage this violin, the Mona Lisa would be kept in the dark.

September 8, 2007 at 09:29 PM · You might consider wrapping your instrument in silk cloth. It is of a finer weave than cotton, and has the effect of buffering humidity changes; that is, it both absorbs (excess) humidity, and releases it as the surrounding air becomes more dry.

Some materials, especially vinyl, will react with the finish on instruments. I have a cello that had an ugly deterioration of the finish where the hair of the bow rested against it for some time. (This was before I bought it). It had to be French polished to remove the gummy discolored finish.

September 8, 2007 at 09:35 PM · Larry... the sound of an instrument doesn't have much to do with how much it costs.

Case in point: Fagnola, lesser family Gaglianos, crappy sounding Strads....

September 8, 2007 at 10:15 PM · I wonder if the requirement it not be played is legally binding somehow. If it is, there's probably language that says who ownership reverts to. Maybe some heirs. If the museum wanted to play dirty pool, there's some way. They could make a CD with it, after making an agreement with the heirs to re-donate the violin back to the museum. It would never leave the building :D Maybe the original owners would have been smart enough to make it such that a judge would have to decide who ownership would go to.

September 9, 2007 at 01:28 AM · I just wonder if Stradivari, himself, would feel disappointed that one of his instruments isn't being heard. He was a craftsman and an artist.

Artists pride themselves in making things others might find beautiful, and when people actually do find them so, the artists are elated, and it encourages them to continue doing what they're doing.

Antonio Stradivari made musical instruments. Though beautiful to look at, their primary purpose was to make music, and I feel a bit of empathy for what he might think today about one of his instruments being locked in a sort of prison for "safekeeping," when it was never meant to be locked up at all. I blame investors for bringing about such a terrible fate for some of his greatest works.

I, as a photographer, would be absolutely offended if one of my images were kept locked up, never to be seen, in the interest of preserving it. I'd rather it deteriorate from use than never to be used in the manner for which I intended it. I'm not looking at this from the perspective of an historian. I'm looking at it from the perspective of someone who likes to make things others can enjoy in any and EVERY way I intended.

I do, however, think the idea of allowing it to be played at least for the purpose of making a recording, so many, MANY people can hear it, is excellent. That would, at least, be better than nothing.

Oh, and about the whales--cute analogy. Though, whales weren't created by man, so I'm afraid that analogy is, as you say, irrelevant. ;)

September 9, 2007 at 01:19 AM · A new violin is not likely to develop problems,if problems do arise then ask your maker---most will rectify any problem regarding their hand made instrument.

September 9, 2007 at 02:37 AM · Larry, it would be stupid to let it be played. Can you understand it that way? If you can't, then just memorize it.

September 9, 2007 at 02:41 AM · Jim,

Nah. ;)

September 9, 2007 at 08:19 AM · Larry... this whole idea of strads being locked up is usually perpetuated by neurotic people who don't know any better. There are an extraordinary amount of great instruments owned by banks, private individuals, and foundations which are in the hands of the best violinists.

In the case of the Massiah strad, it was given with the instructions that it must not be played. Of course it is looked at often, since it's in one of the world's most prominent museums, and has been made available to top luthiers and scientsts to scrutinize and to study.

The man who left behind what is probably still one of the most prestine examples of Stradivari's work was not stupid. These violins are getting old, and will one day become unplayable, or at least too fragile to be played with any regularity. Leaving behind a prestine example for us to look at is absolutely wonderful, and I doubt Stradivari would have any problem with this.

September 9, 2007 at 08:36 AM · Pieter,

I think Stradivari would take great issue with it. As a craftsman, I know all too well the driving force behind what we do. I know how we feel about our work. There're only so many motivations artists have for practicing their art, so I dare say I can speak from experience about what he would likely think of his instruments being put away, never to be used for what he intended. I think, on this particular issue, we're simply going to have to agree to disagree, because I don't think any of us is likely to change our views on the matter. :)

September 9, 2007 at 10:14 AM · "I think Stradivari would take great issue with it."

It's not his anymore. He sold it. And even if he hadn't he has no great issue with anything these days. Now, as a sort of a craftsman who had a hand in something that's sitting in the Smithsonian instead of doing what it was intended to do, I'm right proud and happy it's there instead of out getting all yucky. Wait 'til the big boys get a hold of one of your craft objects and put it in a museum. You'll fiddle a different tune then.

But that will never happen. How do I know? Because you think it's a shame Edison's first phonograph isn't down at the disco cranking out jams. You think it's a shame Betsy Ross's flag isn't out flying over a K-mart. And like I said three days ago, you think it's a shame you can't measure your siding with the archetype metre stick.

September 9, 2007 at 11:33 PM · I think the goal of most makers (and artists, if that's a separate category) is that their work be appreciated. If appreciation is demonstrated with money, that's nice too!

I have instruments in the hands of collectors. I don't know how much they're played. I also have a viola in the Stradivari Museum in Cremona, and a violin owned by the Smithsonian Museum. I doubt that they're played much, if at all, but you won't hear me complaining.

Validation from musicians is a wonderful thing. Validation from the artistic/workmanship side is no less rewarding, unless it's all about money.

The value of Strads may be sourced in the way they sound, but market value today has more to do with the way they function like any other collectible.

If Strad was all about instruments as a tool for musicians, I doubt that he would have made the specially decorated instruments.

September 10, 2007 at 10:54 AM · Joel,

The varnish is apparently spirit based, not oil based. Does that mean it would not be likely to self-repair if left out as yours did?

I'm hesitant to do so in case it accidentally leads to any more damage. At the moment it is just a faint pattern of the weave of the fabric at the centre of the back.

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