commissioning a violin

February 15, 2008 at 04:03 AM · I just commissioned a violin for my daughter and was in the process of picking the wood. Looking at 50 year Engelmann spruce for the top and 20 year balkan maple for the back and ribs. what suggestions do you guys have. It is being made by an award winning maker at VMAAI both in tone and workmanship. any input would be great and what would be a fair price on one.

Replies (21)

February 15, 2008 at 01:33 AM · The top spruce is from colorado with .364 density and from what the maker told me the wood has a beautiful high ring to it..

February 15, 2008 at 04:51 AM · Balkan maple is highly regarded, if. It grows high in the alps, slowly, where the grain becomes compact, strong, and beautiful. You want the maple to be highly figure (highly flamed).

The spruce top is highly important for the sound quality. The top is the part that resonates most and creates the most pronounced sound. Spruce is actually made out of rows of microscopic, hollow tubes, which makes it superior for the top. You ideally want the spruce to have narrow, even pinstripes.

Ultimately, the sound is most important. You want the sound to have great projection, an even tone across all strings, no bad notes, and a nice tone.

Now with that said, you should know that a maker can make two violins out of the same materials and they can sound different. The wood needs to be worked into shape and then covered with varnish, and no two violins can turn out the same. Some are better than others.

You are in an envious position of being able to commission a violin from such a person. The violin will be very high quality. You can expect that it will sound great, but there is no guarantee that it will sound great.

Can someone else suggest a way for the buyer to protect himself in case the violin is not so good? Maybe you can secure an option to trade it in for another one later? I think reputable makers allow a 100% trade in, which means very low risk.

You probably are hitting the jackpot, but just beware that sound can be a slightly unpredictable quality. Plus, the sound may not open up for a few years.

Finally, I hope for sure you are not paying more than $15,000 because there are several other awesome violins you can, for sure, buy for $15,000.

February 15, 2008 at 12:13 PM · Who does the The Violin Makers Association of Arizona use as competition judges?

I couldn't find any information on this, or past winners on their web site.

If the Colorado wood comes from Simeon Chambers, it's supposed to be nice wood.

There's no real agreement on what ideal density is for top wood. European tends to be higher than .364.

February 15, 2008 at 01:32 PM · I agree with David on both points. I have some of the Colorado Engelmann from Simeon Chambers and it is outstanding wood.

February 15, 2008 at 05:14 PM · I would not want to pick ou the wood, I would want the maker to do it! He knows this stuff, I know how to play.

I hope you did your research and played a lot of violins from a lot of makers, or had someone do it for you.

One of the great things that happened on this site is a bunch of players, usually knows as "the california studio guys" did a lot of work for years to find great modern makers. I talked to two of them and felt totally enlightened. I would talk to them if I were you.

Few of the great makers of today sell for 15k. To get a great ax you will need to go up another 5k or more.

All makers will give you a time period to accept or turndown the instrument.

BTW: the two studio guys had nothing but great things to say about Burgess!

February 15, 2008 at 06:15 PM · I feel that you can find a great 'new' violin in the $15,000 range but the maker might not be known as a great maker. In fact, she/he might not even be widely known at all.

I have seen a few maker's prices climb dramatically (and deservedly) as they gain recognition and have sometimes wished I had made a purchase 1 or 2 years ago.

February 15, 2008 at 08:52 PM · You may, but you probably will not. There are some world class makers who are not much above this figure. I know because I am planning on unloading a few bank accounts to do this, but before I do I will really look at a lot of fiddle makers and play their fiddles.

Current makers who are somewhat close to that price range who already have known names: Croen 19K, Dillworth 17k, K. Scott 13k, Quantara 18k, Widenhouse 18k, Needham 20K, Rattray 16K.

There would be a host of other European guys if the dollar had not fallen. And of course there are surely many others that I know nothing of.

I have played a fiddle from each of these makers in the past 3 years, and all were impressive. The best thing I have played is a Needham, but his 20K is a bit out of your budget. And violins are subjective, of course.

February 15, 2008 at 11:13 PM · That's great!

Althought I accept comissions, I do prefer making the instruments the way I want, have 2 or 3 for trial and let the player choose the (finished) one he likes best. But sometimes that's not possible.

A good maker will be consistent with his work in terms of sound and appearance, to that the risk of not liking the new instrument is small, I think.

February 16, 2008 at 02:42 AM · Hi, should have been more clear, the wood was picked out by the luthier and is colorado wood from simeon chambers as far as wood for the top.  The finish/varnish the recipe used is one learned from David Rubio.  I do not know if it is ok to mention the violin makers name here.  There is a full refund if not happy with the violin, have 90 days.  The other violins that have been made from this person are being used by professional players and grad students at Oberlin Conservatory, another in california school and some players in orchestra/symphonies in california, they all are pleased with the instruments they got. 

February 16, 2008 at 03:06 AM · I should have bought a Burgess back in the day, but didn't know I would be needing a good fiddle for my daughter back then.

In the early nineties, I used to play (piano) with a violinist who owned a Burgess and was very happy with it... a professional quartet member who later moved to B.C.

February 16, 2008 at 05:39 AM · Sounds good. Since it has a return guarantee, a known name that will help in the event of resale, and assuming it sounds as nice as you say it will, it sounds like the feedback at this website would suggest $15,000 to $20,000. Right? (I still think $15,000 is the point of gravity that keeps prices going much higher than that, but I am not an expert so take my information very lightly.)

That is quite a special gift. If you can pull it off, that's great.

You can try to search around to see what other violins by that maker are selling for. I would also want to compare it to a couple other peer violins.

(However, I love the idea of uncovering the bargain simply because I could never afford such an instrument in the first place.)

February 16, 2008 at 05:56 PM · Do not know if maker is well known, I know that quality instrument and from what I gather concert quality. Not looking at resale my daughter will keep as she grows up, she is 11 and that way I will not have to upgrade and the intrument can mature with her. Price is only 5k. I asked why and was told by violinmaker that she makes violins for the pleasure of it and not to make a living on as the maker does not rely on making violins as her livelihood.

February 17, 2008 at 04:28 AM · And you said this maker was a VMAAI winner? The price is a bargain, based on what other have said.

February 17, 2008 at 01:39 AM · multiple winner for viola and recently violin. I have asked if ok for me to post who the maker is, if it is then I will and maybe someone knows more and can tell me some information..

thanks all

February 17, 2008 at 05:26 AM · Lex, as an adult amateur, I usually just lurk here to pick up wisdom. But I want to reply here since your are almost certainly speaking about the maker of my viola, Nelle Doak O'Neill.

I love my viola, but am not qualified to evaluate it except that my instructor has a William Scott and my friend has a Grubaugh & Seifert, and I have played and listened to both extensively. Those instruments are a very small bit better than mine, (playability and sound) but not by much. Nelle's workmanship is great, but, unlike the sound, not in the class with those two exceptional instruments.

My instructor is principal viola with the Sacramento Phil, and he is blown away by how good this instrument is. He considers it a better instrument than played by most of the professionals he knows. Before he settled on his William Scott (for quite a bit more $) he thought seriously of commissioning an instrument from Nelle. He thinks my instrument is worth unquestionably twice, and probably three times what I paid.

Every professional who has played it has been very impressed and surprised at the price. My instrument tied for 1st at the Arizona contest (lost in a tie breaker). To answer David B, I cannot recall name of the the playing judge - it was a black lady who was principal in one of the New Mexico symphonies - perhaps somebody will know here from that little info? She was a really fine player.

I play with a very good amateur violist who, when she heard my instrument, ordered one for herself, which she loves.

The only downside I could think of is that, since Nelle started late in life and is now well into retirement, and does this as much for pleasure as income, that it could be awhile before it is finished. But it is well worth the wait. And you cannot go wrong for the money.

Just for comparison, I have a Darnton violin which I love, and for playability and sound, Nelle's instrument is comparable. The Darnton displays better workmanship (fantastic actually) and had a better setup. My viola has improved a lot with playing and a professional setup from the tech who our symphony players use. Setup might not be Nelle's forte.

BTW, I am not the only one of Nelle's customers who feels this way about her - everybody does. You could not do business with a finer person.

February 17, 2008 at 05:22 PM · Thanks Robert, you are right it is Nelle and from talking to her on the phone the first time I felt strong enough to commission one from her the following day. She has been great. I was in the process of trying out a Ming-Jiang Zhu worshop violin but after talking to Nelle decided on her. Just got the pics and final choices on the wood and am looking forward to the day when we pick it up. An update on the wood incase I was mistaken earlier. top is 50 year englemann spruce from colorado and the back ribs and neck highly flamed select bosnian maple cut in 1999 from the same tree. My daughter has her student instrument which is nice, but to have one made especially for her I could not pass up, as I told Nelle take the time you need. I am frequent a local luthier here in Austin Texas, Sandro Cocco, and he does alot of set up and work for the symphony here and he is looking forward to seeing the intrument once I pick it up and bring it here. I will have him professionally set it up if needed. thanks again

February 17, 2008 at 06:26 PM · Her website lists violins that are "modeled after the "Kreisler" of 1730 by Joseph Guarneri del Gesu."

Seems like a good decision to me. Well done.

February 17, 2008 at 07:25 PM · for what it's worth, I've been considering commissioning a violin from this same luthier - going back to school is taking a slightly higher priority than upgrading my fiddle for the moment, unfortunately, but I'm still stashing money away into my savings account for the day when I can make such a big purchase!

February 20, 2008 at 02:28 AM · Thanks to all for the advice, I feel at ease with the decision I made to have my daughters violin made from this Luthier Nelle Doak O'Neill. She has been great and sends frequent pics on the progress, will post update if desired once I pick up the violin from her.

January 15, 2009 at 01:49 AM ·

well almost forgot to update.  I am very happy with the work Nelle did and the violin came out great.  My daughter is a very happy and proud owner of her violin.  The people who have played it, a few from the symphony here had nothing but good things to say.  A very good experience.



January 15, 2009 at 04:41 AM ·

I just visited Nelle's website. From the way she expressed her words, I can see she's really sincere to her customers and her art works - the "humbleness" behind her words is truely charming!

Congratulation on acquiring a nice instrument, nothing is more happier than that for a violinist! I bet your daughter couldn't put it whever she pick it up to play, right? ;-)

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