Commission Details

May 10, 2009 at 04:56 PM ·

My friend and I were discussing commissioning this week (a process which she has started and which i plan to start this summer ).  Leaving sound alone for the moment, we both have a list of specifics that we want in the construction.  For example, she wants a particular late del Gesu pattern, but with softer, more refined sound holes; I want mine modeled on the Medici Stradivarius...but then things even get more detailed.  I want the button crowned; she wants the chamfers of the scroll blackened (as well as those on the ribs).  When it comes to varnish, we both have a even more acute demands...

The maker she's working with has been great in accomodating her needs as they fit into the overall concept of the violin.  Model, wood choice, fnish of varnish, have all been (within reason) left up to the customer, but they will certainly work on these details together as the violin progresses.   

My question for the luthiers on this site: At what point does a player's specific demands for constructing an instrument become so excessive/frustrating/contradictory that they begin trounce the maker's sense of art and construction?  

I'm sure there's a horror story or two out there that can be recanted... 


Replies (29)

May 10, 2009 at 05:31 PM ·

I go to my preferred Japanese Restaurant because I know Hideki, my friend sushi man, prepares quite good sushi and sashimi whenever I go there.  He allways offers me the best he has, because he knows I'm a demanding client. I imagine that if I started interfering too much with his art, eventually his sushi would become worse...

So, if you like a particular instrument this luthier made, ask him to make one like that. In general the current instruments of a luther represents a consolidation of his knowledge and experience with a given model, varnish, wood, sound etc. If you start interfering with that eventually he will make an inferior instrument.

Our craft is a repetitive one. We keep things that are working and discard those that worked bad. So, including new, non tested variables in this complicated process may be a bad idea.

A feature of late del Gesùs violins are those highly particular f holes. In terms of stye, a "Leduc" model with soft holes would be quite strange in terms of style. 

And since money is an ever present concern, if your instrument follows the typical style of the maker for a given period, it will be more easy to sell it than the contrary, because the instrument will not fulfill other's expectitions in relation to the maker's style. 

I comissioned a quartet o bows and gave freedom to the bow maker to make them. I did the same with 3 oil paintings I comissioned from a painter, I just asked for sea landscapes because he was good on that, eventually I have 3 masterpieces of this painter and I imagine the reason is because he was happy with what he was doing.  

In general, what I want to know is if the player is an agressive player (of the kind that digs his bow in the strings) or  a non agressive player. That's suffient to me.

But I may be wrong.

May 10, 2009 at 05:38 PM ·

I have never had a instrument commissioned, so count this as amateur advice.

When I ask a professional for something, I tend to shop around, get advice, and do what I feel is necessary to find a good quality professional. I then identify what I am trying to achieve, and what I am willing to do/pay to achieve that goal.

Then, I let them do what I pay them for. My personal feeling is that any time I am trying to override the professional's opinion, I do so at significant risk; they are the ones with the depth of knowledge in the area.

Based on that, it may be a better win/win if you identify what you are trying to achieve with the instrument. Playability should be foremost, but a certain look or feel can also be a valid goal. Identify the generalized components, not the specific steps the Luthier needs to do, which may (OR MAY NOT!!!) achieve what you intend, or may not (OR MAY!!!!) compromise the primary goal.

If you specify certain features, you are breaking the maker out of a pattern of work; it may compromise sound, and it will NOT be the makers flaw, it will be the commissioner's flaw. Wood and sound are strange things..... changing the shape or even the smoothness of the f holes will (not may, but will) affect the sound and projection. It may make it project more or less, it may change certain tones, creating muddy middles or something.

A better question may be to ask a maker how many discards they have when they are trying a new technique...then base your request for changing the maker's technique on the answer.

For the finish, I think that has more latitude. I think what the base of the finish and how it is applied has much more to do with the sound than the darkness, so have at it!

May 10, 2009 at 05:59 PM ·

I wouldn't request for more than anything that'll affect the sound. I'd request something like ebony crown on the button, a different style of scroll or the black outline. But I'd let the maker to work on his own varnish, f hole design, outline, etc, which will affect the sound even of a slight change on the details.

Think of this way - a maker wouldn't try to do something on their instrument without a reason on where it'll affect the sound to the slightest. Say, if you would have the chance to modify the f hole on a real del Gesu, will you do that?

F hole and scroll are like the signature of the maker, at least if you wouldn't mind it'll affect the sound, it's still nice to have the maker put on their signature on their crafts and arts.

Just some of my thoughts.

May 10, 2009 at 06:16 PM ·

 Luis has said it all and said it quite well (as always)

May 10, 2009 at 07:42 PM ·

An ebony crown may make the nut weaker. Be prepared to pay 200 K  more if you want to buy a Del Gesù with a non crowned nut in mint condition...

But I may be wrong.

May 10, 2009 at 08:15 PM ·


I`ve been cycling 100k a day in the sunshine and have an ebony crown as a result. I`m anyone` s for 10 k.  And I know good sushi... 



May 11, 2009 at 06:53 PM ·

Interesting.  Please expand on ebony crowns and how they may compromise the button.  I see many new makers employing them. 

An addition 200K for an intact button?  That's even more interesting.

I'm referring to things that the maker has expressed as options: model, varnish treatment, etc.  My question is how far is too far when responding to these points. 

Re: my friend's del Gesu commission/sound holes:  I can't address which late example in particular she has decided upon, but I do know that she was not looking to change the specific spirit of the sound holes, only to soften some of their crudeness.


May 11, 2009 at 08:18 PM ·

The ebony crown is used to disguise the joint when a broken nut is restored. The nut is  under a huge stress so it's one of the vulnerable points of the violin. 

There are few old instruments with undamaged nuts, so when you find one in mint condition  it may point out to the fact that the instrument is well conserved.

May 12, 2009 at 01:46 PM ·

Please don't take this the wrong way. It isn't meant to be unfriendly, but my immediate reaction was that you are both focusing on all the wrong things about your new violins. I am reminded of the words of the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright who said that his clients knew what they wanted, but that he understood better what they needed. What about the sound of the instrument? Assuring an understanding of this between maker and player might have more to do with the selection of a model than would fitting a crown on a button that doesn't need it.

Speaking as a maker, I find that requests for things like varnish color, capped buttons, and f-hole shape are relatively easy to accommodate. You won't be looking at those things when you have the violin on your shoulder!

Good luck with your plans, and I hope you end up with just the violin that you need! :-)

May 12, 2009 at 02:04 PM ·


Perhaps you need to re-read the initial post where I say  "Leaving sound alone for the moment..."

This was a post regarding construction, not sound.  That is a separate issue.


May 13, 2009 at 01:54 PM ·

Except in the case of a very inexperienced maker, I believe the best results are obtained when construction and stylistic details are left to the maker.

Experience and "personal approach"  are important in most high-level endeavors, and that's a significant part of what you're paying for. If you hire Sarah Chang to perform, she may or may not be open to suggestions that she change her bow grip or fingerings, or that she play in the style of Perlman. If I wanted her best work though, guess what I'd do (or wouldn't do) ? ;-)

Putting my money where my mouth is, just last week, I  commissioned a violin from another modern maker whose work I admire. We had a very short conversation about which of his two models he would use, the price, and delivery date. That's it. I've probably made as many fiddles as he has, so maybe I could have been forgiven for attempting to micro-manage the process. That's not what I want though. I want "his" work, and not some weird merging of his taste and mine. If I felt that he didn't already have his own complete, coherent, individual working style, I wouldn't have approached him in the first place.

As mentioned, an ebony crown can look pretty, but on a valuable old instrument, it is actually a repair artifact. It's most commonly used when not enough of the original button remains for one reason or another, such as wear, or previous bad repairs.

May 14, 2009 at 12:53 AM ·


Out of curiosity, what would possess a well known and respected maker to commission an instrument from another maker?  I would imagine you could get a pretty substantial discount if you commission something from yourself.


May 14, 2009 at 01:29 PM ·

Smiley, I intend to "collect" a small number of my own instruments too. But any maker who can't appreciate the work of others is either blind or myopic, or has an ego problem, in my opinion.

Actually, I don't get a discount from myself. A completed instrument has a certain market value, and that's what it costs me to keep it. At least that's one way of looking at it.

May 14, 2009 at 05:44 AM ·

Back to the subject of the thread:- ASK, and if the maker isn't happy he/she will not enter into a contract to make for you, surely ???

The nearest I ever came to compromising a maker's "artistic integrity" was to present a young maker with a "Strad" poster of the "Heifetz" Guarneri - not because I wanted him to imitate all the knocks and restoration work but because I didn't want a del Gesù model that was too eccentric. I hate those exaggerated parodies !! (some made by J. Guarnerius himself!). Though we had an interesting postal correspondence about thicknesses, varnish etc. I certainly didn't micromanage and the violin, which I still own, is a success. 

Discuss, but don't presume to dictate, I suppose.

May 27, 2009 at 11:34 AM ·

Mr. Manfio, I'm still curious about what you said earlier:

"An ebony crown may make the nut weaker. Be prepared to pay 200 K  more if you want to buy a Del Gesù with a non crowned nut in mint condition..."

Are there any specific examples you can cite where a specific violin went up 200K (I'm assuming we're talking USD) because the button was in mint condition?  I could see when the button was replaced completely and the price was reduced, but by 200K?  How would a dealer/appraiser arrive at this conclusion, and what would be their starting point?


May 27, 2009 at 02:24 PM ·

Hi! I am just a maker, I'm not a dealer. I've mentioned 200K as a rethoric argument, instruments are apraised taking in account many things, and condition is an important one.

As I've mentioned, the ebony crown is a repair. So when you see an uncrowned nut it may be that that particular instruments is in very good condition, so eventually you will pay more for it. 

I gave a look on Bidulph's book about Del Gesù, and it mentions when the instrument has a crowned nut. As I've expected, just four of the 25 violins (very representative instruments) in the book have uncrowned nuts:

the Kreisler, 1730;

the King Josef, 1737;

the Kochánski, 1741,

the Cannone, 1743.

So, just 4 out of 25 instruments have uncrowned nuts and, coincidentally, these 4 instruments are in very good condition, and the Cannone and the Kreisler are out of the market.



May 27, 2009 at 03:10 PM ·

I understand your point.  But even so, the violins you cite are among the most famous examples.  All things being equal, are they fair to to use in your argument?  What about the Wienawski, the Lord Wilton, or the Plowden?  Does an ebony crown detract from their value? 

I have a feeling we're approaching apples/oranges territory here.


May 27, 2009 at 04:34 PM ·

"Does an ebony crown detract from their value?". No, because these instruments are very rare, 

But allways be prepared to pay a plus for instruments in mint condition, with unbroken nuts. since it may point out to an extremely well preserved instrument. . 

If the maker to whom you are comissioning the instrument makes his instruments with a crowned nut I see no problem. 

Perhaps I'm being too  philosophical... 

May 28, 2009 at 12:25 PM ·


I can understand the attraction of the ebony crown on the button. After all so many valuable old instruments have them that it could almost act as a sign as to a good old instrument.

However...... the ebony button crown is an invasive repair that belongs more in the Victorian era than now. In these conservation conscious times when instrument restorers are anxious to preserve every fibre of original material I think it would be very frowned upon indeed to fit an ebony crown to a Strad or nice old Italian.

My work as a maker involves making copies of old Italians. These are generally aniqued but I always do the button in the original style of the maker even when the instrument I am copying has an ebony crown fitted I will not copy that which I think is a bad repair....not even for money!....

So with this example in response to the original question and with me as an example I as a maker would not agree to requests that I did not agree with or feel comprimise my philosophy as a maker.

There will of course be makers who are happy to make you a violin with a button crown and it is great that you and your friend are commissioning instruments. I wish you an anjoyable process and hope you get exactly what you want.

May 28, 2009 at 09:21 PM ·

"even when the instrument I am copying has an ebony crown fitted I will not copy that which I think is a bad repair"

I think it is a question of taste. I like it much on old or antiqued instruments as I make, but not on "new-looking". Ebony crown is not out of general stylistic, not more as  Goldpins and rings on pegs. It can be a eye-catcher on the Back. Never made of maple exept the "Ex-Vogelveith" Stradivari wich in my opinion looks not good.

May 28, 2009 at 11:30 PM ·

Wise words Melving!

Michael, I understand your point, but do you think that in a new instrument the crowned nut is as strong as a non crowned one?

May 29, 2009 at 12:09 AM ·

Yes, great post, Melvin.

We "fiddle snobs" (and appraisers, if that might be of interest) may live in a slightly different world from the average musician. We value originality in antiques, and aren't eager to embrace the "patch-ups" which have been done to the valuable antiques over time.

If enough musicians notice that a lot of great old instruments have repaired soundpost cracks, and enough makers are hard up for money, I suppose that this could become the next big thing in modern making. ;-)

May 29, 2009 at 12:14 AM ·

graft a neck from birth

May 29, 2009 at 06:53 AM ·

Luis Claudio, sometimes I do it, sometimes not. But only on antiqued Instruments. I have seen many semi-modern Violins like Garimberti or a Viola from Poggi wich carry a ebony crown from the birth. If it is a wish from a customer, I do it. As I mention it is not out of stylistic in Violin making, and have not much to do with a general philosophy, more a question of a personal taste. (my opinion).

My philosophy is a little wider, but comes on stop by "kitschy" things like the Italian map on a back of a violin. Things like soundpostcracks are not worth to mention.


May 29, 2009 at 10:53 AM ·

Ok! I have no experience with crowned nuts, but I'm curious about how strong is the glue joint endgrain maple/endgrain ebony.

This endgrain glue joint may represent about 4 milimeters of the nut width.


May 29, 2009 at 11:15 AM ·

The glue joint is not a problem, it is fixed also with the neck heel. I do it the same time when I glue the neck in the body. More interesting is the kind of shape, and how much ebony on the buttom.

I am wondering why black scroll campher, inlaid work of the Hellier, Grefuhle, or "The Spanisch" Quartett get acceptance, but not ebony crown. Only because Stradivari did it?

May 29, 2009 at 01:22 PM ·

To put in my two cents' worth on the subject of whether the button crown weakens the neck joint, let me answer with an unquivocal "it doesn't help!"

In my first years trying to get established in the profession, I took on a lot of repairs of cheap instruments. I saw many cases where the neck was so loose in the top block that I could slide a fine pallette knife all the way to the back button. In other words, the *only* thing keeping the neck in place was the glue on the button. My teacher taught us that the joint of the heel at the button required the greatest precision in fitting a new neck because that was the part that took almost all of the tension. How right he was.

Obviously, if you remove some of the button, you reduce a critical area. That said, most of the failures I saw at that joint occurred at the purfling line. If the purfling groove is cut too deeply, it becomes a weak point. Many makers reduce the depth of the groove at the nut for this reason. It is not visible and is in an area not subject to wear.

May 29, 2009 at 01:28 PM ·

Yes, the button has a fundamental role in reacting to the pulling force of the strings. That's why it's so vulnerable, there is a huge stress there.

I make the button and the edges near it a bit thicker, 5 mm or bit more, to make this region stronger.

If I'm not wrong, Guadagnini left the region under the button unpurfled in some of his instruments to make it stronger,  it would be a good idea to emulate, but some would frown upon it, I think.

May 29, 2009 at 02:00 PM ·

Michael Koeberling wrote:

"I am wondering why black scroll campher, inlaid work of the Hellier, Grefuhle, or "The Spanisch" Quartett get acceptance, but not ebony crown. Only because Stradivari did it?"

There ya go. You could do the ebony crown with black paint, like Strad did on his chamfers. That way, it wouldn't weaken the button area. :-)

Ha ha, you got me though on the "map of Italy". For those who need some background on this, I presume it is a reference to a viola made by Grubaugh and Seifert. The varnish on the back is antiqued and worn away in one area to resemble the outline of Italy. It wasn't done to please a customer though, in fact I think they still own it. It was done because these makers have an outrageous sense of humor, and a bunch of us nearly peed our pants laughing when we figured out what they had done. It's done skillfully enough that a lot of people don't notice it until it's pointed out.

Link to a picture of this viola:

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