Could this tailpiece crack be a deal breaker? I really want to buy this violin...

March 31, 2010 at 05:58 PM ·

After trying out 43 violins and working under a very strict budget I finally found the violin of my dreams. It is a German Herman Siedal and approx. 115 years old and I fell in love from the first note. It has a beautiful mellow tone, wonderful projection and suits me perfectly. 

But when looking it over tonight after getting it home I found what looks to be a crack in the top running parallel under the tailpiece. I say looks because there is some missing original varnish and shallow nicks in areas on the top around the sound post, bridge and tailpiece and it might be just be more of the same. But if not then I’m assuming that it’s a crack. I don’t know anything about old instruments and I want to know if this kind of crack is a common repair or one to be concerned about. I’m going to take it back into the violin shop tomorrow and ask the luthier about it but I wanted to hear outside opinions on whether the crack should seriously influence my decision to buy the violin. The crack appears to be about 3 inches long and seems to originate on the top aligned directly up from the button but I see no sign of a crack on the edge or running down the side at the point of the button. It appears to be very smooth with no sign of rough edges. My concern is that my violin anatomy is a mite lacking and I don’t know if this crack would be considered too close to the bass bar, sound post or something else critically important.
I really want this instrument but I also don’t want a ticking time bomb or something that I’m going to end up putting more money into it than I paid for it. Any advice is much appreciated!

Replies (22)

March 31, 2010 at 06:25 PM ·

It it's well glued there is no problem. It may be a sadle crack, a type of crack that develops in the ends of the sadle due to lack of humidity. If it's well glued it is not an issue. By the way, it will be almost impossible to get a Strad or a Del Gesù violin without a repaired crack in the top.

March 31, 2010 at 06:44 PM ·

Luis, thanks for your response. 

UPDATE:  I talked with the luthier and he said that it wasn't a crack but a seam that was showing.  He checked and said that is most likely had been that way for decades but that he would be happy to take the violin apart and reinforce it.  He said there was little chance that the violin's sound would be affected.  I'm not sure if it's better to have it reinforced now before I start playing it regular or if I should just leave well enough alone and only address it if the seams starts to spread.

March 31, 2010 at 06:55 PM ·

Take the violin appart (as in open the violin???) !!!   Ask an expert before attempting this... I heard this could kill a violin...  Well surely your maker is an expert but maybe many advice in this direction would be safer.

Good luck!


March 31, 2010 at 07:37 PM ·

If it's directly underneath the tailpiece, then it sounds like a center joint... most violins have a two-piece top, and somewhere along the way, it's possible that the joint came loose and was closed again. If it's not open now, and you like the sound of the violin, I'd say don't mess with success -- let it be and don't worry about it.

However, if the joint isn't solid and is actually moving, that's another matter. In that case, it should be taken care of.

March 31, 2010 at 07:49 PM ·

It is directly under the tailpiece and it doesn't seem to move, and the luthier confirmed that it's stable.  He said that if I chose not to have it worked on when I buy it that he would repair it for free, if it becomes necessary, for as long as I own it.

March 31, 2010 at 08:48 PM ·

 Bev if your luthier is willing to repair a possible crack in future for free I would accept the offer and get his commitment in writing. If you are still in doubt you can get another luthier to have a look and get an objective opinion, that will put your mind at ease. From your description it could be a crack that has already been repaired but only close inspection will tell.

March 31, 2010 at 10:12 PM ·

If you love the sound of it and it's taken you 43 violins to get to it.  Leave it.  You never know, it might be that special something that gives the violin the sound you love.  Buy it.  You'll regret it if you don't.  :-)

PS.  Enjoy.  It sounds like you found your wand.  "The wand chooses the wizard"

March 31, 2010 at 10:29 PM ·


Sorry, but I have more questions than answers at this point.

When the luthier said that a seam was showing, did he (she) mean that it was open; was previously open but solidly repaired, or what?

"Had been that way for decades".  Does that mean that it had been open for decades, or that a prior repair had been holding for decades?

If the center joint or a crack is open, I'd have it repaired before you buy the violin. The repair could change the sound of the instrument, even if only trivially, and it appears that with having tried 40+  violins, you are rather discriminating. If you have the repair done down the road,  your old friend might never be the same.

Reinforcing a successfully closed crack or joint can be done without opening the instrument, in many cases. I'd be wary of disassembling a violin to do this. Taking the top off results in inevitable damage, minor or major.

March 31, 2010 at 11:27 PM ·

I’ll do my best to answer your questions Mr. Burgess:

The luthier, Sten Olsen in Seattle who I believe to very reputable (which is why I’m offering the name) explained to me that the violin had a 2 part front and that what I was seeing under the tailpiece was part of the seam that had opened or separated slightly.  He used a mirror of sorts to go in the F-hole to look for patches in that area and said he didn’t see any.  He did say that the seam was stable and had no movement.  His comments about being like that for decades sounded more like the seam had opened a little and had been that way for a long time and because it was stable and not moving whoever owned the instrument chose to leave it alone.  However, from what he said I got the very strong impression that if he reinforced it he would be taking the top off to do it, but I could have misunderstood him.  From your comments it seems that there are definitely better ways to do it?  Would it be appropriate to ask him to use one of those methods instead of removing the top?

He originally suggested not doing anything with it because the violin had such a fantastic sound and he did acknowledge that the sound might be affected.  But when I asked him a few more questions to try and understand he then said that he would be willing to reinforce it so that there wouldn’t always be this worry in the back of my mind about it possibly coming apart.

Right now I’m just a little confused…


March 31, 2010 at 11:46 PM ·

My humble opinion would be that it might be best to get another luthier to take a look at the instrument and give you a 2nd opinion before you buy...

April 1, 2010 at 12:22 AM ·

I'm far from being a luthier. However, I'm under the impression that his sort of crack, assuming it isn't terribly wide, can be dealt with by steaming or otherwise hydrating the wood to cause it to expand, thus closing the crack. At that time it is glued and cleated, and the repair is complete.

So it's not an impossible repair, and may not require removal of the belly.

Anyone who actually knows what they're talking about may feel free to comment on the above. I'm basically offering moral support here.

April 1, 2010 at 07:41 AM ·

It does seem that if you went ahead and bought the violin you would be plagued by nagging doubts - unless you get that promise of a free repair in the future in writing. David Burgess has hit upon the fact that the assurances you have been given are a little vague - rather like all that "one careful owner" guff from used-car salesmen. It reads as if they themselves are not 100% sure about the crack/seam. I have never been to Seattle, and don't know Sten Olsen. Probably on the level, but how do you or I know ?

It's impossible to buy "old" without any risk whatsoever of old cracks opening up or new ones appearing. All of us have to "take a chance" at some time or another.

ps avoid having the front taken off if at all possible - recovery can take a while.

HOWEVER, I've been told that all old violins need to have the front taken off and reglued at some time because the pine belly shrinks more than the maple back and tension builds up. True or false ? How do we know when this is necessary ? Does the violin croak, or what ?? Someone out there will know !


April 1, 2010 at 10:01 AM ·

I'm just stabbing in the dark here, not having seen the violin.

From what you've said, it sounds like the center joint has been previously repaired (perhaps not that nicely, if it was easy for you to notice). If the center joint shows no movement, maybe that repair is holding for now. If the previous repair was done without removing the top, there may be glue residue on the inside which could make it difficult or impossible to securely affix reinforcing cleats by inserting them from the outside, without removing the top.

That's about all I can say, except to restate that there is the risk that a repair will change the sound a bit. Such a change may or may not be something you would notice, or find acceptable. If there's a high probability that repair will be needed in the future (which I can't determine from here), I'd probably have it done now, and then reassess the sound before purchasing.

David Beck is right in that violin purchases involve some risk, unless there is a permanent money back satisfaction guarantee, which I've never heard of.

David, I wouldn't generally recommend removing a top to relieve stresses from the wood shrinking, unless this is part of a larger repair which necessitates removal anyway. If the violin is assembled using the proper strength glue in the right places, the glue joining the top and back to the ribs will ideally give way before something more serious happens. In select cases, this joint may be partially opened to relieve stresses, rather than removing the whole top.

April 1, 2010 at 02:57 PM ·


It was a fellow member of the Hallé Orchestra, (UK), who had been an employee of W.E.Hill and Sons in their prestigious New Bond Street showroom, who is to blame for that apparently erroneous information that you need to slice off the table of old fiddles to stop them imploding !! I am glad you were able to put that right.


April 1, 2010 at 03:22 PM ·

I really appreciate all of the responses! 

I talked with Sten again and we've agreed to have the repair done before I buy the violin.  Partly for my peace of mind and partly because now that he's aware of the open seam (it is actually very hard to see under the tailpiece) he personally doesn't want to sell it until it's been reinforced.  He made it clear that if I think the repair changed the sound in any way than I am under no obligation to buy the violin. 

So I guess I'll have it done next week - here's hoping everything goes well.

Thanks again!

April 1, 2010 at 05:01 PM ·

Good luck!  I can't wait to hear how it turns out.  I hope the repair is minimal and has no negative impact on the sound.  :-)


April 2, 2010 at 11:03 AM ·

"It was a fellow member of the Hallé Orchestra, (UK), who had been an employee of W.E.Hill and Sons in their prestigious New Bond Street showroom, who is to blame for that apparently erroneous information that you need to slice off the table of old fiddles to stop them imploding !!"   I am glad you were able to put that right.


If the Hills had such a routine (as opposed to making the decision on a case-by-case basis, as needed), it's worth noting that approaches to restoration have changed quite a bit, even in just the last ten years. Part of this change has been because of interaction with museum conservators. Valuable old violins are now considered irreplaceable works of art (as they should be), and not just utilitarian objects.

The Hill repairmen did some fabulous and innovative work. Looking back on practices like cutting down historic instruments to reduce their size, relocating ff holes, and removing tops at the drop of a hat, we take a more conservative approach today.

April 2, 2010 at 12:30 PM ·

Maybe I'm missing some terminology here.  Is this referring to shortening the ribs owing to shrinking of the top from central heating?

April 2, 2010 at 01:53 PM ·

Is your question about "cutting down"? If so, I was referring to reducing the size of the entire instrument to bring it more in line with standard dimensions, and more practical for a player.

There was a time when dimensions of violas and cellos could be all over the place, and there were other instruments which weren't really either a viola or cello originally. So one might take a beautiful 20 inch body length instrument,  turn it into a 16 1/2 inch viola, and find a ready market amongst musicians.

Nowadays, there are significant markets other than musicians (such as collectors), so such an instrument would probably be more appreciated in its original state.

April 2, 2010 at 03:33 PM ·

No, I didn't mean reducing size of the plates, as on an impractical viola or cello. I just meant shortening the ribs so they didn't stick out from under the shrunken top.

April 2, 2010 at 11:00 PM ·

Got it.

Restorations serve different purposes. A musician wants a functional instrument. A museum might better serve learning by leaving things un-repaired and uncorrected, to include the information which becomes available as they morph over time. If a top becomes too small for the rest of the instrument, what better way to show it than by leaving it uncorrected, as long  as it's done in a way that it won't cause further damage?

I've been involved with some of these decisions by museums. How do they best serve the public? By leaving things alone, or by fixing them to a point where they can be used in public concerts? It's really a museum policy decision.

April 3, 2010 at 06:26 AM ·

When all's said and done it's still PROBABLY true to say that belly pine will shrink more than a maple back, and that this contributed to the problem with the violin Bev's interested in, not to mention all those wing and saddle cracks seen in so many ancient violins.

Not all makers of old used well seasoned timber, too. There are many Italians horribly warped. 

Bev has negotiated a perfect deal (congratulations) but I remember being in a similar situation myself once. When the vendor had "done up" the violin, however, the sound seemd much harder and tinnier than I remembered and in retrospect I think I should have allowed more time before rejecting that instrument. (Charles Boullangier)

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