Is it reasonable to request setup changes when buying a violin?

April 21, 2010 at 07:51 PM ·

In my quest to search for a playable violin, I came upon two contrary attitudes when I inquired about the possibility of altering the violin I was interested in purchasing - one luthier just bluntly said no, the other was willing to work with me to make sure that the violin would fit me properly. The shop with the former luthier ended up altering my violin for free since I had bought it from them (so it more than made up for the unpleasant experience). 

Since it's very likely that any violin that I'll buy in the future will require some kind of setup changes (at the very least, shortening the string length; to the extreme - thinning the neck and narrowing/replaning the fingerboard) unless I commission one, I'm wondering whether it's reasonable to expect that luthiers would do this kind of works as part of the deal, or do I usually have to pay extra?  If the latter is the case, how much should I expect to pay?  Obviously, the value of the violin is a consideration, luthiers are unlikely willing to do that for a violin that sells for $500 (but my violin was only a little over $1K).  What are the things your luthiers were willing to change for you when you took out a violin on approval (Mine replaced the tailpiece)?  What are the things you can request when you purchase a violin as part of the deal? Replacing the chinrest (I've done this a few times)? Narrowing the neck?  Replaning the fingerboard?  Changing the string height? Changing the string length? Changing the string distances? A new bridge? Fixing a crack? Cleaning & polishing? What about replacing the strings with your favorite set? What's the common practice in your area?  Please share your experiences, thanks!

Replies (24)

April 21, 2010 at 08:11 PM ·

 Joyce,

There is a difference between things that have to be done and things you'd like done.

Here are some issues I've seen in violins I've tried recently that would have to be done:

1. string height far above or below standard, especially when it causes buzzing. Be careful of a violin that sounds great with low strings--I once tried one with a very low set-up, and asked that they be raised to a standard height. It killed the sound, and I didn't buy it.

2. pegs that are shot. This can be a matter of opinion, so you have to be careful about demanding new pegs. Also, pegs that are not working smoothly.

3. a bridge or nut with poorly-shaped or too-deep grooves, or grooves that are poorly spaced. The bridge should have parchment for the E. I always ask for a Hill-style tuner instead of the ones with the big lever that can damage the instrument.

4. a fingerboard that needs dressing, or a thin fingerboard. Just a couple of weeks ago, I tried a violin with a fb that was obviously shot and would need replacement. However, that also implies an adjustment (raising) of everything else--nut, bridge, maybe sound post. I would not have purchased it in that condition (keeping in mind that, even if I had loved the sound, doing work like this could change the playability substantially--the work would have to be done first before I pay for it).

Other things, like shaping the fingerboard/neck, should not be considered necessary and should be paid for, though these days you might be able to negotiate a deal. Depends on the dealer's circumstances and desire to move the fiddle.

It takes some experience to know what good, standard set-up looks like--when in doubt, show the violin to someone with experience.

Scott

April 21, 2010 at 09:23 PM ·

a pleasant discussion could prove invaluable...however, it is all about what and how much change "you" wish. If pegs are shot and major repairs are needed, this has no doubt already been taken care of by he shop or the "lesser" price reflects needed work.

Personally, I have never needed to ask such questions of a luthier and in my own very modest sales endeavors have never been presented with such questions either

April 21, 2010 at 09:50 PM ·

Joyce - good questions, and Scott - good, detailed answers. I would add that circumstances and the price of the violin often make a big difference. A dealer will often be loath to do $500 worth of work to perfectly set up a $1,000 violin. Also some dealers are not makers or repairers and have little choice but to sell it as is. But if you're knowledgeable enough, you can point out this and that and have them as bargaining points.

Recently I acquired a violin directly from the maker. I told him that I felt that the neck was too thick, and that I wanted more scoop in the fingerboard. He felt that the neck was normal, and that if I decided against buying the violin - which I had out on approval - he might have more trouble selling it to the next customer, but if I decided to buy it, he'd willingly make the changes. This was fair. I did buy it, and he did make the adjustments.

As to changing the chinrest, that's so easy that I can't imagine any dealer making a fuss. Ditto for cleaning and polishing. Asking for nicer/fancier pegs and tailpiece would fall under the want-but-don't-need category. But I feel that if the instrument in question is at least 10K, it's not an unreasonable request.

April 22, 2010 at 06:12 AM ·

 Sam and Raphael,

Sometimes shops just won't do what's necessary. A few years ago, I considered a $30k instrument at a well-known shop in the midwest. It was about 100 years old, and the pegs were definitely shot. It would have cost the shop little to replace them, but they refused. I couldn't believe they put that kind of deal at jeopardy for a couple of hundred dollars.

Scott

April 22, 2010 at 06:47 AM ·

Scott,

I bet if you put down the 30K, the pegs would have appeared...too often "prospective" buyers expect things to be done without their commitment to buy...I'm sure many a luthier has learned this lesson the hard way....what if the pegs were replaced and you said, no, I think I'll keep looking...new pegs yes, not the variety the next prospective shopper wants; quite possibly.

People lacking tact can very quickly insult a skilled luthier or serious collector/seller by trying to haggle the price or "chisel" something for free...the phrase, "NO SOUP FOR YOU", comes to mind

April 23, 2010 at 02:44 PM ·

Hello Joyce; as per your question directed to my blog, When I took the fiddle off the rack at this music store (not a violin shop) the bridge was defective, had a big half moon divot for the E. So they had their "Luthier" cut a new one, no problem no charge. But the new one wasn't any good. That's when I brought it to a real luthier to work on and of course paid for all the following work, and very happily I might add.

But a few years ago (quite a few) I got a pretty good violin made in Chicago from a good luthier-maker-dealer. After playing it a few days I thought the bridge was a little high, brought it back to him, he agreed and cut it down a bit, no charge.

It looks like you've already got good advice/ opinions on this thread, not much more I could add. I think to ask for modifications within reason is ok, doesn't hurt to ask.. but you don't want to get a good dealer to be leary of dealing with you in the future either. Kinda been down that road myself.

April 23, 2010 at 03:35 PM ·

Thanks everyone for your great insight!  I want to clarify that I'm not the haggler type. When I inquired about the changes, I was totally ready to pay. I was just surprised that someone would not even consider that as an option.

I'm surprised to find out that requesting setup change is an exception rather than norm. Even to my inexperienced eyes/hands, I can see/feel that among the violins I have tried, some bridges are too high, some have less than ideal string spacings, nuts (e.g. edge protrudes from fingerboard), pegs, etc., and these are all from very reputable violin shops with highly skilled luthiers (whether they are the ones doing the setup is another story). Perhaps if I were not as "physically challenged," I would have been more forgiving about less-than-ideal setup...

April 23, 2010 at 04:32 PM ·

I'm rather suprised hearing about some of the adjustments that weren't made by the time a customer was ready to take the violin out on approval.  I have spent the past six months or so looking for my new violin (which I finally bought 2 days ago) and most of these things had been done before I ever took the fiddle out to try.  The fingerboards had been replaned, the pegs re-fitted, the bridge adjusted to correct height, placement etc.

The luthiers in the Seattle area are good but I don't think that they were going beyond the call of duty in making sure the violin was properly set-up for prospective customers.  If a shop wanted to sell a violin you would think that they would want the instrument at it's best in order to entice the customer.

Just my 2 cents before my morning coffee...

 

April 23, 2010 at 04:37 PM ·

Dealers have lots of bad experiences with players taking stuff on approval, then bringing it back beaten up, saying "it's not the one for me". The dealer then has to restore the damage.You can hardly blame them for being cautious.

Most points have been covered except that with thinning the neck a point of no-return can be reached. If YOU decide not to buy, the next person might want the neck as it was before - an expensive matter, re-necking a violin.

However, if a dealer offers instruments with those listed faults, it's probably better to try elsewhere. Anything has to be "merchantable". I am VERY surprised by Scott's experience Midwest at the price of $30K.

April 23, 2010 at 04:45 PM ·

It's without doubt that price must come into the equation - in bigger shops with multiple luthiers, cheaper violins are most likely set up by "cheaper" (= less skilled) luthiers or sold as is, and the more expensive the fiddle, the more carefully set up it should be. It makes business sense. Who can blame them? 

Bev, congratulations on finding your perfect violin after a long search! Do you mind me asking what price range were you looking at?  The most expensive one that I tried was $5,500, and the cheapest was $1,300 (Mind you, some have perfect setup in this range). I'm wondering at what price point can I start seeing carefully set up fiddles?

April 23, 2010 at 05:42 PM ·

Perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but I have a small caution: let the violin guy decide what's wrong: tell him what you feel, but not how to solve it.

I hear regularly from players that they think their violin's neck is too large. If I listened to them, I'd be ruining a lot of violins. It's rarely true: neck dimensions fall within a very small range, and that's for a reason. The most common problem I see is that there's some defect in the neck's shape that makes the player uncomfortable, and once that's discovered and fixed, everything is fine.

April 23, 2010 at 07:09 PM ·

Michael,

"Perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but I have a small caution: let the violin guy decide what's wrong: tell him what you feel, but not how to solve it."

We are back to that tact and diplomacy thing !

April 24, 2010 at 03:05 AM ·

Maybe. To me it's more like letting the person who's the expert solve the problem. The player's an expert at what he feels; the repairman should be the expert at how to fix it. I'm a big believer in finding the best person to do a job, then letting that person do his thing, and I do that regardless of which end I'm on. When I do my taxes, for instance, I don't feel like I need to be involved, because I have someone who knows what she's doing, much better than I do. Of course, to have confidence in this process, you have to find the right people . . . . .

April 24, 2010 at 02:26 PM ·

My most recent new instrument purchase was a new Jay-Haide a l'ancienne cello, 5 years ago. Before I took it home, on approval for a week, from the dealer's, I had him lower the bridge. I returned 2 days leater to have it lowered further, which he did. At the end of the week I returned to finalize the purchase and requested further lowering of the bridge. The dealer thought this might spoil the tone and did a "New York neck reset" for me instead, which involved opening part of the the top seam, resetting the neck, and regluing and clamping. After a long lunch I was able to take the cello home again.

I would think a luthier/dealer would do what is necessary to make a sale.

I would also think that if a dealer has a competent luthier, they would know which instruments have non-standard dimensions in the necks of violas and violins and be willing to modify them to standard. These are construction defects, the fault of the maker. I recently had one violin and one viola so adjusted - at my expense - but I had the shop's head luthier determine the dimensional irregularities and repair them.

Andy

April 24, 2010 at 02:39 PM ·

maybe going around in circles a bit here, but circles can be fun. I took mine to a luthier I had never dealt with before. He said I needed my finger board re-plained and shaped correctly, along with the bridge and post. I was leary of the finger board work. Boy was I wrong!! For those of us who don't know better, it's all bridge and post. But I could not beleive the difference this work made, not only to the sound (surprize) but to the playabilty and intonation.

I appologised to the Luthier, and swore my unfailing loyalty to him. He just smiled at me and said " I'm glad I could make a finger board believer out of you, pass it along"

April 24, 2010 at 05:02 PM ·

Michael:

That's a good point, and I totally agree. I did not tell the luthiers what I wanted them to change. I just told them what my issues were.  One even asked me what I liked and disliked about each violin (the ones I took out on approval, and my own) before making the list of needed repair. I think that's the best way!

Many necks are too large for me because I have tiny hands and extremely short thumbs (and pinkies). Would you explain why the neck dimensions have to fall within a very small range? Does the neck affect tonal characteristics? Thanks!

Dave:

I agree about the fingerboard --  I did not realize it makes such a huge difference until I played a 7/8 that had a "normal" fingerboard (I was told my fingerboard was "too flat," not really sure what that meant - whether it was the radius, angle or scoop?) - my intonation improved instantly, and shifting to higher positions was much easier.

April 24, 2010 at 09:37 PM ·

Yes, thinning the neck can have a very bad tonal effect, and it's impossible to reverse without a neck graft, which is an expensive job you don't do on inexpensive violins.

April 26, 2010 at 03:54 PM ·

Now I'm totally fascinated by violin construction and setup!  I had a nice chat with Mr. Schuback yesterday at our local handmade instrument expo. He mentioned that he was planning on setting up violin making classes locally - I would be the first one to sign up! I may never build my own violin, but it would be great to know how a violin is put together and be able to diagnose and correct them when things go wrong. (I hope it won't interfere with my violin practicing too much. :) )

BTW, for those in the metro Portland area who are also interested in Mr. Schuback's classes, you can drop him an email and ask to be added to his mailing list: violin@schuback.com

April 26, 2010 at 04:08 PM ·

Joyce,

I ended up purchasing a very nice, late eighteenth century German violin for $2250.  I lucked out because the violin would have been priced a good deal higher except it had some blemishes near the fingerboard and bridge that brought the price down.  The tone however is fantastic and I think that the blemishes give it character so it was a win-win for me.

 

April 26, 2010 at 05:03 PM ·

Congratulations on your German Bev. Sounds like a great deal.

I used to have a post setter but I lost it. Probably a good thing that I lost it as I could never resist trying to find a sweeter spot for the post. About 80% of the time it would be worse and I couldn't get it back to where it was.

Tried cutting a bridge once also. It was pathetic.

Now I leave it up to the Pro's.

April 26, 2010 at 10:24 PM ·

Bev -   Wow, I can't believe you got a great sounding 200+-year-old antique for that price.  You are truly lucky!

Dave - I know what you are talking about. Whenever I messed around with my bikes (I took some basic repair classes), I ended up having to pay someone to have the damages reversed. Once I got a nice set of bike repair tools, I just picked up the spoke wrench and started tightening the nipples randomly, and pretty soon found out that the wheels wouldn't spin anymore. I had to pay a small fortune to have the bike shop re-true the wheels.  I hope I'll have better sense to leave my violin alone now... :)

I got my violin back. The neck feels nice in my hand, and the fingerboard is perfect, so most things are much easier now.  However, they "forgot" to shorten the string length...  I learned from violin maker John Hill yesterday that shortening string length would reduce string tension, so it would affect tone and how the string feels under the fingers (He emulated it by tuning the violin down a half-tone and had me play it). I decided to leave it as is for now, and evaluate whether it is absolutely necessary to have it shortened as I'd hate to ruin the perfectly shaped fingerboard & nut, or the sound of my violin (not to mention practicing on a borrowed violin).

April 26, 2010 at 11:49 PM · There can be several other complications from shortening string length. The tension issue could be fixed with 3/4 strings. But that won't fix the afterlength/tailgut length. And I've seen a sound post that did not work when moved from its normal location to follow the bridge. A solution that I hope works is what I'm working on now: a custom 3/4 fiddle with nearly full size body width but 3/4 length and 300 mm string length. It didn't sound too bad in the white and is now being varnished. It is for a lady with small hands. I sincerely hope she likes it.

April 27, 2010 at 12:05 AM ·

Lyle, I'm confused.  The way string length is shortened, according to my discussion with violin maker Caitlin Pugh, is to cut the fingerboard and widen the nut, so the bridge should not have to move.  John Hill also agreed that it's the better way (He originally suggested resetting the neck when I was interested in one of his 7/8s).  Do you have a different way in mind?

October 26, 2010 at 03:12 AM ·

I just bought a new violin today. A German one for $1500. Here's what I experienced.

When i was buying it I told him that I had a couple issues. The first was that the "action" or string height seemed high and I felt like I was having to push excesively on the E. Second was I wanted to keep the chinrest from the old violin. Lastly, I told him that my teacher wanted me to get rid of the fine tuners on the G,D and A.

He checked the strings and said the E was to high and he would take care of it. I paid and left it with him. When I came back at 5, he had adjusted the string height, taken care of the chinrest and the tuners. I know the later two things are minor.

These were not major changes to the set up of the instrument. I think the adjustments were given as a part of good customer service and I really appreciated it.

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