What I need to point out and to know if I order a custom made instrument

May 24, 2010 at 07:51 PM ·

So, I 've been looking around, and have learned great deal of things about a violin on my quest for a violin.

Buying an available violin is the easier option than ordering one for myself only from a luthier. I understand that.

But I'm curious, If, if I have any chance to order one, what should I tell the luthier? I only have few ideas here such as: my prefer tone (warm/bright), size, model, string to be used, finishing...

Other than that, is there anything else people would add? Is it appropriate to give exact measurement to the luthier, say, arm length, finger lenght...etc to have one match my size perfectly.

We don't count money factors here, or the later obstacle that I only can use my customized violin and that may bring me difficult. I'd love to hear answers on the communication between a customer and a luthier only.


Replies (21)

May 24, 2010 at 10:07 PM ·

Thanks for this interesting question.  I'd like to know from violin makers, and from people who have had experiences with commissioning instruments about what the process is like as well. However, I suspect that the answers will depend on why people commission. Some want the kind of sound that a particular maker is known for. Others, like me, who have physical quirks that make playing a regular-sized violin difficult/impossible, will have to discuss about detailed measurements. (I suspect that the maker would want to know the specs for the violin, such as string length, fingerboard width, neck girth, etc., not your arm length, finger lengths, etc.)

When I discussed the possibility of commissioning a violin with an award-winning violin maker, she suggested that I should wait until I have something that works for me, or have a better idea about what my needs are before I take the plunge...

May 24, 2010 at 10:32 PM ·

I have 2 violins custom-made for me by Edward Maday, and 1 violin custom-made for me by Vittorio Villa. I have commissioned a second one from Vittorio and a 3rd one from Ed - so I'm obviously pleased with the results.

That said, it is helpful to have a good amount of experience trying out different violins, seeing and hearing what you like, and then being able to articulate your desires and preferences to a maker - both tonally and visually. If anyone is interested, I can look in my e-mail archives for some examples of what I tried to articulate to makers - and what their replies have been.

When you comission your dream violin, be realistic. With the best intentions, there can always be some misunderstandings about say varnish color and other details. Both you and the maker should try to be somewhat flexible. Also, keep in mind that no violin plays itself; it's a partnership. And a new violin needs to be vigorously broken-in for some time.

May 24, 2010 at 11:01 PM ·

I am mostly a viola maker now. I can consider comissioners' preferences such as size. But I have my own ideas about model (loosely based in Andrea Guarneri), colour, varnish texture, and basic features of the sound etc. In general a player will comission and instrument because he played and liked one I made, so it would be strange if he asked me a for a too  different thing. 

I am not willing to now  make a Gasparo da Salò or Maggini viola, for instance, because I would have to make 5 or 6 (or more) of them till I get a good sound result. Or to change my varnish and colour. Eventually, the comissioned "different" instrument will be harder to resale because it does not fit the maker's standart production. 

I comissioned some oil paintings form a friend painter. He did what he liked. His daughter phoned me saying "my father is making a huge oil to you, it's toooo big!". I asked her "is he happy with that" and she sais, "oh, yes, he is", so I said "let him do what he wants" Eventually I have  a lovely oil painting measuring 2,60 by 1,26 meters, and I love it!!! 

But I may be wrong.


May 24, 2010 at 11:23 PM · I normally do not take commissions but did one recently for a lady with small hands. She was playing a 3/4 size that fit her but was unhappy with the sound. She had played some of my full size and liked the tone. She basically told me the color she wanted and the tone. I designed the fiddle with sound in mind and a 300 mm string length. She also wanted a little wider fingerboard. She has only had it two weeks and is already talking about another one. If you know that you need other than a full size, try to make it one of the common ones, such as 7/8 or 3/4, in case you do need to sell it some time.

May 24, 2010 at 11:46 PM ·

I'd think that for a viola or cello you should get somewhat particular about size and shape, as there are real choices to be made there.  My wife had a really nice Erdesz viola-- forced to buy it by her teacher, who insisted it of all her students-- and while it suited her playing style it was totally wrong for her physique.  So she eventually sold it and got a 15 3/8" model, which was a great success.

Violin makers vary a lot in what they offer purchasers.   You generally see a choice of model (again, size being something of a factor if you want more mobility) and -- depending on the maker -- some input into varnish.  Antiqued or no, etc.  Sometimes it's as simple as asking for the Strad or the Guarneri.  One maker I've talked to will make only two models but find ways to juice up a violin for a professional while making it easier to play for a student.  Another shop seems to make about a dozen different Strad and Guarneri models (each!), Amatis, not just one but two Storionis, and so on.

On the other hand, I've had one maker say that he does two flavors only-- bright or dark sounding.  And the maker of one of my instruments doesn't really take commissions so you get what he likes-- a particular model with a given style of varnish.  One west coast place does every instrument differently and never on commission, so you have to drop in and see if you like what they've done this month.

Unless you have a very specific need, like a powerful fiddle that will fill Shea Stadium or something that will match a Stainer in a string quartet, I'm not convinced it makes too much sense to meddle after you've made the basic decision on model and varnish.  To do so can be somewhat like saying "I don't like your work but here's how to make it fantastic."   If I have a choice I go for for less-tampered-with varnish, but have learned that even choosing between a Strad and del Gesu model is fraught with uncertainty.  I have my general preferences in that department, but some of the best modern instruments that I've tried go against that bias.

So I think the best idea is to find someone whose previous work you've liked, and ask to see it again.  Or if the maker offers some discrete choices, pick a flavor and write a deposit check.  If you have any extreme physical needs (short arms, the need for help in high positions, incredibly fat fingers) this might be a good time to mention those.  The maker might also want to hear you play and cater to your tastes and ability, but that's up to him or her.

May 25, 2010 at 01:51 AM ·

Some great points have been made here. While there is general agreement amongst high-level professional about what a "good fiddle" is, it still won't be the same for everybody.

Who knows better what you want? Is it  you, or a teacher who recognizes your potential, and can anticipate your future needs? Or is it an experienced maker who has watched you play? I won't attempt to answer, it's just food for thought.

Mr. Manfio has introduced an interesting proposition about going along with what an "artist" does naturally .  If you were to commission a violin from Stradivari, would you micromanage the process and tell him how to do it, or would you give him the freedom to "do his thing"?

May 25, 2010 at 02:48 AM ·

I generally agree that one should let the maker do their thing and not try to ask for something vastly different than what they are accustomed to doing.  Most makers improve their process over time and with practice are able to produce better and better instruments. 

Some makers are better at making violas; while others are better at violins or cellos.  There is a big enough difference that one cannot expect the same process to work for all types and sizes of instruments.

Perhaps David Burgess or one of the other luthiers can speak to this, but if I had $20-30K to drop on a 1/4 size violin for my son (I don't have that much BTW), but if I did, would they be able to make a GREAT instrument for him -- something that would rival their full size instruments?  I would think not. 

My point is, one should find a luthier that is already making the type of instrument you are looking for and let them do their thing.  If you change anything, then you will not be getting their best work.

One other thing to keep in mind, if you ask for something that is dimensionally outside the "norm" it might greatly impact the value of the instrument.  If/when it comes time to sell, you greatly limit the number of potential buyers if your instrument is not a "standard" size.


May 25, 2010 at 09:09 AM ·

David Burgess will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that to make a violin the maker needs moulds, templates and other gadgets specific to each model of instrument. If you ask for something "way out" he/she has to tool up specially, and he/she will not want to do that unless the cost can be recouped by subsequent sales of similar instruments. And, unless you are very experienced, the maker will know vastly more than you do as to what "works". This still gives you some leeway with the choice of timber and colour of varnish, however.

The literature of the violin is full of poetic phrases. "A sonority made remarkably telling by the brilliancy of the quality". "The bright woodiness". "A vigorous and incisive power". Try to be down-to-earth when describing the kind of violin sound that appeals ! Look around for a violin you covet and find out what model it's based on, Strad, Amati, Guarneri ?? As someone suggested to Joyce, take time and clarify your needs.

I have stuck to the well-tried classical models, standard body-length and full widths, and asked for traditional construction & thicknesses; luckily no maker (so far) has laughed at me and sent me away !

May 25, 2010 at 12:37 PM ·

If you like the work and sound of a particular maker, buy one of his/her existing instruments. That way you will know exactly what you are getting. No violin maker, and we will all be quick to tell you, can guarantee what a new instrument is going to sound like. Wood is an organic material, no two pieces are alike, and each piece will contribute its particular characteristics to the sound. A good maker will try to work with the wood to bring out its best qualities. But if the wood is tending toward a dark tone, it is foolish to fight against that because the customer wanted a bright instrument. You can imagine that the resulting instrument will likely not be satisfactory.

For people with special requirements in an instrument, the story might be different. I have done a lot of work for players who were having difficulties with the size of their instrument, who were experiencing physical difficulties and pain, and in two cases, players who were looking at the end of their careers. At that point, choosing between a Guarneri model and a Strad model or a spirit varnish and an oil varnish becomes completely insignificant.

May 25, 2010 at 01:22 PM ·

I, too, have a custom made violin by Vittorio Villa.  I told him that I wanted a particular sound, a particular finish (new or antiquated looking), and accessories.  I got the violin of my dreams!  Having such a sweet sounding violin will make you want to practice more - hey, that's a good thing!  With that,  you should be in touch with the luthier throughout the entire process, from choosing the wood, the accessories, which way you want the flames to go, and so forth.  Good luck with your decision.  It is well worth it to have your own custom made violin!  It is also a lt cheaper to purchase it from the luthier him/herself than to purchase a "ready-made" violin from a violin shop.

May 25, 2010 at 02:06 PM ·

As long as we're on the subject of custom-made instruments, how awkward is it to decline one if you're just not thrilled with it?  And what does the luthier then do with it?  Is it offered for sale to others as a reject?

May 25, 2010 at 03:23 PM ·

For me, it's absolutely no problem if someone rejects an instrument. If I've received a deposit, I'll refund it right away, at any time for any reason, and a person doesn't even need to wait till the instrument is finished to reject it. Maybe they're having second thoughts about spending the money, or maybe they found something else they like in the interim. No big deal.  I generally have other people waiting. I've also swapped instruments with people whose taste in sound changed over time, and bought my own instruments when I found them for sale. Anybody know of any?  Different makers will have different reactions and ways of doing things though.

As far as an instrument being a "reject", it doesn't seem to be a problem.  I've had instruments turned down by a student or amateur, and then some high-level player loved the same instrument. Go figure. ;-)

After all, Strads are often sold in favor of an instrument the player likes better, so most of them have been rejects too. LOL

May 25, 2010 at 04:37 PM ·

Would makers on this board please answer this question -  When people with special physical needs came to you, did they usually bring their own specs, or did you look at their playing and help decide what would work for them?  Thanks!

Several people brought up a good point about the resale value impact if an instrument has out-of-norm dimensions. However, as Robert Spear pointed out, just like sound and aesthetics become secondary for people who otherwise face the tough decision between struggling to play and not playing at all, resale value is probably not on those people's minds if they can get an instrument that works for them. At least it would be the case for me. However, I can see that if somehow my needs change later, or the instrument stops working for me, then it may become a problem. I guess then I will have a nice heirloom to pass on...  ;)

May 25, 2010 at 06:06 PM ·

To answer Lawrence's question, at least in my case, the customer has a set period of time to decide whether to keep the instrument or not. If it's not going to work, I will make a second instrument and the customer can chose between them. In the event that neither violin is suitable, which fortunately hasn't happened yet, then both instruments will be put up for sale and the customer gets most of his money back from the first one that sells.

Many makers I know, myself included, accept a down payment and then a monthly payment reached through mutual discussion. This gives the maker something to live on while the violin is under construction. After a certain amount has been paid, the maker receives the balance upon completion of the instrument. Both parties are considerably invested at this point, and I, as a maker, do not want a single player out there who is unhappy with my instrument.

There are many ways this whole process can be handled, but when you've been in the business for a while, you learn to accept that sometimes things don't work out.

May 25, 2010 at 06:28 PM ·

Joyce-- When a person is having problems and wants an instrument made to mitigate the difficulties, it's no easy task. If it is simply a matter of a very small hand or a very small person (I was thinking of violas when I wrote originally), the solution might be very straightforward because it is not a condition of illness. Dimensions can be adjusted and the instrument can be kept in proportion.

Since my original degrees were in music and education, I have the advantage of knowing the basics of all the stringed instruments in modest depth. It will be no surprise to anyone here that bad habits left uncorrected can really come back to haunt you. My wife and I have friends who are kinesiologists and chiropractors who will look for things that the rest of us don't see. I once lost a very nice sale to a person whose problems with his bow arm and shoulder began to clear up after a few adjustments and some physical therapy.

The tough ones are the musicians who are injured and whose capabilities are diminished more or less permanently. This is perhaps where the strangely shaped instruments with little resale value have their place, but even that is not a given. As an example, I'm going to make up a client who is actually a compilation of two individual clients. This forum is heavily indexed by search bots, and I wouldn't want anyone to be easy to recognize. Thinking again of violas, this customer endured a great deal of pain in his left arm and shoulder, complicated by a severe case of TMJ. The doctors told him he should not play, but he loved the viola too much to stop (he did try to cut back). I recommended the vertical alto, even though there is a learning curve. He resisted for months, but once he played that, with all the weight off his body, his condition responded to treatment. In fact, he can play the small viola on his shoulder again, but he continues to play the vertical instrument as well.

May 26, 2010 at 03:11 PM ·

Once upon a time it was thought that oil varnish was good, spirit varnish, BAD. Indeed it used to be thought that the sound of the Stradivari violins was primarily down to the varnish.

I am wondering whether it's best to ask for an "oil" varnish when commissioning a new violin. Some makers charge extra.  Boiled and "siccative" linseed oil might not be the magic ingredient after all, it seems to me. 

Maybe someone can help allay any myths, if that's what they are. It might help Phuong Bui.

May 26, 2010 at 04:36 PM ·

On whether to ask for oil or spirit varnish, I personally would want whichever the maker is most familiar with, and does best. Either one ends up as a dried coating (hopefully) :-)  and the properties of either can range from hard and brittle, to soft and gummy, depending on the formulation and methods used.

The latest technical  research strongly suggests that Stradivari used an oil varnish, made primarily of linseed oil and conifer tree resin, with some added colorants. Knowing the ingredients doesn't mean that one can reproduce it though. Results can vary a lot by the proportions of ingredients, method of application, and things like cooking time and temperature.

What makes Stradivaris special (when they are)? A lot of theories have been tested and come and gone, and we still don't know. Emphasis seems to be shifting away from it being something about the varnish, particularly since the evidence now is that the varnish was something quite ordinary.

There are a lot of good questions too about how superior they really are. Listening audiences do a very poor job of picking them out from other good fiddles, including modern.

June 2, 2010 at 03:39 PM ·

 Thank you all for your answer.

I mainly have same concern with Joyce in term of physical difficulties, so I think of commissioning one when I can afford it. But I'm not sure what I can ask, and what I should not.

i won't tell the luthier what to do. But I will let him know what I want. i just really don't know if he would take that personally or not.

Really, many interesting points have been made. Thanks!

June 2, 2010 at 08:14 PM ·

"I won't tell the luthier what to do. But I will let him know what I want. i just really don't know if he would take that personally or not."

If the luthier gets cranky, find a different one!  :-)

June 2, 2010 at 08:33 PM ·

A friend of mine commissioned a viola & she had to make several visits to the maker once she began to break-in the instrument. On the flip side, another friend bought a viola bow & the maker had put a strange bump where the thumb needs to go. The maker pitched a fit when my friend asked him to shave it down.  I'm sure most luthiers would be fine with it, but I would think that making sure the luthier is open to follow-up visits & adjustments would be a good idea.

June 3, 2010 at 01:11 PM ·

Phuong-- I agree with David. If the luthier resists your suggestions without very good reasons, find another luthier. In the cases (not many, I'm happy to say) when I am approached by someone with physical limitations who loves the instrument to the point that he is willing to pay for something out of the ordinary, I find it very moving. Thinking of the luthiers I know personally, I can hardly imagine one of them who would not bend over backward in an effort to help. Put your hesitations aside. When the time comes to seek a luther to commission, I think you will find it to be a rewarding experience all around.

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