Violin Restoration - Where to begin?

October 15, 2010 at 04:38 AM ·

 I have my eye on an old violin I am hoping to buy which will need completely gutting out and given brand new parts - fingerboard, chin rest, tail piece, bridge, strings, pegs, maybe even a new nut and soundpost (I've not yet seen the violin but a picture which isn't very clear).

I have never done restoration of violins at all but my ambition is to become a part-time luthier when I am older, so I figured that I should probably start now and see how much I really enjoy doing restoration. 

I have looked online for all the tools I need, but then there comes the problem of a varnish? How can you restore varnish on a violin, or even take off the old varnish and completely renew the whole body and scroll? Which type of varnish is also another question I would be interested in - I have read about oil based and alcohol based varnishes which apparently give violins different sounds and have different drying times. 

Any advice on anything would be useful. As soon as I see the violin properly, I will take a picture to show you! Thanks!

Replies (29)

October 15, 2010 at 04:53 AM ·

Well I'm no luthier but my advice is that you really shouldn't do this half way.  I think there are a lot more details involved than people realize and you can't learn it from the internet.  You need someone to supervise you and give you feedback while you are working.  Learn from someone who really knows what they're doing.  Either attend a violin making school or become an apprentice under a really excellent luthier.  I know of a lot of really bad woodworkers who call themselves "luthiers" and I couldn't trust any of them to do really fine work.  It's annoying.  Maybe you could convince a luthier to make you their apprentice by presenting the violin as your first project

October 15, 2010 at 05:04 AM ·


October 15, 2010 at 07:14 AM ·

 Well, Eloise (I love that name), first of all kudos for this decision. But my advice for you is no to start with the restoring of an instrument, no matter if it is valuable or not. Restoring an instrument means that you must know first how a violin is made. That is the start. 

First get the inexpensive Henry Strobel books, read them through. Then get a fiddle kit and finish it (at stewmac you can find a cheap one). Feel the wood and feel the tools in your hands (it is sexy!).

If you can go to a violin making school, that is priceless. Or get to know a good maker and ask him for apprentice.

Register at Maestronet and feel free to ask. There are tons of information there.

And over all: take your time. The violin I am finishing now was started in January.

October 15, 2010 at 12:42 PM · Yes,to everything said so far. There are also good summer courses, and violin-building schools around. I second all implications that you do this well & thoroughly from the start. Trying to cobble a violin back together won't really give you the sense of this profession/avocation that you seek. Also btw, it is pretty much verboten to take all the old varnish off and re-do. Does weird things to the tone. Sue

October 15, 2010 at 05:17 PM ·

Buy a cheapie assembly kit online -- they run about $150 -- and make one of those first.  You'll get more out of it than you think.

In other words, don't make this your "first ever" project.  Get your feet wet on a ready-to-assemble kit, and then do this as your second project, at least.  Even if the kit violin isn't the best, it will give you a good insight into how the bits go together.

October 18, 2010 at 11:56 AM ·

If you don't access to a luthier for any advice you will need, go to where you'll find they have everything you need to make your own violin...if you buy one of their violin kits, it'd be a start for you at a cost of $156 USD...Type "Violin Kits" in the box that says "keyword or item" ...They have all the pieces needed to construct your own violin including assembly instructions plus (at extra cost) all the clamps, tools,  ..You can ask them to send you their catalogue which is free...and they send to anywhere in the world....

My neighbour bought one from Stewmac three years ago and was very pleased with it...

Also go to your local library and get a book on the art of violin making and learn as much as you can about the history and construction of the violin...

Have fun, and let us all know how you get on...


October 18, 2010 at 05:02 PM ·

You could do worse than to read Hans Weisshaar's book on violin restoration. It will answer all your questions.

What it won't do is give you the actual skills and experience you need to perform this sort of task.

Personally, I'd hesitate trying to restore what might be, or have been a good violin as my first project. Get a cheapo violin-shaped object off ebay and disassemble it, then try to put it back together, using the right tools and glue. It ought to give you an idea of the skills you need to develop.

October 18, 2010 at 07:26 PM ·

 Bob, sorry to disagree,but a cheapo probably will even not have all the parts. Those VSO probably  won't be full lined and will lack of corner blocks. On the contrary , a violin kit will have all the parts a proper violin has.

October 18, 2010 at 10:57 PM ·

No problem. It seemed to me that if she was interested in restoration, something to dis-assemble would be a logical starting point. I suspect that in real life there's a lot of difference between the experience of making a violin and restoring one.

Having done neither, I bow to those more experienced in these matters.

October 19, 2010 at 10:48 AM ·

I found this website a while ago when I was looking into renovating a violin that a friend bought at a garage sale...

Hope it's a help...


October 20, 2010 at 12:25 AM ·


    I very much appreciate your enthusiam as I started working on instruments at a similar age.  As someone who has "been there done that"  I would encourage you to talk to the local violin person, she/he can take you a long way..  We use very sharp tools and even the dull ones can bite you, try to avoid staining the carpet.



November 10, 2010 at 09:58 PM ·

 I think I may look at buying a kit then... I'm not sure which type to go for. Some are more expensive than others and some offer different things. has anyone got any suggestions? 

If I did get a violin to restore too, do you think this would be good practice - maybe replacing all the basics such as the tail piece and tailgut, bridge, strings, pegs, and maybe a soundpost? I would like to work on a couple of projects just for myself and to show some other people. 

November 10, 2010 at 10:07 PM ·

Just be prepared to buy more than the kit.  You'll get it, and it will doubtless have a list of the various hand-tools you'll need to have to complete it.  Various grade of sandpaper, clamps, thises and thats.  You'll start to accumulate a nice little toolchest.

And if anyone knows where one could get a viola kit, feel free to share that information.  I can only find violin kits online.  :-(

November 10, 2010 at 11:16 PM ·

 Janis, I was wondering about viola kits too! Just because I would like my own viola... (I was converted to the dark side by that gorgeous C string!!!). I couldn't find any either so if there is one it would be nice if anyone could give us a link! If all else fails... I suppose you could get a violin kit and create a rather small viola? 

November 11, 2010 at 08:12 AM ·

 Not really. You will get nothing but a husky violin. Violas are different not only in size and shape but, for example, in rib height.

Beware of the tools you'll need. That could rise the bill a couple of thousands more.


November 11, 2010 at 08:08 PM ·

Seduced by the smoky darkness of a C-string

She pined to bring her own viola into be-ing,

While working on a mail order kit

The chisel slipped OH #%$ sh-it

Minus two fingers and her arm in a sling

She wishes she never started the thing!


November 11, 2010 at 10:20 PM ·

 Oh Dion, you do make me laugh!

November 23, 2010 at 02:55 AM ·

Eloise, I wonder how that worked out, such as if you ever got that fixer-upper. I was trying to do something like that, where I bought a violin on EBay that looked good as in no cracks or splits. The pictures did not show too much detail, and had to wait til I got it to see what it was exactly.  It turned out to be a student model, though it is like a hundred years old.  It did not have pegs or foot or bridge or chin-rest, plus the fingerboard is not good, being of a brown wood painted black. On top of all that the peg holes are egg-shaped. Considering that it was not an expensive violin to start with, it does not make sense to spend a lot of money having it professionally restored. (a tedious and time consuming process to make peg bushings) This seems like it is a good candidate for me to do some do-it-yourself violin repair. I bought a 45 year old Karl Meisel and I can take all the fixtures on it to put on my old one and buy all new stuff for the Meisel (excluding the fingerboard ).

My point being, it does not seem to far out to me for you to want to learn how to do repairs on an older violin that you can get inexpensively. If you have ever done crafts in school and you feel confident using tools, you could probably do it. It seems like other people have the same idea so you have to put up with loosing a lot of bidding before you get one.

November 24, 2010 at 10:06 PM ·

 I went to pick up my violin from the luthier and was a little shocked to find out he had already been working on it. I think the thing must have grown on him to where he felt like fixing it and he seemed to be a lot more positive about it than he initially was. It's kind of like what I was thinking that if you have something that has survived for so many years without cracking, splitting or separating, or warping, then it gives some quality of value to it and you are not too inclined to abandon it to oblivion.

November 27, 2010 at 08:04 PM ·

 Jonathan, no, I didn't get it. It rose a bit too much out of my price range! 

I've seen a few posts about people who want to fix up their own instruments or whatever else... and quite a lot of people (whether they're professional luthiers or players or whatever else) have told them off for wanting to try on their own. So I think I'll add a new question:

Is it not right to encourage people to start renovating, fixing up and improving violins as a bit of a side hobby just for themselves? Does doing this not improve their knowledge of the violin, teach them how to make small changes to the violin to improve sound etc.? Yes, it is much better if you can get first-hand experience from working with a luthier or getting a few tutorials face to face, but if that is not available for the person, can they not start doing their own stuff? 

Seeing some other peoples' comments has put me off a bit because now I am thinking I'll muck something up eventually. 

Even if it was a matter of changing the pegs, tailpiece, chin rest, bridge and strings, I'd feel as though I'd done something worthwhile... I know it's nothing like making an instrument from scratch, but it is a start isn't it? 

November 27, 2010 at 08:59 PM ·

I liked where you were going with this earlier, because I was making a shopping list myself, of things like the peg trimmers and the reamers.

I'm a serious kind of do-it-yourself-er, to where if it cost me $100 to have some sort of repair done, and I could buy a tool for $115, I would buy the tool, and then if someone else ever needed the same job, I could do it, and make my money back.

Over the years I have spent about $45k buying tools and made a living using them. There isn't anything like having the right tool for the job. Using something not made specifically for the job is where you find botched work, and a job like that is not worth the money and you have to question the integrity of someone who would do that.

A good example is a flute I bought on EBay that someone had used a tool on it to adjust the fit of the head, and had used a tool made for doing something like that for a sax. Kind of ruined the instrument. (I had it fixed, it works now and I play it but I never try to take the headjoint off, leaving well enough alone)

I suspected that may have happened, when good looking violins come up that look like they can be fixed up, apparently there are other people looking for the same thing and the price can go way up, plus, these same people know what to look for and the one you like will be what someone else likes.

November 28, 2010 at 06:34 PM ·

 Oh I'm still looking... just (as you said) everyone is looking for the same thing as me and the one I like is the one they like too! Other people can afford to go to higher prices than me too. 

It is good to know that someone else has learnt through 'doing it yourself' though. It is encouraging because I was beginning to think that people shouldn't learn like that... they should get first hand experience and training etc. 

I'd like to just do my own stuff on good but inexpensive violins... what harm would it do? The more experience I get, the better I would become. There is time when I am older to get taught by a professional. I'm not exactly going to be selling the violins I fix up at high prices.

November 29, 2010 at 06:41 PM ·

I figure as long as you're prepared to shrug and go, "Whatever," in the face of a serious oops, go ahead and munch up a cheap old violin or a kit.  As long as you recognize that you may (probably will in the beginning) screw it up, you should be fine using kits or old junkers to learn on without too much angst, although really any instrument deserves to be treated with optimism and respect at least.

Of course you'll muck something up.  That's why you learn on junkers and kits.  :-)  Don't worry about it, it's not brain surgery and you don't have to purchase malpractice insurance.  You'll be fine.

November 29, 2010 at 10:42 PM ·

I've destroyed a few things trying to learn to work on them. (I'm not a luthier but I worked most of my life repairing things for a living) If you can do it on things that are not too expensive and you own yourself, that's better than doing it to a customer's property. Failure is something that should be learned, and how to deal with it. That's something important to be able to do well.

December 2, 2010 at 12:43 AM ·

I got a violin delivered today by UPS that I bought on EBay from a pawnshop who apparently are not expert in shipping violins, resulting in a broken bridge. This gave me the opportunity to get into violin repair. I got an appropriate bridge blank at the local music store and shaped it to fit this violin. Here's what I used:

A sanding block that I got the idea from boat building books while I was in my Kayak making phase, which is to shape a nice piece of wood (in this case, extra from a keel) shaped to just be able to slide a belt sander belt onto . The thinnest saw they had at my local hobby shop that I got for bookbinding. An Olfa NA-1 knife which I have found to be the best all-around knife type tool. Pencil, and a plastic ruler to measure the distance between the string and the end of the fingerboard. With some numerous taking off and replacing I was able to come out with acceptable results. So, having a few tools lying about that you have previously tested, you can do some of the most basic type job. While I had it loosened up, I used the knife to scape off the old hardened tape someone had put on the neck and fingerboard.

December 2, 2010 at 01:07 AM ·

Eloise, can you be more specific about your goals? Do you want a hobby, or do you want to be someone who earns high respect from others in the violin business?

Jerry Pasewicz posted earlier, and provided encouragement by saying that he started at about the same age. What he didn't mention is that he went through hell and high water to get one of the best educations in our business.

December 2, 2010 at 02:03 AM ·


Here's a thought I came up with today; I wonder if you might consider doing bow re-hairs as part of your luthier career. There is a lack of such people where I live. I found out that you can order online, individual hanks of hair, enough to do one bow each. While I think I understand the process, I realise the limits of my dexterity when doing this sort of work. If yes, I will send you a bow to work on because that's what I would have to do anyway. I can buy a mailing tube and mail it off. Just an idea, to help you get into working on other people's stuff. There are not any special tools involved, just getting it all nice and even, seems to be the most difficult part. I have two bows and one is about to the end of its usability. I have the other I can use in the mean time, so no big rush or anything. The people around here only want to work on expensive bows to make it worth their while. To me, nice old German bows are not disposable items.

December 10, 2010 at 06:43 PM ·

 Oh wow, Jonathan! Thank you for that amazing offer and suggestion - I truly am amazed. However, I would be reluctant to do this for a few reasons;

After a bit of research, I've found out that good bow re-hairs take professional or trained hands. Having never re-haired a bow before, I would be reluctant to try on someone else's bow. And another reason is I would probably p!ss off quite a few people on here if they found out I had re-haired a bow without any sort of training ;) 

I am very thankful for that offer though! And yes, I would like to do some bow stuff when I am older too :) 

You can email me on if you would like to discuss it with me. I would be very grateful if you could give me some tips on anything to do with making/restoring etc.!

December 10, 2010 at 07:31 PM ·

Oops. I didn't realize you were in the UK. I should have checked on your location before thinking of mailing things back and forth. I knew this woman a bunch of years ago and she had a child and got a work at home job where she went to a pottery shop and loaded up on a stack of flats of green molded pieces. She would use a knife to clean the edges where the two halves of the mold came together and there was a flashing. She had that job because she could do it. She had an earlier boyfriend who had a family business with his father making macrame things like hanging flower pot holders so she was pretty skilled with her hands. The point being that if I was to sit there with her and try to do what she was doing there was no way I could think of keeping up with her. So, though I can learn a lot of skills using tools, there is a limit to what I can easily achieve in a direct hands-on type situation.

Oh, well, I'll try it myself and I will give an update on how it comes out. I have a bow that came with this vintage 60's Karl Meisel that just says Germany on it. It is nice and in good condition but the hair needs to go. From what I have seen on Youtube videos, what you need is a small alcohal lamp some thread and some fine metal wire and a small comb which I can use one of my old mustache waxing combs for.

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