Shaving down the neck of your violin

November 12, 2010 at 05:54 AM ·

My daughter has been advised that she needs to shave down the neck of her violin to make it narrower to accommodate her smaller sized hands.  I'm a little worried that this might adversely affect the value of the violin.  Actually, it's a bit of a sore point with her as her previous teacher made a big deal of her small hand size affecting her future ability to play the really challenging repertoire as she advances. (Just to give you an idea of her level of playing she is working on Kreisler Praeludium and Allegro, Mozart Concerto #3 and Beethoven Sonata No.2 and Bach Sarabande) She's hoping to study for a performance degree next year and we had specially searched for a new violin that would take account of her smaller hand size.  We picked a new model based on Menuhin's Guanerius del Jesu, copied by Tadioli and she has felt very comfortable playing it from the very beginning.  So now this advice has come as a bit of a curve ball and she's pretty upset....me too!  I don't want to start modifying an instrument she is happy with...and that cost an awful  lot of $$$$.  I mean, after all, once it's shaved, it's not like it can be put back on if it's not right, right? What's the thought out there?

Replies (36)

November 12, 2010 at 06:18 AM ·

 It depends on how much material is there, and how much you have taken away. Some makers leave plenty of material, but you'd have to have a luthier measure it. If she really likes the violin and will play it through her academic career, it may be worth it. However, a neck that is noticeably smaller than standard will take longer to sell. I wonder if this will really make a difference in her ability to reach, though...

November 12, 2010 at 07:12 AM ·

The benefits of smaller neck for the player cannot be overstated. A smaller neck makes it possible for players even with small hands to have physical reach throughout the full range of the instrument without excessive stretching. There are limits to how much wood can be removed though...stay within a reasonable range!

I admit, I did sell my previous violin, which had a great sound but was a bit large for me, because I felt uncomfortable altering it. I sold it to purchase my my current violin, which despite being full size has smaller proportions side to side. However, after a summer plowing through Paganini and Saint-Saens, I realized that even a  <1mm reduction in the neck, especially near the saddle/button, would really help with the passages at the very top of the fingerboard.

An expert luthier can perform the work necessary to reduce the size of the neck *without compromising the structural integrity*, or negatively impacting the value of the instrument. There is definitely a common range of neck sizes out there, and going to someone who has done the research to support their work is really important. In my case, I had mine done by Roger Foster in Orange, CA, who not only did a superb job in the reduction, but blended the appearance of the neck perfectly. A few years later now, I'm still impressed at how smooth it feels, and how precise the line of the neck is.

One of my teachers piqued my curiosity in instruments with smaller necks, and while studying in Prague one summer I had the opportunity to play several instruments by the Amati and Gagliano families, as well as a Vuillame in excellent condition. What surprised me about their dimensions? The necks were all smaller (due to wear or adjustment over time, I don't know) than the average "new" instruments my colleagues had with them. Consequently, they were easier to get around on, especially high up on the G string.

November 12, 2010 at 08:18 AM ·

oh no can this be the cause of tension in high positions i got after using my new gliga? it has double as wide neck, plus is really big and heavy (i got much more pain in shoulder from playing it). and i am quite small size girl, with small and thin hands...

November 12, 2010 at 08:40 AM ·

If your daughter is comfortable with the violin and is happy with the neck size, you do not need to change a thing. After all she is holding the violin and will be the best judge if the neck feels too thick. 

November 12, 2010 at 08:46 AM ·

...does shaving down the neck influence the sound properties of the instrument?

November 12, 2010 at 09:56 AM ·

Lena the answer is No, it has only to do with the ease of playing the violin. The sound comes from the body of the violin. If you want to lighten the neck the luthier can hollow out the inside of the fingerboard and neck slightly and re glue the fingerboard. The neck should only be thinned if it feels uncomfortable.

November 12, 2010 at 12:49 PM ·

In the past I used to make my necks following a saying quite popular with makers in Italy: "make your neck thick so that  it can be thinned in the future if the player wants it". This saying proved wrong to me, now I make my necks thinner and it has an impact in sound, instrument weight and playing confort, mainly in the case of violas. 

Here are the set up dimentions I use now, based in Terry Borman's site, you could check the measuments given here with the ones in your daughter's violin:

http://www.bormanviolins.com/setupdimensions.asp

www.manfio.com 

November 12, 2010 at 02:31 PM ·

I'm not sure exactly which dimension is under discussion here; whether the neck should be shorter (reducing the string length), thinner (reducing the thickness), or narrower (reducing the string spacing at the nut). In general, a neck that is unsatisfactory in one or more of these dimensions and that is too far gone to be modified can be cut off and a new neck grafted in its place. Literally tens of thousands of violins have had this repair, and some makers even make their new instruments with a grafted neck. While the job itself might be expensive, if done expertly the value of the violin should not be reduced in the least.

As to what would cause the need for cutting wood away from the neck, I find that a person with small, but otherwise well-proportioned, hands and short arms generally benefits most from a shorter vibrating string length. A person with small hands will often like the neck thinner simply because of the reduction in weight and the feeling that the neck/fingerboard thickness is not clunky and unwieldy. If short fingers are the condition, it will affect string crossings, especially fourth finger on the fourth string. In this case, making the neck narrower will ease the difficulty.

In the Baroque era, which is when many of the great Cremonese violins were built, necks were much wider and thicker. The Hills report measuring neck widths at the nut up to 28 mm and even wider. As the violins were converted to modern dimensions around 1800, the width of the neck at the nut was reduced repeatedly. This accounts for the somewhat bulbous appearance of peg boxes at the nut in many older violins. It isn't caused by wear, but rather by grafting on a newer and narrower neck to violin with a wider peg box.

When I was first studying the craft, the neck dimension at the nut was given as 24.5 mm; during my career, it has become standard at 24 mm, but I often get requests for a width of 23.5. How far can this go? Not much farther . . .

November 12, 2010 at 02:41 PM ·

Thanks, everyone for your collective input!  The neck doesn't feel too fat for her but her teacher feels her reach and speed/response will improve if the hand has less width to traverse when going up/reaching around.  Just how does the luthier know how much to shave off if the person isn't there to constantly re-try positioning their hand around the neck?  We bought this particular violin precisely because it had a thinner neck but I guess he doesn't think it's thin enough.

November 12, 2010 at 04:17 PM ·

I'd suggest a second and third opinion from other equally competent teachers.  Also, try a violin with a "shaved neck" and see if it makes much difference in navigating the fingerboard.  There are many solutions involving technique, rather than wood.  My teacher has small hands, but does things like: adjusts her thumb position, does hand stretches, uses a 'stiff' little finger to extend 4th finger positions, etc. 

November 12, 2010 at 05:00 PM ·

Some guitarists like "fattie" necks, others like thin necks. There are preferences for V necks or not.

Same thing goes for fiddles. Some people really dig skinny necks while others don't care for them.

So try different types and pick what you like.

Whether to modify your existing fiddle is another matter. That may or may not be the right choice depending to a great extent on whether you really like the sound or whether you are ready for a change anyway.

Maybe the teacher is being blunt, or maybe not nice, or maybe is wrong. Nevertheless, the issue is legitimate regardless of the skill with which it was brought up.

November 12, 2010 at 05:02 PM ·

There are basically only two places the player usually interacts with the neck--where the thumb hits on the G side, and diagonally from there, the very edge of the board on the E side.  Neither of these is expressed in width or thickness, the standard numbers used to measure neck size. They're both results of neck shape.

It's unlikely that the neck is towards square in cross-section, which is what the thumb would feel. Virtually every single one of my customers, including those whose teachers have told them the neck is too thick, are being affected by a very sharp edge on the E side of the board. They feel this, and move their hand away from it, which decreases their ability to reach over it and to the strings. Ideally, the sides of the board cross section should be a slight rounding--if this goes all the way to the bottom end of the board as careful makers will do, the sides of the board from the player's position will look like parentheses.

If the sides of the board are flat, and the upper edge is sharp, as they often are, you can get a lot of mileage from rounding the edges slightly and taking the sharpness off the edge. I have had literally 100% success with this.

Rather than getting another teacher opinion on this (teachers' and players' information on this type of thing is usually necessarily sketchy and simplistic) I would look at the violin, and if the edge is sharp and square, have a good shop soften things up a bit BEFORE doing anything more drastic.

November 12, 2010 at 05:07 PM ·

Dion is Absolutely wrong about the neck and sound.  The neck has a huge influence on sound! I once tried a viola and it had a wolf. I told the shop owner. He took it, turned the other way, filed something, handed it back and I played it--no wolf. The neck felt a bit coarse and different than before. I asked him what he did and of course this guy said "trade secret" but I know he shaved hte neck.

But good violinmakers know how do make modifications that work, and are not detrimental to the sound. There are not very many people really skilled at this, though.

 

LENA: Yes, Gligas have fat necks. They are mass-produced to a pattern. There is a scroll guy, a neck girl, a top plate guy, an back plate girl etc and they follow a pattern. All the Gligas I've seen and tried (from cheap up through "Gama") have fatter necks.

November 12, 2010 at 05:31 PM ·

MIchael: how interesting - I was playing this morning using an old shoulder rest and noticed a sharp edge on the E side that was driving me crazy.  However, when I changed back to my normal shoulder rest it went away.  The difference was that the violin is at more of an angle.

Thus, is this one way to deal with the issue?  Don't change the instrument change the hold a bit?

November 12, 2010 at 06:16 PM ·

If she is comfortable, I wouldn't do anything drastic to satisfy a teacher who may or may not be qualified to make this recommendation.  It might be interesting to have her try a violin with a narrower neck.  Even if it's a crappy instrument, she should get an idea pretty quickly if it would make her more confortable or agile.  Then you could make a decision as to whether or not to alter hers.

November 12, 2010 at 06:25 PM ·

A good instrument will vibrate throughout, neck, scroll, etc. I imagine that if wood was taken away it would have a detectable difference in sound. Maybe not everyone would notice, but some would.

November 12, 2010 at 06:32 PM ·

I had a shave today but it failed to make my kneck any thinner. I'll have to try a different razor.

November 12, 2010 at 06:35 PM ·

Peter did it change your voice?

November 12, 2010 at 07:00 PM ·

I'm also puzzled with this... I know I should do it for my comfort but can't imagine taking that risk with my violin (that I love very much).  I heard that it can have an impact on the value.  If it was a cheap violin, I would certainly do it and I'm sure it would help!  I also heard that the old violins all have thinned out necks.  I tried a 1968 one with a small neck once and loved the feeling.

Good luck in taking the decision.  Good luck to your daughter.

Anne-Marie

November 12, 2010 at 07:19 PM ·

"Peter did it change your voice?"

Funny you should mention that, but it's gone up by at least an octave, and getting higher all the time!

I must have cut something ...

November 12, 2010 at 08:21 PM ·

I have had the neck of my violin thinned, the fingerboard narrowed, reshaped, and the edges rounded, etc.  There is definitely a sound quality change, which has been a good thing in my case - the G string used to be more reluctant to speak - that went away after the surgery (although I'm not sure whether it was a result of neck thinning or other setup adjustments). However, I would have thought twice if my violin were valuable or I were already comfortable playing it, such as in your daughter's case - it's definitely a gamble because you don't know how it will turn out, and whether you will be happy with the result.   I still often wish that the fingerboard were even narrower, but I know that if it were, I may start having other issues (such as fingers hitting other strings)...   

Michael's point about the edge of the fingerboard is spot-on - the shape makes a huge difference for a small-handed player, such as myself.  I also second the opinion about trying out other violins of similar dimensions that have a smaller neck - it still won't be the same as shaving down your daughter's violin, but it would help make a more informed decision. Who knows, she might find a more suitable violin in the process and, if the condition is right,  trade in the current one. That would be much better than risk ruining a perfectly fine violin.

November 12, 2010 at 08:30 PM ·

@Bill ;

Thank you for giving us such a revolutionary way to get rid of a wolf note, just by filing the neck, and leaving it rough mind you. Was it a shop owner turned luthier. Pity he classified it as a trade secret and left it to your imagination without a decent explanation.

November 12, 2010 at 09:20 PM ·

I think we need to recognize that ANY change to a violin will have some effect. Sometimes it's difficult to recognize, and it can be positive OR negative. Except in extreme cases, it can be difficult to discern which side of "just right" something is.

Generally, what I suggested doesn't have much effect, in my experience. Thinning the neck or the board (rather than just knocking off the corner of the board) definitely will, but again, whether it's good or bad can depend whether things are too thick, or already too thin.

Often there's not a well defined "best" setting for something, except in the context of the person who's going to be using the instrument. My personal taste in cellos, for instance, doesn't resemble that of my customers (I'm pretty sure I'm the one who's more wrong in this case), so I work with a real cellist when doing setups. On violins I've been more successful predicting what customers will like because I really don't play violin, so I work from a set of tonal parameters derived from discussions with players that I can easily test myself without having any intuitive opinion.

Lena, tension in high positions can result from strings being too high, too much scoop on the board, or from a sideways inclination on the board towards the hand which causes the E string to be relatively low over the top (in the highest positions) compared with the other strings while also being on a slippery slope for the finger. This forces you to reach farther down towards the top to reach the string, while also experiencing insecure footing when the string touches down on the board.

November 13, 2010 at 10:56 PM ·

There are two aspects of neck dimensions that are often overlooked:

1. The curve shape of the neck in 1st and 2nd position. If the neck is carved to a circular cross section, chances the player will get hurt as technique starts to get better, because the left thumb will not be able to assume proper positional shape. The neck cross section needs to be elliptical, not circular.You can probably sand this area down yourself until it is right and when it is the right dimensions and smooth enough, seal it with linseed oil.

2. The shape and dimension of the heel of the neck, where it joins the violin body, must be small enough. There are proper dimensions for this and a good luthier would know how to shape it - could cost $250 to $300 if the neck is too large. I would not want to fool with this area - also, it needs to be refinished to match the rest of the instrument when the re-carving is finished.

Violas can be tricky, because they are not just large violins - or if they are, their necks must be relatively slimmer and the neck heel relatively smaller. Well made instruments have had this taken into account in their original design.

I played on a violin with too wide a neck (and I wear an XL glove size) for almost 60 years, but around the time I was 75, it just got to be too much of a strain - so I relate the facts above from my own experiences. I also had a violin with a very nice neck width, but with too round a curvature and it had to be sanded to be more elliptical. I also have some violins with "perfect" neck and heels - so I know the difference - but my best sounding and playing instruments have often had irritating eccentricities.

Andy

November 13, 2010 at 11:12 PM ·

@Peter: "I had a shave today but it failed to make my kneck any thinner. I'll have to try a different razor."

Why don't you let me have a try? :)

 

November 14, 2010 at 02:12 AM ·

Oh yes, let Elise try with sand paper, it will surely work... elliptical or  circular? ; ) 

November 14, 2010 at 02:58 AM ·

Definitely band: they work the fastest...  What shall we use as a model?  How about Big Bird...

July 17, 2013 at 08:41 PM · "The neck cross section needs to be elliptical, not circular."

Which direction is the major axis? C to A (viola) or fingerboard to button?

July 17, 2013 at 10:51 PM · Peter, I think Elise is tactfully saying something like "I could strangle you".

July 21, 2013 at 02:35 PM · Kit, If that is a real question, the major axis (viola) is C to A and the axis itself would be somewhere in the fingerboard, not in the neck.

Andy

July 25, 2013 at 04:32 AM · My wife has small hands, and neck thickness was a concern for her as well. Of the luthiers we spoke with, they pretty much all said that shaving the neck is not a huge deal (unless it's a historic instrument). In the worst case, you might need to replace the neck to sell it. If it promises to make playing easier or more comfortable, don't rule it out.

July 25, 2013 at 05:14 PM · Since violin has become, like gymnastics and horseback riding mostly the domain of girls these days (witness the ratio of males/females in most conservatories and private studios, including mine), there will be plenty of demand for smaller neck dimensions in the future. Especially with the number of Asian females. I wouldn't worry about future value.

July 25, 2013 at 07:07 PM · "violin has become, like gymnastics and horseback riding mostly the domain of girls these days"

Yes the local (female) conductor of an amateur orchestra fell off her horse and broke her leg this week!

Well done for spotting the parallel

November 29, 2013 at 04:49 PM ·

November 29, 2013 at 06:51 PM · I recently received my violin back from the maker, who both thinned the neck and reduced the size of the heel. Both have made the fiddle much more comfortable for me (the thickness was actually causing me injury, and even interfered with my vibrato motion on the G string).

I'm skeptical that thinning the neck will cause any noticeable difference in sound because I've had it done on several violins. I guess it's theoretically possible, but the chances are very low. While it may, as one poster has claimed, fix a wolf tone, I'd say that such an effect will not happen for the vast majority.

The real issue here is whether one should do it because a teacher has said so, something that is difficult to answer. An experienced player can feel whether the neck is getting in the way, but a student might just accept that it is the way it is and try to deal with it, something which could cause injury or frustration without knowing the cause.

I'm sure all of us players have picked up a student's instrument or bow and think "how the heck do they play with this thing..." That doesn't mean they should run out to have it fixed, though...

November 30, 2013 at 04:02 PM · This is the first time I have ever.... ever heard of this! I wish I knew about "violin neck shaving" in the past!

I love this sight!

Cheers,

Royce

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