Why is hand-made > machine-made?

February 20, 2011 at 06:53 PM ·

 I know it's common knowledge that hand-made violins are infinitely superior to machine-made violins, but from my viewpoint, it doesn't make too much sense. With the modern technology available today, wouldn't machines be able to carve a violin that would acoustically cause the best tone, with a perfectly smooth surface?

I feel like machines could carve violins with more precision, and therefore quality, than hand-made instruments, but this is evidently not so. Could someone enlighten me?

Replies (40)

February 20, 2011 at 07:11 PM ·

If every piece of wood is 100% identical, then yes, machine made is definitely superior than hand made.

February 20, 2011 at 07:55 PM ·

 Even if they could, is something you would want? Wouldn't that just suck a little more humanity from music? The rest of life is filled with digital/mechanical "perfection." I'm sure a computer could be programmed to create a nice fugue or sonatina. Would you want to play it? Broadway has gone to synthesized strings. Who has benefitted? When machines are able to make "perfect" violins then several things will happen: all production will move to the low-cost country. Maybe our violins will all be made at Foxconn for 6 cents. And they will all sound the same, with the point of evoking the imperfect past. Any differences in sound will come from software programs, designed by outsourced workers. You could chose "Strad," "Guarneri," or "Amati" from a drop-down menu and press "order." Digital photography has already ventured there. And the traditions of real violin-making will be lost, just as the skills at making silver prints are disappearing. And not in the name of innovation, but simply the emulating, or rather, aping, of the past at the cheapest price. The commodification of the past. I find it horrifying.

February 20, 2011 at 07:56 PM ·

 Yes, Casey is certainly on the right track there. To elaborate, if you take the spruce top, the spacing of the grain will affect the density. When I took delivery of my viola I was a little surprised about the wider than expected grain spacing, but my luthier explained that he didn't mind wood like that as it allowed him to work at a greater thickness.  

February 20, 2011 at 08:02 PM ·

How could a machine put this little black line inserted all around the violin or place the sound post knowing exactly that it has located the perfect spot to create the best accoustics inside the instrument? 

  It's ridiculous because one needs to move the soundpost and try the violin several times to tell if it's the good place for it.   How would the machine fit the bridge for each specific violin etc?

So many things that needs individual care...

For the bridge fitting, maybe D. Burgess has a great idea on how to machine process that stage...


February 20, 2011 at 08:26 PM ·

 And where is the love that goes into making such a fine instrument? 

February 20, 2011 at 09:06 PM ·

If you start with a source material that is significantly more homogenous than wood, such as carbon fiber (and even that isn't 100% homogenous, so I've been told), then machine-making by robots, as is now done for automobiles, may be feasible, possibly for the lower end of the market. Nevertheless, such instruments will still have to be set up by that skilled person in the violin shop in order to meet a customer's specific requirements regarding tone and playability.

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but a carbon-fiber violin presumably wouldn't need purfling, as does a wood violin, where purfling has the very important practical function of preventing a split from extending through to the edge of a plate. 

February 20, 2011 at 09:21 PM ·

Less individuality, less personality.

February 20, 2011 at 10:25 PM ·

Well, I firmly believe that machine made is not necessarily of lesser quality than man made.

Now, before you respond, please read the rest of this post.

Man made violins are a work of caring and attention to detail. Skill is also involved, the more so as the experience and training improve. Not all hand made violins are made by highly experienced luthiers. Most people that actually make a living at it, however have reached this level.

Machine made violins are limited to the quality of the machine, and the quality of the instructions provided to the machine. It is completely possible for a machine to be designed and created that evaluates the wood, based on provided input and analysis, and carves the best violin based on input criteria. That said, such a machine has not been invented. If it were, and were such a specialized machine, the output (violins) would be out of reach in cost for all but a few rich people.

In the real world, things made by machine are made by machines that are designed to do the minimum necessary to achieve a result. They do not evaluate the wood for responsiveness to sound, flexibility, brightness, etc. or all the other things that affect a violin. They create exact duplicates based on shape. Since wood varies in characteristics so greatly, each violin varies significantly.

And, since the machine is NOT trying to make a top quality violin, but is only trying to make one that meets specific criteria for a 'passable' violin, the output has a much better chance of being mediocre.
When a maker is trying to make a violin, they are trying to make the best violin they can out of the wood in front of them. They take advantage of any opportunity when the material gives them a surprise. Therefore, the output has a better chance of being more than mediocre.

So, a machine can make a superior violin. However, the machine has not been made that will regularly make one. And for the lucky violin? I will look for one, right after I buy the complete works of Shakespeare typed by monkeys from the Bronx zoo.

February 20, 2011 at 11:50 PM ·

It is all GIGO.

February 21, 2011 at 01:24 AM ·

"With the modern technology available today, wouldn't machines be able to carve a violin that would acoustically cause the best tone, with a perfectly smooth surface?"

How would the machine decide what is the "best tone?" If you have one that can do that, you should go into business. I haven't yet seen one that can even produce a "perfectly smooth surface" on wood, especially when that surface is curved, so hand finishing is still required.

The other part is that "perfectly smooth surfaces" have little to do with making a good instrument. In fact, many makers (not including me) do use machines for some of the carving but most of the important work remains to be done by hand and eye.

February 21, 2011 at 01:33 AM ·

 I make carbon fiber violins and I do not see a way to have a machine do it.  Even with carbon fiber there is a "feel" to the patterning and positioning of the pieces.  I will eventually have some pieces trimmed by machine but the creation of the pieces and assembly will be by hand.  Setup I have to leave to a competent Luthier because I do not have that talent.  I can get it close but he makes it SO much better.

February 21, 2011 at 05:52 AM ·

On re-reading my post, I realize that one major point did not come out well. That point is that the machine is only making the violin to a specific set of instructions. There is a real limit to the guidelines. Current technology cost limits the number of criteria the machine will use to decide on options. The maker, on the other hand, is always trying to improve, and each piece of work will have the information learned from the previous, as well as things learned in the current process. Machines don't have that level of nuance yet.

February 21, 2011 at 10:08 AM ·

Fine violins fall into the category of art work.  You could prescribe a formula and end up with a suitable product, but you will never equal the end result of creative genius.

February 21, 2011 at 11:08 AM ·

ALL violins, including factory made Chinese violins, are still HAND MADE. Althought machines can be used to pre route necks, tops and backs (wich is not a new thing, this comes from the end of the 19th century) most of the work is still done by hand.

Why I can't find  good ready made raviole in the supermarket and still  have to make my own? The difference is in the details, and detail is all, for cooking and violin making.


February 21, 2011 at 02:55 PM ·

This is yet another example of the Man vs Machine saga. Men have lost matches against supercomputers in chess and Jeopardy. What else are forthcoming?  Violin making via 3-D printing is an example, and many more.

What is certain is that machines can always  be designed to do exactly what human can do. This is not new. Computer- controlled machine tools and robotics are already old technology. Manufacture of unique structures by 3-D printing is something new, and violins are ideal candidates.

Human beings always take pride in the fact that they alone are creative, while machines are not. Watch out, creative machines may be the next big thing. Human beings may one day find themselves slaves to the almighty and highly creative machines. We are doomed if these machines can replicate themselves without us.

What can we do? As a start, don't ever think of making violins with machines. Secondly, don't be slaves to those handheld IT gadgets that are the advanced guards of the machinekind to enslave us.


February 21, 2011 at 04:56 PM ·

machine assisted or machine designed/executed?

my impression is that luthiers (pls correct me if i'm wrong), and everyone else, do not know scientifically exactly everything about how to induce the violin to sound the way it does in order to program a machine to react to the previous countless decisions from wood selection through arching, graduating...etc. so its not a linear process, and neither is it an "if not...then" process. at least thats what my impression is. with experience, and intuition based on this experience, they get a "feel" for reacting to each of the decisions taken before with an overall concept of sound and form in mind. how can you, at least pesently, even envisage a machine undertaking this complex simultaneos interplay creativity, intuition and science?

February 21, 2011 at 04:57 PM ·

Humm... as a maker, I'am not sure about that.   The best makers I know are looking centuries back, and not to the future, this may look strange, but we are much more interested about 16th century recipes for making madder lake or varnish then NASA's opinions about violins... Most of makers are aware of scientific research about violins but are working in a very traditional way.  You can send us back to the 18th century and we will continue making the same instruments we are making now, perhaps even better after having some wine with Catarina Guarneri...  But I may be wrong.


February 21, 2011 at 05:08 PM ·

And after the wine, you can start the next discussion; is today's wine better or less than the wine made in the days of the old masters; maybe that is the secret! Don't forget to spill a little on your work.

February 21, 2011 at 05:16 PM ·

Let's look for a moment at what the situation would be like if there were no factory and machine-made violins. If hand-made violins were the only ones available, there would be a collapse of music programs both public and private all over the country. A parent might be willing to pay a few hundred dollars for a starter instrument, but no one will pay thousands for a violin just to see if their kid will like it. Having factory fiddles creates a huge market base from which will come a number of better players who will always want a better instrument (hopefully, some will want one fron me :-)) There are probably more violin makers working today (and making better violins) than at any other time in history.

February 21, 2011 at 05:55 PM ·

The reason nobody knows the "secret" to making the best violin is that there is no best violin!

February 21, 2011 at 06:28 PM ·

I agree with Emily for the art work...

If I take the example of machine made music:

A electronical machine can play the parts of a whole orchestra and put it together.  A machine can probably play the Tchaikovsky violin concerto too...

But no machine will add that final touch, the soul of the playing, the passion, the connections between notes and phrases, the golden tone, the infinite shades of vibratos etc

In short, no machine will ever play like the masters... 


It's the same with violin making. 

Yes, machines can beat humankind in many things but science still tells that no machine is as bright as our brain, no optical machine is as good as our eyes etc.  And that's not just for humanbeeings, it's for every living creature.  Dogs are better than any available technology to smell, detect drugs, bombs, locate cancer, detect bugs in appartments, find people etc  

Every machine is the product of human thinking after all...   

February 21, 2011 at 07:04 PM ·

"But no machine will add that final touch, the soul of the playing, the passion, the connections between notes and phrases, the golden tone, the infinite shades of vibratos etc

In short, no machine will ever play like the masters... "

That's right. The machine will play perfectly, and the masters will make little ^$%$-ups. It is the final paradox of music.

February 21, 2011 at 07:31 PM ·

Well said, Emily and Anne-Marie. Making a fine violin is indeed an art.  I doubt that a machine can match a master luthier in the creative process.

To get a glimpse into this art, read the book "The Violin Maker" by John Marchese.  It documents the making of a violin by Sam Zygmuntowicz for Eugene Drucker of the Emerson SQ.

February 21, 2011 at 09:25 PM ·

Thanks for that book title!

^$%$-ups  (????)          Push-ups??? : )


February 21, 2011 at 10:32 PM ·

We can listen to music at home in a Hi Fi, but we still go to the concert room. Technology is not a solution for everything.


February 22, 2011 at 04:14 AM ·

I have mentioned 3D- Printing as a method of making violins in my previous response with the hope that other readers, who are more knowledgeable than me, may comment. I do not know about the subject any more than what I read in an article in the Feb 10, 2011 issue of the Economist Magazine with the title, " Technology. Print me a Stradivarius".  To read this article, just google.

While traditional violin making is a substractive process whereby the luthier carve away  wood , 3D Printing is an additive process that involves "printing" layers after layers of materials in a  "printer"  to make object of a particular design. Right now, the materials used are plastics, resins and metals. Thus, the process is probably limited to making carbon fibre violins.

As the process is computer-controlled and capable of infinite variations, one could imagine that violins made this way can be individualized  from one another, quite unlike factory made violins. A break through will come one day when a plastic composite, or other material, is discovered that could make violins  that sound close to a real Strativarius. 

 I do not know if this is progress or regression. What I do know is that human hearing is very subjective. One falls in love with the first sound one hears from one's mother. A person may also falls in love with the first sound from a violin that is made from wood. I would imagine any violin not made from wood will be rejected. On the other hand, the newer generations who only hear synthetic sound from synthetic instruments may find sound from traditional instruments dull and unexciting.

February 22, 2011 at 04:39 AM ·

"This is yet another example of the Man vs Machine saga."

This was my own Man versus Machine effort:

Something worth noting is that perhaps bulk material removal by machine doesn't save as much time as one might expect.


February 22, 2011 at 08:44 AM ·

"I do not know if this is progress or regression. What I do know is that human hearing is very subjective. One falls in love with the first sound one hears from one's mother. A person may also falls in love with the first sound from a violin that is made from wood. I would imagine any violin not made from wood will be rejected. On the other hand, the newer generations who only hear synthetic sound from synthetic instruments may find sound from traditional instruments dull and unexciting."

I would like to see scientific or other proof for such a wide statement as this.

Perhaps you mean that in your obviously limited experience this could be the case?

February 22, 2011 at 01:44 PM ·


That was a cool challenge, and I am surprised that you were able to compete with the machine.  No one can question your masculinity after that one.  :-) But, I'm not sure how it relates to the question in this thread.  Time is not such an issue when we can have a machine do the work for us.  Super computers grind away for hours to generate modern day animated movies.  But the result is far better (and cheaper) than the old fashioned way, where each frame of the cartoon was drawn by hand.

Tong raised an interesting point about computer printing.  We are not that far away from a computer being able to create exact replicas of whatever violin you might be interested in reproducing. One of the challenges for violin makers is to create a consistent product.  I have tried many violins and have found that makers "tend' towards a particular sound, but each instrument is unique in its own way, even from the same maker.  Surely, if a machine can carve the plates and shape the neck and scroll with 100% repeatability, then at least that would eliminate one of the many variables in making a stringed instrument.  The refinement of the plates (e.g., tuning) and setup can still be done by hand.  But if the first step could be handled by a machine, wouldn't that drastically reduce the labor cost?

Bobby Fischer, one of the greatest chess players of all time once said that a computer would never be able to compete with a top human in the game of chess.  His reasoning was that computers lack the creativity that humans possess.  Anyone that follows chess knows how that one turned out.

This is an interesting question and while I agree with the sentiments that a violin is a work of art, and can see the stigma associated with owning a computer generated violin vs a hand crafted piece of art, it would be interesting to hear specific reasons why a computer can never compete with a human in the world of violin making.  I know nothing about making a violin, so I am not in a position to offer an authoritative opinion, but my gut feeling tells me that the concept is not so far fetched.


February 22, 2011 at 04:32 PM ·

Bobby Fischer didn't understand just how boring chess really is. Boring stuff is better handled by computers.

Violins are, in essence, impedance matching devices with audio filtering. Whether we like them or not depends on whether we like how the filtering works, and how well the match suits our desires for playing response. There is no objective reason why a "machine made" device could not be found to have excellent qualities in this respect.  But if we are making and expecting violins to be made of wood, then hand work will always be useful.

If took the right luthier and developed a set of specifications for wood and a set of thicknesses to cut yo, you could produce a darn good fiddle, fully automated (but the machines would cost a lot). Guitars are built this way. They work pretty well. Some always work out better than others because there is a range for the wood. Same thing would happen with fiddles.

Machines have been used in production for a long long time. They don't detract from the quality of the output unless the operator decides that the quality is sufficient...

February 22, 2011 at 05:05 PM ·


Here is a picture of a process that would be similar.

The limitation would be this:
Making the machine that can make a shape is complex, but is very much less complex than including the sophistication to evaluate the wood as it is being worked, and identifying for each part (such as the back center, the back near the mid bouts, the back edge near the neck, etc.) what is the optimum thickness relative to the other components.

Disclaimer: I have never made a violin. I have worked with wood, made furniture, so much of the information below is extrapolation based on my experience, but is not first-hand experience.

First, you would have to have some kind of sensor (one type may be best for one part, however not best for another part, or another location on the same piece). Then you would have to have a criteria for the mill to evaluate the sensor input, and decide how to implement an appropriate action based on that.

I would think the number of decisions when making a violin would at minimum range in the high thousands. It could range in the millions.

The programmatic complexity makes this a theoretical possibility but a real-world impossibility.

February 22, 2011 at 09:11 PM ·

I suspect it's mostly because in our work, machines like a CNC mill don't start to show a real advantage until the production  volume is high, so that's mostly where they end up being used.  If one is trying to make a really good violin, decision making and necessary hand work take up so much time, that the proportion of time such a machine saves will be low. It will mostly sit idle and take up space. Get a fancier machine which will reduce the handwork further, and you're looking at a substantial initial outlay to purchase it, get it up and running, and get the bugs worked out. Difficult to justify and amortize unless you can do the other operations fast enough to keep the machine running.

Carving parts is a drop in the bucket of the total labor involved in making a violin. Hand work is pretty efficient for things like bending ribs, gluing and clamping parts, getting a proper surface finish in preparation for varnishing (it's hard to get a clean machined surface on soft spruce)  and varnishing itself. There are also challenges with accurately machining thin curved parts on a violin. As you cut, the heat from cutting will change the moisture content of the wood, and the shape will change. Let's say you machine the outside shape of a top, and then flip it over to hollow out the inside, hoping to get a precise thickness from superimposing the two programmed contours. As you machine the inside, the outside shape will be changing, so there goes your precise thickness. With enough thought and fixturing, challenges like this could be overcome, and some of the afore-mentioned processes could be automated too, but now you're looking at hideous tooling and setup costs. If as many people bought violins as buy cars, perhaps these costs could be justified, and you'd be able to buy a Ford violin. ;-)

Look at it this way: It would probably be possible to make a machine to install a string on a violin, if one spent half a million bucks on research and development and tooling. But why, when a human can probably do a better job in thirty seconds? And how many strings would you need to install to break even?

February 22, 2011 at 09:57 PM ·

Hi David,

It is always a pleasure to hear from you.  I don't expect you to give out any trade secrets, but when you make a violin from start to finish, how much time is devoted to each part of the process?  If you don't know off the top of your head, it might be a useful exercise from a business perspective to figure it out.  I expect that certain parts of the process are amenable to automation, while others are not  -- at least not yet anyway.

Your analogy for strings is quite right, but the difference is we all know how to string an instrument, and don't need to spend a lot of money to do it.  But if it were to cost $500 to string an instrument, I'll bet someone would invent such a device to do it automatically.  If you figure the average cost of a hand made violin is $15,000, one doesn't have to make too many of them to recoup the tooling cost.

I'm not trying to put you out of a job, or even argue that it is possible for a machine to make a high quality violin, but I would like to understand why a machine could NOT do it, if that is the contention.  My apologies if I am coming across as argumentative.  I was actually hoping that someone like you or Manfio or Darnton would step in and give clear and obvious reasons why machines could never replace artists like yourself, but so far, I haven't heard anything conclusive.


February 22, 2011 at 11:38 PM ·

Analogies and metaphors, by definition, will break down and can be taken apart to expose differences between what is being illustrated, and the background.

What I was trying to say through the metaphor was not that larger contributions from machines can't be done. Only that the market volume makes certain investments impractical right now.

From the artistic side (if that matters), much of what we value about violins as art objects stems from "process inherent" artifacts. If one wants a result which appears as if it came from a certain carving tool, often the most efficient way is to use that particular carving tool. The end result can probably be emulated in other ways, but at what cost in money and efficiency?

In the next five years, I could probably tool up and make a danged good, largely machine-made violin. I'm reasonably well-versed in that domain from friends and side interests, and my area (Detroit) has the resource base. I'll bet that the resulting violin would cost a lot more than I'm charging now though. If I didn't believe that, based on having looked into it, I'd already be doing it. To provide further background, I've made "proof of concept" prototypes for Ford Powertrain engineers, and observed as one friend set several world motorcycle speed records. Being a fiddle maker doesn't mean that I'm trapped off in "airy fairly" land. I'm a pretty pragmatic and practical guy.

But if all things were equal, including the price, which would you rather have? A violin which is made start to finish, mostly by hand (I use a power bandsaw for instance) by one person, or a violin which is made by a machine?

Would you dress up, travel to a concert hall, pay for parking, and buy a $100 ticket to hear a recording of Hilary Hahn, rather than live? I wouldn't, but to each his own.

Fortunately for both musicians and fiddle makers, there's still somewhat of an attraction for "the real thing".

February 23, 2011 at 12:14 AM ·

Why pay so much to listen to Hillary? Why not take the sheet music, scan it and feed it to a machine, and have the machine generate the tunes? There would not even need to be a real violin involved, or player. The timber, resonance, everything could be calculated by machine! If we are going to delve into the machine age for the violins, why not take the logical next step and bypass the violin altogether? Using a machine to create an inefficient way to produce the music? Direct Digital Output is the thing!!!!!!

February 23, 2011 at 12:44 AM ·

Yeah, I get such a kick out of people texting while smashing into a parking meter, or falling into a mall fountain.

What is reality? Hopefully, it will all work out in the long run.

February 23, 2011 at 01:10 AM ·

David, I also say that!

That's like people who think they are "someone" because they have 500 facebook friends...

One could have 10 000 facebook friends and still be a loser no one wants to see in real life...   (extreme situation)

I also feel that one should be first grounded in reality and secondly, with machines if they want. : )



February 23, 2011 at 01:13 AM ·

"Why not take the sheet music, scan it and feed it to a machine, and have the machine generate the tunes?"

It already has been, and still is being, done. The scanner is the eye, and the machine is the brain which then generates the music for the human to "hear" internally. Most musicians can do this to a lesser or greater extent, and doubtless can be trained or learn to improve their performance; and at the top there is the class of those who aver they need nothing more than the score in order to enjoy the ultimate in listening. I suspect this class probably includes the better conductors, performers, and composers.  

February 23, 2011 at 03:30 AM ·

"But if all things were equal, including the price, which would you rather have? A violin which is made start to finish, mostly by hand (I use a power bandsaw for instance) by one person, or a violin which is made by a machine?"

Surely, I would want a hand crafted, one-of-a-kind piece of art ... well, at least that was my first reaction.  And, I fully appreciate the value associated with something hand made vs something that is mass produced.  But then, I got to thinking about it.  About two years ago, I underwent an extensive search for my dream fiddle.  After several months of searching, I became pretty frustrated with the process, trying so many fiddles and not falling in love with any of them.  If someone handed me a machine-made fiddle that had the sound and playing characteristics I was looking for, I might have been apt to go for it.  Blasphemy I know, but anyone who has done an extensive violin hunt like I have will understand.  In the end, all that really matters is the sound of the instrument and how it plays.

I guess the people who believe in the "Strad" magic might have a similar view of modern makers.  How could a living maker create a violin that even comes close to that of the old masters like Strad, Amati, Guarneri, etc.  Well, I won't even attempt to answer that, but suffice it to say, there are differing opinions on that one.

But perhaps as David points out, the main thing stopping us from making high end violins by machine is the cost.  Maybe as technology develops and costs go down, we might see professional grade instruments made by something like a 3-D printer.


February 23, 2011 at 03:38 AM ·

re- Peter Charles

I did say in my piece that the human hearing is very subjective. Thus, the opinion I expressed is as subjective as it could possibly be. What I have no doubt is that my musical taste is quite different from those of my children, and grandchildren.  I still prefer the sound of a grand upright piano. My children bought their own, guess what?, electronic piano.

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