Signs a violin is 'factory made'

May 5, 2011 at 06:54 PM ·



I'm interested in how one can determine whether a violin is "factory made" versus "hand-crafted" or "bench made" by inspection alone.  What are some of the telltale signs of either method of manufacture?  For example, if two instruments of equal fit and finish are side by side, how would you tell the difference?   

Replies (33)

May 6, 2011 at 07:16 AM ·

 Basically, it sounds like a factory violin.

May 6, 2011 at 09:25 AM ·

Signs a violin is factory made?


Viola players make jokes about YOU.






May 6, 2011 at 09:52 AM ·

In my opinion the line between the factory and hand made is not so strict as it seems to be. There are many levels of instruments. There are typical mass production instruments (currently produced in China mostly) and high quality hand-crafted instruments on the opposite end, where the difference is obvious even for less trained "expert". However there are also many levels between. Many luthiers established small workshop production with the help of few workers. Many contemporary lutiers don't  refuse using machines, although they don,t reveal the information of course.

I think one can to build his expert ability by seeing and examining many instruments of all levels. It is sometimes not easy to describe, Malcolm Gladwell described how it works in his book "Blink"

May 6, 2011 at 12:04 PM ·

The process is similar to this: you are listening to a music in the radio. You notice it is a piano, a modern piano, not a period instrument. Then you recognize it as French music. Then you recognize some feature of Debussy's music....   some seconds later you recognize it as "La Cathèdral Engloutie"...  some seconds later you say: and Aldo Cicollini is playing it!

Of course that to do that you have to have lisetened to lots of music, know musical periods, many composers and interpreters, etc. The same with recognizing violins.

When I see a bench made instrument by a maker in general there are some personal features, some things that are made with personal style, in general we see that in good instruments by a maker.

May 6, 2011 at 01:25 PM ·

Exactly. Claudio desribed it very precisely.

May 6, 2011 at 02:03 PM ·

great question by the OP - and a bit of a frustrating (though I'm sure correct) answer: its all about violin gestalt!

But, expanding on the OP a little, that given aren't there some things you notice or look for that at least make you suspiscious? 

May 6, 2011 at 09:46 PM ·

In general, in a factory made instrument you have a total lack of style and individuality. In most of the cases the wood is "too sanded" and you have no crisp edges. The traditional  edwork will be absent or "mechanic".

May 6, 2011 at 10:49 PM ·

One of "my" violin makers, the late Henry Meissner (very well thought of in some Calif circles) spent his last years (in his 80s and 90s) regraduating "factory" violins and violas so that he could sell them at prices students could afford.

Actually, he was doing some of that kind of thing way back in the 1970s, when I bought a regraduated Schuster viola (and bow and case) from him for $125.

It seems to me that if a legit maker can do the final "petting" on an instrument before it is complete, it seems to me that many of the advantages of maker-made can be imparted, if it's otherwise OK.


May 7, 2011 at 01:16 PM ·

'If you wanted to win a competition today they would break that over your head.'

Quite untrue. I've worked on numerous judging teams.

May 7, 2011 at 01:54 PM ·

I have worked in just in one judging team with violinMAKING competition. The competition was going th be a bit unique from the very beginning and focus more on sound quality than workmanship. The judging panel was mixed, violinists with violin makers. Violin makers did evaluate both, sound and workmanship, violinists did evaluate sound rounds only.

It was really not easy to persuade our collegues (violn makers) keeping the leading idea of the competition. They mostly did not like the order of the priorities. The workmanship use to be the main  and most important criterion for them.

I am not going to criticise them of course, if I were violinmaker, I would do the same probably :-). Anyway musicians do have a bit different priorities mostly.

May 7, 2011 at 02:45 PM ·

The Violin Society of America International Competitions offer separate awards for tone, and for style/workmanship, with separate judging teams for each. One can look at the results, and choose which is more important, or also choose a good overall violin, one which has done well in both categories.

Personally, I think the workmanship results may be most valuable to musicians. Most musicians are quite capable of evaluating sound on their own. Where they might need the greatest assistance and feedback is in other areas of quality.

May 7, 2011 at 03:04 PM ·

David: probably true if workmanship is durability and quality construction.  But maybe less so if workmanship is perfection in line or visual appeal...

May 7, 2011 at 03:26 PM ·

Typically, "workmanship" includes both. In the competitions I've been associated with, factory type instruments aren't allowed, so the feeling is that players who are looking for something beyond that level are entitled to a little artistry too. ;-)

May 7, 2011 at 11:29 PM ·

 Maybe someone should do a blind competition, based entirely on the instrument's sound.

May 8, 2011 at 12:59 PM ·

I can see some problems with including factory violins in competitions. First, the numbers of entries are already getting unmanageably large. I think the VSA had over 500 last time. It's nice to keep the numbers low enough that each judge can rate each instrument in a category. If the numbers are so high that instruments need be split between different judging teams to manage the work load, someone will surely claim that it wasn't fair, because one team was "harder" or "easier" on the instruments.

The other problem is of manufacturers possibly putting in "ringers".... instruments which are much better than their normal production, perhaps even custom made for the event. With individual makers, this is less of a problem, because they are already invited to submit the best they have to offer, rather than something targeted to a certain price.

Players can do their own blind sound tests of factory instruments though. In fact, that is what is often done. They are much easier to get hold of than custom instruments, and a variety of models can often be found and tested in one shop.

May 9, 2011 at 02:41 PM ·

When I see a bench made instrument by a maker in general there are some personal features, some things that are made with personal style, in general we see that in good instruments by a maker.

Thanks for the reply.  I understand that there are myriad clues to the experienced eye that set handmade violins apart from factory-made.  This is just as expected; what is obvious to the expert is opaque to the layperson.  But could you pass on a few specifics to the less experienced? 

For example, are there particular areas where signs of machine tool use might be found, either inside or out?  Certain shortcuts commonly taken in factory made and how to find them?  Some of the less obvious little clues?


May 9, 2011 at 03:11 PM ·

To rephrase, Mike's question, are there any easy-to-spot traits which are typical of factory instruments?  Easy enough so that someone untutored can quickly tell.

May 9, 2011 at 04:31 PM ·

Antonius Stradivarius label :-)

May 9, 2011 at 05:04 PM ·

Factory-made does not necessarily mean machine-made - factory violins are probably still largely hand-made in China, but just like assembly lines, one person only contributes to a small part of the whole product.  So the distinction between a factory violin and a workshop violin in this case, is the workers' skill levels, how many hands the violin has gone through, and the materials used. Factory violins are aimed to be low cost, so the materials are likely to be cheap (less aged tone wood, no flames on the back, heavy, low-grade ebony if ebony is used at all, etc.), and less carefully put together. Peg box may be rough and not well carved, Varnish may be uneven (if it's real varnish, not paint)...  The best way to find out is to go to music stores and violin shops, and ask to look at violins in different price ranges, and you will learn soon enough, although old German factory violins can be pretty pricey nowadays. 

You can get a glimpse of what a Chinese violin factory and a workshop look like in this video: Pinggu Is Where 40 Percent of the World's Violins Are Made

Also, a violin with a model number is most likely factory-made, although some workshops use model numbers too.

October 9, 2011 at 10:30 PM ·

Most any instrument for which you don't know the name and some history of the one person who made it is a factory made instrument, but that doesn't mean it's a bad instrument. The OP's question implies shopping for a low priced instrument. Most anything under $1,000 sold by a shop or store is a factory instrument.

One person making a work of art is going to 'release' something of quality, generally, or else destroy it so their name isn't associated with it. They're pride in the art all but guarantees you'll know their name, and you should because you'll be paying for months worth of work.

A good many $2,000 violins offered by an individual maker may still have their beginnings as factory made assemblies, possibly tops without F holes, ribs, backs, necks with scrolls might be ordered and subsequently assembled. One thing that defines the basic quality of sound (with otherwise acceptable parts/wood) is the tuning of the plates, which a previous post indicated as graduating (shaving the interior side, checking the resonant frequency, etc). This greatly improves the utility of the violin, if done well, and might be viewed as simply taking bulk, blank stock and finishing them into an instrument. This would be of good value, and in today's climate might be considered a non-factory result, even though part of the instrument basis IS factory made.

However, the obvious signs of a bad instrument beyond those already shown:

- The edges of the fingerboard may not be straight. I've seen tool gouging along the edge, which you could feel shifting. Also, look underneath - you should see black wood underneath the board (between the body and the fingerboard that overhangs). If not black wood, it's not ebony, and it's likely junk.

- The varnish is very shiny, a bit thick. This might look shiny and new to unsuspecting buyers, but too much varnish clamps the vibrations, limiting volume. Perhaps a student might prefer that, but it's a bad idea.

- Antiqued violins sold as new may not be a good idea, under the $1,000 price point. They may be "faking" grains on cheap wood.

- Painted purfling - don't buy such an instrument, especially on the front. There is a history of painted purfling on the backs, which was fine at the time (ancient instruments are known) - but the spruce top requires real purfling, not painted effects. It's not simply decoration.

- In the hands of a novice, most violins sound thin, flat, perhaps nasal, scrunchy and unstable. In the hands of a good player most violins, even poor ones, can be made to sound better than they really are (but only to a point).

- Most cheap violins have steel strings. These are thought to be a good choice for kids because of their durability, but only a few are actually suitable. A number of violins I've seen with "unknown" house brand (I suppose, likely Chinese bulk source), or the $10 steel sets which are basically the same thing, have unfortunate strong overtones which complicate the students progress, especially intonation and tone control. They are a bad idea in my opinion. A private teacher or violinist you trust would be able to demonstrate and inform better on specific choices, but consider that a good set of strings at $30 or so can be found, while the cheap $10 strings waste the student's time and effort. In the long run, which is really the greater loss? Genuinely, even for beginning students, a set of good strings (steel or not) are an important point in the purchase. Bad strings can spoil a good violin, and ruin the student. Good strings can't overcome a bad instrument, but an otherwise "cheap" instrument that's geometrically correct is greatly enhanced by valid strings. I've seen a number of otherwise acceptable low priced student violins rendered unusable because of the strings included.

October 9, 2011 at 11:01 PM ·

A sign that your violin is factory made: it costs between 200-500 dollars, sounds better and sweeter than your stand mates Guadagnini, and has printed "Made in Slovakia" in it. Ah, and no pros can play it.

October 9, 2011 at 11:58 PM ·

Like Sverker says :-)

October 10, 2011 at 12:01 AM ·

I think it is a mistake to turn one's nose up at a "factory" rather than "bench made" instrument.  Economies of scale, when applied judiciously, lead to better products.  This was certainly the case with the original Gibson guitar company. I think it is also true of at least one of the Romanian fiddle builders. You get a higher level of quality for a given cost, and there is some real consistency of output. 

October 10, 2011 at 02:04 AM ·

I've heard that the VSA competitions usually take place in rooms that have substandard acoustics, so the certificates of merit for tone usually go to instruments with the brashest, most hard-edged sound that can project..

My violin won a certificate of merit for workmanship at the last VSA, and it sounds better than my teacher's Testore (when my teacher's the one playing on my violin, that is). The concertmasters of two of NYC's top orchestras played on it and told me it was a wonderful instrument; one of them urged me to buy it right away.

October 10, 2011 at 08:25 AM ·

by its blue collar


October 10, 2011 at 11:39 PM ·

All this has me wondering when we'll see a review of factory-made violins in "Consumer Reports." 

October 11, 2011 at 03:38 AM ·

 I cringe at the thought of Consumer's Union doing the tests on factory made violins.

But any one of the magazines that specialize in the violin family of instruments would do a good service to those who can only afford factory made violins.

Unfortunately many man hours are required for the evaluations and writing. This effort requires money and violins, unlike cars, are not that large a business.

October 11, 2011 at 11:22 AM ·

"I've heard that the VSA competitions usually take place in rooms that have substandard acoustics, so the certificates of merit for tone usually go to instruments with the brashest, most hard-edged sound that can project.."

It's hard to know what the ideal testing environment should be. If a violin would only be used in the limited number of halls which are considered acoustically superior, then I suppose that's how they should be tested. But I don't know of any violins which are exclusively used that way. Most, even the best, see use in environments of varying quality, and the same instrument may be used for different purposes, like live solo performances as well as recording with a close microphone.

Hopefully, one gets judges who know their way around different instruments, different environments, and different applications, and can do a pretty good job of sorting it all out, having had enough experience with the variables.

I  have played a lot of the winning instruments, and wouldn't describe them as having a pattern of sounding brash or hard-edged.  I can understand how someone who is accustomed to "mushy" instruments, or instruments without much focus, might come to that conclusion though. Instruments which do the best in a solo situation, even in the best halls, aren't always the most soothing under the ear.

October 11, 2011 at 04:01 PM ·

 I may be a bit old fashioned (re: outta the 'loop' when it comes to the super-duper Chinese instruments), however I was taught by two of my closest friends {who are luthiers} that the really quick tale-tell signs of a factory 'violin' is (1) look at the edge ["thickness"] through either f-hole of the top plate of the violin; if it is thick, then "factory"; if the 'table' appears to be thin, then it's a good chance that it is hand-made; (2) take a look at the volutes of the scroll; if the varnish appears to be "clumpy", then it was probably sprayed on (i.e. "factory"); if it appears smooth and relatively thin-layered, then it was probably (& properly) applied with a brush (done "by hand").

October 11, 2011 at 08:49 PM ·

I think Asher's comments have more merit than some others.  Many many factory-made violins have real purfling.  And my violin teacher, who can be called a professional by any definition, did not run away screaming when she happened to play my factory-made violin during a lesson.  But I agree that an article comparing the merits of different factory-made violins would be very difficult, akin to some articles I've seen rating different loaves of the same type of bread--just too many different factories exist to do a useful comparison using just a few examples.

October 11, 2011 at 09:15 PM ·

I will take issue, not with Asher, but with the "luthiers" who provided him with the information behind his comments.

Excessive thickness around the ff holes might have been a minor clue to a factory violin at one time, but now, factory instruments can also be too thin.

Clumpy varnish may be an indication of a poor varnish spray job, but it could also be a description of some of the finest Cremonese varnishes, in their unaltered condition.

October 11, 2011 at 09:20 PM ·

There ain't no silver bullet. Identification requires knowledge, and not the kind that comes merely from books. Furthermore the real experts don't write all this down...only some of it, or some experts write some...

"Factory" to me includes hand-made instruments built on a line: scroll-man, back plate rough-out man, back plate tuning woman, top plate rough-out eunuch, bridge blank woman, purfling installer, varnish hermaphrodite etc etc.

October 12, 2011 at 02:33 PM ·

shouldn't we distinguish between 'factory' violins and workshop ones?  As I understand it, many, if not most, of the finest luthiers started making violins in the workshops of other luthiers while other fine luthiers spent their entire careers the same way.  Such instruments may be 'workship' but, at least for the player (if not the collector) can also be gems. I have a Wolf Brothers top end workship violin from 1888 that is a delight to play. 

To me a factory made instrument is put together with similar random parts and without individual supervision by a luthier who limits the output to only the best instruments.

[and Bill why did the hermaphrodites get the bum laquer job?  Or maybe I shouldn't ask...]

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