40 year old instrument went``dead``, built too thin? Possibly other reasons?

December 25, 2011 at 02:35 AM · Recently a very well connected luthier told me that a 40 year old instrument had gone `dead` because it had been built too thin and was not repairable.

Sometimes shops use a scare tactic to discourage people from buying new instruments stating they are built very thin and could loose their sound over time. Particularly luthiers that make instruments with a big sound and great projection get this thrown at them at times. Some luthiers will give you a rather lively response when you ask about the thickness of the plates. One well known luthier - his tops are at or over 3.0 at the centre , definitely not thin - feels that on rare occassions a new instrument needs a very slight regraduation after a few years as the plates tend to harden and become more stiff.

Few luthiers dare to build as thin as a number of well known Strads are.

My questions are : is it possible to predict more or less whether an instrument might go `dead` based on the thickness of the top (or also the back ? ); how common is this and are there other factors as well ? And maybe an instrument doesn`t totally die but deteriorates somewhat over time - probably for the same reasons but not as pronounced. Remember that an instrument may need a new soundpost and other set up changes as well particularly early in it`s life, but also for older instruments after 10 - 20 years.

Personally I haven`t had a new instrument deteriorate , rather very much the opposite, and haven`t heard from others directly either. But do I have to worry?

Replies (37)

December 25, 2011 at 06:16 AM · It's difficult to say how any given violin will develop. I owned 2 violins by one of the most well-known makers and a teacher of generations of American makers. Similar models. The first violin got very bright. The second got very small and dull after starting out bright and sweet. Neither ever responded very well, even after 4-5 years of professional use.

I'm skeptical that shops today would try to scare buyers away from modern fiddles just because they are, in most markets, central to the business. Just about every shop I know has a sizable stock of modern violins. And a decent shop should be able to recognize and steer clear of violins that are thinly-made.

December 25, 2011 at 09:29 AM · I was told by a friend who is a maker but mostly does repairs, that a thin top can result in the belly sinking a bit. As we know, the thickness can easily be measured now, and there is no need to look by eye and guess.

I don't know why new instruments can occasionally change in sound over time - maybe David and others can give us some reasons!

December 25, 2011 at 09:40 AM · A dealer told me that Vuillaume found that many of his instruments "went dead" after a few years, and there have been few manufacturers of fiddles more successful than him. I have never tried a Vuillaume that seemed dead. Also, it's not now true that all Vuillaumes sound the same; they might have done so when Hills made that assertion in their "Stradivari" book, but it doesn't seem true now.

Maybe, as one violinist told me, instruments that seem ruined after a few years can be brought back into good health by careful playing.

New instruments I have bought have steadily improved, but since none is more than 20 years old, could be in for a nasty shock, should I manage to live long enough ?

On the whole it seems that talking-down of the products of competitors might be to blame for a good many scare stories. For example, some dealers, jealous of Alfred Vincent's success, warned that his violins were too thin, and would fade away soon; yet a dealer informed me quite recently that he couldn't sell a Vincent because it was too powerful !

Nevertheless, whilst most new violins are crafted by experienced makers who are heirs to a long tradition, too often owners prefer to take a newish instrument to a snake-oil quack and get the thing thinned rather than learn to play the their instrument decently and wait patiently for the wonder-working effects of time and use to do their work. I've seen and tried many violins at dealerships and in auction-rooms that have been thinned down to almost absolute zero. Buying a nearly-new fiddle is a minefield for that reason; after ruining the instrument, owners then trade it in.

[Edit] The one violin I had which seemed dead appeared to have normal thicknesses. Something else might have been the cause. And one newish instrument I used quite a lot seemed to benefit from a rest a few years in. It's OK now.

Experts have sometimes commented on "the seasoning of the wood to withstand the pressure of the strings". If that's an issue, it might well be that fairly new instruments benefit more from periodic resting than older ones. Also, watch out for the bridge sticking to the varnish !!

PS the "David" who Peter Charles asks to comment is not me but surely David Burgess.

December 25, 2011 at 10:18 AM · Hi David

Your comments are most welcome too as an experienced player and violin lover. These comments about newish instruments are interesting as well as sometimes alarming, and as someone as you know who has purchased a wonderful sounding fiddle recently I'm all ears.

You can see the old viola I part exchanged for the new violin on Tom Blackburns website. It's called an old school Paris French viola (REF: 239)- of about 1780 (which is what I always thought it might be). It looks great now as he has cleaned it up and got rid of one or two minor scratches, and I hope it goes to a good home and a player who can appreciate it.

It would be good to get comments fron David B and other makers and restorers on here, as I have a lot of respect for their huge knowledge and their obvious interest in players and instruments.

December 25, 2011 at 12:32 PM · Sorry to go off-topic, but, shucks, it's Christmas day !!!!

Peter mentioned old French violas. Well, I had one, later identified as Thibouville-Lamy. Perfectly OK, but then I bought a viola from an Italian chap. This cost me less than the Hill bow with which I play it, and it sounded better than this old instrument.

The French viola sold to a colleague, who, when at the RAM in London (UK) was allowed to play on the "Archinto" Stradivari viola, which he disliked. He raved about the viola I sold him, calling it "the wall of sound".

It makes a good story for the maker of my 20-year-old Cremona viola to tell clients that his instrument is better than a viola that's in turn better than the "Archinto" Strad.

The sound of this viola has not clapped out after 20 years.

December 25, 2011 at 12:53 PM · This is the link to Peter Charles' viola on Tom Blackburn's website.

Interestingly, my old German violin, of approximately the same era as Peter's viola, also has distinctive "iron marks" on its back plate.

December 25, 2011 at 02:10 PM · To be brutally honest ALL violas sound clapped out, old or new. I hated playing the viola, long live the fiddle!!

I’ve just come back from Xmas lunch at the pub – it was pretty poor. So I’m a bit you know what. The English are so held in a boring!! (Present company excepted of course!!)

If you want to see the fiddle I bought, then look under violins for Riccardo Bergonzi. It’s a great fiddle – makes a Strad look a bit iffy ...

I can play it so loudly that the neighbour's nipples vibrate - and he's a bloke I think ... (although I could be wrong ...)

December 25, 2011 at 02:14 PM · Iron marks are beyong my ken. I didn't realise someone had tried to iron my viola. A bit daft, as I never even iron my shirts.

December 25, 2011 at 02:16 PM · Any trusted luthier should be able to easily take measurements of the plate thicknesses and tell you if they are too thin. Predicting the exact demise is something else, but I'd stay away from any violin that was too thin in the plates.

December 25, 2011 at 02:21 PM · It's a bit like very beautiful women that are too thin. It stores up trouble for the future ... Hard to get a grip too ...

December 25, 2011 at 02:43 PM · Hmmm, Peter...considering this and your CF bow remarks, I hope that you don't have a girlfriend who reads v.com! (though it can also be really bad if they read Match.com! I shouldn't even be going here!)

December 25, 2011 at 02:52 PM · Unfortunately Raphael, I don't have a girlfriend to read my comments, and my wife is away in new Zealand at present, so I'm fairly safe. Anyway, I usually tell her about any naughty remarks I make, and she is very understanding.

Her main fault is that she encourages me to buy great fiddles, but I usually manage self control ... but not always!

December 25, 2011 at 03:01 PM · "Playing dead" is a useful ruse in the animal world. A survival tactic.

I had Christmas Lunch but I am not "you know what". My wife did not kill me when I bought a violin last year, but NEXT time ?????

December 25, 2011 at 03:41 PM · I've had success restringing thin violins with light gauge gut strings, effectively turning it into a "baroque" type instrument. Using a light (47g?) Corelli-style violin bow, the tone can be quite good, although less volume than a fiddle with modern strings. Also makes a great late-night practice violin.

With brand new violins, I too have noticed unpredictable changes in it's first year of life. When wet and green, these instruments sould rich, full and deep, but gradually transform into something else-- sometimes nasal, shrill, harsh, or...perhaps a GOOD sounding one.

Luthiers have claimed the choice of ground coat can have dramatic tonal consequences-- but there are probably many causes for this.

Other notable authors and musicians have remarked on new violins going bad, or settling of tone. I think playing it in helps, but cannot transform a sour fiddle to a sweet one.

Thats why aged instruments are still in demand. Even if the neck settles a bit, the basic tonal qualities will not change in unpredictable ways--and it can always be shimmed. Long live the old fiddle!

December 25, 2011 at 03:56 PM · In response to the Evan;

Long live the old fiddle indeed! However, we need a supply of new fiddles which will then become old for us over time so we have a stream of new old violins. It's just a shame that in this day and age, so many factories and mass workshops produce utterly rubbish violins, making it a needle-in-a-haystack task to find the very best. I suppose that's why we're lucky on here to have a few great luthiers hanging around... :-)

Merry Christmas, everyone!

December 25, 2011 at 03:59 PM · Re:- Peter Charles' old viola, (link on Trevor Jennings post) I was intrigued by the unusual body-length for a pre-1800 French viola and thought it had a Castagneri look.

Lo and behold, I found a very similar machine, Castagneri, Sothebys, November 2005 lot 89.

Body length 42.2 cm.

Sold for £20,400.

December 25, 2011 at 05:08 PM · How many old fiddles actually sound good? Perhaps a greater percentage than new ones, but after trying out hundreds at a time at violin auctions and showrooms, there were only a few that sounded really exceptional.

If one out of 10 new Chinese imports age well, and one out of 100 end up sounding exceptionally full, rich and balanced with good volume, what percentage old violins sound equally good?

Maybe our preceptions of new "junk" fiddles are similar to our ancestor's opinions of (now) old German, French and even some Italian instruments. Certainly by appearance alone, the Chinese churn out nicer looking bench violins than ever before, but I know of no careful study comparing tone and possible deteriorating acoustical properties of these new instruments compared to their old counterparts.

Similar discussions happen in the home audio arena. Some claim "vintage" tube amps with 50 year old capacitors and carbon comp resistors sound better than new imports from China, but again, there are many bad sounding vintage amps, and if I had to generalize, the modern Chinese amps are consistently great sounding with fewer problems.

December 25, 2011 at 06:24 PM · I hope you all have something better to do on X-mas day than engage in this lengthy discussion (lol). At least, being Jewish, I have an excuse!

December 25, 2011 at 06:31 PM · Rafael, I am really not sure if a luthier or shop will ALWAYS be able to tell you if an instrument is too thin, even if they would measure the thickness which is a more time consuming business. I have seen experienced dealers just put a little bit of pressure on the top in various places ( don't do this with the old Italian fiddle at your local shop!)and tell from the give whether the fiddle is ok. This gives a measure of both thickness AND stiffness of the wood, the latter cannot be measured with magnetic callipers.

All I can do is look at the thickness at the ff holes and play fortissimo above 7th position on the g string ( suggested by Claudio Manfio in a previous post) to see if the sound holds there.

And of course choosing a luthier with a solid reputation, confirmed by people in the know.

December 25, 2011 at 06:57 PM · Tom - as it happens I have nothing better to do other than some practise as my wife is away and nothing else happens here in London on Xmas day. Tomorrow will be the same and I hope to get in some more work on some sonatas as I may be playing them with a pianist friend in a couple of days or so. Brahms A major sonata Op 100, Mozart K 454 and Schubert Op 162 duo.

So a discussion about fiddles is most welcome!

December 25, 2011 at 09:56 PM · Hendrik - I really feel that any luthier worth his salt should be able to do this very easily and quickly, either using traditional calipers, or the more modern magnetic digital tool. Of course the luthier needs to know what parameters should be in the different areas. Ed Maday has done this in front of me a number of times. It was easy as pie for him.

December 25, 2011 at 10:03 PM · Peter, your posts get highly entertaining and funny when your wife is away! (noticed mostly in another thread)

I'll try to think of something more useful to say on the topic tomorrow. The subject is a minefield, so I'll devote a little time to thinking about it before saying much more. I agree that the "too thin" thing has often been used to smear better sounding fiddles from competitors, but also believe that there can be some merit to arguments about some makers using methods which fail to stand the test of time.

December 26, 2011 at 03:56 AM · QUOTE from post by Manfio:

"Well, as a maker and player I can say that you can spot overthinned instruments from the very beggining by playing fff near the bridge (the instrument will choke), playing in high positions on the G string (7th position), you will have a bad sound in this area if the plates are overthinned. These problems will show up when the instrument is brand new, you don't need to wait years to discover that."

(click here for original topic)

Personally, I've played a few chinese violins and it seems that chinese are able to make their violin responded well fresh from the bench. One of them, that's just months fresh from the maker's bench, unplayed, was particularly alive when I gently knocked on the top plate with knuckle. The whole violin was vibrating and the string rings livelily. However, the ringing sound sounded hollow, and it felt as if the plates were too thin. When being played, the sound was unfocused although with plenty of volume and easy bow response (although the attack was never fast, and seems not possible with much dynamic levels).

In contrast, I played my teacher's new Cremonese contemporary violin, fresh from the (well experienced) maker's bench too, briefly played for few months, it has wonderful big sound, with quite some resistance to the bow response and it sound a little constrained which what I would call the "fresh" sound. It has that good resistance feeling that make me feel like I can do great deal of dynamics on it, but I only played on it briefly for few minutes so I didn't explore well of its potential but I believe it'll sound great after years of playing in.

December 26, 2011 at 04:27 AM · Rafael, I guess you are right it doesn't have to take long to take a few thickness measurements. I've seen detailed graduation maps of tops and bottoms and they are covered in numbers. That degree of detail may not be necessary for the purpose of telling too thin or not. But my question really is what exactly is too thin? Several Strads are thin, 1.8 mm in some places , maybe even less. And yet some modern makers go to 2.4 mm in places and some feel that is too thin.

Then to further complicate matters the question of the density of the wood comes into play. And also the question whether thinness is more detrimental in some places versus other areas.

BTW does the weight of the plates have something to do with this as well, and maybe the weight of the entire violin? I've weighed a number of fiddles with strings and standard wooden chinrest on them and they all pretty well weighed about 450 gms, but I understand that some can weigh less than that. Could that indicate a potential problem?

December 26, 2011 at 06:48 AM · Anyone curious about dead violins should explore DODO Press.


There's also a DODO violin concert:-


December 26, 2011 at 02:13 PM · Hendrik - your questions are all valid, but that's what the luthier is there to answer.

December 26, 2011 at 02:50 PM · There's no doubt that a new violin undergoes many changes during its first years. What makes it difficult to assess is that the process is not consistent among fiddles. If a violin changes badly after, say, 20 years, it could be an indication that something unobserved has occurred, such as the foot of the neck separating, but held on the button, the entire assembly appearing perfectly normal until the strings are loosened.

I am slowly becoming convinced that all stringed instruments will need some regraduation at some point in their lives, which is why I am a big supporter of Hutchins' ideas on plate tuning to the point where I offer classes to other luthiers who might not be familiar with its advantages. I realize this might sound heretical, but if my violins need such work a century from now, I'd want it done by someone who is well-trained and knows what he or she is doing.

That said, however, it seems to me that 20 years is much too soon for plate regraduation. There are two "consumable" parts inside the violin, which are the bass bar and the soundpost. A knowledgeable luthier would work there first; typically it's the bar, not the belly, that needs thinning, while it's usually easier to fit a newer and slightly taller post. No matter how badly botched the job, both components can be replaced entirely without devaluing the instrument.

December 26, 2011 at 05:03 PM · Well Lyndon, Merry Christmas and Peace on Earth to people of good will.

Regraduation of the brain is not a medically recognized procedure but who knows it could become popular just as frontal lobotomies were at one point.

December 26, 2011 at 06:28 PM · Frontal lobotomies may have been popular in the past, but bottles in front of me still are.

December 27, 2011 at 03:06 PM · Lydon-- Perhaps like you, I was at first horrified at the thought of removing even so much as a piece of lint from inside a fine old violin. But as I came up professionally and got to know some very fine luthiers and restorers, I found (and I admit it was to my amazement) that regraduated violins were not the exception, but rather the rule. Read Sacconi's comments in his book "The 'Secrets' of Stradivari". There are also comments made by Count Cozio that Cremonese violins were often too thick and were sent to the Montagazza brothers for regraduation even while the original makers were still alive!

Most of the great Stradivari and del Gesu violins that are beloved in classical music have been regraduated. In fact, the ones that have not been touched are so rare that they are kept in museums. That said, I personally will not regraduate the plates of a violin by a living maker. Not that anyone would ask me to regrad a Strad, but the answer to that request would be a polite refusal. I have learned a lot about acoustics by regraduating unlabeled violins (usually commercial). I have also seen otherwise good instruments that were ruined by inexpert regraduation, hence my feeling that this is a practice that has been going on for centuries and will likely continue, and that the best approach would be to raise the level of knowledge in craftspeople who undertake this kind of work-- including when not to.

December 27, 2011 at 05:25 PM · We are lucky I suppose that wood tends to stiffen over time rather than soften. Can you imagine having to build a violin extra thick hoping that with softening over time it might start to sound good eventually?

Why would it be a problem if a maker who likes to err building on the heavier side regraduates the occasional fiddel even after one or two years? As you mentioned Robert, a lot of changes happen in the first years. In this luthier's experience the odd violin of his needs that and it brings the sound up to original level.

December 27, 2011 at 05:45 PM · Uh-oh! This discussion reminds me of luthier's good intentions in the 19th and 20th centuries to rip out and replace the neck, corner blocks, linings and bass bar. A cheap trade fiddle that's too heavy is fine to experiment with IMO, but best not to modify an older, seasoned violin.

I am NOT a luthier by any definition, but as an early music enthusiast, I cringe when an older violin is ripped apart for "home improvement".

December 28, 2011 at 07:33 PM ·

December 29, 2011 at 03:27 AM · Built too thin? Other reasons?

I'll leave the "too thin" discussion to others, since I have followed Sacconi, Cauer, Strobel, who are not advocates of thinness. I have based thickness on wood characteristics, including density less than 2.0 and keep carefull records of each instrument. I use the best sounding instrumenrts as a guide. I'll comment on "some other reasons" for tonal changes in a violin. Players should first be careful how they evaluate a violin before they purchase it. A good listener is helpful. The player must love the instrument. It should be responsive and easy to play, but things such as string height and fittings can be easily changed. Violins should be loud and clear - no fuzzyness or dullness. When played with piano each note should be clearly heard. Of importance is resonance, colors and contrasts and the ability to convey a broad range of emotions. If all is well, then the player should record the postion of the bridge, after making sure there are no gaps between bridge feet and top. Measurements should be made from the bridge feet to the ff holes on each side and recorded. Looking from each side - the postiton of the center of the diapson notch lined up with the bridge foot should be recorded (normally the center of the bridge foot). Some players and teachers will move the bridge one way or another and some even have sound post setters. If the tone has changed, check all of the above. Players sometimes ask a maker or dealer to move the soundpost one way or another. The player must take good care of the violin. Take care to avoid possible harmful humidity and temperatures changes. A new violin properly cared for should stay the same or get better with age.

December 29, 2011 at 03:55 AM · Error. Density should read less than .40 gm/cc. instead of 2.0. Charles

December 29, 2011 at 03:54 PM · One of my instruments "died" once, and the dealer took it back in trade towards something that was a lot "better" (and of course more $$). When I saw the violin, it had just been taken in, and the bridge was 4mm off-center. I asked the salesman if he'd tried to set it right, and he replied, "my job was to sell her something, not fix hers." Referring back to the original post, this, also happened in one of the most-connected shops in the world.

In the 70s, when Sergio Peresson was at his peak, it was common for dealers to try to kill his sales by saying his violins were too thin and that's why they sounded good. I've measured four, and all had tops nearly 3.5mm thick, which is very thick for a modern maker. I have not seen any dead ones, either.

Almost every single one of the "dead" violins I've seen could be, and was, put right by putting things right. It's not in the salesman's interest to suggest that to you, though, and better still if he doesn't have to take your "bad" violin in trade in the deal! You can be sure that if the salesman takes it in trade, it won't be "dead" for long.

Thickness rarely has anything to do with it. Though I have seen violins that were too thin, in my opinion, both collapsing and sounding dull and tubb, probably right from the start, the owners thought they were charmingly dark sounding. In one case the violin was 6 months old, and the player loved it, though few others would.

In my opinion a 40 year old instrument that has served well all that time does not suddenly "die". Something has changed, and needs to be fixed.

December 29, 2011 at 05:17 PM · Michael I cannot give you much detail about this instrument. It was used professionally for many years. I know that the luthier/dealer who told this (it was not in his shop)is very knowledgeable and wouldn't just pass on a hear-say. The instrument was valuable enough that it must have been checked out thoroughly before being pronounced unrepairable. And the verdict was "too thin". I was quite surprised with all of this as well. And a little worried wandering how often this could happen. But from the reactions here it sounds like this would be rather unusual, particularly considering the time it had been working well before eventually dying.

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