Re-graduating a violin (top)

September 9, 2004 at 12:55 AM · Does anyone have any experience with re-graduation of an instrument? I know that it’s not uncommon to find older European violins which have been re-graduated to improve the sound. I’ve heard that ‘way back when violins traveled to America by ship that there could be problems from exposure in instruments which did not have thick tops, and it was assumed that decent instruments would be re-graduated before being sold. I’m wondering if the process is still cost-effective. I know there are some shops which take older instruments and re-graduate and re-varnish them before re-selling . I’m guessing the results depend on the potential of the instrument and the skill of the luthier. I have a few 80-100 year old German violins which have so-so sound and I am intrigued by the prospect of improving them if it can be done for a reasonable price. If you are a maker or technician, or if you know anything about the process, or if you are a player who has had this done, please let us benefit from your knowledge or ideas on this subject. Thanks!

Replies (11)

September 9, 2004 at 01:58 AM · For the average instrument, regraduating is a losing proposition. There's more to sound than thickness -- contour of the arch, quality and density of the wood, placement and quality of the bass bar, just to name a few. On most production instruments from the turn of the century, the wood density will not be high to withstand thinning the top further, and the arching on those instruments (many being quasi-Hopf or Stainer models) is not conducive to regraduation either.

You put that all together with what a qualified luthier would charge you, and it's just not a cost-effective idea. You'd be better off having a good restorer set up the instrument properly, or perhaps (at the absolute most) replacing the bar. I really wouldn't recommend any more than that.

September 9, 2004 at 02:20 PM · excellent points, thanks. I'm not sure any of my instrumetns are high-arched, though, and the wood seems better than average...I would not know how to determine the density.

September 9, 2004 at 06:01 PM · Mike,

I have recently re-graduated my German trade violin by a amateur luthier. With good setup, the heavy, 50 plus yrs old violin sounded nasal/lack of volume. After regraduating the top and bottom, a new bassbar, it sounds great. Sure, it's a risky process and very expensive for luthier to do it. I have mine done less than $200 and I love the results.

September 9, 2004 at 06:37 PM · Simon,

If it's done right by a good luthier, regraduation can work just fine. The problems that arise mainly concern the long-term health of the instrument, years or decades down the road. And as you said, it can be risky, which is why I'd advise against it until all other non-invasive options have been exhausted.

September 10, 2004 at 02:11 AM · hmm, i'd just ask a luthier what he thinks.

September 10, 2004 at 03:42 AM · Hi Mike,

Fred Carpenter in Nashville has had great results re-graduating old fiddles. The wood has to be dense enough for it to work. Here's his site:

September 11, 2004 at 03:11 AM · Thanks to all for the useful input...I'll check with a couple of savvy local techs as to their thoughts on the matter and have them look over the instruments in question. I'll also contact Fred Carpenter for estimates and opinions.

Simon, you sound like a gambling kind of guy, I'm glad it worked out well for you. Is it possible to get in touch with the "amateur luthier" you mentioned?

And, Michael, even though

these are instruments which only cost me 250 to 600 dollars (US) each, rest assured I won't do something totally rash--I will require a reasonable chance of success before going forward with this.

September 11, 2004 at 03:50 AM · Be sure to tell Fred that a fiddle camp attendee referred him.

September 11, 2004 at 07:43 PM · I think it's the right idea to talk to at least one luthier before getting into the job. It's not that I'm totally opposed to the idea of regraduation -- I did it myself as an exercise more than once when I was training.

It's just that I know too many people calling themselves "master" luthiers who will be only too happy to destroy your instrument for you by thinning it out WAY too much. In one instance I saw a violin that had been reduced to 2.3 mm in the center of the top. The player had it done about six months prior to bringing it to us. The top had literally imploded.

In many ways, I wish that the German classifications existed here. In Germany, you can't call yourself a master luthier without passing the master examination. The AFVBM is working on bringing some sort of standardization to the field in the US, but it's a long way off yet.

September 12, 2004 at 12:05 PM · One really has to consider the violin carefully to begin with. Everything is connected to everything else!

First, the violins from the best old Cremonese makers seem quite light by today's standards. I can't see this as indicated high density wood is preferable.

Second, with strong arching the old violins have survived with tops at 2.5 mm and often less, although often with repairs.

Third, many old German school violins seem to have had quite thick tops in the center and been quite nice.

So I wouldn't think of regraduating a good old instrument. But I've greatly enhanced better vintage trade violins thar were indeed built with quite thick graduations, rather heavy bass bar, and graduations that were not in the "Italian" style but had suitable arching. The typical decent trade violin with potential was made in the 1920s in Germany of excellent wood with adequate arching. The top is 3.5 mm in the middle grading evenly to 3.0 mm about 1 cm in from the glue line. At the glue line, it is back up to 3.2 mm or so. Simple work would be to take the 3.0 mm out to the glue line and reshape the massive bass bar. More complex would be to change the top to a 3.0 or 2.7 or whatever nearly uniform top more like most Italian violins.

But I think mostly too much emphasis is placed on the thickness of the graduation and too little on the effectiveness of the graduation with the particular arch. I had a fine well-known Austrian maker violin late 18th C with the top averaging something like 2.2 mm. Lots of repairs and a thicker soundpost patch, but it was quite delightful to play. I have another sort of similar Austrian violin, same time period, quite different arch in the center, with a silvery, ahimmering tone, surprisingly easy response. The top is 4 mm thick in the center. But with that arching if it was thinned out much it would die.

Regraduating won't fix ineffective setup. Setting various body resonances, really working the bridge well and so on would be the first thing I'd do. Sort of an entire "reboot."

So the physical goals of regraduation can credibly be to Irregular or non-systematic graduationat happens with regraduation?

Think about fine violins from the 18th C Italian school. Very light wood, carefully

September 12, 2004 at 03:08 PM · Stephen, what would one be looking at (in terms of time and money) for a) such a "reboot" or, if warranted, b) regraduation? This is assuming, of course, that you would be willing to take on such a project.

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