Old factories vs. new factories

Edited: March 4, 2019, 2:07 AM · There seems to me to be a belief that spending up to $2,000 on a century-old German or French factory violin gets you good(ish) quality (once you've sorted out the wheat from the chaff). Were they better than a modern factory violin for the same price, or is the money just going on their antique value? Are they old enough to have "opened up"? Do the old instruments have a different personality from the new ones? Are modern wages so high that a modern factory violin at that price isn't that good? I realise this raises all the usual questions about China - should we get em while they're hot?
N.B. My main purpose in asking this is to learn more about the history of commercial violin making.

Replies (39)

Edited: March 4, 2019, 3:27 AM · Are we comparing apples to apples here? Did violin factories in the modern sense exist a century ago? My understanding is that century-old trade violins were made by piecework, not on an assembly line, which would make them closer to workshop violins than what we would call factory lines. Today's factory violins are often assembled from machine-cut parts.
Edited: March 4, 2019, 7:24 AM · Any questions you want to ask are welcome to be added to mine.
They had assembly lines, just not (so many) machines, I gather.
March 4, 2019, 7:55 AM · VSOs are machine-made, I believe.

But your typical branded instruments -- Jay Haide, Hiroshi Kono, Rudolf Doetsch, etc. -- are workshop-made.

March 4, 2019, 7:23 PM · I believe nearly all the instruments from China are hand carved. There are lots of videos showing rooms of people carving, gouging, and hand sawing the pieces. They are generally farmers doing this work during off season. Since time is money, it is important to create a salable instrument as quickly as possible. Some of the factories take their best workers and materials and provide them a little more time to make a better quality instrument that they sell at much higher prices. Probably, if you took their finest workers, gave them excellent wood, and adequate time, they could make a very nice instrument. But they don't see any economy in that.
March 4, 2019, 7:27 PM · As soon as they get successful enough, the Chinese factories buy a CNC machine to machine make the plates, the old hand made myth is dying out in China.
March 4, 2019, 7:28 PM · Jay Haide is factory made in China, not workshop.
March 4, 2019, 7:42 PM · All things being equal (are they?), one is sure: with the old violins, wood has aged over time even if it was not old enough a century ago! With new workshop / factory violins, it is quite possible that the wood was not aged naturally or even aged enough.
March 5, 2019, 3:02 PM · Lyndon, I'm pretty sure the higher end of the Jay Haide line is workshop made.
Edited: March 5, 2019, 4:29 PM · My understanding is that, with Jay Haide, the numbered models are factory-made and the L'ancienne line is workshop-made.

Which, incidentally, is fairly common among violin brands. Lower-end models are factory-made, higher-end models are workshop-made.

Edited: March 5, 2019, 6:55 PM · Is a "workshop violin" one which is made in a small factory?

Is a "factory violin" one which is made in a large workshop?

Until the ambiguity of the definitions start to be more precise, I think it's pointless to argue which is which.

There are some well-known makers who utilize employees and/or carving machines, and others who do everything themself.

Edited: March 5, 2019, 5:37 PM · I believe Jay Haide only has one factory in China, same with Scott Cao, if there's a workshop built into it I never heard of it.
March 5, 2019, 7:11 PM · Have you ever been to China?
March 5, 2019, 7:40 PM · I leave that privilege to you David!!
March 5, 2019, 8:27 PM · - Shops may charge more for the older instruments because they know they can get more. So to get them to compete sound wise, they will regraduate or rebar to improve on them. Then the price also reflects that work. They did this with modern Italian violins, starting roughly in the 50's and on and then rergraduated them in the US to make them sellable sound wise.
- Old violins that aren't played can sound closed too. Get the violin that sounds the best to you now and as long as everything is structurally sound and is within normal parameters, it will continue to sound better to you as you break it in.
-All instruments have different personalities, even among the same maker, it would be unfair to generalize, and old isn't necessarily better then new.
-If you know what to look for, you can get a high quality instrument from China. Again, if you know what to look for. When I used to purchase instruments for a shop, I looked at dozens of instruments from a workshop only to select one or two, or none. From China, Germany, USA, Romania, didn't matter.
-Honestly, who cares if they are completely done by hand or not at this price point. Do you know how even many top makers cut corners and use machines, jigs, and fixtures to make things easier, faster, and look better. If it's a better product for the price, it just is.
March 6, 2019, 9:12 PM · If a Jay Haide violin sounds good enough and plays well enough to spend $2000 on it, why would anyone care whether the plates were roughed out by CNC? The proof of the pudding is still in the eating.

If the argument is that CNC manufacture is why they all sound bad, well fine. But that's still a matter of individual judgement.

Edited: March 7, 2019, 3:04 AM · Regraduation is a waste of time, and shows a profound lack of respect for the original maker and the violins place in history, most regraduators are hacks that don't really know what they are doing also. If a violin is worth restoring, it doesn't need regraduation anyway, regraduation could only possibly benefit violins so cheap that they aren't worth repairing anyway. The problem is serial regraduators have the mistaken idea that only thin, thin measurements produce the best sound, when actually the opposite might be true.

Unfortunately most Strads were regraduated in Paris and London, so using their measurements as some kind of gold standard is rubbish to begin with. Add to that Strads used denser spruce which still responds with thinner dimensions, regraduators use these same measurements on a medium or light density spruce trade violin, and the violin becomes way to thin to sound optimally, sounding boxy and hollow.

The mature thing to do is restore violins to as close as original set up as possible, there is no reason to regraduate an instrument other than to satisfy your own mistaken ego, that you somehow know better than the original maker.

March 7, 2019, 5:11 AM · I guess reasons that make people consider hand-made to be better than CNC is that hand-made use far better wood and more customized quality control, while for CNC, whatever pumps out pumps out.

I also think by hand-made, most makers still employs machine to do some of the cutting, but parameters are measured more precisely. And all these 'machines' for 'hand-made' would be better than those machines in the factory.

Edited: March 7, 2019, 5:35 AM · I've had experiences were power tools ruined the quality of tap tones a piece of tone wood produced. I'd be very concerned about the level of vibrational violence that a CNC made violin is subjected to. Its enough vibration to tear the microfibres in the wood IMHO.
March 7, 2019, 5:33 AM · Cutting the shape of the violin top with a bandsaw is no problem, they had pedal operated bandsaws in Stradivari's time, but nothing like routers.
Edited: March 7, 2019, 7:24 AM · Lyndon wrote, "If a violin is worth restoring, it doesn't need regraduation anyway, regraduation could only possibly benefit violins so cheap that they aren't worth repairing anyway." I had a violin like that, but a luthier in Richmond was willing to try regrading the top for $100. I decided that was a pretty low-risk venture, so I went for it. The sound was improved, but not to a playable level. It's a lovely, orange-colored birds-eye violin and I am building a case to display it as an objet d'art. It was made by a man who was mostly known as a guitar-maker, who decided to try his hand at violin-making in his retirement.

Lyndon also wrote, "Its enough vibration to tear the microfibres in the wood IMHO." Without any supporting evidence this kind of conclusion is really not worth much. We've had plenty of threads before about whether power tools ruin tone-woods.

Edited: March 7, 2019, 7:42 AM · "It's enough vibration to tear the microfibres in the wood"

Even if this were merely a theory or a supposition, it's clearly important to know of its existence.

March 7, 2019, 8:13 AM · All I know is what my ear tells me, I don't care what people's stupid "scientific" theories are about power tools having no effect on tone.
March 7, 2019, 8:37 AM · I think I read somewhere that German violin makers used to ship violins to the US with thick plates expecting they would be re-graduated when they arrived. If the plates weren't thick enough when packed, the violins would crack during transport.

Regarding the vibration issue: if Lyndon's opinion is widely shared, I wonder if one could argue for not sitting in front of the piccolo (or any other deafening instrument) because it will harm not only your ears, but your violin!

March 7, 2019, 9:10 AM · you are obviously not aware of the vibration potential of a router.

March 7, 2019, 9:11 AM · Never play on your violin. The vibrations will ruin it....

So can you really tell if power tools have been used? E.g. purfling channels cut with a dremel? Or if the bandsaw was operated by electricity or by pedal?

Think about what has been done to the wood before it arrives at the violin makers shop. I bet they cut the tree down with a chainsaw and use a bandsaw to cut it up.

BTW - I have seen a description of an Amish carpenter who constructed a gear system and flexible power transmission to allow him to operate a DeWalt router with 2 horses! Would that be OK?

March 7, 2019, 10:05 AM · Tops are supposed to be split with an ax, otherwise the cuts don't follow the grain.
Edited: March 7, 2019, 12:13 PM · Tops I believe use quarter cut wood, which is cut perpendicular to the grain. I fail to see how splitting with an ax "along the grain" can be used for anything other than narrowing the width of the wood plank used to make the top. At some point, a saw has to be used, and only the purists will go the extent of using only a hand saw. I would be surprised if the vast majority of commercially available tone wood wasn't machine milled and perhaps even planed.
March 7, 2019, 12:54 PM · Good good good......... good vibrations?
March 7, 2019, 12:55 PM · I guess that is important for guitars, but for instruments like the violin with an arched top it can't be that important. A few month ago I watched a documentary about a violin maker and it included a visit to the tone wood supplier. They showed the whole process from taking down the tree, and I am pretty sure thy cut it up using a large band saw.
And here is an image from an Italian tone wood supplier showing them preparing quarterSAWN wood:
March 7, 2019, 3:16 PM · Violins tops are traditionally split with an axe to get the lateral grain going straight, you can never do this with a saw, because you can't see which way the grain is going until you split it, you can saw it off and the grain is going 30 % off the way you sawed it, we don't need more uneducated responses on this topic.

The reason some disreputable tonewood suppliers don't do it is there is more excess wood wasted with the splitting process, but at least you know your grain is running dead on, which makes carving the top a lot easier.

Edited: March 7, 2019, 4:13 PM · Spruce splits in two ways, with the grain like you see with a crack, and through the grain (at 90") like you only see when you split the wood. (You see these radial cracks when you look at a sawed off log, cracks running from the centre out to the edges, through the grain) People who saw the wedges for a top, saw the wood straight parallel to the trunk, but the tree might be growing twisted in a spiral, only splitting with an axe will show this, also knots can be avoided by sawing around them, but the waves in the grain caused by the knots are still there, and properly split wood will reveal these anomalies and perhaps cause a wedge of wood that looks perfectly straight when sawed, to be rejected when split.
March 7, 2019, 4:30 PM · If CNC can produce at least as good as handmade, all the top luthiers will gradually go out of business or be forced to apply CNC into their making, in equilibrium or steady state whatever you may call. It hasn’t shown any sign to happen that way for hundreds of years.
March 7, 2019, 4:38 PM · A really fast hand made maker like David Burgess can rough out a plate quicker and cheaper than using a CNC. CNC is the lazy mans way to make a violin and not tonally better.
March 7, 2019, 5:20 PM · Doesn’t CNC only make sense for mass production, cost-wise?
March 7, 2019, 5:29 PM · if you ask me CNC doesn't make sense for anything good
March 8, 2019, 9:29 AM · Matt said,
"If CNC can produce at least as good as handmade, all the top luthiers will gradually go out of business or be forced to apply CNC into their making, in equilibrium or steady state whatever you may call. It hasn’t shown any sign to happen that way for hundreds of years."

We all have an opinion.Here's mine,the reason things haven't changed much recently concerning the status quo has a lot to do with the perception of high tier buying based on occupational use.A lot of assumptions are made based on how things have worked in the past. Professional musicians can't afford to play games looking for good instruments, so they go with what they know works and they realize that this has traditionally been expensive when done the old school way by good makers in comparison to other methods.This ship is very slow to steer in any other direction if it can even be done at all.This is good for the old school ways.There will also always be a market for CNC made instruments.

Who is the largest purchaser of violins as a group? It's probably the late returners, the part timers and the beginners. If the violin business only depended on the full time professional musicians they would likely go bankrupt.

Edited: March 8, 2019, 2:15 PM · Somewhat agreed. The bulk of "violin dealers" rely on sales of lower-priced instruments, because that's where the highest volume can be had.

The sales volume of contemporary violins over 30K, and Strads and Guarneris is a pittance in comparison. Both buyers and sellers need to carefully consider what they want to accomplish.

March 8, 2019, 2:25 PM · I'm pretty sure the overwhelming majority of part timers and beginners start with a factory-made violin. A significant proportion will continue to use this kind of violin in the long term.
March 9, 2019, 8:52 AM · " A significant proportion will continue to use this kind of violin in the long term."

An even higher proportion will stop using those violins, soon or less soon after. And then they'll sit in attics and basements and lockers, etc., until perhaps decades and passed and someone takes an interest in selling it. If I took out the label from an 'antiqued' Yita instrument I have and put it in storage and forgot about it, someone finding it decades later might be quite excited about it. (As I think they should be, because it's a nice instrument compared to many others, but I'm not taking out the label.)

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