Have there always been junk violins made - i.e. "old" doesn't necessarily mean good?

August 24, 2019, 12:06 AM · You see a violin on eBay and it's purportedly 100, 150 or more years old. "Antique German violin" or whatever. Assuming it really is as old as claimed and not a newer antiqued instrument and there's nothing structurally wrong with it - i.e. not cracked, no glue joints coming apart, bass bar's intact, etc. - it can still be a dud? Even before the era of factory Chinese violins, were there people turning out not so great instruments? I.e. it's possible it was a chintzy violin when it was made and 175 years later it's still chintzy?

Have you ever bought an old violin online just for grins? Were you pleasantly surprised or did you add to your collection of wall hangers?

Replies (32)

August 24, 2019, 12:53 AM · Yes. Before the era of Chinese factory violins, there were German and Czech trade violins, which are really hit and miss. I don't think they were ever as bad as the cheapest Chinese violins (as in the plywood VSOs) and they tended to be piece-work by fairly skilled woodworkers rather than truly amss produced, but some were quite cheaply made using not-so-great materials.

At least over the first 20-30 years, age does improve the sound, even with cheap violins, due to the hemicellulose in the wood degrading. This may be another reason we see fewer duds.

I haven't owned a cheap violin from the pre-Chinese era, but I've played a Hofner violin from the 1960s that I would consider to be a dud.

August 24, 2019, 1:11 AM · Certainly old doesn't necessarily mean good - I'd be more inclined to ask does an old factory fiddle necessarily sound bad? Over the years I've picked up quite a few to resurrect and tried to convince myself they sounded OK and were enjoyable to play, but frankly none of them were so I sold them again. Nevertheless I'm sure there are decent ones still to be found if you really know what to look out for
Edited: August 24, 2019, 3:38 AM · I'm not entirely sure of the economics, but the idea is that the violin was one of the cheapest instruments in 19th century Europe (if you ignore penny whistles and wooden flutes), and they catered for every budget, therefore...
Edited: August 24, 2019, 8:51 AM · Just because they weren't working in China doesn't mean the craftsmen of old didn't make cheap, lazy garbage just like we do today. The thing is that most of those firewood fiddles were, well, burned. Or used as tennis rackets.

We only see the violins which someone thought were worth conserving for 200 years. It's just like how the only houses you see in historical cities are the ones that were never demolished and which survived both war and natural disaster. "They just don't make them like they used to."

Edited: August 24, 2019, 9:09 AM · For at least 100 years, the vast majority of violins produced have been of the cheap VSO variety... perhaps related to the second industrial revolution of the late 1800's. It will take a better expert than me to say what went on before that period.

In any case, there are plenty of quite old violins with absolutely grotesque workmanship out there, and I have seen a few of them. Sometimes they can be reworked into decent sounding fiddles, sometimes not. Age generally improves things, but there is also a Strad that I heard that was truly awful sounding, so they can disintegrate too.

August 25, 2019, 7:41 AM · not an expert at all, but here is what i experienced so far whilst violin shopping. definitely not, i tested out a couple german violin from the 1920s, and it sounded like a tinbox compared to another chinese violin in the same price range(1200)

not saying they are all bad, if you go to a very reputable shop and they are asking for 3k and up for 80 year old german violin, the chances of having a vintage violin that also sounds good just went up.

these old german trade violins on reverb and and ebay should be avoided at all cost, especially when they are asking for 1 grand or so, you MIGHT get a hidden gem, but you will most likely get a tinbox that has no projection, except you massively overpaid for it.

August 25, 2019, 12:29 PM · If you take a cheap German $300 violin and price it at $1200 of course the Chinese $1200 violin is going to sound better but the $30 Chinese VSO is going to be abysmally worse.
August 25, 2019, 8:32 PM · It is an interesting question.. what did amateurs and beginners play early in the days of the violin? All the early violin makers seemed to cater to aristocratic clientele... Even the roughest makers like the Testores and Mariani and such are now extremely expensive now and probably weren't cheap back then either.
Edited: August 25, 2019, 9:22 PM · You find old instruments that are made from the most humble of materials. Naples gives us violins made with stunning one-piece backs and wonderful top wood as well as terrible wood. I look after a Gagliano that has totally plain wood for the back with painted flames and a mis-matched top that looks like the maker harvested a fence post for one half of it. I am sure that if you needed a violin and had 20 bucks, they would make you a twenty dollar fiddle. If you had $100, then you would get nicer materials and varnish.
The industrial revolution allowed non-violin makers to assemble parts.Before that, you needed skills and training.
So I do think that lesser instruments have been made in every time and place, but the post industrial revolution stuff is probably the worst, most of it not worth the work,unlike the painfully plain Gagliano or Testore.
August 25, 2019, 11:19 PM · hi lyndon, ofcourse! but the thing is alot of folks jacking up the price on these 300 dollar german violins purely because its old. they are selling it for the historic value rather than how good the instrument really is.
August 25, 2019, 11:24 PM · Its probably because they work for $150/hr, and that's what it costs to fix it up to be saleable. I work for $50/hr and if a violin is disappointing in tone, I lower the price, no matter what I payed for it.
August 26, 2019, 3:03 AM · @Kai - In spite of what some optimistic violin sellers seem to think, the "historic value" of an old factory instrument like the ones I was forced to learn on doesn't amount to much. In the UK and I'm sure elsewhere hundreds of old violins appear at auction (e.g. Amati.com) almost every month and sell for £100 or so. Most of them are in poor condition and hideous to behold so it's hard to imagine anyone ever actually playing on them, or even hanging them on the wall. Their fate is surely just to go round and round the auction houses
Edited: August 26, 2019, 3:30 AM · Actually the vast majority of these instruments, with the exception of later French are not factory instruments at all but cottage industry, meaning parts made in people houses seperately then finally assembled and labeled with a wholesalers label which has little if anything to do with who actually made it, these instruments were made in all levels from dirt cheap VSOs to high grade master pieces, and priced accordingly, the better ones are quite good and will easily beat high end Chinese violins like Jay Haide of Scott Cao.
Edited: August 27, 2019, 9:04 AM · In answer to the original question: most of the old stuff sold on e-bay is junk for 2 reasons: usually the condition is poor, and even if they are fixed up they sound bad and/or are hard to play. Some people have a knack for finding some good stuff on e-bay but you really have to know what you are doing.

I don't agree with Lyndon that the better Markneukirchen violins will easily beat a Jay Haide or Scott Cao. I personally have never played a good quality E.H. Roth that beat a good Jay Haide in sound, evennness and particularly playability / responsiveness but maybe that was just bad luck. Maybe some Roths would have been good violins after regraduation. I did play about 5 or 6 of them over time. They sure do look beautiful though with excellent wood.

BTW personally I couldn't even stand a piece of junk violin as a wall hanger. Every time looking at the horrid thing
it was a reminder what a waste of money that was so I gave it away. Otherwise it would have ended up in the fire pit.

Edited: August 27, 2019, 9:17 AM · I just heard a very interesting discussion involving a luthier and an appraiser about this category of violin. There are tens of thousands of cheap German, French and American workshop (i.e. factory) violins from the late 19th to early 20th century.

Many of them contain EXCELLENT wood because great wood was so cheap then.

But in most cases they were carved very fast in an assembly line. The tops and backs are generally under-carved because the assembly line makers didn't want to waste a blank (i.e. having the wood crack), so the wood is thick and the violin is heavy (and doesn't sound great).

In some cases, the spruce and maple plates could be re-graded today and the instrument, because it is excellent aged wood, might sound wonderful. But it would cost several hundred dollars to do it and there are no guarantees.

And even if the operation is successful, the violin still has no value. You might end up with a $500 fiddle that sounds like a $5000 fiddle but it's still worth $500.

August 27, 2019, 9:17 AM · I repeat, The German violins circa 100 yrs ago were not made in factory on an assembly line, that came much later.

Hendrik, what you say may be true for 50s - 70s Roths, but not for the higher end 20s and 30s Roths.

Edited: August 27, 2019, 3:33 PM · Lyndon, I was wondering -- do you ever regrade an old factory violin? I can't imagine it would be worth the time, but it's intriguing, the idea of buying one of these "grandpa's attic" instruments and revoicing it.

With 100-year-old wood the carving might be more challenging and risky, but the potential is there to have something that sounds really terrific in the end.

It might not be a way to make money but it would be a way to delight fiddle players who don't have a big budget....

August 27, 2019, 11:56 AM · I'm totally against regraduation, these violins are a part of history and deserve to be preserved as such, most regraduaters aren't even makers so they don't even have clue what makes a good violin, and most of these German violins just aren't that thick, and making them thinner can just as easily make them worse.
Edited: August 27, 2019, 3:49 PM · Lyndon, what I was referring to was old cheap workshop instruments that are not nice sounding because the plates are thick -- but made of excellent wood that is now 100 years old. Not of historical value because these are a dime a dozen. I'm assuming a real luthier would do the regraduation and rebuild.

https://www.ebay.com/itm/Vintage-violin-A-Udo-Wunderlich-Landwust-b-Markneukirchen-Germany-1927/273979349487

Isn't this the kind of violin you might try to take on and try to make into a quality instrument? My luthier friends say sometimes these are made of absolutely gorgeous wood because there was so much of it available at the time.

I assume the process can be non-destructive because Villaume's was regraduating Strads and probably because they sounded nice. (Of course nobody would do that today with a work of art, but great-grandpa's violin from grandma's attic maybe? )

Edited: August 27, 2019, 4:03 PM · I'm totally against it, if a violin sounds good regraduated, chances are it sounded at least as good to start with.

Also you can't tell how good wood is by looking at it, chances are cheap violins were made with tonally cheap wood, no matter what the grain looked like.

August 27, 2019, 5:35 PM · Ah, but "cheap" wood at that time would have been better than today's cheap wood. Decent tone wood was not in short supply back then.
Edited: August 27, 2019, 7:37 PM · People should be careful not to place all “cottage industry” German violins in the same basket.

If you look at the Lyon & Healy catalog of 1915 (for example), you’ll see that the lowest priced German trade violin was $5.38 and the highest priced German trade violin was $75, and there were a range of instruments priced in-between.

Those higher-priced violins were generally pretty good instruments, and far superior to the lower-priced instruments.

Generally, the higher-end German trade violins are still pretty good instruments, and worth a premium price, particularly if they are in good condition. While there is no proof whatsoever that age alone improves the tone of a violin, many old high-quality well-made German trade violins can easily compare favorably with high-quality contemporary trade violins.

And it is nice to play and own an authentic antique instrument.

August 27, 2019, 7:43 PM · thank you!!
September 2, 2019, 6:10 AM · Scott, I did in fact buy an old German violin online for "grins" as you put it. Not from eBay or the like but from an actual Auction that was streamed live.

I fully expected it to be a wall hanger but I took it to a luthier who said it was worth fixing and now it is my main violin, I love it.

Fair amount of pure luck involved.

September 2, 2019, 11:03 AM · "I'm totally against regraduation, these violins are a part of history and deserve to be preserved as such..."

Huh?
Crappy old factory violins are "a part of history?" And there's some moral obligation to preserve them?
What a weird philosophy.

Egyptian gold artwork? Sure. Dutch master painting? I get it. Preserve away, I say. Strad? Hard to say--many in fact have been regraduated (and may even sound better...).

But junky violins? Posterity owes them nothing.

September 2, 2019, 2:19 PM · you seem to be under the delusion that regraduation actually improves them.
Edited: September 3, 2019, 2:26 AM · I'm also sceptical of the assertions that excellent tone wood was in unlimited supply at some unspecified past date. And that it was much cheaper than today. And that any old wood on any old Dutzenarbeit violin would make a top violin now if regraduated.

This is just the "back in the 18th or 19th century violin making was so much better" fallacy all over.

Top quality was always more expensive, starting with the materials, then the execution. That's why Stradivari violins were already very expensive coming out of Stradivari's hands. And that's why the assembled German violins around 1900 were much cheaper. They used cheaper material, in the sense of lower quality, and they spent less time on a single instrument. Also because these products were intended for an amateur market. Not for paid musicians playing for court audiences.

I'm the first to say that one can find playable instruments among the 150-year old Dutzenarbeit violins (violas, less so), but the notion that there are hidden gems among that mass of millions of hastily constructed instruments because of the fallacy that wood was better back then is ... well, a fallacy, based on the premiss that if you're lucky you're some kind of genius, finding top violins on grandma's attic, i.e. eBay.

Added to this is the notion that age improves violins, which doesn't make sense. Age = damage. Except for those few top instruments that were treated with the utmost care because they were very expensive from the get-go.

September 3, 2019, 2:48 AM · Is anyone claiming they'd be top-quality violins, though? It's more that they wouldn't be quite as terrible as today's cheap factory violins because the cheap wood then would have at least been much better than today's cheap wood. If it's as good as the wood currently being used on mid-level workshop violins, then it may be possible to turn a cheaply made 100-year-old instrument into a significantly better one.
September 3, 2019, 2:57 AM · they are what they are, the idea that they can be improved upon is a tweakers fantasy
Edited: September 3, 2019, 3:36 AM · Improving one of these violins involves fitting a proper bridge and soundpost and, leveling the fingerboard, working on the pegs and using good strings, nothing more is needed. These tweakers that regraduate never bother to set up the violin properly before they begin carving away at it, they are the violin equivalent of terrorists.IMHO
Edited: September 3, 2019, 7:59 PM · In general, I agree with Lyndon about not re-graduating the well-made old German violins. There is no guarantee that they will sound better afterward.

On the other hand, some of the lesser quality old German violins were never properly finished or graduated on the inside to begin with. These violins are so-called "beaver-toothed" because the deep and rough chisel marks on the insides make them look like they were carved by beavers. They were built quickly and cheaply to look acceptable on the outside with no care about the inside or performance as a musical instrument.

I don't see any reason not to properly finish or graduate these violins if one thinks that is a good use of their time.

September 3, 2019, 8:15 PM · those violins were built cheaply in every aspect and look like crap on the outside too, what possible benefit would it be to waste time regraduating them??


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