How to tell if a violin is hand-made?

Edited: August 28, 2020, 1:44 PM · Good day my fellow violinists:
I am trying to help my friend buy a violin and for some reason he insists on making sure that all parts of his new violin is hand-made. He is a novice player so I suggested Gliga Violins as they claim that their instruments are all hand-made. He insists that Gligas are machine made (with no logical reason other than they are mass produced and look identical). I took him to a local luthier but he is not very trusting as to what the luthier tells him and he believes they are twisting the truth. He asked me if there is an easy way to tell the difference between machine made and hand-made instruments. I need your help on this one as I have no clue. Thanks in advance.

Replies (43)

August 28, 2020, 1:37 PM · If it doesn't have corner blocks it's probably machine made. Also, if the varnish looked cracked or chipped it's probably not hand made. There are a lot more examples of what to look for.
August 28, 2020, 1:37 PM · I'd tell him to look at antiques, they're at least made by somebodies hands. Modern production violins are all going to use some degree of power tools, etc.
August 28, 2020, 1:38 PM · Marty, that's just ridiculous nonsense, lots of violins without corner blocks were entirely hand made. and lots of modern violins with full corner blocks are machine made.
August 28, 2020, 1:48 PM · Marty, how do I determine if a violin has corner blocks or not?
August 28, 2020, 1:53 PM · Lyndon, we looked at antiques by the prices start in 5 figures. His budget is around $2,500 mark.
Edited: August 28, 2020, 3:11 PM · You must have a lot of friends, Lyndon. And if you bothered to read my comment, I used the word "probably" not "definitely".
Edited: August 28, 2020, 4:41 PM · Look at this pic:


Look at the wood carved where red arrow shows.
Factory machined scrolls usually have this part not carved very deeply.

August 28, 2020, 7:19 PM · Maybe you should ask him why its so important? I mean there are lots of entirely hand-made violins out there that play like the worst imports and sound likewise - after all, even competent luthiers had to start somewhere!

Rather than indulging in his obsession you might be a better friend to dissuade him. At his budget he should be looking at for an excellent instrument at that price.

August 28, 2020, 7:24 PM · At my shop genuine 100 yr old and older antiques start at about $500. A really decent sounding one for about $1500, etc
August 28, 2020, 7:26 PM · If a violin doesn't have corner blocks it is probably an antique made in Markeneukirchen or Schoenbach and, yes, hand made.
Edited: August 28, 2020, 7:29 PM · $2,500 is an excessive budget for a brand new beginner, honestly.

There's the problem of what it means to be "hand made". Does it mean no use of power tools? Even some high-end contemporary makers may use power tools for some tasks.

Violins are made by hand, even in "factories", so it's not really a meaningful distinction.

August 28, 2020, 11:02 PM · Is it bad if a chain saw was used to cut down the maple and spruce trees from which the woods were taken? If the trunk was cut into slices with an electric saw? If the logs were carried to the mill on a diesel truck?
August 28, 2020, 11:04 PM · I think what people usually mean when they refer to a violin as "hand-made" is that it was made by one pair of hands. But even the greatest historical makers had apprentices - so there were more than 2 hands involved in making even what have become the most expensive violins in the world.

The most one can probably hope for is that the named maker's hands were the last to work on the instrument and were involved in the most critical aspects of making.

August 29, 2020, 1:42 AM · If you really want "hand-made" there were plenty of amateur British violin makers in the 20th century whose instruments are very obviously (from the roughness) not machine-cut. Cracked varnish is actually a common feature because the makers lacked the expertise of the workshops in France and Germany. Typical selling price for a good one might be £3-5K at auction, but you might get lucky and find a decent one in your price range. I should add a warning though - most of these violins are terrible!
August 29, 2020, 2:01 AM · Or you can buy a hand made American violin, very crude, for $150-300
August 29, 2020, 9:03 AM · If the OP's friend is insisting on "hand made" with the idea that it will be a better instrument, that's a big NO at his price range. You're not going to get a carefully made instrument by a reputable maker unless you go a lot higher. Mostly you're talking about either unknown makers or a factory-made instrument with lots of hands making the parts. You'll have to know the difference between well made and poorly made.

If the "hand made" requirement is due to some aesthetic rejection of machinery, that's something else that has nothing to do with the function of the instrument. Good luck trying to figure out that one. Almost all pro makers use a bandsaw, and many also use power planers. Where do you draw the line?

Edited: August 29, 2020, 9:31 AM · Instruments fabrication are usually referred to as bench-made, a.k.a. by a single luthier (which does not mean without power tools or assistance) as opposed to factory, which does not mean they aren't "hand made". In fact, I don't think there is a violin in the world that isn't hand made to a large degree. Watch the Stentor Youtube video to see how "hand made" chinese violins are. If you want an instrument that has been given the attention of a single luthier like Don explained, look for a bench-made instrument, which is going to cost at least $6000, chinese or not.
August 29, 2020, 10:55 AM · Did we loose Ted? All these comments were hand made I believe...
August 29, 2020, 11:46 AM · Ted is off giving himself an award somewhere. Meanwhile you can tell hand-made violins easily, just look for fingerprints on the inside. I'm sure there's a pulp mystery in there somewhere.
August 29, 2020, 12:26 PM · Is a comment hand-made if you use dictation software? (What about hand-correcting if there are errors in the dictation?)
August 29, 2020, 1:27 PM · Does anyone here use predictive text for their posts? If so, then I have the sad news that the person who invented predictive text passed away a couple of days ago. His funfair will be next Monkey.
August 29, 2020, 9:12 PM · What is the purfling for, and what does that tell you about a violin?
Edited: August 30, 2020, 10:29 AM · @ Rosemary. Purfling has a very important structural purpose - it protects the plates from splitting at the edges, and to a certain extent from other kinds of damage. Absence of purfling would therefore be a cause for concern in a wooden violin, but not in one made of carbon fibre, which has a different kind of integrity - known as PDG ;) - and so doesn't need purfling.

I think the quality of the purfling and its type would be related to the quality of the violin as a whole, but I'll leave that for the experts to discuss.

I'll just mention that VSOs may have painted-on “purfling”, which is no more than cheap and deceitful decoration.

August 30, 2020, 10:15 PM · Hi Ed,
Look at the Fs cut. Usually a violin made by a luthier does not have a perfect cut and you can see the tool marks.
August 31, 2020, 12:02 AM · this doesn't work on antiques, they were all cut by hand
August 31, 2020, 7:28 AM · All violins are handmade to an extent. The maker's of the "antiques" used what ever power tools were readily available to them at the time. Back in the day, when labor was cheap, shops would hire people to rough out violins. Now there are even some top makers that replace that labor with CNC to rough out plates, which still need to be finished by hand. But there is no machine where you put in a chunk of wood and out pops a violin. Bandsaws are power tools, earlier they used hand powered bandsaws, what's the difference? The terminology I think that is more important is handmade vs. workshop. In United States handmade equates to an instrument made completely start to finish by one person where a workshop instrument is one that passed through multiple hands prior to finish, i.e. the person that graduates the top is different than the person who carved the scroll and neck is different than the person that varnished the instrument.
August 31, 2020, 10:13 AM · they are all handmade, cnc cut is fairly new, if you want to avoid cnc just get a violin thats made 4 years back.

what your friend should be looking for is bench(1 person) vs workshop(multi person), but even then alot of workshop violin has high quality craftsmen behind it. one thing i did notice is lighter weight violin tend to resonant better.

Edited: August 31, 2020, 10:30 AM · What the OP should be doing is looking for a good violin, irrespective of how it was made, most factories lie about where and how their violins were made anyway.

I can think of one now deceased Chinese maker that was hand making thousands of violins a year.

September 9, 2020, 12:25 AM · For every good violin I've had before, the two sides of the scrolls are different. For instance, the one I have now has not the completely identical scroll on each side; one has a completely round tip, and the other has a slightly pointy one.
Edited: September 9, 2020, 2:53 AM · An interesting idea but if generally true it would imply that the better makers were more careless when it came to carving the scroll which would be somewhat illogical, captain. Two of my three 19th century British violins have wonky scrolls. The third and my current "player" violin made by a British amateur in the 1920's are perfectly symmetrical (as far as I can tell). Even today I'm not sure exactly how far the carving process can be automated. It might be a good ploy for factories producing "antiqued" violins to introduce some imperfections!
September 9, 2020, 4:31 AM · I believe it's been mentioned elsewhere in this forum that some makers have the superstition there can never be a perfect violin, so deliberately make some kind of small error in a place where it is inconsequential to the sound. Good candidates for such a deliberate error include the scroll, or (in the case of my viola) slightly misaligned f hole notches.
September 9, 2020, 4:31 AM · I believe it's been mentioned elsewhere in this forum that some makers have the superstition there can never be a perfect violin, so deliberately make some kind of small error in a place where it is inconsequential to the sound. Good candidates for such a deliberate error include the scroll, or (in the case of my viola) slightly misaligned f hole notches.
September 10, 2020, 3:37 PM · I appreciate all your great comments. It was educational for me. Regarding my friend, well we are not friends anymore as he embarrassed me in front of my teacher by insulting me and her stating how naïve we are. He is an stubborn person and he is now on his own to find his fully "hand-made" violin. Thank you all good people for taking your time to help me.
Edited: September 17, 2020, 7:13 PM · I believe all violins are made by hand in some process, so as a shop owner, we value the violin for how much time they spend to complete it.
Usually, violin makers spend 250-300 working hours to make one violin. If there are more people involved, time to make violin goes down. I think nowadays, origin usually doesn't matter to choose a good violin for student level. It is more important that what kind of material they use and how much time they spend is more crucial. 
September 18, 2020, 5:43 AM · Welcome Mr.Lee!
Edited: September 21, 2020, 12:24 AM · "If there are more people involved, time to make violin goes down." Not really, same amount of man hours involved all thing being equal. Time to completion will go down however due to concurrent activities. That said, time spent fine tuning all the components and materials will make a significant difference in the final product and also significantly increase time spent on making an instrument. One can spend an hour fitting a bridge or several days for the purist.
September 21, 2020, 5:30 AM · I watched a documentary on the making of a Bentley, which takes 300 man hours per car .
One persons sole job, which takes her a whole working day per car is to fit and stitch the leather steering wheel in place.
Another spends a day building and fitting the folding varnished wood tray in the back, upon which the champagne glasses are placed.
September 21, 2020, 6:52 AM · There are plenty of genuine hand-made violins at auction for a few hundred pounds. The sound is about worth that too!
Edited: September 21, 2020, 5:11 PM ·
September 22, 2020, 4:26 AM · Isn't this the guy whose workshop was destroyed by his wife or girlfriend?

Maybe he had been deluging her with the same smiling bullshit, so I can understand.

September 22, 2020, 6:24 AM · If that was my friend, I would tell him a few things:

1. First, do you want a violin to play music or a piece of art to show off in a museum with a "100% hand made" tag?
Whatever that 100% hand made means... Is it illegal to use power tools to ease the work and work faster, and spend may be more time where a violin really needs attention, instead of a mechanical task?

2. If he's looking for an artisan violin, just go to luthier shops. Depending on where you live, prices start from $1500. It's fine that he wants "the real thing", meaning a violin from a single person more or less, where the master builder was present for every step. That's nice, but expensive.

3. Even more important, if it's a violin to play... he should really put at least 50% of emphasis in sound quality, instead of 100% on build quality. A violin 100% hand made by one luthier guarantees an excepcional build quality, materials, adjustment and measurements, but sound wise, it does not guarantee that it will sound "better", or that you will like the sound more than a "mass produced" violin.

To sum up, if the luthier is a good professional, you will get a perfectly built violin, with nice materials, a nice adjustment, all measures standard and fine, and overall fantastic quality. Ideally, that should also mean exceptional violin sound, but the reality is that it does not. You might even think it sounds bad, quiet, too loud, too harsh, whatever, opinions...

September 23, 2020, 7:09 PM · @Herman West That's harsh...
September 24, 2020, 11:18 AM · Machine, factory, bench, mass produced, hand... None of these have any relation to the quality and sound of a violin. There are fantastic factory violins and crappy handmade bench violins.

For around $2500, you're probably not going to come by many fantastic bench (handmade) violins, or many at all for that matter. By no means does that mean you can't find an amazing beautiful instrument in that price either. In that price range, I'd look for a factory violin that was pieced together and varnished by hand, then fine tuned by a good luthier. A bridge and soundpost adjustment along with the right set of strings can make a world of difference.

I recently acquired a factory made Romanian violin that was finished by hand under that price. It's a nice looking instrument that plays and sounds great with an even tone/volume across all strings.

At the end of the day, it's not about which violin is the best, it's about which violin is the best for you. It's best to try out as many as you can and test them out for a few days so you can get used to them in the environment you play most.

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