The cost (not price) of a handmade violin

Edited: June 2, 2021, 2:07 PM · I was intrigued by a comment on Cremonese violins on another thread here. Apparently, it is currently a “buyer's market” as there are so many luthiers in Cremona.

This made me wonder what this means for violin prices. When competition is fierce, sellers are forced to sell their products at cost.

So as a nerdy number cruncher, I tried to estimate the cost of making a handmade violin.

Based on my calculations (see bottom of post), the total cost of making a violin is between $5,000 and $11,000:
- US if luthier is making an average wage = $10,943
- US if minimum wage = $5,213
- Italy if luthier is making an average wage = $8,058
- Italy if minimum wage = $6,360

Big caveats:
- These are REALLY ROUGH estimates
- By costs, I mean total cost inclusive of the wage of the luthier. So violins sold at cost would still compensate the luthier for their time
- I have used national average and minimum wages, which does not account for the fact that most luthiers with a good reputation can make much more. It also does not account for regional variations based on which state/city the luthier is based
- I’ve assumed overhead is only covered by violin making. In practice, overhead might be shared by doing repairs and having a retail business

Obviously, good luthiers can charge a premium on top of costs. But hopefully, this gives you a sense of how low violin prices can go even in a buyer's market.


Detailed calculations:

Labor
Time required to make violin: 250 hours, net (source: old thread on maestronet)

US Average Hourly Earnings of All Employees: $30.17/hour (source: St Louis Fed)
US Labor cost (if average wage) = 250hours*$30.17/hour=$7,543 per violin

US Minimum Hourly Wage: $7.25/hour (source: US Departement of Labor)
US Labor cost (if min wage) = 250hours*$7.25/hour=$1,813 per violin

Italy Gross Monthly Average wage: EUR 2,446/month (source: wikipedia) or ~= USD 35,774.95/year
Assume 260 working days, of which 20 are holidays, and 8 hours work per day = 1,920 hours available to work per year
Therefore, Italy Average Hourly wage is = USD 35,774.95/1,920hours = $18.63hour
Italy Labor cost (if average wage) = 250hours*18.63/hour=$4,658 per violin

Italy Minimum Hourly wage = does not exist.
Use French minimum wage as proxy = EUR 1,554.58/month (source: eurostat) or ~= USD 22,739.18/year
Therefore, Italy Minimum Hourly wage is = USD 22,739.18/1,920hours = $11.84/hour
Italy Labor cost (if min wage) = 250hours*$11.84/hour=$2,960 per violin


Materials
Wood for back, top, neck = EUR 120 ~= $150 (Source: Golden Tonewood)
Ebony fingerboard, nuts = $50
Fittings, bridge = $100
Strings = $100
Total materials = $150+$50+100+$100=$400 per violin


Overhead
Business overhead (rough guess): $2,000/month
=$1,200/month workshop rent
+$500/month wear on tools and equipment
+$250/month utility bills
+$250/month misc overhead (e.g. marketing, business license, insurance)
Spread over 8 violins per year = $2,000/month*12 months/8 violins = $3,000 per violin


Calculating totals
US if luthier is making an average wage = $7,543 labor + $400 materials + $3,000 overhead = $10,943
US if minimum wage = $1,813 labor + $400 materials + $3,000 overhead= $5,213
Italy if luthier is making an average wage = $4,658 labor + $400 materials + $3,000 overhead= $8,058
Italy if minimum wage = $2,960 labor + $400 materials + $3,000 overhead = $6,360


Sources:
- Eurostat - checked on 05/31/2021 https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/databrowser/view/earn_mw_cur/default/table?lang=en
- Golden Tonewood https://www.goldentonewood.com/
- Maestronet https://maestronet.com/forum/index.php?/topic/333612-how-many-hours-go-into-the-making-of-a-violin/
- OECD - checked on 05/31/2021 - http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/countries/italy/
- St Louis Fed - checked on 05/31/2021 https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/CES0500000003
- US Departement of Labor - checked on 05/31/2021 https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/wages/minimumwage
- Wikipedia - checked on 05/31/2021 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_European_countries_by_average_wage

Replies (39)

Edited: May 31, 2021, 10:07 AM · I don't see anything mentioned about taxes! being a small business owner/operator I can attest that they have a significant impact on the cost of doing business. Not only do you have business related taxes, there are also personal taxes, property taxes, etc...

While I am not in the instrument trade, my business is unique and relies on highly skilled personnel and specialized tooling. Whenever I have a client questioning costs etc.. I invite him/her to put on my shoes and come work with me for a day or two. It opens their eyes to how much they don't know or understand about being a small business owner and contending with the everyday challenges and obstacles in a world that does not generally appreciate artisans.

Now, go adjust your sound post 100 times and tell me what the average time it took to get it right!! And that is just one aspect to consider.

May 31, 2021, 10:17 AM · Health insurance for Self employed. 17% self employment tax (SS).
Edited: May 31, 2021, 10:47 AM · In terms of the overhead/hours needed for one instrument - a yearly output of 8 violins seems on the high side/250h for one violin seems quite low.
May 31, 2021, 11:21 AM · I wonder if the projections might be a bit low. Premium materials and accessories might be more than you think. Also a seasoned and skilled maker should make more than average wage (I would hope). I reckon most good makers have no need to give away their instruments at cost. Global customers are still buying even if they're not traveling to Cremona.
Edited: May 31, 2021, 1:18 PM · The bottom line is that I don't know of any rich violin makers, other than those who "married well", (like Stradivari), who received large inheritances, or had business pursuits in other areas.

As an individual maker working alone, doing everything myself, I'm lucky if 50% of my work time is "bench time".

Edited: May 31, 2021, 3:03 PM · David's right, you really need to double your labour hours to account for the time spent running a business that isn't actually building time.

And the cost of Living in Italy is higher than in the USA so you have to charge more for labour to have the same buying power in Italy.

May 31, 2021, 3:21 PM · Violins are priced more like art than they are on materials and billable hours I think.
May 31, 2021, 3:40 PM · Old ones, yes. For new ones, there is a floor price under which they will not leave the shop, and a ceiling below which all offers will come.

If someone is making something that competes vigorously with a $1,400 Hopf copy, he won't be making them for very long. Conversely, customers are unlikely to pay as much for a new instrument as an Italian antique of the same quality.

June 1, 2021, 5:23 AM · The price of violins is very much effected by the current musical economy. There is not as much work /money to play on baroque instruments (nailed neck, shorter fingerboard, etc.) and thus they do not command the same price as modern violins.

I think the dire state of orchestras will have a trickle down effect on prices of modern instruments.

June 1, 2021, 6:28 AM · Maybe. Of course, you might have people abandon their antiques to look around for something a tad less expensive. $25,000 is a lot less than $60,000 if you're thinking in those terms.
June 1, 2021, 6:29 AM · As for baroque violins, I remember back in the 80s that some students in London would get an old junker (well, not really) and fly over to Budapest or Prague to have it 'baroqued'. Cheap labor, and no need to declare VAT on the process. There must be an equivalent of that now.
Edited: June 1, 2021, 7:58 AM · There certainly is a minimum wage for employees in Italy. Trust me, the Italian skilled labor gross cost starts at about $25 per hour (€20), for 10.5 months a year (the rest is vacation and paid absence), and 13 months of pay. That makes for 1,764 labor hours at a cost of $44,100, during which time they can statistically make 7.056 violins (at 250h each). Employee labor cost alone per instrument? $6,250.

Of course, that's if no one gets sick or pregnant, in which case paid leave is mandatory, in the latter case minimum 5 months by law, often more than a year.

June 1, 2021, 3:15 PM · What happens if the employee has several children, back-to-back? Will the employer be responsible for 15 to 36 months of pay, to someone who is scarcely there?
June 1, 2021, 10:32 PM · Mandatory paid-leave requirements are very difficult for small businesses. The other side of that coin is that having a business with employees is part of a broader social contract, and that's what labor laws are for, to ensure that employees of all stripes are treated and compensated appropriately. There's no easy, one-side-fits-all answer to that issue. Right now in the US we are having that argument primarily in the context of the minimum wage, but paid leave for various things (maternity, paternity, voting, etc.) is not far behind.
June 2, 2021, 1:12 AM · Self employed workers don't get paid when they're sick or on maternity leave.
Edited: June 2, 2021, 8:43 AM · @David, the quick answer is yes, although the state steps in at a certain point. After the 4th day of sick leave (or maternity) 100% paid by the business, the business pays 50% and the state 50%; after the 21st day the business pays 33.3% and the rest the state.

However, the employee still gets 13 months of pay every 12 and matures fully paid vacation time (about 5 weeks per year) as well even if sick, or caring for a newborn. And, if you need someone to fill in, the business pays 100% of the new employee's cost.

When one of my office staff went on maternity leave, I didn't see her for 17 months. The temp I had to hire alone cost me over $60K and then when I didn't need her any more she sued for unjust termination. Ah the joys of business...

June 2, 2021, 8:54 AM · Does the state cover sick leave for self employed workers, if so that would be very nice.
June 2, 2021, 9:13 AM · But don't worry, Dimitri! the above formula can also be adapted to case making, so at least you will be able to sell your product at cost;). and when you get fed up with the whole circumstances and decide to retire, everyone will complain that there are no beautifully made cases anymore. As a result, the cases you had already made will go up significantly in value. It is a cruel and vicious world!
June 2, 2021, 9:18 AM · Dimitri, that's not the joys of business, but the joys of socialism. I'm sure you're happy to take care of these people, though, and we're happy to pay higher prices for the cases so you can do so!
Edited: June 2, 2021, 9:42 AM · I go to a certain luthier locally who does fine work for me. On a 1925 workshop violin from the Chicago luthier Gustav Fassauer Ferron, he repaired several cracks on the face, replaced the block with a new one of willow, and fit a new soundpost and bridge...all for $1000. To me, that was a huge expenditure and I sent him a $100 bill every month for 10 months. Currently he has my Lira d'braccio and is replacing the fingerboard and bridge for about the same price, and at only somewhat less financial stress to me now. He's done a few set-ups for me too.

Once when I was in his shop, he let me try a violin he had built by hand. I don't know much about violins, having pretty much only played the three I already own. IMMEDIATELY I came to hear what it means to say some violins are a LOT BETTER than others. Oh how it rang sweetly when I did anything with a bow on a string! I so remember those few minutes of playing, knowing that if ever I get any serious money I will commission or buy a violin he builds.

"How much?" I asked. He said something like $35,000. I don't remember exactly what he wanted for it. But finally I understood what it means to have a fine luthier hand-make a fine violin. I'm sure it was worth what he wanted. Everything about it was gorgeous, not just the sound, but the fit and finish of every joint and surface.

Were I a professional violinist (or wealthy amateur of some accomplishment), I'm sure I'd get more experience in that market of genuinely fine violins, and possibly come to adjust my judgement of his work and price, though I doubt it would be to his detriment. I simply cannot imagine a better violin than his!

That luthier is Mark Hough in Clinton CT USA.

But having only once played a violin beyond my student horizon, I know it's a big violin world out there (not to mention violas and cellos and basses, and not to mention consort and other antique-style instruments). Mark estimates my Chicago violin would sell between $6,000 and $10,000, and hasn't yet seen my Charlie Ogle Beijing workshop baroque-style violin, for which I paid $2,500, and he graciously complimented the workmanship-for-the-price of my Romanian-made Gliga "Genial" violin I got used for $250 in a small guitar shop. So that's my experience with student-level violins.

My conclusions so far: my violins at student prices are good enough for a student like me, but if I ever get big money I will be glad to spend $35,000 or higher for an instrument that transports me to a new sound world. The article above and this discussion only confirm in my mind that such prices can be justified and worth it if you've got it.

June 2, 2021, 9:43 AM · @Lyndon and Tom, that about sums it up. Everyone here cares about jobs, jobs, jobs but when in the 2009 crisis we were having an average of 4 suicides per day in Italy of business owners, that was just a statistic. It really was, like, too bad and that's that. And according to Catholic doctrine, they couldn't even go to Heaven.

That said, my team is fantastic and without them my cases couldn't be made. :-)

June 2, 2021, 9:44 AM · @Timothy, I'll give you advance notice as to my retirement so you can do some insider trading :-)
June 2, 2021, 9:44 AM · Tom Bop, regarding employer-paid extended leave, that wouldn't be socialism but rather an unfunded mandate. A socialist (and much better) approach would be similar to unemployment insurance in the USA, which charges employers an insurance premium and then does not require the employer to pay benefits themselves. That "socializes" the cost by spreading it across the whole economy.
June 2, 2021, 9:56 AM · @Will, I agree fully that when a business has an absent employee, the business itself is harmed first and foremost because the person needed isn't there. I think your idea is a step in the right direction, inasmuch as the state should pay the full amount of worker compensation, since the business often must foot the bill for a temp.

However, in Italy the payroll taxes are already so high that the employee takes home only a third of the gross cost of labor to the business, so any payroll tax increase would only lead to greater unemployment.

June 2, 2021, 10:19 AM · Dimitri, From the US catechism, which has been approved of course:

"2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.

Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide."

Edited: June 2, 2021, 10:32 AM · @Ann, thank you for your pointing this out. I was in fact a bit hesitant to bring the matter up at all, considering personal feelings and beliefs.

However I must say that in Italy there have been many cases of people with grave anguish and suffering who have taken their own life and then were denied a religious funeral.

To this I would add that the New Testament quotes Jesus as saying that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God". By common (and inappropriate) definition in Italy, anyone who runs a business is "rich".

June 2, 2021, 10:43 AM · Actually, Dimitri, you may want to consider having an annual going out of business/retirement sale! I have a friend that is on his 15th one. I think so far I am the only one that caught on to his tactic. His sales have been booming ever since!!
June 2, 2021, 11:03 AM · LOL!
June 2, 2021, 11:10 AM · I recall a sign in the window of one store in Frederick, MD about 70 years ago that read "GOING OUT for BUSINESS!" It was up for so long I finally caught on.
June 2, 2021, 11:47 AM · David, Gill Solomon told us that Stradivari was a keen researcher, making a lot more instruments than he needed to to survive. Could that have been the basis of his wealth (which apparently became proverbial - "as rich as Stradivari")?
Gill also told us that Guarneri only made a violin when he had to do so to survive, but Wikipedia suggests otherwise.
June 2, 2021, 1:56 PM · OP here. Who would have thought my musings on violin costs would evolve into a lesson in Italian workers' rights!

I guess I was way off in my initial cost estimates. Accounting for employee overhead and taxes, you probably have to increase my estimates by 50% to 100%. So that's like $15,000 to $20,000 in costs per violin if the luthier is on an average wage.

June 2, 2021, 2:06 PM · John, there is a frustrating lack of thorough documentation on Antonio Stradivari's life and making methods, and even more-so with that of Bartolomeo Giuseppe "del Gesù" Guarneri, during their lifetimes. Hence, the gaps tend to be filled in by speculations, some of them rather weird.

June 2, 2021, 2:06 PM · It does raise questions about some supposedly handmade ("bench made" is the marketing term) violins being sold.

There are some violins sold by one of the popular online violin shops (not naming names) that are fully American handmade violins for around $10k. You can also find some contemporary Italian violins (including from Cremona) being auctioned on Tarisio/Bromptons etc. at the $10k mark - and that's before the auction house takes their cut.

Given the cost is more like $15-20k, am I right to be suspicious about these violins and how they are made?

Edited: June 2, 2021, 3:02 PM · I think it would be wrong of you to be suspicious unless you know some inside information. In some cases there are probably very good craftsmen who are basically bad business people. Probably happens more then you think. Or maybe they have methods and techniques that allow them to work very efficiently. Perhaps they make pieces in batches while certain tooling is set up. Maybe they work 14 hour days and/or live a very simple life. Perhaps they have another source of income to help sustain them. There are just too many factors to consider and ultimately it come down to the individual. I know a maker in my area that makes a very respectable violin for about $6k. He is incredibly honest and loves his work.
June 2, 2021, 3:08 PM · I think being suspicious is more realistic, of course there are exceptions, but too many people are simply finishing cheaper violins they import in the white and selling them as "bench made" etc.
June 2, 2021, 4:39 PM · In the end, a player wants genuine quality, not any particular production process. Is it inconceivable that a workshop violin could be made up to the highest standards of quality?
June 2, 2021, 4:49 PM · Locally we have a shop with two luthiers working side by side. The master charges $22k for a violin and the “apprentice” who has over 10 years making experience and top-notch training charges $10k. They are both using similar materials, tools and techniques. Trust me when I say you can tell the difference between the two instruments. How much they cost to make is irrelevant. The value is what is important and ultimately determined by the marketplace.
Edited: June 3, 2021, 5:24 AM · @ Will, Amatis and Strads are considered "workshop violins", as family members (or paid help, as in the case of Nicolò Amati) helped out in making them. However that was in the 18th century, and today the market offers a premium to instruments entirely made by the maker whose name is on the label because he/she takes more pride in the finished instrument than any employee could.
June 6, 2021, 3:26 PM · "Is it inconceivable that a workshop violin could be made up to the highest standards of quality?"

Yes.


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