Luthier shop advice needed-thanks!

December 8, 2022, 6:47 PM · Hello,
Thanks a lot to everyone who will read my very long post!

My wife played professionally before we immigrated to the US over thirty years ago, at which time she quit playing completely.

When she re-started playing a couple of years ago as an amateur, we bought a viola made by a South American luthier Simon Boskoboinik. The instrument plays decently but not great, esp. when played next to $50K cello or $15K violin.

I play too (not a string instrument) so I understand my wife's frustration.
We are going to take the viola to a well- known luthier in NYC in hope that he can do some adjustments and make this instrument sound better.
However, I am thinking of getting her a better instrument, in the price range between $5K-6K.
I spoke over the phone to a man from Johnson Strings who suggested going with a modern Chinese instrument. It is my understanding, however, that a modern Chinese viola would have low re-sale value in case we need to sell it later.

We can search for a viola in luthier shops in and around NYC, but it could be very expensive buying an instrument in NYC.
There is also a shop in DC (Brobst violin shop) that seems to have some nice instruments. We can drive there if necessary, although I am not sure if that shop could offer anything better (choice and price-wise) than NYC.

Looking for advice/feedback and possible "search strategies".

Thanks again

Replies (30)

Edited: December 8, 2022, 8:51 PM · The suggestion to consider modern Chinese instruments in that price range is a good suggestion because your range is too low for a modern instrument made by an American or European luthier. I have a Ming Jiang Zhu "AA" viola for which I paid about $3500 in 2015. The viola has a 16" body and was made in 2015. The retail price of this model viola now is around $6,000. It is not the most responsive instrument but it has a big, rich sound. I have received many compliments on the sound of my viola from professional players. I purchased it sight-unseen; a professional violinist that I know selected it for me from a dealer in the American Midwest.

You are correct that you will take a loss on resale. Probably it is reasonable to assume that the markup on a mid-range (decent student level) Chinese workshop violin is as much as 100%. But you will take a loss on most any instrument that you sell on your own. On the other hand, let's say your wife uses this instrument for five years and then you sell it at a $2000 loss. You will have then paid $400 per year for the privilege of owning and enjoying the instrument. Over what time interval would you typically spend $400 in restaurants?

Also, the loss that you will suffer on a Chinese student instrument is more or less predictable. The loss you will suffer on some random instrument that you buy from a luthier is entirely mysterious and could be either less or it could be much more. Dealers know that it is very hard for a lay-person to prove that they were hoodwinked at the point of sale. They profit from the intrinsic ambiguity and anxiety that customers feel when buying a violin -- which arises because the average customer knows (s)he is entirely unqualified to evaluate the thing (s)he is buying.

December 8, 2022, 9:27 PM · I think it is definitely worth trying instruments in various string shops until you find something that seems great to you.

I used to stop by the Brobst Shop (between DC and Dulles Airport) when my job took me to DC every month (but that was more than 30 years ago and before they moved from the direct driving route I took back to the airport.) I think it is worth calling them and looking around good shops nearer you, but sometimes some setup changes can make remarkable differences to an instrument (soundpost, bridge, strings).

One of the most impressive violins I have ever played was made in China. It was owned by a fellow player in a mixed quartet I was playing in. He had bought it from the maker in China for $1,500 while he worked there. (My previous (very limited - short term) experience with famous name violins were two Strads (one owned by Olé Bull - it was amazing) and one 1698 instrument that did not impress me much above my own instruments, one Amati, one Panormo, and an Andrea Guarneri. I did own a Stefano Scarampella for a while but did not like it.) I have also played current instruments (a decade or so ago) in 3 different Cremona exhibits that traveled around the United States back then and saw what $10,000 to $25,000 would get you there - probably not as good as the same price for US made instruments.

My violins and viola are all luthier made but not expensive. My better cello is a Chinese-made 2004 Jay-Haide A l'Ancienne (my others are a 1960 German Carl Sandner and a 1877 Lowendall, also German). None compare with a great cello (I got to play for the whole summer of 1963) - but they do compare with most of the $20K to $30K cellos in those Cremona shows.

December 9, 2022, 12:19 AM · Paul and Andrew,
Thanks a lot for replying to my post.

I am not against buying a Chinese-made viola. My concern is with the quality/longevity of the instrument(s). Johnson currently has low stock due to a delay with shipping, they expect a container to arrive in February.
If we buy from them, it would be a newly-made instrument that went over some radical temperature and humidity changes on the way to the US.
I play clarinet and a very knowledgeable repair tech did not recommend bringing a new instrument from Europe to the US during winter in the plane due to temp. and humidity changes. That is grenadilla wood which is much stronger/more stable than wood a viola is made of.

We are planning to go to Italy (Milan) this summer, so we can easily go to Cremona (which is considered to be the world capital of the string instruments?).
We can possibly find a viola there, not sure about the price range.
There, however, I would be worried if the instrument has internal cracks not easily seen, or if it is a re-labeled Chinese-made one.

In addition, it's not easy to get my wife to go to a shop even in NYC (1.5hr drive). Johnson would be 5hr drive.
She would definitely go to a shop in Cremona.

I just feel guilty in a way because I recently got myself a set of very nice instruments (new, bought in Europe, would not be able to afford buying here).

Again, thanks for reading my posts and your advice.

December 9, 2022, 12:51 AM · I would suggest looking at the Richelieu instruments at Vermont Violins. Handmade in Vermont. I have one of their violas and it is a superb instrument. Not to mention, that their level of service is exemplary.


December 9, 2022, 4:15 AM · The good news is that many shops will have instruments in the price range you listed. It is not as if you want a 100k instrument or one from the seventeenth century.

I would recommend purchasing the instrument that plays and sounds best to your wife. I would not factor in resale value.

Time is also a factor. Time spent traveling and visiting shops. For the price range you listed, your time may be worth a significant fraction of the cost of the instrument.

I would recommend you begin by visiting your local violin shops. Then make the trip to NYC ro see what they have. You can also ask around to see if any local performers have such an instrument for sale.

December 9, 2022, 6:53 AM · It has just occurred to me that one of "my violin makers" is still alive and even though he has stopped making (last time we communicated) he may know if one of his violas has become available. He has sold all the instruments he made other than the first and last (both are violins). His prices were definitely in your range

His name is Charles Woods. He lives in Ridgecrest, California and has internet visibility. He has made 101 instruments including 3 cellos and 12 violas, the rest were violins. I have bought 2 of his violins and one of his violas. My granddaughter took the first of of those violins when I gave her the choice from all my instruments (it was the one I most wished she would not choose). I lived in that community for 33 years and bought the first violin from him late in that time (1990), but the other two he shipped to me(in 1996 and 2000) after I had moved away .

Edited: December 9, 2022, 7:32 AM · Find a luthier with low overheads (works from home on Long Island perhaps) who restores old violas. (I know, Long Island realty is more expensive than NYC, I shouldn't be surprised, lol)
December 9, 2022, 8:01 AM · I would think a Chinese viola at that price point would be well made,(not hand made). And Johnson Strings or Shar would likely back up your purchase should any flaws appear. Having said that, in my limited experience shopping for my daughter, you have to go and play a lot of instruments, brand, label don't tell you much. We bought her first fractionals from SHAR, but I can't imagine spending 5-6k that way. And many shops have a 100% trade in policy. So if you aren't happy with your choice you can use it to get something better. (Or once it is paid for, in a year or two it becomes easier to think about adding a couple k more to get something better.) But you want to be buying at a bigger shop so you have choices if you ever do want to trade up. In the right shop, you might find a nice older German viola in your range.
Boat loads were made, sold in Sears catalogues, likely similar to upper range Chinese.
My daughter is in Boston now, and while we have never bought an instrument there, we've found Johnson/Carriage house lovely people to deal with.
December 9, 2022, 8:43 AM · William Harris Lee of Chicago offer workshop violas within your price range

I have a model 250 which I like very much

December 9, 2022, 11:34 AM · Where are William Harris Lee instruments built?
Edited: December 9, 2022, 12:49 PM · Paul - I'd have to say that on their web site WHL don't make it clear exactly where their instruments are made. I do know that in the past they've employed and trained in their workshop luthiers who have gone on to work independently. When I bought my workshop viola I was told by the London dealer Guivier that it had been made by a Thomas Schmidt while in WHL's employ, and I'm internet-acquainted with at least two such luthiers including Michael Darnton who used to be a regular contributor to this site. But the date on the label is 1994 so their policy may well have changed since then.

To be frank, I'm inclined to the view that instruments made (or "curated" which is how WHL currently describe their products) in a reputable workshop are possibly to be preferred (prior to actual road testing) over those made by a relatively unknown single maker and sold through an unrelated dealer. WHL's models 230, 250 or what have you are presumably built to certain standards and obviously the firm will be strongly motivated to preserve their good reputation.

December 9, 2022, 12:55 PM · It is possible to buy a dud. It is very important to play the instrument. Compare it to others, including ones you are familiar with. Take it home for a trial if possible. Have other people you trust give opinions as well.

I agree that just because an instrument is made by a workshop does not mean it is inferior to all individually crafted ones.

A friend of mine took the following approach: purchase instruments from a maker whose income is solely derived from violin making. His reasoning is that those individuals must create good instruments or they will not earn a living.

Edited: December 9, 2022, 8:42 PM · Thanks a lot, again! to everyone who replied.

I guess buying an instrument in Italy/Cremona is not a good idea since no one recommended to go that route.

I checked the Vermont Violins-it is about 300 miles drive one-way.
Could be feasible to go there,try an instrument or two,spend the night and come back the next day.
It looks like Brobst also sells Richelieu instruments too, which is a shorter drive.

Anyway, will start from NYC luthier this weekend and see if he can do something to her existing viola.

December 9, 2022, 10:15 PM · A colleague of ours in the Minnesota Orchestra has has played a lovely Stanley Kiernoziak viola (made in the William Harris Lee shop) for nearly three decades. Another colleague in the LA studios has a Bronek Cison, and I was loaned a wonderful Jacek Zadlo from there for some chamber music concerts some years back.

It's well worth the visit to WH Lee to try out their individual maker instruments as well as some of their less-expensive workshop lines.

December 9, 2022, 10:45 PM · Gene,
thank you for the WH Lee recommendation-not close to us but it is a short flight if we ever go to Chicago area.

Will start from NYC and, if we cannot find anything we like, possibly go to Brobst then.

Edited: December 10, 2022, 4:59 AM · My son has a nice Kiernoziak viola that is reminiscent of the model Cison makes most often with larger lower bouts, rather than the more commonly seen Kiernoziak model. I haven't looked in the last couple of years but it used to be fairly common to find these pre-owned in shops running around $12-15K, and new from $15-18K. You will see 15 3/4 and 16 3/8. I got his at Weaver in the DC area, and Brobst and Potter's have also had these.
December 10, 2022, 7:32 AM · For what it’s worth, my viola is a Fevrot workshop instrument, cost less than $5000, and I like it very much. In this price range, no instrument is going to appreciate so it’s best not to consider resale value. Buy what your wife likes.
December 10, 2022, 7:48 AM · "Buy what your wife likes", the best possible advice :).
December 10, 2022, 8:30 AM ·
I wouldn't worry about a viola having experienced "radical temperature and humidity changes on the way to the US." Whatever happens, it can be fixed. The best instruments tend to be hundreds of years old. Imagine what they've been through.

Moreover, if you purchase new, or used, you'll likely have a warranty. Last year, I purchased an instrument that's relatively old, and the rib recently came unglued near the end pin at the bottom. My luthier fixed it under warranty, though I would have been pleased to pay for the repair.

December 10, 2022, 8:53 AM · A day going from shop to shop in Cremona sounds like a good day regardless of what you find. And I am sure there would be a lot of great instruments to trial. And the current strength of the dollar.
If you are already headed to the area.
December 10, 2022, 9:11 AM · You pay extra for vowels, and Cremona no longer has any kind of monopoly on quality. But enjoy the stroll!
December 10, 2022, 9:56 AM · Not a monopoly and probably a mix in quality from very high to relabeled Chinese, but all in one place to try and sounds like they are already going.:)
December 10, 2022, 2:52 PM · For the money you are spending, why not just fly to China and buy directly from a manufacturer there? It will be MUCH cheaper and the quality is just as good as US made (sometimes a lot better). China raises some of the finest instrument players in the world and the equipment they use sounds very nice.

With that said, I do like to purchase USA made wherever possible, if I can afford it. I'm just not sure if it's really worth the exponential increase in cost between the cheaper options that sound just as nice (to my ears, at least).

Edited: December 10, 2022, 7:38 PM · I don't accept the argument that a Chinese violin will necessarily (or even likely) have been damaged wrenching changes in temperature and humidity during its transit from China to the US. Violins may look more fragile than a clarinet, but the wood responds to variations in humidity and temperature reversibly as long as the conditions are not too extreme for too long. People have been shipping violins from China for a LONG time without getting cracked or warped. Okay maybe the ones that were aboard the Ever Given when it got stuck in the Suez Canal for six days were at risk. Remember that when Stradivari was carving his masterpieces there was no such thing as air conditioning and ground travel involved horses if you were lucky.
December 10, 2022, 9:46 PM · I agree with Mary Ellen's conclusion, buy what your wife likes. I also know where she is coming from saying that the instrument will not appreciate. Yes, it will probably not increase in value more than investing in the stock market. However, it will probably do better than putting your money in the bank. Further, with increases in labor costs and supply of materials (ebony) it could appreciate. People are looking favorably at older factory instruments. All of this being said, I would not rely on the purchase as some sort of financial investment.
Edited: December 10, 2022, 10:46 PM ·
As a musician starting out with a nicer instrument, it's good to be aware of trade-in value.

Many luthiers will accept an instrument (or bow) they originally sold, as a trade-in at the ORIGINAL, FULL PURCHASE PRICE, for a better instrument (or bow) purchased later.

My luthier does this, and while I doubt that I will ever trade in the violin that I purchased from him, he's let me upgrade my bow under this policy a couple of times over the last few years. Both times, it was at the full, original purchase price of the trade-in. (Purchased from him.)

Edited: December 10, 2022, 11:07 PM · Some details on the Ming Jiang Zhu violas, since they are quite popular.

My wife and I own two of them. The one on the left is a 15.5" Strad pattern model from the early 2000's from MJZ back when he was heavily involved with all the different models and overseeing the work of his apprentices. Sadly, he passed away in 2014. It was rather inexpensive, but it plays beautifully with an enormous tone and a quick response, and is my "daily driver." I've played it for many orchestra and chamber music performances, and it is had paid for itself many times over. In fact, I just played it this past weekend on my first union gig (since the pandemic) here in Connecticut! For strings, I use a Larsen A with Warchal Karneol C/G/D.

The one on the right is a Tertis-inspired pattern model made recently in 2021 by the MJZ workshop, in partnership with the luthier team at the shop of Jonathan and David Morey in Lakewood, California. It's only 15" in length and is very easy to play, especially as my wife doesn't have very long arms. :) However, the increased internal volume gives it a very robust C string, and it does not sound like a small viola at all. The response is very good, and the tone is smooth and round, a surprising characteristic for a brand new instrument. The geared pegs are really wonderful here given the climate, and I think the strings are a Larsen A with Dominant C/G/D.

A number of our colleagues have bought MJZ instruments as their "picnic instruments" for outdoor performances for summer pops and weddings and whatnot. In terms of their price vs. performance, they are definitely a good "bang for the buck" in their price range. However, it is still VERY important that regardless of where you acquire one, that the luthier spends the time for it to have a good setup. It makes all the difference in the playability and response of workshop instruments.

December 11, 2022, 11:58 AM · There are some great shops north of NYC or in NJ as well- and many of them have several instruments you can try and see what you like. It's always my preference to work directly with a smaller company or maker rather than a big one that goes all over the place, but that's just me.
December 11, 2022, 10:04 PM · Thanks A LOT to everyone who replied to my post.
We took her Argentinian-made viola to the luthier. He said that the instrument is well-made, and "there is good craftsmanship".
He stated that the neck is too low and the bridge is too short so, as the result, there is not enough tension in the strings to produce fuller sound.
He will re-position the neck and make new bridge, also will adjust the sound post position. According to him, the existing voila will sound better after his repair.
He stated that a decent viola would easily cost over $10K and suggested to stick with the existing instrument for now.

I will post after we pick up the instrument, in about a week, the result of the work.

December 11, 2022, 11:00 PM · Keep the old bridge!

Cutting me a new bridge for one of my violins was something a very respected SF bay area luthier did for me about 25 years ago. Last week I replaced it with the original bridge the maker had put on it when he made it 71 years ago - it sounds better now and plays easier (for me, anyway).

Just saying - I always save my old bridges (and label them with pencil for the instrument they came off).

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