How to Buy Violin

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How to Buy Violin – a consumer guide

Buying a violin can be intimidating.  Hopefully this guide will help make the process easier and more comfortable for you.  Here are the steps to help you buy violin:

Step 1: What size violin should I buy?

Generally around age 11, children are big enough to play a full size violin.

Measure your arm length from the left side of the neck. Hold the arm out with elbow straight and measure the length from the neck to the wrist and also from the neck to the center of the palm.  The wrist measurement is the comfortable size, the palm measurement is the maximum size.

23″ arm = full size violin (violin body measures 14″)
22″ arm = 7/8 size violin (violin body measures 13.5″)
21.5″ arm = 3/4 size violin (violin body measures 13″)
20″ arm = 1/2 size violin (violin body measures 12.5″)
18″ arm = 1/4 size violin (violin body measures 11″)
16.5″ arm = 1/8 size violin (violin body measures 10″)

Step 2: Rent vs Own

Renting may be a good option if:

  • Your child needs a smaller violin.  You will be able to exchange for larger sizes as they grow.
  • You have very limited resources and a small payment makes a violin affordable.
  • Some shops will credit part of your rental payments toward a later purchase.

Why buy?

  • Over the long run, buying is cheaper than renting.
  • If you buy a better violin, it can appreciate in value.  More on this later.
  • Generally only the least expensive violins are available for rent.
  • Used violins can be a very good value.

Step 3: Should I buy a New Violin or a Used One?

Most first time shoppers want a new violin.  We are accustomed to wanting new and shiny.

Experienced violinists ONLY buy older, used violins.  So why is an old violin better?

  • Dry, aged wood sounds better.  New wood can have (or develop) a nasal sound like it is singing through it’s nose.
  • Violins improve in sound as they are played consistently.  An old violin that hasn’t been played for many years will “close up” and sound choked or constrained.  Playing that violin every day will reopen the sound again over the course of days and weeks.
  • The right violin can be an investment that increases in value over time.  The wrong violin is like buying a new car – it’s value drops in 1/2 the moment it leaves the car lot.

Step 4: How much should I spend? (What can I expect to get?)

  • Under $1000 – New Chinese or old German student violin. Common budget for middle school violin. Whether new or used, these need to be set up by a Luthier at a cost of $50-$600 (More later.)  A $200 eBay violin may be a bargain, but not if you have to pay $300 so it plays properly.
  • $1000 – $3,000 – a better Chinese, or advanced German or French violin. Common budget for High School.
  • $3,000 – $6,000 – serious high school players will have a violin in this range.  The biggest difference is sound quality: sweeter with greater projection for solos.
  • Above $6,000 – college students and professionals.
  • See our article: Why your child needs a better violin

What about a bow?

  • Expect to ADDITIONALLY spend 1/3 of the value of the violin on a bow.  By beginning high school a good bow makes all the difference.  A cheap bow can’t perform advanced bowing techniques.
  • See: How to buy a violin bow.

Step 5: What to look for – Buy Violin

  • Sound. Listen to a number of violins.  Everyone likes a different sound.  Violins range from dark sound to brilliant, clear to complex with overtones, some sound muddy and unclear. Each country of origin tend to have distinctive sound traits as do the the wood selection and methods of drying wood.  Even new players and novice parents can hear the difference.
    Play the same piece on each violin for easy comparison.
  • Condition. What repairs are needed to have the violin in top playing condition? Are there open seams? Are there cracks? Is the neck straight? Does the fingerboard have the proper scoop? Does the sound post fit properly? Does the string height allow for easy play without buzzing?  Is the bridge in good condition and well cut?  As you can see, you will need to have a luthier, or a unusually smart teacher, look at the violin to assure that it’s ready to play.  Over the years I estimate that the average violin requires about $300 to bring it to top playing condition.  This alone is a good reason to buy from someone that knows how to perform a proper set up – to avoid the surprize of needing to spend more money after the purchase.  Note: all inexpensive online violins will need to be set up to be playable.  They come with cheap strings that are too high off the fingerboard to play and fingerboards are rarely planed so they don’t buzz. Any crack in the top or back of the violin will cost $200 to $300 minimum to repair properly.
    If you buy violin that has a crack in the sound post area (either front or back), you can expect a big bill.  Repairs start at $800, but usually exceed $1,500.  Think twice before buying a project violin.  Get a repair estimate first…a bargain probably isn’t a bargain in the long run.
  • Appearance & Quality.  Look for beauty. Violins are works of art.  There is a difference in the craftsmanship between factory made instruments and handmade instruments.
  • Function:
    • Pegs should turn smoothly and hold tune.
    • String height – strings should be easy to press to the fingerboard.
    • Bridge – feet should fit flush on top, good quality wood, not warped.
    • Sound post – perpendicular, 1/8″ behind the treble side of bridge. Use a dental mirror to see that it fits exactly flush top and bottom with no gaps.  No cracks in top or bottom of the violin in this area.
    • Strings – the most common preference of teachers are Dominant by Thomastik.  Good strings make a huge difference.  Expect to change your strings at least annually.  College and professional players may change strings monthly or bi-weekly.
  • Varnish – Oil or Spirit.  Spirit varnish is hard and will produce a tighter, harsher sound.  All master violins (and now even some cheaper imports) have oil varnish. Spirit varnish chips easily and looks more like a coat of transparent paint.  Oil varnish is more like a stain that seeps into the wood.  The purpose of varnish is to protect the wood and to beautify.  Soft varnish vibrates more easily. The cardinal sin is to strip and refinish an old violin.
  • Playability – is it easy to play?  If you like everything else about a violin, a qualified luthier can make adjustments to make it play more easily.

What determines the value of a violin?

  • Just like a fine painting, it matters who made it.
  • Past sale prices for each maker set a trend of recognized value.
    Dealers have a price book of these sales to help determine price.
  • Supply and demand.  There is an endless supply of new violins, which keeps the price of new instruments low.  Old violins are less common. Excellent old violins are even more rare which drives the price up.
  • Quality & beauty of the wood
  • Craftsmanship.  This in not just the outer appearance, but just as important is how well the wood plates were thinned to exactly the right thickness.  The thickness of the top, bottom and side “plates”, the cut of the bass bar and soundpost determine how the violin resonants.  It determines the depth of sound and timbre.
  • Sound quality. By now you have probably read the studies comparing the very best of the modern violin makers with the old masters showing that many of the new violins excel the old. These new violins may sell for $100,000 vs the old masters selling for millions. Supply and Demand.  (These tests also methodically choose the top 7 new instruments in existence which are constructed with the very best ancient wood.)  However, it is exciting to think that exceptionally fine violins may someday be available to everyone at an affordable price.

Are Violins a good investment?

  • They are certainly a good investment in the future of your young prodigy.
  • Over the decades, good violins have appreciated at an average of 4% per year.
  • Our general observations are:
    Violins under$1,000 will devalue.
    Violins $1,000 – $3,000 will retain value.
    Violins over $3,000 will tend to increase in value.
    Select violins will appreciate >10% per year.

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