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5 Things To Consider When Buying Your First Violin: the Violin Maker, the Wood, the Varnish, the Violin Size, and the Price



What to look for when buying a violin?

Buying your first violin can be quite an adventure nowadays. Only a few years ago, your only option for procuring a violin was your local music store, without having too much access to other sources. Today, the Internet offers us the world at a click of a button and we will never walk again in a local violin store without making our homework and educate ourselves prior to our visit there. There are a few things that we need to consider prior to buying a violin for the first time:

  1. The Maker
  2. The Wood
  3. The Varnish
  4. The Size
  5. The Price

 

  1. Violin maker working on a violin

    Violin maker working on a violin

    Consider the maker. Where is the violin of your interest made and by whom? What is the reputation of that particular violin maker and for how long has he been in the violin business? Are there any buyer reviews available online? There are several forums, blogs, and review websites available on the Internet that should make your research very easy and bring out the truth about the violin maker you are interested in. If you choose to buy a violin online, extend your research and try to find out what the reputation of the online violin store is. Try to contact the store via phone, email or filling in a form that is available online and see what kind of response you get; try to see how fast, how friendly, how accurate, how knowledgeable, how useful the response you got was. All these elements of the online communication should give you clues about how your overall violin buying experience is going to be.I have recently tried to get an opinion on two violins from two different violin makers, and the response I got from the violin shop in Vancouver was this: “…the sound of a violin, as you know, is not standard. Each violin has its own tone and sound, and even the instruments made by the same maker, with wood from the same tree, can have a very different sound.” Nothing compares with a violin made in a traditional European violin workshop. Europe has a great history and tradition in violin making and also has the best wood in the world. There is no accident that the most famous violins in history were made in Europe…

  2. The Wood: the wood used in violin making is of vital importance for the sound of the instrument. I would say with a high degree of confidence that the European wood is the best when it comes to instruments that need high quality resonance wood. Violins are traditionally made of flamed maple and resonance spruce. This is the traditional combination that most violin makers use. The top of the violin is made of resonance spruce. The back, the sides, and the neck of the violin are made of famed maple. The accessories (chin rest, tailpiece, pegs, and fingerboard) are made of ebony.The wood must be naturally dried up, in the open, to naturally achieve the perfect internal balance that will prevent the violin from cracking in the future. Wood is a material that changes its dimensions based on fluctuations in external temperature and humidity conditions. Here is an excerpt from an email I got from a reputable violin maker: “The wood we use at the construction of our violins has been dried up for several years, out in the open. It witnessed the succession of the four seasons several times and was exposed to direct weather, temperature, and humidity changes for a very long time. In hot summers the wood lost water and lowered its dimensions. In rainy autumn days, it absorbed water from the air and increased its dimensions. In cold winter days it froze, and preserved its dimensions, trying to find balance. After a few cycles of successive dimensional changes, the wood got to the point where it reached an internal balance, and all internal tensions at the molecular level disappeared. If there were any tensions in the wood that would cause cracks, those would have affected the wood in the manufacturing process, when the wood was severely “abused”. It almost never happens that a finished violin experiences cracks due to wood aging. Cracks can appear by exposing the instrument to sudden and extreme changes in temperature and humidity, but those changes should be really extreme to favor such an extreme response.”
  3. The Varnish: String instruments in general, and violins in particular, can be finished with either nitro or oil varnish. My recommendation is to choose the violins finished with oil varnish. While the nitro varnish is sprayed on the violins, the oil varnish is applied manually, with a brush. The varnish is applied in several coats, regardless of the nature of the varnish. Before applying the next coat, the previous one has to dry completely.The difference between the oil varnish and the nitro varnish is that the nitro varnish dries up very quickly, and the next coat is applied within 10-20 minutes. The oil varnish takes longer to dry out, up to 24 hours, and after each coat, the varnished is leveled with a very fine sand paper, operation which ensures a homogenous distribution of the varnish and a perfect adherence of the varnish to the body of the violin. No air particles are allowed in the varnish applied on top of the violins, and the sanding phase ensures this. A violin can have 8-10 coats of oil varnish applied to it, but they all are extremely thin and light.The oil varnish has overall superior qualities. It has a better resistance and behavior in time. The oil varnish is very elastic and can take the dimensional changes of the wood very well. The nitro varnish, due to its limited elasticity, will crack if exposed to sudden changes in temperature and humidity. For example, if a violin finished with nitro varnish is stored in a room where the temperature is very high, the wood will dry out, which means it will loose water, and its dimensions will reduce. If a violin finished with oil varnish is stored in the same room, under the same temperature and humidity conditions, you will not notice anything. The oil varnish will follow the same pattern and will adjust its size accordingly. Unlike the oil varnish, the nitro varnish, due to its lack of elasticity, cannot lower or increase its dimensions, and it will simply crack.
  4. The Size: Violin are made in several standard sizes that will accommodate violin players of different ages and arm lengths. In order to establish the correct violin size that you need, you need to extend your right arm and measure the length from your neck to the middle of your palm.
    Here is a chart that will help you determine the correct size, based on your measurement: 

     

    Arm length Recommended Violin Size
    23″ or more
    4/4 (full size)
    22″
    3/4
    20″
    1/2
    18″
    1/4
    16″
    1/8
    15″
    1/10
    14″
    1/16
  5.  

  6. The Price: The price is not always a reflection of quality in the violins’ world, and I am sure all violin owners have come to this conclusion. Here is how the same violin store that I quoted above explains the pricing difference between the several violins they carry in their store: “The difference between the several violins in our store stays in the quality of the wood, the workmanship, and the set up. The price is a reflection of all factors, summed up. The better the wood, the workmanship, and the set up, the higher the sound quality, and the higher the price. We go progressively from $100 violins to $2,000 violins, to cover a very broad clientele, with different playing skills, sound quality needs, and budgets.”
In my next article I will try to make a few good recommendations for those interested in buying their first violin, and maybe offer even a comparative chart with features that some violins have and some others do not.

7 Responses to “5 Things To Consider When Buying Your First Violin: the Violin Maker, the Wood, the Varnish, the Violin Size, and the Price”

  1. camelia13 Says:

    hello patricia,

    thank you for writing on our blog. yes, 7/8 is a valid violin size, but unlike all other fractional sizes, this one if not an intermediary size. This means that 7/8 is not an intermediary size between the 3/4 and the 4/4 size. a 7/8 size violin is the full size violin of the violinists with small arms and hands, who find it uncomfortable handling a 4/4 size violin. These musicians will always play a 7/8 violin. as I said, the 7/8 violin will be their full size instrument. i have not included it in my chart on purpose, to not confuse people. 7/8 is not a standard size per say; it is actually a custom size, made to accommodate musicians with small arm and hands. actually, there are not too many violin makers who build violins in this size. Also, finding a matching 7/8 size case and bow can be an adventure. Most places that sell 7/8 violins will sell you a 4/4 violin bow. I don’t know of any maker who builds 7/8 violin bows, but I will do some research and, if I find one, I will make it public here.

  2. Scott Says:

    Hello,

    I have read your article and found it very useful. Thank you for putting so much time into writing something that is actually worth reading. But there is something that you did not stress enough: the sound. Isn’t the sound at all important when deciding which violin to buy? In my opinion the sound is all that matters, isn’t it?

    Regards,
    Scott

  3. camelia13 Says:

    Scott, the sound of a violin is something that we get to indirectly when buying a violin online. We can’t hear a violin’s sound on the Internet, but we can separate a certain brand from the others by approaching the subject from the distance. The sound of a violin is the effect of many causes and, as the things go with everything else, by analyzing the causes, we can predict the effect. The maker, the wood, and the varnish are all elements that have a lot to do with the sound of a violin and they will give us guidance in our selection process. A violin maker who’s been in this business for a long time and that follows a tradition in violin making can give us more confidence that he knows what he is doing as opposed to a novice who is learning now how to apply the varnish. Also, the fact that a violin maker has been survived these taught economic times, with so much competition out there, gives us an idea about the quality of his violins. The source of the wood is very important. In the kitchen, the better the ingredients, the better the food (given that those ingredients end up on knowledgeable hands, of course). The same with the violins. A piece of wood that does not resonate, will never produce a good violin, no matter who builds that violin. Well, I need to get going and cannot elaborate more on this topic, but I just want to add that sound is a very sensitive subject and unless you have a few violins on hand to compare them side by side, there is no other way to make a decision, but analyze all indirect factors that contribute to a good sound. The maker’s reputation is probably a good thing to start with. Clients’ testimonials are a gold mine when researching for information about the sound of the violins of a particular violin maker.

  4. Dove Says:

    Hi–I am considering purchasing a violin for my daughter who will be a beginner student. Several violins show up on craigslist in the 100-200$ price range. Are these generally worth the money for a beginner?

  5. littleviolin Says:

    hi dove,

    yes, $100 to $200 violins are worth the money for a beginner violin. it would have to be a really good deal if you found one under $100.

  6. littleviolin Says:

    hi,

    my violin is a Ezabel one made in belgium. are belgium made violins good? and my E-string is gold. are they any different from the normal ones?

    thanks

  7. patricia Says:

    Thank you for posting such an informative article. I agree with you; the price is not always a reflection of quality. Most of the time, we pay a higher price for attributes that have nothing to do with quality. But anyway, I have a question about sizing: is 7/8 a violin size as well? I have found this size on many websites, but I have never really met someone who actually uses a 7/8 size violin. I don’t see it in your chart either.

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