Panorama of Shop. Photographer: David Taylor

Reflections on Experts and Expertise

What is expertise? How does one gain the knowledge and experience to become an expert on a certain subject? In some cases the trajectory is obvious - formal education leading to a job in a specific field, followed by years of active experience and research as well as career advancement and success, leading finally to a position of leadership and, hopefully wisdom.

One of the skills in life is to know who to take advice from and when to take it. I have directly benefited professionally from the expertise of my more experienced colleagues. These experts at bow making, lutherie, rehairing and restoration have labored for years in their field and have worked on countless instruments and bows. It would be foolish of me not to ask questions and benefit from their experience, not only on a technical level, but about the violin business and life itself.

There is a distinction then to be made between technical expertise and the expertise of knowledge. There may be a dozen different ways to rehair a bow - it's not important which style one chooses, it's important that the resulting rehair function properly - this is technical expertise. One may know how to straighten or recamber a bow with an alcohol lamp, but the understanding of the interrelation of the curve of the bow to the graduation of the wood may be far more elusive. I can put a new head plate on a bow with a method I have learned from others and have perfected and personalized, but can I tell you with certainty who made that bow? A dealer may be great at hiring employees for his shop and handling customers with ease, but can he identify what country your violin is from? Does that slick violin salesman who can close any deal understand the differences between the Venetian and Cremonese schools of violin making? Because attribution is such a central issue in the violin world, where a few words on a certificate can add a hundred thousand dollars of value to an item, one should examine what factors make an expert reliable. How did they gain their knowledge?

The results of technical expertise are far less difficult to test than the more esoteric knowledge of instrument attribution and provenance. We can compare the rehairs of various craftsman with greater ease because we can actually try the bows and examine the workmanship. If expert X says you have a Gagliano, how do we test that? At some point it's just an educated guess - or less than educated as the case may be. It's easier to get away with bad attributions and writing questionable certificates than it is to do bad rehairs or cut lousy bridges. This is what concerns me as a craftsman and a dealer.

It's important to remember that violin dealers who write certificates are experts on items that they sell and profit from financially. Some dealers and experts will write certificates on items they do not sell, this is true. However, they do get paid a percentage of the instrument's value to do so and it would be naive to say that they do not benefit in other ways, such as in professional prestige and notoriety. There is also the category of the expert who only writes certificates, who are held by many to be neutral because they are not actually selling anything. There is the potential for conflict of interest here as well because they are in fact selling something: certificates. Dealers who don't write certs can also fall prey to the temptations of over-identification when trying to sell a fiddle they own - it's easier than you may think. There is also the issue of specialization. Some dealers and experts have a narrow range of study and knowledge - this is becoming more and more common. One may be able to tell you whether you have a Strad or not, while another may know everything there is to know about early American makers. There is nothing wrong with this, because we cannot be expected to know everything. However, it is not uncommon for people to have convinced themselves that their generalized expertise covers everything. They will always have an opinion on an item, even when they ought to say they do not know.

Let's compare this to an expert in say, paleontology, who works for the Field Museum in Chicago. She gets paid a set salary and spends her time researching, studying, and writing papers. While there are certainly professional and career motives involved, if she claims to have found the bone of a heretofore unknown dinosaur, her work must be published and subjected to peer review. There is a scientific process requiring demonstrable proof - tests that can be reproduced and checked for accuracy. Even the fine art and antique businesses, close cousins to our own, use scientific tests of paint composition and wood age to help establish provenance in addition to their other tools of expertise. It is important to note here that the use of science can also be a smokescreen and must be regarded with appropriate skepticism. However, the violin dealer has no real format to adhere to - his conclusions are not reviewed by an independent body or commonly tested except informally by the marketplace and by history.

It is important to note that history is not always kind to so called violin experts. Professionals in this field hold entire swaths of certificates, even those from renown shops such as Hill & Sons, to be worthless or at best, highly questionable. I know dealers who will only trust certificates signed personally by Rembert Wurlitzer or from very specific eras of the Hill shop. How well will the current troupe of certificate makers hold up decades from now?

There is another phenomenon in the violin business that few people are able articulate or want to talk about. The issue is that our industry needs experts to sign off on instruments and bows as a kind of insurance as well as a justification for the high prices we charge. This is because we are obsessed with attribution over function - there seems to be an almost addict-like drive on the part of some shop owners to establish any identity, however tenuous it may be or how poorly the instrument or bow works. The customer also buys into this mentality more often than not. What's wrong with an unlabeled older instrument of uncertain heritage, especially if it plays well, sounds great and is priced reasonably? I've heard dealers refer to this class of instruments as trash. I'd be willing to bet that a very large percentage of existing antique instruments fall into this broad category. Not everything can be positively identified with ultra-specific detail. Our industry also depends on the certificate-writers because it's much easier to stand behind someone else's expertise rather than do the hard and honest work it takes to make these judgments for ourselves. It's also safer, isn't it? Remember, just because an instrument has a pile of old certs, it does not mean that it is a great instrument or that any modern expert would certify it.

Most dealers aren't historians who are striving to uncover the mysteries of the past for the greater good - these are businessmen trying to make a living. Please understand that I don't have a problem with making a profit in the violin business - I am a dealer and rely on certificates and my own judgments as well in order to help sell bows and violins. What I am examining are the potential abuses inherent in this system. There is nothing wrong with scholarship and study just because one of the motives is profit, the problem is the hubris and lack of self-examination which is such a part of human nature.

Without a doubt there are people in this field who have spent years studying instruments and bows directly, taking measurements and photos, reading rare books in multiple languages, acquiring and examining notes from defunct shops, traveling and seeking out collections and original documents, performing scientific tests, as well as questioning and interviewing elderly professionals. However, these individuals are rare and not necessarily interested in the commercial side of this business. They can be all too aware of what they don't know and that there is always so much more to learn. These are some of the experts that have written and published seminal reference works. On the other hand, without a doubt, there are self-appointed experts who are in currently in vogue, either writing certs and being taken advantage of, consciously or unconsciously, by an industry hungry for assurance of identity and value, or are making their own determinations on inventory with an eye on their professional and financial ambitions rather than true knowledge and research.

There undoubtedly is a difference between a fine Cremonese violin or classic French bow and a German trade instrument or a modern Chinese bow - to say otherwise would be foolish. There are great treasures created by outstanding and historically significant masters that must be identified and preserved. The values of these pieces must be commensurate to their rarity and outstanding qualities. This is beyond debate. However, it is important to recognize that we work in a field and a society that equates higher financial cost with greater inherent value and function. Just as human beings aren't usually valued for their virtue, wisdom and hard work, rather by their wealth, power and social position, so are dealers rated by the prices and status of the instruments and bows they sell, not necessarily by the services they offer, how they treat their customers, or by the functionality of the items they select for sale. This is the world we live in.

Eric Swanson, 02/03/14Back to Top↑

A Few Notes on Certificates

If you are looking at an expensive instrument or bow from a dealer and the salesman says there isn't a certificate, or there may be an old certificate, or that they showed it to so and so and he said this and that, please be careful. If you are told the violin you like was made by a famous maker, but the price, while high, is significantly lower than market price, pay attention. There seems to be an increase in pricy, antique, but mysterious instruments on the market. It's perfectly ok if you love an item that is just old and wonderful, unstamped, without a label, or bearing a facsimile label, but it needs to be priced accordingly. So when a dealer implies that the bow or violin you like might be something and the price is steep, please protect yourself by asking for a contingency sale. If there is no good certificate offered by a recognized modern expert, you can say that you will buy the item only if it is certified by one. Because dealers won't offer opinions on items you have out on approval from other dealers, this is a way to put the onus of identification on the shop you are dealing with. If they truly want to sell the instrument, the shop will handle the certification process. If they come back to you and say that the expert will certify the violin or bow you've fallen in love with, then you are protected. The issue of who pays for the cert needs to be decided, however. Some shops may ask you to pay, while others will absorb the cost, and some may split the cost. If the bow or violin does not get certified - it may still be a great item, but the price must reflect the fact that it may not be identifiable. Another scenario is where a dealer may guarantee that the item you are purchasing is certifiable. It would then be up to you to get it certified after you buy it, if you decide to do so. This works well as long as you get everything in writing and are dealing with a shop you have a good relationship with and trust. If the dealer says he only sells instruments he certifies, then that's a judgment call you will have to make.

Not everything in a violin shop needs a certificate. When you buy something from a dealer, they should provide you with a receipt and an insurance appraisal describing the item and stating what its replacement cost should be if it becomes damaged beyond repair. These documents are just fine for most bows or instruments you may purchase. Many violins have such an obvious identity that a certificate is unnecessary - like a pre-war German Strad copy for example. Other items like an HR Pfretzschner bow are also very clearly real and rarely faked (so far) that to ask of a certificate would be silly. Only when you start to spend substantial amounts of money should you consider protecting yourself, regardless of who you are dealing with. The more expensive the bow or violin, the better known the supposed maker, the more likely someone is trying to make a buck. Be aware that there are many levels of certificate, ranging from a general geographical area to a specific maker. It is up to you to analyze the language of the cert and determine if the asking price if fair given the description provided. Protect yourself when needed and deal with a reputable, knowledgeable dealer with whom you have a good relationship. Realize that many shops don't issue certificates themselves, and that while some shops may in fact write certs, that doesn't mean they are worth the paper they are printed on. Do your due diligence and find out who are the recognized experts in the field.

Many auction houses have a glossary of terms in the back of their catalogs to help potential bidders understand the terminology being used to describe the authorship of items on offer. The same concept works for certificates. The more general the language, the less specific the identity, usually the lower the cost, depending on age and origin. There are interesting exceptions in valuation. A violin with a certificate stating, Northern Italian, late 18th Century, may have a higher value than a more specifically identified instrument with a certificate stating, Roth Violin, Marknuekirchen, Germany, Guarneri Model, 1923. Why? One violin is older and it is Italian. Even though the language is less specific, the Italian instrument is valued more because of its age and geographical origin.

Authorship Terms as used by Skinner of Boston:

Joseph Guarneri: In our judgment the work is by the maker.

Ascribed to Joseph Guarneri: The work is believed to be by the named maker, in the opinion of the authors of the accompanying certificates or letters.

Attributed to Joseph Guarneri: A traditional attribution with which we may not agree.

Probably by Joseph Guarneri (also possibly): A work which we have no definitive opinion on.

School of Joseph Guarneri: In our judgment the work of a follower executed in the style of the maker or area stated.

Workshop of Joseph Guarneri: In our judgment the work is executed in the style of the named maker and possibly under his supervision.

Labeled Joseph Guarneri (also stamped, branded, etc.): In our judgment the instrument is not necessarily the work of this maker, but bears the makers mark

Eric Swanson 3/20/14Back to Top↑

On Auctions

Auctions are becoming increasingly popular amongst musicians and families looking for good deals on instruments and bows. While there is no doubt that auctions can provide potential opportunities to purchase items at lower prices than may be available at shops, there are a host of dangers and pitfalls that must be taken into consideration. In this essay I will go over the different types of current auctions, the benefits and drawbacks of each, and discuss the overall nature of the violin auction business.

Prior to the internet era auctions were predominantly the home of experts and collectors - people with the knowledge and finances to deal with the buyer-beware nature of these events. It was eBay and the advent of massive online retailers like Amazon that first made it easier for the average person to engage in auctions and become more comfortable with purchasing things online. Prior to these developments, people may have been at ease ordering certain things from catalogs, but purchasing something like an expensive violin or bow without holding it in their hand, inspecting and playing it, was left to the rarified world of the dealer, museum curator, and wealthy collector.

I like eBay - I've won violins as well as a whole host of other items like tools, shop supplies and even antique prints. I've also made money selling things. The eBay model is an interesting one - the item goes to the winning bidder, and seller and bidder are publicly rated based on how well they perform in the transaction. The buyer must pay promptly and the seller must ship the item and have described it honestly. The main drawback to eBay is the buyer is dependent on the provided photos and the description provided by the seller. The model of eBay is buyer-beware with some exceptions - a number of sellers will accept a return with certain conditions. If you do not understand the history of violin making, pricing, or the nature of violin repair it can be very easy to make a bad purchase. Remember the seller's description is never to be fully trusted in terms of attribution and provenance. I rely on my own judgment in that respect. There seem to be many instances of purposeful and innocent misrepresentation on eBay. The most important thing is the description of the condition of the violin. Any major damage or defects need to be revealed, so make sure to ask questions in that regard. I've spent many hours looking at pictures and descriptions of thousands of violins on eBay, but I've only made a handful of purchases. I've also had to put in hours of work and spend plenty of money getting them ready for sale. There is also a lot of chance in this type of online auction - some items sell for far too much while others slip through the cracks. When I find an item I like and I want to bid on, I set a maximum price that I'm willing to pay and I bid that full price in the final minutes of the auction. If the price goes higher than what I'm willing to pay I maintain discipline and let it go. While I love eBay, I believe it is nearly impossible for the average musician or family to find good instruments without expert assistance.

The classic model of the old auction house still exists. However the only auction house of this type that maintains a fine musical instrument department in the United States is Skinners of Boston. There used to be a few others like Christie's in New York but they have stopped selling string instruments and bows. Auctions that sell musical instruments in The UK and continental Europe still remain however. These are all English or ascending price auctions where people openly bid against one another with increasing bids until no one is willing to bid further and the item is sold. Increasingly these auction houses maintain an online presence where people can bid on the Internet. Telephone and proxy bids are also allowed. Prior to the auction finely produced catalogs are made available in print and online with photographs and descriptions of the items for sale. There will also be a viewing period prior to the actual auction where the items are on display for examination and testing.

It is important to read the fine print in "The Conditions of Sale" before participating in any of these auctions. Skinners for example has a paragraph that states,
"all property is sold as is, and neither the auctioneer nor any consignor makes any warranties or representations of any kind or nature with respect to the property, and in no event shall be responsible for the correctness, nor deemed to have made any representation or warranty, of description, genuineness, authorship, attribution, provenance, period, culture source, origin, or condition of the property and no statement made at the sale, or in the bill of sale, or invoice or elsewhere shall be deemed such a warranty of representation or an assumption of liability."

Because of changes in the auction world, these older style auction houses are increasingly reaching out to individual musicians. Some have hired former working musicians as liaisons to help guide potential buyers through the purchase process. However the condition of sale makes it clear that the full weight of deciding the value, condition, and veracity of origin is on the shoulders of the buyer. This is where people who are not experts on violins and bows, other than how to use them to make music, can run into trouble. My wife and I spend hours examining and testing potential purchases at these auctions. She tests their playing characteristics well I keep an eye on technical issues and consider identification and value. Together we have decades of experience that help us choose which items to bid on and even after we make a short list, that doesn't mean we will be able to get the items at the right price - it is an auction after all. Even when we win an item, it frequently needs a lot of work and set up to be made ready for sale. This is why items sold at musical instrument auctions often have a lower price than the same items found in a violin shop. It takes an incredible amount of expertise and hard work to acquire and prepare these items for musicians to consider purchasing at our workshop.

Lastly, I need to discuss a newer hybrid type of auction that has shaken up the violin auction scene. Many musicians will have heard of Tarisio based in New York and now London as well. Even though it started with humble beginnings, selling all manner of violins, violas, cellos and their bows, it has become over the last 10 years a real powerhouse in the fine musical instrument auction world. Tarisio sells everything from the humblest German trade instrument to beautiful Cremonese classics in its numerous online auctions every year. While they do not publish a fancy printed catalog, they do have a fancy website with full descriptions and photographs of the items they sell. The instruments and bows are also available to examine and try at their showrooms. However, the auctions are exclusively online.

I like new things, and I like underdogs that shake up the establishment, but that doesn't mean there aren't issues to consider. Some believe that Tarisio's rise to eminence is responsible for Christie's closing up its fine instrument department - but things change and that's okay. However, I have to say that from a dealer standpoint I prefer the classic auction house model - but that makes sense because I'm looking for lower wholesale prices that increase my profit margin and have the experience needed to make informed decisions. This type of hybrid auction sells most instruments at higher prices than the classic auction houses might and that's good for sellers, which is why many fine instruments are being sold by this firm. Tarisio also has a speculative and repairable auction which can be a good place for violin shop owners to find less expensive instruments that need more work and are of less certain identity. Who knows, maybe you know more than their so-called experts and can get a good deal. I myself have purchased items from Tarisio and made a decent profit reselling them. There have been a few issues with their level of organization (I know it's a big job running something like that) as well as their attitude on the phone, but that's to be expected in our business. If you do decide to buy something through Tarisio, I advise that you approach the auction the same way you would approach any sale of a violin or bow - make sure you go see and try the item before bidding.

In my mind, the main difference between Tarisio and the historic auction firms is that Tariso attempts to offer some of the assurance of attribution that violin shops generally try to provide. When you purchase something from a dealer, they should stand behind the instrument 100% as to condition and attribution. They should also offer you a full trade-in if you're buying something of equal or greater value. Auction houses really can't stand behind an instrument in terms of repairs or trade-ins, but Tarisio does provide buyers with the opportunity to return an item if they don't believe that the auction's description of origin was accurate. On their terms and condition page is the following paragraph titled Purchasers Limited Remedy,
" If the Purchaser of a Lot notifies Tarisio in writing that the Lot is not a genuine work of the maker specified for such Lot in the auction catalog or on the Auction Site, and delivers such notice to Tarisio together with the Lot such that both the notice and Lot are received by Tarisio within twenty (20) days after the close of bidding, Tarisio shall in collaboration with its chosen acceptable experts (hereinafter defined) make a determination of the genuineness of such Lot and, if Tarisio determines that the Lot is not a genuine work of the maker specified in the auction catalog or on the Auction Site, Tarisio will fully refund the purchase price paid for the Lot by the Purchaser. Upon request at any time before, during, or after the bidding period, Tarisio will supply a list of three acceptable experts per Lot whose opinions would be used to determine the genuineness of such Lot."

So while they won't guarantee the condition of the item, they do make an attempt to guarantee the identity of the violin which is something entirely new in the fine instrument auction business. It is important to note that their guarantee stipulates which experts can be used and that Tarisio itself can make the final determination. The exact process is also rather opaque as defined. I do, however, personally know purchasers who have taken advantage of this remedy and have had money returned. I also know of sellers who have unexpectedly had their instrument or bow returned when they thought it was sold. Personally I think Tarisio is taking a very difficult path by trying to straddle both the world of the violin shop and the world of the auction house. It definitely makes their life a lot more difficult. I know the goal is to provide customers with more assurance than traditional auction houses can provide, but this remedy can certainly lead to a lot of confusion for both sellers and buyers. The remedy process might also take some time and hassle for all parties. I find it interesting that Tarisio offers such a remedy and so I encourage buyers to take advantage of it every time they buy something from them that doesn't come with a good certificate. However, please be aware that some experts who write certs and are not affiliated with Tarisio, in order to avoid controversy and professional headaches, will wait to give their opinions on items purchased until the 20 day deadline is over. It's simply a strategic business decision.

As a small business owner, craftsman and dealer I enjoy auctions and am not worried about the increasing role they play for musicians seeking to purchase bows and violins. An auction house can never provide the expertise and service that I can provide my customers. Auction houses can't help you choose an instrument or bow based on your needs and personal preferences. When your need a new instrument an auction house will not accept a trade in. These are things that auction houses can't be expected to do. However, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't try going to an auction to buy or sell an instrument. With some effort and research you could get a great deal on something you may have paid more for in the traditional violin shop. You may also fetch a good price for your instrument without the hassle and uncertainty of consigning it with a dealer. Just remember whether you're bidding on eBay, at Skinners or Tarisio, always follow the golden rule of all auctions: caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.

Eric Swanson 3/14/14Back to Top↑

Notes on the Nature of the Violin Business for Musicians

The violin business can be quite opaque and confusing to outsiders, and it takes years of experience working on every side of it to even begin to grasp it fully. It’s also a business of extremes. On one hand deals involving tens of thousands of dollars are agreed to with nothing but a handshake, while on the other, shop owners have taken expensive instruments in on consignment, sold them for large and possibly inflated sums and then neglected to pay the owner. I have met many honest and dedicated shop workers and owners who strive day in and day out to provide the best service and advice they can, who fret over proper pricing and attributions, and are very serious about making sure the instruments they sell are in top condition. I have had clients tell me they were sold an unnecessary, expensive and invasive repair, such as a new bassbar, while a simple sound adjustment would have sufficed. Instruments have been sold for multiples their actual market value and outright fakes foisted upon unsuspecting musicians. I’ve also seen folks who come into a shop to sell an old violin told by the proprietor that their fiddle is in fact worth far more than they are asking for as well as many small acts of generosity, usually towards cash strapped students.

Many players are intimidated or put-off by violin shop salesmen and dealers, many times for good reason, other times because they are simply ill-informed. It’s important to realize that most salesmen in violin shops work on commission, so this can account for high pressure sales tactics and in the case of teachers, endless sales calls. Many salesmen are quite knowledgeable and passionate about instruments and plenty of them are musicians themselves. However, just because someone is selling you an instrument doesn’t mean they know what they are talking about or have done their homework. Sometimes you never get to work directly with an owner or proprietor of a shop, only the salesman – this can be quite frustrating and off-putting. It is very important to feel comfortable with the person with whom you are dealing. Resist tough salesmanship and follow your instincts – pay attention to how you are treated. Do they insult your instrument? Do they even pay any attention to you at all? Are they primarily interested in where you play or who you study with? If you are made to feel defensive or uncomfortable, maybe you should consider dealing with another shop. Find someone who listens – someone who doesn’t simply see you as a source for potential profit. If you are having an issue with your bow or instrument, do they start from the easiest, least invasive solution before moving on to more complicated and expensive procedures? Hopefully you can build a relationship with a shop you can trust.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask pertinent questions and do some independent research on your own. Who made the instrument and how do they know that? What is the condition of the instrument? What repairs have been done in the shop and are there any older repairs? Will the shop guarantee these repairs? If there is a certificate ask to see it, or if there is a certificate promised (meaning it will be generated at the time of sale) what will the exact language be? In the case of bows, what is the weight and balance? Are all the parts original? What is their trade-in policy? Ask about the price – how was it arrived at? Feel free to do some online research, but realize that any auction results you may find usually reflect a wholesale price on an item of unknown quality and condition. I’d suggest focusing on forums and other shop websites that actually list retail prices. A good shop will make sure to answer all of these questions before you take the instrument out on approval. This is not only the right thing to do, it is simply good sales technique – answering and eliminating any possible objections.

Word of mouth is very important. Does the shop fix for free repairs that fail or do they simply recharge you? Have people purchased quality instruments at reasonable prices? Does the shop stand behind the items they sell, or is it simply a case of caveat emptor? Has the shop actually honored a trade-in? Do they treat you well without coming off as obsequious or patronizing? Do they shame you or berate you if you don’t decide to purchase something from them? Don’t allow yourself to be abused – use your emotional IQ and logic. If something seems wrong – it’s usually for a reason.

Just because the business “looks” like a fancy violin shop doesn’t mean it’s financially stable. There are very high overheads in this business and there are most likely a number of shops that look good on the outside, but are in fact quite rotten on the inside. I’m convinced that the specter of financial ruin and the resulting sense of desperation is the root of most dishonesty in the violin business. The other reasons are greed and basic incompetence.

There are shops in operation which own only a small proportion of their inventory and rely on the percentage of profit that consigned instruments provide. This is especially true of more expensive violins. It takes a lot of capital and effort to actually find, purchase, set-up, restore and repair these items, so many shops make most of their money selling violins for clients rather than building their own inventory. If you are buying a consigned bow or violin, realize that the dealer has less room to bargain with you. If the shop owns the item, there is much more leeway for negotiation. There is obviously much more profit in selling an item you actually own, rather than something you make, say 20% on. One of the possible side-effects of selling mainly consignment instruments is price inflation – the shop has agreed to get the owner or the other violin shop they borrowed it from a certain amount, so in an attempt to make more than 20% they may boost the price. They may also call the owner and see if they can get him to take less, further increasing their profit margin. This is only human nature, but endemic to the field. Remember, it is not illegal to charge too much for an item, it is illegal to misrepresent an item, so be careful.

If you are selling something through a shop, make sure that they are actually going to try and sell it, that you are comfortable with the price, and check in periodically to see if the item has sold. Many times, the shop will want to do work on the item, such as cut a bridge or do a rehair to help it sell – you can either pay the price of the repairs or ask that the cost be deducted from what you are owed when it sells. The shop should pay you what they owe you within a reasonable time after the sale. We do so as soon as the buyer’s check has cleared. There are certainly stories of shops selling items and not informing the owner for months. There are some infamous cases of shops getting behind on paying back consignees, finding themselves using recent sales to pay off older sales. This only works if there is a sustained high level of sales. However, these Ponzi- type schemes almost always result in people getting ripped off.

When shopping for an instrument or bow, it’s important to give the shop a realistic price range and let them know if you need to trade in something towards the new purchase. Remember that violin shops are not in the business of buying items at a full retail price. Expect to be offered a wholesale price on your item. If you want more money, the shop can try and sell it on consignment for you, but they will take 20% or possibly more and there is no guarantee that it will get sold. Consignment agreements are usually for a period of six to twelve months, should include a description of the item, explain clearly the amount you are asking for as well as the terms of payment. Remember it is difficult to sell violins and vows, so it is important to be patient. Also, making a profit is certainly not illegal, so don’t be offended if the shop owner offers a price for a trade-in that may be less than you paid. Please be aware that the shop owner is essentially buying your consignment! If the instrument sells, he will have to stand behind it and possibly accept it as a trade-in in the future. Of course the way to make the most money is to sell the item yourself!

Many dealers and shop owners will tout the item you are buying as a wise investment. While I do believe that there are certain items that would appeal to collectors, I think it is important to remember that you are searching for a tool that is designed to enable you to make music and hopefully, earn a living. If you are careful about the instrument or bow you purchase, you will get many years of use from it and at the end of that time it will surely have increased in value. Certain types of similarly priced items do retain value better than others however – compare a 1920’s German trade violin to a modern Romanian import for example. It is important to choose wisely, but I encourage you to concentrate on function and tone, always with an eye on quality. An analogy would be whether you are buying an old brick house as a home to live in and enjoy for many years or a condo in a trendy neighborhood that you hope to flip for a profit as soon as you can. Don’t forget that when you do go to sell your violin, you will have to pay someone to sell it – to the tune of 20% or more. The truth is that if you get what you paid for it at the end of say, a decade of use, you are doing very well! In what other field can you buy an item, use it for years, and break even, and even perhaps reap a modest profit, when you sell it? Unless you are a collector with money to spare, try to resist the investment come-on.

I love what I do – I get to work with my hands and be my own boss. I’m very grateful to be involved in such a creative, dynamic business. Don’t forget that for every bad apple, there are numerous honest and helpful luthiers and experts. Many of them are my friends, trusted colleagues, teachers and mentors. I enjoy my customers, have learned so much from them and find fulfillment in helping musicians of every level and walk of life. What I’ve written is not an expose or condemnation of my field, it is simply an attempt at consumer education and protection. I encourage all string musicians to continue to educate themselves about their musical tools and ask questions. I urge all my luthier and dealer contemporaries to strive to follow the simple dictum that states:

Treat others as you would have them treat you.

Eric Swanson – January 2014Back to Top↑

Technical Considerations for Players for Repair and Purchasing

We’ve all seen television news reports on the dangers of being taken advantage of when bringing our cars to the mechanic. So many of us drive, but few of us really understand how cars actually function, so it’s easy for unscrupulous garage owners to sell us expensive repairs and unnecessary work. It’s so much safer to go your mechanic and say, “Change the alternator”, rather than, “My car won’t start.” In this essay I hope to empower you with more technical knowledge so that dealing with your instrument feels less murky and also so that you will be in less danger from unnecessary repairs and costs. This is a really extensive topic, so I will limit my comments to basic issues.

String musicians depend on their instruments and bows to make a living, but many are under informed as to the fundamental technical issues regarding their own equipment. Most music programs or conservatories do not teach players about the fundamental construction issues of their tools, only how to use them. Let’s face it – using them well is hard enough! Unfortunately, in the absence of proper education, many myths and misunderstandings arise and people get taken advantage of and/or have unrealistic expectations.

I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard from customers where they have been sold expensive, invasive and unnecessary repair jobs, or have purchased instruments and bows that are not set-up or repaired properly. While it is my motto that the customer is always right, I’ve also faced many erroneous assumptions from musicians. This essay is an attempt to go over basic technical considerations of instruments and bows to better prepare musicians to deal with luthiers, bowmakers, and dealers.

It takes people like me years and years to hone our skills and perfect our craft, but that doesn’t mean that everyone who works at a bench in a violin shop knows what he or she is doing, or that they are honest and earnest in their work. When first learning how to make a violin or cut a bridge, the most important factor, before one even touches a tool, is the issue of measurements.

Many musicians may notice things like cracks or varnish issues without realizing that the fundamental measurements of an instrument and its set-up are far more important for tone production and playability. It’s quite amazing how many instruments and bows are not set-up properly.

For the purpose of simplicity, I will be using measurements for violins. At the end of the essay, I’ll provide a small chart with the measurements for violin, viola and cello.

Instruments:

One of the first and most important issues to consider is that of note intervals. Players need consistency in note spacing on the fingerboard to achieve proper intonation. Violin makers know this and there are standard measurements for neck length and fingerboard position. The length from the line between the fingerboard and the nut to the top edge of the violin should be as close to 13 cm as possible. The position of the bridge is determined by this number in a 3:2 ratio. 13 multiplied by 3 is 39. 39 divided by 2 is 19.5. The inner notches on many violin f-holes are at 19.5 cm. This is where the bridge should be positioned and is called the “stop”.

These proportions standardize the intervals between the notes and help the instrument function correctly. Small variations are normal and usually don’t pose much of a problem – sometimes the notes are slightly closer together, sometimes slightly further apart. This is mainly an issue of proper ratios. A properly restored and set-up violin needs to adhere as closely as possible to these measurements and proportions. This isn’t set in stone - many wonderful older instruments have been altered or have eccentric measurements and educated compromises must be frequently made.

Older violins, from the early 19th century and before were originally built as baroque instruments with a completely different neck and fingerboard design. These instruments have all been modified – the original scrolls sawn off and grafted to new modern necks with modern fingerboards and then re-set into the body of the violin at a new angle. Never judge a bridge’s correct placement by the location of the f-holes and their notches or by old bridge-feet impressions on the top. The bridge needs to go where the instrument sounds finest and best maintains the proper intervals on the fingerboard.

The next issue is neck angle and string projection. This determines at what height the strings meet the bridge and therefore determines bridge height as well. A good way to determine proper projection is by placing a long straightedge horizontally on the fingerboard so it projects out over the top of the violin to the bridge stop. A small ruler is then placed perpendicularly at the stop so that the two straight edges touch. The measurement from the top of the violin where the bridge is positioned up to the projected angle of the fingerboard should be as close as possible to 27mm. A good way of telling if an instrument’s projection is off is by taking a look at the bridge. Sometimes you see a bridge with the top edge very close to the heart – this is a low projection. The opposite, where the top edge of the bridge is far above the heart, indicates a high projection. Correct projection helps the instrument respond properly and sound its best. However, proper projection is a guideline and the proof is really in how the instrument plays – slightly higher or lower neck angles don’t always create problems.

Overall length of the instrument should be noted as well. Violins can be anywhere from 353mms to 362mms long. While some makers, dealers and players have very inflexible ideas on proper instrument length, the main issue is whether it is comfortable to play and sounds optimally. Is the neck length proper? How is the projection? Is the bridge in the correct place? These are more important considerations. I warn against being a slave to length measurements. Does a teacher or dealer say your violin is too long? Well, how do people play violas?

Where does the soundpost belong? Many musicians have had their posts adjusted and it is amazing how much the post’s position affects the sound and playability of the instrument. In order to make proper adjustments, the soundpost needs an agreed upon starting place. The post lives slightly inside and behind the right or treble bridge foot. The outside edge of the post on a violin should be approximately 1.5 mms inside of the left bridge foot’s treble edge and one soundpost width back from the rear edge. It is essential that the soundpost fit perfectly with no gap between it and the top and back. The post should also be fit so that it stands straight up and down. It also needs to be the appropriate thickness for the type of instrument. Once you begin adjusting and moving the post, these rules can be bent – the best position for the post is where the instrument sounds and plays best.

String heights are also very important. Too high and it can be difficult to press down the string to the surface of the fingerboard, and strings that are too low can buzz and bite into your fingertips, especially in higher positions. On a violin the G string should be at 5.5mm and the E string needs to be at 3.5.

Bows:

Bows may come in different lengths depending on the instrument and its size, but the most important measurements for proper function are weight and balance. I can’t stress this enough. Violin bows should weigh between 57-63 grams and should have a balance point of around 9 ½ inches, as measured from the point at which the bow balances to the end of the wood, not the button. A bow that is heavier in the tip will have a longer balance point, while a bow that is frog heavy will have a lower number. Why is this so important? I look through hundreds of bows when searching for shop inventory and the number of sticks that will never have anything approaching the correct weight and balance is amazing. Imagine a bow that is 63 grams, already quite heavy, and is very tip heavy. The solution would be to put a longer silver wrap with a heavier gauge wire to help counteract the weight in the tip. However this would add to the total weight of the bow and render it just too heavy overall. A bow that is tip heavy will feel heavier than it actually is – it will also feel longer as you play it. With any bow that is out of balance, the player will feel the bow rather than her hand. The hand holds the bow and controls it as a natural extension of the arm, not the other way around. Think of a bow that is 57 grams and is significantly frog heavy. How does one make the tip heavier? First of all, I could use a lighter material for the wrap, maybe silk, tinsel, or faux whalebone, but this will make the bow too light to use in this case. Sometimes a silver headplate is put on, or lead is put into the bottom of the tip mortise or the tip plug is actually made of lead. Any addition of lead to the bow must be disclosed and I believe should negatively affect the value of the stick. A bow that is too light in the tip feels unwieldy, and might want to fly off the string near the head. I’ve seen bows that are on the heavy and light side play wonderfully with proper balance, however. Proper balance is paramount!

Once weight and balance are determined to be within acceptable limits, the bow can then be tested for playability, feel, and tone. Just because a bow is properly balanced doesn’t mean it’s a great stick! Other important factors like camber, straightness, wood choice, and graduations play an essential role. Remember that a bow can be straightened or re-cambered with relative ease by heating and bending the stick, but the actual thickness of the Pernambuco is determined by the maker and is set in stone. I know bow-makers who say that they can determine whether a bow will play based on the analysis of its weight and balance, camber, and flexibility. I believe that they can use their knowledge to make educated guesses, but the reality is more elusive than that – the truth is in the playing of the bow. It’s not so unusual to find a bow that defies all the rules and just works. There is something beautiful and mysterious about an amazing bow that can’t be scientifically quantified, and that’s one of the things I love about bows.

Repairs and Set-Up:

The measurements and guidelines I’ve outlined so far can obviously help you when it comes time to deal with a luthier and talk about set-up issues and repairs, but there is more to know! One of the most common issues with an instrument is open seams. Violins, unlike guitars, are designed to be taken apart for repair, therefore luthiers have historically used a hide glue that is very strong, yet with the application of proper pressure, will pop open. Instruments are basically wooden boxes which are under constant tension and are vulnerable to humidity changes. It’s ok if a seam opens and it is very easy to re-glue. Wouldn’t you rather have a seam pop open than a huge crack?

A properly dressed fingerboard is one of the most over looked issues an instrument can have. If your fingerboard has bumps in it, there will buzzing and issues with intonation. If the scoop of the board is to low or too high, it will be hard to play. When the gap is not consistent across the board, the intervals on each sting will not be in relation to one another. The edge of the board and its transition into the nut, especially on the playing side, is crucial to comfort and playability. Have your board checked from time to time.

When you have a new bridge and post made, always get the old ones back and keep them. This way if you decide in the future that your present bridge and post are not working, you can always have the old ones put back on. Also, it is smart to have a back-up bridge just in case! Bridges have a tendency to lean forward over time. Make sure the back of your bridge forms a 90 degree angle with the top of your instrument. It’s very hard to describe the qualities of a well-cut bridge. The feet of the bridge must fit the top of your instrument perfectly, with no gaps. The feet themselves should never be too obviously thin or thick – this goes for the ankles and width at the feet as well. The cut-outs in the kidneys and between the feet should neither be too big or too small and must be executed cleanly and symmetrically. A bridge shouldn’t be wafer-thin or too stout at the strings. With violas and cellos it is essential that the bridge have the correct overall width as determined by the placement of the bassbar.

When it comes to more invasive and expensive repairs, let your knowledge of measurements and the function of the instrument’s constituent parts help you. Always ask questions and it is a great idea to get several opinions before deciding to move ahead with a repair that could be the equivalent of a mortgage payment! You will be able to tell if the neck is too high or too low or if it is crooked. A neck set can fix this for sure, but maybe a new thicker fingerboard can do the job, or the luthier can pull the neck up or down a bit by opening the top seam at the neck, repositioning it and regluing.

A new bassbar can have a really positive effect on the playability and responsiveness of an instrument. The bassbar runs along the bass side of the inside of the top, under the bridge foot, and acts as a sort of bracing. If you are having the top taken off for some other sort of repair, have a competent luthier take look at it. Some instruments have incorrectly shaped or positioned bars which can lead to the top collapsing or prevent the top from vibrating correctly. Remember however, that a new bassbar is a repair of last resort – always exhaust all the set-up possibilities before going this route. Changing the bass bar happens only at the end of a long journey after other variables are tested and costs a bundle!

Some cracks can be glued from the outside, but anything near the center of the top or back will be expensive and necessitate the removal of the the top, the installation of small wooden cleats to hold the crack together, as well as a fair amount of touch up and fill to hide the crack. If the instrument develops a soundpost crack, it will need a patch installed. Remember that a well repaired soundpost patch on the top is fine, but a soundpost patch on the back of an instrument can devalue it by as much as 50%.

Conclusion:

It is my hope that this essay will help empower you when shopping for a bow or instrument and that it will assist you when problems arise and you need a repair or adjustment. Never allow a luthier or dealer to browbeat you into a sale or repair – ask questions and be informed! Let me add a warning as well: a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous! What I’ve written about here is just the beginning of what a luthier or bow-maker will know and understand. While I encourage you to be informed, please don’t use this information to drive a competent repairman or dealer crazy! There is so much more I could write about and in even greater detail, so if you have any questions please feel free to email or call me and I will be more than happy to answer them.

String Instruments Violin Viola Cello
Approx. Body Length 355-362mms 15.5" - 16.5" 755mms
Stop Length (Bridge Position) 19.5cms 21-22.5cms 40cms
Neck Length (Edge to Nut) 13cms 14-15cms 28cms
Fingerboard Length 27cms 29-30.5sms 58cms
Fingerboard Projection at Stop 27mms 31-32mms 81mms
String 1 Height at Fingerboard (Treble) 3.5mms 4-4.5mms 5.5mms
String 4 Height at Fingerboard (Bass) 5.5mms 6-6.5mms 8mms
Bridge Thickness at Feet 4.2mms 5-5.5mms 11mms
Soundpost Diameter 6mms 6-7mms 11mms
Bows Violin Viola Cello
Length 73-74cms 72-73cms 69-70cms
Weight 57-63grms 67-73grms 77-84grms
Balance Point 9.5"-9.75" 9.5" 9"-9.25"

Eric Swanson, 1/23/14Back to Top↑

The Great Ferrule Debate

As a self-employed bowmaker with years of experience, having rehaired untold thousands of bows and dealt with scores of demanding string musicians, I certainly could be referred to as a seasoned pro who has seen it all, but there is one topic which, when it rears its ugly head, still manages to make me grit my teeth in angst - the Poofed Ferrule Controversy. I've been confronted on numerous occasions by players and even dealers who insist that any freshly rehaired bow with the flat side of the ferrule anything less than perfectly flat has somehow been damaged and/or is the result of the efforts of a woefully inept craftsman. While I would be a fool to say that I haven't seen horribly executed rehairs, where ferrules are entirely overstuffed with tangled masses of crossed hairs as well as an entire host of other atrocities, I must take a stand for my fellow dedicated craftsmen when I declare the concept of "puffed-up" ferrules to be mainly the result of the combination of a paucity of decent rehairs with an almost complete lack of knowledge on the part of musicians of how a bow is constructed and rehaired.

The ferrule is the metal piece, shaped as a half circle, that sits at the tip of the frog and serves to both strengthen the somewhat fragile wood in the tongue and keep the hair spread evenly in a fine ribbon. The baroque bow and many transitional bows had neither ferrule nor pearl slide - the hair emerged from the frog unprotected and ran down an open channel in a narrow bundle before emerging from the frog's tongue on its journey to the tip of the bow. The hair was held in a rather narrow ribbon only by the walls of the channel in the frog. Modern music and the techniques needed to play it demanded a new bow with a concave camber and a frog with a ferrule and pearl slide behind it to better keep the hair in place when performing the new bow strokes.

The ferrule is made by soldering a half round sheet of silver to a flat sheet of silver, so that there are two invisible seams on either side. In a new bow, after the ferrule has been trimmed and cleaned up, the tongue of the frog, which is made of ebony, is then shaped to fit the ferrule. With a replacement frog for an older bow, the difficulty is increased because the ferrule must be made to fit the existing tongue. Silver comes in several different purities as well as many different thicknesses. Due to different factors, such as metal content and heating, the silver may be softer or harder. When making a modern bow, I can make sure to pick a stronger, thicker piece of silver for the flat portion of the ferrule because that part will not be backed up by the ebony of the tongue and is therefore more prone to bending when subjected to pressure. Older bows are a mixed bag and we can't control how thin or thick or soft or hard their ferrules may be. Dominique Peccatte violin bows have ferrules seemingly as thin as paper.

How is that ribbon of hair actually held in place inside the ferrule? It stays in place thanks to a fitted a wooden wedge, so that the hair is spread wide into a ribbon which sits between the flat portion of the silver ferrule and the wedge. This wooden wedge is in turn held in place by the ebony of the tongue above it as well as the curved silver of the ferrule on top. This wedge is usually made of a slightly softer wood like willow so that the hair can press into it and stay in place as the musician uses the bow. This wedge must fit into the ferrule very precisely, because if it is too loose the ribbon of hair will bunch up in the center and the bow will not function correctly. Because of this concern, most bow makers use a single drop of glue to hold the wedge in place. However even this can fail if the wedge is subjected to very dry humidity and it shrinks.

We have the following factors: metal of various thickness and strength, a narrow slot for the hair to be held in an even ribbon necessitating a well-fit wooden wedge and finally the mass of hair itself. What happens when the hair is sandwiched between the wedge and the silver in such a manner that the hair remains in its proper position and doesn't bunch up or push in even with steady strong pressure? Some of the hair gets pushed into the softer wood and is locked in place while some of the hair, backed by the wedge, pushes out, exerting pressure on the flat sheet of silver. The result is well executed rehair and a potentially poofed ferrule - depending on the thickness and hardness of the metal.

Would you rather have a flat ferrule and potentially failing rehair or a slightly pushed out ferrule and an excellent, reliable rehair? Add to that the fact that no bow loses or gains value due to an "original" or "replacement" ferrule and I believe my point is well made. The shape of the replacement ferrule as well as the thickness of the metal is determined by how the frog was made - it must conform to the ebony to fit properly. So a well-made replacement ferrule must by definition look like the original. This is why value is not affected - the same goes for replaced pearl eyes or slides. Can ferrules be damaged? Certainly - but the damage occurs slowly over time as the result of routine usage and maintenance. Sometimes the seams can come open, but these can usually be resoldered. Bows and violins are functional tools that have working parts which wear out and must be replaced or repaired as responsibly as possible until they are no longer functional - that's just how it is. It's called entropy.

PS - If any player believes that a bow with a less than flat ferrule plays poorly because of it, I'd love to hear from them!

Eric Swanson 1/27/14Back to Top↑

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