Evaluating an Old Fiddle for Repair
(Not full restoration; just essential repairs for playability.)
© 2016 C. O. Bishop
A colleague asked me to document how I evaluate a fiddle for repairs needed. This is my pattern of thinking:
What am I Dealing With?
When I am presented with an old violin, regardless of the origin, there are certain things I am looking for: the very first thing is to determine, in my own mind, whether the instrument is one of the (literally millions of) mass-produced violins that came out of Europe in the late 1800s to early 1900s. If it seems, instead, to be a hand-made instrument, thus possibly of some greater value, then I may need to take it to someone who can appraise it, before I begin work on it. There are some instruments on which I do not feel qualified to work, and which I will not repair beyond minor things like an open seam, etc., though I have occasionally worked on instruments nearly 300 years old.
I look at the general finish (the old factory instruments all seem to have a similar look), the scroll (especially under the throat of the scroll—does the fluting end suddenly at about “6 o’clock”, or does it continue all the way around?), and the f-hole ends (is there any fluting of the f-holes? There usually is not on the cheaper instruments.) I also take a quick look at the purfling, to see if it gives me any clues. Some of the cheaper ones don’t actually have purfling—it is simply painted on, to look like purfling.
I glance at the label, but the fact is, unless it plainly says “Made in Germany” (or Czechoslovakia, or whatever), the label isn’t really going to tell me much, because virtually all of the old factory instruments were apparently made by “Antonio Straduarius” while he was on vacation in central Europe. That label is extraordinarily common, and is only a sign that it is a cheap copy. Some labels make less wild claims, but false attributions are so common as to be the norm. Usually, I am looking at what is effectively a “dead fiddle”, and am hoping to effect a “resurrection” of sorts.
Once I have determined that the old fiddle is not some priceless “Old Master Gem” (not likely), and that I am free to make the repairs needed to make it playable, I have to ask myself:
What Does it Need?
I then look at the general condition. I am looking for:
- Cracks, (how severe, and where are they?)
- Are the cracks clean, or packed with dirt and/or polish, etc.?
- A soundpost crack may be a deal-breaker…same for a bass-bar crack. Most other cracks are workable, so long as you are willing to open the instrument, and know when it is appropriate to do so.
- Open seams, (and are they clean or dirty?)
- Missing wood, (how much is missing, and where?)
- Peg-hole diameters (will they need bushing, re-drilling, etc.?)
- Peg Taper: Is the taper of the existing pegs reasonable? Modern pegs are tapered to 1:30 ratio, but there are other ratios. Sometimes they are so steep that they will not reliably stay in tune.
- Either of the above (or broken/missing pegs) requires a new set of pegs.
- Neck joint: Is it tight, and at an appropriate angle? What is the height of the overstand? What is the height of the end of the fingerboard over the belly?
- Fingerboard: Will it need dressing? And is it thick enough to stand being dressed? A new fingerboard is not out of the question, but it is a lot more work.
- Nut: Is it serviceable? Sometimes a nut is missing or broken. Sometimes the string grooves are bad (too deep, too wide, or in wrong locations), requiring a replacement nut.
- Saddle: Is the saddle serviceable? And, does it need to be re-glued?
- End pin: (is it loose, or broken?)
- A badly worn end pin hole will probably require reaming, bushing and re-drilling/re-reaming as well as a new end pin.
- Interior: Using a light and dental mirror, can I see interior issues?
- Soundpost: Is there a soundpost in place? Does it fit appropriately? (I usually assume I will have to fit a new soundpost.)
- Bridge: I assume in advance that I will need to cut a new bridge, but if there is a bridge present, and it fits the top exactly, and it is the correct height, etc., I have been known to use them. Bridges don’t wear out, under normal use, provided they are maintained to prevent warping, etc.
- Fittings: Are there fittings present? Are they usable? I like to use an old tailpiece, as they frequently have a charming look, but many fiddlers want four fine tuners, and it is usually a mistake to use four steel tuners added to an ebony tailpiece, because the additional weight proves to be parasitic, and diminishes volume. If that is what is there, I mentally add the cost of a new tailpiece with four built-in tuners.
- It the tailgut serviceable? The old “genuine gut” tailguts worked just fine, but they will eventually break, so I usually replace them with a modern synthetic.
- Strings: New strings are a given. Choose your brand and style according to what the fiddle will be used for. I use Dominants if the violin is to be played in an orchestra or any other traditional venue, but if the player is a fiddler, I will use Helicores. (If there is a customer already involved, I will use their preferred string…these are just the ones I like to use.)
- Cleaning and (at least some) polishing are also a given. I do not want to produce a mirror-bright instrument, as a rule: “Old-Fiddle Chic” is the goal. It partly depends upon what the previous condition was. If it has obviously been kept glossy in the past, but is just very dirty, then cleaning and polishing will include bringing it back to the deep gloss that was intended.
What Will It Cost? (And what is the “Cut-off Point?” This is to the repairers, out there…)
This will depend on the shop hourly rate you have set, and, to a lesser degree, how fast you work. In an automobile shop, there is such a thing as a flat-rate book, where the time required for a given task is laid out, and they call out the cost of a job by estimated time and materials. (If they say there is a 2-hour flat-rate charge to replace a radiator, for instance, you will pay for a new radiator plus two times whatever their shop-rate is.) If the mechanic gets the job done more quickly, he gets paid better…if it takes him longer, he loses money. Unfortunately, we don’t have a “flat-rate book” for luthiers, so you have to develop your own. You have to keep track, and see how long repairs actually take you…or should take you. Maybe ask around and find out how long similar repairs take other people, too. There are a few shops online who advertise their prices.
In my own case, for example, it usually takes me about an hour to fit a set of pegs and install them, ready to use…maybe a little less. So, I add the cost of a set of pegs to my shop-rate for one hour, and that is what I charge. The same can be done for all of the above tasks. If the materials don’t cost much, sometimes I don’t even add the materials cost, though I probably should.
I guess I usually estimate about $200 for setting up an instrument, if that is literally all it needs. It will often be less, but sometimes there are more open seams or a peg needs more work than first seemed likely, and it’s nicer to surprise the customer with a lower bill than to wish I could to add to it (which I don’t do…ever.)
If you add together all the estimated repair costs, plus materials, and the “repair estimate” far exceeds the potential value of the instrument after the repairs, then you have to re-think what you are about to do, and decide whether you want to do the job at all.
I do a fair amount of “pro bono” work, and that is my privilege…but I don’t pretend to be a non-profit organization, and there are some jobs I have turned away quite firmly, though politely, and with genuine regret.
On the other hand, if I think “this young player may come back later for a better instrument”, then I may decide to repair the current fiddle, at an extreme discount, to make it play as well as possible, and just count the work as an investment in my reputation and toward future business. Let the customer know what you are doing, but don’t be “pious” about it…explain that, in terms of market value, the instrument does not justify the repair, but that you try to keep people playing when possible, and that you choose to do this particular repair as a sharply discounted rate…and that you hope they will come back to you for a better instrument as their skills advance. (I like to hand them a series of nice instruments to play while they are waiting, and when they take their repaired instrument home, though it probably plays better than ever before, it still is nowhere near the sound of the instruments they were experiencing in my shop.) (Sneaky, huh?)
Sometimes I have done repairs that I knew would exceed the original cost of the (fairly new) instrument, let alone the re-sale value (we are talking cheap Chinese student instrument, here) just because I wanted the experience at performing that particular repair, and I knew I could not hurt anything by the attempt. (The one I am thinking of had a bad soundpost crack, where the post had been driven through the top in an accidental fall. It required a full-thickness inlaid patch. The result was nearly invisible, and it was a very good learning experience for me. I counted the labor time as “tuition” in my learning-curve.)
However! If you know that the amount you will charge for the repair will exceed the value of the instrument after repairs, you must inform the customer of that, before even considering the work. This is an ethical matter. Don’t do the work without the customer absolutely knowing what they are getting. I have done work of this sort, because the customer wanted “Great-Grandpa’s fiddle” back in playing condition. I explained very carefully that what they were buying would be the nostalgia of having great Grandpa’s fiddle, and that under no circumstances could they hope that it would be salable at that price. They wanted it anyway, so I went ahead and did the work.
Some luthiers will not do such work at all; that is their choice. But people buy very expensive boxes in which to keep their loved one’s ashes: so, what is wrong with an “expensive box with strings on it”, in which to keep the memories, and upon which to play the remembered tunes? It’s your call…. I choose to do the work.
One last thing to consider is “Do I want my name associated with this thing??” That could be the deciding factor: Your reputation could be at risk. I have rejected work due to previous “repairs” done with epoxy. I knew I could not undo the damage, and the epoxy and (very bad) earlier repairs could end up being blamed on me…. So I flatly refused to do the repairs. They were not happy, but better just they were unhappy than them and me, too.
What is the Exception?
What if the fiddle belongs to you, and you are hoping to sell it? Let’s say you have found it at a garage sale, and are trying to decide whether to buy it. Then you have to decide, “Am I willing to work for less money per hour, in this case, just because it is important to me to return this fiddle to the market?” If the answer is “No!” then you simply can’t repair it. And, if you are offered it, you can’t take it…it’s that simple.
There have been instruments that I have acquired, one way or another, and later realized they were so cheaply made, or so badly damaged, that I was simply unwilling to mess with them. In those cases I have either given them away to be used as a decoration, or, in some cases, I simply burned them. Sounds terrible, I know, but there is such a thing as a “violin-shaped-object” (VSO) that was truly junk the day it was brand-new.
Some Final Notes:
There is a pretty wide spread in prices to cut a bridge (and other tasks): Some luthiers offer a “student-cut” and a “professional-cut”. A student-cut bridge has feet that conform to the violin, and it holds the strings at the right heights. Other than that, it is simply cut to a standard set of measurements. A “professional” bridge has more care taken with the fitting, and is cut with the tone of the violin in mind. This may take hours. Also, the bridge blank may vary from as little as 2 or 3 dollars to as much as 20 or 25, or more.
The most expensive blanks are not appropriate on most instruments, but the difference between a $3 and a $10 blank may be quite noticeable, so the range of prices is understandable. I don’t think I can do a “professional” cut well enough to justify the claim, so I charge the same for a bridge, regardless. And I do careful work, regardless.
Your Hourly Rate
Try to be aware of what mechanics shops in your area are charging per flat-time hour. If you know you are charging less per hour than they are, then you can stand by your prices, and your customers can rest assured they are not being overcharged. That should help put the final bill in perspective. This is definitely “skilled-labor”—or you shouldn’t be attempting it. I did not begin charging for my work at all, until after I had repaired more than 50 of my own instruments, which I had bought in various states of disrepair, and used as learning tools. (They were mine, and, whatever I did, they were better off than when I got them. I sold them at low prices when I had them set up and playing well: their owners were delighted with them. It was a “win” all the way around.) Remember that if you are maintaining a shop, insurance, and the like, you must take all that into consideration when setting your shop hourly rate. Otherwise you will be losing money and won’t know where it is going.
I hope this is helpful… If I have a fiddle come in sometime soon, that fits this scenario, I will add photos; but for now, this is the best I can do.