Fractional Instruments

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The Rationale for Building a Fractional Instrument

Why Fractional Sizes Exist at All

When I was a child, I don’t recall there being the option of using fractional instruments to start out. I am sure they had to have existed, but when I was (briefly) sent to a violin teacher, there was no suggestion that I be fitted with a ¾ or a ½ size violin, though it would have been appropriate (I was about 8 or 9, if I remember correctly.) I went to class a few times and then gave it up, probably due to lack of interest (I really wanted to play the French horn… so they bought me a cornet…but that is another story), however, the added difficulty of an oversized instrument could have been part of the problem.

But there are children who are delighted the first time they hear a violin, and passionately want to play one. They do have the drive to practice, but they are too small to comfortably use a full-sized violin, let alone a viola or cello. So, we try to supply them with a smaller instrument on which they can develop their skills until their physical stature catches up with their talent and passion.

The value of a good quality instrument is that it feeds the original delight of the child, and convinces him or her that his or her first impression was correct: that the violin is an exquisite tool to make exquisite music. The cost of a poor quality instrument is that the child may lose interest entirely. (Video games, anyone?) The price (good or bad) can only be determined by the long-run result…some things you pay the price up front, and get long-term value. Others, you get a great deal up front and pay the price later. Hard to tell, sometimes, which is which.

Why Few Luthiers Will Build Them

Because parents know the child will outgrow the smaller instrument in a short time, they are reluctant to buy a good, handmade (quite costly, and fragile, as well) fractional instrument. The only alternative seems to be an imported factory-made instrument (often of dubious quality.) Millions of cheap, fractional fiddles are purchased, therefore, with the thought that “Well, they will outgrow this by next year, and then we can get the next size up.” But by that time, the passion is gone, as they are not hearing the sounds they want to hear, and they are ready to quit. Not every child is silly enough to think that the scratchy, squawking sounds coming from under their ear is comparable to the gorgeous music that originally attracted them to the violin.

But, so long as very few parents can afford to buy a handmade fractional instrument, there will be few luthiers who feel it is worth making one. Without an existing order for such an instrument, it looks doubtful that the maker will ever see a return on his/her investment of time and money. I did see a photo, once, of the gorgeous ¼-size violin made by Roger Hargrave for one of the Buckingham Palace toddlers. (Nice work, if you can get it.)

For The Discerning Ear

Here’s the real issue: Most people can hear the difference between a great violin and a “violin-shaped-object” (ultra-cheap, poorly designed, poorly made, of poor-quality materials, strung with poorest quality strings, etc.) But many people cannot hear the difference between an average violin and a great one. It takes a good player to tell the difference in playability, and a discerning ear to hear the difference in tone. For the discerning ear, I want to offer the very best instrument I can make.

But, when dealing with folks who truly can’t tell the difference, I no longer try to convince them that the difference even exists, let alone how important it is to the player. I encourage them to buy the one that fits their perception of value. I am friendly and polite about it, and explain that the differences are subtle enough that it takes some practice to hear them.

But, if they go out and buy a very cheap VSO (violin-shaped-object) from eBay, or the like, and then bring it in, complaining about the sound and playability, I may simply opt out of working on it. The labor to make it playable will easily exceed the purchase cost of the instrument. Again, I am friendly and kind about it, explaining what the problem is. I am not dismissive…they are doing their best to make good decisions.

On the other hand, sometimes they have bought a fairly decent student instrument for a few hundred dollars, and, as they work with it, they eventually develop a discerning ear, enough to realize they have a cheap fiddle that (surprise!) sounds rather like…a cheap fiddle. At that point I am glad that I was friendly and accommodating when I first dealt with them, as they may feel more inclined to do business with me once they understand what I originally tried to explain.

What are the Other Options?

There are a few possibilities that I can see:

  • I can buy an unfinished violin of a given (small) size, and re-work it to sound much better (resolve arching and graduation issues, check rib thickness, etc.), then finish it much as I do my own work, and set it up to optimize sound. This will result in a very playable, nice-looking instrument, for less than a third the cost of a handmade instrument. But, in following such a plan, I am limited to the parameters dictated by the work already done at the factory: I cannot make the ribs and blocks taller, for instance. Also I can’t choose the wood from which the instrument is to be made to begin with, as I do my own.
  • I can hand-make a fractional sized instrument from scratch, which will take only a little less effort than building a full-sized instrument, and almost exactly the same costs for materials. That instrument will far exceed the capabilities of virtually any factory instrument, but we are back to the issue of cost…who wants to buy a violin at full price, knowing that it will soon be outgrown? So; my best option may be to sell that instrument to a parent at a deeply discounted price, with the provision that, if they bring that instrument back undamaged, when the young violinist is ready for a full-sized instrument, I will apply their full purchase price to a larger instrument at full price. In this way, they effectively have had the use of a top-quality instrument for nothing, as they grew into a larger instrument. Good deal for them…risky for me. I may be able to repeat that transaction several times, if everyone takes good care of the fractional size instrument in question. On the other hand, it may get destroyed the first time out.
  • Another possibility centers on adult players: I recently had an adult, petite, female violinist ask whether I make a ¾-size instrument. She was not interested in a trade-up; she wanted a better daily player for herself. I could build such instruments on speculation, hoping for such players to show up at my door. But if they don’t…well, then I will just have a rather expensive child’s instrument on my hands.

With all of this in mind:

I am beginning a ¾-size violin, patterned after the best of the old masters, but slightly altered to achieve optimum sound. The demands placed upon a diminuative violin are somewhat different than those on its full-sizes counterpart. I expect that it will exceed the power and playability of virtually any fractional factory instrument (as they arrive from the factory), and possibly most full-size factory instruments. If I sell it to an adult, who simply wants a smaller fiddle, then the price will be only a little lower than the full-size instruments; it will cost nearly the same to produce. But for a child, perhaps it can be sold at a more deeply discounted price, with the understanding that the instrument will be coming back in a year or so, to be traded in on a full-sized instrument.

I will also look into buying some white Chinese instruments, to work over and improve, to offer as student-grade instruments. We’ll see how it all works out. I don’t particularly want to get involved with that sort of thing.

The new 3/4-size violin is being made of highly figured Red Maple and Englemann spruce. (Really pretty stuff.) I’ll try to post photos of the instrument as it progresses.

Thanks for looking.

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Old Fiddle Repair Estimates

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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:

  1. Cracks, (how severe, and where are they?)
    1. Are the cracks clean, or packed with dirt and/or polish, etc.?
    2. 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.
  2. Open seams, (and are they clean or dirty?)
  3. Missing wood, (how much is missing, and where?)
  4. Pegs:
    1. Peg-hole diameters (will they need bushing, re-drilling, etc.?)
    2. 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.
    3. Either of the above (or broken/missing pegs) requires a new set of pegs.
  5. 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?
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Saddle: Is the saddle serviceable? And, does it need to be re-glued?
  9. End pin: (is it loose, or broken?)
    1. A badly worn end pin hole will probably require reaming, bushing and re-drilling/re-reaming as well as a new end pin.
  10. Interior: Using a light and dental mirror, can I see interior issues?
  11. Soundpost: Is there a soundpost in place? Does it fit appropriately? (I usually assume I will have to fit a new soundpost.)
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
    1. 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.
  14. 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.)
  15. 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.)

Cut-off Point?

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.


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