Factory produced or hand-crafted?
All that glitters is not gold
29 May 2020
Ever picked that prettiest violin/viola/cello that shone so beautifully under the spotlight and thought you’d a really good deal? You brought that beauty home, excitedly played for days, only to realise that beautiful glittery façade masked an awfully sounding instrument… NOOOOO! (Inserts dramatized music)
Okay nuff’ said… So…
What are factory produced instruments?
These are made by several individuals in a production line, passed on to the next person upon completion of each component, and usually carried out by unskilled labour. The instruments are carved from a wooden log by automatic machines in a very short time.
What are the qualities of factory produced instruments?
Materials – Cheap and inferior materials are used.
Set up* – No or little set up of the instruments.
Varnish** – Spray painted instead of the traditional hand varnish.
Sound – Poor sound, due to inferior quality of materials and paint used.
What is involved in a set up* and why is it important, especially for violins, violas and cellos?
A set up is the final adjustment of the instrument which greatly affects the sound, either for the better or worse. Many general music shops take an instrument, fit the bridge as supplied, tune the violin and declare them ready to the customer. The bridge and soundpost are often out of position, and that compromises the playability and sound of the instrument. And the student spends most of his time and money dealing with an awfully sounding instrument.
A. The neck angle
The angle of the neck and the bridge height are important aspects to be checked. If the angle of the neck is too far out, the string height will either be too high or too low, making the instrument uncomfortable to play. The bridge will need to be trimmed or replaced to complement the angle of the neck.
B. The bridge
A poorly made or badly fitted bridge makes an instrument harder to play and adversely affects the sound. This involves not just shifting the bridge around in trial and error.
What it involves
Checking that the feet of the bridge fits correctly to the curve of the violin’s belly. The feet should fit firmly to the curve without any gap. If it doesn’t, it’ll have to be adjusted using a knife and some abrasive paper.
If the bridge is too thick (which is often the case), the bridge will be thinned down. The instrument is ready to be stringed and the position of the soundpost can be determined.
C. The soundpost
Often known as the soul of the instrument, the length of the soundpost and how tightly it fits can affect the tone. There is no one-size-fits-all, and no definite place to where the soundpost should be. Each violin has its own personality and only a professional luthier will know how and where it should be, and adjust accordingly.
And yes, adjusting the soundpost takes up a significant amount of time.
D. The tailpiece
The length of the tailgut needs to be adjusted to ensure the after length of the strings is not too short. Thus, affecting the tension of the strings. The tailpiece should not be touching the chinrest to avoid a buzzing sound.
What is a varnish** and why is it important?
Varnish is more than just a protective sheen. It influences the quality of sound the instrument produces. Expertly formulated and applied varnish can contribute greatly in refining the sound quality of the instrument. The wrong varnish can make even the best instrument sound poor.
What is a hand-crafted instrument?
This instrument is carefully crafted by a professional luthier. It typically takes a few months to complete - from process planning, selection of fine wood, refined skill of cutting, bending, gouging and gluing, to the making and applying the fingerboard, pegs, and varnishing.
What are the qualities of a professionally hand-crafted instrument?
Materials – Quality materials are used. The top plate is made of quality spruce and the back plate, neck and sides are of solid flamed maple.
Varnish – Hand varnished, which produces a better sound.
Appearance – Usage of quality wood and hand varnish results in a better appearance
Maintenance – Less maintenance and service required and could last for many years if it’s well looked after.
Sound – Produces a clear, resonating and interesting tone due to quality materials, good hand varnish and proper set up.
Set-up – A properly set up instrument is more accurate in tone and is much easier and comfortable to play.
Fittings – Well fitted pegs ensure ease in tuning and keep the instrument in tune.
And not all that glitters is gold. Look at your violin/viola/cello again, and listen to its sound.
When in doubt, consult a professional luthier. Yours truly, at your service :)