Violin Buyers Guide

Makes to look out for:

Budget: With any instrument it is a general rule you should buy the best you can afford, this probably applies more to the violin family of instruments than any other as the sound quality is very dependant on the wood used, the build quality and the setup. There are several cheap new instruments out there, you can buy one for around £50 (2024) and if that is all you can afford it could be your best buy, but when you consider a set of good violin strings cost about that much, or considerably more, you may understand it probably will not make a good sound or last very long. This applies to any size of violin, yes, they come in different sizes, and this should be considered when buying. Advice from a shop should be sufficient to establish the size required, or recommended sizes can be found on the internet. A full-size (4/4) violin has a body length close to 14” (356mm) and they decrease by 1” per ¼ size to ¼ = 11” it is possible to get 1/8 and 1/16 sizes. The setup is very important to the sound quality and for this reason when buying a new instrument, it is best to buy from a shop that will check the setup for you.

Beginner/intermediate: There are several makes of violin which offer a selection of instruments to suit your pocket, such as Hidersine, Primavera and Stentor. The prices for them are similar and the selection available depends on what is being stocked by your local shop, for a similar price they are a similar quality. Perhaps Stentor is the most commonly available and they make a Stentor Student, a Stentor Student I and a Stentor Student II with recommended retail prices (2024) of £150, £179 and £223 respectively.

Advanced: The same suppliers have more advanced instrument also, Hidersine have violins up to around £1500, the supplier of Primavera violins supply Westbury, Eastman and Heritage violins, the prices being around £470, £1000, and £1750 and Stentor produce a range of instruments similar in price to that.

Professional: While the better of the instruments in the Advanced category may be used in a professional capacity, professional instruments are usually hand crafted by an individual and made from a better quality wood which has been tonally matched as a set, also most student and some advanced violins come as an outfit, which would include a bow, case and usually rosin, but a bow will need to be purchased separately for a professional violin and in itself can add several hundred pounds to the price. Other than buying from a professional luthier, with probably a minimum price of around £5000 to over £20000 there is a range from the Wessex Violin Company, supplied by the same people as the Primavera range with prices up to around £3400.

Used violins: It is possible to purchase good used violins, particularly in the smaller sizes as children grow out of them, you should be able to buy a good one for a maximum of half the retail price. Things to look out for would be damage, particularly cracks, and especially near the soundpost as this is an expensive repair and would write off an inexpensive violin, and plate/rib separation, strings present and in good condition, as mentioned above they are expensive and even a cheap set is unlikely to be less than £20. If possible, check that the soundpost is about 3mm behind the bridge and vertical.

Professional violins tend to hold their prices, particularly if the are older, a point to mention is that if there is a label it is not necessarily relating to the maker, but the model, there are several thousand Stradivari instruments out there, many times more than he made. I am guessing that if you are thinking of trying to get a Stradivari or Guarnerius you are not reading this, but I will make one for you if you are.

It is important when setting up to play a violin that it is a good fit under your chin without causing any undue twisting movement and with the head at normal level, particularly for young players whose body is still developing. This is done with the correct size and position of the chin rest, usually supplied, and shoulder rest, not normally supplied. It should be possible to hold the violin comfortably under the chin without supporting it with your hand. While in this position, to check the size, the left hand, assuming that you are right-handed should be able to curve over the scroll with a bent elbow.

Tuning a violin – E, A (440Hz), D and G from the treble side, is achieved with tuning pegs which rotate away from the body of the violin. On student models there are normally fine tuners mounted to the tailpiece to assist with tuning each string, but these will occasionally need to be wound out again and retuned from the pegs. On advanced violins there is normally only a fine tuner on the E string. There are also geared pegs, which avoid the use of fine tuners. When tuning, particularly following a string change, the bridge should be watched to ensure that it stays upright, it tends to slope toward the neck and if left to go too far will fall over with a loud bang, not normally causing any damage, but it sounds as if it will.

To be able to make a sound, rosin must be applied to the bow, it is not normal to find it applied to a new or re-haired bow. To prepare, the hair should be tightened to give a space between the stick and the hair and then the rosin may be applied with a sweeping action along the length of the hair, with new rosin it may help to roughen it slightly with sandpaper. The rosin should be applied until you feel a slight resistance while applying it, it can be tested as you go by trying the bow on a string. Rosin will need to be reapplied occasionally, when the sound is not so clear, but try to avoid using too much as a rosin powder layer will build up on the violin. For this reason, it is best to wipe the violin with a soft cloth after playing. It should not need much more maintenance than this, but there are polishes which clean and shine them.

When you consider that violins are made from wood which, in places, is about a millimetre thick, they are quite robust, but they do need to be handled carefully to prevent damage, they don’t like being dropped or thrown. Also, they do not like changes in humidity and temperature, an ideal humidity is around 50% and a temperature of around 21 degrees C, so do not keep them near a radiator or in a loft. They are glued together with a protein glue, normally hide, and with extreme heat and or humidity you may find that they start coming apart, not an insurmountable problem, but you will need to take them to a luthier for a proper repair, please do not attempt to repair them yourself, it will only cost you more later, but if you must attempt it, do NOT use any glue other than a protein glue, as mentioned above, that will really cost you, but it would keep people like me in business.

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