Frequently asked Questions
What difference does playing in make?
Playing in is the time when an instrument is settling down; with a new instrument this is the first few weeks or months of being played. With an older instrument there is also a playing in period after it has been in a workshop to be repaired or fitted up, or after it has been left unplayed for a while.
With a new instrument there is a significant change to the sound in the initial stages. It is most rapid in the first week of being played, becoming less as the instrument reaches its full potential. How long this process takes depends on how much and how well it is played. Many musicians will say how their instrument is still improving after months or years, and because they are tuned into their own instrument and are interested in the small differences, the last one or two percent is very important. To a listener, however, these later changes may not be noticeable, which is another way of saying that the instrument is already near its full potential.
What playing in does not do, however, is change the essential quality of an instrument, so if for example, an instrument is unfocussed on the G string and nasal on the A, playing it is not going to change it. I always think that choosing an instrument is like choosing a partner, there must something you are attracted to at the beginning, on closer acquaintance you should discover new depths and other interesting qualities and then learn how to work with those qualities to enhance and develop your own life.
What is actually happening in the playing in process is not understood. The way I like to think about it is that the wood for most of its life has been part of a strong column to support a massive weight of branches and leaves. Then someone comes along, cuts it down, makes into an instrument and expects this relatively rigid wood to vibrate, and for the wood to ‘learn’ to move freely is going to take some time. In practise a new instrument can sound raw, somewhat unrefined, and some notes may be less strong than adjacent ones. With playing the weaker notes get stronger, and the overall sound becomes freer and more refined.
How long would I have to wait before trying one of your instruments?
Because it gives me more control over the direction of my making, I like to make ‘on spec,’ so I may already have what you are looking for. If you are looking for a violin, for example, and I haven’t got one finished, I might be in the process of making another. I aim to make a violin, a small viola, a medium-sized viola and cello approximately in rotation, depending what I have in stock. If you are interested in having one of my instruments, I am happy to give first refusal on the next one I make. In practical terms this may be up to year, but is usually less.
Can I take an instrument away to try before buying it?
Yes, I always let players try an instrument on approval. This is important, so you can play it in different environments, with other musicians and hear others play it.
How long is the approval period?
The approval period is usually about three weeks. If there is a good reason, such as a concert or a lesson just after that time, I can usually be flexible.
Are the instruments insured?
While an instrument is on approval it is covered by my insurance, so you can take it wherever you need to, safe in the knowledge that it is covered.
How much do your instruments cost?
my instruments are priced so that I can make a living from my instrument making. There is some variation in price, depending on whether an instrument is ‘as new’ or antiqued. The antiquing is more time consuming, so these instruments are a bit more expensive. Most of my instruments are antiqued to some extent. Prices are from £8,500 to £9,500 for a violin, £9,000 to £10,000 for a viola, and £17,000 to 18,500 for a cello.
How can I pay for an instrument?
Everyone is in a different position when buying an instrument. For me, the best scenario is when I am paid at the end of the approval period, though I realise that sometimes money needs to be moved before this can happen. Sometimes musicians take out personal loans, loans from their orchestra, or, for students and young professionals there are some grants and loans available. [I have a list of organisations which give loans or grants to musicians to buy instruments] This can take a little time, so if you are in this position, you need to talk to me so we both know what is happening. I also offer a limited hire/purchase scheme for musicians at the start of their career who need a good instrument and are keen to have one of mine. Please get in touch with me for more details.
How much difference do the bridge and soundpost make to the sound?
The set up, or fitting up of an instrument makes a major contribution to the sound. The principle factors are the position, tightness and fit of the soundpost, the cut of the bridge and the angle of the neck in relation to the body of the instrument. When these things are correct for the particular instrument, it will play to its full potential. You can’t turn a mediocre instrument into a good one by a new set up, but you can make a good one sound mediocre by a poor set up.
What difference do the strings make?
The easiest way to improve an instrument’s sound is by changing strings. Even a new set of the same type of strings can gave a boost to an instrument, because strings lose their brilliance with time. Choosing a different type of string can make a greater difference.
There are so many different types of string available, it can be hard to know where to start. I usually put Evah Pirazzi strings on violins and violas in the beginning, [For a cheaper option Zyex or Helicore would be a good start.] and Larsen Magnacore on cellos. Then if I want a more brilliant sound, and more focussed, I might switch to Evah Pirazzi Gold or Vision Solo, or if I want a more relaxed sound I would go for Obligato.
What are the benefits of buying a new instrument?
There are advantages and disadvantages of buying a new instrument and of buying an old one. A new instrument will have no issues with its condition, and depending on the care and experience of the maker, will be set up and adjusted to work well. It will however, need to be played in, and probably will need some adjustment to the set up after a few weeks. This is usually a normal part of the service, because any good violin maker will want to have their instrument working as well as it can.
An old instrument, if it has been played regularly, is less likely to need playing in, so you may be dealing with an instrument that won’t change in sound. However, depending on where you find it, it may not be set up ideally to get the best out of it. Then there is the issue of condition to consider. Many old instruments have been damaged and repaired. Sometimes these repairs were done badly and sometimes they are so good that it is very hard to see what has happened. To find out, you need to go to a violin maker or repairer you can trust. This is like having a survey before buying a house, so you know what you are buying. Regarding the value of instruments, new ones are generally priced so the maker can make a living from their work. Old instruments are valued largely like antiques, based on the price that a similar instrument has achieved. Even instruments that have led a hard life and are not in the best condition tend to be valued close to others made by the same maker, even though they might not be nearly as good tonally.
As a very rough guide, because sound quality cannot be measured, I tend to think you get the same quality of sound for half the money if you buy a new instrument, but that varies wildly depending on the particular instruments in question.
What difference to the sound does the varnish make?
Varnish, including the base coats, has a number of purposes. It is there to keep the wood clean by sealing the pores of the wood, possibly [depending on who you are talking to] to harden the wood, to minimise the effect of changing humidity, and to be visibly pleasing. Whether the varnish itself [the layers which sit on top of the wood] changes the sound, is open to opinion, many classical Italian instruments for example have little or none of the top varnish remaining, but are still highly regarded. However, a very thick soft varnish, I tend to think will dampen the sound, whereas some instruments with a hard glassy varnish also seem to be hard and glassy in tone. Fortunately, modern scientific analysis of classical varnishes has shown us what materials were used in the past, though how they are combined and applied is up to an individual maker.
What sort of wood do you use?
Nearly all instruments have bellies made of spruce. Spruce is remarkably strong, particularly along the grain, and is light, so is ideal for the table, or belly. The choice of good wood for the belly is probably much more important to the sound than what wood is used for the back. When I am choosing wood, I like spruce that is not twisted in its length as this gives the longest grain when thinned to make an instrument top. It must be cut on the quarter, as this is important for strength, and I also like the individual grain lines to be relatively wide, and the distance between grains to be wide too. This gives the instruments depth and power.
For the rest of the instrument, maple is the usual choice. Other woods such as poplar have also been used, particularly for cellos, and they also work very well. However, they don’t have the same look as figured maple, which has the stripes going across the instrument. Although this does look good, I do not think the figured wood makes any difference to the sound. The quality of the maple [or poplar] is important, however. I like the wood to be even in grain which makes it stable, and largely for visual reason, I choose slow grown maple with a fine narrow grain, which often comes from Bosnia. Mostly I use quarter cut wood for the backs, except small violas where slab cut backs seem to enhance the lower frequencies.
How long does it take to make a violin?
This is probably the most common question I am asked. The short answer is that it is about six weeks’ work for a violin or viola; twice as long for a cello. The actual woodwork of the instrument is approximately three weeks of consistent work. For me, this stage is relatively quick, because most of the models I make are very familiar, and I my interest in authentic techniques means that the tools I use allow the work to proceed quickly and effectively. Then the varnishing follows, allowing enough time between coats for the varnish to dry.
If the instrument is to be antiqued, this comes straight after varnishing, after which I leave it for the varnish to harden before fitting it up. Once the instrument is strung up and has settled for a couple of days, I try to play it every day to play it in, to find out how it responds, and I might change strings or adjust the soundpost. So, from beginning an instrument to the time I am happy to let it out of the workshop is usually between two and three months.