Friday, October 24, 2014

How The Dealer Prices A Stringed Instrument, Part 3, Quality of Workmanship

Quality of Workmanship

Another important aspect that goes with construction is whether a skilled artisan builds the instrument. As you will see, the best handmade violins are ones that take much longer to produce than those that are mass-produced. String instruments can be separated roughly into three groups. I must say though that this is in broad terms and there is some overlapping of the groups. With the increased presence of Asian and eastern European violins in the market, the distinctions between various classes of violins are blurring, providing the opportunity to get much better performance per dollar than used to be the case.

Student Instruments:
The first thing you will notice about these instruments is the varnish. Most will be of a high gloss that chips easily. The accessories will generally be of the lower end stained hardwood. The wood is not always carefully selected or matched, in fact there is no consideration of the grain of the wood. Parts do not always fit as they should and symmetry is often lacking. As you look inside the instruments care is not given to graduation and parts may actually be missing. Wood will not be seasoned and may already be warping. Many of these instruments are now coming form China. 

Step-Up Instruments:
Next is a series of step-ups. Varnish will start to be either spirit with some actually being applied with oil. All the inner parts will be intact such as real blocks in all four corners with linings in tops and bottoms. As you progress to all real blocks you usually find a separate glued in bass bar. As you progress with the interior construction the improvements show up in the craftsmanship, the graduation, the age and quality of wood. The wood ranges from plain maple with no curl up through that which has a beautiful figured maple back, sides and scroll. Tops will be in both one and two pieces of wide grained to fine and close-grained spruce. Many productions lined instruments here are carefully made; good wood is used and competent artisans do many of the finish details by hand.

Master Made:
This is the top of the master’s works. Violins in this grade will be completely hand made and may take months to make. The maker will choose the best woods attainable and will spend a lot of time selecting each piece used in construction, as each will play an important part in the complex tonal structure of the instrument. All construction will be of the highest quality from the purfling's bee sting to the graduations. Luthiers tap the tops and backs and listen to make sure the tone is right all over and they still do in high-end violins. That doesn't happen in an assembly line factory. The maker will also apply the finest varnish. A Master Made Instrument will display the maker’s knowledge and skill used in the art of acoustics.

How The Dealer Prices A Stringed Instrument, Part 2, Quality of Construction

Last post we introduced the beginning of a series of small articles discussing the basic factors that go into pricing of instruments. As we stated last post, there are five basic priorities that are important to the buyer and five different ones for the seller. This month we will discuss the first and most important factor that goes into pricing from the sellers point of view.
Quality of Construction and Workmanship

This category is divided into two sections, with both halves being equally important.
First half - Construction
The first thing I do when a customer brings a violin in for evaluation is to look at its construction. Typically, one hallmark of a better instrument is it's wood quality. A. What kind of wood was used? Is it fully carved, or is it laminated? B. What about the varnish? (I might even smell it!) C. What do the fittings and accessories look like? These are all clues to its value. Let’s first look at the wood.
A. Wood: Back Wood, Sides, and Neck
The first thing I look at is the back. This will show the personality of the instrument. The wood used on the back and sides is generally maple. Maple is typically a fairly hard wood which adds brilliance to the sound. There are other woods; like poplar, and willow that are used as well. These tend to give a softer sound and are most often seen on the backs of basses, cellos and
some violas. The quality of the maple can either be highly figured or plain. The more highly figured maple backs and sides will command higher prices than relatively plain woods. Makers and workshops usually reserve the beautiful pieces of wood for their better, more carefully crafted instruments. What’s more, certain woods are now very scarce, like quilted maple. So an instrument built using this particular wood will certainly command a premium price. Most violins use flamed maple; but quilted and Birdseye maple, found less often, are both spectacular. Flamed (or “curly”) maple exhibits tiger stripes. Quilted patterns look like a patchwork or like intersecting sets of waves. Birdseye figuring has many little eyes in the wood. By the way, the figuring has nothing to do with the tone of the instrument. Next, I examine the sides and neck. Unmatched wood suggests either an inexperience maker, or a mass-produced instrument. Master-made instruments always have wood that matches.

Top Wood:
The last thing I look at is the top. Most tops are made of spruce. This wood is strong for its weight and vibrates easily, making it ideal for the way the top of a violin functions. We may even use different varieties of spruce for the different styles and levels of playing. Typically a straight, uniform spacing of the grain or reed lines seem to consistently sound good and respond well. This is what we see in our better instruments. However, there are exceptions.

B. Varnish:
There have been many different types of finishes used on instruments throughout the centuries. There
are oils, spirits and lacquers to name a few. Some think that oil varnish is the best to use, no matter what. But in reality, good spirit varnish is better than bad oil varnish, and you will not be able to tell the difference. Varnish can come in various degrees of hardness. High gloss varnishes tend to be harder, and therefore brighter sounding. Low gloss varnishes tend to be softer, and therefore duller sounding. Sometimes varnish is so hard it tends to chips easily which is simply not acceptable. Be aware that hard varnishes can be made to appear dull, but soft varnishes are very difficult to make glossy. Varnish also can be applied in various degrees of thickness, thin is better than thick in general, although a few soft, thick varnishes do work great. Another finished used sometimes is lacquer. Lacquer is a very hard finish and makes the sound choked and tinny. Despite this, it is used on a lot of factory-made instruments. Why? Because it's very reliable in the manufacturing process. It is cheap, readily available, (your local hardware store probably carries a can) easy to apply, and very easy to polish to a nice shine. Kids love shiny instruments and the parents who usually buy these violins don't understand what it does to the sound nor will they pay more for a sophisticated finish. The color of the varnish is totally unimportant to the sound, although it can carry some value, due to the client’s taste.

C. Fittings:
Fittings can come in a variety of different woods. There is ebony, which makes the very best fittings, as well as boxwood, rosewood and stained hardwood. Ebony is an extremely hard wood and tends not to warp. Boxwood and its imitators tend to be softer and wear faster, but they do work very smoothly. Stained hardwood fittings are evidence of a lower quality violin. These fittings often warp and wear very poorly. Fittings can come in a variety of detailing as well. Some will have fancy carvings or inlays.This detailing doesn't add function, but can add a greater aesthetic appeal. There are different shapes and patterns to pegs and we have found about the easiest pegs to use is the Swiss Professional pattern.
They are easy to grip and turn which make them an ideal peg!

Next update, learn about workmanship!

How to Purchase a Stringed Instrument

How to Buy a String Instrument

Whether you are a beginner or an advanced string player having some knowledge as to how string instruments are priced will help when you are ready to purchase . When we talk about pricing for strings instruments there's enough information to actually fill a book! So what I would like to do over the next few months is explore the basic factors that determine pricing from both the seller and the buyers perspective. My goal is to help you understand how instruments are priced and to provide you with information to help in the selection of your next instrument. Lets begin today with a little history.

Antonio Stradivari is are most celebrated violin maker of all time. He made instruments from 1644 to 1737. As you can see by these dates his instruments are approximately 350 years old and some are still being played. In today's market some of his violins can even command prices anywhere from three to six million dollars. One set a record in 2011 for $15.9 million.  Do you believe Strad, during his life, made some great sounding violins? Sam Zygmuntowicz is a modern day maker of string instruments. Does he make great sounding violins? Obviously Sam is not as well-known, nor are his skills as universally recognized as Mr. Stradivarius. His instruments unfortunately, do not command the prices that we see with Strad. However, some people argue that Sam is one of the best violin makers of our day, and his instruments are as good, if not better-sounding, than Strads! So what's my point? Well one of the most common beliefs in choosing a violin is “The more you pay, the better the tone”. Unfortunately this is just not true. Some people will spend a lot of money for a great sounding violin and some will spend a lot for a poor sounding violin and visa versa.

Violin shops do not price their instruments on sound. However, as a player we buy our instruments on sound. So then, how are instruments priced? Well, the buyer and seller each have their respective priorities and requirements when placing a value on an instrument. There are five categories that are generally important for the seller, and five different ones for the buyer. Over the next few posts we will start a series of small articles explaining these categories further. So bookmark this blog and check back as we take a look at our first category.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


Welcome to the new Cassandra Strings Blog! Here we will be posting about new products, company information, and awesome information related to the band and orchestral instrument industry. We hope you will enjoy the posts to come in the future.

Now, a little about the writers:

Alex Swartz
Alex Swartz is the sales and purchasing manager for Cassandra Strings. By training he is a cellist, but can lightly plunk around on violin, viola, and bass. He has been active in the music industry for over 6 years. he started in the stringed instrument repair shop where he got great training from Cassandra Thuneman, the store's owner. After a few years, the sales manager position opened up and Alex jumped to the call, learning more and more about the products available, and bringing them into the store for sale. Alex attends Winter NAMM in Anaheim, California, where he sees the new and up and coming products from manufacturers around the world. All product reviews and other information will be posted by Alex.

Cassandra Thuneman
Cassandra Thuneman has been active in the music industry since the mid eighties, when she managed one of the Midwest's largest music shops. In 1996 she started her own company in the basement of her Lake in the Hills home. Cassandra has a degree in music education from Illinois Wesleyan University, and has decided to focus her attention to the student needs and interests along with repair and restoration. Cassandra is a cellist by training, but plays violin, viola, and bass as well. Instrument tips and tricks, along with her "How to Buy a Stringed Instrument" series will be posted by Cassandra.

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