Often, you will hear us talk about violin setup. Violin setup refers to the final adjustments made to the violin before it's ready to play. These adjustments are extremely important as poorly setup violins are very difficult to play and tune, while properly setup violins will bring out the instrument's beautiful tone and be much easier to maintain. Additionally, it can be very time consuming and frustrating for violin instructors to attempt to tune a poorly setup instrument before a class or lesson.
To really illustrate the elements of a proper violin setup, here's a little case study. Recently, a customer brought in a violin for setup. The mom bought this particular instrument online for $93 and the problems it has are very common among cheap violins.
Below is the product's online description:
"This best selling violin is hand-carved and meticulously graduated to maintain consistency in tone. This violin outfit is a student favorite because of its fine tuner tailpiece and lightweight case. •Solid Hand Carved Spruce Top •Solid Hand Carved Maple Back, Sides & Neck".
As you will see in our comparison, the only meticulous time spent on this instrument was writing the product description.
To show you the difference between a properly setup and poorly setup instrument, we took pictures of this violin and compared it to one of our popular student violins. In the photos you can see the visual differences between the two violins.
The holes for the violin pegs are tapered and friction holds the pegs in place and keeps them from slipping. In the photo, you can see that there is space around the pegs on the violin on the left while the pegs are flush on the violin on the right. The additional space will cause the pegs to slip while the flush pegs will stay in place. Additionally, you can see that the wood on the poorly setup violin has been stained to look like ebony, but is actually a soft white wood that compresses and shrinks. The repair cost to taper and fit a new set of ebony pegs starts at $75.
Comparing the two violins, you can see that the neck of the poorly setup violin has moved significantly. Instead of building the neck with industry-standard solid ebony, the violin makers used white wood and stained it black. The wood was not aged before it was installed and the soft, non-aged white wood dipped and twisted as it dried out. This causes the height of the violin strings to be different along the neck. The violin strings touch the neck in some places while being too high in others. A violin setup like this is nearly impossible to play and can ruin a student's learning experience as trying to play a violin like this will be very frustrating. The repair cost to plane (flatten) a violin neck and re-string the instrument starts at $150 plus the cost of new strings.
The bridge is a crucial part of the violin setup as it holds the strings at the correct height above the fingerboard and the correct distance from the other strings. Additionally, the bridge transfers vibrations from the strings to the violin, which then produces the sound. In the picture above, the violin on the left uses a bridge that is low quality maple while the violin on the right uses a high-quality Despiau bridge. While difficult to see in the picture, the feet on the bridge of the poorly setup violin don't fit snug to the violin surface, which hinders vibration transfer and causes the bridge to slip out of place. The cost to replace a bridge is normally around $75 but can be more depending on the quality of the bridge purchased.
A violin's finish makes a big difference in both tone and overall appearance. Cheaper violins are traditionally sprayed with polyurethane, which is very glossy, slick and hard. Common problems associated with a poly finish are bridge movement, fall down and cracked tops. These problems significantly hinder the violin's ability to be setup properly, and thus the playability of the instrument. Additionally, hard polyurethane finishes hinder the vibration of the violin's wood, negatively affecting the tone.
Higher quality violins use an oil varnish that is hand-rubbed onto the wood. This process allows the violin to soak up the varnish and bring out the flamed texture in the maple. Varnish does not create a hard surface, so bridge movement is not an issue and string vibration can be fully transferred throughout the instrument.
Selecting a properly setup Violin
I hope this case study taught you what to look for in a good violin setup when shopping for a violin for yourself, your student or your child. At Violin Pros, all of our violins are professionally setup by award-winning luthiers before we ship the instrument to you. If you are looking for an affordable instrument for your student or beginning player, we recommend the Scott Cao 017 and the Howard Core A14.
Note: Repair cost estimates were created using an average cost from several string shops including our own.