It’s that time of year again when lots of fiddles will be bought and sold at Fleadhs, Festivals and other music gatherings around Ireland. Here I’m going to try and give just a few of the main tips on things to look out for when buying a new (old) fiddle.
Over the last 15 years of opening and closing old instruments here in Ireland I have, inevitably, realized that really the majority of fiddles knocking around this country, with of course and to a large extent some exceptions, can be pretty easily put into two catagories. Here I’m talking of violins made from around 40 to 100 plus years ago.
1.) German French or Czech *factory fiddles. (*Factory fiddles meaning they were made in large quantities to meet the rather sudden demand that followed the Victorian era when music and musicianship became a hobby/pastime or profession for the masses and not only (as before)more exclusively for the wealthy and elite of society) So these large workshops situated in various hotspots around continental Europe and in England in order to meet this seemingly ever increasing demand for Violins at the time had to find fast and economic means of producing large quantities of these (mostly Stradivari copy) violins. One of these ways was to assign each worker one particular part of the violin to make. And so one guy or gal would make nothing but scrolls and necks all day everyday another worker would make tops, another only backs. All of these indivdually made components would then be assembled/ glued up and sent on to the next process of varnishing and then final finishing and set up. Thus speeding up the process of manufacturing. A lot of these European “factory fiddles” were all generally made using the INTERNAL MOULD SYSTEM (for the most part.)
2.) The English/Scottish Fiddles, again largely produced at speed to meet the huge surge in demand at the time these “factory fiddles” were made generally speaking using the EXTERNAL MOULD SYSTEM (mostly but not always either.)
At this point I think it’s important to explain the main difference between the INTERNAL MOULD and the EXTERNAL MOULD SYSTEM of making a violin. So to be as concise as I possibly can, the internal mould means what it says; the ribs of the violin are clamped and glued into place around a solid re-usable shape, this method means the instrument has corner/ top and bottom blocks inside the finished instrument and therefore a properly inserted dove-tail-ish neck insert.
The EXTERNAL MOULD on the other hand is a much faster method of construction and is in essence the exact opposite of the Internal Mould, as in the ribs of the instrument are clamped outwards to a mould, that would effectively be what would be left over having cut out an internal mould, and the finished instrument has no internal corner blocks (See picture below)
So how can I tell if the instrument I’m buying was made using the superior Internal mould method or the inferior External Mould method? The best way is to try spot one of the corner blocks on the inside by either looking sideways through the bottom of one of the Effe holes (torch may be useful here!) or ideally by removing the end pin and looking into the instrument from the bottom, this is the best way since it will also give you an idea as to how well the inside of the instrument was finished before it was glued together. In my experience of the fiddles I have opened here over the years a good percentage of them, I would consider, relatively unfinished on the inside. -meaning the fronts and backs were not thicknessed down to the correct and vitally important symmetrical recommended thickness, using firstly gouge then on to small planes then even smaller planes and finally scraped to perfection using sharp scrapers to fine finish the wood on the inside.
I’ll always remember one of my teachers in Cremona (il Maestro Scarpini) always used to say “A good well made violin must be just as beautiful and well finished on the inside as it is on the outside!”
I find quite a lot that of these unfinished type of instruments unfortunately many have their bass bars incorporated into the instrument as opposed to being carefully fitted using a separate piece of spruce therefore allowing the front plate to be under a small amount of *tension along its length as should be. (* important for sound quality).
I already know what I am about to write next may not go down well with some of my European colleagues but after 15 years of seeing these types of instruments (the ones left unfinished on the inside) and having had the benifit of seeing (while working) the very same type of instruments in France, I am absolutely convinced that unfortunately we the Irish were done badly by these powerhouses of mass European violin making, I honestly believe that whatever would not have reached The required standard for the French “Conservatoire’s” the Spanash and Italian “Conservatori” in other words a lot of the seconds or rushed violins were put in a crate marked; Destination: Irlande! …For the beer swiging unruly lot they are, as long as it looks okay from the outside they (us the “ah sure it’s grand” Irish) will buy them anyway with no complaints.” With the above in mind and taking into consideration that there can be some very good fiddles that have already been repaired and as long as those repairs look to have been carried out correctly, including sound post cracks, then these instruments can be just as good as any.
Checking out a fiddle.10 Tips
- Check there are no sound post cracks by closely examining the front and back of the fiddle in the general area of where the sound-post is located.
- check there are no hidden cracks or that the ribs have not come apart from the front or back of the violin. This can be easily done by gently knocking or tapping the entire surface of the front and back of the fiddle with your knuckle listening for any defaults that are distinguishable by an untrue knocking sound it may sound solid all around but in one spot you may notice the sound of a crack giving an untrue knocking sound usually meaning something is no longer glued in place as it should be.
- Check the area where the neck meets the body of the violin. Make sure it too is solid in its socket- there should be no movement in this area at all! If it’s rocking forward or backward like a loose tooth just by touching it, it’s probably best to steer clear of it.
- Check closely the peg box and pegs, They (on a good fiddle) should be well fitting and no cracks emanating from the peg holes should be visible.
- Check if the fingerboard is infact ebony and (as in a lot of cases) not ebonised which is soft wood or semi-soft (usually pear wood or beechwood) stained black or coated in a school blackboard type paint.
- Take a close look at the purfling (front and back), some cheap instruments don’t even have any, but instead have a double scribed line that’s later blackened during the varnish process to make it look like real purfling.(yet again there are always exceptions-there are some excellent fiddles maybe with only the front embossed with real purfling and the backs scribed. Such as some of the JTL’s or the Medio Finos)
- Take note of the height of the bridge and/or if possible the height and angle of the fingerboard. It’s a fact that the lower the bridge is on a violin the lower will be the volume too! There is a recommended standard for what’s called the Neck projection and for those interested that is 27mm where the top line of the fingerboard if it were to continue right up to the bridge-where it would meet the bridge position should be of a height of 27mm from the top of the instrument in the middle of the bridge. But sighting the entire neck and fingerboard with your eye will allow you determine if the fingerboard or neck are twisted or have any issues.
- pay particular attention to the button area located at the top of the back of the instrument. This is a vitally important part of the instrument, in the sense that that semi circle button is where all the tension and pull is anchored that button must be still well glued and fixed securely to the heal of the neck stock.
- Check for cracks especially running from the bottom of the “F’s” toward the edge of the instrument, although if not already repaired these (providing everything else about the violin seems good) are reasonably easily repaired.
- Watch our for the opposite to what I mentioned earlier about fronts being too thick there is also unfortunately a common “trick of the trade” carried out on fronts of violins where they can be thinned down to extremely dangerous thicknesses, this is done to improve the sound of the violin but it can prove detrimental to the stability of structure of the instrument. You can usually judge the thickness of a fiddle front reasonably well by observing the thickness the length of the F holes
Finally play the instrument-take your time- do not be rushed into buying a fiddle, you’ve got to be certain it’s the right one for you or you are the right person for it. Any legitimate violin dealer/maker/seller here in Ireland should have no problem letting you have the violin for at least a 24 hour period to try out and have enough time to get to know the fiddle in question.