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Attic Strads, and Why What’s Worth Something Is Worth What It’s Worth

Attic Strads, and Why What’s Worth Something Is Worth What It’s Worth

by Michael Darnton

Originally published in American Lutherie #25, 1991 and Big Red Book of American, Volume Three, 2004



One of the most common myths of violin fanciers is the existence of the attic Strad. The chances of finding a valuable violin at a garage sale are zip (or less). In recent years the number of Strads and Guarneris discovered in this world in this way can be counted on about three fingers, and they haven’t been found in attics in Kansas. Check out places like ancient European monasteries and the country homes of nobility if you want to increase your chances of finding something good. In spite of this, every large shop has several people a week coming in with a really bad violin they have been saving as a way to finance their retirement. In addition, hundreds of amateur collectors have instruments they believe are valuable Italians, which are “prevented from receiving their rightful recognition” by owners of the big shops who either “don’t want to admit that someone else has something good” or “don’t know what they’re talking about.” They are right; someone does not know what they are talking about. It isn’t the big shop owner.

In the early part of this century and the end of the last, thousands of cheap factory violins were imported into this country from Germany and Czechoslovakia. Although some of these look and sound quite nice and are made of beautiful wood, they are still just factory fiddles. Since much of a violin’s value derives from factors other than the quality of the wood and the quantity of sandpaper used in its construction, like it or not those factors don’t mean much in assessing the value of an instrument. Certainly no one would appraise a painting based on the cost of the paint and the quality of the canvas, yet many amateur violin collectors use that type of criterion for evaluating their finds.

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Violin Setups, Part One

Violin Setups, Part One

by Michael Darnton

from his 1990 GAL Convention lecture

Originally published in American Lutherie #35, 1993 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Three, 2004

See also,
Violin Setups, Part Two by Michael Darnton



Setups represent one of the most important aspects of violin work. They are the most changeable part of a violin and can make the difference between a customer liking or hating a violin. People who do setups for a living in large shops do a lot of them — countless numbers of bridges, pegs, posts, and nuts. If you’re making one or two or twenty instruments a year you’re not going to be doing many setups. For the people who do those things everyday, it’s a very specialized art and they have very rigorous standards. With that in mind I’m going to try to communicate to you some of those standards, along with some actual “how-to” hints.

Tools

A bench hook (Photo 1) is simply a piece of wood that has a strip nailed to the bottom on one end and a strip nailed to the top on the other end. It hooks over the front edge of the bench and gives a stop to work against. On the under side of my bench hook I’ve glued a piece of sandpaper (Photo 2). If a tiny, thin piece of wood needs to be planed thinner, I flip over the bench hook and use the sandpaper as a traction area.

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Violin Setups, Part Two

Violin Setups, Part Two

by Michael Darnton

from his 1990 GAL Convention lecture

Originally published in American Lutherie #37, 1994 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Three, 2004

See also,
Violin Setups, Part One by Michael Darnton



Bridge

When fitting a bridge, the first thing to determine is the proper placement. Ideally the bridge is exactly centered between the inner nicks on the f-holes. This assumes that the holes are centrally located on the violin, which is not always the case, and that the fingerboard is pointed at that position, which it commonly isn’t. The most important aspect of bridge placement is that the string path should be in a straight line. That is, the bridge should be directly between the nut and the end button. In this centering I would expect a maximum total deviation of about .5MM, and I would try to compromise this adjustment the least, assuming that the strings remained pretty much over the center of the fingerboard. If the neck was pointed really wrong I might consider resetting it. Also, I always check to be sure of the position of the end button, and I’ll move it if necessary. In some instances this can be an easy method of correcting for a slightly-wrong neck set. If the f-holes were really off center on an old instrument and I had the time and money, I’d consider resetting the neck and end button off center to match, possibly replacing the neck so that the heel would still point (although crookedly) at the button at the top of the back, minimizing changes to the button.

Anyway, with an understanding of the problem and the possibilities, find a good place for the bridge to sit in the “east-west” dimension, then determine the proper “north-south” location. Ideally, the length of the neck from the nut to the edge of the top next to the neck on the E-string side should be 130MM, and from that point to the middle of the bridge 195MM; a ratio of 2:3. Consistency in this ratio keeps the positions of the player’s fingers relatively the same compared to the edge of the body, no matter what the total string length — an important factor in finding notes in the upper positions. If the length on the neck is off, the position of the bridge should be altered to compensate. For instance, if the neck length is 128MM, the distance to the bridge (the “stop”) would be (128/2)×3=192MM. This is the theory, at least, but I should also warn you that like most things in the violin world this is a subject of controversy, because some people believe that the total length of the string is the most important thing and would deal with the 128MM neck by making the stop 197MM instead. These people maintain two things. Firstly, that the player will quickly adjust to the new ratio. This is true — just ask a viola player. Violas are notoriously nonstandard. Secondly, they assert that the proper string length is important for the tone of the instrument. This is possibly but not necessarily true. Now you know the logic; the decision is yours.

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The Power of Circles

The Power of Circles

by Michael Darnton

from his 2004 GAL Convention lecture

Originally published in American Lutherie #87, 2006



Violins and guitars that are strong visually have a solid underlying structure that you might not see if you’re just casually looking. But it’s there. Designers of the past constructed a shape with straightedge and compass on concrete geometric forms.

There are many equally valid ways to look at designs, but I hope everyone will at least consider the concept that I’m going to talk about today: that strong instrument design comes most easily from the consistent use of very simple geometric shapes. This doesn’t eliminate creativity and new forms. Rather, it can strengthen the impact of any design, traditional or modern, by drawing on a common language to promote immediate visual understanding, usually on a subconscious, but effective, level.

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Review: The Art of Violin Making by Chris Johnson and Roy Courtnall

Review: The Art of Violin Making by Chris Johnson and Roy Courtnall

Reviewed by Michael Darnton

Originally published in American Lutherie #64, 2000 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Six, 2013



The Art of Violin Making
Chris Johnson and Roy Courtnall
Robert Hale, 1999
ISBN 978-0709058762

When I first received my copy of the Johnson and Courtnall book Art of Violin Making I found it relatively complete, but for some reason irritating. I put it away and didn’t look at again for months. Now, going back much later for this review, its strengths and weaknesses are much more apparent to me.

As a publishing effort, it’s first rate, and by far the best-written and most copiously illustrated violin-making book ever. Each section is well illustrated with many drawings and easy-to-read photographs. Considering the information it contains, the price is low for a violin book of any sort.

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