What does a good violin look like?

What is a good violin? Maybe you've found one in the attic that's been sitting around, or you know someone who says their grandfather's violin is a family heirloom.  But how can you tell the difference between the good one and the not so good one?  Here are a few visual clues that tell you whether or not you've found something that might be worth a lot of money.


StradivariusEach quality string instrument is a work of art.  This is because in producing a single violin, its wood is carefully selected, painstakingly carved, and assembled over a period of months.  You will notice that good violins have attractive flames in the wood, especially on the back, to showcase the unique look of that very tree's wood.  It will be very individual, as no two trees grow alike. See the beautiful flames on the sides and back of this valuable violin:

A cheap violin looks like it was assembled in about two days on an assembly line.  The wood will be nondescript, perhaps with little to no flames. The fittings (pegs, chin rest and tailpiece) will all be black plastic. Steer clear of these as they usually sound like nails on a chalkboard.


Normal Violin

Violins are like wine: the older the instrument, the better it sounds.  Good ones should have signs of age.  This means over time, it has probably been scuffed up a bit, and the scuffs should have faded into the pattern of the wood, filling with dust and oils. Brand-spanking-new violins won't have a single mark on them, which isn't a plus. This is testimony they have been mass produced on an assembly line, or else made on a budget operation.  Good violin makers make their new violins look old. 

To the right is a picture of a violin that can be bought from a catalogue. See how non-descript it looks compared to the one above.


Shiny violinAlong with the age of the violin comes color change in its varnish.  Don't look for the slick, shiny lacquer that's as thick as a coat of paint, and shows your reflection like a mirror.  Good varnish won't obscure the wood underneath. It should be golden brown with some red or orange mixed in. Remember, the older and more aged it is, the better it sounds. 

Note the shiny look (too shiny) of this violin. The varnish is too heavy and is cheap quality.

Construction Details

Guarneri ViolinCredit: fred.andres/flickrThe good quality violin will show signs of care along every inch of the instrument. What are these? For example, does the purfling (black lines around the edges) look painted on? This means it's not real. It should be an inlaid strip of wood.  How about the f-holes: are they graceful looking? And the scroll/head of the instrument: is it a beautiful snail curl with even spaces between the rings?

Look at the careful detail put into this beautiful violin, every millimeter being carefully carved into beautiful swirls.

All of the features from top to bottom on a good violin will show the care with which it was assembled.  If it looks like it was thrown together with a lot of glue (which you should never be able to see at the seams), it probably was.

The bottom line: if your violin looks like it's just any old violin, it's probably just any old new one. Hang onto ones that look like someone took a lot of pride in putting it together. It will probably be worth a lot more, and will sound as beautiful as it looks.