Trash or Treasure: A Guide for Used Instruments

Everyone loves a good deal, especially when searching for something that’s more expensive than you may have expected with no guarantee that your student is going to stick with it. Pawn shops, family members, and the internet are all decent places to look for a discount on an instrument, but they can end up costing as much as a new instrument when you factor in everything needed to make an old instrument playable. A good quality instrument that’s been in the family for generations may be worth the expense of repair while a severely damaged instrument or one what was made of poor quality materials to begin with would not.

When checking out the violin that your grandma pulled out of the attic, here are a few things to look for in deciding if it’s worth fixing up.

Check to make sure that it’s the right size for you or your child. Stringed instruments are sized to fit the individual playing them. Most high school students and older will be using full size violin or cello, a 3/4 size bass, or a 15” - 16.5” viola. While some 5th grade students are large enough to start on these larger instruments, most younger students will typically start in the 1/4 to 3/4 size range of instruments. Your child will likely grow into the instrument eventually, but it is not good for a student who is just starting to have an instrument that is large and cumbersome for them to play.

Look inside of the instrument to check for a label. If there is a label, you will have some basic information that will give you a strong starting point for determining the value. This might include a maker or company name, the year it was constructed, the style is was modeled after, or a country of origin.  Knowing this information can help you search the internet or call a reputable violin shop to get a general idea of the instrument’s value.

Check to see which parts are missing, need repair, or may need to be reattached. Many parts of your instrument are held together using tension and are not supposed to be glued down. That being said, if one of these parts is missing, it can make your instrument look far worse than it actually is or lead to other parts needing replacement. Parts that are not glued to the instrument include the strings, bridge, tailpiece, button, pegs, and chinrest. You will also want to check inside to see if the soundpost is there and if it is set properly.

Check along all the edges for open seams or a loose fingerboard. Orchestral string instruments use a special type of glue that is designed to come apart in certain circumstances. This makes it possible to remove the top without damaging the instrument in the case of extreme repairs. This also allows for the instrument to absorb some shock if it is dropped, hopefully causing a seam to open instead of a crack in the body.The seams may also open up naturally as the glue ages, becoming more brittle, and the instrument goes through years of expanding and contracting due to changes in temperature and humidity. This can look like a scary repair, but is a common and easy fix.

Check the strings. Strings that are tarnished (lots of dark or dull spots), have frayed threads at the top or bottom, or have widing coming undone should be replaced before playing. Old strings that look to be in decent condition should also be replaced as the core has likely become brittle and a string can break more easily while playing or tuning. Changing a string is a lot like changing the tires on your car. If the whole set is old and you need to replace one, you should probably replace the full set. It is worthwhile to do a little research or ask your teacher what brand(s) of strings they recommend as each brand has their own style of core and winding, which can cause the quality, sound, and price to vary greatly.

Look over the bow. Good quality bows require maintenance to keep them in good condition. A bow that has been sitting for a long time will likely require a rehair, which costs about $50-60 give or take depending on the instrument and type of hair requested. If the screw or eyelet is in bad condition as well or if the winding needs to be replaced, it may be better to just buy a new bow for the same price, or possibly less, than fixing it up. Bows that have been left tightened over a long period of time or have needed a rehair for a long time may be warped to a point where it is not possible to fix them and they are very difficult to play with.

When in doubt, take the instrument to a shop to have it assessed. Violin shops typically have someone on staff, or even a repair person on site, who can look at an instrument and give you a free verbal recommendation on repairs and what it would cost to have them done at that shop. They can also help you decide if it would be worth it to do the maintenance and repairs or if the cost would be more than the overall worth of the instrument.

When all is said and done, having a good quality instrument that is in good playing condition can make a huge impact on a student's success in learning the instrument and their desire to practice at home or continue playing that instrument through the years. It is worth it to make sure your student is properly equipped or that a family instrument is kept in good condition for others to enjoy down the line.