The differences between fine stringed instruments and an assembly line made violin (or cello or viola) are significant. Craftsmanship matters in the end.
In the simplest of terms, there are two kinds of violins in the world. One is made – painstakingly – by a professional luthier (violin maker), and the other is factory made. Importantly, both types of violins are capable of being played and making music and the player has the greatest effect on the quality of that music. But for the most part, a student or professional who wants to be accomplished in their musicianship will want a fine violin hand-crafted by a skilled luthier.
To truly appreciate the distinction - fine violins versus factory-made violins - it helps to know what is required in violin making (and for that matter, in the making of all lesser-quality and fine stringed instruments). Also, know that the term “factory made” is not to imply that machines and robots make the lesser-quality instruments. The latter refers to the assembly-line nature of factories, which are found in Europe, the United States, and increasingly in China. In these factories human beings with certain degrees of skill do most of the processes of manufacturing. As each component of the instrument is made, it is then passed on to the next phase and person in the process.
The luthier is more likely the sole maker of the handmade violin or oversees a very small staff of one to three people. He or she takes significant pride and ownership of the instrument from start to finish. That includes the following:
Wood selection: Maple is used for the ribs, back and scroll, while spruce wood is used for the front (aka, the “belly”). Ebony, not a darkly dyed wood (as is used by lesser makers), is what makes up the fingerboard. Expert violin makers begin by selected the best available woods that have no flaws and the right degree of density.
Wood curing: This is a multi year (5 to 20 years) process of naturally drying. Cheaper violins are made with “fresher” woods or kiln dried wood.
Cutting, bending, gouging and gluing: The skills of the luthier are absolutely essential in the multiple stages involving these actions. This is what gives the violin its shape, creates the f-holes, installs the bass bar, the sound post, the scroll and what holds it together. The types of glues used and how they are applied expertly, are all a part of it. While it occurs in stages, in a factory setting these steps are undertaken under time pressures and by workers who do not typically have formal training and apprenticeships under their belt. In some phases of the process the factory workers use machine saws where a luthier would instead cut by hand.
Making and applying the fingerboard, pegs, and varnishing: After making the body and the neck, these components of the violin require absolute exacting skill to distinguish the “good enough” from the “fine” instruments. Made of ebony, a very dense hardwood, the fingerboard, along with the pegs, will have a great effect on how the instrument is played. Varnishes on good instruments are not an afternoon affair. Multiple coatings of varnish are required to achieve the depth of color that makes for a beautiful instrument.
A beginner of modest means will likely spend his or her first years on a factory-made violin. But when the student shows promise and an inclination to excellence, they need a hand-crafted violin that will enable the sound that only a luthier’s involvement can produce.