An instrument that is set up badly is like a car running on 3 cylinders with 2 bad tires and an oil leak. Many student instruments sold today, even by “professional” violin shops, fit this category. They are obtained from sources that guarantee them “ready to play,” and to keep them inexpensive they are sold that way (One wholesaler boasts “just put up the bridge and watch the profits roll in.”). I call these instruments “strung up,” not “set up.” My reputation depends upon all instruments that I sell, not just the expensive ones; so anything that leaves this shop receives my personal attention.
Proper set-up depends partly upon the raw material that you have to work with—the instrument itself. The ultimate raw material is the wood—without good tonewood the best setup will still produce a dull sounding instrument. The dimensions have to be correct, the neck on at the proper angle, and the fingerboard thick enough to be corrected if necessary. Hopefully it has a set of functional pegs so that you don’t have to replace them. It also helps if the instrument is not overweight, even for entry level. Let’s go over what is entailed in the proper setup of a new student level violin. On vintage instruments, this is the end process that has been preceded by many hours of repair or restoration and varnish retouching. On professional-level instruments there are many more factors to consider.
The instrument is inspected for any defects—inside and out—that will cause problems in the future. If any are found, the violin goes back to its source. Basic measurements are checked at this time.
I look at the saddle (the piece of ebony that the tailpiece adjuster rides over) and make sure the shape and height is correct, and I reshape it if necessary. If it is fit too tightly, I relieve it at the ends to prevent saddle cracks.
The nut is removed (which can be a very annoying process if the wrong kind of glue was used) and the fingerboard is dressed (either by planing or simply sanding) so that the cross arch is 42 degrees and there is enough longitudinal “scoop” to allow the strings not to buzz, but not so much as to make the violin play hard (the more advanced and aggressive the player, the more scoop is needed). Adjusting these parameters also assures that there will be no problems with intonation as you go up the fingerboard. Lastly, the fingerboard edges are rounded for comfort.
The fingerboard nut is glued back on in a manner that will make it easy to remove for future fingerboard planings. As the glue dries I move on to the neck.
The neck has any factory finish removed from the unvarnished area. It is then sanded, wetted, and sanded again two or three times until the grain no longer rises. By this time the glue has dried, and the edges of the nut are sanded to blend into the fingerboard. The neck is now stained and receives a penetrating oil finish that, when dry, gives the impression of no finish. This is the traditional finish for violin family instruments because normal violin varnish would never hold up to the wear that a neck receives. I also apply this finish to the fingerboard, albeit sparingly.
The pegs are refit, holes usually redrilled, and the ends trimmed and polished. Soap and peg dope are applied to make the pegs turn smoothly. Sometimes it is necessary to replace the pegs.
The “textbook” position of the soundpost is determined. If the existing soundpost is a decent piece of wood and it is long enough, it is refit it to the correct position and tension (at least to a starting point). More often than not, the soundpost is replaced. During this operation the appropriate width of the bridge at the feet is determined, as the bass side bridge foot needs to overhang the bassbar by a precise amount, and the starting position of the soundpost mirrors that distance.
A quality French bridge is chosen with the correct foot width and the feet are fit to the top. If the violin is an entry-level repair job, I use an Aubert Adjustable bridge (to keep the price lower), which supposedly requires no foot fitting; however I still check the flex of the foot and remove the sanding marks before I place it on the top. Entry level instruments 3/4 size and above that I sell receive a proper fitted bridge (see photo below).
The violin is strung up either with a tailpiece that matches the wood of the pegs (with a single tuner), or with a Wittner Ultra tailpiece with 4 built-in tuners. It is wise never to put more than 1 tuner on a wood tailpiece. I prefer Dominant strings, but today there are many alternatives of high quality. Cheap strings are not an option. I place an old Aubert Adjustable bridge on the top and bring the strings up to tension. Then the string height is measured at the octave and at the end of the fingerboard to determine where to place the bridge arch template on the new bridge. Also at this time the afterlength (the distance of the top of the bridge to the tailpiece) is determined and corrected with the tail adjuster. The new bridge is trimmed, placed on the top, and the final string height checked. The relative humidity is taken into consideration when determining string height on a new bridge.
The bridge is finished in a professional manner—thinned, feet and kidneys shaped, beveled, stained, etc. Even the Aubert Adjustable bridge is treated in this manner. A parchment e string protector is glued to the top of the bridge, and the string grooves receive graphite lubricant.
The violin is strung up to tension and played—hopefully it sounds good, because I’ve done all I could to make it so. On higher level instruments the soundpost and bridge position are adjusted for optimum sound. A chinrest is attached, and the violin is ready for sale, or to be reunited with its owner.