When it comes to student violins, the axiom that “you get what you pay for” has never been truer. There exist two basic types of student violins: Those that are mass-produced student violins of inferior quality and workmanship by several less-than-skilled luthiers and then there are those that are mostly handcrafted by a single, skilled maker or a small team of other skilled makers. The difference in quality between the two kinds is immense, as are the costs of the instruments they produce.
The mass-produced violins you might find for sale at an online violin shop are made in factories, these days usually in China. These lower-priced violins are made on a strict minimum budget. That is the only way these cheap violins can be profitable. Large teams of makers, working very cheaply, do most of the wood carving in an assembly line environment and the wood that is being carved is usually low quality wood.
The wood used to produce a violin is very important. High quality violins – even if they are “student violins” – are made with high quality wood dried and aged for at least 5 or 6 years or longer. Over the years, violinmakers have unanimously agreed that aged and closed-grained Spruced is best for the front of a violin and Maple is best for the back, neck and ribs. The rest of the fiddle is made from Ebony, which is a very hard wood, and used to produce pegs, fingerboard, tailpiece and end button.
Mass-produced student violins are produced with far inferior woods that are not aged and are not pleasing to the eye. Such violins could never produce a beautiful, powerful tone. The parts that are typically ebony are substituted with a different inferior wood that is dyed markneukirchen violin black to look like ebony. Such inferior woods often make the violin unplayable as the wood alternately shrinks and swells with dry or wet conditions, making the pegs unusable. The materials are also much softer than ebony and are much more prone to breaking through normal use.
Since there is a budget that mass-produced violins must adhere to, it will come as no surprise that the cases, student violin bows and accessories often sold with these violins are also of inferior quality. The strings that come on the violin will be subpar and need to be replaced immediately, as will the complimentary cake of violin rosin.
Handcrafted violins that are not produced in an assembly line factory by cheap labor, on the other hand, are a different story. Overall, more care is taken during the production of the instrument. A single person or small team of skilled makers who specialize in one or more areas of violinmaking, such as scroll carving or rib bending, carves a hand-made violin by hand. These violins take much longer to produce. The violinmaker typically uses a template that assures that the violin meets minimum acoustic standards and certain physical dimensions required to produce an acceptable or even good tone.
The carefully selected wood that is used for hand-made violins is going to be older and higher quality. Higher quality glues and varnishes will be used and the parts of the violin that are supposed to be made of ebony will be made of lower quality ebony but not of wood that has been “ebonized”.