Commissioning new instruments

Violin on side

Photograph by Benjamin Harte

My new instruments are generally made to commission. The first step in this process is deciding what type of instrument and sound the client is seeking. I then offer a contract which specifies the details of the work, the estimated finishing time, and the cost. In return I ask for a 10% deposit, which secures the client’s place on my waiting list, and covers the initial cost of materials and preparation.

When the work is complete, there is a two-week approval period, during which the player may become acquainted with the instrument and any necessary adjustments made. At the end of the two weeks, full payment becomes due, or the instrument is returned. In the latter case, I will then offer it for sale elsewhere, and the deposit paid can be returned once the instrument is sold.

Some players come with very fixed ideas of what they need, and I am happy to work as closely as I can in meeting their requirements. These may be ‘bench copies’ of master instruments- that is, reproductions of an existing instrument with antiqued varnish effects and superficial wear – or more straightforward new instruments made to particular patterns and forms.

Other players like some assistance in deciding exactly what sort of instrument is best suited to them, in terms of sound qualities, visual appearance and physical comfort. I am very happy to discuss all these considerations, and offer various designs from the large collection of models and patterns I have built up over the years, or even research or design new forms.

The only caveat concerning particularly individual or unusual models is that they may be very difficult to place with another player should the client change their mind. Consequently in such cases I have to ask for full payment in advance.

The choice of model is often initially down to physical size, most particularly in the case of violas and cellos. The main concern of course is to produce the sound that the player wants, and this can be engineered to a high degree by the choice of pattern as well as the working of the wood and varnish. Even the difference of a few millimetres in a violin form can change the tonal response from light to dark. I can offer models based on most of the great classical makers, with an emphasis on Cremona for violins, Brescia for violas, and Venice for cellos.

The choice of wood is also very important, and I try and guide the player to the most appropriate materials from my wood store, again bearing in mind aesthetic and tonal requirements.

The varnishing can also be done to the player’s specification, whether ‘fresh’ or ‘antiqued’ and to what shade.

That said, players are often quite happy to allow me a free hand in planning and making their instrument, and trust to the results. Some like to be very closely involved with every decision and step of the construction, others I sometimes only see when they play their instrument for the first time.

Current prices are around £10,000 + VAT for violins, £12,000 + VAT for violas, and £22,500 + VAT for cellos, all dependent on the precise nature of the commission.