I have to confess that I got caught up in a little bit of impulse shopping before I started this blog. A couple weeks ago I bought a violin from a seller on eBay. To be more precise, I “sort of” bought a violin. What I bought resembles a violin but it doesn’t seem to function as one… at least not very well. It meets almost all of my criteria from my previous post though.
1) European: The violin is a Soviet made instrument in a Moscow furniture factory. I count Moscow as a European city. Plus, being made in Moscow it scratches my Russophilia itch. I am always looking for something from my birthplace.
2) “Old”: I compromised on this one. It is has a date stamp of May 1989 which makes it only 22 years old. I would have wanted it to be older but we can’t win ’em all.
3) Whole: There are no cracks, dings, holes, or splits. It is solid which is what one would expect coming from a furniture factory.
4) Even: I wish I could answer this one but I can’t play it! Gaaah! This makes me want to add a 5th criteria which would be “Functional”.
So what doesn’t work? Specifically, it can’t hold it’s tuning. The tuning pegs slip pretty bad. As soon as I tune a second string, the first one pops out from its tuning! It’s like rolling a rock uphill only to have it roll down. I discovered this phenomena when I took it to a local luthier. It took him no more than 5 minutes before he asked, “Can you get your money back?”
Honestly, I’m not upset or frustrated. I knew I was taking a risk when I bought this violin and in this case my gamble didn’t pay off completely. Besides, this kind of stuff makes the adventure more interesting! I posted a little bit about this on the Fiddle Hangout forum. Here’s the whole story on receiving the violin.
The violin was decently packed by the seller. He charged me around $24 through eBay’s system and the USPS shipping stamp said $26. The box was big and of sufficient strength. I wouldn’t say it was pretty but it didn’t need to be. Thankfully it was shipped via USPS. I am a big fan of the USPS. They seem to put more care into the handling of packages.
The box was filled with packing peanuts from top to bottom. I hope this seller works for a company that throws these away like mine does. Packing peanuts are not alway cheap. I appreciated seeing so many of them here.
The violin came with a case. Personally, I would be very afraid of buying a violin online without one. What if the shipping box was crushed? What if it got drenched with some fluid that leaked? I am always surprised at eBay auctions that say the violin doesn’t come with a case. Having a case is like a form of insurance. What’s the point on skimping on a case to save a few bucks only to lose a lot more money on a damaged violin?
The case is somewhat unusual because it is almost triangular in nature. All the corners are sharp. It makes it possible to stand up the case but it also means that the corners will be the first areas that will get worn or damaged. The case also has an unusual texture. It is covered in little squares with lines running through them. The squares are offset from each other and the lines inside follow the offset. In the right light the squares produce a weird polarized reflection pattern of light and dark. You can almost see it in the picture but it is much more dramatic in person.
Crack open the case and you will be greeted with a plush and fuzzy blue interior. It’s a bit overwhelming to see because it has a reflective quality to it. You almost forget that there’s a violin inside. Oh, wait! The violin! Yes, it’s in there. The seller placed a thin foam sheet under the strings and over the neck. There was also a piece of foam sheeting under the tailpiece. Finally, the violin was wrapped in a thin sheet of plastic bubble wrap and some cardboard. It sounds kind of flimsy but it worked out OK. The violin wasn’t shaking around or going anywhere.
It’s a full size 4/4 violin. I don’t know what the finish is but it looks like a thick, bumpy, yellow lacquer. This finish seemed to be pretty popular in the late 80s for the Soviet Union. My mother’s aunt mailed me a chess set in the mid-80s and it was covered in the same stuff. Maybe it was just cheap to make and easy to apply. Remember, this is Soviet Union we’re talking about here. They make violins in a furniture factory. You have to think about synergies here between building a kitchen table and violin. Using the same lacquer seems logical enough to me.
I don’t know what kind of wood it is made of but I imagine it’s nothing traditional or fancy. Everything is cut very rough and there appears to be very little work put into smoothing out the surface. You can see the roughness around the c-rib. My local luthier says that these are signs of a machine made violin. Again, you have to remember this violin came out of the Soviet Union in 1989. Whatever machines they had were probably nothing more than big template tracers with rough milling bits on them. There were probably plenty of manual operations involved (like fixing whatever bandsaw was being used). The f-hole is also pretty bad. It almost looks like it was punched out instead of cut out. The notches in the middle don’t even go all the way through.
Continuing the Tour de Roughness, we look next at the scroll. You have to take the tuning pegs out to really appreciate just how rough it is inside. The entry point of the milling bit is obvious. What isn’t obvious to me is how the ramp up to the nut is so rough. It’s as if the milling bit was manually raised and then lowered to different points along the ramp to get the bulk of the wood out. Then the worker took a chisel and just hacked away at the resulting staircase. Yikes! Really? In some ways, this violin is so rough that it’s almost amazing and fun to look for all these features.
The last stop in our Journey of Roughness is the nut. It looks like something that was hand whittled with a pocket knife. Quite honestly, that could be exactly what happened. Someone needed employment and they were placed in this factory. This someone had no idea how to run any of the machines but they knew what the output should be. Being of little skill but of plentiful spirit they put this
highly intoxicated person to work. A couple incorrect cuts were made “here” and “there” but there’s still plenty of room to make more.
The fingerboard is not made of ebony or some other dark wood. It is definitely some kind of light wood that was heavily painted. The same goes with the tuners. The fingerboard has a chip on its underside and the chip exposes the natural wood color. Looking at the tuning pegs you can see the natural wood in the holes for the strings. You can also see how the tuner pegs have been radially compressed from the holes in the peg box and from the tension of the strings. This seems to indicate that they are made of some sort of soft wood. I would say that the wood is soft and porous. Being porous would help the wood absorb the black pigment better. It’s less likely to rub off that way.
One thing I didn’t mention much of is the documentation. It comes with a little booklet that is traditionally known as a “product passport”. Every official Soviet product had one. It signified that you are buying an official and legal product (vs. grey market or black market). It usually indicated the government set price, the government issued article (or product) number, which factory it was made in, etc. The document sounds fancy but it’s nothing more than cheap paperwork that someone stamps off on because they have to and not because they want to. I love the opening page. Here’s how I translated it.
The Republican Industrial
Association of the Production of Musical
Followed by the logo… then, in bold caps…
“The Moscow Factory for
the Production of Musical
Instruments and Furniture”
The address and telephone number of the factory is given next and the word “passport” is drawn in beautiful cyrillic letters below the address. It begins the sentence below. All together it would say:
for Bowed Musical
It sounds so formal, so serious, and so industrious. I can imagine a bureaucrat with a thousand medals on his chest reading these words slowly and thoughtfully in a deep and meaningful voice as he fights a hangover from the night before.
For as rough as this violin is, I don’t want to give up on it. This instrument wants to be a violin and I want to help it along. Maybe I’m just getting a spark in my head because I see a fun and interesting challenge ahead: making this instrument stable and playable. I have no idea what it really sounds like. If I’m going to consciously toss something aside then I’d like to do it knowing that I did all I could to make it right.