Workbench: Restoration, The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

(Editor’s note: This article, written before Jeffrey Holmes left Shar Fine Instruments in 2003 to work in his own studio, is as timely today as it was when written in 2000.) As vice president of Shar Fine Instruments, part of my job is to evaluate instruments and assist in the planning of required restoration work. Our goal is to ensure that the instruments passing through the workshop leave in optimal physical and playing condition.

Damaged Violin, Front

Damaged old Italian violin, front

A good number of instruments presented for restoration are ultimately not accepted. The reason for an instrument being accepted or rejected may extend well beyond simple economic viability. From our experience, maintaining a respected professional shop demands that our limited human resources be focused only on those projects that yield the greatest benefits to the firm and its clients.

A major restoration may encompass weeks of planning, and it may take years to complete. The labor costs of such a venture may well surpass the price of commissioning a first-class contemporary instrument, sometimes by a factor of five or more. Many shops reserve a majority of the time devoted to complex restoration, for instruments either owned by, or consigned to the business. The shop achieves balance by scheduling less involved restorations alongside these larger projects.

Responsible shop administration also requires that a portion of bench time be reserved for loyal clients depending on these services for their own livelihood. As a consequence, shop time available for instruments not owned by the regular customers is limited.

Restorers capable of successfully performing complicated techniques are a scarce commodity. Their backgrounds include extensive training, experience, talent, and exposure to classic instruments on a regular basis. While top level professional restoration may seem incredibly expensive to some, in comparison to other specialized services the fees are actually quite reasonable.

Damaged Violin, Back

Damaged old Italian violin, back

We advise caution for those who search for a restorer offering a “bargain” price. Those worthy of being entrusted with a rare instrument are in high demand. There are, of course, eager luthiers who will accept a job well above their level of experience and ability at a reduced rate. Valuable instruments should not be used as unsupervised learning exercises by inexperienced repairmen. Compromises in structural and historical integrity may result. It is our experience that a good portion of bench time addresses work incorrectly performed by previous technicians. The cost of correcting a questionable restoration, as well as the negative effect on the instrument’s value, may be quite significant. Finally, once the integrity of an instrument has been compromised, finding a restorer willing to accept such a complicated, remedial job may be an insurmountable task.

When restoration is appropriate, the physical stability and performance qualities of an instrument stand to be vastly improved. Still, many players approach the prospect of restoring their own instrument with trepidation. Fear that the instrument’s “personality” will change is common. In this situation, attention to the most urgent of the condition issues is often the focus.

The judgment and experience of the restorer are critical in determining the consequence of any action taken or deferred. If damage is due to accidental breakage, or a full restoration is critical for the sake of the continuing integrity of the piece, the restoration may proceed. Otherwise, the major portion of the work may wait until the instrument is between owners. This is a logical compromise, as a new owner will accept the personality of the restored instrument at face value, without memory of its past performance.

Many private speculators also seek restoration services. Usually, they expect to enjoy a windfall profit by selling the piece after the work is complete. In this situation, the shop will only stand to benefit from an hourly fee. Absent are the advantages of performing a restoration for a regular client, or on an instrument owned by the firm, so the motivation to accept such a project is diminished. Therefore if the shop’s time is made available to speculators, they may find themselves paying a premium for the service.

To determine if an instrument is a good candidate for restoration, it is critical that the evaluation of the work required be realistic. Marginal restoration projects may not be worth the effort. The priorities during a restoration are clear: the well being of the instrument is first and foremost. This ensures the instrument’s future, the reputation of the shop, and the customers’ satisfaction.

About Jeffrey Holmes

Jeffrey Holmes' relationship with the violin started at age 8, when he began his musical studies. He attended the Chicago School of Violin Making, studying with Tschu Ho Lee. After graduation he took a position with Shar Fine Instruments in Ann Arbor, where he stayed for 17 years, serving as Vice President for the eight years. In 2003, he left Shar to work in his own shop, offering restoration, appraisal, expertise, new making and sales of old and contemporary instruments and bows.
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