Aug 23, 2016

Cheap Viola Review and Mods

Fair warning before we get started: I have experience doing all sorts of handiwork and modifications, and pretty extensive work on electric guitars, but violins and violas are quite different animals and I'm certainly not an experienced technician.  That being said, a few mods were pretty simple and safe to do to tweak this extremely cheap viola from Amazon into something slightly nicer and more playable.

As I said, I'm not a viola player and only know how to play a tiny bit bridged over from mandolin. Even so, it was immediately apparent even to me how cheap this viola was.  Nonetheless, it came with a quite usable softshell case and all the little things needed to be minimally functional.

One issue immediately was the bridge - unevenly spaced strings, placed for poor intonation: I turned the top wonderfully smooth and even with a bit of fine sandpaper and rounded it all out.  I figure it shouldn't hurt to have a well-defined contact point on the bridge.

This looked great but I learned quite quickly that without any notches at all and a now-smooth surface, the strings just slipped all over.  I put it in place and marked spots for the strings.

I took a fine knife and notched small string slots.  I used a guitar trick of putting graphite in the string slots - I don't know if it really makes a difference in this case, but doesn't seem like it could hurt.

Now the bridge is nicely aligned, smoothed, and the strings evenly spaced.  Next problem was the tuning pegs slipping constantly, even when pushed in for additional friction.  Adding a smidge of rosin to the tuning pegs gave them the grip to hold in tune better thankfully.

I'd be remiss if I didn't warn you first; rosin on the tuning pegs may cause long-term loosening as the rosin is slightly abrasive.  Not really a concern with a sub-$100 viola but good to keep in mind for finer instruments.

(While we're on the note of tuning pegs - why on earth are violins so medieval in their technology?  Machine heads have been around for at least a century or two.  The only issue could be weight balance on a violin, and I'm sure there are enough engineers on this planet that we could figure it out.)

One other touch that I added for fun was a set of dots on the side of the fretboard marking key note positions.  Works like the stickers that beginners often use on the fretboard, but rather more classy and permanent.  Obvious inspiration taken from guitar design as well, albeit with the downside that it's far more difficult to see these dots in the playing position on a viola than it would be on a guitar. 

Regardless, it was a fun little bit to add, and simple to make as well.  My method of choice was to use a tiny drill bit to make a shallow circle, then to fill that circle with a drop of white paint and wipe away the excess.  Turns out looking great and quite durable as well.

Overall this was an interesting challenge for me that pushed me outside of what I was familiar with, and it turned out not too bad.  It's still a far far cry from a Stradivarius, but it's marginally nicer than it was before, and sometimes that's the best we can hope for.

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