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Frequently Asked Questions

These questions and answers were written by David Golber, with help from Lynn Berg and other members of the HFAA. In 1993, Dave Golber wrote an introduction to the Hardanger fiddle from the point of view of a luthier, for the magazine American Lutherie. With the kind permission of the magazine, we have made the article "What You Should Know About the Hardanger Fiddle" available separately on this site.

How Do I Get an Instrument?

The first step should be to find someone who has an instrument and plays to talk to — the more experienced the better. You can find such a person by contacting the HFAA at info@hfaa.org. You may also find someone via the Scand discussion group. Even if the person you find is not in your vicinity, it's better to have someone to consult with by e-mail, rather than no one. You may also want to come to one of the HFAA's Annual Workshops. You might also consult the Other Resources page of this site.

You can also put a message on the Scand discussion group saying that you are looking for an instrument.

The Norwegian fiddlers' magazine Folkemusikk usually has a few ads for fiddles for sale. It is in Norwegian; a request on the Scand group will probably find you someone who subscribes and can look through it for you.

From time to time, you will also find instruments in various states of repair in America in music stores or in the hands of private parties. Such an instrument may be a bargain, or may be a complete waste of money. Here it is particularly important to consult with someone with some experience. Be aware, however, that repair of a musical instrument can be a very expensive matter, costing even thousands of dollars. Be aware also that age is no guarantee of great value; there are lots of hundred-year-old Hardanger fiddles of no particularly great value. Also, a famous name (Helland, Steintjønndalen) is likewise no guarantee of value; some of the fiddles from this family are highly valued, some are not.

Sometimes an instrument is a family heirloom that the family has finally decided to sell. One problem is that the family may have an inflated estimate of the price they should get for the instrument. Another problem is the condition of the instrument: The seller may believe that the instrument is in perfect condition or is in need of only some minor repairs, but when the instrument reaches you it turns out that the repair bill will be thousands! It is very possible that the seller is not being dishonest, but simply does not recognize the problems or the expense of the necessary repairs. In general, do not expect an untrained person to be able to recognize what repairs are needed or to evaluate the cost of the repairs.

What about instruments on eBay? Instruments offered on eBay have been quite varied. There have been some strange objects that should not have been called Hardanger fiddles at all (a viola d'amore was offered as a Hardanger fiddle!) Then there are some eBay instruments that one guesses are family heirlooms that the family has decided to sell; this is discussed above. There have also been a number of instruments offered on eBay by dealers in Norway. These instruments range from beginner level through some fairly respectable instruments. The dealer is in some cases known to experienced people in America (and may be one of the people listed in the references above). If you find someone in America who knows the dealer and understands what the instrument is, this may be a reasonable way to get an instrument. But without confirmation from someone knowledgeable, buying an instrument in this way would be extremely risky.

If you are looking at an instrument in need of repair, it is very difficult to predict how the instrument will play after it has been repaired. Even if the instrument needs no repairs, if it has not been played for a long time, it will not play as well as it will after it has been "played in" for a while. A very few people in this country may be able to discuss how an instrument may play after repair and "playing in," based on the reputation of the maker. And a very few players in this country might be able to play an instrument that has been idle for a long time, and give an opinion on how it might play after "playing in."

If you are taking a trip to Norway and planning to buy an instrument there, you should contact knowledgeable people here and in Norway before you go. The Hardanger fiddle is a rural instrument, and you will not find one hanging among the electric guitars in a music store in Oslo.

In general, the route to a fine instrument is to begin with a reasonably priced instrument, learn to play, and then move up in quality as you become more and more able to judge the quality of an instrument and how it suits you.

How Much Does a Hardanger Fiddle Cost?

In comparison with the violin world, the Hardanger fiddle market is much smaller, and there are no publicized auctions to establish widely agreed-upon prices. So the following estimates need to be taken with a grain of salt.

First, it's important to remember that every Hardanger fiddle is a hand-made instrument. There are no factories producing beginners' instruments for $129.95.

In Norway today, good-quality, recently made instruments usually sell in the $2500 - $5000 range. Very good quality recently made instruments by name makers are usually in the $5000 - $8000 range. It's sometimes possible to get an instrument cheaper than $2000, but they are not as common. Beginning fiddlers can find appropriate fiddles for $1500 - $2000. Anything less than $1200 or so is likely to be junk.

Old fiddles with desirable playing qualities made by master craftsman can cost much more. The very highest prices are probably in the $30,000 to $50,000 range. There are no Strad- or Guarneri-equivalent Hardanger fiddles selling for millions.

Prices are more appropriately stated in Norwegian kroner (NOK). The above prices assume an exchange rate of about 7.5 NOK to the dollar. For example, the "$1500 - 2000" price for a beginner fiddle really should be stated as 11250 - 15000 NOK. The equivalent of this in dollars will then vary with the current exchange rate.

How Much Is My Fiddle Worth?

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question. The market is small, and there are no publicized auctions to establish widely agreed-upon prices. So one cannot just state that the price for an instrument from maker so-and-so, from year whatever, in such-and-such condition, is worth a certain amount.

Price is therefore very dependent on the playing qualities of the instrument. For high-quality instruments, there are very few people in this country who would feel comfortable stating a price. And such a person would almost certainly want to see the instrument in person and play it. Also, old instruments are usually very hard to evaluate for sound quality. An instrument that has not been played for years loses some of its tone and must be "played up" to bring back the tone, sometimes for weeks. And it may be necessary to adjust or repair the instrument before it can be played and its qualities evaluated.

In general, to get an estimate of the value of your instrument, see the Other Resources page of this site to contact knowledgeable people. It is extremely unlikely that a normal violin shop would be able to help. (By the way: Suppose you go to a person and first ask him or her to estimate the value of your instrument, and then ask him if he wants to buy it; you are inviting this person to engage in a conflict of interest.)

Be aware that the fact that your instrument is worth, $5000, say, does not mean that it will be easy to sell it for $5000.

How Do I Sell My Fiddle?

Begin by reading the Other Resources page of this site. It names some knowledgeable people you can contact who may be able to help you evaluate your instrument and who may know other people looking for an instrument. The normal violin shop will have no interest in buying your fiddle or taking it on consignment. You may also arrange to list your fiddle for sale on the Member Trading Post page of this Web site by contacting the HFAA Member Trading Post coordinator at webmaster@hfaa.org. Note you must be an HFAA member in order to list items for sale in the Trading Post.

A person thinking about buying your fiddle, sight unseen, will of course be concerned about the condition of the instrument. It might be possible to take the instrument to a normal violin shop and have the shop write a description of the instrument, any defects, and some general estimate of the cost of repairs. The shop would ask a fee for this service.

What About Repairs?

Can an American Shop Do Repairs on a Hardanger Fiddle?

There are very few shops or individual repair people in America with experience with Hardanger fiddles. Consult the Other Resources page to contact someone. Even if that person is far away, and you decide not to take your fiddle to him or her, he or she may be able to give good advice.

A normal quality American shop will be able to do some kinds of work (gluing cracks, for example) just fine, but will probably not be as good at adjusting the bridge and sound post to get the best sound out of the instrument as a shop in Norway. A quality shop in America will not damage your instrument. Repairs in Norway seem to be somewhat cheaper than in America.

If you have a crack or an open seam ("seam" means the join where the top or bottom meets the sides), then there is no reason not to get it taken care of here. In other cases, you will have a decision to make. For example, if everything seems in order, but you suspect the instrument could sound better, then you should probably wait until you can take it to Norway to have the bridge and sound post adjusted. On the other hand, if the bridge is terribly bent, standing on one edge, and so on, you should get it replaced, even if the work is not as good as it would be in Norway.

An American shop will probably find useful the American Lutherie article, "What You Should Know About the Hardanger Fiddle".

How Do I Find a Good Shop in America?

Consult the Other Resources page to find people with specific experience with Hardanger fiddles.

Looking for a good violin shop (not necessarily with Hardanger fiddle experience): Be aware that in the United States there is no legal system for qualifying violin repairpersons. Anyone can hang out a shingle claiming to be a violin-maker. To find a good repairperson, ask members of the local professional orchestra where they go. Ask teachers. Be aware: the Violin Society of America (VSA) is a simple membership organization. You pay your fee and you're a member. On the other hand, the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers (AFVBM, the "Federation") is a guild society, with very high standards. Any member of the Federation has considerable training and experience and can be trusted to handle an instrument safely. (But there are lots of shops with very high abilities and standards with no member of the Federation.)

How Do I Find a Shop in Norway?

A normal violin shop in Oslo, for example, will at least recognize a Hardanger fiddle. (So you won't get the "Gee, whiz. I never saw one of those before!" reaction.) But the shop will not necessarily have a great deal more competence with Hardanger fiddles than a similar shop in the United States. They might be able to send you on to someone with special competence in Hardanger fiddles, but it would be better to identify a Hardanger repairperson before traveling to Norway. Use the references on the Other Resources page.

The person or shop you go to may not be in a big city. (This is a chance to travel outside the normal tourist routes!) Be prepared for the possibility that the repairs your fiddle needs may take longer than you can wait. You may have to leave the fiddle with the repairperson. One possibility is that some other traveler involved in Norwegian folk music may bring it back for you.

Special Considerations: Strings

You should absolutely not use violin strings on a Hardanger fiddle. Violin strings are in general heavier than Hardanger fiddle strings, a Hardanger fiddle is usually tuned higher than the violin, and Hardanger fiddles are often built very lightly. So there is some real possibility of damaging a Hardanger fiddle by using violin strings. In addition, Hardanger fiddle strings are adapted to the special sound and needs of Hardanger fiddle music.

Luckily, there is no need to even consider using violin strings. The HFAA offers Hardanger fiddle strings in the Merchandise Catalog.

Special Considerations: Bridges

A Hardanger fiddle bridge is quite different from a violin bridge; it is not merely a violin bridge with a wider opening for the understrings. A Hardanger fiddle bridge is adapted to the special sound and needs of Hardanger fiddle music, just as a violin bridge is adapted to the special sound and needs of violin music.

An experienced repair person in Norway will probably do a better job of making a bridge for your fiddle than an American shop. The Norwegian-made bridge will be more suited to the instrument and will produce a better sound.

On the other hand, if the bridge on your instrument is terribly warped, broken, misfitted, or otherwise a catastrophe, you should get it replaced as soon as possible. This may mean taking the instrument to a shop that has never worked on a Hardanger fiddle before (but is a quality shop), but this is better than leaving the current bridge on the instrument.

The American shop will want to know: The Howard Core Company (Anniston, AL, 205-238-9966) sells Hardanger fiddle bridge blanks. (A bridge is normally "cut" from a blank.) You should not attempt to cut a bridge yourself; an improperly fitted bridge can dig into the soft spruce of the instrument top and really damage the instrument.

Special Considerations: Pegs

Pegs should work. They should turn easily and hold without slipping. A fine tuner should be used on only the E string and possibly the A string. The extra weight of many heavy fine tuners acts as a mute on the instrument.

If the pegs don't work, they should be adjusted until they do work. This is the same as for violins, with the following difference: In the case of violins, after years of wear and adjustments, the pegs are so worn that they are simply thrown out and replaced. (Like the tires of an automobile.) If your Hardanger fiddle has plain pegs, this is OK. However, if your instrument has decorated pegs, this is of course not possible. What should be done?

In Norway, experienced repair people may be more used to the problem, but there is no definite solution, either in Norway or here in America. There are a very few repair people in America who have devised a system for grafting the old decorated heads onto new bodies but this is not a common operation. Consult the Other Resources page to find a qualified repairperson.

If your pegs are so bad that they must be replaced, a normal shop will replace them with standard undecorated violin pegs and will give you the old decorated pegs in a bag. This of course gets your instrument back into use, but it is ultimately unsatisfactory: the fiddle should have its decoration — all of it, including its decorated pegs. And it's an almost sure thing that, over the years, the bag of decorated pegs will get separated from the instrument and lost. So you should regard the undecorated violin pegs as a temporary measure while you get the fine decorated pegs reworked.

Special Considerations: Fingerboards

Just as on a violin, the fingerboard of a Hardanger fiddle wears. The open-wound D string in particular cuts into it.

On a violin, the fingerboard is planed smooth when a lot of wear has occurred. When it is too thin from being planed several times, it is replaced.

On a Hardanger fiddle, this is, of course, impermissible. The fingerboard should never be planed. Not even once. (An intelligent and able repairperson will realize this without being told, but everyone has moments of blindness — wanting to do what is the standard thing, even in a non-standard situation.) Instead, the depressions in the fingerboard can be filled in with super glue. See the American Lutherie article for guidance. You should not try to do this yourself.

What Do I Do to Take Care of My Instrument?

A great deal about Hardanger fiddle care is the same as for normal violin care.

Pamphlets: I am aware of three pamphlets on string instrument care: (1) An A to Z of Instrument Care for Players of the Violin Family, by Jane Dorner, Orpheus Publications, 1992, England, ISBN 1-900306-04-2. (2) Commonsense Instrument Care, by James McKean, String Letter Publishing, 1996, California, ISBN 0-9626081-9-X. (3) Violin Owner's Manual, edited by Heather Scott, 2001, String Letter Publishing, 2001, California, ISBN 1-890490-43-1. I prefer the Dorner book. The McKean book is also useful, and has a particularly good discussion of looking for a repair person. The "Owner's Manual" book suggests at least one thing that other authorities disapprove strongly, and has several "brain is disconnected" statements. In addition, my copy arrived with a blank page.

Repair people: Be aware that in the United States, there is no legal system for qualifying violin repair people. Anyone can hang out a shingle claiming to be a violin-maker. To find a good repair person, ask members of the local professional orchestra where they go. Ask teachers. Be aware: the Violin Society of America (VSA) is a simple membership organization. You pay your fee and you're a member. On the other hand, the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers (AFVBM, the "Federation") is a guild society, with very high standards. Any member of the Federation has considerable training and experience and can be trusted to handle an instrument safely. (But there are lots of shops with very high abilities and standards with no member of the Federation.)

Things you should do (see details below):

  • Wipe off the instrument
  • Keep your fingernails trimmed
  • Keep the strings properly adjusted on the pegs
  • Expect the pegs to work properly — use peg dope
  • Put graphite in the string grooves
  • Straighten up the bridge
  • Watch for worn-out or rusty strings — understrings too
  • Put the strings on properly
  • Look at the instrument
  • Take it to a repair-person once a year

Things you should never do:

  • Anything with any kind of glue
  • Anything with any kind of solvent
  • Inserting anything in the sound-holes
  • Anything with any tool harder than your flesh

After playing, gently wipe off the instrument, strings, and understrings with a soft clean cloth to remove sweat and rosin.

Strings should be wound neatly on the pegs, and should not rub against each other. The playing strings should wind in the direction of the peg head, stopping just at the wall of the peg box. (More details in the pamphlets.)

Pegs should work. A fine tuner is usually used for the first string. A fine tuner may be used with the second string, particularly if you use a steel Kvart. Fine tuners should never be necessary for the third and fourth strings. If the pegs don't work, check to see if they fit (see my articles in Sound Post). If they don't fit, get them adjusted. If they fit, use peg dope. You may need to clean off old dope first. In extreme cases, a tiny mark of dry soap (Ivory, for example) will increase slip, while a tiny mark of chalk will increase grab. (Some violin-makers say chalk is abrasive and don't recommend it.) Don't use rosin; it will set up hard and glue the peg in place.

When you have a string off, use a well-sharpened soft pencil to put a tiny amount of graphite in the grooves of the nut and bridge. Don't get ugly marks all over the place.

Look at the bridge and straighten it up. What is "up"? On a violin, there is a strong standard that the back side of the bridge (the side away from the fingerboard) should be perpendicular to the top. On a Hardanger fiddle, there will be more variation, but the top of the bridge should be somewhere over the feet, probably more towards the back, and the bridge should not look "bent." The process of tuning tends to pull the top of the bridge towards the pegs, so that every time you play you should look at it and pull it back if necessary. Place the fiddle on a soft cloth on a table, with the tailpiece towards you, and grasp the bridge with the thumbs and forefingers of both hands. You can now pull or push gently. Be sure not to press down on the face of the instrument.

A properly fitted bridge will contact the face of the instrument perfectly all around both feet. No gap will be visible anywhere. If the bridge is tilted so that it sits on one edge, that edge will dig into the soft spruce of the face. This is very bad. So when you "straighten up" the bridge, one criterion for "straight" is that the feet contact the face properly. In summary: The feet contact the face properly, the top of the bridge is nicely over the feet, and the bridge doesn't look bent from the side.

If the bridge is left bent, then after a while it will take a warp. It will either have to be flattened out, or replaced — neither of them being something you should try yourself.

Putting on the ters (D string): The open-wound ters will tend to catch on the nut and bridge as it is brought up to pitch. Having the grooves in the nut and bridge fitted properly and with the touch of graphite mentioned above will help, but the ters will still tend to catch, particularly on the bridge. This will pull the winding out of shape; as a result, the string may be ruined before you have even played on it once! (Quoting Hauk Buen here!) So as you bring the string up to pitch, lift it up and help it over the bridge. The ters will also tend to pull the bridge forward! You may have to tilt the bridge slightly back, and then bring the ters up to pitch and let it pull the bridge up straight simultaneously.

If the ters is digging into the fingerboard — which it always does — one trick is to turn it a half a turn (around its own axis). Unhook it from the hook on the tail piece, and replace it with the hook going through the loop the other way. Then the windings will come down in different places, extending the life of the fingerboard a bit.

Learn to look at the instrument carefully. Look for cracks and scratches. Are there any open seams (where the top or bottom join the sides)? Is the side under the chin rest bulging? (A common result of a tight chin rest clamp.) Cracks around the pegs? Missing pearl or bone? It is probably a good policy to have a violin maker look at the instrument once a year. In case of accident, it is important to save every piece, no matter how tiny. It is much easier to glue in a missing piece than to replace it. I would go so far as to sweep the floor and put the sweepings in a bag.

Some players have some hesitation about taking a Hardanger fiddle to an American repair person. I would make the following points:

  • A qualified repair person will not damage your instrument.
  • You have a right to insist on knowing and understanding everything that will be done, saying yes or no, and insisting that nothing be done without your approval.
  • Work in Norway will in general be cheaper, and the setup (adjustment of bridge, sound post, etc.) very likely will be better.
  • The Howard Core company of violin suppliers in Alabama sells Hardanger fiddle bridge blanks.
  • Optimum sound post placement for a Hardanger fiddle varies more than for a violin. For a fiddle with a thick top, the post may be farther from the bridge, and even outside the bridge foot.
  • Planing the fingerboard should never be done to a Hardanger fiddle — not even once. This is a very standard operation on a violin. But on a Hardanger fiddle, the fingerboard is not a replaceable part, as it is on a violin. If the fingerboard is worn so much as to interfere with playing, the grooves should be filled in. I use super glue; see my article for more information.
  • If you have peg problems, the repair person may fit new ebony pegs, and give the old pegs back to you in a bag. The same may very well happen in Norway.

See my articles on pegs in Sound Post for more discussion of this last point. The problem is that grafting old heads on new shafts is not normally done. You have to deal with the conflict between getting pegs that work, and ending up with the original pegs in a bag — and very likely loosing the bag later.

Bows: Learn to take care of your bow. See the pamphlets listed above.

Humidity: If you live in a part of the country where it is necessary, use a humidifier in the winter to keep the humidity from getting down terribly low. Some people use a "Dampit" — essentially a sponge in a green tube (also known as a "Green Worm") — in their instrument. Some makers don't like these (I agree) because there are too many cases of people putting them into the instrument dripping wet — not a good thing. And putting things into and taking them out of sound holes again and again is a recipe for trouble. A humidifier in the instrument case, not in the sound hole, is a better idea. Be sure it is not so wet that it drips.

In the summer, people with very valuable instruments may run air conditioners or dehumidifiers. An important question for our crowd is what to do about taking a fiddle to a week-long camp in some very-high-humidity place. Toby Weinberg has used "De-Moist," calcium chloride from Rutland Products. He takes the granular stuff bought in a hardware store and makes a fine-weave cloth bag for it (the bag it comes in is so coarse that he is afraid it would leak the abrasive granules into his fiddle case.). Use as much as will fit in the case. When it has absorbed as much water from the air as possible, it can be rejuvenated by drying in a 400 degree F oven for an hour. He brings two bags like this to a camp, so he can keep one in the case while the other is drying out in the oven. Toby says you need to take the instrument out of the case a bit before you need to play, so that gut strings can come to equilibrium with the local humidity. Toby says that the "De-Moist" is just what he found in the store. As far as he knows, silica gel would work just as well (but the little teeny packet that came with the camera you just bought won't be enough.)

If you use De-Moist or some other similar method, watch out for your bow: when you put it away, make sure the hair is slack enough so that it doesn't get pulled up to improper tension in the dry air in the case.

Is It Possible to Turn a Violin into a Hardanger Fiddle?

This would involve grafting a new head onto the neck (or replacing the whole neck and head), putting on a Hardanger fiddle bridge, modifying the tailpiece, and so on.

There are a few makers in Norway who use a process something like this to produce inexpensive beginner-level Hardanger fiddles. In addition to replacing the head and bridge, etc., this also involves adjusting the thicknesses of the top. The result is a compromise between quality and expense, even when the maker is very experienced.

Where Can I Get Instructions for Making a Hardanger Fiddle?

If you are interested in making a Hardanger fiddle, I suggest that you first learn to make a violin. Almost every technique that you will learn in making a violin is needed in making a Hardanger fiddle, and there are much better resources available for learning to make a violin. Once you have learned to make a violin, come to one of the HFAA meetings and look at and measure some quality Hardanger fiddles properly adjusted.

The book Vi byggjer hardingfele (We Build a Hardanger Fiddle) by Sverre Sandvik is out of print, and is (in my opinion) not a particularly good book about making techniques. You may find the appendix diagrams useful, particularly because they define some important measurements that are not mentioned in the text. The English translation by Eldon Ellingson of Sandvik's book is not good, but would be worth purchasing just to get the appendix diagrams.

The Hardanger fiddle plan offered by the Guild of American Luthiers is very abbreviated, and is at least partly copied from Sandvik's book. The chapter on building a Hardanger fiddle in Irving Sloane's book "Making Musical Instruments" is based on museum observations and Sloane's guesses, rather than actual visits to contemporary makers, which result in some very strange conclusion. In particular, Sloane carves the bridge of his instrument in a shape which no maker in Norway uses. And Sloane's guess that the shape of the top is achieved by bending is just plain wrong.

There are no Hardanger fiddle kits available.