What Repairs are Acceptable in the Cello You're Buying?

A cellist from Georgia wrote us that although she prefers older cellos, she doesn’t want to own a cello with repairs in certain areas, or a lot of repairs in general. A nearby cellist who plays in a major symphony was able to afford the cello of his dreams because it has a (well-repaired) soundpost crack in the back. A customer from the Midwest, who purchased a late 19th century German cello with loads of repairs from us about 6 years ago for a very good price, still tells us about how he wows people with its sound and continues to send customers to us on a regular basis looking for something similar.

Is there some rule of thumb about purchasing a cello with repairs in it?

First, unless it’s free, be careful of purchasing a cello from a private party (including over the internet) unless you’ve had it thoroughly checked by a qualified luthier. More than one customer has brought an internet treasure into our shop only to find out that the necessary repairs to make it structural and playable would cost more than the value of the cello itself.

Second, old cellos of any ilk are scarce. In the lower price ranges, what was purchasable for $5000 10-15 years ago, is close to $15,000 now.

Third, much depends on how you feel about the sound you want, and what you’re emotionally able to accept in existing, repaired damage.

There are tons of new cellos out there from many parts of the globe (some of them surprisingly remote) but many cellists are discovering that the sound they are looking for is more likely to exist in an older (70 years or more) cello. The exposure of European Spruce to ultraviolet light, as well as its experience of being vibrated for an uncountable number of hours, gives it a brittleness and resonance that no known treatment of new wood can duplicate. The problem is finding one with your sound that you can afford.

Here are some facts that may help you better understand the possibilities. First some information on specific repairs:

1. A cello is devalued if it has a repaired bassbar crack (20-40%), a repaired soundpost crack in the top (30-50%), a repaired soundpost crack in the back (40-75%), although any of the above repairs, or any other repairs, if done properly, will result in the cello NOT being any weaker in the repaired area than before the damage occurred.

2. Instruments with a repaired neck-heel crack, neck crack, or a glued pegbox crack (no cheek patch) are suspect. I know of only one repair (other than a neck-graft) that will indefinitely hold a cracked neck heel – especially if the crack is near the fingerboard - and most luthiers don’t do it. A repaired break in the neck itself is chancy at best, and if you see a glued pegbox crack, it necessarily won’t have a cheek patch (which would hide the crack). A cheek-patch is relatively expensive.

3. If the button looks like it has been broken and glued back in, make sure that it is reinforced with a doubling inside or that it is a new grafted button. A luthier can spot both of these. These are both somewhat expensive repairs but once done make things as strong as new.

So if a cello has repairs in it, what can you expect?

1. A cello without repairs will be considerably more expensive than its counterpart with repairs.

2. It is not unusual for good sounding cellos to be slightly more fragile (and therefore over time accumulate more repairs) than cellos that do not sound so good. Brittle wood usually makes for better sound. This goes for new as well as older cellos, but the brittleness of wood does increase with age and is more likely to occur in older cellos. A cello with some repairs may indicate one with good sound.

3. A cello with a number of repairs, despite what some people (including dealers who wish to sell you new cellos or older cellos with few or no repairs) may say, is not dramatically more likely than other cellos to give its owner unusual problems provided the repairs are done well.

We know many cellists who own older instruments with various numbers and types of repairs. They’re in love with them, and none of these owners have more problems than cellists with newer or repair-free older instruments. Both Melissa and I own and love century-old cellos with several repairs in them: mine had suffered a serious fall before it first came into the shop and the number of separate pieces was close to 50. During the 6 years since its restoration, it has endured annual frigid, dry winters, the same number of sweltering, humid summers, been schlepped to and played in rehearsals and concerts up to 4 & 5 times a week, traveled to various American States and Canadian Provinces, and has not had so much as a seam come unglued. Yes, I’m a luthier and I can take a chance on such things and no, I wouldn’t put a cello with 50-odd repairs up for sale in our shop. But my experience with my repaired cello’s stability is far more the rule than the exception.

Since we sell nearly equal numbers of new and old cellos, we have no particular interest in promoting one over the other. But if things about old cellos interest you, you can sometimes pick up same fabulous players for not a lot of money. There will be some repairs in them; but make sure the repairs are done well and guaranteed and you can own a cello that not only plays terrifically, but also doesn’t keep you awake at night worrying that it will fall apart.