A Layman’s Guide to Purchasing a Case for Violin, Viola, Cello or Double Bass
The first two articles in this series focused on the basics of purchasing string instruments and bows. This column will deal with the important issue of purchasing string instrument cases. Having purchased hundreds of cases, flown thousands of miles with string instruments, and even seen one case with tire tread marks on it after being run over by a car (the violin was fine), perhaps I can help you as you look for the right case for your stringed instrument.
A Case for Cases
Choosing the right case is important for protecting a string instrument from bumps and scrapes, and for keeping that instrument safe from weather extremes. String instruments are designed to come apart when exposed to heat and humidity. Varnish will melt within minutes of exposure to the 120+ degree heat generated in a car parked in the sun with the windows up. Conversely, extreme cold can crackle varnish and cause wood to shrink causing structural damage. A good case will keep out heat, humidity, or cold for extended periods of time.
Case by Case Consideration
Violin and viola cases are identical except for size. Viola cases often have to be specially fitted unless the case is adjustable and information states that it will fit all violas between 15 and 17 inches long. Violin and viola cases range in quality from molded fiberglass with injected foam ($50-$75.00) to special order cases with luxury fittings such as leather, silk, velvet, and brass ($1500.00-$2500.00). For special order cases it is wise to provide a tracing of the instrument’s outline so that the dealer can be sure of an accurate fit. Many violin and viola cases are made with laminated wood covered with a screw-attached ballistic nylon cover. This type of cover usually has a built-in music pocket. If a cover is damaged and a case does not need to be replaced it is relatively inexpensive to order a new cover. Interiors can be velour, velvet, or silk, in order of expense and longevity. For better quality instruments it is important to select a case with “full suspension.” This suspension consists of covered foam inserts built into the case that prevent the back of the violin or viola from coming in contact with the back of the case. If the case is subjected to a sudden jolt the foam protects the instrument from direct impact within the case. Violin and viola cases come with two or four bow holders. Some cases include hygrometers or humidification systems.
Cello cases come in three varieties: soft covers, hard shell cases, and shipping cases. Soft covers come in ballistic nylon with varying densities of padding, several storage pockets, a music pocket, and a strap or backpack harness for easy transportation. They range in price from under $100.00 to $400.00. Hard shell cases are made of plywood, fiberglass, or aluminum, and may have options such as wheels and special handles. Costs range from $350.00 to $1800.00. Shipping cases are also made of fiberglass, and have features such as internal inflatable air cushions, heavy-duty padding, and wheels. Shipping cases cost from $2000.00 to $2500.00. Interiors can be velour, velvet, or silk, in order of expense and longevity. Cello cases come with one or two bow holders. Check the closure devices on hard shell and shipping cases. Some cases are extremely awkward and difficult to latch.
Bass cases come in two varieties: soft covers and shipping cases. Soft covers come in ballistic nylon with varying densities of padding, several storage pockets, a music pocket, handles, and a strap. Costs range from $100.00 to $500.00. Shipping cases come in fiberboard and fiberglass, costing from $500.00 to $3000.00. Fiberboard cases hold the bass and a soft cover. Fiberglass cases hold the bass only. Some models of shipping cases even come with a built in wardrobe for holding a tuxedo or other concert dress. Interiors can be velour, velvet, or silk, in order of expense and longevity.
When choosing a case consider the primary usage. Will it be used for extensive travel by air or will it be used to get back and forth from school, church, and other rehearsals by car? If you need to travel by air you will need to get the best case you can afford. Cellists and bassists have no choice but to purchase two cases: one case for local rehearsals, and a shipping case so that the instrument can be placed in the baggage compartment on a plane. (The only other option is to purchase two plane tickets for you and your instrument each time you fly. Even then bassists have special difficulties to work out in advance with the airlines.)
Another critical factor in choosing a case is its weight. While one violin case may weigh only two pounds more than another, over years of use your arms and neck will resent the additional pounds. Lighter cases do not always offer sufficient protection, so the extra weight may be worth hauling around to insure peace of mind. The “weight versus strength” factor becomes even more important for viola, cello, and bass cases.
With the dozens of case choices available in every shape, color, and style, it is possible to find exactly the right case for your needs. That case can protect your instrument for ten or twenty years saving you hundreds of dollars in repairs, so take your time to choose and invest wisely.
This article first appeared in Lines & Spaces, a newsletter published by David E. Smith Publications, and is used here by permission.
Jay-Martin Pinner teaches over 40 violin, viola, cello, and double bass students at Pinner Studios, a private string studio in Greenville, SC. He served as head of the String Department at Bob Jones University for 25 years and is the founding director of the Bob Jones Academy and Junior High Orchestras. For 25 years he supervised the University’s String Repair Shop maintaining the University and pre-college inventories of string instruments, bows, and cases. He worked with Pecknel Music Company repairing instruments owned by South Carolina school districts. He was privileged to study at the University of New Hampshire with Hans Nebel, one of the most respected string instrument restorers and repair techs in the United States.