Nova Strings Hits the Right Note Making Musical Accessories

Nearly 13 years ago, after a long career in the music instrument business, Xia Jin one day got a craving to go into business for himself. He left Eastman Strings, a music instrument seller where he was a principal, and started Nova Strings in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a full-line wholesaler of orchestral string instrument accessories.

“Eastman Strings had an accessory division. Xia basically took that division with him and that became our company,” explains Gordon Roberts, Nova Strings Sales and Marketing Manager.

As a niche marketing wholesaler, Nova Strings does not sell instruments. It’s perhaps only one of two companies in the country that sells only accessories for violins, violas, cellos, and basses.

The firm stocks a deep assortment of accessories within its 80,000 square-foot warehouse, including such products as AB rosin, chin rests, Xeros endpin anchors, metronomes, fingerboards, bows, and cases. Their customer base includes mostly specialist violin shops and some luthiers who make their living building instruments.

“We sell the luthiers parts that go on the instruments, such as bow hair for bow makers and bridges for violin makers,” says Roberts.

Despite being a small player in the music instruments business, Nova Strings has distinguished itself from its competitors in several ways.

“We’re very small, efficient, and have very little overhead compared to our larger competitors who also sell instruments,” remarks Roberts.

“We’re fully automated with excellent inventory control, so we’re rarely out of stock. Our customers are very loyal and many of them are used to the fact that they don’t even have to know the SKU numbers when they call us with an order. They just tell us what they want.

“Because we operate so efficiently, we can ship orders the same day. As a people-oriented company, we make it very easy for our customers to place orders and to talk to us if they have questions,” he adds.

Another competitive advantage is Nova Strings’ extensive knowledge of the violin accessory business. Most of their 10 employees have been involved in the business for more than 20 years. Roberts notes that even some of their competitors occasionally come to them for help.

Ebony Fingerboards

Ebony blanks used to make ebony fingerboards is one accessory Nova Strings always has on hand. Roberts says that since fingerboards of violins, violas, and cellos are the most touched surface on the instruments, they can wear out easily.

For that reason, ebony fingerboards with their durability, texture, acoustic quality, and attractive color are the wood of choice for luthiers who make fine instruments.
“Ebony fingerboards are much higher in cost than other woods, such as Rosewood, but they’re worth the investment,” he notes.

“Warping and shrinkage are at much greater risk with the less durable Rosewood fingerboards and especially veneered fingerboards. Ebony also is easier to reshape and resurface, unlike veneers, which are easier to replace than to repair,” he says.

While some luthiers may make fingerboards from polymer materials mixed with wood, Roberts says that the glue used to assemble them makes it impossible to reassemble should they need to be replaced. Ebony fingerboards, however, use horsehide glue that will easily dissolve when wetted, making repairs easier.
Roberts comments that when ebony supplies were high, suppliers took longer periods of time to season the wood before shipping to Nova Strings, thereby ensuring the wood’s moisture content was within prescribed parameters. But since supplies have been running lower of late, he acknowledges that the wood is not being seasoned as long.

“That’s the reason we check the wood when it comes to us. The moisture content is usually fine, but if not, we put the ebony on the shelf for six months to a year before we send it to our customers,” he says.

Moisture Measurement

Because Nova Strings is well aware that a musician’s instrument is a big investment in his or her career, they know construction of the instrument must take into account moisture. For that reason, the firm is especially careful when it sends ebony blanks to customers to craft into fingerboards.

“We got some complaints from customers who claimed we were selling them unseasoned ebony because once it was attached to the instrument, the wood later warped or cracked. But it clearly wasn’t our fault,” Roberts explains.

“We discovered they were shaping and attaching the ebony the same day they received it, then sending it out. They never let the wood acclimate to its new environment. We have a lot of moisture in Maryland, so if we send it to a drier location, like Santa Fe, for example, the wood needs to be acclimated for at least three months. If not, it will certainly warp or crack.”

As part of its customer service, Nova Strings educates their customers about how to properly acclimate wood used in instruments. The company also purchased the MMC220 wood moisture meter from Wagner Meters to guarantee that all wood arriving from suppliers or leaving their warehouse for customers meets stringent moisture content parameters.

“Since moisture parameters vary among species, Wagner provides us with the exact parameters for each species. It’s well-known within our industry that Wagner is the go-to meter. Not only is it extremely accurate, but since it’s pinless, it won’t harm the wood’s surface,” he notes.

Roberts added that while they have rarely received wood from their suppliers that wasn’t seasoned, they had to prove it to themselves and their customers that any moisture-related problems were due to customers failing to properly acclimate the wood.

It’s this attention to even the smallest of details — like ensuring the proper moisture content of its ebony blanks — that has helped Nova Strings build a large and loyal customer base. But beyond being detail oriented, Nova Strings also owes its success to boldly communicating to its customers a blended message of value, selection, convenience, personalized customer service, and experience.

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