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Instrument Maintenance Guide

Caring for your stringed instrument will not only keep the instrument looking and sounding great, it will also help hold its resale value. Warped bridges, open seams, cracks, dings, and dents, while often an inevitable part of owning a stringed instrument, a little bit of care goes a long way to minimizing damage. Wood string instruments are a little like children; if you try to force them to do things you will often get negative results. Seriously though, forcing an instrument into a case or forcing stuck pegs to move or the like will almost always end badly. If the soundpost is down, the bridge looks like it will fall over at any minute, the fingerboard is loose or separated, cracks, open seams (especially at the block or neck), or any problem where string tension could cause damage or when in doubt; loosen the strings immediately!  This will cause the bridge to fall off which is okay, just put it safely inside the case. Lastly, always loosen the bow when it is not being played. Never hesitate to call us or call your luthier. Below you will find detailed point-by-point discussion of the various issues that arise as an instrument owner.

Cleaning and Polishing – The bow wont work without rosin but most of that rosin dust ends up falling onto the top of your instrument where it begins slowly eating its way into the varnish. To keep this from happening it is important to periodically clean the rosin off the top and sides of the instrument, the end of the fingerboard, and the stick of the bow. The best practice is to do this after each time the instrument is played using a soft cloth that has a bit of polish on it. For polish I recommend Gaurdsman Furniture Polish; which is available in many hardware and grocery stores for a fraction of the cost of instrument polish that can be purchased at a music store. Gaurdsman is a concentrate and can be diluted according to directions but I often use it straight out of the bottle in small amounts, it is also wonderful for your furniture, particularly heirlooms. If the rosin is already stuck on and will not come off with polish then a stronger solvent is needed. Please note that it needs to be a solvent that will not remove any finish! The cleaner available from Hans Weisshaar is an excellent cleaner of rosin and safe for nearly all finishes. However it is fairly costly. Really old built up rosin requires old- fashioned elbow grease, rubbing the cleaner in small circles until the finish is free of dull spots.  Once the rosin is removed the instrument can be polished with glowing results.

The Bow- For beginners the bow is an under-appreciated accessory to the instrument. Advanced players appreciate full well that the instrument is little without its essential counterpart – the bow. The most important thing to remember about the bow is that it needs to be loosened when it is not in use. Loose means that the screw at the end of the bow is turned in a counter clock-wise direction until the hairs just start to separate from each other. It is also important that the bow be secured in the case, having it rattling around inside can cause damage to instrument and bow alike. Rosin does not need to be applied until the dust is flying all over the place; it needs only enough to produce a solid even tone. Lastly, watch where you put your bow, secured in the bow holder in your case or in a bow case are the only truly safe places for a bow. On a bed or soft chair are bad ideas because it could be forgotten and sat upon. The music stand is also another classic horrible place to put a bow. Music stands are not long enough to hold a bow without one or both ends hanging off the sides. These exposed ends are then open to all kinds of blows from a whole variety of sources that can cause irreparable damage. Carbon fiber and plastic bows are more forgiving than wood bows but not indestructible.

The Case- A good case can go a long way toward protecting your instrument, but it is important to realize that no case is a padded steel safe capable of insuring against all harm.  Not fully latching and zipping (if applicable) a case can certainly cause damage if the instrument flies out of it when you pick it up. Don’t laugh, it happens. The bridge can be broken or the top severely damaged by leaving a shoulder rest, sponge, foam, music, polishing cloth, etc. under the instrument and closing the case on it. Items placed under the instrument can cause it to be lifted up and when the top is closed down it can put pressure on the top of the instrument and the bridge (which is already under pressure from the tension of the strings). So never place anything underneath the back of an instrument in a case. Most cases also have those little plastic devices that hold the bow in place - careful because the hair of the bow can get stuck here and break. Usually if you gently pull the hairs that are stuck they will come free. Cloth and padded cloth cases for cello and bass ONLY protect against cosmetic damage. When the instruments inside these cases are bumped, dropped, knocked around, or leaned against walls, bad things can happen to the instrument. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “we just opened the case and it was like this!” The neck is particularly sensitive to damage in cloth cases. Remember, these instruments are under large degrees of pressure just from the tension of the strings.

Dings, Dents, and Scratches (Oh My!)- Cosmetic damage is one thing that happens, even to the best cared for instruments. Generally speaking, the less expensive the instrument, the less durable the finish is. Very inexpensive (a.k.a. disposable) instruments are usually a brittle lacquer finish that will start flaking over time even when well cared for. Better instruments have a varnish but some varnishes are better than others. Quality oil and spirit varnishes will “give” when dented because the finish is flexible. Oil varnishes are more expensive and take much longer to apply and to dry (some of them never dry!). Areas where the finish has been removed can be touched up. Large areas and instruments that call for the best touch ups require artistic level skills to undertake and can be quite costly. Basic touchups on small areas are easier and should be taken care of sooner than later.

The Bridge- The Bridge is not glued in place! This is a good thing; it should never be glued in place. The bridge is held in place by the tension of the strings. This is very important for the tone production of the instrument. Generally speaking, the bridge feet (on the side facing the tailpiece) should be lined up with the inner notches on the f holes, though this can vary. Bridges have a life span; even the best bridges will have to be replaced over time. The life span of the bridge is dependent on a number of variables- the quality of the wood, the attention to detail when the bridge was fit, climatic changes, and maintenance of the angle by the instrument owner. Things that happen to the bridge over time can include:

  1. The strings wear the notches deeper. In my experience, the cheaper the strings, the quicker they wear down the notches. Also the cheaper the bridge, the softer the wood and the quicker the bridge gets worn in this way. This is problematic because the ever-deepening notches make the action lower and “pinch” the string causing a reduction in tone. Apply pencil lead to the notches each time the strings are changed to help the strings glide along the notches instead of cut or pull.
  2. The bridge will warp, usually towards the fingerboard. The angle of the bridge feet has a lot to do with how quickly it will warp and in which direction. Each time the strings are tightened the bridge gets “dragged” along. Again, pencil lead can lubricate the notches so the strings slide instead of pull. When putting on new strings, the bridge should be adjusted throughout the process. Tighten the string a little, then check the bridge angle and the contact of the bridge feet and adjust as needed. Grab the bridge feet on each side with your middle fingers and thumbs and push the bridge toward the tailpiece gently with your index fingers. Repeat this process for each string.

The Soundpost- Inside every bowed string instrument is a wooden dowel behind the bridge foot on the treble side. It can by seen through the f hole on that side. This post is critical not only to the tone production of the instrument, but also to its structural integrity. The placement of the post is important as well- many professional musicians will spend quite a bit of money having that stick moved around throughout the seasons to maintain optimal tonal production. If the post is ever down (rolling around inside) or clearly out of position, loosen the strings immediately! Then take the instrument to a luthier you trust to have the soundpost reset. Not doing so can result in cracks in the top and/or caving in of the top. Both of these problems can be very expensive to repair.

The Strings- The important thing to look for with strings is that they are wound properly, that they are not fraying or splitting, that they are not caked with excessive rosin, and that they are not so old that they begin to sound dull. The strings should be wound on the correct pegs, the string should be wound over the top of the peg, and the winding should wind out toward the head of the respective peg. In a perfect world the string would come off the peg in a straight line toward the groove of the nut. Check strings regularly for splits or fraying. This is most important near the bridge where worn strings can really dig into the bridge causing notching and warping. Near the bridge where the strings are bowed, the strings can get a build up of rosin. This build up can cause a dampening of the strings (it is also another good indication that too much rosin is being used). This can be cleaned with a dry cloth but care should be taken. It is unadvisable to use solvents or liquids to clean strings. Dull sounding strings may simply be old and worn out. Old strings can also become “false” which means they will not produce a discernible pitch. Old strings should be replaced.

The Pegs- Pegs are critical for tuning a stringed instrument. Traditional pegs are also referred to as “friction” pegs, meaning that they rely on friction to keep the strings from coming unraveled. The hole that the peg is in is tapered and the peg is tapered to match and these tapered surfaces allow the peg to essentially be wedged into place. However, this does not mean that they should be difficult to operate. Pegs should turn fairly easily, as if they are geared- sort of like wooden drawer slides that when fit properly and kept sanded and waxed will operate like drawers on rollers. Often times the problems with friction pegs occur when the holes and/or shafts become out of round. This is when people start doing all sorts of strange things to get the pegs to work right; slathering the pegs with peg compound or soap, using peg drops, chalk dust, rosin powder, and who knows what else. However this only addresses the symptoms, not the cause. Pegs that are stuck should not be forced; they need to be removed by a luthier who knows just how to tap them out without damaging the peg box or neck. Slipping pegs are either not “wedged” in enough, or need to have some of the lubricating compound cleaned off. Peg compound should be used sparingly- it says so right on the container. In my shop I have had the same container of peg compound for 4 years and it is not even ½ gone.

Geared Pegs and Tuning Machines- Over the years there have been a number of attempts at making geared pegs. Recently geared pegs have been developed that are a preferable alternative to friction pegs without detracting from the classic aesthetic beauty of the violin. The Caspari brand is most common of the older type. These are not bad but require a good deal of maintenance. Some luthiers (like us) can even repair them to save the costly repair of changing them to something else. Basses and some cellos have mechanical tuning machines that are mounted on each side of the peg box. These require occasional oiling for basic maintenance and should last a long time. Sometimes the tuning heads come loose and cause a great deal of buzzing, which can be repaired.

The Tailgut- This piece of material is found attached to the tailpiece and looped around the endbutton or endpin at the bottom of the instrument. The tailgut can be made of either plastic, metal, or less often the traditional gut (usually red). Sometimes this material will break particularly if it is gut or lower quality plastic. Ask your luthier about the condition of your tailgut and whether or not it needs replacing.

The Fingerboard and Nut- the fingerboard is the piece of ebony (or some other black colored material) that your fingers go on when the instrument is played. It is under the strings. The fingerboard is attached to the neck with glue and is very important not only for playing but as a structural support for the neck. For this reason if it ever comes loose or falls off it can cause breakage to the neck. Therefore if you can see it is loose or it falls off, loosen the strings immediately. Do not attempt to tape a fingerboard back on just to get through the concert unless you really want a new instrument. The nut is the small piece at the end of the fingerboard that holds the four strings in line as they come out of the peg box. The biggest issue that arises with the nut is when the grooves get worn down and the strings start buzzing on the fingerboard. Also, if left unattended, the strings will buzz channels into the surface of the fingerboard, which will require resurfacing, and can be somewhat costly when done properly. If you see that there is no space under a string where the string comes off the nut, the nut either needs to be replaced or shimmed.

Open Seams and Cracks- Open seams should be considered a normal occurrence for wood string instruments. The wood on the top and/or back expands and contracts through seasonal climate change and something has to give. Voila, open seams. These can be minimized only through climate control. Temperature is not so much the enemy as humidity. In the winter we heat the air inside which in turn dries it out. It is the dryness that is harmful not the 75 degree temperature. When you have an open seam it can be taken to a luthier to be re-glued. The only time an open seam can be damaging under tension is when the seam is opened at either the lower block where the endbutton or endpin is or at the upper block where the neck attaches to the instrument. If this is the case, loosen the strings immediately. Cracks are another matter. If you have a crack you want to make sure it is not in an area where the tension of the strings pushing down on the top could cause additional damage, i.e. in and around the bridge or along the center joint. If this appears to be the case, loosen the strings immediately (noticing a theme here?). A highly skilled luthier who specializes in bowed string instruments of the violin family should always care for cracks. To be repaired properly the top has to be removed and cracks need to be cleated. Cracks near to the f holes can be glued and cleated without removing the top. Cracks can be just glued by rubbing glue into the crack and squeezing the crack together with clamps but they will likely not stay closed for very long and these repairs should be treated as temporary solutions.