One of the most exciting things about having a stringed instrument is the beautiful music one can make with it. Learning about such everyday matters as proper care and maintenence can, as a result, fall by the wayside. Players, teachers, and parents alike all too often and all too easily find themselves thinking of care as repair. However it is a fact that both the time invested in careful handling and the money spent on preventative maintenance are considerably less than the inconvenience, cost, and potential loss of value incurred in fixing damage due to accident or neglect.
Whether you presently own an instrument of which you are proud, are searching for another instrument, or maintain a collection, we invite you to familiarize yourself with instrument care and maintenance procedures so that stringed instruments can continue bringing beauty and joy to you.
Handling an Instrument When handling a stringed instrument, one should constantly be aware that the varnish of a fine violin, viola, cello, or bass is very fragile. Players should avoid putting their hands directly on the varnish of the instrument whenever possible. While playing, care should be taken to protect the instrument from damage by jewelry, buttons, and zippers. While in their cases, violins and violas should be protected against possible damage by using a blanket or instrument bag.
Cleaning The recommended method of cleaning is to use a soft cloth to remove rosin dust, oil, and dirt from the instrument immediately after each use. Special treated or untreated cloths may be purchased specifically for cleaning instruments. If a treated cloth is used, one should take great care not to use it on the strings or get it near the hair of the bow. Other cloths may also be used provided they are soft, lint-free, and non-abrasive. There is a wide variety of polishes and cleaners available for stringed instruments. However, if an instrument is properly maintained, these products will not often be necessary. If using a polish or cleaner, always test for compatibility with the varnish in a small inconspicuous area of the instrument. On a related note, using commercial or household solvents near an instrument is to be avoided since, in some cases, even the vapors can cause serious damage. Shar Products sells a variety of cleaning supplies; visit the Shar Cleaning Department (General Accessories area).
Humidity Humidity control should be of great concern to players of wooden instruments. Bowed string instruments in particular are made of a number of pieces of wood of different types and grain direction which can be susceptible to fluctuations in humidity. Too much or too little humidity can be the cause of arching distortion, cracks, neck projection problems, glue joint separations, strings which are too high or low, soundposts which are too loose or tight, and many other problems. Here is a guide for maintaining the proper level of humidity:
Actual Humidity Outside
Recommended Humidity Inside
Up to 20%
30 - 40%
30 - 40%
40 - 60%
40 - 50%
In climates with severe seasonal temperature and humidity fluctuations, maintaining consistency can be a difficult task. While several case or instrument-held humidifiers are available, it is most advisable to humidify or dehumidify the environment in which the instrument is kept the majority of the time. It is important to remember that humidifiers for use inside the case or instrument are only effective when the case is closed. Once the case is opened, all of the humidified air quickly vanishes. Humidity is most easily measured with a wall-mounted hygrometer kept in the same room in which the instrument is stored. Smaller hygrometers are available, but their readings may not be as accurate. The Stretto® hygrometer is highly accurate and we recommend it. Instruments may, of course, be taken from their properly-humidified environments in order to be played for reasonable periods of time. This can be done without harm as long as the instrument is returned to its environment of proper humidity before the wood loses or gains an undue amount of moisture.
Temperature In addition to damage caused by drastic humidity changes, instruments are also susceptible to damage caused by rapid fluctuations in temperature. While in colder climates it is often impossible to avoid subjecting an instrument to low temperatures, it is important to make certain that the rate of temperature change is as slow as possible. This may be accomplished by allowing an instrument to warm up to room temperature inside the case. Excess heat may soften the varnish which can pick up impressions of shoulder rests and case lining fabric or, in extreme cases, may "alligator" or cause the instrument to stick to the inside of the case. Instances of excess heat can happen at any season and are most often caused by leaving the case in the direct sun, next to a heater, or unattended in either the passenger or luggage compartments of an automobile.
Strings Strings have three vibrating sections: in the pegbox, between the nut and bridge, and between the bridge and tailpiece. In order to help prevent repeated breakage, these three lengths must all be able to adjust themselves to the same tension. A properly shaped nut should allow each string to make a smooth, even curve from the fingerboard into the pegbox. The grooves on the nut should be wide enough to allow the strings to pass over the nut to the pegs without binding. Similarly, bridge grooves should be cut with the proper width, depth, and curve to allow the string to pass to the tailpiece with ease. When changing strings, graphite from a soft "lead" pencil applied to both nut and bridge grooves will help the strings slide more easily, thus equalizing tension and prolonging string life. If strings break continuously, a technician should inspect both the nut and bridge grooves and make necessary adjustments.
Pegs The proper fit and operation of the pegs is important to both the health of the instrument and the convenience of the player. A common complaint is sticking or excessive slipping. Humidity changes play a large part in causing this problem since wood pegs will tend to become oval when they shrink or swell. Out-of-round pegs do not contact the pegbox walls effectively. Should this be a chronic problem, a technician should be consulted and the pegs adjusted for better fit. Pegs which fit well should be lubricated with any of several peg compound products on the market. An old-fashioned remedy for slipping pegs is the application of rosin dust, however, we DO NOT suggest this remedy since rosin dust may fuse pegs to the pegbox.
Winding the strings on the pegs correctly is also very important for the pegs to function smoothly. Strings should leave the peg on the thicker end of the shaft (towards the peg head). Additionally, by adjusting the length of the string winding which is inserted through the peg hole, a player can adjust the position of the peg head so that it is comfortable for tuning.
A common complaint often voiced particularly by younger players is that pegs do not hold. Often this is caused by the player who neglects to put pressure on the end of the peg while turning it. An easy cure to this problem is for the player to visualize the peg as having threads which "screw" into the pegbox as the peg is pushed in and turned in either direction.
Periodic Inspection Players should develop the habit of inspecting their instruments at least once a week for such problems as broken string windings, leaning bridges, improper string height, open glue joints, and cracks. Strings can be easily changed by the player. Leaning bridges can be straightened by experienced players. Improper string height can be indicative of a variety of problems including misplacement of the bridge, low neck projection, arching distortion, and extreme changes of humidity. String height problems, open joints and cracks should be promptly inspected and repaired by a technician. If leaning bridges, open joints, and cracks are left unattended, instruments can sustain serious additional damage which can be both difficult and expensive to repair.
Finding Buzzes & Rattles Non-musical noises can come from a variety of causes - some easily fixed, some not. Sources of common, easily-fixed noises include rattling fine tuners, loose string windings, and chinrests which have either come loose or have moved into contact with the tailpiece. Players can easily lubricate fine tuner screw with soap or paraffin, replace strings, and tighten chinrest clamps with a chinrest wrench.
More problematic are noises caused by open glue joints, cracks, low nuts, worn fingerboards, and any of a number of unnoticed parts which rattle when they are loose. (Open glue joints between the top, ribs, and back can be found by gently tapping around the edges of the instrument with a knuckle or fingertip.) Cracks may be noticed by the player while cleaning the instrument after playing. Identification of other noise sources may require the services of a technician. Problems such as these should always be referred to a technician for proper repair.
Bridge A bridge which is cut well, fits properly, and is located in the right place contributes greatly to attaining the optimum sound an instrument is capable of producing. A good bridge is the result of a technician's experience, training, and understanding of acoustics. Violas and cellos, which are less standardized than violins, have a variety of available bridge widths. Cello bridges also have two basic designs-French and Belgian. The choice of bridge for viola and cello will depend on such instrument construction factors as placement of the f-holes, the location of the bass bar, and the overall size.
Soundpost The soundpost has been referred to as the "soul" of the instrument. Its correct fit is extremely important to the instrument's performance and health. The adjustment of a poorly fitting sound post can cause damage to the top of an instrument. Since instruments change shape due to stress, changing temperature and humidity levels, it is important to have the fit of the sound post checked regularly.
Neck Angle A common maintenance problem is neck projection which tends to lower with time. This is due in part to arching distortion occurring to the top of the instrument. An insufficient neck angle can cause both a weak tone as well as bow clearance problems at the C bouts. When the neck angle becomes too low to allow for comfortable playing, a technician should reset the neck to the proper height. The use of an arching protector is advised on higher arched instruments. These devices, which help prevent the outward bulging of the top of the instrument under the fingerboard, are available commercially or can be made in a few minutes by a qualified technician.
Cracks & Openings Should a crack or opening develop in an instrument, one should avoid touching or polishing the instrument in the repair area. (Oils and dirt can cause discoloration, repel glue and touchup varnish, and complicate a repair, which would be simpler and stronger with a clean crack.) Technicians reinforce cracks with cleats in most cases. In the sound post area, a patch may be required to make a proper repair. (Fortunately, cracks which originate at the edge of the instrument, particularly on the top, can be slowed or stopped by the purfling which serves this practical as well as decorative function.)