How to properly care for your string instruments and bows

First things first

Taking proper care of your stringed instrument is important and often, a little preventative maintenance can save you costly repairs in the future. It’s good practice to take your instrument to an experienced repair person at least once or twice a year for check-ups, small repairs or minor adjustments. In between those visits, there are some things you can do to help extend the longevity of your instrument and ensure it’s always in good playing condition. Below you’ll find some helpful tips on how to keep your stringed instrument and bow in tip top shape for every performance.

Overall Care

Extreme temperature or humidity changes can cause the wood to crack or shrink so avoid placing your string instrument or bow near heaters, air conditioning vents or in the sun for prolonged periods of time. It’s also good to let your instrument adjust to a new temperature or humidity level before opening up the case. The greater the change, the longer the wait time to ensure both pieces can adjust accordingly.

Never use alcohol or hot water for cleaning your bow or instrument. Both of these liquids can damage the wood or dissolve the varnish.

It’s good to choose a case with accessory compartments. Placing items such as music sheets, folders or jewelry in the case with your instrument can scratch the wood or cause other damages.

Before placing violins or violas back in the case, be sure to remove the shoulder rest or pad.

Don’t horseplay with or around your instrument or bow as unexpected accidents can occur. Also avoid leaving them unattended, hanging from a stand or on a chair. It’s a good habit to put them back in the case as soon as you’re done playing or performing.

String Instrument Care

Ensure your instrument is stored in the proper humidity level. Around 55% is ideal and anything below 40% is worrisome. That being said, appropriate humidity levels can vary depending on where you live. In areas where humidity levels are high, you can make an arch protector from folded cardboard to help avoid possible arch collapse. Simply wedge it lightly under the fingerboard about halfway between the end and where the neck joins the body (where the arching is the highest) when the instrument is not being used. Be sure to place the rectangular block facing the exterior so as not to damage the varnish. Artificial heat in the winter can lower humidity levels so having a humidifier in the room where you store your instrument is recommended. This can prevent the wood from drying out and cracking. Another option when humidity levels are low is an individual instrument humidifier. Just make sure to wipe any excess moisture off the humidifier before placing it in the hole as moisture inside your instrument can cause excessive damage.

After playing, be sure to always wipe the body, fingerboard and strings clean. Pay close attention to removing the rosin dust under the strings as well as hand moisture off both the strings and fingerboard. A 100% cotton cloth is recommended as it picks up dust and dirt most effectively and it should be washed regularly to avoid build-up.

The most common causes of scratches, dings and dents on your instrument are usually personal items. Watches and other jewelry, as well as jacket or shirt buttons, are usually the main culprits so be aware of these potential risks when you’re handling your instrument.

If you perspire a lot when you play your violin or viola, it’s a good idea to place a small cloth or pad over the chin rest. For cellists and bassist, a cloth or bib fastened around the neck of the instrument and draped between the back of the instrument and your sternum, provides the perfect shield and protects the varnish against perspiration.

If your instrument doesn’t fit snugly in the case, placing a small blanket or cloth over the top can help provide added protection.

It’s always a good idea to occasionally check the feet of your violin or viola shoulder rests to make sure they haven’t worn through the protective rubber tubing. Whenever necessary, replace the tubing as soon as possible to avoid damaging the area where the feet come in contact with your instrument.

Another area to keep an eye on is under the tailpiece. Make sure the string adjuster lever isn’t pressing against the instrument belly as overextension can cause damage to the wood or varnish.

Minimize peg slippage when tuning instruments by gently twisting the peg inwards as the peg is turned to ensure firm contact between the peg and hole. It’s very similar to how you would twist a cork into a cork hole. Each time your instrument is tuned, also check the back of the bridge to make sure it is still perpendicular to the top and that the feet are flush against the belly.

Keep an eye on rough edges or splinters around the edges of your instrument, especially celli. They can snag on clothing or carpet which can cause even more damage.

Do not continue to play your instrument if the soundpost falls. Loosen the strings and take your instrument to an experienced repair shop as soon as possible. The pressure of the strings could collapse the unsupported top.

Knocked off corners or cracks should also be immediately fixed by a qualified repair person. Never try to glue an open seam or crack yourself. If not done properly, glue or glue water can damage the varnish.

Bow Care

There is no need to rosin the bow every time you play your instrument as too much rosin creates a gritty sound. Rosin should be applied sparingly and evenly by drawing the bow hair over with slow, even strokes. You can prevent deep grooves from forming in the rosin cake by simply rotating it after every use, and never tap the head of the bow against anything to remove excess rosin.

Sometimes the hair on the bow will need to be shortened, lengthened or completely replaced. This is necessary when the hair stretches to a point that tightening doesn’t provide enough tension for the hair to clear the stick, or if the hair is too short and the stick is under constant tension even when the screw is fully loosened.

Bow hair needs to be even and full. Always check to make sure you don’t have any broken hairs as warping can occur when the ribbon of the hair becomes uneven. After playing, you should always loosen the hair. This will avoid stretching, keeps the bow from warping and preserves the curvature of the bow.

To accommodate the type of piece being played, players may want to adjust the tension of the hair. For example, an aggressive fortissimo passage requires a slightly more tensioned stick. When you perform, avoid playing on the side of the stick as this causes the stick to wear quickly and damages octagonal facets.

Try not to touch the bow hair with your fingers as natural oil on the hair makes it harder for you to create a clear, resonant sound. You can clean the stick of your bow with a fresh, cotton cloth after every use. Be sure to get the area underneath the shaft between the hair and stick.

It’s best to hold your bow by the frog and carry it with the tip raised and cradling the head.

Often with cellists, the edge of the leather thumb grip near the frog begins to wear and causes erosion of the wood underneath. If this occurs, be sure to replace the leather thumb grip as soon as possible or put on a protective leather patch to prevent even more damage. Another option is to put a piece of surgical rubber over the area to protect the stick.

Mites and insects can destroy bow hair so be sure to keep your case off the floor and away from carpeted areas. Placing a cedar block in the accessory compartment can help deter these pests. Mothballs are a great solution too. Be sure both of these items are placed only in the accessory compartment and not in the case as moth balls can damage the varnish on your instrument.

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