A few timely tips on string instrument care and maintenance.
Here in Michigan we're lurching toward the heart of winter: snow on the ground for four months, ice-encased cars, and the early-morning cacophony of salt trucks and snow plows. But even if you don't live in a winter wonderland like we do, we thought this would be the perfect time to share a few of our instrument care and maintenance tips.
We offer a few tips below on basic instrument care, including and temperature and humidity advice, from our "Instrument Care & Maintenance" guide. For more instrument care tips on pegs, strings, and periodic inspection you can check out the full guide linked above. Though it probably goes without saying, we want your violins, violas, cellos, and basses to sound as full, rich, and precise as they should (and to look as good as they sound).
Special thanks to our SHAR Apprentices for their hard work compiling these informational videos and guides over the years!
Instrument Care and Maintenance
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 maintenance 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.
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 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%|
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.
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.