Violin, Viola and Cello Care - tips and tricks

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Some useful information for the care of Violins, Violas and Cellos :

The following guide may prove useful when purchasing or considering a new or replacement instrument. We have endeavoured to cover as much information as possible whether you are an expericenced player or newcomer to stringed instruments. We hope to add to this guide over time but hopefully some of the information listed here may prove useful!

Instrument Care

Heat and damp are the enemies of stringed instruments. Never leave an anywhere where the instrument could potentially get either too hot or damp. Avoid leaving it in a sunny room, particularly where direct strong sunlight might fall on it in your absence. Humidity can also be an issue, particularly with central heating as the atmosphere can become very dry. This can cause problems with seams and any previous repairs that the instrument may have had. The key principal is to avoid extreme change as most instruments cope reasonably well with all the small changes associated with normal playing. If you suspect that the atmosphere is too damp then place some silica sachets in the instrument case which will help absorb moisture. If the atmosphere is too dry where the instrument is typically kept then either purchase and instrument humidifier ( Dampit or similar ) or place a small open container of water in the room as the natural slow evaporation of this will usually be sufficient to provide a better balance.

Strings

When should strings be replaced?

This is a big question and everyone has a different answer. It really depends on the string and how often you play. Most strings with regular use (1/2 hour to an hour a day) should be replaced every six to eight months. The tone of strings can also change and notes appear false - generally sharper in the higher registers - and this is also a good indication that it is time to change. Gut strings can fray or dry out and this is again a sign that the string needs replacement.

Strings come in a great variety. Many fiddlers like the steel string for its power. The perlon (or kevlar) core strings tend to have a smoother sound and last quite well. Experimentation and experience will help you choose your string. Remember to wipe the rosin from the strings frequently with a dry duster that you keep specifically for the purpose - rosin that is difficult to remove can be softened using a commercial cleaner such as Pirastros string cleaner. If using gut strings then it is also recommended to apply some string oil after cleaning as cleaning products can dry the strings out. Any alcohol based cleaner should be used with the utmost care to ensure that excess liquid does not drip onto the instrument varnish as this will almost certainly damage the instrument finish.

String replacement

When changing strings, always change them one at a time, to ensure that the soundpost inside the instrument is not allowed to fall. Check the bridge for shape and verticality afterwards. If you do need to remove all the strings at once ensure that the tailpiece is supported and does not impact with the table of the instrument - varnish damage, although usually only cosmetic, can adversely affect the value of an instrument as well as its' appearance. Try also to ensure that the string is wound onto the peg in a consistent manner - start at the side of the retaining hole nearest the peghead and gradually work the string winding outwards towards the cheek of the pegbox. This will help retain the peg properly and also assist in preventing peg slippage. It is also important to ensure that the bridge remains upright. Tensioning the strings naturally pulls the bridge towards the fingerboard so always check that the bridge remains at 90 degrees to the table of the instrument. A bridge that is left at the wrong angle will not only adversely affect the sound of the instrument but is also likely to warp which will ultimately necessitate replacement.

Make sure that fine tuners don't ever touch the top of the instrument, particularly with violins and violas. This can happen on some instruments when the tuner is fully tightened and the levers can come in contact with the top of the instrument, causing buzzing, putting the other strings out of tune and potentially damaging the face of the instrument.

If you are using Gut strings then there are a few other factors that need to be taken into consideration. Be careful when you are fitting the string not to create any unnecessary kinks or bends in the string as this will weaken it and most likely lead to early replacement. If a string is dry then apply some string oil, such as supplied by Pirastro, which will help prevent breakage. If you're using a double length string then always ensure that you first measure the string against the instrument prior to cutting - this may seem obvious but once a string has been cut to the wrong length it cannot be rectified.

Taking care of the bridge 

The bridge is one the most important parts of the set-up of a stringed instrument. It regulates the sound of the fiddle by setting the height of the strings and setting the relationship of the string to the instrument. A well cut bridge should give a string height higher on the 'g' side than the 'e' side ( in the case of a violin ) and the feet should fit the contour of the instrument table perfectly. A bridge should always be kept vertical and straight. As previously mentioned it is the natural tendency of the bridge to tip towards the fingerboard as the strings are tensioned during tuning. Once a bridge has warped through neglect it is permanently damaged and there is no real option other than replacement. A routine of regularly checking that it is set correctly will help prevent this and avoid additional cost and inconvenience. A correctly aligned bridge should have its back face (the one facing the player and the tailpiece) at a 90º angle to the line where the sides meet the face of the instrument. Since the bridge itself is somewhat wedge-shaped, and sits on a curved surface, use its back face and that line of the body as references. It will thus seem to lean back just a bit. It is also essential that the bridge feet make complete contact with the table of the instrument as this is the main mechanism for transferring the sound produced by the strings to the body of the instrument. There should be no gaps under the feet of the bridge and the bridge should not be tipped in any direction as this will cause the feet to lift at either the back or front edges. If the bridge curls forward it is most likely warped and it may be time to have the bridge replaced. The other critical adjustment is the placement of the feet of the bridge. The average violin bridge is typically fitted between 190-195mm from the upper edge at the joint of the neck to the body and approximately 400-415mm for 'cello. This is typically along an imaginary line drawn between the two inside nicks of the f-holes. The placement of Viola bridges varies greatly and it is, therefore, not possible to supply an average distance. If a there are marks on the table of the instrument where the bridge has obviously always sat then it is advisable to utilise this existing position unless specifically advised to change it by your luthier.
 
Adjusting the bridge on any stringed instrument should always be approached cautiously and it is always better to move by degrees rather than endeavouring to significantly reposition in one attempt. A side-to-side adjustment must first ensure that the strings are well-centered over the fingerboard. Great care must be taken to not allow the bridge feet to slip suddenly, or to allow the bridge to fall over as either could cause damage to either the bridge or the instrument. To adjust a violin or viola bridge, the instrument should be placed in the lap, scroll pointed away from you. Grip the base of the bridge firmly between the thumbs and middle fingers of both hands, and adjust the top gently with the index fingers. Ordinarily this involves gently nudging the top of the bridge back toward the tailpiece.  With cellos and basses, the string tension is much greater - though with care the average player can straighten a cello bridge as follows: with the instrument lying safely on a soft surface, grip the top of the bridge with thumb and fingertips at the top, by each string, and tug it back gently but firmly, a little bit by each string, one then another, over and over until the bridge is again vertical. If the feet of the bridge fit properly, they will be snug on the top when the bridge is straight up. 

A little graphite from a pencil lead rubbed in the string grooves of the bridge will also help the strings pass over the bridge smoothly. This should be done perhaps once a month or when the strings are changed.

To protect the bridge from the 'e' or 'a' string slowly cutting into the wood of the top, a small, thin piece of leather or parchment is usually glued into place over the string groove. If your bridge doesn't have one, use the small sleeve provided with most new 'e' and 'a' strings.

Pegs

Pegs can, occasionally, be problematic(!) and this can either be through sticking or slipping or also through improper tuning technique. Pegs can also be prone to changes in temperature or humidity, which again, can affect their effectiveness and prove quite frustrating. With pegs that slip often a straightforward clean is sufficient to rectify the problem. Unwind the string and then remove the peg and wipe with a fine steel wool and replace. Cleaning inside the peg hole may also be necessary but it is adviseable to proceed with caution. Remove the peg and gently scrape any excess build-up of dirt or paste from the inside of the peghole - a small knife is usually best although often even the end of a clean cloth can prove sufficient.

Pegs are tapered, and must contact the insides of the holes on both sides of the pegbox. This is how they would rdinarily be fitted by a luthier but pegs can and do wear over time. If a peg is sticking then sparing application of a compound such as Hills Peg Paste can most often ensure that the peg turns smoothly. Assuming the surfaces are making good contact and assuming you have the right type and amount of peg paste on them, the next issue is how the peg is turned. It is important when tuning to press in on the peg as you turn it. This helps to ensure that the surfaces of the peg and the pegbox remain properly engaged and in place. This will certainly help prevent pegs slipping. If you need to, you can prop the instrument vertically in your lap and, holding the opposite side of the pegbox with one hand (to take the strain off the neck joint), press in and turn the peg with the other. If the peg seems to pop out, especially when it's been sitting in a case not even being played, it probably has to do with temperature change and the quality of contact of the bearing surfaces.

Occasionally, pegs fit poorly and it is recommended they be replaced. Pegs that don't fit can slip, can have a "bump" in them while turning, or stick out on the other side of the peg-box. If pegs stick out too much or there is a crack in the peg-box, a bushing may be required. A bushing involves filling the peg hole with a tapered dowel and re-cutting a new smaller hole for the peg to avoid excess pressure on a crack when turning.

Instrument Varnish

Varnish is an often overlooked but important aspect of an instrument that can also have a considerable influence on the way an instrument works. The varnish serves not only to protect the instrument but also to influence and enhance the sound. On fine instruments the varnish gives many clues as to the individual makers style and many makers still keep the exact ingredients of their particular blend a closely guarded secret. It is, therefore, important that the original finish is preserved and particular care should be given to ensure that the instrument is kept clean.

Varnish naturally wears over time and with use and this is what lends older instruments their unique patina, however, significant damage to the finish of an instrument will greatly affect its value.

Always ensure that excess rosin and sweat is gently removed with a soft, dry and clean cloth. If a polish is to be used then we would recommend Hills Polish which should be applied sparingly and in accordance with the makers instructions. Do not use any product not specifically intended as an instrument cleaner and never use an alcohol based cleaner as this will soften the varnish and cause serious damage.

Never clean an instrument if you suspect that there are open seams or cracks. Contamination from dirt and cleaning materials can make some open seams and cracks very difficult to repair properly and what may have been quite a straightforward repair can become both complex and expensive. As usual, if in doubt consult a qualified professional.

Ensure that your hands are clean before handling an instrument and avoid placing the instrument on surfaces that are, or could easily become, dirty or damp - Pub tables are a classic example! Continually placing the instrument on hard surfaces will also contribute to wear and tear. Ill fitting cases can also be a major cause of damage - if need be ensure that your instrument is wrapped in cloth to prevent excessive movement.

If your instrument is particularly in need of substantial cleaning then it should be taken to your local luthier who will be able to ensure that the instrument is cleaned without damage to the varnish.


The Soundpost 

The soundpost is a small spruce dowel that transfers sound from the top, near the treble foot of the bridge to the back. Its primary purpose is to carry vibrations from the bridge to the back, which is a resonating surface. The quality and density of the post, where the post is positioned, and how well each end of it fits the interior surfaces it touches, have a major effect on the tone of an instrument. A poorly fitted soundpost will have a very detrimental effect on the sound of an instrument and fitting, installing and adjusting a soundpost is a job that should only be undertaken by a qualified luthier. If the soundpost ever drops, get an experienced luthier to set it back right for you. Loosen the strings a bit, but leave enough tension to keep the bridge in place so the tailpiece is kept away from the face of the instrument.

FingerBoard

The fingerboard of an instrument is not flat. It is scooped allowing the strings to play true without buzzing. Lack of scoop or a bump in the board will cause frustrating noise. In this case a dressing or 'shooting' of the fingerboard will be required. This will remove any bumps, undulations and unwelcome string buzzing. Fingerboards are rarely replaced unless they have become very thin or have cracked. It is not uncommon, however, for fingerboards to either come loose or detach. If this happens then take the instrument to your luthier and they will normally be able to re-glue the board without too much of a problem. It is never advisable to undertake reglueing unless properly qualified to do so. Luthiers use a specific type of glue, called hide glue, which is applied hot and is water soluable. Use of an incorrect glue or procedure can make future repairs both difficult and expensive.

Lubricate the string grooves in the nut on a regular basis with a soft graphite pencil. If you find that strings are breaking on a too frequent basis then also check that the string grooves in the nut are not the cause of the problem - if these are worn it can result in the strings being 'pinched' and weakened which may ultimately lead to the string breaking prematurely. String buzzing can also be a sign that these grooves have excessive wear in which case a luthier will need to correct the problem.

Cracks and open seams

Even with the best of care, changes in temperature and the ageing process can lead to seams opening and cracks appearing in older instruments. The vast majority of these can be repaired with relative ease. Never, however, ignore an open seam or crack as not only will time ensure that the crack becomes worse, it will also become far more difficult to repair. If you suspect that your instrument has a problem, loosen the strings to relieve some of the tension and take it to your local repairer as soon as is practical.

Bows

Instrument bows are very fragile and should be treated with the utmost care. Always return your bow to the instrument case when not in use and never leave it where anyone might inadvertantly knock it, stand on it or otherwise cause damage.

Don't over-tighten the bow hair and always slacken the bow when it is not in use. Remove any broken bow hair and if the hair is consistently breaking in the middle of the bow it is possible that it has been attacked by carpet beetle larvae ( the same larvae that develops into the clothes moth ). If you suspect that this is the case then vacuum the case over a period of two or three days and ensure that you place a suitable moth repellant in the case.
 
Broken tips (the little ivory or whalebone reinforcement plate on the tip of the bow) should always be replaced if it becomes damaged.

Always avoid directly touching the bow hair wherever possible as grease is almost impossible to remove and will make the bow almost unusable. If the bow starts slipping ( i.e. you are having to apply rosin on too regular a basis ) or the bow hairs start thinning then ensure that the bow is re-haired.  

Should your bow be damaged, chances are that it can be repaired. Be aware, however, that damage to the head of the bow or the stick can significantly affect value.

Cases

There is no substitute for a sturdy, well-fitting case.  Using a case blanket or a cloth to lay over the face of violin or viola in its case is a very good idea. The piece of cloth can be used to wipe off excess rosin and so on - always a good idea. It also serves to protect the face of the violin from the bow, the bow holder and from things that may have somehow mysteriously come loose inside the case.  Hard cases for cellos are extremely vulnerable in a vertical position. Avoid a broken neck and always leave these cases laying on their side while unattended. At home, a bungee cord and some hooks can make possible storing the case vertically, to save space.  Never leave a cello or a bass resting vertically against a wall. They will fall, and the neck will most likely break off. Always leave on thier side when not in use, or purchase a suitable stand.

Check out our eBay store for fine violins, violas and cellos - all well cared for!

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