Instrument Care by Claire Curtis
violinmaking

Instrument Care

by Claire Curtis

part 1: Prevention
part 2: Maintenance
part 3: Repairs

Prevention

1. Keep your instrument away from extremes of temperature and humidity.

Why?
When conditions are too humid: Wood swells; pegs stick tight. This can cause pegbox cracks. The glue absorbs moisture from the air and seams may open.

When conditions are too dry: Wood shrinks; the pegs slip. In extreme cases the instrument may seem to fly apart; the strings loosen, the bridge fall down, and even the soundpost may fall. The saddle shrinks less than the top, which can cause cracks on the face of the instrument.

When conditions are too warm: Glue softens in the heat, causing open seams. (The worst scenario is to leave your violin in the trunk of your car. It's possible to come back to a caseful of violin parts.) Varnish softens and sticks to the case. Wood swells. The humidity is usually higher when the temperature is higher, making things worse.

When conditions are too cold: Varnish shrinks and can cause craquelure (fine cracks). Glue becomes brittle; seams may open. Pegs shrink, loosening the strings.

Recommendation: Keep your instrument in conditions in which you would feel comfortable. Room temperature and 50% humidity is best. Minimize changes in temperature and humidity. For instance, when you come inside in the winter, unzipper the case but do not open it for at least fifteen minutes. This allows the instrument to gradually warm up and the moister air to infiltrate gradually.

2. Protect the instrument against impacts.

Much of the strength of the instrument comes from its shape; the wood itself is quite thin. Furthermore, the strings put a lot of force on the instrument. Simply knocking over the bridge may cause seams to open. A slight blow to the right spot can be transmitted by the soundpost to cause a soundpost crack on the top or back, especially if the soundpost is too tight. Dropping the instrument may break the neck off. Even if no damage is immediately visible, a blow can shatter glue, causing a nearly untraceable buzz, and leading to open seams or cracks later.

Recommendation: Use a good quality case, preferably a suspension case. Hold the instrument carefully, and put it down gently. If you do jar it, inspect it carefully to make sure the bridge and soundpost are still in position, and no other damage has been done.

3. Protect the instrument from scratches and varnish damage.

The varnish on a violin is very thin and easy to damage. Many cases have inadequate padding and allow the bow to contact the top of the violin, creating a typical 'bow blemish'. This can be prevented by simply using a blanket on the violin in the case.

Violins should also be protected from solvents -- and that includes things like excess perspiration! If you sweat, consider using a chinrest cover of some sort; a handkerchief will do. Sometimes, violinists with sweaty hands have a thin removable plastic film placed on the upper bout of the rib, where the hand rests.

Many varnishes are alcohol-soluble, so be cautious when the drinks are served (or if you have a 'bar gig'!). And if a drop does get onto your violin, blot it quickly - but do not rub! You're just apt to make a smear. And of course, be cautious around any sort of cleaning fluid. Even water, if allowed to sit on the surface long enough, may cloud the varnish. If you have to fumigate a case or clean the lining, make sure ALL traces of the fluid are gone, and the case is bone dry, before putting the instrument back in the case.

Recommendation: Treat your instrument like your beloved baby. Cover it with a blanket and don't let anything irritate its skin.