Instrument Care by Claire Curtis

Instrument Care

by Claire Curtis

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


1. Keep your instrument clean.

Why? First, finger oils shorten the life of the strings. Secondly, rosin dust sinks into the varnish, bringing with it a lot of dirt and dust. This not only looks ugly, but it will eventually choke the sound of the instrument.

Recommendation: Wipe the strings and instrument with a clean cloth before putting it away in its case. If the instrument is very dirty, a damp cloth will do a good job of cleaning. Be patient; this will take awhile. The use of solvents or chemical polish is not recommended because of the danger of damaging the finish or rendering a crack or seam ungluable.

2. Pegs: use them and keep them lubricated

Why? Pegs expand and contract with temperature and humidity. The biggest problems come with seasonal changes. If you use the pegs (instead of just the fine tuners) to tune with every day, they will automatically adjust to an appropriate tightness. If the pegs stick or slip, use a little peg compound to lubricate the pegs. If this doesn't work, the pegs may need to be refitted. This requires specialized tools and is best done by a luthier. Eventually the pegs will wear to the point that they need to be replaced.

3.Bridge: inspect regularly

What am I looking for?
Angle: The back of the bridge (the side towards the tailpiece) should be perpendicular to the top of the violin. This means that the front of the bridge will seem to lean away from the fingerboard slightly. If the bridge leans towards the fingerboard, the feet are not making proper contact with the instrument and the sound will suffer. You can correct a leaning bridge by *gently* pulling the top of the bridge back towards the tailpiece while stabilizing the bottom of the bridge. Ask your luthier to demonstrate this technique.
While tuning, watch the bridge and keep it upright. The top of the bridge will be pulled towards the pegs whenever you tighten the pegs. The effect is a cumulative warping of the bridge. Eventually the bridge may even fall down. Using a pencil to lubricate the grooves on the bridge will help minimize the pull of the strings on the bridge.

Position: The placement of the bridge determines the vibrating string length. In most cases, the proper position will be on a line between the two inside notches of the ff-holes. However, some violins have different proportions, so that rule may not apply. Check with your luthier for the proper placement on your instrument.

Condition: Bridges may warp or crack, or they may slump so that the eyes are no longer open. In most cases, this means that the bridge should be replaced. The E-string may also be cutting into the bridge, which can be fixed by reinforcing the bridge with a piece of parchment.

Height and curvature: Look down the fingerboard at the bridge. The E-string should be very close to the fingerboard, while the G-string should have a bit less than twice the E-string clearance. The curve of the bridge should be very close to the curve of the fingerboard. If this is not the case, chances are the 'action' or 'feel' of the strings will be wrong. If the bridge had been correct at some earlier time, it is likely that the fingerboard has worn and needs planing, or even that the neck needs to be reset. Consult your luthier.

4. Fingerboard and nut: inspect

What am I looking for?
The fingerboard should be smooth. The strings should clear the fingerboard along the entire length. The nut should just allow a business card to be inserted under the strings next to the nut. Vibrating strings eventually wear down the fingerboard and nut, causing grooves that can be quite deep. This is a common cause of buzzes and other unpleasant sounds. The fingerboard will have to be 'dressed' or re-planed; the nut reshaped or replaced. This is a job for your luthier.

5. Soundpost: check position

What am I looking for?
The soundpost can be seen through the treble ff-hole. It should appear to stand straight up, and it should be located just behind the treble foot of the bridge. The soundpost is not glued. It should be snug but not jammed in too tight; if you take all the strings off the violin, a sudden shake will usually cause the post to fall. The top and bottom of the post should fit the curve of the inside of the violin exactly.

The position of the soundpost relative to the bridge is so important to the sound that the French call the soundpost the 'soul' of the violin. Some instruments sound better if the soundpost is in a slightly different position. This can only be determined by painstaking experimentation. This is best done in consultation with your luthier, but many musicians attempt to do it themselves. If you do want to adjust the soundpost position yourself, you will need a soundpost setter. You should also be prepared to reset the soundpost; chances are you will knock the soundpost down at least once while trying to adjust the position. This is not a task for the faint of heart, or for those lacking patience. Be careful not to damage the ff-holes; the edges are quite fragile.

6. Check Tailpiece and Fine Tuners

Why? Fine tuners often loosen and cause buzzes, or wear the strings so they break prematurely. It may be necessary to file down the fine tuner slot to prevent wear on the strings. Some strings, especially Dominants, are larger in diameter than the fine tuners are designed for, and the fine tuners may have been bent or filed to accommodate them. Fine tuners that are built into the tailpiece, or sit on top of the tailpiece, are superior to the ones that extend out from under the tailpiece, because they preserve the ratio of string length to afterlength.

The afterlength of a string affects its tone. In most cases, the tailgut should be shortened so the tailpiece is very close to the saddle. Your luthier can adjust it to the best length for your instrument. Also, check the condition of the tailgut. Modern tailgut is synthetic and does not have the wear problems associated with old-fashioned gut, but the ends may have been left long and may vibrate or cause buzzes.

7. Adjust Chinrest

Why? Ribs expand and contract with the weather and season. A chinrest that is tightened when the ribs have shrunken will be too tight when the weather changes and the ribs expand again. As a result, the ribs will buckle. This is especially a problem with chinrests that clamp to the side of the endblock. Chinrests that clamp over the tailpiece are superior in this regard because they clamp to the endblock and are much less likely to deform the ribs.

The chinrest can also come into contact with the tailpiece and cause buzzes. Check for clearance.

8. Replacing Strings

Remove and replace strings one at a time. Since the bridge is held on only by the pressure of the strings, it will fall if all the strings are removed. By removing and replacing one string at a time, the bridge and soundpost are held in position, making the procedure much easier.

Bring the strings up to the correct pitch; do not over-tighten and loosen down to the correct pitch. The breaking point of violin strings is only about 20% higher than the correct pitch, and overtightening can stress the strings and cause premature breakage.

Strings differ not only in tone, but in response, playability, and durability. Strings can be classified as solid core, stranded core, gut core, and synthetic core.

"Dominants" are probably the most popular student strings. They are synthetic core strings with a large diameter. They are prone to wear at the nut, in the pegbox, and at the tailpiece and fine tuners. They also break not far above tuning pitch, so care should be taken when tuning.

Recently, several other very good strings have come onto the market. You may want to experiment. Virtually all strings have to be "played in", and will eventually "wear out" so that the tone is muted. Although few students do so, it is recommended that strings be replaced once a year for optimum tone.