Care & Repair of Violins or Violas: How to Clean a Violin or Viola
How to clean a violin or viola
Simply keeping your instrument clean before dirt and grime build up is the safest, most economical approach. It’s also simple: just wipe off your instrument as soon as you’re done playing—more often if the sweat is flying. Don’t wait for another day. Sweat is corrosive and will eventually eat through strings and varnish before starting on the wood. Rosin and varnish are both resins and, left in contact, the two substances want to meld into one.
What You’ll Need
A soft cotton cloth or, better yet, one of the newly developed microfiber cleaning cloths, which attract dirt and dust like a magnet to remove rosin are recommended. Make sure to have more than one on hand so that there’s always one in your case while the other is being laundered. Some players use a chamois to clean the strings and chin rest. Others use alcohol wipes, the kind used to clean the skin before an injection, for the chin rest. Be very careful—alcohol dissolves varnish in an instant and wiping up the mess only makes it worse.
1. Wipe off the rosin. The obvious place is under the strings where you bow, but don’t forget the harder-to-reach areas under the fingerboard, tailpiece, and chi rest. Hint: if the rosin is flying off your bow, you’re using too much. Too much rosin has the opposite of the desired effect.
2. Wipe off the rest of your instrument. You might be surprised at some of the places your hands wander. The rib and upper edges of the top on the treble side as you go into high positions and the chin rest area are the most obvious spots, also the top of the back where your hand rests while holding the neck in rest position. A gray scum builds up that is not just your sweat or your hand lotion, but is also decomposing varnish. The scroll always gets handled as you hold the peg to tune. Even the smallest little habit of holding the instrument lightly below the treble f-hole as you turn a page, or setting it on your lap and rubbing the scroll under your chin as you wait out an argument between the conductor and the horn section, will have its effects.
A word about sweat: Players with aggressive perspiration should clean it off fast. The salt it contains is corrosive, eating away varnish, wood, and even strings. Wiping off the sweat should be good enough for most people. but if it’s like raindrops—those spots on the surface—a Kleenex lightly moistened with hot water will take off the salt without damaging the varnish. But be gentle and quick.
3. Wipe off the strings and fingerboard with a swath of microfiber material or chamois. Dirt tends to build up on the underside of the strings, so run your cloth between the strings and fingerboard from time to time.
4. Clean the chin rest, which collects sweat and dirt. You can wipe it with the cloth or chamois, or clean it with an individually wrapped alcohol wipe sold at the drug store. Be very careful with alcohol! It dissolves most varnish in a heartbeat. If a drop does fall on your instrument, don’t touch it! Don’t do anything, just let it evaporate. An “alcohol bloom” can easily be polished; an abraded spot, upholstered with fuzz from your paper towel, requires serious retouching. Don’t make an oops into an insurance claim—leave it alone.
5. Inspect the whole instrument before putting it away and closing the case. This is your opportunity to look for wear and tear, open seams (between the ribs and the top or back), or a bridge out of place. Keep an eye on spots where your hands routinely touch the varnish and have them retouched before exposing the bare wood. Noticing problems early and having them tended to promptly will prevent bigger repair bills down the line and preserve your investment.
Tom Sparks, who teaches violin making at Indiana University, observed this practice among the older string players on the Indiana University faculty. “It’s a relationship,” Sparks says, “and they’re mindful of the relationship.”
“It’s not your violin. It was not created for you,” Grubaugh says. “You’re just the caretaker ’til the next guy comes along. In fact, you probably have it because some other guy took care of it. In this throw-away society, this is something made to last.”
Rethinking the Old Clean-and-Polish Routine
A few words about commercial cleaners and violin finishes: Keeping your instrument clean is simple. But once the rosin, sweat, and grime have built up, things get more complicated quickly. Information about cleaning and polishing appears to conflict and expert opinions contradict. Some shops market attractive little bottles of cleaners and polishes to their customers while other shops refuse to include them in their inventory. One expert will advise an annual French polish while another shudders at the practice, since it softens the uppermost layer of the varnish and adds a new layer of shellac and oil.
Let’s look at the reasons behind some of the apparent contradictions.
All varnishes are not the same, and it takes experience to know what you’re looking at. For example, a solvent that would leave most violin varnishes unharmed might dissolve the finish on a mass-produced instrument. “Then there’s the question of how
settled-in the varnish is,” pipes in violin maker James Wimmer of Santa Barbara, California. “It gets fairly impervious once it’s hardened into what it’s going to be.”
Violin makers Joe Grubaugh and Sigrun Seifert of Petaluma, California, point out another problem. “Do remember that most older violins have, unfortunately, been clear coated [with shellac or some other substance] at one time or another, so often you’re not really dealing with the original surface. Some dirt may even be underneath that clear coat, which could be why wiping with a Kleenex doesn’t make it look any cleaner.
The next question is just what’s in those attractive little bottles. “You cannot know what’s in a polish, and they don’t label them. It could be anything,” says Grubaugh. Most contain highly-processed waxes, some with a slight abrasive, he says. At best, polishes sit on the surface and absorb dirt. A simple buffing with a clean cloth will produce a subtle shine that no polish can imitate. At worst, they contain silicone, which goes down into cracks, meaning they can never be glued.
Commercially available cleaners don’t work—if they did they’d be dangerous. That’s because alcohol, the solvent for rosin, is the same as for varnish. Most cleaners are a combination of wax and linseed oil, which will build up and harden over time into a second varnish that obscures the original coat and is very hard to remove. Other possible ingredients include turpentine, acetone, alcohol, talc, and something to make it smell good.
David Bonsey, a violin maker and director of musical instrument sales at Skinner’s auction house in Boston, believes some commercial cleaners can be used safely, if used as directed. His personal formula is still marketed by a former employer. “You have to shake the bottle,” says Bonsey, noting that ingredients can separate and the most astringent may be the first to reach your varnish.
Most of the commercial products sampled by Strings recently came with no instructions at all. Those that did were minimal, saying nothing, for example, about the dangers of the contents separating or getting the product into cracks.
Surprisingly, one of the most common, and certainly the most readily available, solvents is spit, which is also used in fine-art restoration. Spit will dissolve anything eventually, acknowledges Bonsey, who was not the only expert to suggest it.
Certainly, trhe safest, and probably the best advice, is don’t clean your instrument yourself. Too many things can go wrong. During cleaning, the top layer of varnish can soften and become tacky, leading to more rag left on the violin than dirt on the rag. It takes a practiced eye to know where the dirt ends and the varnish begins.
Even a “practiced eye” can be a bit heavy handed for some makers’ comfort. Another reason expert advice can seem contradictory is that a new ethic has started taking hold in the trade. Grubaugh, who helped organize the first violin makers’ seminar on surface finishes at the Smithsonian Institute, says that the fashion for shiny violins is a 20th-century aesthetic. He speculates that the high-gloss look came in with the heyday of the automobile, around the 1920s. “That’s old school now,” he says. “New school is, ‘Don’t do that!’”
That new-school approach reflects the appreciation collectors have for the unsullied look of vintage instruments. “The modern ethic started with Beare’s shop,” adds Grubaugh, referring to the influential J & A Beare’s violin shop, which routinely handles classic Italian instruments. A Strad that has never seen a “clean and polish” has a sensuous, subtle luster. It also has virtually all of its varnish.
“Slowly people have caught on to that,” Grubaugh says. “For the longest time in this country people would do a French polish, shine ’em up.” French polishing adds a layer of shellac, sandarac, and oil to the surface. It’s a procedure that does make a wooden instrument shiny, but it also bonds with and debases the original varnish. Historically, some of the most famous shops were the worst offenders. If the original varnish is what’s so special about the old instruments, why would you want to do that?
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