Instrument care is simple if a comprehensive approach is taken. Big problems are almost always the result of neglect or abuse. Think of taking care of your instrument or bow as you would your teeth. Regular checkups are ideal, but your awareness of developing conditions can guarantee success for the long term.
How often should I change strings? This simple answer is every 6 months. Some players are able to get one year out of a set of strings. Bass strings are expensive, but are usually useful for up to a year. Violin strings need to be changed more often, but fortunately are lower in cost. Strings decay at different rates. Violin A strings for example, fade more quickly than the other strings in the set. Pay attention to what other players are using. Or, ask us for advice on what type of string might be best for you. If you don’t know how to change your own strings, learn. It’s easy, and makes a good opportunity to examine other parts of your instrument.
When you change strings, have a soft pencil nearby. Remove the strings one at a time, and apply some Graphite from the pencil to the groove of the nut. If you sharpen the pencil, you can make the tip of the pencil crumble. That’s good. Try to do this each time you change strings. This will help to lubricate the passage of the string through the nut as you tune. String breakage will be minimized.
If you have any buildup on the fingerboard, now is the time to clean it off. Start with a dry cloth. You can apply a lot of pressure to the surface of the fingerboard to get the grime to come off. After you have removed most of the buildup, you can use a small amount of rubbing alcohol. Please be careful not to drip any on the varnish of your instrument. This can damage your instruments finish beyond repair. Of course, wiping the fingerboard down after you play each time is ideal to prevent buildup.
Everyone knows that you should loosen the hair after you are finished playing. This is because the hair will gradually stretch if left taught. Get your bow rehaired once a year or more frequently. Since hair stretches a lot when exposed to humidity, it is best to have it rehaired during the humid months. The quality of hair and rehairing techniques varies quite a lot. Learn how to tell your bow rehairing person what you like in a rehair. Consider asking them to not add any rosin to the new hair. Applying your own brand of rosin to clean hair may take a while..
Do not attempt to tighten your hair if it requires too much force. The mechanism has a failsafe design. The screw is metal and the eyelet is brass. If you try to tighten the bow beyond its range of movement, you will strip the eyelet. Look in the mortise, you might see shiny flakes of brass from thread wear of the eyelet.
Any bow with a plastic frog is not worth rehairing. These bows cost as much as a new bow, just replace it. Good quality rosin goes on light, and less dust comes off as a result. Good rosin is not expensive, and lasts forever if you don’t drop it or lose it.
Bridges are flat on the back site, and angled on the front. As strings stretch, your bridge will be pulled forward toward the nut. You must maintain the proper position of the bridge. Simply pull the top of the bridge back slowly, and with light force until the back of the bridge is perpendicular to the top of the instrument. If this is ignored, the bridge will become warped, and will require a replacement. Bridges that are badly warped have suddenly broken. Anyone who has been present when this has happened knows how horrible the sound is.
Good bridges are hard Maple. This is to provide good transmission of the vibration to the body. Strings can cut into softer wood, but a parchment can prevent this.
Some instruments require a winter bridge, and a summer bridge. This is because some instruments react greatly to changes in air temperature and humidity. The neck or top arch changes, and suddenly the bridge is too high or too low. It is possible to switch between bridges using a bridge jack. This simple device supports the strings in place, while you change the bridge underneath. Tune the instrument down a half step before performing this task.
The soundpost will need regular changing and adjustment. It is made of Spruce and has the dual functions of supporting the tension of the strings, and transmitting the vibration to the back plate. Whether a post is tight or loose has a dramatic effect on the performance of your instrument. Some instruments are more sensitive to the placement and length of the sound post.
If a soundpost is too loose, it will usually fall over when all the strings are removed. It is safe to say that if this happens, you should take the instrument to a repair professional. Resetting the soundpost is not recommended for most players.
Bassbar. The bassbar. Like the soundpost, has the dual role of supporting the downward force of the strings, and transmitting the vibration throught the top of the instrument. Bassbars require no maintenance, but may need replacement in the process of restoration.
A new instrument will most likely not need any neck work for a very long time. Older violins, or those new ones that were assembled improperly will need to be reset. This can be complicated if the neck block needs replacement also as this requires removal of the instrument’s top. Basically, any neck work results in a high price repair bill.
Fingerboard and Nut
Quality Ebony is hard enough to resist the friction from the strings and fingers. Even the best wood will wear slowly, and need resurfacing. A badly worn fingerboard can make the strings buzz, or absorb energy from the string. The amount of “scoop” in the fingerboard has an effect on the ease of play in the various positions. Too much scoop can add effort to playing.
The nut height is important in playing comfort in first position. Fingerboards and Nuts should be examined each year, but will not need any work as often. A fingerboard replacement is rare and not terribly costly. Remember to lubricate the grooves in the nut when changing strings. A simple pencil is all you need.
Pegs are often not working optimally. The wood of the peg shrinks gradually and becomes oval shaped. The wood of the pegbox also is changing shape. Eventually, you have an oval peg in and oval hole. The action of turning the peg feels loose in some spots and tight in others. Pegs ware with use also. Eventually, they will need replacement. During this procedure, the holes of the pegbox are most often reshaped to bring them back into roundness. This is necessary, but some original wood has been removed from the instrument. Over time and after this procedure is done a few times, the holes are too big and need bushings.
Strings with steel cores are usually not tuned with the pegs. This is because they need more fine adjustment, as in tuners built into the tailpiece. All other types of strings should be able to be tuned by the pegs. If you are not able to tune finely enough with the peg it is probably because they are not working properly.
Peg drops or Peg compound are products that assist the action of pegs. They are not intended to make poorly fit pegs work properly. If you use one of these products, you should not need to use it more often than you change strings. Peg drops can be applied without the peg being totally removed from the instrument.
Pegs should be made from a hard type of wood. Ebony is usually the best material. Poor quality wood will ware quickly and need replacement prematurely.
Chinrests are a very personal thing. Do not accept that the chinrest on your violins is tolerable. You can improve your skill on the instrument considerably by removing the hinderence of an uncomfortable chinrest. Try ordering an assortment from us and send back the ones you don’t keep.
Tailpieces may need replacement if you switch to another type of string. If you are using steel strings, tuners on each string are necessary. It’s better to use a tailpiece that has tuners built in for best performance. Installation is not something the average player can accomplish.
The end button on violin and viola will rarely need any attention. On Cello and Bass, the enpin is an area of importance. Rattles often are cause by an endpin, and they play a factor in the volume and responsiveness too. Replacement is not recommended for the untrained. Endpin fitting requires special tools.
Eventually, all instruments will develop cracks. This is a fact of life that can only be minimized. Cracks often form next to the saddle. These will not threaten the value of your instrument if you have a repair made before it’s too late. The worst types of cracks are those on the back, especially near the neck joint, and near the sound post or bass bar. These require more extensive treatments, and can reduce the value of your instrument.
Insurance is available and recommended for any instrument over $500. Many homeowner’s policies will allow you to add the instrument to your coverage, but claims are often complicated by agents that do not understand the nature of string instruments. For an insured value of over $2000, a specific policy is ideal. In our local area, insurance can be purchased for less than $10 per $1000 of coverage in a year. Theft and accidental damage are covered. It’s very affordable.
String instruments are one of the only durable goods that have potential to appreciate in value. The truth is that most people will be lucky to sell an instrument for an amount close to what they paid. As a trade, many dealers will offer 80-100% of the original purchase price toward another instrument, if the item was purchased there also. Selling an instrument or bow outright through a shop usually requires a consignment. Any appreciation you may have gained will usually be lost by the consignment fee charged by the dealer. This is typically 20% of the sale price.