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JANUARY 29, 2022    

By James N. McKean

Copyright held by author; all rights reserved.

 Keeping them safe

If properly cared for, instruments and bows can last forever- instruments made before 1600 are still being played on, while some of the first classical bows are counted among the most valuable. Even though remarkably durable, they require maintenance to stay in their optimum playing condition, and can easily suffer damage if you're not careful. Always keep in mind that damage is what reduces value. However, a minimal amount of caution on your part is all that is needed to ensure that they will leave your hands in as healthy a condition as they were when you received them.

The most important thing you can do is not to take either the instrument or bow for granted. By far the greatest part of the repairs that come in the shop stem from inattention or carelessness. Much of it is during rehearsals. A violin left on a chair is vulnerable to being knocked to the floor, while a cello left on its edges is asking to be kicked over. Never, ever leave a bow on a music stand, or a violin dangling from it by its scroll. The best course is to put them back in the case when you're not using them. When you do, be sure to put them in properly-a violin or bow can be severely damaged just by the lid of the case falling, or the restraining neck strap of a cello case that has been left standing up coming undone and the instrument tumbling out. Fasten the latches, too; aside from the fact that you might forget they aren't completely secured and pick up the case, it is the best way to foil theft. Keep your case out of the direct sun and away from heaters and vents. And under no circumstances put a case in the trunk of your car. Not being insulated, the trunk can get extremely hot or cold very quickly. On top of that a minor accident can leave you with nothing but kindling. Insurance is a must: if you can't put your instrument and bow on a home-owner's policy, there are several companies that specialize in musical instrument insurance

Keeping them clean

When done playing, use a soft cloth to wipe off any perspiration or rosin. If there seems to be a lot of rosin then you are using too much of it, for rosin works best when used sparingly. Violin varnish is quite susceptible to wear and perspiration, which can be extremely corrosive. Keep an eye on the areas that you come in contact with a lot-the edges, the upper shoulder, the back under your shoulder-rest-and bring the instrument in if you see bare wood so that it can be retouched. Avoid using commercial cleaners and polishes, for they leave a residue that absorbs dirt and rosin to create an unpleasant second layer of varnish. You might have to have the instrument cleaned once a year or so.

The bow

When done playing, always wipe the rosin from the stick and loosen the hair completely before putting the bow away. Avoid touching the hair, as the oil on your fingers will reduce its ability to grab the strings. And use the bow only for playing: tapping the stand with it as a way of applauding the conductor is a good way to pop the head off. How often you need a rehair will vary-the average is around every six months, but it can be more frequently if you've been playing a lot. You know you need new hair if the bow doesn't seem to grab the strings as it once did. The hair might also stretch as the weather turns warm and humid; if so, get it shortened. Keep an eye on the leather grip by the frog; if it has worn through, bring it in so it can be replaced, for your thumb will soon wear a hole in the stick. You should also keep a close eye on the ivory face plate on the head of the bow. A wedge inserted in the head underneath the hair is what holds it in place, and the ivory is crucial in reinforcing the head. If a crack goes unrepaired, the head might split.

The bridge and soundpost

The bridge and soundpost are custom made for your instrument. They are not glued on-it's pressure that keeps them in place. The strings keep the bridge from moving. The back of the bridge should be perpendicular to the plane of the top; ask to be shown if you're not sure about this. It's important to keep it straight, because once out of true it can easily warp. When you change the strings, do so one at a time. Use a soft pencil to put some graphite in the notch on the top of the bridge and the groove in the topnut (at the upper end of the fingerboard) -- the lubrication will help reduce the tendency to pull or fray. While you're doing this leave the other three strings at full pitch, and then bring the new one up slowly. Allow it to stretch completely-with most strings, a few hours is enough time-before moving on to the next. Never loosen all the strings at once, or change them all in one sitting.

The soundpost is wedged between the top and the back, just behind the treble foot of the bridge. It is adjusted to find the balance, focus, and response of the strings that suits you the best. Don't try to move it yourself-you can easily do irreversible damage to the top or the back, aside from having the post fall down. Adjusting a soundpost takes years of practice and experience to know how to do it properly.

Sometimes after an abrupt change in the weather-particularly in the fall-you will open your case and discover that all the strings have come loose. If the bridge or soundpost have moved, or if they have fallen down, put a soft cloth between the tailpiece and the top, take off the bridge, and bring the instrument in for us to set it back up. If the bridge does break-it almost never happens, but if it does-do not glue it back together. There is no glue that can hold against the pressure exerted on it. Bring it in, and we will make a new one.

The pegs

The pegs are shaped so that their taper exactly fits that of the peghole. They should turn smoothly and hold without undo forcing. If they stick, you can use pegdope to lubricate them-but do so sparingly, for too much will make the pegs slip. If the pegs are slipping, they need to be looked at. Don't try to jam them in to make them hold, or knock them free if they are stuck-you risk splitting the pegbox.


Changes in humidity can be quite damaging to your instrument or bow. Wood and horsehair shrink when it gets dry, and glue softens when the air is excessively hot and damp. You can't eliminate the problem, but you can mitigate it. Air conditioning helps reduce excessive humidity. As for dryness, room humidifiers can help, as well as commercial products like "Dampits." You can attach a perforated plastic soapdish to the inside of your case and keep a dampened sponge in it. Always loosen the hair on your bow; the weather can turn dry enough overnight to shorten the hair so much that it can pop the head off the stick. Occasionally a part of the top or back will come unglued from the sides. This is by design; if the top or back shrinks when the weather turns dry, we want it to pop free before developing a crack. If you do get an opening, bring it in: attempting to glue it yourself can cause real damage. If the instrument is buzzing badly, and you have no choice but to use it, slip a small piece of paper in the opening-that should be enough to stop it until you can get it glued. Since the neck responds to changes in humidity, you can expect a certain amount of variation in the string height-which means how high they feel under your fingers. If it's a cause for concern, though, let us know; you might need separate bridges for summer and winter.


Your instrument, put simply, is an amplifier: the whole reason it's there is to make the vibrating strings audible. The problem is that in doing so it amplifies all vibrations-and with over one hundred twenty separate parts, there is a lot on a violin to vibrate. If your instrument has developed a buzz, check the usual suspects-an open bout, the tuner, a loose chinrest; and also make sure that it isn't a button on your shirt or an earring (more common than you might think). If you can't find it, we'll take a look. Most buzzes don't carry-you hear them because you're right on top of the instrument, but the audience usually hears nothing.

     James N. McKean has been making, restoring, and dealing in fine violins in New York City since 1977, when he graduated from The Violinmaking School of America. His articles regularly appear in Strings Magazine, for which he is a Corresponding Editor. He has served in a number of positions on the Board of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, including President.

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