Care and Feeding of Fiddles

Your violin (viola, cello), carefully made with special woods and tools by skilled craftspeople, needs special care to keep it in good playing condition. Given proper treatment, these instruments should outlive their owners. Indeed, instruments from the 18th Century are still played on a regular basis. However, owners must guard against hazards. Remember that others will use these instruments after we are done with them.

Instrument Quality

·       Seek properly made instruments from a reliable source. These have good setups so you will avoid problems with tuning, playing, and sound. Instruments require regular maintenance, so choose a local shop that you are comfortable with. Avoid internet items which cannot be checked prior to purchase, are poorly adjusted, are difficult or impossible to return, and have poor resale value.  Items are put on craigslist because they have problems.  Avoid these!

·       If your player is a “beginner”, I recommend giving them something a little better than a cheap “beginner” instrument.  Low-quality instruments make players want to quit.  Lower intermediate level instruments don’t cost much more and have superior outcomes because they are fun to play, easy to tune, and sound good.

·       The single best thing you can do to get the best sound from your instrument is to use good fresh strings. The next thing is to have a good bow. Of course, working with a skilled teacher is required to get the most out of your music making.


Instrument Size

·       Violin and viola are sized according to arm length, not age or height.  So it is important to start with a reliable arm measurement with the help of a professional shop or teacher.  It is best to play the smaller size if there is any question about being between two sizes.

·       Look for a shop that will accept trade-ins when the time comes to move up to the next size, or to better quality as you become a more advanced player.


Handle with Care!

·       Preserve the appearance of the fragile softwood top because it has a lot to do with an instrument’s value. It must be guarded from scratches, dents, and heavy rosin buildup.  Clean the top often, and use a blanket in your case.

·       Handle an instrument by the neck and chinrest areas rather than by the fragile scroll, and avoid touching varnished surfaces with fingers. This will help to prevent fingerprints on the varnish, as well as cracks caused by too much finger pressure, especially near the fragile ff-hole wings.

·       Instruments and bows are delicate and must not be handled roughly or dropped.

·       Avoid placing an instrument or bow on a chair or leaning it against something.   Do not temporarily lay a tensioned bow on a music stand rack because it will easily fall and the bow’s head will break off.  The safest places are cases and instrument stands.

·       Do not let non-musicians or unsupervised children play your violin. Untrained hands might easily drop the violin or bow.


Everyday Use

·       Where possible, keep instruments in the open. Place them on an instrument stand, table, wall rack, or piano, or keep in an open case. Make them easily available for playing!  However, keep them away from direct sunlight, air vents, and heat ducts.

·       Remember that cases are mainly for transporting instruments, rather than long-term storage. Instruments left in cases for long periods are subjected to mold growth, bug infestation, metal tarnish, and other problems related to high humidity and lack of air circulation.  

·       Avoid fastening tape or other adhesives to an instrument that doesn’t belong to you; they cannot be removed without damage and may remove varnish.  You can usually substitute a small white chalk mark for position marking tapes used by some teachers.


Transportation and Storage Hints

·       Invest in a well-padded case that fits your instrument properly.  Older cases provide poor protection and in some cases cause damage.

·       Use a blanket in a violin/viola case to protect the top of the instrument from sharp metal edges on the bow's frog.  Avoid storing loose shoulder rests, spare strings, or other items touching the instrument, as this may cause damage. 

·       Avoid leaving instruments in cars, because they can easily get too cold or hot, or be stolen by breaking a window. 

·       Store violins in living quarters, not in the attic, basement, or garage. 

·       For long-term storage, loosen fingerpegs slightly (1/2 to one turn), retaining enough force to hold the bridge and soundpost firmly in place. 

·       Store bows in open air, because beetles may feed on bow hair in closed cases.

String Things

·       Change strings every six months for daily players, or yearly for occasional players.  Change them if they show much tarnish or dirt buildup.

·       Change strings one at a time, to avoid upsetting the bridge and soundpost. 

·       New strings always stretch and may need an hour or two of "playing-in" time before they will hold their tune.

·       Violin, viola, or cello strings should rarely break. If your string breaks repeatedly, it means that the string is being tuned too high or else a sharp edge or friction spot needs to be corrected on the tuning pegs, nut, bridge, or fine tuner.

·       The type of strings used on your instrument may affect the instrument's health as well as tone. Inexpensive steel-core strings exert high tension whereas synthetic (perlon-core) strings are low tension.  I think steel core strings are a main cause for warped and broken bridges, open seams, cracks, and sunken necks. Older instruments were designed for gut strings and are often damaged by the use of high-tension steel strings. Many people think perlon-core (Dominant, Pro Arte, or equivalent) strings have a warmer and deeper sound than steel-core strings on violin and viola, besides causing less damage and being easier to tune. However, steel strings are generally used on cello and bass.


Cleaning and Polish

·       A good rule is to "clean often, polish little,” and leave difficult cleaning jobs and polishing to the violin shop.  Always clean before applying polish.

·       Rosin is your fiddle's enemy because it sticks to the strings, fingerboard, and varnish, where it deadens tone and eventually turns gummy and black.  Keep a soft cotton flannel or microfiber cloth in the case for gently cleaning rosin from the violin and bow stick after playing. If you need to remove rosin or dirt build-up from the instrument’s top surface, use only water on a soft cloth. 

·       Avoid oil- or alcohol-based polishes that enter cracks and seams and make future repairs difficult. Milky white wax-type violin polishes are preferred, although even these can build up into a gummy coating that is opaque and difficult to remove. Do not apply any product, especially furniture polish, that was not formulated for polishing violins.

Temperature and Humidity Troubles

·       Most cracks and open seams are caused by dryness or large changes in temperature.  A good rule to prevent damage is to treat a musical instrument like you would a living thing like a plant, a pet, or a child.

·       Ideally, instruments should be kept at room temperature at 55% humidity. 

·       Invest in a digital humidity gauge (hygrometer) so you know when a dryness problem exists (most dial-type hygrometers are inaccurate).

·       If room humidity falls below 35% (the greatest danger is in winter), there is a risk of wood shrinking, causing cracks and open seams.  Protect the instrument from drying by putting it, case and all, in a plastic bag, or take steps to introduce moisture.  Case humidifiers or room humidifiers are preferred to “dampit” tubes, which leak water and cause damage inside the instrument.  If a crack or open seam appears, loosen string tension and have it fixed immediately or it will lengthen and become more difficult and expensive to fix.

Bow Tips

·       Tighten the bow stick enough so that the stick does not scrape along the metal string or else bow hairs will break, pinched between wood and metal.  Do not overtighten, as it risks damage or breakage and does not help sound.

·       Use fresh, good-quality rosin.  You should not have to scratch it!  Quality rosin has no inert fillers, which create dust and don’t help sound.  Avoid using too much rosin--you don’t need to apply it every time you play.  Once/week is probably enough for most players.  Too much rosin causes a harsh sound and falls off creating a cleaning problem.

·       Bow hair needs to be replaced if it becomes old, dirty, or worn, does not hold rosin, does not produce a strong tone easily, or no longer fills the full width at the silver part of the frog. Bows used every day should be rehaired every six months, or yearly for bows used less often.

·       Avoid touching bow hair because skin oil prevents rosin from adhering to hair. 

·       Loosen bow hair when finished playing.  Too-tight hair might cause a warp or broken stick, especially if heat or dryness causes the hair to shorten. 

·       Cut off broken hairs with a blade rather than yanking hairs out of the bow with your hand, or else fewer strands in the knot may cause the knot to fail.

·       Don’t let a carbon fiber bow get hot (as in a closed car on a hot sunny day).  The stick may soften, change shape, and be ruined.

·       Avoid dropping the bow when it is tightened, or the tip and (or) head may break off!  Where possible, play above carpeted floors rather than hard flooring.

·       Replace a cracked bone tip because it provides protection for the bow head. 

Bridge Matters

·       Align the feet of the bridge with the inner notches cut in the ff-holes.

·       Your bridge should appear to tilt slightly towards the tailpiece. However, as strings are tightened during tuning, the bridge may be pulled slightly forward and need to be pulled back.  Bridge feet should stand flat on the top, without gaps. 

·       Lubricating string notches with pencil graphite helps the strings to slide over the wood, reducing problems with keeping bridge in position.

·       If the bridge has a parchment protecting the string notch, remove the small tube that comes with new strings so that it will not rattle on the string.


·       Allow only trained, seasoned, skilled repair people handle your instrument's needs.  Avoid music stores that sell guitars and pianos.  Try to talk to the actual repair person, not counter staff (avoid shops where this is not possible).

·       Get a check up once per year for adjustment and help keep small problems from becoming worse.  Instruments should be checked for cracks or open seams, and tuning pegs and fine tuner screws need regular lubrication.

·       Listen for buzzes and rattles while playing and have them corrected.

·       If the soundpost or bridge falls down, the fingerboard comes loose, or a crack or open seam is found, loosen strings immediately and insert a paper towel under the tailpiece so fine tuner arms do not scratch the soft spruce top. 

·       Cracks and other damage are easier to repair if they are found early, and if all pieces are preserved.  If an instrument or bow breaks, do not allow anyone to apply household adhesives to cracks (it is unlikely to help, and it makes the problem more difficult and costly to repair properly).  Please collect all pieces, including tiny slivers, and take them to a repair shop.  Often the repair is routine and inexpensive.