Care and Feeding of the Fiddle and Bow
by Peter Van Arsdale

In this article I will not only give suggestions on how to care for your fiddle and bow, but also the reasons why these precautions are necessary. We probably all know the basics such as wiping the rosin off after playing, avoiding extreme temperature and humidity changes and dropping or banging the fiddle. But do we know why? I will try to answer some of these questions.

CLEANING: Always wipe off your violin and the strings with a soft, clean cloth after playing. It is also helpful to wipe off the bow stick after use. Varnish is made from the same material as rosin so they tend to adhere to each other. If not cleaned the rosin will build up, creating a thicker and thicker layer of “varnish” which in time will affect the sound and appearance of the instrument. If it is necessary to clean off old rosin I have found that a common natural cleaning product called “Citra-Solv” is very helpful. Always test first. This product can be found in most health food stores. Never use furniture polishes on your violin as they contain oils that build up on the varnish.

PROTECTION: Keep your instrument in a good well-padded case when you are not playing it. Not only does this protect it from physical blows but also maintains a more constant temperature and humidity. I have seen many instruments and bows that have been damaged because someone sat on them. Especially vulnerable is the soft spruce top. The edges can chip and break more easily than the harder maple back and sides. Varnish protects the wood. If bare wood is exposed, due to wear or damage, it is important to have these areas touched up by an experienced luthier. Cracks can develop in the top due to damage or temperature extremes. Like a small rip in a piece of clothing these need to be mended immediately to keep them from enlarging. Never leave your fiddle or bow in direct sun or in a closed car or trunk if it is hot. Doing so can permanently damage the varnish and warp or crack the wood due to the extreme temperature.

  • PEGS: Pegs should be easy to tune and shouldn’t slip or stick. “Peg dope” can often fix this problem. I recommend the Hill brand. The peg needs to be unstrung and peg dope liberally applied to the worn areas, then reinserted and seated by rotating. You may have to do this a number of times to re-seat the peg. If this does not fix the problem you may need more extensive work by an experienced luthier.

  • BUZZES OR TONE LOSS: If your instrument develops a buzz the most common cause is an open seam. You can check your violin by sharply rapping with a knuckle around the edge both top and back. You will notice a change in tone when you come to an open seam. Once again it is time to take it into your local violin shop. Other causes of buzzes or tone loss can be a loose fingerboard, bassbar or fine tuner.

  • SOUNDPOST: The soundpost is just behind the right foot of the bridge. It supports the bridge and its position is critical to the sound of the instrument. If the soundpost falls the tone will change dramatically. It is important to loosen the strings immediately because the top can easily crack without the necessary support of the soundpost.

  • STRINGS: Using new good quality strings is the cheapest investment to insure continued tone quality. Cheap strings are not worth it and can adversely affect the sound of even the best instrument. Strings should be changed about every six months. There are many different brands of strings to choose from. (A good subject for a future article!) I tend to use either Thomastik Dominant or D’Addario Helicore. It is important to wipe the strings clean after playing. This will help to minimize rosin buildup. You can rejuvenate a set of strings by cleaning them with an alcohol swab. Be cautious! Alcohol can ruin the varnish. It is best to turn the violin upside down so no excess alcohol will fall on the violin top.

  • BOW: Like the violin, the bow is very fragile and must be well maintained and cared for. Always loosen the hair when not in use, this will help the stick to maintain the camber or curve. Use a good quality rosin and keep the container closed when not in use. Rosin is a tree resin and will dry out if exposed to air. Most players tend to rosin too much. This can cause build-up on the strings and the bow hair which will adversely affect the tone and control of the bow.  Most players need only rosin two or three times per week. This will also extend the life of the bow hair. As the hair gets older it tends to stretch and loose its ability to hold the rosin. If you find you are using more and more rosin it is probably time to have your bow rehaired or the hair cleaned. Depending on how much you play, a bow should be rehaired every six months to a year.

  • Maintaining and adjusting your violin and bow will allow it to produce the best possible tone. Your instrument will respond by sounding and playing better. This will increase your pleasure when you play and consequently you will play more and you will notice that your skill level will increase.

SFSF member Peter Van Arsdale is a local Berkeley violin maker who also does repair, restoration and bow rehair.
© Peter Van Arsdale, 12/2000

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