Stringed Instrument Care and Maintenance
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Stringed InstrumentsBack to Top
Tips on Basic Setup
Tuning UpTake care when first tuning any stringed instrument to turn it away from you. The most likely time for the strings to snap unexpectedly is on their first tuning, and it is important to keep your eyes out of the way. Tune up slowly, and make sure you have a pitch pipe or tuning meter handy, and that you know the correct tuning so you don't over tighten the strings.
Harps should be brought up to pitch gradually, in stages as the wood of the front needs to take up a slightly curved shape with the tension of the strings. First week tune up a tone and a half flat, then increase the tension a semitone at a time over the next week or so. Another useful tip when tuning harps, hammered dulcimers & zithers is to first tune roughly to a diatonic scale, then get the Cs right, then go round in the circle of 5ths, first playing the Gs with the Cs, then the Ds with the Gs etc.
Before you tune a hammered dulcimer you need to get the middle bridge in exactly the right position. Tune just the top and bottom courses so you can still move the bridge. Then move the bridge until you get a perfect fifth by sounding the strings either side of the bridge. Do this both top and bottom, then check the middle too before continuing with the tuning on the rest of the strings. You can't move the bridge once it is tuned.
ColdThe only really dangerous element of cold for stringed instruments is sudden temperature change. When going from warm to cold or cold to warm, your instrument needs to be insulated. If you have a padded case, use it. If not, wrap the instrument in blankets or towels. Once you arrive at your destination, keep the instrument cased or wrapped until the outside of the case has been at room temperature for several hours. If your instrument is still icy when you open the case, zip it back up and wait a while longer. If you take your wrapped instrument from your warm house, to the inside of your warm car, to the warm inside of a building, do not worry at all. It is only when the instrument is left in the cold for a long period that you need to go through a warm-up procedure.
HeatHeat joins sudden change as the other serious menace to instruments. Luthiers purposefully use wood glues which soften when heated (to 145F) so that an instrument can be disassembled for service when necessary. Direct sunlight is hot enough to soften the glues in your instrument and weaken or destroy the joints in the piece. Do not display any instrument anywhere that will be exposed to sun as the light moves across your room during the day. Never leave any of your instruments in the car on a hot day. If it is too hot for you to sit in the car, with all the windows closed, in the direct sun, without sweating - it is too hot for your instrument. When you turn off the air-conditioning and leave the car, take the instrument with you if you cannot park in the shade.
Damp & High Humidity
Never store your instrument in a damp place, eventually the neck or other parts will warp as they soften up. In extreme cases the glue may be affected too. If you live in a very humid climate, silica gel in the case can help to absorb some of the moisture.
Dry ConditionsThis is the main enemy of most stringed instruments. Wood will shrink in very dry conditions, and cracks may appear in your instrument. Particularly in softwood parts such as the top. In very dry weather always keep your instrument in its case, and in extreme conditions you can keep the case in a cupboard, and a bowl of water next to it to keep up the humidity.
Cleaning and PolishingThe strings will last at least twice as long if you wipe them each time after playing. This will also reduce the amount of residue that builds up on the fingerboard.
The neck & fingerboard can be wiped with linseed or almond oil to prevent drying and cracking in the wood.
Commercial polishes are generally OK, but make sure they are appropriate for your instrument finish. Handmade instruments often have a natural finish which needs special care.
Everyday CareDon't Drop it!
Keep the strings up to tension all the time, unless you are leaving it for several months.
Keep it in a case or padded bag if at all possible to avoid minor knocks
Never check it in as luggage on an airline flight. Always carry it with you wherever possible.
Celtic HarpBack to Top
It is very important that your new harp is brought up to pitch very gradually over a period of at least two weeks, to avoid damage to the instrument.
The tuning pins should only be as tight as is needed to stop the strings from slipping, which means that the treble tuning pins do not need to be as tight as those for the bass strings.
Always tune your harp from the bass to the treble end and de-tune it from the treble to the bass end.
SymphonieBack to Top
Getting off old cotton wool.
Turn the wheel backwards (anti-clockwise and turn the string between clean fingertips.)
Clean the wheel of old rosin and re-apply. In a perfect world it will play pretty well without cotton wool. Check that the strings just touch the wheel, adjust as necessary and put on new cotton wool. Rosin the string all around first to make the cotton wool stick. Tease the cotton wool out to about the size of a thumbnail, lift the string and tuck the edge of the wool under it. Turn the wheel and let the wool go. It will partially wind itself around the string. Rotate the string to bring the loose ends to the wheel and they'll be picked up and wound tight enough. Use slightly more wool for the bottom string. It should sound sweeter than it did without the wool.
Use candle wax (not floor wax) on the bearings if necessary. Use fine sandpaper on the wheel if necessary. Polish the outside of the symphonie with 0000 grade fine wire wool and floor wax, finish with a soft cloth.
Fiddle or ViolinBack to Top
Basic Violin Setup
The sound post should be close to the foot of the bridge on the treble side of the violin. The closer it is to the bridge, the sharper and louder the sound. Further away, the sound is mellower and quieter. This is best done by your dealer or repairer, but soundpost setting tools are available for the player to buy. To check the position and height of the bridge, roll a biro or pencil around the top of the fingerboard - the distance between the strings and the fingerboard should be approximately the width of the pen. The bridge can be sanded down if necessary, but the feet need to make good even contact with the violin. The bridge normally sits between the notches in the f holes, and it is usual to set the bridge so it leans a very small amount toward the tailpiece.
When you're not using it, the hairs on the bow of your violin should be slackened (the metal end of the bow acts as a screw). This protects the bow from losing its curve and tension.
Avoid touching the hairs of the bow, the grease from your fingers will spoil it. In order to play, you will need to put rosin on the bow hairs. Most violins come with rosin. Before you use it for the first time, it helps if you roughen the surface of the rosin with sand paper. Rub the rosin against the bow hairs until you feel some friction between the rosin and the bow hairs. Repeat whenever necessary.
Sometimes the tuning pegs on a violin are loose. This is fairly normal, even on hand made violins. To solve this problem, you can acquire some 'peg paste' (stocked in most music shops), and with this you simply draw a few marks on the peg to create the friction you need.