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Instrument Upkeep

...and notes from the workbench of Eddy Miller...

Maintain Your Investment!

Life gets busy, and it can be easy to let the maintenance of our instruments get away from us.  Some extra attention and energy toward upkeep from the musician will go a long way to keep your instrument sounding and working its best, as well as to protect the value of your investment.  

While it is a good idea to bring your instrument into your luthier once a year to be looked over, I routinely see a handful of issues that can be limited or avoided altogether if the musician knows what to look for.  So keep an eye out!  You'll save yourself money, time and frustration.  You'll also maintain your instrument's quality!


Straighten Your Bridge

One of the most common issues is a bridge that is not straight. Often, the feet will stay in the correct place and the top of the bridge will move, usually forward, with time and repeated tuning. This will affect the sound of an instrument, and will eventually result in a warped bridge. Occasionally, a warped bridge can be fixed, but will often need to be replaced.  

The correct position for the bridge is when the back of the bridge is at a 90° angle to the top of the instrument. The front of the bridge will have a slight curve backward.  

To straighten, hold the bridge with thumbs on the back and two or three fingers in front. Gently move the top of the bridge, being careful to not move the feet. It's a good idea to place a soft cloth under the tailpiece to protect the top in case it gets away from you.

Keep it Clean

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a bluegrass fiddler.  I figured one important step in getting there was to have the top of my violin covered with a layer of rosin dust as white and pure as the driven snow.  Little did I know that rosin dust is acidic: it will slowly dissolve the varnish on an instrument!  

Varnish is often made of a resin similar to that in rosin.  It's almost like the rosin dust and the varnish are trying to become one again! This is not good for your instrument.  

Quickly wiping off the top of your instrument after playing will do wonders for the life of the varnish. Might as well wipe off the fingerboard while you're at it.  There is less risk of damage with the fingerboard, but it can still become a sticky mess. As the dust builds up it becomes more difficult to remove, and will eventually need to be brought to a professional for a professional cleaning.  This is one of the most common and also most easily avoided issues.


One additional note on rosin-  It's best to go ahead and clean the strings after playing as well.  When done regularly, it's not a big deal.  I recommend using a soft, dry cloth. If it does build up and become more difficult to remove, I would not recommend using steel wool or any other abrasive.  The wrapping on a string is generally aluminum, silver, or gold.  Steel is harder than those metals and will shorten the life of your string.  Just give it a scrubbing with a soft cloth.  It will eventually stop squeaking.  


More on Varnish and Cleanliness

The varnish on a quality handmade instrument is generally not as tough as a commercial finish.  It is not intended to be bulletproof, and will wear gently over time.  With that being said, it is best to try to avoid as much wear as possible, and one way to do this is to avoid touching the body of the instrument.  As a general rule, always hold by the neck and chin-rest area.  

As a player, it is easy to get in the habit of holding the scroll, or resting the scroll against your face when not playing.  While it is sometimes necessary when tuning, try to avoid touching the scroll as much as possible as well.  Moisture, sweat, and potato chip grease will cause the varnish to fail over time.


There are a variety of cleaners and polishes on the market that are easily available.  Unfortunately, these products work in different ways, and they may not all be safe for your instrument.  Combine that with the fact that different varnishes react differently to the different products, and things get complicated.

I recommend regularly wiping off your instrument with a clean, dry, soft, cloth.  Avoid touching the body and scroll as much as possible, and stay away from the cleaners.  Your luthier should be able to do a good and careful job of cleaning your instrument on the occasion that it does need it.  
This is particularly important on older instruments.  The varnish can be thin and delicate in places.  However, it plays a major role in the value of the instrument.  For many, these older instruments are also investments, so err on the side of caution.


Well, that's enough info for now. There are plenty of other issues that may arise so remember to bring your instrument in to a luthier once or twice a year to be looked over.

All the best!


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