Horsehair & Wood: Caring For String Instruments

Mar 30, 2016

blog - Horsehair & Wood- Caring For String Instruments

Keeping your instrument looking good, and sounding better is the topic we’ve been discussing over the last month or so. We started with a brief overlook of the entire orchestra, followed by a few of the more complicated individual instruments. This week we’re going to continue looking at maintenance and care, but we’re actually going to switch gears just a bit and return to the orchestra. A few weeks ago we took some time to go over the most basic care instructions for many orchestral sections, and we’re going to return to one that needs perhaps just a little more detail and focus.

The string section is made up of some particularly fussy instruments. I have heard musicians compare owning a wooden string instrument to somewhat like caring for a child, in that if you try to force them to do things, you’re only going to find yourself with a bigger problem. All kidding aside, warping in the bridge, seams opening, cracks, dents and dings are all part of the reality of the string section. That being said, just a little care can go a long way towards keeping your instrument in great condition, while also preserving the resale value. That’s why, this week, we’re going to go over each of the major maintenance areas the entire string section can benefit from.

Temperature & Humidity

As with most of the other instruments we’ve discussed over the last few weeks, temperature and humidity levels can have a devastating effect on your violin, viola, or cello. The biggest worry, as always, is that the body of the instrument will swell or shrink, causing cracks to form. Sudden drying is often the main concern, as cracking can occur in the span of just a few hours if not dealt with. Your best tool to avoid these issues is a hygrometer, a small tool that measures relative humidity. Paired with a humidifier, it is generally suggested you keep the relative humidity to between 30% & 60% to keep your instrument safe.

While somewhat less of a concern than humidity levels, temperature can negatively affect your string instruments as well. In regions where the temperature varies widely from summer to winter, your instrument is most at risk during the cold months. Not only do you have to contend with significantly lower humidity levels in the winter, but you must also be conscious of where you store your instrument. Be extra careful to keep it away from any sources of heat in your home during the winter months, especially forced air exchanges, and open fireplaces.


Unfortunately for string musicians, your instruments are especially susceptible to damage simply from improper storage. Cellos and double basses are particularly sensitive to this kind of damage thanks to their size. If a large instrument falls over, it can result in severe and costly damage to both the neck and the body. This kind of damage is not only expensive, but time consuming, and even after being repaired, there is a significant chance it will never play the same. The simplest way to avoid this error is to make sure you put it away in a hard case, or a stand designed for it after each session.

Smaller instruments like the violin or viola can also suffer damage from improper storage. In the case of these instruments, the culprit is usually, ironically, the case itself. Most modern cases have the proper suspension to keep the instrument safe, but older or cheaper cases may not. Always make sure you take a good look at any case before purchasing it, and discuss suspension issues with your dealer.


As beautiful as these instruments are, they are nothing without their strings. Strings are made from a variety of materials, both synthetic and natural, and the relative tension and tone for each differ based upon the specific construction of your instrument. For these reasons, it is best to experiment with a variety of strings to find the type that best suits not only your instrument, but your unique playing style as well. Once you have settled on a preferred style or brand, the next concern is keeping them fresh; generally speaking, your strings should be changed every six to twelve months, depending on how often you play. If you leave them too long they can begin to stiffen, altering your instrument’s response. It is also highly recommended that you try to keep a spare set of strings in your case in the event one breaks unexpectedly.


Your main two concerns with the bow of your stringed instrument is avoiding contacting it with your skin, and periodically rehairing. As I’m sure you’re aware, the oils in your skin can cause problems with the way the rosin interacts with the hair of the bow. Replacing your bow hair about once a year will help prevent issues with oil, dirt, or rosin build up. It is also a good idea to loosen the bow after each practice or performance to keep the hair from stretching and extend the life of both the hair and the bow itself.


The part of your instrument that holds the strings to its body is, of course, the bridge (this is an area where I wont go into to much detail for reasons that will become obvious). A properly fit bridge should require very little maintenance and should last the life of the instrument if properly cared for. You should try to always keep it upright, and never allow it to lean. Keeping it vertical will prevent pressure from the strings from warping the bridge. Keep an eye on the bridge to make sure everything is fitting completely and properly. Care and straightening is something to discuss with your instructor or dealer.


One of the parts of string instruments most susceptible to temperature and humidity, the pegs can be subject to slipping, especially in low humidity. When tuning your instrument you need to push inward while turning the peg to fight the slippage. There are compounds and drops available if your pegs simply refuse to stay in tune.


Repairing the fingerboard is not something most casual musicians think too hard about. A properly finished fingerboard wont buzz when bowing or plucking, however years of playing can wear grooves in the fingerboard, producing these exact unwanted effects. Resurfacing the fingerboard may be the proper course of action in this case, but it is best to have it assessed by a professional.


Also especially susceptible to the effects of low humidity, the soundpost should be fitted so it does not damage the instrument, or have a negative effect on the sound produced. If your instrument’s response begins to change, adjusting the soundpost can restore the original tone and response. It is a good idea to have your soundpost, and indeed the entire instrument, given a once over by a professional about once a year, usually when you have the strings changed or the bow rehaired.