First Aid for Stringed Instruments

 

 

  The information below is a content summary of a workshop sponsored by ESTA in Cambridge on 10th March 2019, given for violin-family teaching professionals. It’s a bit wordy and dense as it attempts to give enough information to avoid the judgement “a little knowledge is dangerous!” while at the same time covering enough ground to be useful in the bewildering variety of situations teachers will find themselves when dealing with their student’s instruments. I hope that you will find something of use to you in the following paragraphs.

 

General points:

 

·       Warning! The information below is for the maintenance of entry-level student instruments by their teachers. Don’t do anything irreversible to your own professional instrument, use a trusted, qualified luthier. Professional teachers and performers should know how to regularly clean their own instrument after use and how to maintain strings, pegs, chin-rest/endpin/spike and tail-piece and any fine tuners in good working order. They should also know how to maintain their bridge, correcting its posture when necessary and when/if the use of a humidifying device is required.  These tasks are covered below.

 

·       You know more than you think you know from having seen and looked at good instruments. However, consciously try to train your eye by regular observation.  This will also develop your ability to spot when something “doesn’t look right” in your own instrument; early diagnosis and correction of a problem by a professional luthier can save time and money!

 

Pegs:

       ·       If you’re obliged to set up cheap instruments (e.g. many bought online) it’s worth investing in a reamer to fit pegs.               (search “violin/viola/cello peg hole reamer”; they come in bracketed size ranges, e.g. one reamer for ¾ and 4/4) About           £15. Go lightly and carefully with it for best results as you can quickly make the holes too big. Always insert the reamer           from the same side of the peg box as the peg handle. In order starting from the top of the scroll and looking at the i               instrument from the front, this will be right, left, right, left.

·       There are broadly two types of peg paste (apply to shank of peg). 

For slipping pegs use a peg paste e.g. Hiderpaste, about £3, or “pavement chalk” (doesn't contain oils).

For sticking pegs use a lubricant paste (e.g. Hill, about £8, supplied in a lipstick case). 

Don’t force pegs that stick hard as they can just break. Try de-humidifying to shrink the pegs enough to free them.

·       If pegs get too gunged up with paste take them out and clean them; any alcohol-based solvent will do but don’t let this get near the varnish of an instrument.)

·       If pegs get very worn or the peg hole has become too large so that the peg collar is butting up against the head, it might be worth replacing them.  If you do this bear in mind that it’s worth spending a little more on proper ebony pegs; these are mildly self-lubricating and will save you hassle in the longer term.

·       There are different sized-pegs for different-sized instruments.  Sometimes the holes in the peg box get too big. If you want to extend an instrument’s life, fit a larger size of peg.

·       Posture pegs are great for cellists.

·       Wittner mechanical pegs work well but are relatively expensive. (If fitting to your own instrument, have this done professionally, as with almost all other work!)

 

Adjusters:

·       These may seize up especially if they have been used to their full extent (remove the screw, apply Vaseline/graphite e.g. 5B pencil to the thread and re-insert). Periodically reset them by unwinding them and retuning at the peg.)

·       Beware of over-protrusion under the tail-piece, which can scratch the belly.

 

 

Checking if strings are worn:

·       Placing a pencil exactly perpendicular to the strings, press adjacent strings down to play a 5th interval at various points along the fingerboard (check that your strings are in tune to start with!).  If it is in tune the strings are fine, if not you need to change them.

·       You can check visually – loosen the string, twist it and see whether the underside is beginning to flatten. If so, you need to change your string.

·       E strings will visibly corrode over time;

·       More obvious signs are fraying, loosening of the winding, especially at the nut or over the bridge.

·       Apart from producing poor intonation and impaired sound, worn strings will damage the fingerboard much more quickly. Changing them routinely (e.g. once a year at least) greatly reduces the likelihood of this.

 

 

Cleaning:

·       Strings; use alcohol- based solvent (gin/vodka/after-shave all work!) but be careful not to get on varnish of instrument.

·       Body of instrument, neck and fittings; soft cloth but don’t press heavily on the belly of the instrument and only very light pressure around cracks and between the C-bouts (around the f-holes) as you do so. Use a formulated cleaning liquid occasionally, use sparingly. (e.g. Hidersol, about £7 online.)

·       Avoid cleaning near/over open cracks until repaired.

 

Changing strings:

·       Change only one string at a time. If starting from scratch, start from the top of the peg box, so violin order would be A D E G (D G A C for viola/cello)

·       Watch that the string doesn’t get pushed into the side of the peg box on the final turn; a pinched string can break and could damage the wall of the peg box.

·       Check that the string in the peg box doesn’t bulk out too much and thereby damage the bottom of the peg box under the peg.  (Shorten the string a little if necessary.)

·       Putting graphite (using a soft pencil) in the string groove at the nut and on the bridge will facilitate tuning lessening the tendency to pull the bridge forward towards the fingerboard.

·       Occasionally, the string hole in a peg is poorly positioned and dissapears inside the peg-box wall when the peg is pushed fully home. If you have access to a suitable vice and hand drill, make a new hole perpendicular to the existing one with a fine drill bit (take the diameter from the existing hole). If the problem is caused by a worn peg hole, replace the peg.

 

Top nuts:

·       For grooves that are too deep raise with a tiny bit of paper, leather or chamois leather

·       For grooves that aren’t deep enough, use a needle file to deepen (go easy!) A set typically around £7; use the edge of the one with a cross-section like a cuttle-fish bone. Keep in mind the diamenter of the string that will occupy the groove. 

·       Correct height of the strings from the fingerboard as the strings leave the nut can be roughly gauged by sliding a standard business card between the strings and the fingerboard; it should not feel tight nor should it slip down when the instrument is held upright. This is good for full and three- quarter violins; smaller sizes will need a little less elevation; experience, sight and feel is your best guide. Cellos, two card thicknesses, etc. Metal strings need slightly less height at the nut (and bridge) than covered nylon types.

·       It is possible to correct wayward/irregularly spaced grooves if the nut is high enough to need sanding down first. The outer grooves should be in line with the inner wall of the peg box, as a guide. Avoid leaving any sharp angles or edges except where the nut meets the fingerboard. (Pictures of correct string camber over nut to follow.)

 

Fingerboard joint with neck:

·       Blend lightly with ‘Micromesh’ cloth.  Upwards of 1000 is fine.  Rub in circular motions along the fingerboard/neck line until smooth. Finish with a finer “grit” e.g. 1600, 2400. (Mixed pack, online about £20; expensive but last a long time.) Avoid breathing in ebony dust; work in a well-ventilated place or wear a light mouth/nose mask (hardware shop).

 

Fingerboards:

·       Ideally best to buy instruments with ebony fingerboards rather than ‘ebonised’ which are just painted hardwood. 

     (For example, Primavera 150 and Stentor Student 2 violins upwards use ebony, but not the lower numbered models.)

·       To see grooves, waves and bumps on fingerboard, look along the board towards a light source.

·       Periodically worth getting fingerboards dressed by a luthier (good instruments) to get rid of grooves and bumps made by repeated string impact on the fingerboard.  (NB worn/damaged strings will damage the fingerboard much more quickly.) Use micromesh for school instruments where necessary on ebony fingerboards – if they are ‘ebonised’ you’ll just sand the paint off. You can tell an “ebonised” board by looking underneath; they are not usually painted underneath, and you will just see pale wood. Avoid breathing in ebony dust; work in a well-ventilated place or wear a light mouth/nose mask (hardware shop)

 

·       Fingerboards have a habit of coming off at inconvenient moments!  Double-sided carpet tape is good for first-aid, typically about £6 a roll. Thinly applied Blu-tack is also good and it’s easy to remove before making a permanent repair.  Once the first-aid moment is past, clean off as much of the remaining glue as you can from the neck surface and underside of the fingerboard and glue together with soluble wood glue (Titebond liquid Hide glue, typically about £6) and secure with a couple of small C-clamps or spring clamps while drying. (Careful not to scratch the board; use padding if necessary).

 

Necks:

·       Come off cellos more commonly than violins.  Warning signs to look out for: 

o   White line (unvarnished wood) appears along joint between neck root and adjoining ribs

o   Purfling channel opens/ruptures below the "button" at the root of the neck

o   The strings appear too high

o   Can break out suddenly! (seek professional attention if the instrument is worth it.)

 

Bridges:

·       Adjustable bridges are useful in emergencies as their feet can accommodate the (approximate) shape of the instrument.

·       The back of the bridge (facing the tail-piece) should ideally be at a 90-degree angle to the belly; use a right-angled piece of card to check the angle.

·       The bridge should be positioned between the inner f hole ‘nicks’

·       Where possible avoid trouble by keeping an eye on your student’s bridge when you tune the instrument (warping, leaning, bridges that slip to one side). Clamp an instrument between your knees and holding the bridge firmly between thumbs and fingers, ease the bridge into the correct posture/position.

·       Warping bridges: take off the bridge, soak overnight or “cook” it for a few minutes in a veg steamer; it may have straightened itself but if not, flatten under a modest weight while drying.  When dry, reinstall. NB. May prove to be a temporary fix.

·       Strings cutting into bridge: common with e-strings especially when no plastic tube protector is used. In serious cases, the bridge will need replacing. Quick fix is to insert a small piece of chamois leather or similar flexible material between the string and over the groove. Check the bow clearance of the middle strings after doing this; you may need to lift one of the adjacent strings in the same manner, as well.

·       Always check that the sound post remains up if a bridge comes down - whatever the reason – before re-tensioning the strings.

·       For student instruments only: where the bridge keeps moving to the side (caused by incorrect alignment of the neck) use rosin or chalk under the feet of the bridge; this might be enough to hold it in position.

·       If strings are a little too close to the fingerboard move the bridge forwards for a bit more height. (Ideal fix is a replacement/higher bridge.) This problem can be seasonal/humidity related. (Some cellists need a "winter" and a "summer" bridge for this reason.)

  

Sound post collapse: if you fancy a challenge…

 

·       Let the tension off the strings

·       Roll the sound post around until it rests lengthways in one of the f holes and it can then easily be pulled through the hole.

·       Use a sound post setter (around £8 online for violin/viola, more for a cello one); get the sort with a rubber sleeve included) to position the sound post behind the treble foot of the bridge.  Push the blade end into the sound post using the existing blade hole - usually nearer the top of the post - and lower inside the treble f hole; it takes practice! Keeping the post as vertical as you can, slowly pull the setter towards you until the post wedges between the front and back plates. Ease the blade out gently. Adjust the post position by pulling/pushing/tapping with the other end of the setter, using both f holes for access. Post should be wedged firmly but never very tightly. The distance between the post and bridge foot should be approximately a bridge foot’s width.

·       Good luck! Don’t give up trying! (A good summer holiday project!?)

 

Cracks:

·       It is often possible to sort small cracks in student instruments by applying a little hide glue; a fine artists paint brush is useful; dilute or warm the glue a little if it needs help to run into a crack

·       Cracks may be difficult to spot if they follow the grain (rely on feel as well as sight).

·       Sound post cracks/bass bar cracks are usually terminal on cheap instruments.

 

Buzzing/rattling:

·       There are many potential reasons, e.g. Fine tuners loose (use Vaseline), loose sliding mute (move onto silk coverings), loose wolf-note eliminator (tighten), end pin (check that all the parts are well tightened, missing cork? rubber gaskets/rings?), jewellery/buttons (become Amish), loose tailpiece bar (use a toothpick to insert glue), chin rest and tailpiece (check fully tightened – use a chin rest key but be careful not the scratch the instrument – plastic covered paper clips can work too), open seam (tap around the edge of the instrument and the sound will change if open), plastic tubing on string (bridge) (check, adjust or replace), loose string end in the peg box (cut as necessary), loose bridge parchment (re-glue with hide glue), worn string grooves on top nut/string(s) lying too close to the fingerboard (insert small pad of chamois leather ).

 

Humidity:

·       Hygrometers in cases are usually pretty useless.  Get to know how yours works if you have one (it’s able to give relative readings) and notice if it goes higher or lower than usual.

·       Dampits can help prevent cracking from shrinkage by moistening the atmosphere inside an instrument. Not generally necessary in UK but beware heavily heated/dry/airconditioned environments.

 

There is a lot of helpful document and video resource online to reference regarding maintenance, including some of the more adventurous tasks, as well as many sites like www.violinbridges.co.uk which offer an opportunity to “train the eye to see”. www.alangoldblatt.com/specs/ is an example offering detailed spreadsheets of measurements for all intrument sizes.  Stick with information from clearly reliable sources; there are some - sometimes hilariously! -  misguided examples out there as well. If you have a query feel free to contact Nick. Also, you can follow @studioviolins for ongoing input on these and other stringed-instrument related matters. 

 

Thank you for reading! Do please browse the rest of our website when you have the opportunity.

 

 

 

(Advice and tips for bows to follow.)

 

Print Print | Sitemap
©studioviolins