The violin: practical tips and guide on care and maintenance

Guide and practical tips on the violin: answers to frequently asked questions regarding the proper care, cleaning and handling of violins

On this page we seek to address frequently asked questions regarding the proper care and handling of your violin, the violin strings and other general problems. Most of the advice for cleaning and changing violin strings, installing fine tuners to your violin or cello and straightening the bridge is applicable to other stringed instruments as well.

Violin / Master violin

Content overview:


How to store a violin

As a rule, the safest place to keep a violin is in its violin case. The temperature of the room should be constant and the humidity moderate. Having a few potted plants in the room will ensure that there is enough humidity, provided that they are regularly watered. During the heating season it may be advisable to use a “Dampit” to prevent damage to the gluing or, even worse, cracks in the wood. As a rule, smaller instruments such as violins and violas are less sensitive to unfavourable fluctuations in temperature and humidity than larger instruments, especially cellos. A violin should be kept in a place free of drafts and away from direct sunlight. Make sure that the violin case is neither “in the way” where it can get knocked over in passing, nor kept on a shelf or in a closet where it can fall down when other items are retrieved. Although a corner would appear to be an ideal spot to keep a stringed instrument out of harm’s way, one must exercise caution: the walls may be very cold, particularly in old buildings. The violin would then be exposed to warm, room-temperature air on one side and a cold wall on the other - a dangerous combination that could cause cracks. When placing the violin in its violin case, make sure that no sharp or pointed objects can damage the varnish. Most cases come with a soft blanket to spread over the top, neck and scroll of the violin before the case is closed. This blanket protects the violin from being scratched by bows stored in the cover. If your violin case is not equipped with a blanket or if the stringed instrument does not fit snugly, it is a good idea to wrap the frog of the violin bow in a large, thin cloth such as a handkerchief, because the edges of the frog pose the greatest risk to violin varnish. However, it is better to cover the instrument completely to prevent it from coming into contact with rosin from the bow (see also the section on how to clean a violin). Many musicians even wrap their stringed instruments in silk or some similar material to give them better protection, a snugger fit and softer cushioning. Caution: the violin should never be put under pressure or forced into its case!
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How to clean a violin

All violins need to be cleaned regularly, not just ones on display or those that are kept out of their violin cases so that they are always readily available. The most dangerous kind of grime is rosin dust, which accumulates on the face each time a violin is played and can damage the varnish if it is not wiped away after each playing session. Rosin dust should always be wiped off the strings and fingerboard as well.For this purpose, it is best to use a soft cloth. However, avoid using the same cloth to clean the rest of the body, as any rough flakes of rosin that may be sticking to the cloth could scratch the varnish, and a fine layer of rosin dust from the cloth would be distributed all over the instrument, eventually dulling the varnish.

A well-equipped violin case should always contain two cloths: one for wiping rosin away from affected areas and one for cleaning the rest of the violin. Pure alcohol can be used to remove more stubborn rosin build-up on strings, although extreme caution must be taken. Put a few drops of the alcohol on a clean cloth and rub the strings. Since alcohol damages the violin's varnish, however, it is very important to use a bare minimum so that nothing drips onto the instrument. This technique can also be used to clean the fingerboard, which is usually not varnished (see below). Other kinds of dirt such as grease are best avoided altogether. Washing one’s hands before playing is not only a good habit, but an important means of maintaining the value of your stringed instrument. If there are marks that can not be completely removed by gently wiping with a cloth, try using violin cleaning products, which are available from violin makers and music shops. In extreme cases, it is best to put the instrument in the capable hands of a professional luthier who is trained to know what product and the proper amount to apply in every situation. Another part of the violin that will need cleaning from time to time is the inside of the body. Dust collects in all violins, not just in those that have been hidden away in attics. The best way to remove dust is to sprinkle some household rice through the soundholes and gently but thoroughly roll them around inside. Grains of rice pick up dust very well, and they gently scrub the inside of the top, back and ribs.
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How to take care of the violin's varnish

The most important way to take care of the varnish of a violin was already discussed under "How to clean a violin": carefully wipe off the rosin dust every time after playing. This little trick is more effective than all of the other broader measures which were ultimately only created to offset the damage which results from by failing to "dust off" the strings. Another way to take care of the varnish is to handle the instrument only by the neck so as to protect it from the sweat on your hands. Even the cleanest hands leave behind traces of sweat and acidic fatty compounds; in a best-case scenario, they make the varnish dull, and in a worse case they gradually erode it. Luthiers and specialist shops sell special polishes and care products that remove build-ups which are severe or have developed over a longer period. If a stringed instrument requires serious attention, the best thing is to consult a luthier, who has experience in selecting, dosing and applying the proper cleaning products.
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When to restring the instrument

Selecting the right time to change one or more violin strings depends on too many factors for us to be able to make a general statement. Different kinds of violin strings — gut, synthetic core, steel core — invariably have different life spans which can vary not only from brand to brand but even from string to string. The demands that can be placed on a string depend on the intensity with which you play and amount of daily practice time, the idiosyncrasies of each musician's personal technique and the instrument's structural features. Often a violin string to wear out prematurely or break if the ridges in the bridge and nut are too deep or too angled. Many good musicians, however, realize early on when a string has passed its prime because the sound and response are no longer as good as they should be. Visible damage such as unravelling can occur well before a violin string tears and should be taken as the occasion to change the violin string in question.
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How to put on or change violin string

Changing a single violin string is very simple: if the old string is still wound on the peg, loosen it by turning the peg until the end of the string slips out of the small drilled hole, then release the other end at the tailpiece. Please note that you should use your other hand to keep the string from dangling loosely so that it does not scratch the stringed instrument. Once the violin string has been loosened, take a critical look at the grooves in the upper nut and bridge. If they have become too deep or have acute angles where the strings lay, please consult with a luthier; the grooves may need to be adjusted. You can make the tuning process easier and offset the tensions that can cause strings to break by rubbing a bit of graphite into the grooves to lubricate them: this lowers resistance and lets the strings move more smoothly. Use the lead of a soft pencil.

To put the new violin string in place, begin by threading the lower end (which has a ball or loop) into the tailpiece or fine tuner. Now keep gentle pressure on the lower end so that it does not slip out of place; use your other hand to thread the upper end into the peg hole, making sure that you have pushed the violin string all the way few and a few millimetres are visible on the other side of the peg hole. Then wind the string by turning the peg towards the scroll, gently pushing the peg deeper into the peg box as you go. Each violin string should be wound in such a way that it is tightly and closely wrapped. Criss-crossing the string on the peg can be helpful in keeping the string from slipping out of the peg hole too easily. Otherwise, however, the violin string should be wound so that it lies flat along the peg, since points of heightened pressure can make a string break more easily. 

Peg holes that are located too deep in the peg box can also squeeze the string between the peg and peg box, and the result will be another weak point. Violin strings which are too long can put pressure on the side wall of the peg box, and this too may cause them to tear. If this is the case, unwind the string and use a string trimmer to cut it to the appropriate length. As soon as most of the violin string has been wrapped around the peg, care must be taken to ensure that the string is positioned properly. As the tension increases, it has to be on top of and not next to the appropriate groove on the bridge and the nut; otherwise it could damage them. Particularly thin violin strings (especially the E string on the violin) should have a small protector placed on the spot where they rest on the bridge to prevent them from cutting too deeply into the wood. When you replace a violin string, any fine tuners should first be unscrewed as much as possible. Afterwards, once you have brought the string up to pitch at the peg, you will have enough room to manoeuvre the fine tuner. If multiple violin strings or the entire set needs to be replaced, it is very important that you proceed one at a time – in other words, do not loosen all of the strings at once, but replace each individually. This keeps the bridge from falling over: the bridge is not mounted onto the body of the instrument, but held in place by the pressure of the strings. When changing multiple violin strings, you should also make sure that the bridge is still in its correct position and adjust it if necessary (see below). To restring an entire violin string set, please follow the procedure described above for individual violin strings - making sure you change one string after another and never remove more than one violin string at the time.
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How to choose the right violin strings

Just two generations ago, the choice of violin strings was a simple matter: serious violinists played on gut strings, while steel strings were used on lesser instruments. Today the situation has completely changed. Since the 1920s, the quality of steel strings has continuously improved thanks to better manufacturing techniques. In addition, violin strings with a synthetic core have become a real alternative to gut strings. The sound produced by so-called “nylon strings” is practically as good as that of gut strings, which mainly find use today in historical performances on authentic period instruments. Synthetic violin strings also have certain advantages: they fit perfectly on almost any stringed instrument, stay in tune better and are generally stronger and more durable than gut strings. Corilon violins use Pirastro Tonica or Pirastro Evah Pirazzi on all instruments in their online catalogue. But Thomastik Dominant or Larsen Tzigane are also quite recommendable. Contemporary musicians choose violin strings that best match their musical preferences, their playing technique and especially their instrument. The best way to find the most suitable strings is to seek professional advice, for instance from an instructor or violin maker, and to try out various kinds and brands. Many violinists use a combination of different brands. Violin strings can be purchased both individually or as a string set.
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How to tune a violin

The starting point when tuning any stringed instrument is concert pitch a’, which, aside from a few regional preferences and traditions, is the universally accepted standard at 440 Hz. Using a tuning fork or a CD from a violin method book, first tune the a’ string. The best way to tune the other strings is to have a good ear. Learning to hear when the g – d – a’ and e’’ notes are tuned in intervals of perfect fifths is an important exercise that should not be underestimated. Many websites and smartphones feature tuning programs of variable quality. These are useful aids, but they can not replace tuning in fifths.Many violins have only one fine tuner on the tailpiece. Tuning such violins requires more practice because pegs are much harder to adjust than the lever-operated mechanism of a fine tuner.
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What to do about stiff or slipping pegs

Although violin pegs look deceptively simple, their physical mechanism is complex because it must fulfil two contradictory requirements: on the one hand, pegs must move easily so that the violin can be finely tuned; on the other hand, they should hold the strings firmly in place to that it stays in tune for as long as possible, regardless of changes in temperature or whether the instrument is moved from one location to another. No peg can maintain this balance over time without requiring some care. Problems tend to occur at the beginning and end of the heating season, when temperature changes cause the wood of the pegs to contract or expand. Peg lubricant helps stiff pegs turn more smoothly and can be purchased from a violin maker or music shop. Peg chalk solves the opposite problem and prevents slippage. Pegs can be prevented from sliding out when new violin strings are put on: guide the string so that it lies very close to the edge of the peg box as you wind it. Whatever the violin case may be, the pegs must always fit well. Violins should be looked over regularly by a luthier, who will then check the condition of the pegs.

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How to straighten and position the violin bridge

Many violin bridges yield to the increasing tension of the strings from tuning and lean somewhat towards the fingerboard, a situation which can be manually corrected by applying even pressure with both thumbs. However, straightening or adjusting the violin bridge correctly can involve a certain risk, since any bridge collapse during adjusting it incorrectly can damage the instrument's table. It must also be said that many musicians are often too timid to correct the bridge position themselves or put a violin bridge back in place if it has fallen. 

If the violin bridge has fallen over, take a brief look through the sound hole to make sure that the sound post is still standing as well. If it is, you can put your violin bridge into position. If the sound post has fallen, however, you must take your instrument to a luthier. If the sound post is still standing, the violin bridge is centred between the notches of the sound holes, ideally at a perpendicular angle to the top of the violin. It is then anchored in this position gradually by the strings being slowly tightened. As the violin strings gradually reach the proper pitch, check repeatedly from above and from the side to be sure that the violin bridge is still in the right position and full the top of the bridge backwards according to our video instructions on how to straighten a violin bridge. Often musicians go ahead and place their bridge at a slight angle towards the tailpiece so the position corrects itself while tightening the strings. This approach calls for a sensitive touch and good knowledge of your own instrument. Since the position of the bridge has a major impact on the instrument's sound, adjusting the bridge can be used to improve the sound as well (see below).

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Video instructions: how to correctly straighten your bridge



When to replace the violin bridge

There are two things which will allow you to see when the time has come for a violin bridge to be replaced: the depth of the ridges on which the strings rest, and the fact that the bridge has warped towards one side, usually towards the fingerboard. Both of these signs of use affect the sound and ability to play the stringed instrument, which means that imperfections in the sound may also be a sign that a new violin bridge is necessary.Even though it is easy to order violin bridge blanks on the Internet nowadays, adjusting a bridge to the instrument is a task that requires extensive experience and training. This should be left to a violin shop or luthier and not attempted at home.
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How to install fine tuners on violin and cello

To install new fine tuners on your instrument, you only need a bit of technical knowledge and a delicate touch. First, remove the screw and the nut from the fine tuner. Then, loosen the string in question until the ball end can be removed from the tailpiece. Make sure the string is only loosened as much as is necessary; the top of the body should not be scratched. Now the new fine tuner can be installed into the opening from below where the string was before; after that, put the screw and the nut in place again, hook the ball into the holder on the fine tuner, and tune the string. When dealing with thicker strings, it may be helpful to keep the slot held open carefully using a knife or a similar tool.
After all of the fine tuners have been installed, the violin should be re-tuned with the tuning pegs so that the tuning screw of the fine tuners can remain extended as far out as possible. Depending on the individual distance between the body and the tailpiece, the mechanism of the fine tuner can quickly reach the top of the violin and cause unnecessary scratches to the varnish. If there are buzzing or rattling sounds after you have installed the fine tuners, you may need to tighten the nut. One interesting alternative to fine tuners on the tailpiece is installing special Wittner pegs with self-inhibiting gear mechanisms; here, the tuners are located inside the pegs deep in the holes of the pegbox, and they make it possible to fine tune without creating undue wear on the pegs. Since this approach means the strings are hooked directly into the tailpiece, their resonant length below the bridge increases, which often has a positive effect on the violin's sound. There are also fine tuners which have a hook for strings with looped ends instead of ball ends, and they yield similar results. They are shorter, which means the interval between the bridge and the tailpiece is larger than it is with the strings that have a ball end.
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How to take care of the violin fingerboard

As is the case with the rest of the stringed instrument, regularly cleaning off the rosin dust every time after you play is the simplest, best and most effective long-term way of taking care of the fingerboard. Here you need nothing more than a soft microfiber cloth (or something similar) which can also be used to clean the strings and fingerboard.Older or more persistent grime on unvarnished fingerboards can certainly be removed by applying a very small amount of rubbing alcohol or ethyl alcohol. As is the case in cleaning the violin strings, however, great caution must be exercised here to make sure that no alcohol whatsoever comes in contact with the top, where it could damage the varnish. Please be very careful if the fingerboard has inlays; if in doubt, consult with a luthier first. The colour of hardwood fingerboards with black varnish can be affected by the use of alcohol, although this is easily corrected and is a purely aesthetic problem. After cleaning, treat the fingerboard by lightly rubbing it with a cloth on which you have placed a few drops of oil; as a rule, this will restore a beautiful sheen as well. You can use any kind of vegetable oil that is very pure, such as a good-quality linseed oil or olive oil. Generally you will not even need to loosen the strings when you do this. If grooves have formed on the fingerboard after long and intense use, this certainly does not mean that the instrument has to undergo the complicated process of replacing the fingerboard. A luthier with the right tools can level a good fingerboard many times without affecting the playability or sound of the violin. This is exactly how the specialists in our atelier handle the historic stringed instruments which may still feature fingerboards that have survived for generations. Re-levelling the fingerboard is a perfect solution which saves the instrument the risks of undergoing such extensive modification.
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How to improve the violin's sound

Optimising the sound of a violin or of any stringed instrument not only calls for expertise and experience, but for patience in finding the correct settings by deliberate trial and error. Even professionally set-up instruments may benefit from readjustment if they do not adequately meet the demands of an individual player's technique or satisfy their new owner's acoustic expectations.
The most important measures for improving the sound include repositioning the sound post and violin bridge, which can have a deliberate effect on certain frequency ranges. If you are extremely cautious, you can certainly try your hand at adjusting the violin bridge yourself, but moving the sound post is clearly a task for a professionally luthier. This is also the case when it comes to repositioning the bass bar, another modification that can be very effective but is very technically demanding. Many times, however, musicians who have chosen their violin carefully and found the right instrument can often achieve the desired effects with far simpler methods. For example, using different rosin not only alters the responsiveness of the violin, but its sound as well. Selecting different strings can open entirely new aspects of an instrument's voice. Cellists in particular have a great deal of experience in blending sets of strings, and they develop a certain virtuosity in finding just the right A string. Last but not least, there is great potential for change in a stringed instrument's most important "accessory": the violin bow. Many musicians invest a great deal of time looking for a better violin until they realize that a different bow gives them new and previously unexplored musical options in their playing.
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