Extending Instrument Life
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The One Thing That Extends the Life of Your Instrument
by Ryan McLaughlin
The one thing is cleaning! Simply wiping down an instrument after playing can make a significant difference in the care of an instrument. This habit does a few things. The process of wiping it down protects the varnish, which in turn saves the wood, which in turn saves from spending money on expensive repairs. It’s also a perfect opportunity to visually inspect the instrument to notice any potential problems before they become bigger. Read why below.
You’ll want to remove the rosin that fell on the violin while you were playing it, as well as sweat or dirt or makeup that may have gotten on the violin. Rosin and sweat are both slightly acidic and can attack the varnish on your violin. Dirt and makeup can build up on the violin and cause damage as well. Just wipe off the loose stuff, you don’t need to scrub. Even the most diligent instrument wiper-offer will eventually accumulate a little bit of rosin and dirt on the surface. No big deal. This can easily be cleaned off when you take your instrument to your luthier for a check-up every six months (I don’t charge to look a violin over). If you’ve kept your instrument clean, it’s easy for us to get those stubborn little spots off. Wiping down the instrument right after you play also gives you a chance to visually inspect things and catch potential problems early. I highly recommend that you do not use any special violin cleaners or polish (more on that later). Just a clean dry cloth. We have polish cloths you can use, but even an old soft t-shirt will work.
Why no violin cleaner? Several reasons:
Violin varnish can be delicate stuff. There is no product available that won't dissolve some types of varnish. I’ve even had water instantly remove varnish from an instrument (that was a fun day)! Some players may say they’ve used XYZ to safely wipe down an instrument and have done so every day for 40 years. Don’t do that! Even if their instrument hasn’t been affected by XYZ , yours might be. There’s also a good chance that XYZ is toxic, and you shouldn’t be breathing it or getting it on your skin every day anyway. When we clean instruments at the McLaughlin shop, there are a number of different things we use. We know that many instruments don’t respond well to certain cleaners. We use a fume hood and several different types of gloves to protect us (no one glove will protect against all types of chemicals).
Whatever cleaner you use to clean your instrument may soften your varnish. Maybe not enough that you’d notice it right away, but enough that excess rosin sticks to it just a little bit better. Enough that after a month of using it, the varnish softens enough to imprint from the case fabric.
Perhaps just as bad are instrument polishes that shine the instrument, but leave a layer of soft wax or oil behind. These polishes just attract more dirt and rosin, making the instrument dirtier over time. Even worse, the substance can get into cracks, making them harder to repair. Silicone, an ingredient in some polishes/cleaners, is especially nasty. It can actually migrate under varnish causing damage, and is nearly impossible to remove from a crack.
So, wipe down your instrument right after you play with a clean, dry cloth. And be sure to bring your instrument to your luthier for a thorough check at least every six months.