How should I clean my violin?

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    John
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    VIOLIN CLEANERS AND POLISHES
    by AVMA member, John Simmers

    In our workshop, much of our time is spent cleaning instruments. Our clients often ask us what they can use to clean their own instrument. Following is some information about instrument cleaning. Some of it has been gathered from other violin makers and some is based on our own experience and ideas.

    There are many so-called cleaning and polishing products on the market these days. Violin shops have also traditionally produced and packaged their own polishes to sell directly to their customers. These nicely packaged and smelling products, give you a feeling of satisfaction. A feeling that you are lovingly cleaning and caring for your instrument. Unfortunately you may be doing your instrument much harm by using these products.

    The ingredients found in commercial violin cleaners and polishes may include some of the following:

    Linseed oil
    Pure turpentine
    White spirit
    Alcohol
    Acetone
    Water
    Paraffin oil
    Olive oil
    Xylene
    Lavender oil
    Rosemary oil

    These ingredients can be broken down into 4 categories. Drying oils, non-drying oils, essential or volatile oils and solvents. The characteristics of violin varnishes vary greatly. Every maker has their own method of varnishing their instruments. I won’t go into the details of varnishing techniques here as that is a huge subject on its own. The problem with all of these substances is that they can harm your instrument and, generally, they don’t actually do much.

    Drying oils such as linseed oil are used in polishes to make instruments shiny. No matter how well you try to rub the excess oil from the instrument after it is applied, some will remain and dry. If the instrument is covered with rosin and dirt (which is of course why you are trying to clean it), the oil will actually soak into and cover the dirt and then dry. We often see instruments that have been ‘cleaned’ year after year with polishes containing drying oils, that are dull and sticky, and have many years of dirt and rosin trapped under all that oil. It is then very difficult for us to remove the gunk to reveal the original varnish underneath.

    Non drying oils, such as paraffin and olive oils, will never dry. They are also used to make the violin shiny, but it is the oil that is shiny, not the varnish. Unless all the oil is cleaned off, it will actually encourage more dirt to stick to the instrument.

    Drying and non-drying oils have another down side. The glue used to make and repair violins is water soluble. It does not like oil. If oily polishes are used on instruments that have any open seams or cracks, the oil will penetrate the wood, making any attempts to glue it difficult, without first cleaning all the oil from the wood – a very time consuming and expensive process. It may also be difficult to retouch the varnish if the oil has penetrated any exposed wood on the instrument.

    Essential or volatile oils are oils usually distilled from plants that will eventually evaporate. They are added to polishes to act as a solvent and to add a pleasant smell to the polish – possibly to mask the smell of the other ingredients. The major problem with these oils is that they are often very strong solvents, capable of removing the varnish from the instrument. They can also leave a residue after it has evaporated.

    Solvents are used to remove the dirt and rosin from the instrument. Most of the solvents on my list are quite effective if used with care. It is important to use the correct solvent for the varnish, or you will risk removing the varnish as well as the dirt. For example, some cheaper student instruments have modern synthetic varnishes that can be safely and quickly cleaned with alcohol. Many instruments have spirit varnishes that will be very quickly removed with alcohol. Most spirit varnishes can be safely cleaned with xylene (not so safe for the user though), but if used on a newish oil varnish, it can be easily damaged. I know, because someone did this to an instrument that I made.

    As you can see, knowing what to safely and effectively clean an instrument with, requires a fair bit of knowledge, and lots of experience. I do not recommend that you attempt to clean your own instrument. It is safer and much more effective to have it cleaned professionally. Simmers Violin Makers feel strongly about this issue and do not sell any commercial cleaners or polishes.

    Cleaning instruments is tedious, time consuming work. It is not something that we enjoy, but we see it as an important part of maintaining an instrument. Many of our clients report an improvement in the sound of their instrument after it has been cleaned. After an instrument is cleaned, it may also be necessary to retouch any worn areas of varnish, to protect the wood from dirt and the acid and oils from the player’s skin.

    We are often asked how often you should have your instrument cleaned. I would think that a professional string player or serious student should have their instrument cleaned every year or so. It is also a good opportunity for us to check the health of your instrument and find any potential problems.

    What can you do to keep your instrument clean? We recommend that you carry a soft cloth, a common yellow dusting cloth is traditional, and use it regularly to clean any rosin dust from the instrument.

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