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The Little Things
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March 21, 2014 - 10:06 am
Member Since: May 4, 2012
Forum Posts: 2379
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(Long post warning, with nothing exciting to hear about.  Get yourself a coffee or whatever for this one, if you decide to read it.)


Maintenance is one of those little things of music. It doesn't make an earth-shaking difference in your sound, but I can say from experience that it is one of those things that will trip you up eventually in performance if you neglect it.

Some fiddlers/violinists take their instrument to a luthier once or twice a year to have it checked over, from what I hear.  Not having any luthiers that I know of nearby, and being a "do it yourself" sort of player, I do my own. 

Last night, I had some quiet hours on my hands and decided it was a good time to check over my acoustic.  Anyone looking for a "horror story" can skip the rest of this post, since everything was in pretty good shape.  No disasters.  I just gave the instrument a more thorough cleaning than usual, checked over all the problem spots I could think of, and attended to some little things I had been meaning to get around to.

So this isn't a story of some big dramatic repair or something, just an explanation of what I did that may give some ideas to newer players on how they might go about doing a bit of simple check-up and maintenance on their instrument.

First thing was to look over the instrument closely, with some magnification.  I was looking for any cracks or signs of seams starting to come loose, for signs of strings digging into the nut or bridge, all the things where "a stitch in time saves nine."  Happily, everything looks to be in good shape. 

Next was to take a soft cotton cloth and give the instrument a very thorough cleaning.  I usually wipe down my acoustic violin every day, after playing, so it wasn't bad.  But there's places like under the fingerboard and under the tailpiece and chinrest that don't get cleaned spotless every day, because they are a little harder to get to.  I took the chinrest off, to make that easier.  I noticed that the cork padding on the chinrest wasn't actually very cushy anymore, so I scraped it off with a knife and put on new cork.  When cork gets hard as wood, then it isn't doing the job of padding/cushioning that it is supposed to.

I decided I may as well clean the inside as well. So I put about a half cup of uncooked white rice in through the F-holes and tipped the violin around to let the rice scrub out any dust and etc.  After gently shaking it back out through the F-holes I could see there was a bit of dust and a few cat hairs, but like the outside, it wasn't anything real bad.

Next there were a couple of small issues I wanted to attend to, that most folks probably wouldn't.  So I loosened the strings, took down the bridge, and took the strings and tailpiece completely off.  One of the only annoyances about my acoustic that I have had in the year and a half I have owned it is that the nut wasn't done *quite* as well as I would like.  Height and the string grooves are done well enough, so it has always been very functional, but the edge of the nut on S string side wasn't nicely rounded like it was on the G string side. Just one of those tiny annoyances one notices once in a while when playing.  So I masked the area with some blue painter's masking tape to protect the finish of the violin and took a few minutes with a fine file to round and dress that edge so it was more to my liking.

Next, I put the strings, bridge and tailpiece back on and adjusted the afterlength.  That is an adjustment that is kinda controversial.  Some folks say it makes no difference.  I'll agree with them so far as that I would say that the part of the string that is between the nut and bridge that does the main job of vibrating is 95% of the sound.  There are some discussions on this forum about afterlength, so i won't go into great detail here. I had noticed it was a little off, and I spent some time doing the "check/loosen strings/remove tailpiece/adjust/put tailpiece back on/tune back up/check/repeat" routine until I was happy with it again.  I think the average beginner would be better off just skipping that, but I'm a fussy sort about such things.  Sometimes when I'm playing, I want to feel like that 5% is definitely there.  LOL

Then I cleaned the strings carefully and gave them a close inspection.  Most of the strings are still fine, it's a Pro Arte set a few months old.  But I'd noticed the E string has been a bit dead, so I replaced it with a new plain E that I had left over from a set of Overture Ultras (they come with two E strings to give a choice between wound and unwound for your E).  I took the time to get the wind onto the pegs nice and pretty, and to trim the lengths of the strings so that when the strings are tuned up, the pegs are at least close to where "the pros" want them for doing that left-handed tuning thing.

I don't care for cleaning strings, especially synthetic core ones, with alcohol. So I just used a beechwood stick (a "popsicle stick", in other words) and a cotton cloth to get any rosin residue off them that might have built up on the underside of the strings. 

I had noticed the back of the neck had gotten glossy from playing.  Players differ on that point, but I prefer it matte, so I masked the neck to protect the finish on the rest of the violin and took some #600 sandpaper to it for a few strokes to kill the shine.

Some graphite on the grooves of the nut and bridge, and then I checked over set-up and put the violin into perfect tune.  Finally I gave the instrument a good buffing with a bit of silk cloth, put the chinrest back on, and decided it was a good job.  Vacuumed out the case (how much sense would it make to clean an instrument and then put it back into a dirty case?), rehydrated the humidifier and it was all done.

End result.. No sign of problems developing with the instrument, and it looks and sounds at *least* as good as it did the day I got it brand new.  I think it actually sounds and looks a little better, personally.  There would be a couple reasons for that.  First, better strings and some "playing in" can make an instrument sound better than when it was brand new.  Second, buffing the finish of even an inexpensive violin with silk can get a better look than "factory new".

No grand improvement in sound or appearance.  Well, other than a fresh E string definitely restoring some of the brightness that had been lost as the old one had gone a bit dead.  But when I take her out of her case to play, I know the instrument is as "stage ready" as it can be, and looks it's best. 



"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman


March 21, 2014 - 1:14 pm
Member Since: February 11, 2014
Forum Posts: 633
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Wow.  Thank you for this write up.  It is very helpful.  Couple of questions though.
1.  where do you get the cork?  Is it special somehow?
2.  I just did my tailpiece last week and overshot the measurement by 2mm, I'll take it off and reset it at the next string change.  I didn't hear any difference either.
3.  I had never heard about the rice method,,great info.  In fact I had thought about putting some dirt in the violin.  I keep trying to understand what makes an old violin sound better than a new one and thought that possibly a hundred year accumulation of dirt might be it.  I haven't gotten around to trying that though.  But its still on the list.
Again, thanks for your time and the info, it really helps.


March 21, 2014 - 1:48 pm
Member Since: May 4, 2012
Forum Posts: 2379
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1.) The cork, so far as I know, is nothing special.  The stuff I use for things like this is the little sheets of composite cork (little pieces glued together and sliced to make sheets) that I get from craft stores or craft departments of stores.  I didn't want to wait for glue to dry or risk glue fumes messing with the finish, so I used double-sided tape.

2.) I can hear a difference, but it is subtle.  The main vibrating length of the string is at least 95% of the sound, in my opinion.  Afterlength seems to affect ring and how much and where the instrument resonates.  I adjust it by tuning, rather than mm.  When it is a bit off, it isn't like the instrument sounds terrible or anything, it's just missing a bit of what it has when I get it dead on.  Or at least that is what I hear, you mileage may vary.  How important the afterlenth is and which method is best for adjusting it leads to quite a bit of debate, even among experienced players and luthiers.

3.) Personally, I think dirt or dust probably isn't a major factor in great antique violins.  So far as I understand, they usually get cleaned when they are taken to the luthier for their check-ups.  But it would be easy enough to try, if anyone wanted to, by putting in some dust and shaking out any excess.. It could be cleaned out later, if it didn't do any miracles for the sound.  I have known players with guitar that are firm believers that dust and dust bunnies are important to keep in a guitar as it ages, and who swear by it. So who knows?  dunno


"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman


March 21, 2014 - 8:21 pm
Member Since: February 11, 2014
Forum Posts: 633
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Thanks Daniel, I heard a woman say that she keeps a snake rattler in her violin and that with it rolling around it collected all the dust bunnies.  I thought that was funny.


March 24, 2014 - 2:00 pm
Member Since: January 25, 2012
Forum Posts: 666
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MrYikes said
Thanks Daniel, I heard a woman say that she keeps a snake rattler in her violin and that with it rolling around it collected all the dust bunnies.  I thought that was funny.


When I retrieved my Grampa's fiddle from its 20-year sleep in the closet, it was full of mega dust bunnies. I vacuumed them out, and lo and behold - a snake rattle came out. It was relatively clean (and smaller than some of the bunnies), and obviously didn't scare away 20 years worth of dust bunnies.


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March 22, 2015 - 11:14 am
Member Since: March 15, 2015
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Speaking of rattlesnake rattle, I just received a rattlesnake rattle I bought on ebay.  I also got a violin from ebay too (it came in several months ago).  Now, I read that it's  fiddlers' tradition to put a rattlesnake rattle in a violin:  it's supposed to officially turn the violin into a bona fide fiddle (only true blue fiddlers have rattlesnake rattles in their fiddles, and no self-respecting fiddler would own and play fiddle without a rattlesnake rattle in the fiddle ), and it's supposed to bring good luck to the fiddle's owner,  and the rattle is said to make the fiddle sound sweeter.  (Who am I to buck tradition? Besides, I need all the luck I can get.)

So, I got the rattle but not all of it fits through the f-opening.  What should I do?  Should I push the rattle in as far as it can go, and then cut off the excess and then push the rest of the rattle in?  Or should I get an exacto knive and make the f-opening a little wider to accommodate the rest of the rattle?

California, the place of my heart
March 30, 2015 - 6:08 pm
Member Since: January 11, 2012
Forum Posts: 4180
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Eager to hear some suggestions on how to get the rattle in the violin.  After it is there..do you leave it in there? 

Good luck .... that's 'serious' fiddle business.   :) snake1

Vibrato Desperato.... Desperately seeking vibrato

Fort Lauderdale
April 1, 2015 - 12:04 pm
Member Since: September 26, 2010
Forum Posts: 16062

How about some pictures? I for one would not cut the f-hole.

"The richest person is not the one who has the most,
but the one who needs the least."

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