In order to preserve your strings’ performances as long as possible, you need to take care of them. The best way to do so is to clean them often. That’s why I offer you a guide to show you the dos and don’ts of how to clean your strings.
Why would you clean your violin strings?
To get rid of perspiration and finger deposits, wipe the entire string length with a duster.
Strings need regular maintenance to play as good as possible. Not only the sound qualities of your strings last longer, but you will also have to restring them less often!
First and foremost, you want to get rid of perspiration and skin debris. Though dead skin is a natural phenomenon, the finger deposits cause corrosion on the metal of the strings. Note that this varies a lot between musicians, some of them having a very acid touch.
Furthermore, the deposits can also penetrate the fibres and impair how the instrument vibrates.
However, this article will mostly focus on how rosin builds up. This usually happens in the bowing area, but it can be found everywhere on the instrument.
Regular cleaning to prevent rosin build up helps preserve the sound and good response of your string.
As a professional violin maker, I have noticed some musicians would apply rosin directly on the strings. While there might be good things to this method, it does not help to preserve the strings. Indeed, the string will end up weighed down by the rosin, thus lasting less longer. As much as possible, rosin should be applied to the bow hair only.
How not to clean your strings
There are very different ways to clean your strings, some better than others. Let’s start with the worst, so that you know why not to use them. Even if they may be used by a lot of musicians, they can still impair the strings’ performances and durability – and you do not want that.
Cleaning with liquid solvents
Alcohol, maintenance products for strings that about every merchant will be keen to sell you… These solvents will remove rosin build up very quickly and easily. However they are far from being the best solution.
A wound string has quite a complex construction. In order for the string to vibrate as free as possible, its surface has to be flexible, and the winding cannot be completely sealed. As such, the string gets affected by contaminants during its lifetime.
One of the biggest issues on worn strings is deposits. The less perspiration, minerals, dirt, dust, and skin debris, the best your strings are. However, since this building up occurs while you’re playing, you cannot really avoid it. Still, cleaning your strings can limit the damages.
In the bowing area, penetration by rosin is the biggest threat. This happens when you dissolve the rosin with alcohol, solvent cleaners or other products: they all allow the rosin to go deeper into the fibres.
In the pictures above, the alcohol was dyed in green so that you can see how the contamination spreads into the strings. Rosin might be dissolved by solvent, but it goes through the winding layers and quickly reaches the synthetic fibre core. The alcohol then vanishes, pervading the string so much that it ends up paralysing the vibration.
Sure, unlike other products that will infiltrate the string deeply and stay there, alcohol vanishes completely. That makes it probably one of the less terrible solvent there is. However, even though it is a very quick way to get rid of rosin, it is still not a desired solution at all.
Cleaning with steel wool
Some others suggest using steel wool against rosin build up. This comes with another issue.
In the picture below, you can see two strings. They have undergone two different treatments: the one above is in its normal condition, while the one below was rubbed with .000 steel wool for one minute. Even if it would normally take a few seconds for a single clean, let’s pretend the string has been cleaned repeatedly. Besides, one minute of cleaning time can be accumulated very quickly.
Over this short period of time, the string’s diameter has lost 10 to 15 microns (0,010 to 0,015 mm) because of abrasion. If the entire string length were to be treated that way, its tension would decrease by about 1 – 1.5 Newton, that is to say about 0.1 to 0.15 kg of the violin. That might not seem very important, but such a decrease in just one spot makes the string unstable and out of tune.
And that’s not all: such polishing changes the surface structure a lot. Not only does it open the winding gaps further, allowing more contaminants in, but it also polishes out the harshness of the string. Since this harshness is what allows the bow and the rosin to move the strings, the instrument loses both its playability and its grip.
How to clean your strings
Now that you know what you mustn’t do to take care of your strings, let’s review the best ways to maintain them in top condition. Rest assured: it doesn’t take much.
- A duster (microfiber, cleaning cloth, silk)
- A plastic card (credit or phone card).
Strings are better off with regular maintenance
Regular maintenance on your strings makes the cleaning easier. Hence, wiping your strings with a duster before putting the instrument to rest in its case is a good habit to take.
Just one cloth wipe removes the very thin dust that deposits during your practice session. Pluck the string between your fingers and wipe along the string length. You can apply more pressure on the contact areas with the bows: as long as you use a dry and soft cleaning cloth, you won’t harm the string. A piece of cake!
Besides, have you noticed how the rosin builds up on the string of your violin, viola, or cello? It looks like snowdrifts! Which means the bowing area is safe from dust deposit.
Cleaning a dusty string
If you don’t take care of your string for a while, even the bowing area will end up dusty. Due to friction and rust, the dust fuses and becomes heavy, hard and encrusted to the string.
A lot of players don’t want to use dry wiping because of the scratchy noise of the string and the wipe rubbing against each other. However, you should get over it – it’s actually the best solution to clean your string and extend their durability.
Cleaning with a duster and a scraper
Most of the rosin build up can be removed easily with a duster. However, too much friction can increase the temperature. This will cause the rosin dust to melt and then fuse to the string. The build-up then becomes much more resistant to removal. That’s why you should proceed carefully and remove the deposit gently.
I advise you to wait a bit between every wipe. 10 to 20 seconds are enough!
Once you have wiped the string, a rosin “crust” remains. It is due to the rosin bits being heated by bowing, which made them fuse. Then they hardened and rusted, thus becoming as resistant as the deposit they came from.
Luckily, this surface is very brittle: we can get rid of it with a scraper. A stiff plastic card makes an ideal tool, since it’s harder than rosin but softer than aluminium. Please do not scrape with a steel tool, such as a knife. A scratched string is very fragile.
It works even better when you bend the card (see in the picture). This way you can use the angle as a blade.
Finally, one last wipe is necessary to get rid of the last bits. Once the scraper has broken them, it is way easier to remove them with any wipe. In the end, your string is perfectly clean, unharmed, and its core isn’t contaminated. That’s why I believe this method is the best method to clean your strings.
This article is based on the great work of Bohdan Warchal and especially his research about strings.
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