Cleaning too much, or not enough, can irreversibly change your instrument’s appearance
Q: What is the proper way to clean the violin after lessons and between performances without damaging the varnish?
Violin maker Christopher Jacoby responds:
A: Your instrument is your partner, here to help you express yourself and make lovely music. Many players become obsessive about their instrument’s finish and always want to keep it shiny—free of rosin dust and finger smudges, and always wrapped in a soft silk bag inside its case. Others never clean their partner, letting rosin build up on and below the bridge. Either extreme can be bad mojo for your fiddle.
Here’s the conundrum: How much of the finish’s worth is derived from its makeup (its pedigree) and how much from the state it’s in? For example, there are sought-after British cellos whose original varnish is a nightmare of crocodile scales and giant crackled islands of varnish. To some, this effect might be hideous, but the effect helps to authenticate the instruments, and does nothing to hurt their price. But restorers lament when they find a Forster with the scales smoothed and polished out—it takes the personality earned by hundreds of winters and springs right off the cello, and leaves another brown, shiny contender.
Yet, an unpolished violin is just as undesirable, at least when it comes to sales, and making a connection with a player. At this stage, the string world is used to seeing the great antique Italian fiddles with three centuries of polish and smoothing wear, and react positively to a lustrous varnish on a violin because of it.
As players (and luthiers), it’s important to respect the life of the instrument you are lucky to have care of. Barring any accidents, that violin you are playing will likely outlive your grandchildren by several hundred years. They’re surprisingly tough creatures and you are but a season in their life, so respect the finish your instrument wears.
Here’s my advice: Keep it clean, but don’t polish the varnish or fingerboard obsessively. Smudges and scratches will become part of the beautiful patina you are helping the finish to become, but polishes, even low-abrasive ones such as Kohr and Super Nicko, are removing material from the varnish every time they are used, irreversibly changing your instrument forever.
Likewise, cleaning your fingerboard with rubbing alcohol and your strings with steel wool could ruin your varnish and strip the metal winding away from your strings (beware of advice from your stand partner if they suggest that you take steel wool to the finish—anyway, they often give dodgy advice). Using a microfiber cloth can help keep your instrument free from dusts and excess rosin—most violin shops carry these, and if not, look for them at eyeglass or sunglass retailers.
Personally, I have a favorite t-shirt from junior high, shredded into squares and kept reverently in different fiddle cases.
When I see that rosin has dusted white all over my violin top and fingerboard, I gently wipe it away with a square from that well-worn t-shirt, turning the cloth often, and wash the cotton squares about once a year.
If your instrument is filthy, and if long years of neglect have formed a sappy mess of the varnish below the bridge, let a professional handle that.
Still, the best way to maintain the beauty of your instrument is to gently clean up after yourself and to not get too concerned about bling in the finish of the fingerboard or varnish.
Your fiddle is beautiful just the way it was made.
Christopher Jacoby lives and dodges falling apples south of Omaha, Nebraska. The violins he makes prefer ’90s rock t-shirts to microfiber cloths.