The Bow In Particular
Before carrying out any of the procedures described below, please make a realistic judgement of your own ability and skill; if in doubt, ask a professional violin maker/repairer to do it for you (they should be happy to do this with you watching). Abide by warnings on bottles of chemicals. Note my disclaimer on the home page. Sorry about this, but you know how litigious our society has become.
Cleaning strings/rosin etc…
Assuming your bow has been rehaired correctly, it will hold rosin well and last a long time. However, it will only do this if you treat both your bow and instrument as recommended here.
The bow should have a little rosin on it from the rehairer, I use liquid rosin as it ‘takes’ all over the hair and is not messy. You will need to add very little block rosin and you will definitely NOT have to rosin the hair every time you take the bow out of the case! This is a bad habit perpetuated by bad tuition. Use only good quality rosin (see below for my suggestions) but in addition it is very important to clean the strings of your instrument, especially before you use your newly haired bow. For this you need Methylated Spirits (‘meths’, available from good hardware stores) or denatured alcohol if you have access to any. To those who use block rosin made from tree resins (i.e. most violin, viola and cello players, and a few bass players) DO NOT EVER under any circumstances use white spirit, turpentine, perfume or surgical spirit as they are useless and/or greasy. HOWEVER, please note that the 'meths' will strip varnish off should it accidentally make contact, so you have to protect the body of the instrument. (Please note the spirit recommendation will not be correct for 'artificial' wax-based bass rosins – please consult the rosin makers.) Proceed as follows:
1. Place the violin (viola, cello) flat down on a soft surface where there is no dirt to scratch it.
2. Place a suitably sized yellow duster or cloth to completely cover the belly from just in front of the bridge to under the fingerboard at the neck joint. Make sure there are at least two layers of cloth. If you like, make a shaped piece of polythene to go between cloth and instrument as an extra guard.
3. Moisten a piece of kitchen paper with the spirit – DO NOT soak the paper; too little is far better than too much.
4. Wipe around each string thoroughly, not just the top surface, and over the fingerboard too, as long as you know the instrument has an oil polished ebony fingerboard (which all quality violins do). If you’re not sure, put some protection under the strings on the fingerboard as well. If you see any excess spirit fall onto the cloth take the cloth away double quick, but if you just moisten the kitchen paper that shouldn’t happen.
I suggest that you clean strings at home rather than carrying a container of spirit in your instrument case that might leak. If in any doubt about doing the above, I will do it for you (at no charge) though sometimes the cleaning process will reveal strings that are about to fail. Some instrument care books/articles are shy about telling players to clean strings. This may be because of liability; a player interprets the instructions badly and removes some varnish from their instrument, then sues the author for telling them to use spirits. I will assume you are more intelligent than that, but of course I have to warn you about it!
Rosin the bow sparingly at the most once a week, only more often if you feel for certain that the hair is not contacting the clean string. Don’t just wipe the strings ‘dry’ without using the solvent; that achieves nothing except a nasty scratching noise. Good hair retains rosin and will play for ages without the need to add extra. Never ‘whip’ a bow through the air to remove excess rosin, or touch the hair with your fingers. Towards the end of the hair’s life, when it has been worn smooth, the rosin will not stay, the bow lacks the vital ‘grip’ on the string, and it is time for a rehair.
Cleaning the bow stick. Sometimes I see players vigorously ‘cleaning’ their bow stick with a duster after playing. Please don’t do this, as all you are doing is pushing rosin dust into the grain of the stick; cleaning is barely necessary if you are using the rosin as above, and it will lead to the lapping being spoilt (the first few turns of silver wire lap in particular) if the lap is ‘caught’ by the cloth. Careful light ‘dusting’ should be the most that is needed.
Grease is the enemy of bow hair no matter how good a quality the hair is. I am sometimes presented with bows I have rehaired that do not play pianissimo in one particular place; the hair appears to slide on the string. Not the rehairer’s fault; how could all 180-odd hairs be faulty in that one place?! No, this is because somehow that place on the hair has been made greasy, and it is impossible to clean it back to new. There are a few likely causes; spilt violin polish, greasy hands from eating food, pizzicato with greasy fingers, and pupil’s violins/bows/rosins. Never lend your rosin to anyone else, especially young pupils. The grease on their bow will transfer to your rosin block, that will then transfer to your bow and render it as useless as the pupils’. If you teach, encourage them not to ‘finger’ their bow hair and keep a rosin block solely for them. “Magic” rosin from teacher works wonders just before an exam! Never practice or leave your case open where cooking is taking place, because hair is hygroscopic, i.e. it readily absorbs moisture (that is why your bow goes slack in a damp church in the summer) and it will take up any grease in the atmosphere along with that moisture.
Hair can be cleaned with methylated spirit or denatured alcohol as follows: adjust the bow to a little above playing tension. Moisten a piece of kitchen paper with the spirit. Fold it and place the hair between the fold; move the paper between head and nut, never nearer than two centimetres to either so as not to dampen the wedges. Don’t get meths on the stick in case it is a bow with spirit varnish or polish. After waiting some time for the hair to dry (the meths has to evaporate), the hair ribbon will be seen to have stuck together along its length. With the hair still under tension, stroke a clean cocktail stick or similar across the hair at various points and it will assume its normal appearance.
It is not possible to ‘wash’ hair clean and restore it to ‘as new’ condition. At one time such a recommendation appeared in “The Strad” magazine as well as elsewhere. That was irresponsible. Never get water anywhere near your bow; capillary action causes the wedges to swell, breaking the mortices, then shrink smaller as they dry, so they fall out. Water applied to rosined hair is just a ghastly mess. The hair can be cleaned with meths as above, or if you feel that has made no improvement, have the bow rehaired.
Broken hairs. Should this happen, the hair pieces left should be snapped out against the sharp edges of head face and ferrule respectively. If you find you are breaking hairs say more than one a month it may be that the hair is poor quality, worn out, or your playing is of a vigorous quality that others may not appreciate(!).
Never tell a bow maker how much hair you want in your bow. This became the fashion about forty years ago when there was a large increase in the cost of hair, and the implication was that because good hair was expensive the rehairer skimped on the hair amount to maximize profits. Each bow has a maximum amount it can physically take and is designed for. Overhaired bows choke both the bow stick and the tone of the instrument. An overhaired bow is often the sign of a handyman rehairer and can be spotted by a clumpy appearance of the hair on the head face.
Some players think that I hair bows too ‘tight’, in that they cannot relax the hair as much as a previous rehair. This is intentional. The player’s thumb is meant to be in contact with the thumb leather, not the stick; it is the leather that should wear out, thus avoiding wear on the stick. Only if the bow is haired to the correct length will this be achieved. A properly made bow will suffer no harm if a little tension remains on the hair when it is not in use; this is beneficial for the wedges that hold the hair in the bow. The thumbnail should be kept short so that only the flesh of the thumb contacts the leather (all nails should be short anyway). If I tell you the thumb leather needs replacing, then it does; I have no need to tout for extra work! Thumb wear on the stick takes a lot of value off a bow.
Should the screw mechanism become tight, difficult to turn, bring it to me. Changes in weather and lack of ability by some rehairers in not attending to the mechanism can cause this. A little attention is much cheaper than replacement.
Good rosin. A good block of rosin should last you years assuming you don’t terminally drop it. For violin, viola and cello the soft rosins are useless, spraying all over the instrument (and up your nose) rather than clinging to the hair. I have found the following brands good and not all of them are expensive – Art Craft (both 'dark' and 'light'), Hill, Szigeti, Pirastro Goldflex (if you want a bright sound on the violin) and all the other Pirastro rosins, Millant-Deroux (Thorvaldsson), Nieman Harts (especially for the cello) and the Liebenzeller Metal Rosin, and I stock all of those except the Liebenzeller. I would appreciate any recommendations for bass rosin but bear in mind the great Gary Karr uses Gand & Bernardel cello rosin on white hair and a German pattern bow and doesn’t seem to suffer from tone production problems, at least not to my ears.
And finally - if your violin or bow needs any attention, take it to a repairer/maker who is recommended by a fellow player - not just one who advertises in ‘Yellow Pages’ (or elsewhere) and/or one who boasts membership of a craft organisation (such memberships are without judgement of craft status and rely only on ability to pay subscriptions). If you are new to an area, visit the suggested repairer’s premises and ask to see examples of their work; if they are reticent or if you are suspicious, leave and go elsewhere. Your outfit is too precious to you – whatever intrinsic value it has – to risk it to a handyman, and there are sadly too many of those about. Please, only ever take your bow to a bow maker. Because skilled makers are becoming rare, it is more important than ever to follow the suggestions I have described to help your bow perform as well as it can for as long as possible.