Violins attain their delicate but dynamic sound through a series of complex vibrations within the wood body. As a material, wood is perfect for musical instruments due to its flexibility and durability. However, due to its porous nature, the wood of a violin is prone to dirt and oils and must be regularly cleaned.
To restore the wood finish of your violin, you must first wipe off all dust and dirt with a microfiber cloth. Then, using a small amount of violin polish on a different cloth, wipe the body of the violin along the grain of the wood, using long strokes. Follow this up by cleaning your strings.
With proper care, a violin can last for many years and in some cases even centuries. Wood that is well-worn can have character, but keeping a violin clean and in good shape is the best way to ensure it will last for a long time.
Keep reading for more detailed instructions and some tips to make the job easier.
How Violins Get Dirty
Our skin has oils in it that transfer to the things we come into contact with. This is especially true of materials like wood that are porous and likely to be susceptible to damage. A wood body makes a violin strong and resonant, but it must be well maintained if it is going to last as long as some of the world’s oldest violins. That type of longevity for an instrument requires proper storage, proper playing technique, and of course, proper cleaning.
It may be that a particular violin has been stored in an attic or a basement for a long period of time. This usually happens due to the instrument being bought for someone who never really took to it, and sooner or later it ended up in storage somewhere. Typically, this is in a place that isn’t ideal for storage of a delicate classical instrument. If not properly stowed away in a protective case, it could end up with an accumulation of dust and grime that can be difficult to remove.
Another way that violins get dirty is through regular use. Sweat, oil from the skin, and extra rosin from the bow can all accumulate on a violin and fill in the grain, dulling the finish. If this happens, that just means the violin is getting played and practiced enough and it needs some routine cleaning.
The Cleaning Process
For a regular wipe down of a violin, you’re going to need a few things:
Before doing anything, wash your hands, then take a clean microfiber cloth and wipe off any loose dirt or grime that might have accumulated before you start the polish. If you think about it like a wooden floor, you need to sweep before you mop. The polish will not be helpful in removing big particles of dust and may even rub them into the finish of the instrument.
Apply a small amount of specialist violin polish to one of the microfiber cloths. If the wood on your violin has a grain to it, it is important to wipe the instrument down along the grain in long stokes. This will ensure that the polish gets into every microscopic crevasse in the wood and builds a nice shine. If your violin does not have a grain, rub in the polish in small circles and be sure to get deep in every area.
No matter how tempting it might be, do not add more polish to the microfiber cloth. A little bit is more than enough to get into the finish and bring out the natural beauty of the wood. Too much could leave a sticky film on the top of the body, which attracts more dirt and makes for even more polishing work and in some cases, permanent damage.
Cleaning the Strings
No matter how long a violin has been stored in a dank basement, the dirtiest part of it will be the strings. Whether the strings are nylon or catgut, they are softer and more vulnerable to dust and dirt. This is also true for the strings of a violin that sees regular use. Rosin from the bow has a tendency to build up on the strings with a lot of playing time and can weigh them down, making them more difficult to play correctly and get a crisp sound.
For the string portion of the violin cleaning, use a microfiber cloth that has not had violin polish applied to it. Any kind of polish on the strings will exacerbate the problem and make it more difficult to clean properly, which will cause the strings to become dull. A perfectly dry cloth is best for getting dirt off of violin strings no matter what they are made out of.
While holding the violin upside down, grasp the cloth between your thumb and forefinger and run it along the string. This will dislodge any rosin that has had a chance to build up. By turning the instrument upside down, you are ensuring that none of the dirt material falls off the strings and into the body through the f-holes.
Type of Polish
While it may seem like it would be okay to use any old kind of wood polish on a violin, this is inadvisable. Don’t do it. Some polishes, such as those designed for furniture, have oils in them. This is no better than the oil that excretes from the fingers and hands of the player and will only dirty up the violin more by attracting dust from out of the air.
Even though it is a relatively harmless substance, water should also be avoided as a cleaner. Tap water contains minerals and contaminants that could damage antique wood. It is also too easy to use excessive water, which can warp the wood and make it unstable for playing and difficult to keep in tune. It is best to look for something that is specifically made to polish violins.
There are all kinds of options for professional violin polish. These specialty polishes don’t contain any harsh solvents or oils which could get spread around on the surface of the instrument and cause more damage than good. Any professional luthier or music store will have some available for purchase, and you can also find some online. On Amazon, we recommend W.E. Hill & Sons Violin Cleaner/Polisher or Dunlop Orchestral 65 Polish/Cleaner.
Perhaps the best way to keep a violin’s finish from becoming dull and old-looking is to practice proper maintenance such as washing your hands before picking it up and always making sure that it is properly stored in its case. There is also an easy, low-tech way to spot clean a violin before the problem gets out of hand and it needs to be polished.
Simply hold your violin about three inches from your mouth, open wide and puff some air onto it in the spot that you want to clean and wipe it down with the cloth. This will create a misty fog on the surface of the violin which can be used as an organic cleaner. Continue this process all over the instrument. The enzymes in the trace amount of saliva are gentle enough on the finish to not cause any damage, and best of all, it’s free!
Proper Care Every Day
The best bet for keeping a violin looking new for years to come is to always use the best practices when handling it. By doing things like washing your hands before use, you can avoid a potentially costly trip to the luthier. However, it’s nice to know that there are techniques available for when the job needs just a little bit more elbow grease.
We have other useful articles on taking care of your violin that you may want to check out.