Stringed orchestral instruments like the double bass, also known as the upright bass, are most often finished with a varnish. Varnish provides both beauty and a certain level of protection to the wood beneath. However, varnish can be soft, friable and easily damaged, so cleaning it must be done delicately and with proper care. The older the instrument, the more delicate the varnish will likely be.
The simplest household item for cleaning your double bass is soap and water. Add a few drops of dish soap to a bowl of warm water, dip a clean rag in the mixture and wring out as much water as possible. Clean one section at a time, wiping the instrument clean with the moistened cloth and immediately drying it off with a soft, dry cloth.
Typically this will be sufficient to clean the majority of gunk that accumulates on your double bass. If you don’t follow a cleaning routine there may be build up of filth that is more difficult to remove and other steps will need to be taken. Read on for what to do when soap and water don’t get the job done.
How To Clean A Double Bass Body
Wiping down your double bass before and after use is the best way to keep it clean. This type of cleaning routine removes much of the rosin and oils and sweat from your hands that remain on your double bass after playing. Wiping it down before you play removes the dust, dander, smoke, etc that settles on your instrument while it is in wait to be used. Removing this before playing keeps it from mixing with sweat and sebum and turning into hard-to-remove gack.
What you need to clean your double bass:
- At least two clean, soft, dry cloths
- Dish Soap
- Warm Water
Steps for cleaning your double bass:
- Wipe down the entire double bass, from the scroll to the end pin, with a soft, dry cloth.
- Remove as much loose detritus from the double bass as possible.
- Wet the cloth and literally wring the life out of it. You want the cloth to retain very little water.
- Beginning with the neck, wipe the areas with the heaviest accumulations of gack while frequently moving to a clean area of the cloth. Wet and wring out the cloth often.
- Once the heaviest areas are cleaned to your satisfaction, dry the previously cleaned area with a dry, soft cloth.
- Continue wiping the rest of the neck clean.
- Dry the entire neck.
- Rewet and re-wring your cleaning cloth.
- Address the area of the body between the bridge and the fingerboard where the bow contacts the strings. Continue wetting and wringing out the cloth and cleaning this area of the body until you have removed all of the rosin stuck to the varnish then dry it with your dry cloth.
- Draw two imaginary lines in your mind from the fingerboard to the end pin and through the center of the C bouts. Address each of the four areas, focusing on one at a time. Wiping and drying each section before moving on to the next.
- Repeat on the back and sides (it’s sufficient to mentally divide the sides in two halves at the C bouts).
- Give the entire double bass a wipe down with the dry cloth to ensure no water is left behind on the varnish.
If you haven’t been following a daily cleaning routine some of the rosin or gack that accumulates on your instrument may be difficult to remove – soap and water alone may not do the trick. DO NOT USE ALCOHOL TO CLEAN YOUR DOUBLE BASS! Alcohol will damage and even remove the varnish. If soap and water are not getting the job done, clean it again and give it extra elbow grease. If it is still not coming clean you can use a cleaner or cleaner and polish combination. I recommend Hill & Sons Violin Cleaner and Polish (Varnish Cleaner). It is effective for removing stubborn rosin buildup and Hill & Sons brands are almost universally accepted by players and luthiers as safe and effective products.
Hill & Sons Varnish Cleaner is alcohol free and will not damage the finish. Further, it leaves a nice shine with little effort. It does cost a bit more than most cleaners and is imported but it is effective and worth the price in my opinion.
If you are looking for a domestic product that is in a better price range and more environmentally friendly, try spit. No, that’s not a brand name. Spit is actually a good cleaner because the same properties of spit that break down food also break down grime and oil. It’s great in a pinch and it’s as cheap and environmentally friendly as they come.
How To Clean A Double Bass Fingerboard
Double bass fingerboards are almost exclusively made from ebony. Ebony is a desirable material for fingerboards due to its durability, resistance to wear, and aesthetic properties. Ebony is extremely dense. So dense, in fact, it doesn’t float. This density allows strings to vibrate against it without damping the sound and without showing significant signs of wear for many years.
Ebony double bass fingerboards can be cleaned with soap and water in the same way as the body and neck. Simply remove the strings so your access to the fingerboard is unhindered and follow the same steps. Heavier or stuck on debris can be removed by very lightly scraping the fingerboard with a razor blade held at a 90 degrees and perpendicular to the fingerboard. Be very careful not to scratch the fingerboard. Light scratches can be removed with 600 grit sandpaper followed by four ought (0000) steel wool. Condition the fingerboard with a bit of Lem-Oil or your go-to fingerboard conditioner.
How Do You Maintain A Double Bass?
The best way to maintain a clean double bass is to employ a cleaning routine that you stick with religiously. Keep a soft and clean cloth or microfiber cloth with your double bass at all times. Give it a quick wipe down before and after you play. Every single time.
Before playing, take a few seconds to run the dry cloth over the entire double bass, bow shaft and frog and remove any dust, dander, smoke, pet hair, or other airborne particulates that have settled on your instrument since the last time you played. Removing this before playing prevents it from adhering to the instrument when oil from the skin, sweat, and rosin are introduced.
After playing, take a few seconds to wipe down your double bass again. Focus your attention on the areas where your skin has come into contact with your double bass. This is where sebum mixes with skin flakes and rosin to form gack. Wiping it off your double bass before it has time to dry and harden makes it much easier to remove.
Maintaining a frequent, light cleaning routine with a dry cloth can greatly reduce how often you have to do heavier cleanings that require cleaning solutions or even removing the strings. The most important thing to remember is to never, ever use anything with an alcohol base to clean varnish. If you do, you will be considering how much you are willing to pay a luthier to fix it.
The best household cleaner will be soap and water, with possibly a little elbow grease. To reduce buildup, keep a routine of wiping down your bass before and after you play.
For additional tips on taking care of your double bass, make sure to check out the related articles below. We’ve also put together recommended products for your bass on our Violin & Cello Supplies page.