The viola is similar to a violin but is longer and wider, and produces lower tones. As a viola player, you already know this and that the viola has a truly beautiful sound. To keep your instrument looking new and in top playing condition though, you should maintain and clean it regularly.
You should clean your viola after each playing session. Using two microfiber cloths, use the first cloth on your strings, front and back. Then, with your other cloth, gently wipe off the body of your viola. For areas that don’t wipe off easily, try the breath cleaning trick and gently rub the area. To maintain the violin’s finish and keep it looking new, use a varnish cleaner every 6-12 months.
Dirt can build up on the instrument’s strings which can interfere with tonal quality and even make it sound scratchy. Also, rosin and dust may build up on the body which can cause it to lose it’s shine, or affect the sound as well. Luckily, you can keep your viola in top shape with just a little maintenance.
Be Careful Which Cleaner You Use
The finish protects your viola but you need to protect your finish.
Seems ironic that we’re starting our discussion by talking about “finish” but it’s an important place to start. A viola’s finish refers to the oil and varnish that has been applied to the body to protect the wood, bring out the rich color, and make it shine. Usually the varnish will be oil-based or spirit-based or a combination of the two, typically giving you a hard surface that’ll repel moisture and protect the instrument.
Since there are many varnish recipes for orchestral instruments, if your finish is damaged, it could be difficult to match the color and thickness of the varnish. This could result in tonal changes to your viola, or looking a bit funny. Fixing an instrument’s finish usually requires a visit to an experienced luthier and that can be quite expensive.
To avoid all of that, stay away from cleaners that may damage your finish. Secondly, store your viola in a case when not in use (we’ll cover this later).
Don’t use these cleaners on your viola!
Many cleaning agents will remove the dirt on your viola but also the finish as well! Cleaners that use lemon juice, vinegar, or alcohol will all soften or remove your finish. You should also stay away from Windex, wood polish, and anything with bleach. Many oils can also be bad for your viola since they can cause buildup eventually changing the way your viola sounds.
So what cleaners should you use?
For regular care, a little water to dampen a cloth is all you need. Once or twice a year, use a varnish cleaner like this one from Hill & Sons. For the strings, you can use a string cleaner to help take care of the rosin buildup.
Clean Your Viola After Each Playing Session
It only takes a few minutes after you play. A quick wipe-down will remove rosin dust and finger oils so that your instrument can be stored safely. There’s a few supplies that you’ll want first.
You’ll need 2 cleaning cloths, one for the strings and one for the body, preferably microfiber cloths. For cleaning the strings, you may want to use the Nomad Tool to more easily clean under the strings. There is also a string cleaner tool that’ll clean both sides of the strings at once. Use a string cleaner like Old Master String Cleaner as needed, which will work for the strings and the bow (not on the hair).
Clean your strings first.
As you play, rosin from your bow will get on your viola strings. While it won’t be a lot, it can build up. After you get done playing, use a cloth to wipe off your strings, first along the top and then underneath. Cleaning under the strings can be a little tricky but if you fold your cloth in half, you can slip it between the strings and the neck. Then, in a back and forth motion, clean the underside of your strings along the fingerboard. If you have the Nomad Tool or the string cleaner tool mentioned earlier, you can do this even faster.
After you’re done wiping down your strings, you may want to apply a string cleaner if there’s still rosin on them. Simply apply a few drops to your cloth and then apply to your strings.
Next, clean your viola’s body.
Using your other microfiber cloth, wipe down the body to remove rosin powder or smudges. You may need to touch on your pegbox as well but be careful around your pegs. If you have some trouble spots, use can try the breath cleaning trick, or dampen the cloth with a little water. If you use water, make sure that your cloth is only slightly damp. Then gently rub the area as needed.
How To Use The Breath Cleaning Trick
Just like it sounds, you’re going to breathe on your instrument. Your breath has just the right amount of moisture to fog up the surface but not get it to wet. After breathing on the area, use a microfiber cloth to gently rub the area to clean the surface. I’ve seen sleeves or shirts used for this before too. It’s similar to how many will breathe onto their glasses to get rid of smudges.
Use Varnish Cleaner To Restore The Shine
Over time, your viola will start to lose some of its luster. To restore its glory, apply just a few drops of varnish cleaner on a dedicated cloth and gently rub over the body of your viola. Make sure to leave the bridge and strings alone. You can also use Dunlop’s Orchestra 65 Polish/Cleaner which comes at a lower price.
Remember, the household polish should never be used for polishing a viola as they impact negatively on the sound and may leave deposits. On the other hand, over rubbing may tarnish the varnish.
Proper Storage Will Protect Your Viola
For storage and transport, you should protect your viola with a viola case. Not only will a case protect your instrument against spills, dirt, and dust, it will have built-in padding and rigid support to protect against bumps, bangs, and minor drops. Box cases may also include extra storage or a hygrometer to check the humidity.
We researched the best cases and recommend these for you. However, you may be able to find a used case for less at your local music store or pawn shop.
- Protec 15-15.5″ Viola Case ($75.65)
- Protec 16-16.5″ Viola Case ($69.99)
- Paititi Viola Hard Case with Hygrometer ($141.11)
Protect your viola from the elements
Weather that changes drastically, especially, during fall can be detrimental for you voila. It is always recommended you be very cautious of cold weather. Remember, the organic materials that make-up your instrument obeys the laws of physics—expansion, and contraction.
If the weather changes from a crisp day to a frosty night, be sure that the strings which are made of good conductors of heat will undergo tremendous changes. A good example to prove this point is the sagging of electric wirelines. When these lines are installed they are usually tight.
Even with a case, your viola will still suffer fluctuations in temperature so you should store it inside your home or some other place with regulated heat. Unless you live somewhere that the temperature doesn’t change much, do not store your viola in a garage or in your vehicle.
Another concern is humidity since it can cause the wood of your instrument to absorb moisture from the air. Damp wood is prone to cracks, warping, and seams. Even worse, humidity causes a voila to lose its varnish and eventually its shiny luster. If your storage location has too much humidity, you may want to invest in a dehumidifier.
Don’t Forget the Bow
As much as it is a part overlooked by many violists, the bow is an essential part of the viola. That goes without saying for a well-maintained viola, there must be a well-maintained bow. This part is critical in a violist’s sound production.
Therefore, to take care of your bow follow these basic, but important steps.
- Avoid touching the horsehair– No matter how clean, your hands may seem, they contain oil and other dirt. These contaminants will absolutely ruin the horsehair to a point that it no longer produces sound. This because the hair absorbs residue interfering with its ability to applying rosin. The stickiness of the rosin allows the voila to draw sound.
- Loosen the bow after playing– Please, please, please, always loosen the bow after playing as it helps to release the tension of the bow. This process helps to prevent the wood from warping.
- Don’t over rosin– It is always imperative to know the amount of rosin application you need to make you voila speak. In order to understand how much rosin you need, you may gently bounce your bow on an open string. If too much rosin is discharged in the air, just know you are over rosin. Remember, you should always clean rosin from your bow every time you finish playing.
As a violist, if you want your voila to serves you better, it deserves all your love. The adage says “a tool is as good as at its user.” This statement has never been truer taking into account a voila can serve you for a very long time if well-taken care of.
Always remember, a well-maintained viola instrument produces great tonal quality, its appealing to the eyes, and fetches good returns when reselling. With just a little cleaning routine after you finish playing and a little care, you can keep your instrument in top-notch condition.
Make sure to check our other articles on the viola and violin.
Wait a second, there’s more…
Yes, we got to writing and couldn’t stop. This next section didn’t tie in so we just included it at the end as bonus reading.
Different Types of Wood Used in Making a Viola
For excellent tonal quality, the process of making a viola requires excellent craftsmanship. And this scenario calls for the creator to know exactly what type of wood to use, and where to use it on the instrument. For ages, production of the viola has been limited to the wood species listed below, including:
Different type of wood is used to construct different parts of viola depending on the properties of the wood in question. Some of the parts of the viola include:
Top Plate (Front)
Materials that make the top plate need to be light and resonant, but hard at the same time. The type of ideal wood for this undertaking comes from the Spruce tree a member of fir family. In fact, the wood from this tree has been traditionally used to construct viola front, sound-post, bass-bar, top, corner, bottom blocks, and lining.
European Spruce, in particular, provides an exemplary material for making a viola sound-post, viola front, and bass-bar. The species of this Spruce has an ideal density of 470 kg/m3 at 15 percent moisture content.
More importantly, a good craftsman knows that the front quarter should be sawn to maximize its strength. Since Spruce as the best acoustic properties, it helps in converting the viola’s string vibrations into the body amplifier.
Back and Bridge
The trees from the Maple family have always been traditionally used to construct a viola’s back, scroll, bridge, and ribs. The most commonly used in this species are the Bosnian or European Maple.
This because they have an optical effect, which gives a viola’s a lustrous glow. The wavy pattern of the wood provides an ideal surface for light reflection. This process is also known as the “Flame” effect.
In terms of density, the Bosnian and European Maple has a density of 660 kg/m3, at 12% moisture content. This density gives the wood from these trees ideal mechanical properties. The scenario is excellent as it allows a craftsman to make a low-weight instrument while maintaining excellent acoustic properties.
More importantly, when a viola’s back and the bridge is made of Maple, it becomes very responsive. The process involved in making a bridge involves cutting the outer portion of a Maple tree, which is thicker than the inner portion. Then by introducing the left and right side with the outer ring being in the middle you form the bridge.
A rib is made by cutting the Maple on the quarter. This because a maker has to ensure the growth rings run in the same direction as the front. If not cut on the quarter, it would otherwise prove difficult to bend the ribs
For a long time, the scroll has always been made of the Maple due to its mechanical properties. This feature allows “Pegbox,” a process that involves integrating a hollowed wall to better accommodate the string turning by the pegs. This orientation is crucial for the functioning of the viola and in crack prevention.