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Violin/Cleaning violin bow hair

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QUESTION: Hellow, James!

My question is regarding purfling on violins.  I have a violin that has no label (that I know of).  I think it doesn't have much value.  But, I don't know. One reason I don't think it has much value is that, there is a scratch across the purfling work. Within the scape, I see only fresh wood. I would think that with a scrape across the purfling I would still see the black/dark purfling line.  It seems as if the purfling design is printed on, drawn on, and stamped on.  Is that so on some violins?  And I would think it would be a cheap one, And true inlaided purfling is a must.  "Let me know something".

Thanks, James,

Eddie Hodges, Philadelphia, PA  USA

ANSWER: Hi Eddie,

Thanks for your question.  Yes, some inexpensive violins are made with 'imitation' purfling, where a line is taped onto the wood.  This, of course, serves no purpose whatsoever, except to look 'normal', and a fake purfling line will do nothing to stop a crack from spreading into the heart of the instrument.  So, from what you describe, I think you can safely assume that your instrument is a fairly cheap one.

Regards,
Jim Fisher

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Hi, James!

My question is:  How, and what's the best technique/solution for cleaning violin bow hairs.  I've seen a couple of videos on youtube.  Some use mild soap, and some use rubbing alcohol.  I've seem videos disputing each others techniques/solutions.  WHAT WOULD BE THE BEST, AND SAFEST WAY TO CLEAN BOW HORSE HAIR AND HOW OFTEN?  IF SOAP, OR ALCOHOL, WHAT KIND/BRAND? GIVE ME THE RUNDOWN.

Thanks,

Eddie Hodges
Philadelphia, PA  USA

Answer
Hi again Eddie,

There is much debate about whether or not it is appropriate to clean bow hair, rather than replacing it when it gets old and dirty.  Professional players, as a rule, lean toward replacing the hair.  The discerning player can hear and feel the difference between fresh hair and old hair, much like the difference between new strings and old strings.  Hair does tend to lose some of its vitality over time.

But, then again, professional players often obtain better quality hair to begin with.  The best, freshest, hair, taken from live stallions, has a wonderful articulation and tone quality.  On the down side, it also stretches more and reacts more to changes in humidity.  So, it's not for everyone.  But someone who is used to very high quality hair will hear a big difference between fresh hair and old hair, and will therefore choose to replace it rather than cleaning it.  But, someone who buys cheap hair to begin with won't notice as much difference, since their hair is old before they ever get it on the bow.  Again, this is similar to violin strings.  Those who use cheap strings don't hear much difference between new and old - simply because the strings sound so bad right from the start.

Most professional luthiers will tell you that you should replace the hair, rather than clean it.  But, it really depends on the situation, the player, and the hair.  And, there are some well respected professionals who recommend cleaning hair.  Berndt Musing - the guy who makes the Arcus bows - for example, is a proponent of cleaning hair.

Anyway . . . to get to you question . . .

I've never heard of cleaning bow hair with soap.  Since I've never tried it, I can't say with certainty, but I imagine that that would leave a residue on the hair, and I can't imagine that it would be very effective at de-greasing.  The standard method is to wipe the hair with a rag that has been soaked in denatured alcohol (available at your local hardware store).  Note: don't drink it - it is intentionally poisoned.)  It requires some gentle rubbing up and down the hair, but this will take off most dirt and grime.  Note: it's probably a good idea to avoid touching the wood of the bow with the alcohol.  (It's not as big a deal as getting alcohol on the violin, since the bow is not varnished, but still . . .)  

When you are done cleaning the hair, and you've let it dry, it will be a bit clumped up.  Just comb through it a few times, and you're good to go.  For best results, prime the clean hair with powdered rosin (rub crushed rosin into the hair with a bit of leather).  Then, rosin well with your regular rosin.  I usually use about 30 strokes, up and down, after priming.  This puts too much rosin on, but it does get it spread fairly evenly.  After a day or so of playing, the hair will be back to a normal amount of rosin again, and will be playing at its best.

As for how often . . . alcohol will dry out the hair, so I'd do it only when the hair really needs it - when it's gotten very dirty.  Actually, I'm one who would recommend replacing it, if the budget allows.   But, if you're going to do it, do it as infrequently as possible.

Regards

Jim Fisher
J.S. Fisher Violins

Violin

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James S. Fisher

Expertise

Please Note: For an accurate appraisal of your instrument's value or history, I must advise you to take it to a local luthier or string shop for an evaluation. It's really not possible to do this with any accuracy via email.

However, I am happy to answer other questions about violins, bows, violin playing, and violin/bow repair. I can also talk with you about what bows, rosin, strings, cases, shoulder rests, etc. might work best for you and your particular instrument. (There are some great new products on the market.) I've taught violin and fiddle playing for the past 18 years and will answer questions about playing and technique.

Experience

I've been studying the violin for over thirty years. I started teaching in 1996. In addition to my training at Lebanon Valley College and at the Violin Institute, I handle violins, bows, and customer questions of all sorts on a daily basis in my shop - J.S. Fisher Violins, www.fisherviolins.com.

Organizations
NAAM, ASTA

Education/Credentials
I hold a Bachelor of Music degree from Lebanon Valley College, as well as certificates in violin repair, violin maintenance, and bow rehairing from the Violin Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

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