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Recently my grandfather gave me my great-grandmother's violin. He told me this violin was handmade in the early 1900s and it is an extremely precious family heirloom. The last time this instrument was regularly used was in the 70s when my aunt was learning to play the violin. Since then it has been locked up in a case and over time the horsehair on the bows "shed" and left rosin everywhere. The violin looks extremely dirty and smells dirty.

From my piano experience, I know that you can't just use any cleaner to clean the finish. I really do not want to mess around cleaning this violin, especially with its age and sentimental value of it.

I have some cleaner which I use to clean my piano – would it be ok to use this to clean my violin? Or is there any method I should use? I do plan on using it.

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    Given that violins from the 1600s are still in regular use today (source, examples), I would not consider a violin from the early 1900s "extremely" old.
    – mkrieger1
    Commented Oct 19, 2022 at 11:52

4 Answers 4

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You're right not to try applying cleaning products without fully knowing what you're doing. If you have a violin repair person or luthier in your area, I recommend you take it straight to them. They can give it a full beauty treatment, removing any layers of dirt and polishing as appropriate for the instrument. But more importantly, they can assess any repair that the violin surely needs, and even appraise its value. I would absolutely try to make this visit before trying to play or sell the instrument; even if there were no such expert near me I would travel if possible.

If you absolutely can't get it to a professional, I might wipe it gently with a soft (like microfiber) cloth and no cleaning product at all. (Even then, as Lazy's comment below mentions, you must wipe very gently to avoid scratching. If in doubt, leave it alone.) It also can't hurt to "air it out"; you can get it out of the musty case, if you have a nice secure place to store it where it's protected and the room is not too hot or dry. If you plan to keep the instrument, you can also start shopping for a nice new case; modern cases with suspension pads or carbon-fiber bodies can protect it better.

NOTE: Although the question asks about doing an intensive cleaning on a very dirty violin, for the benefit of other users: how do you do regular daily cleaning on an instrument that's already in good playing shape? DO keep a clean, dry, soft cloth in your case; when you put the instrument away, wipe rosin dust gently from the entire belly including under the fingerboard and tailpiece. Wipe rosin dust from the bowing area of the strings and wipe sweat and oil from the fingering portion (it might be smart to use a second and third cloth for these, so that your body cloth stays clean longer, and you don't get the oil/sweat on the bowing area). Wipe rosin dust from the stick of the bow as well. That's it. Don't use any kind of product or solvent on any part of the instrument, no matter how it's labeled or marketed, no matter what Yehudi Menuhin used to do.

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    Be prepared for the possibility that it is "precious" only to the family, and is not in fact worth a large amount. This doesn't mean it's not worth fixing up to playing condition, though, and appraising just in case. And as long as it's worth any amount that's more than you can replace, make sure it's properly insured. Many standard home insurance policies have limits, or would replace the instrument but refuse to repair it, or etc. There are separate insurance companies specializing in musical instruments. Commented Oct 17, 2022 at 22:15
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    I’d say you should be very careful with wiping an old, resinated violin, even if it is gently. Bow resin is tree resin in a semipolymerized state, thus it is not exactly liquid anymore, but also not fully solid (i.e. amber), but something in between. This means that bow resin can still flow, and might over time clump together and stick to the top. In this state one cannot simply gently wipe it off, and if you try theres danger of scratching the varnish of the instrument with dirt sitting on it.
    – Lazy
    Commented Oct 18, 2022 at 6:56
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    Purely as an anecdote: In the late 70s my parents inherited a viola & two bows, one with the hair pulled out from one end. It was known that the player had already given away 'the good stuff' to favourite pupils, so we weren't expecting much. The hairless bow went for £600 at Christie's - just showing you never know til you ask an expert ;)) [It was a Louis Fricot, for those who know what that may mean]
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Oct 18, 2022 at 7:41
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    I found myself in a similar situation with my grandfather's violin about a dozen years. Just replacing the case with a modern one helped a lot with the musty smell, and a professional service also corrected a bridge and sound post that had drifted in position through years of storage.
    – Theodore
    Commented Oct 18, 2022 at 21:35
  • @Tetsujin 600 is chump change for a bow, so it was not particularly valuable compared with viola bows in general Commented Oct 20, 2022 at 19:43
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A violin does not have a simple finish but varnish that is supposed to be soft and extremely thin, to influence the vibration of the wood as little as possible. It is needless to say that you shouldn’t do anything to such a varnish unless you really understand it. Traditionally you have two kinds of varnishes: Oil varnish, which is linseed oil cooked with turpentine oil and pine resin. This one cures into some sort of natural polymer. And spirit varnish or shellac varnish, which is shellac (secretions of a certain insect) along with some resins dissolved in alcohol. This one simply dries and leaves a film of shellac and resins.

Oil varnish is fairly resistant to a lot of stuff, while you need to be really careful with spirit varnish. Additionally polishing the varnish to hard may cause abrasion and lead to you polishing the varnish away. Thus unless you really know what you are doing it is best to leave this to a violin maker.

This is a step that should be done in any case as long as the instrument does hold some value, as a violin should frequently get some checkup. Over time the glued parts might come loose and need to be reglued (done properly using bone or hide glue!). Certain parts like the soundpost might shrink and need to be replaced by a newly fitted one. Such stuff. There might even be some cracks that need to be fixed. Also the bow probably needs to get serviced and rehaired too.

So you’d need to consult a violin maker in any case, so leave the cleaning to him. A violin maker will also be able to estimate the value of the instrument in question and tell you whether it is worth to get it into shape.

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As a note aside: "early 1900" is not old for a violin, and the state of machination did not leave much of an option other than "hand-made". In fact, lots of violins from that time were mass-manufactured in areas around Saxony/Czechia/Bohemia and fitted with vignettes "copy of Stradivarius" (or just foregoing the "copy" bit) and other famous manufacturers. Being handmade even under high time pressure and competition, they are somewhat competitive with intermediate violins and may be worth the money of bringing them into good working order, if not much more.

Of course there are also U.S. violins from that time, but you have to keep in mind that the best violin makers in Europe would not have been under the kind of economic pressure prompting them to emigrate, and violin making significantly profits from handed-down experience, and also knowledge of locally available aged wood qualities. So the quality level of U.S. violins from that time rarely exceeds even the mass-manufactured items in Central Europe from that time significantly.

At the same point of time, there is no point in letting a good instrument deteriorate. Get it to a luthier for checking it up and possibly appraising it. And if it turns out to be of significantly more than sentimental value, get it played. If you have no candidates within your family, by lending or selling it.

You are not doing string instruments favors by storing them.

Even if it's only of sentimental value, a luthier will still have good suggestions about how to clean/display/maintain it best.

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It's possible the bad smell is coming from the case. It might need replacing, or it might benefit from some airing out.

Do you have any interest in playing it?

If not, later on (so as not to offend your grandfather), you might want to donate it to a fine arts group that provides instruments to schools.

It is possible for pretty much anyone to learn how to clean and polish a string instrument. If you take it to a music shop, their repair person could help you learn. Also, they will sell the right product to use. You'll want to use a clean, soft cotton rag.

Don't let any of the special product get on the fingerboard (the long black thing the strings sit on).

Ask them for a referral to a bow specialist, for rehairing the bow. Also, you may need to replace the strings. The repair person could advise.

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