A very dirty violin!

May 12, 2009 at 03:14 PM ·

I recently bought a 120 year old violin at a very reasonable price.  This was doubtless due to the condition.  Structurally it's in very good shape but is absolutely FILTHY!  Does anyone have any idea how I can clean him up without having to go to a specialist.  (I live in a remote area!)


Of course I want to avoid using anything harmful, but I am finding it hard to find any violin cleaner available by mail order in the UK.

Replies (21)

May 12, 2009 at 03:35 PM ·

If you are really far from any specialist you can try viol cleaner. If dirt is really stuck it won't do much, but better than nothing...

Nevertheless if it is a worthy instrument you better try to take it to a luthier. That would be also a great oportunity to know if you have made a  good investment.

Regards from the sunny Spain.

May 12, 2009 at 04:53 PM ·

Muchas gracias, Nicolas!

I used to live in Spain, whereabouts are you?

May 12, 2009 at 06:10 PM ·

If you can't take it to a luthier, the safest way to clean it is not using chemical products or violin cleaner/polishers.   You can remove lots of dirt with a  sligthly damp soft rag (much more dry than wet), it will do no harm  to the instrument. Bear in mind that what a non specilist may call dirt will be named "patina" by an expert, so just remove the excess of dirt, leaving it preserved for a professional cleaning when needed. 


May 13, 2009 at 01:41 PM ·

  Thank yo for your input, Luis.  Do you mean Viol cleaner might be harmful? I use it once a year or so, though I prefer to wipe my violins with a dry microfiber clothe after I play. Same with the bow.

Robbie, I live in Madrid. Glad you like Spain.

May 13, 2009 at 01:55 PM ·

All these ready made/commercial cleaners/polishers will contain some oil that will penetrate in your bridge, in small open seams, bare wood areas etc., rendering future restorations more difficult.

I'll quote Charles Beare on the 1995 Dartington Violin Conference:

"The other problem with the polish that we and everybody else sell is that there is usually an oil in there somewhere. And an oil is not good news for the four joints that are commomly found in the purfling. If one of these comes loose, it will have catastrophic effects on the tone of the instrument, almost anywhere on a violin. Even if it does not make a buzz, it will have an effect on the volume and solidity of the tone. We are forever gluing the purfling at the top of the bass bar or at the botton under the chinrest, in order to cure tonal deficiencies, as well as shoulders and that sort of thing. But I mean that if oil gets in the purfling or into an old crack, it's going to be quite a while before you can get i out again."

So, the best polish/cleaner is that one the player never uses.


May 13, 2009 at 02:13 PM ·

I don't see getting the violin  cleaned as an urgent matter. Perhaps you can keep it from getting worse by wiping it off after playing, and waiting until you are in the vicinity of a specialist to have a more thorough job done.

May 14, 2009 at 12:36 AM ·

If you can't stand to leave it alone, I've found that a saliva-moistened fingertip can loosen the crud, and a soft cloth will remove it. Spit, wipe and repeat . . . . .

Avoid cracks and areas bare of finish. Don't overdo it. (The process is in some ways self-limiting, unless you drool a lot., but that's mostly a problem with banjo and viola players).

May 14, 2009 at 07:15 AM ·

I believe pH in saliva is quite high, so I don't really think something quite acid can be good for your violin's varnish, even in small quantities.

May 14, 2009 at 12:21 PM ·

Using bodily fluids to clean your violin is not a good idea, but may loosen debris. Sweat and saliva have always been known to harm finishes (some peoples sweat, spit, and tears are worse than others).
If the violin has no cracks, separations, or missing varnish, you should be able to rub away debris with a VERY lightly dampened rag (preferably finely woven cotton).  If the top and fingerboard are coated with rosin, and water just isn’t doing the trick (after attempting to remove it for hours), you can try a mild abrasive paste.  You can test the paste on the ebony fingerboard first (since it’s more resilient dense hard wood), and see if it actually helps (some rosin is really tough). Use light pressure, small gentle circular strokes, just like brushing your teeth.
In all honesty, most people should not do this. Instead, put the pressure on someone with experience, your local luthier. Just explain to them how you want it cleaned (no solvents, no French polishing).

May 14, 2009 at 02:03 PM ·

I would recommend you take it to a luthier and err on the side of caution.  We purchased a cello that had sat in a closet for many years.  The case lining had disintegrated and was stuck to the instruments finish.  To look at it you would have thought the cello sat in a auto body shop and was covered with black soot and dirt.   The luthier told me it would be an easy fix to clean it up but I had doubts.  The instrument is beautiful now and no harm done.   I think he charged $25-$30 for his efforts.

You'll want to have the violin checked over anyway, sound post adjustment especially if it hasn't been played for a long time.

May 15, 2009 at 12:10 AM ·

I also add my voice to those who suggest not doing anything yourself and waiting til you can get to a luthier.  For all any of us on here know, it could be that this "dirt" you mention is an integral part of the varnish (antiqueing?) who knows for sure?    Since you obviously love the sound of your violin, please please don't do anything which just might cause irreparable damage to the varnish.  Far better to wait until you can get an expert to take a look.

May 15, 2009 at 12:46 AM ·

A high pH would translate into saliva being a base rather than an acid, though I believe salive is close to a neutral pH. The enzymes present actually have a positive effect on crud removal, and I've seen no adverse effects on the varnish of instruments I've used this technique on. None were in the five or six figure range, of course, but I suspect the instrument in question isn't, either.

The violin cleaners and polishes I've seen in the marketplace are a lot more harmful than a bit of spit on a fingertip, and I would never put any of them on a violin, myself. 


May 15, 2009 at 12:55 AM ·


try the following if you interested in saliva PH.




May 15, 2009 at 01:27 AM ·

And don't forget clean your oral cavity before you do, or you'll smell it everytime you play... ;)

May 16, 2009 at 01:46 AM ·

If you resort to using a violin cleaner, use Royal Oak All-Purpose Cleaner - that's what everybody whom I know uses.  It works like a charm.

February 9, 2010 at 03:32 PM ·

My friend cleans his violin with Supertonic.  It's a violin varnish cleaner which he's been using for years and swears by it.  It's quite expensive compared to other cleaners but it works.  I tried it once and it is very good.<

February 9, 2010 at 05:00 PM ·

With any cleaner, you have a working time proportional to its solvent strength: if it's a strong solvent, you don't have long, with a weak one, longer. Spit might dissolve your varnish if you fill a barrel with it and drop the violin in for a week, but as far as cleaners go, it's one of the safest.

The worst thing you might do, and this is serious, is to rub dirt into cracks, both opened ones and glued but unsealed ones (cracks are usually covered with varnish to protect the wood from getting dirty at the crack). This is so important and also so easy to do that repair people won't push glue in with a finger for fear of dirt from the finger getting in: we're not talking about dirt on a visible level, even.

Once a crack is dirty, it's very difficult or even impossible to completely clean it later. If the violin is really beat, and not of a high value, you may not consider that a problem, but on a violin of any value, a bunch of black cracks is a definite liability.

Any open cracks should always be glued immediately if not sooner. If you clean with spit and stay away from any crack that appears to have broken through the varnish, you probably won't do any harm, but I will bet that you will find that very hard to do, and will be tempted to go too far, so maybe it's best not to start.

If you think about it, you're realize that even wiping rosin off  or using ANY of the cleaners mentioned above can cause harm it there are vulnerable cracks. I think the best thing you can do for the violin is get it some proper care from someone who knows what he's doing, as soon as possible.

February 10, 2010 at 10:44 AM ·

I bought (for $15) a grubby old viola at a garage sale that was absolutely caked with powdered rosin and what looked like sticky old dirt....The  fingerboard was sitting an inch or so to one side because the glue had softened at sometime ...Made me really wonder how anyone who was a violinist could treat their beautiful instrument like that, . I used a cloth pulled over my finger that I dipped into warm soapy water,  using small circular gentle rubs.....it removed all of the resin and most of the dirt ...I then wiped it with a good quality furniture polish, buffed it with a soft cloth and it came up like new.....

It took me hours to do but it was worth it.....

I repositioned and reglued the fingerboard, got new strings, and I now have a really lovely viola for my pain...plus the cost of the glue and strings.....

I'm a violinist not a viola player, and not really sure why I bought it, other than I felt it needed a better home than the one it had...

The inside of the case was also subject to the rosin caked into the velvet.   I cleaned that with the warm soapy water as well.....and had a blue finger for a couple of days from the dye in the velvet

I've also bought 4 violins at garage sales that I've done up and resold..

February 10, 2010 at 10:56 AM ·

ADDIT to my post above.......Before I started to clean the viola, I checked very carefully for any cracks in the body of the viola, and (miraculously) nthere were none....

Also, I squeezed most of the water out of the cloth till it was just damp before using it....



February 10, 2010 at 02:24 PM ·

I'm not sure what the mail system is like where you live, but here in the USA you can use Fed-Ex to second-day air a luthier a violin (in its case and carefully packaged) insured for $9,000 for about $150.  I've done this when traveling 5 plus hours to someone I trust was impossible.

February 10, 2010 at 06:53 PM ·

>> Does anyone have any idea how I can clean him up without having to go to a specialist.  (I live in a remote area!)

If it were me, I would nevertheless talk to a luthier via phone and email and ship it to them, to be cleaned.  IMHO, instruments of this age and sound quality come with a responsibility to take care of them properly.  Probably won't cost more than $40 to ship, both ways inclusive, and you won't have any regrets later on.  If you try to do it yourself, disaster may be the result. 

There are plenty of fine luthiers who will do this.  I would talk to friends and get recommendations.  Don't forget to insure for the true value of the instrument, when you ship.

Just my .02




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