Why does rosin build up need to be removed from our strings?

December 24, 2019, 1:16 PM · I have always done it, but don’t understand why it is necessary. “Always clean the rosin from your strings when you finish practicing”, I was told by my teachers. Then, thanks to the members here, I learned that cleaning the strings with an alcohol swab improved the response of synthetic strings. What I wonder is, if the bow hair needs rosin to produce a vibration from the string, why does a build up of the sticky stuff on the string inhibit that adhesion?

Replies (30)

December 24, 2019, 1:34 PM · Well the rosin somehow coagulates on the strings but not on the bow. Dont know why though.
December 24, 2019, 1:54 PM · The rosin is needed for friction between the horse hair and string. Rosin on the string will make it difficult to create the proper friction for string vibrations. The string is essential scraping off the rosin from the bow to develop the build up. Alcohol can react with some synthetic core materials and is probably better to avoid using it.
December 24, 2019, 2:16 PM · Jerry,

Rosin powder collects on the strings simply because it is "sticky stuff." Save the alcohol swabs/wipes and use a clean dry handkerchief after you finish playing. I got the habit of wiping down my instrument, strings, body, under the fingerboard, between bridge and fingerboard, under the tailpiece, et cetera from my teacher and have passed that along to my students. To me it is simply good maintenance and shows respect for the instrument.

If/when the strings are heavily caked with rosin then use the alcohol wipes (the kind you can get at any drugstore) to clean the strings and use less rosin on the bow hair. Using too much is a constant problem with my students and I have observed that with other young musicians in the youth orchestra.

NEVER use alcohol to clean the varnished wood.

Edited: December 24, 2019, 2:48 PM · Accumulated rosin on the bowed area of a string changes the vibrational response of the entire string so that instead of producing a pure tone and related overtones the frequency spectrum is changed to include audible interference of neighboring frequencies.

In addition, the physical response of the string to the bow is changed by changes in rosin character (and excess rosin) particularly in the sliding-friction phase of hair-string interaction. I have found this problem can be overcome by either cleaning the strings or by adding additional rosin. I have used alcohol to clean all my my synthetic-core string brands since I started using them 50 years ago. But I've always been careful to immediately wipe off the alcohol with an absorbent cotton cloth.

Cellist David Finckel advocates adding more rosin in one of the 100 micro-lessons he posted on line from around the world during tours with the Emerson Quartet. He now runs the Lincoln Center Chamber Music program in partnership with his wife, pianist Wu Han.

Edited: December 24, 2019, 2:59 PM · I might’ve mentioned this on here before. I recommend having a rotation of micro fiber cloths to clean your instrument. If you keep using the same one over and over, all you’re doing is mixing the excess rosin dust around on the strings and instrument. The varnish can also become quite cloudy looking.
December 24, 2019, 3:37 PM · I appreciate all the responses. I routinely use a cotton cloth to clean off the rosin and rotate it so I always use a clean area. Despite this, I notice the bow isn’t grabbing as it once did. Might the Vision strings have reached their end of life?
December 24, 2019, 4:06 PM · Jerry,
My hypothesis (doesn't rise to level of a theory) is that the rosin gets between the metal windings of the strings, which is why I eventually go through my alcohol cleaning routine (with alcohol wipes, never actually using the liquid in a container, and immediate drying of each string with a clean cotton cloth).

The rosin definitely changes character with use on the strings. I've read it actually melts from heating during the slip-friction phase (can't melt during the static-friction phase when there is no relative motion of hair and string).

December 24, 2019, 5:19 PM · You might try cleaning your bow hair. Lots of youtubes available for doing that, but if you search this site for it, you'll find a good set of instructions by Andrew Victor.
December 29, 2019, 2:42 AM · I always place another cloth below the strings when swabbing them with alcohol. This will catch and absorb any liquid before it can damage the varnish or fingerboard surface.
Edited: December 29, 2019, 3:52 AM · My teacher uses alcohol (any eau de cologne) on her strings once a week or so. You can see that rosin buildup affects the strings' shape and therefore, as someone said, acoustic properties. I use eau de cologne, but not enough to require a cloth over the violin to protect it. Just put a tiny amount on a thumbnail sized patch of cloth so that it is damp but nowhere near dripping. If you squeeze the cloth and there's one single drip, then it's damper than I have ever needed it to be.
December 29, 2019, 8:38 AM · Strings sound and respond best when their weight remains the same all along the playing length. Rosin buildup creates a heavy spot.

Boden Warchal recommends using the edge of a credit card to scrape away buildup, rather than using a solvent.

And anyone who has been in the repair business for a while will have seen some bad accidents from using alcohol, even when the player had previously been using it for years without a problem. In one case, a customer of mine had been cleaning his strings, set his Strad down to grab a phone call, and on returning, realized that he had set the violin down on the cleaning cloth. A fair-size patch of varnish transferred to the cloth.

December 29, 2019, 9:12 AM · I always hang my cloths over the back of a chair. In retrospect a good idea.
Edited: December 29, 2019, 9:40 AM · Your thumbnail will do the same rosin scraping job as a credit card - and it is always available ("at hand" so to speak). I learned this one from a late principal 2nd violinist of the San Francisco Symphony. But it seems to me it's no more effective than a microfiber cloth, just handier.

Only when none of these things works to recover my instruments' sound quality do I resort to alcohol wipes and immediate removal of the solvent-dissolved rosin with a clean cotton cloth. For the past 50 years this has always worked to return the tone quality an instrument last produced. When that fails to be the tone I want, I replace the strings,

Edited: December 29, 2019, 10:12 AM · Thumbnails are useful things. Geologists use the hardness of the thumbnail (1 on the mohs scale, the same as talc) as their starting point for measuring rock hardness. If your thumbnail is softer than a credit card, it will do the strings less potential damage than a credit card. You'd find out which is harder by trying to use one to scratch at the surface of the other. I'll let someone else do the test. I suspect the card is harder, but I could be wrong.

Turns out I was misinformed - fingernails are 2-2.5 on the mohs scale, but of course everyone's nails are different - some of us were never destined to become classical guitarists! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohs_scale_of_mineral_hardness

Edited: December 29, 2019, 10:13 AM · One kind of string that hasn't been considered so far in this discussion is plain gut, in particular plain gut A and D together with a wire-wound gut core G, a combination I use most of the time. A solvent, of any type, to clean such strings is clearly out of the question, as is the use of a credit card or equivalent to scrape the rosin off. I therefore use a clean cloth which still leaves a little residue of rosin embedded in the string - is there a better viable alternative? Or am I too precious in the matter?
Edited: December 30, 2019, 4:31 AM · Good question. (alcohol dissolves protein, and I assume gut is protein). There are many considerations I can think of, though. It may be that if you use little enough alcohol, the rosin will neutralise it before it harms the strings. That little alcohol may only be capable of dissolving a microgram or two of gut anyway. The rosin and friction of playing may do the gut more harm than the alcohol. The gut strings may need replacing long before any harm done by alcohol is noticeable. Why don't I wait for someone who plays on gut to answer, lol!
December 30, 2019, 6:28 AM · Gordon, I’m not enough of a chemist to debate that alcohol does or does not dissolve protein, but I use methylated spirits to preserve samples ( when formalin not desired) . If alcohol dissolved gut protein , there’s a lot of us that wouldn’t be round today.
Not sure where that leaves the rosin on gut strings argument, though.
Happy new year.
Edited: December 30, 2019, 7:15 AM · Gordon, my plain gut A and D last somewhere between 9-12 months before they need replacing, for tonal reasons, but not for fraying which I find is minimal on those strings. The wound gut G lasts no more than 6 months before the sound starts to go south - this is what happens with wound strings anyway.

I rarely use a gut E now for practical reasons - fraying sets in after about 4 weeks, and when it gets to be a nuisance under the fingers (even though the tone may still be ok) then that string will find itself taking on a second life in my garden holding up plants. Having said that, last year (2018) as an experiment I deliberately left a gut E on my main orchestral violin to see how long it would last. Of course, it started fraying within the month and continued fraying, which I ignored. At 6 months, during a symphony rehearsal the fraying suddenly spread from the nut to the bridge in one swoop. I immediately let the peg down and replaced that string with a steel E. My recommendation for gut E now is only for baroque/renaissance use, and even then be prepared to change it after 4-6 weeks.

December 30, 2019, 7:38 AM · The only two things I know related to this are:

1. Before I started to use alcohol-infused pads to clean rosin off synthetic core strings I was using alcohol drops on a cotton cloth to clean my gut-core strings. I noticed no ill effects on the strings but a small mishap did damage a bit of varnish on the violin - so I switched to the alcohol pads and always hold the instrument vertically when cleaning.

2. In my teens I used Vitalis hair tonic on my hair. That was 70 years ago and I still have a pretty full head of hair (although it's no longer dark brown). Vitalis contains several kinds of alcohol as well as ether. Probably the only reason I remember this is because my alcoholic cello teacher once offered me a drink of vodka from a small Vitalis bottle that he carried in his jacket pocket. I did not accept the offer.

December 31, 2019, 2:32 PM · I use injection swabs - alcohol infused squares - with a cloth on the belly to catch any drops. I clean the strings in the bowing area AND the rest of the string and the fingerboard.
I find the overall response much quicker etc.
I get a funny look in the pharmacy asking for them, but one box lasts for years.
Edited: January 1, 2020, 11:34 AM · Rachel Barton Pine had a podcast with the owner of Otto Infeld (Dominant) Strings. He said that every violinist should have some OOOO steel wool to clean the rosin off the strings. If you ever feel that your bow doesn't have enough rosin on it, it may not be the bow that is not "attacking" the string, but that the string is being resistant to the bow because of too much rosin. Use some OOOO steel wool to clean the excess rosin off the string and (without re-rosining the bow) start playing again. It will sound (and feel) as though you had re-rosined the bow. The bow usually has enough rosin, it is just that a string caked with rosin is not as responsive.
January 1, 2020, 5:53 PM · Sorry Gordon but you are wrong. I am a protein chemist and we use etanol to precipitate protein. I use etanol to wipe rosin from my wound gut strings regularly and have not had a problem with that.
January 1, 2020, 9:35 PM · I've long opposed cleaning metal or metal-wound strings with anything harder than they are. Thus I oppose using steel wool. An adult cello student of mine 20 years ago started using nylon scrubbies on his cello strings (because his 80 year old mother crocheted them (for cleaning his pots and pans) and he gave me one. I purchased additional ones later from ebay ( https://www.ebay.com/itm/Nylon-Pot-Scrubbers-Scrubbies-Handmade-Crocheted-Pack-of-6-Assorted-Colors/264560263482?hash=item3d9905413a:g:yKUAAOSwICJcuhAP ). Ever since I've carried a scrubbie in every instrument case.
January 2, 2020, 5:58 AM · Joel, different string manufactures have differing views on the use of steel wool. One of the factors influencing how well the bow grips the string is the surface texture of the winding material, and steel wool can alter this from the way it was originally manufactured.

For example, perhaps some here have noticed how the bow will "grab" an aluminum wound D a little better than a silver wound D. According to a Thomastic engineer I spoke with, this is because oxidation of the aluminum forms micro-pits on the surface which retain a tiny amount of rosin, and rosin sticks to rosin better than it does to the bare metal. A Pirastro rep has also told me that Pirastro will tailor the surface finish of some of their strings to target certain performance characteristics.

Edited: January 2, 2020, 9:10 AM · I use a natural cork to clean my string of rosin. Cut a slit in the edge of the cork and press it over the string so the string is well into the cork and rub a couple of times. The rosin build up is gone and no harm is done to the string. Rotate the cork as you rub and both the top and underside are equally cleaned. Caveat- Don’t use the composite corks found in some wine bottles because the glue used is much harder than the cork itself and could cut into the winding.
Edited: January 2, 2020, 10:20 AM · Bo, in my defence, I was once shown what happens when you mix ethanol with hot egg-yolk. I think also an alcoholic's throat varicose veins may have been mentioned.
So perhaps the person doing the experiment was observing a reaction between the fat in the egg yolk and the ethanol and misinterpreted it? Or perhaps the whole thing was misguided, for some reason.
January 2, 2020, 11:54 AM · The egg white is pure protein, yolk, not so much.
(I just “goog”led it. 41% fat, 32 % protein )
I think you might be on the right track with their misinterpretation.
January 2, 2020, 5:56 PM · If you crack an egg into ethanol the egg white will soon start to turn from translucent to cloudy and eventually white just as if boiled.
The bow hair is also made from protein and I use ethanol to clean that as well without any problem with the hair dissolving :-)
January 3, 2020, 2:26 PM · I clean my strings roughly every 2 weeks with a good string cleaner and then with just a cloth in between and I can keep life in my strings for 4-5 months tops.

I use Old Master String Cleaner. Be careful to not let it touch anything else, especially the varnish!

January 3, 2020, 4:02 PM · I use the finest grade steel wool as well. Very lightly ran over the string. I use Passiones and have noticed no ill effects or shortened lifespan. I didn't care for any kind of liquid cleaner because even with fast evaporation times, I'd still have to wait to play, which was annoying.

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