Using Alcohol To Clean Strings

Edited: May 4, 2020, 12:45 AM · I was wondering if using 70 percent alcohol prep pads are ok to clean my strings. My main concerns are that it will damage the synthetic core or that the trace ammounts of oil in the alcohol will transfer to my bow.

Replies (25)

Edited: May 3, 2020, 9:07 PM · On synthetic strings it’s okay. Just dry off any excess alcohol before you play. Do not use alcohol however on gut or gut core strings. It will erode the gut. When cleaning your strings with alcohol, please put a clean towel under the fingerboard that will protect the varnish on the body and ribs of your violin from any spilled alcohol.
May 3, 2020, 10:22 PM · Don't go overboard. If your cloth is more than just damp then rhe excess alcohol could just pick gunk up from the surface and deposit it deeper inside the string.
Edited: May 4, 2020, 2:27 AM · The cloth absorbs by capillary action. The strings' cores absorb by capillary action. The smaller capillaries will be more absorbent. Hopefully, the cloth wins out.

There have been many threads on this topic, but it's the first time I recall seeing a worry about oils. If these "prep pads" rely heavily on lemon-oil or similar for scent, then you may be better off using purer alcohol. My teacher has been using Eau de Cologne for 30 years without a problem.

May 4, 2020, 3:41 AM · If you are talking about 70:30 Isopropanol:Water (typically called 70% Isopropanol alcohol), you'll be fine for synthetic and metal string. As Nate says, you should let it dry before you play (it will take a few seconds to evaporate on their own) and be sure to keep the pads away from the rest of the violin (other than neck, fingerboard and chinrest) because it can also erode the varnish off of some violins.
May 4, 2020, 7:02 AM · One of my colleagues wrote a good article about cleaning strings here:
One could also lightly use 0000 steel wool if it is really bad.
Edited: May 4, 2020, 9:00 AM · I've never seen a box of drug-store prep pads with any kind of fragrance or essential oils in it. "Prep" means "preparation" and what you're meant to be preparing for is an insulin injection.

I also keep 0000 steel wool in my case. But one caution! Make sure the steel wool is kept in a plastic container or secure ziploc type bag and that you don't open the bag or use the steel wool near your violin case, because those little fine shards of steel wool will get into the fabric of your case and scratch your violin. Just handling the steel wool will make shards because it's quite brittle.

For years I suffered because I would take an undershirt out of my dresser drawer, start to feel itchy, and discover that the undershirt was full of steel-wool shards. Eventually I traced it back to a couple of woodworking projects where I was rubbing down urethane varnish with steel wool. I must have performed that operation just wearing an undershirt and unknowingly filled a few of my shirts with steel shards. Nasty. Next time I'm going commando.

Edited: May 4, 2020, 9:07 AM · I have I been using alcohol (specifically the "prep pads") to clean rosin off my strings for (possibly) 50 years. I always hold the instrument vertically so any dripping (which does not seem to occur with the prep pads) would not hit the instrument. I immediately clean the alcohol off the string to avoid (possible) solidification of the dissolved rosin in the winding grooves as the alcohol evaporates.

I had previously applied alcohol carried in an old eye-drops bottle and applied to a cloth, but I had one of those drop on the violin accidents and switched to the prep pads.

I only use the alcohol for string cleaning when my ears tell me that dry cleaning with a nylon "scubbie" and microfiber cloth are not doing the complete job - probably less than once a month.

I also use the prep pads to clean my bow hair when it's either that or a rehair. If that doesn't do what I need I have several options within 20 miles of home for rehairs (in non-pandemic times). So far it's been doing the job 90% of the time. If you google "Andrew Victor bow hair alcohol cleaning" you will find some of my previous comments about this.

Edited: May 4, 2020, 9:28 AM · Steven J wrote in another thread that synthetic strings oxidize, and alcohol should be used to clean them. This doesn't sound right at all, to me... Do synthetic strings oxidize? Anyway, alcohol is not a good idea for removing oxidation.
May 4, 2020, 9:27 AM · Andrew -
When holding the violin vertical to clean the strings with alcohol, does one hold it nut upward, or bridge upward? I'm keen to swab my strings, but anxious about the details. I presume that washing the rosin residue over the bridge onto the afterlength is probably a better idea, but I'd like your experience to guide me.
May 4, 2020, 10:15 AM · Clean your string as you choose, and if they work better afterwards then you can ignore Dr Internet's conflicting bits of advice and theories.

I haven't found any reasonable method that makes a dirty string sound worse after it has been cleaned.

May 4, 2020, 10:37 AM · When using alcohol pads, I hold the violin upside down for added drip protection...
Edited: May 4, 2020, 10:39 AM · Ha, Peter (above) beat me to it! I have read advice from Warchal several times about alcohol cleaning being a bad idea, that the alcohol seeps past the windings easily and gets into the core and bad things happen. So I stopped doing it, but... I never had a problem. It seemed to extend the use of the expensive strings, and I don't see what problem it would have with my plain (Warchal Amber) e. So, I will go back to it today, since things have been a little sticky there.

I do have a suggestion, though, on method. I also feared the alcohol drip, but I think you are still in risky territory holding the violin vertically. I held the violin horizontally upside-down. I'd get just a little alcohol on the cloth, hold the violin by the neck with the strings on the bottom, and rub/wipe the strings with the cloth. Alcohol can go sideways, but not up.
Edited: May 4, 2020, 2:42 PM · Bridge down.
I/ve never had a swab drip, wetted cloths, yes, unfortunately, just once - the last time I used one.
May 4, 2020, 2:54 PM · I will agree with the advice of holding an instrument upside-down when cleaning the strings with alcohol. We professional luthiers have seen many disasters stemming from the use of alcohol in proximity to violins.
Edited: May 4, 2020, 4:05 PM · I used to use alcohol as it seemed to be the only way to clean then strings properly. That was until I realized I was using too much rosin. I just use a microfiber cloth now. Does the job OK. I wouldn't risk putting alcohol anywhere near the violin.
Edited: May 4, 2020, 4:52 PM · Erin, everything oxidizes. Everything left of Oxygen in the periodic table as well as many compounds. There are very few synthetic materials such as Teflon that doesn't react with oxygen. You may find more on Nylon, which apparently is typically used as the base for synthetical material for our strings here.

High concentrations of light alcohols such as Ethanol, Methanol and Iso-Propanol are useful cleaning oxides from sensitive electronic devices as they help oxides to be loosen and stick to cleaning surfaces in similar ways how we can use water to loosen up dirt.

The reason that the light alcohols are useful for electronics and I would argue synthetic and metallic violin strings is because they evaporate quickly.

The risk with using these alcohols to wipe a violin string as everyone pretty much says here is that the alcohol can also pick up the varnish.

May 4, 2020, 5:05 PM · Because cleaning my strings occasionally, using the alcohol prep pads as described has worked to improve my sound when microfiber has not sufficed, I have hypothesized that too much rosin had become caught and trapped between the metal string windings and the alcohol dissolved it so an absorbent, soft cloth could remove it and restore better string response.

It has seemed to work.

Edited: May 5, 2020, 2:08 PM · Warchal have written an interesting guide about this.

It gets a bit scientific in places, talking about how many microns of string mass have been lost.

They don't recommend using alcohol as it penetrates the string, along with any dissolved rosin (as shown by the green dye example).

The wire wool technique is also not recommended as it polishes the top of the string.

I'm not sure how significant these effects are though, given the relatively short life of the strings. But the analysis is interesting none the less.

May 6, 2020, 3:05 AM · Thank you Stewie, that Warchal link is very informative. I use tiny bit of 99% Isopropanol on microfiber cloth to wipe my strings. It seems to work well for me because if I try just the microfiber, I basically cannot wipe the string because the grip is too strong.
May 6, 2020, 12:26 PM · I use injection swabs.
Individualy wrapped, lint-free.
I keep some in my violin case.
I second a cloth - put a cloth under the strings in case anything drips.
I get funny looks in the pharmacy when buying a box - but that's only every few years.
Next time I'll probably go to my local pharmacy - the pharmacist there is also an excellent violinist.
May 6, 2020, 12:59 PM · I wonder if you could use ECG electrodes to rosin a double bass.
May 6, 2020, 2:22 PM · If I remember correctly, Mr. Warchal (the string maker) gave the definite answer to that question some time ago.
He did some research and gave the results.
Just found it:
May 6, 2020, 9:38 PM · Injection swabs are the same thing as prep pads.
May 6, 2020, 11:27 PM · Of course, we have no idea how long the alcohol was on the string in Mr. Warchal's example before he wiped it off, and if he did and opened it up for examination.

I guess I will eventually find out how alcohol works on Warchal strings because I now have Warchal strings on 3 of my violins. I have not had occasion to alcohol-clean them, and perhaps I won't because I only do that when microfiber or nylon scrubbie fails to restore the string.

May 7, 2020, 1:39 AM · I must confess I wipe my student's strings/necks etc. with alcohol if I have to touch them (since the virus).
These student instruments have cheap and old strings anyway.
But I wouldn't do this to a concert instrument.
A small drop of alcohol penetrates the windings and fibres in a fraction of a second. That's why it's important to avoid drops by all means and only dampening the cloth.

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