The popularity of musical performances showcasing music performed on period instruments is growing. Antique stringed instruments are particularly sensitive to the effects of climate, the wear from use, and the particular delight insects find in old glues and varnishes. If the instrument is going to be played, careful restoration, frequent cleaning and proper storage will be needed.
Vintage strings were made of silk or gut, and sometimes cores of silk or gut, wound with metal. These strings are particularly sensitive to the effects of humidity. If authentic sounds are needed when the instrument is played, then the strings will be replaced with original materials. All strings need to be replaced at the same time if using one of these old materials. If the instrument is going to be played, but the owner doesn’t need gut or silk strings, there are several more modern options that provide good clarity of sound but last longer.
Record keeping is critical for any restoration on a piece that may have historical significance, but is currently being played. With a common restoration goal of any action being reversible, functionality might be affected. If the owner needs the instrument to function, then restoration needs to focus on that aspect. Careful record keeping can record the preservationist’s findings and decision-making process, including materials used.
Careful inspection of the wood is critical on antique instruments. There are a number of insects attracted to old glues and varnishes, as well as to wood itself. There are several new glues and varnishes available to preservationists that provide excellent structural support without changing the appearance of a piece, deteriorating, or attracting insects.
Areas of stress, such as joints and pegs, also need a careful check. Peg compound is sometimes used; during restoration, any extra will be cleaned and removed. If wood has to be replaced, it is preferable to replicate the wood and also to study other instruments from the same maker’s workshop.
Bows should be restored at the same time as their instrument. If the hairs on the bow are torn or broken, check the violin case carefully for mites. Vacuum and leave the case in sunlight for several days. After playing, wipe down the instrument carefully with a soft cloth to remove any extra rosin from the strings or the wood. Avoid touching the strings if the instrument uses a bow, as oils and dirt from fingers can damage strings. Don’t use water or any commercial furniture polish, wax, or oil on a musical instrument.
If a material such as ivory is cracked, chipped, or otherwise beyond repair, the owner will determine if it’s to be removed and replaced with another material, or left in place. Many times a critical decorative piece such as ivory can be left in place and backed by a piece of wood veneer to provide structural support.
Maker’s marks and other historical marks, such as the signature of a musician, are always left intact.
Careful storage and cleaning, as well as regular inspection and restoration, will keep antique instruments sharing their music.