How to Care for Your Cello or Upright Bass

Learning to play a new instrument is an exciting and rewarding experience, and having an instrument that is in tip-top shape makes the process go even more smoothly. A well-maintained instrument can make learning much less frustrating for the new player, allowing them to focus exclusively on the nuances of playing the instrument, instead of hassling with sticky keys, damaged corks, or science experiments growing inside of the instrument.

This series will examine some basic tips on instrument care for the new player, focusing specifically on band and orchestra instruments, to help new band students get off to a good start.

Find more maintenance guides for other band and orchestra instruments.

Keep Your Instrument Cool and Relatively Humid

Dampit Cello Humidifier
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August is back-to-school month, and it’s also one of the hottest months in the year for most people in the Northern hemisphere. Scorching heat of any kind can cause stomach-churning damage to your new orchestra instrument. The trunk of your car is one of the worst places to store a cello or upright on a hot day. Extreme heat can cause cracks, warps, and in the worst case, can melt the glue holding your instrument together.

Remember to plan around your instrument in the same way that you would plan around a child or pet: if you aren’t going to leave them in the car, don’t leave your instrument in the car.

Just like blistering, summer heat, dry, winter air can take a toll on your instrument, and forgetting to properly humidify it during those frigid winter months can yield disastrous results. In many cases, simply leaving your cello or upright out in a dry environment can cause cracks and splits, both of which are costly—if not impossible—to repair. Wood is very susceptible to changes in moisture and temperature.

Room humidifiers provide an easy way to control humidity, and most can be purchased for around $100 to $150. These are a great option for cellos and uprights that aren’t confined to a case. Humidifiers made for cello and upright bass, such as the Dampit Cello Humidifier, work well in certain applications, such as for travel or spatial economy.

Use a Stand or Keep Your Instrument in Its Case

Obvious though it may seem, stringed instrument players of all kinds frequently ignore this basic rule of instrument ownership: If the instrument is not being played or used, store it on a stand or in its case. Setting the instrument against a wall or coffee table can cause scratches, dents, and other damage to the neck, and if the instrument takes a tumble, can break off the neck, peg box, or scroll—leading to a very costly repair.

Any stand is better than leaning the instrument up against a wall or other object, but a well-braced, sturdy stand with foam padding, such as the Hercules Auto Grab Cello Stand, will provide the most security for your cello or upright.

Bass Stand
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Cello Stand
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Wipe Down and Clean Your Instrument Regularly

Polishing Cloth
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Cleaning a cello or upright with a microfiber polishing cloth when done playing helps remove dirt, rosin dust, and oil from the instrument. Besides keeping it looking shiny, new, and free of unsightly rosin dust, wiping down the instrument and strings helps keep debris from damaging the finish and deadening the strings.

Removing rosin that has built up on the finish or strings takes a little bit more elbow grease, but dampening a soft cloth with distilled water can cut through stubborn, caked-on rosin. Removing the most tenacious rosin from the strings can be done by applying a small amount of alcohol to a cotton ball, and rubbing the strings gently. Be very careful, however, because alcohol can damage the finish and dry out the fingerboard.

Stay away from aggressive cleaners and solvents which can sometimes eat through the finish of the cello or upright as well. Polish made specifically for violin or cello is okay to use on the instrument occasionally, but remember that polish (of any kind) is a micro-abrasive, and is designed to remove a very small layer of the instrument’s finish, as well as any oil, dust, or dirt on the surface. Polishing too frequently can actually accelerate finish wear.

Care for Your Bow

The bow is the most delicate part of the entire instrument ensemble. Mishandling the bow can cause damage to it, and at the very least, keep it from performing at its best. One of the most important things to remember when holding the bow is to avoid touching the bow hair. Bow hair is very good at absorbing oils from the hands and fingers, which can make it difficult to use, inconsistently gripping the strings from frog to tip.

It could be argued that the majority of maintenance actually takes place when the bow is being stored during non-use. Remember to loosen the bow when it isn’t being played to preserve the camber, or curvature, of the bow stick. Eventually, all bows lose at least part of their camber, but minimizing tension on the bow when it is in storage can eliminate the need to frequently recamber or replace the bow.

Secondly, ensure that the bow stick is cleaned with a polishing cloth to wipe away rosin dust that has sloughed off during play. This can help prevent the buildup of rosin on the bowstick. And after the bow has been untensioned and cleaned, remember to store the bow when it is not in use. Setting the bow on the floor or on a chair is just asking for it to be sat or stepped on. Place the bow in the instrument’s case, or hang it on the wall, out of reach of any pets that might think the hair was left for them as a toy or tasty snack.

Once a Day, Once a Week, Once a Month, and Once a Year

A good rule of thumb for ensuring that a cello or upright is properly and regularly maintained is to follow the "Once a Day, Once a Week, Once a Month, and Once a Year" maintenance schedule. This makes it easy to regularly plan maintenance activities, and check them off when they are completed. The schedule breaks down as follows:

  • Once a Day: On a daily basis, wipe down the instrument, strings, and bow stick with a microfiber polishing cloth after playing to remove oil, rosin dust, and dirt.

  • Once a Week: When rosin starts to build up or cake on the instrument’s surface, strings, or bow stick, use a clean, slightly dampened cloth to remove it. Use a cotton ball with a small amount of rubbing alcohol to gently and carefully clean any stubborn rosin left on the strings.

  • Once a Month: Polish the instrument with a microfiber polishing cloth and liquid violin or cello polish. This will help remove finish scratches, as well as stubborn dust, dirt, and oil not removed by daily cleaning. Always be on the lookout for cracks and seem-splits, but once a month, look very closely at the instrument to check for small cracks and splits that may have escaped a first glance.

  • Once a Year: It’s good to get in the habit of having the instrument looked at by a qualified luthier to ensure that there are no looming problems with the instrument, and to ensure that it is playing its best.

How to Care for Your School Band & Orchestra Instruments
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