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Maintenance

Viols are temperamental and require regular care and maintenance. The following is a simple guide to some of the more common situations players are likely to encounter.

Strings: The lower strings may last for years, but the upper ones tend to break and will have to be replaced much more frequently. It's a good idea to keep extras on hand. Many gut strings are sold without a knot or loop at the end, so you'll need to know how to tie them, to keep them from slipping out of the hole in the tailpiece. This is very simple - for directions, click here. You should also make a habit of changing strings when they become hairy or frayed - the tone suffers at this point, and you run the risk of having the string break while you are playing!

Frets: It's fine to move frets, or split them to facilitate tuning. It's also common for them to eventually loosen. The best quick fix is to slip a matchstick or small folded slip of paper between the fret and the neck, but a broken fret must be replaced. In an emergency, you might use a rubber band. In order to replace it properly, you should use a piece of fret gut, or an old string of the correct weight. Tying frets is really relatively easy - for instructions, click here. Practise a few times with string on a chair leg until you get the hang of it.

Pegs: Experience will teach you exactly what kind of pressure to apply to make pegs stay where you want when you're tuning. If a peg keeps sticking, remove the string and then the peg, use a graphite pencil or apply some "peg dope" (available at most music stores) to the two shiny circles where the peg contacts the pegbox, and then replace both peg and string. Conversely, if your peg tends to stick, use the same method to apply chalk. Another reason pegs may stick, is if the string is wound too close to the pegbox. For a picture of what a correctly wound string looks like, click here.

Nut: Rubbing a soft graphite pencil in the grooves of the nut and the bridge may help strings move more smoothly when tuning. You particularly should to do this if you notice that your strings tend to fray or break at either of these points regularly. When doing this, first loosen the string and take it out of its groove.

Bridge: The normal stress of loosening and tightening strings tends to tilt bridges forward, which over time affects the instrument's sound and tuning. Check the bridge regularly to make sure it's straight; the back should be perpendicular to the belly and the feet should fit the belly perfectly. You can straighten a tilted bridge yourself by holding the instrument firmly between your knees and using both hands to grasp the top of the bridge and carefully shift it back to a vertical position. Most people like to loosen the strings slightly first.

Soundpost: The soundpost is a stick of wood wedged precisely between the back and belly inside the instrument. It is crucial to the instrument's resonance, and moving it changes the sound and response considerably for better or worse. An instrument with a fallen soundpost is unplayable. Only a luthier should adjust or reset the soundpost.

Bow: Every time you play, tighten the bow hair by turning the button clockwise a few times until there's tension on the stick. The correct amount of tension depends on the bow and the player's taste – ask an experienced player if you're not sure how tight yours should be, and always loosen the hair when you're done playing. If the screw mechanism in your bow needs lubrication, unscrew the button completely and lightly rub the screw hairs with paraffin wax. Over time, bow hair wears out – you'll be able to tell if this happens because it will feel slick. The length of time the hair on your bow lasts depends on how much you play and the quality of the hair itself. If you think your bow needs rehairing, take your bow to a bow maker or luthier.

Rosin: This product is made of pine tree sap, and should be rubbed on the bow almost every time you play. One good application technique is to bow the rosin as if you were playing a string. Make sure you get enough rosin near the tip and on the near side of the hair. Slightly stickier types of rosin tend to work better on larger instruments.

Environment: Never expose an instrument to direct sunlight, draughts, or extremes of temperature, which might damage its varnish or crack the wood. Dryness is not only harmful to the instrument, but makes it harder to play and may make it sound tight and raspy. Gut strings are very temperamental with humidity changes and wear out particularly fast in dry environments. There is an even bigger problem during the winter, since heating systems further diminish what little humidity is in the air. The ideal humidity level for a string instrument is 40% to 50%. You can monitor room humidity with a hygrometer, sold in many music and gadget stores (like Canadian Tire). If you find that the humidity in your home is very low, you might invest in a humidifier. In lieu of a humidifier, there are several less expensive solutions. One is to place a guitar humidifier in the case. This is a small plastic box that provides consistent humidity for two weeks. The box needs to be opened and soaked in water for 5 minutes once every two weeks and is available in guitar stores for under $5. Also available in most music stores are "Dampits." These sponge-filled rubber tubes are moistened under the faucet and inserted into the soundholes of the viol. Make sure the outside of each Dampit is completely dry before you insert it - water inside the instrument can cause long-term damage. Dampits must be remoistened every day or so, but can provide temporary help, especially when the instrument is being transported outside a humidified environment. Dampits come in a variety of sizes and are usually sold with a primitive humidity gauge that's useful to keep inside the instrument's case.