Care and Preservation



If you have a treasured old musical instrument, it may be too delicate for heavy repairs or restoration. If this is the case you may consider that a conservation care plan is the best way to look after it. There are a number of reasons to take this approach. Very often, the value of an old instrument is in its original features, which an extensive repair programme might remove. If there are no immediate plans to play an instrument it is probably better to leave it undisturbed. There is little point in undertaking repairs to fix parts that are never going to be used and which might destroy the instrument’s historical integrity. In this case a scheme of light care and preservation can be the most effective option.

Most musical instruments tend to be under dynamic tension, which means that they can be subject to catastophic damage if mishandled or kept in inappropriate conditions. For long-term care, instruments should be kept in an environment which does not suffer from wild variations in temperature and relative humidity. It is also a good idea to limit the handling of the instruments and keep them clean and free from surface dust and dirt.

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It is not a good idea to keep delicate objects like musical instruments up in attics or down in cellars, the one being hot in the summer and cold in the winter, the other likely to suffer from high humidity levels. For the same reason, it is a bad idea to keep instruments next to radiators or other heat sources. Also, instruments should not be kept in places where they are constantly underfoot or likely to be misused by visitors, other family members or pets. So where then?

Smaller instruments, such as violins or flutes, are best kept in their cases. If you can find the space, the cased instrument would be well placed in the middle shelf of a bookcase or cabinet. Philip Bate kept his original collection under the bed, where it was unlikely to be disturbed. Larger instruments may need special arrangements. It is reasonable to keep an upright piano in the corner of the dining room and clavichords or spinets could be kept safely in public rooms of the house provided the upper surfaces are protected. Larger string instruments may be kept in their cases and laid down flat in a secluded corner where they are unlikely to be nudged or jostled.

The ideal location would be one where temperature and relative humidity can be kept at a constant level. There are now a growing number of specialist storage companies who can provide this kind of accommodation but these can be expensive. For the majority of people, conditions in the living area of the house or flat would be acceptable.

Most kinds of string instruments can be slightly de-tensioned. This has the effect of allowing ‘movement’ in the instrument to occur without placing undue strain on joints due to shrinkage of organic parts (wood, ivory, bone, horn, leather, gut, etc). Care should be taken not to go too far in releasing the strings as this will cause the sound post of violins, cellos, viols, etc. to fall over. Woodwind instruments should be broken down into their sections so as to avoid compression on the joints. There is a suggestion that it may be beneficial to oil the bore but some experts warn against this. Drum skins should be de-tensioned if possible. All instruments should be lightly dusted so as to prevent the accretion of further dust and dirt. 

It is a good idea to protect your stored instruments with a surrounding layer of some inert material. It has been found that the plush velvet lining in old instrument cases can have a harmful effect over time. Woollen materials might contain pollutants such as sulphates, which can cause corrosion of metal parts. A buffer layer of low acid tissue is very helpful in overcoming this problem. Old cotton bedsheets can be used as dust sheets for larger instruments. Other safe materials for long term care include Plastazote, or ZoteFoam, and Tyvek man-made textile. These are available from specialist suppliers and can be used to make bespoke storage cases.

Instruments in storage should be monitored regularly to ensure their condition is not deteriorating. This should happen at least once a year and it is probably worthwhile writing out a checklist of things to look for:

  • Major Structural Damage – Splits, cracks, sprung joints.
  • Minor Structural Damage – Shrinkage, detached fibres, distortion.
  • Surface Deterioration – Flaking surface finish, dust or dirt.
  • Disfigurement – Stains, scratches, discolouration.
  • Biological – Insect holes, rodent droppings, mould growth.
  • Chemical – Corrosion, salts.

The checklist can be kept in the instrument case so you will always know where it is when you come to do your inspection. 
Some of the problems listed above require more urgent treatment than others. If you discover a fresh split or crack you can probably leave it a month or two provided the environment is stable. If, on the other hand, you find evidence of insect infestation, the need for remedial action is more immediate.

Part of the reason for putting instruments in light care and preservation is to avoid the necessity of constant cleaning and maintenance. However, there may come times when cleaning cannot be avoided. In this case the golden rule is: Do as little as possible. There are a number of non-specialist cleaning techniques, which can be used without causing any threat to the instrument. 

1. Vacuuming:

The surface of the instrument can be cleaned using a soft-bristled brush and an ordinary vacuum cleaner. The nozzle of the vacuum cleaner should not be applied directly to the surface. Instead, the brush is used to sweep any small dust or dirt particles into the nozzle of the cleaner. 
If the instrument is extremely dirty it can be cleaned using an artists eraser and a vacuum cleaner. This process can remove layers of surface dirt but expose more intrusive and disfiguring stains. 
DO NOT use any solvents, patent care products or other “Wet” treatments. This could leach out oils or extractives in the microstructure of organic materials and would cause irreversible damage. 

2. Unpainted Metal Parts:

Exposed metal parts such as keywork, tuning mounts, screws, bosses, etc. can be cleaned by a non-specialist using soft-bristled brush and vacuum cleaner. They may then be further cleaned using white spirit on a soft cloth. Care should be taken to ensure that the solvent does not come into contact with wood or leather parts. 
DO NOT use any kind of patent metal polish. Instruments in storage need not be highly polished. 

3. Painted Surfaces:

Deteriorated paint surfaces require special handling because loose pieces can easily be caught on gloves or clothing and lost. It is NOT recommended that any cleaning work on the decorative painted surfaces be undertaken by non-specialist. 

4. Wooden Parts:

Wooden parts can be cleaned by a non-specialist using soft-bristled brush and vacuum cleaner. They may then be further cleaned using white spirit on a soft cloth.

You may discover evidence of insect infestation in the form of fresh wormholes in the wooden parts of your instrument. You should deal with this as a matter of urgency. This can be done by a non-specialist in either of two ways.
Chest Freezer:

The parts should be wrapped in several layers of tissue, completely sealed inside a plastic bin liner so there are no holes or gaps and then placed in a chest freezer for 5 days. Once this time is up the items can be removed from the freezer and placed in a cold room for a further 72 hours. The freezing process must then be repeated and the parts placed in the cold room once again before they are removed from their wrapping. This should effectively kill the larvae. 

Insecticide Spray:

This process should be undertaken in a well-ventilated, unused room or attic space. The parts should be placed inside a large, loose plastic bag along with a can of insecticide spray (such as “Raid”). The bag should be sealed with masking tape or upholstery tape so there are no gaps anywhere. Grip the spray can through the layers of plastic and press the release button until the enclosed bag is filled with vapourised insecticide spray and there is no pressure left in the can. Go away and leave the parts inside the bag for at least one month. Try to use the room as little as possible during this period.

  • The Care of Musical Instruments, Edited by R L Barclay, Museum and Galleries Commission/ Canadian Conservation Institute, 1997 
  • Standards in the Museum Care of Musical Instruments, Museum and Galleries Commission, 1995 
  • Ours for Keeps? Caring for Musical Instruments, A Lamb, Museum and Galleries Commission, 1997