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Attics and Basements and Closets, Oh My! Part 20: Musical Instruments

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While those of us in the conservation department grapple with the many challenges facing our society, we are finding comfort in our family heirlooms and treasures—many of which require our attention. We understand that like us, many of you may be turning to your family treasures for comfort during these trying times. Thus, the conservation department would like to share tips on ways to care for your personal collections and assure you that we are here to support you and the collections that you hold dear. 

Each week for twenty weeks a different student from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation has addressed ways to care for the collections in your cupboards. This last post in the Caring for Family Treasures series focuses on the preservation of musical instruments and was written by rising third-year Wooden Artifacts Fellow, Sarah Towers.

Musical Instruments 

Many of us have musical instruments in our home collections; they may be antiques that have not been played in one hundred years or brand-new purchases that are played daily. Instruments fall into a grey area within our collections. They are both art pieces to be aesthetically prized as well as objects that have cultural, historical, or personal significance. However, much like clocks or historic automobiles, they are also often expected to function. Musical instruments make music. Only some of their sound depends on the skill and artistry of the musician. The construction of the instrument and its materials are chosen with a specific sound in mind. In turn, that is affected by changes the instrument undergoes throughout its life due to the environment in which it is kept, damage that may occur, and repairs that are made. Many important tips and tricks for specific materials found on musical instruments have already been covered in the Family Treasures series; please refer to previous posts for information specific to your instrument’s materials, or consult a conservator if extensive treatment is required. This post will cover musical instruments of all types in a general way, with some basic rules of thumb for care.

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​Getting into the habit of covering your instrument when not in use is good practice to prevent light damage, intrusion of dust and debris, and even to help buffer interior mechanisms from minor environmental swings. (Images courtesy Ginny Towers.)

​Environment 

The environment may be the biggest factor impacting your musical instruments. Quick, dramatic swings in temperature and humidity can cause lasting damage to an instrument and affect its vibrational qualities – and therefore its sound. Most instruments are composite objects made from many varied materials, often with different and occasionally opposing environmental needs. Some of the materials most vulnerable to temperature and humidity swings include leather, wood, plant materials, textiles, painted surfaces, metals and even plastics. For musical instruments, this is made all the more crucial by the fact that these same vulnerable materials are often already under tension (discussed in detail below). Thus, try to avoid extremes of overly dry or overly humid environments, and/or frequent or sudden swings in humidity. This is more crucial than achieving ideal parameters for any one material.

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​A 20th-century ukulele. The saddle and bridge, which had been glued to the wooden body under tight tension from its four nylon strings, had become detached during a move. The instrument experienced a rapid change in temperature and humidity in its environment, which caused the wood body and nylon strings to expand and contract so extremely that the glued bridge popped off. Fortunately, this damage was treatable and the ukulele could be repaired. (Photo courtesy Emily Brzezinski.)

To avoid environmental damage, keep your instrument in a moderate, stable climate that does not experience drastic environmental swings, such as by an interior wall in a cool room. If possible, do not store an instrument in an attic or basement, and avoid humid spaces like kitchens and bathrooms. If your instrument has a case and it is in good condition, keeping it in its case can also act as an environmental buffer to further moderate the effect of environmental swings. This is also the best way to avoid light damage, since most materials are prone to fading or chemical deterioration caused by overexposure to light. To avoid light damage, do not place your instrument directly in front of a window, and when possible keep it in a case or cover it with a lightweight drop cloth when not in use.​

Why so Tense?: Instruments Under Tension

Musical instruments are often held under some degree of tension. This is certainly the case for all stringed instruments, as well as some percussives such as drums or pianos. Typically, museums store instruments in their collections that are not going to be played regularly under some tension, but not full tension. That is, the strings will be in place and taut enough to balance the instrument, but not tight enough to stress the materials, and not tight enough to play.  This protocol relates to the environmental conditions discussed previously. As the temperature and humidity fluctuate – and all environments fluctuate, even in climate-controlled museums - materials will expand, contract, and warp. This will doubtless happen whether your strings are made of gut, silk, or metal; or whether your drumhead is made of skin or plastic. Under full playing tension, these small dimensional changes can compound exponentially to readily cause damage. Therefore, storing instruments that are not in active use at less than their full tension helps avoid any damage that may result from dimensional changes. For stringed instruments, this means keeping them strung, but not so tight that they are in tune. The strings should be slack but remain straight and in position. For drums, this means adding a small amount of slack to the drumhead so it is still flat but does not feel taut when tapped lightly. By the same reasoning, woodwinds that are stored as one unit (rather than in pieces) should allow a slight gap in the lapping of the pieces to allow for movement in the wood body.

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​A 20th-century hammered dulcimer. A significant, long crack in its spruce wood soundboard was a direct result of dimensional changes in the wood and steel strings while under high tension. (Photos by Sarah Towers.)

​Handling

To prevent damage to your instrument, it is important to follow basic best handling practices. An instrument must be handled to be played, of course, but be sure to wipe it down with a soft, lint-free cloth when you are done and wear gloves at all other times when handling your instrument. Otherwise, instruments can be damaged when they are being moved from place to place, especially without a case. Before picking up an instrument, think about what elements might be vulnerable to damage and adjust your handling accordingly. Are there moving components that might become dislodged or detached? Are there loose strings? Cracks, or flaking you can easily see? Avoid touching metal elements with bare hands, as hand oils can be corrosive to metal, and fingerprints build up grime on any surface over time. Do not carry a stringed instrument by its neck as the join can be weak and may have a tendency to break and use caution and proper equipment to move a ponderously heavy instrument like a piano. Piano legs will easily snap on snags in a floor, and piano feet castors are notorious for malfunctioning. A tried-and-true method is to use the instrument’s carrying case if it has one. If there is a lot of wiggle room within a case, consider padding out the extra space with soft foam or archival tissue. Finally, do not play an instrument if you are in doubt of its condition or the safety of its components.  

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​When to preserve a condition: lessons from two banjos. My own banjo, at left, has a significant build-up of dirt and grime on the head. This build-up of grime is evidence of use and wear and is appropriate, expected, and even prized on a well-used banjo; it is something I would never want cleaned. At right, Dolly Parton’s banjo in the Tennessee State Museum (1999.143.3). Dolly’s banjo has a puncture in the head repaired with pressure-sensitive tape, a repair that would make many a conservator cringe. However, in this case it is an important artifact of the life of use of Dolly’s banjo and should be preserved. (Images courtesy Sarah Towers and Tennessee State Museum.)

Cleaning 

Surface dust is of particular concern for many instruments because intrusion of dirt can affect playing mechanisms. Dirt can also attract moisture, which encourages corrosion of metals and mold on leather or wood. To limit dust, cover instruments or keep them in their cases as much as possible. Keep piano keyboards covered with the fallboard in the down or closed position, and the lid of grand piano soundboards down when not in use. Gentle dusting with a soft, natural-bristle brush or dry microfiber cloth can be used on some components such as piano keys, or the insides of wooden stringed instruments like guitars where the opening is large enough to access. Avoid using water or vacuuming an instrument directly by allowing a vacuum nozzle to touch surfaces. Some wind instruments with smaller, accessible parts can be dusted on the interior by threading a soft, lint-free cloth tied to a string through the large components. This should be undertaken with the utmost care; do not force the cloth through a too-tight space. The sound holes of wind instruments are very fragile, and the sound quality of an instrument can be easily damaged. On brass instruments, do not reach for commercial metal polishes if you notice corrosion. Not only does polishing always remove some of the metal surface and can damage the appearance, but it can also adversely affect the actions of other moving components like valves and stops if any residue is left behind.  When in doubt, leave the dust alone and consult a conservator or a specialist for that musical instrument.

When to Seek Treatment Advice from a Specialist

Any interventive treatment, especially restoration or repairs that bring an instrument to a playable condition, should be undertaken by a specialist. Specialists for musical instruments might include a conservator with expertise in musical instruments, an instrument restorer, or an instrument maker with experience in your specific instrument type. While preventive maintenance can usually be undertaken at home, it is always best to consult with a specialist first. The specific risks and needs of various musical instruments can vary widely, and it is always better to wait to intervene rather than risk harm. During consultation, ensure the conversation with your chosen specialist includes a firm understanding of the instrument’s historical, material, and personal significance to you. Like Dolly Parton’s banjo, shown above, old repairs, damage, or even dirt and grime can retain historic or personal value. Always pause to consider if the condition is indeed harming the instrument, and explore alternatives to full restorations, refinishings, or significant cleaning campaigns. Research the maker and the instrument type if you have that information, and do not assume that you and the specialist undertaking the repairs will approach a treatment with the same goals. It may take a few conversations to understand each other’s goals, and it is important to take this time. Some approaches to restoring an instrument to playing condition completely remove historic finishes or original functional or decorative elements, which may not align with your goals for the treatment and may not be necessary to make the instrument playable. Even a very old instrument can often be playable while still retaining original surfaces and parts which may be preferable for historic or personal objects.

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​Left to right: Side, front, and interior views of a mid-20th century Renelli concertina. The white plastic buttons control the hinged stoppers to play notes by manipulating air flow, in combination with the movement of the bellows to create music. This concertina was not playable before treatment, primarily owing to inherent vice of the plastic components; the original plastic fittings had become brittle, fractured, and in some cases snapped off entirely. Extreme environmental conditions accelerated their decline. Off-gassing of these plastic gaskets also caused severe deterioration of the original textile lining for the sound holes; all components were so badly deteriorated they had to be replaced in order to return the concertina to a playable state. In this case, when the instrument was not rare or financially valuable, the sole importance to the owner was playability. For these reasons a more interventive treatment was justified and appropriate to allow the concertina to play again. (Images by Sarah Towers.)

Finally, don’t forget to enjoy your musical instruments in whatever form that takes for you—whether you are a musician, an instrument admirer, or the guardian of a family treasure. The majority of damage occurs when instruments fall into disuse and eventual neglect. If you are able to play your instrument or display it with pride, you will be able to enjoy it every day. This will also help you care for your instrument because you will be able to keep an eye on its condition and better respond to any changes you see.


We hope you have enjoyed these entries in our series focused on caring for your family heirlooms. As this is our final post, we would like to express our sincere appreciation to our graduate students who have generously shared their knowledge of and passion for collections preservation with our readers. Thanks as well to Laura Mina for imagining Caring for Family Treasures, Annabelle Camp and Dawn Rogala for their careful oversight of our entire series and to Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner and Cece Torok for their keen editorial skills.          

All posts are available free-of-charge on the Department of Art Conservation website here. Please reach out and share this information broadly. We encourage you to visit our web site for regular updates on our Department of Art Conservation and news coverage of our talented students and alumni working at home and abroad. May you and your family stay safe and well in the days and months ahead, surrounded by family treasures to be cherished now and in the future.

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