Stringing Tips


As spring comes around for another year, we at Musicmaker's would like to let people know that we receive the most inquiries about string breakage in the spring and early summer every year. Why would that be? It is because, in America's temperate zone, this is the time when humidity levels begin to rise again and instruments start to "re-hydrate" after the winter's dry spell.

When a wooden instrument re-hydrates, the cells expand very slightly, and the instrument actually "grows" in size. It happens in harps, guitars, pianos, and is especially noticeable in box-type instruments like hammered dulcimers and psalteries. If the instrument is in good condition (no cracks or loose joints) and fully mature (no longer flexing or stretching), you will actually notice that the pitch of the strings rises in the spring due to this re-hydrating phenomenon.

I have a hammered dulcimer at home that consistently needs to be tuned down in the spring (and also during a rainy spell in the summer), and up in the fall and winter. I consider this to be a good sign - it means the box is stable, and the rise and fall in pitch is simply humidity-related. You may not notice this phenomenon so much in guitars and harps because the frame parts of those instruments are often a little more flexible, so the additional stress of humidity is "absorbed" by movement of the wood frame itself.

String breakage, however, is most common during this time of increased stress, especially if the strings are a couple years old or more. The older they are, the more fragile they become. Both nylon and steel will deteriorate by oxidation on the surface as well as by a decrease in flexibility. Oxidation shows up as rust or pits on metal wire and as chalky whiteness on nylon strings, but you'll only notice the loss of flexibility when a string breaks. Both problems affect the sound and performance of your instrument. If the strings are quite old, you'll hear a dramatic improvement in sound by installing new strings. Plus you'll finally be able to clean the soundboard area and restore the beauty of the instrument finish.

For this reason, Musicmaker's encourages you to head off the problem by refreshing the nylon or steel strands on your instrument now, before re-hydration trouble begins. Here are a few tips on re-stringing:

1) Don't be afraid to remove all the strings at once. Many musicians fear the instrument will self-destruct if all the tension is released, but that should not happen. Instrument failure comes from too much tension, not from the release of tension.

2) Purchase a good cleaner/restorer to help you freshen up the finish on your instrument while the strings are off. We like Old English, Endust, and similar furniture products. Steer clear of the products that include wax, unless your instrument has a waxed finish already. Good furniture polish will hide minor scratches and make the finish look clean and fresh.

3) Don't be afraid of using a damp rag here and there to facilitate cleaning. You may be surprised to find dried blobs of ketchup or drips of coke on the surface, and they need to be removed with a wet cloth.

4) If you find spots that don't come off with water or furniture polish, go ahead and try a little alcohol or mineral spirits.

5) It is not uncommon to find streaks of paint on the sides of a harp or other instrument too. This happens when transporting the instrument and bumping it against the painted trim of your front door, or some such thing. The best way to remove paint is by scrubbing with a kitchen scouring pad. Be gentle, however. You don't want to scrub through the original finish on the instrument!

Once the instrument is clean, you can install the new strings. Here are a few tips that may be helpful: Steel strings are very sharp and "prickly" at the ends. You should clip the steel ends as close to the tuning pin as possible. Otherwise they will snag your clothing and/or prick your fingers as you tune the instrument. We like to hide the end of a steel string inside the little hole of the tuning pin, and we do that as shown in the sequence below.

a) Poke the end of the wire into, but not all the way through, the small hole in the first tuning pin.

b) Turn the pin about one-half turn before putting tension on the wire.

c) Pull on the wire to "set" it in the pin. This puts a kink in the wire at the point where it enters the tiny hole in the tuning pin. If the wire pulls out of the pin when you pull on it, cut off the kinked end and try again.

d) While keeping tension on the string, wind the tuning pin until the string is taut.

Nylon strings, however, pose a different challenge: they are slippery! When winding nylon around a tuning pin, you need to cross the strand over itself as you make a full revolution. It should look like crossing your fingers, as shown here:



Whatever instrument you are re-stringing, take time to do a neat job of it. Wrap the strings neatly on the tuning pin. Be sure to turn all the pins the same direction when wrapping strings. On most instruments, that will ensure that all the strings wrap around the same side of the pins. On fretted instruments like guitar, banjos, mandolins, etc., with some tuning gears on one side of the peghead and some on the other, you should wind the strings so they all wrap to the inside of the peghead, or the top of the tuning post, as shown here for a mandolin and a mountain dulcimer:

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