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Polishing and Cleaning A Bass

Here at the String Emporium (bass specialists) we often get calls or questions regarding how to clean and/or polish a bass. While we are hesitant to give specific details on any customer's bass (over the phone) without seeing the actual instrument, we can give generalized, safe cleaning and polishing guidelines so that players wanting to upkeep their bass, will not do any harm.Bass Varnish

So here are some generalized guidelines on what one can do:

First, never use furniture polish that you can buy in a spray can at the grocery store.  These often have ingredients that can really damage the varnish or finish on your bass.  The first major ingredient in these products, is alcohol.  While yes, some really good violin/bass polish products offered at good violin shops have alcohol in them, they tend to contain way less than what you will find in a can of "Pledge". 

Alcohol is a major ingredient in French Polish, and other varnishes.  It also can be so strong that it can quickly melt, desolve or smear a totally fine and perfect varnish finish on any violin family instrument. 

Buy some ready made polish that is strictly made for violins or related instruments.  As bass players, we all know that we have to cover a lot more 'square footage' on our basses than violins and so these small (not inexpensive) bottles of varnish can get used up pretty quickly on a bass.  Still though, in this case it is better to be safer than sorry! 

How to clean a bass.  Before you even take out your polish, your bass must be clean!  Make sure all of the rosin residue on the top and sides are removed.  Not doing this, you will just make a huge mess smearing around half melted rosin and your bass top will turn out to be one blurry, sticky top.

We use Kolstein cleaner (it's probably 95% Xylene), but is a light red color.  This is strong stuff and one sure not to do this indoors if possible.  Otherwise, should be a well ventilated area!  Use rubber gloves and good paper towelling.  I fold the paper towel in quarters and re-fold it unitl all the clean surfaces on the towel are used up (dirty) which I then throw away and grab a new sheet.  Use lots of new paper towels rather than a rag.  The rag again will just build up and re-distribute the dirt rather than remove it. 

Optimally, I like to clean a bass that is really 'gooped up' on one day and then polish it the next.  You be the judge, but for a bass with lots of build up, by cleaning and desolving that rosin, you are also softening up the very top surface of your varnish (!) yikes!!  So by waiting until the next day, it gives your varnish a chance to harden up again so that when you again put a polish on the bass, you won't harm it by softening it yet again.

Folks, this is what 'polish' does:  It softens the very top surface of your varnish so that it is like new again.  A "new" varnish has ingredients that shine when fresh and  polish refreshes the old ingredients.  This is why one has to be super careful:  There are a lot of stories out there of players that liked keeping their bass (or any other instrument) so polished and that they did it so often, that they actually removed so much varnish it eventually needed to have someone re-varnish the instrument.  A quick way to de-value a nice bass as well!!

Some points do's and dont's:

  • clean the varnish first in a well ventilated area (fan) or outdoors so that you won't be breathing in the vapors
  • use paper towels, with rubber gloves and replace the paper towels often so that you won't just be smearing around dirt and rosin
  • don't use too much pressure (softened varnish..right???), but just a little to get the goop off without bothering the varnish
  • depending on how much you might have 'heated up' your varnish in the cleaning, see if you can finish with the polish the very next day or two later.
  • use a good polish and not store bought spray can
  • polish your bass when you know that you can leave it in the room (without the cover on it!) for sometime, at least one day.  Why? Sometimes you can polish (and heat) up your varnish so much that when you put the cover on it, the varnish can be so soft then that the nylon fabric from the cover could have a reaction and leave a lasting impression on your bass