Oiling Gut Strings
I just noticed it’s been over two years since I updated my blog, and since making that post I’ve promised students I’d write at length to address some of the questions I’m asked the most. Lately the humidity in Southern California has started to dip below 40%, so I thought I’d write a primer on oiling gut strings.
Oiling strings is something that I first heard of from my colleague Curtis Daily, double bassist and violone player in the Portland Baroque Orchestra, as well as the owner and operator of AquilaUSA. While on tour with Curtis I watched him change a violone string backstage before a show, but when he pulled the long string out of a small tub of oil my jaw dropped. I watched in an odd state of curious disbelief as Curtis wiped down the string over and over before threading it through his tail piece and up to his peg box. My curiosity won out, and I walked over to Curtis to find out just what the hell he was up to.
Curtis explained that oiling gut strings was nothing new, and that there were mentions of lute strings packed in oil filled barrels crossing the Atlantic Ocean for the New World in the 17th and 18th centuries. The thinking is that by soaking the gut in oil the material becomes less susceptible to changes in humidity as the oil takes up space that is generally occupied (and vacated) by ambient moisture in the air. By taking over this space from moisture the oil makes the gut more pitch stable as humidity levels change with the weather, or is more often the case, when the air conditioning or heater cranks up. Anyone who uses guts strings has experienced the difficulties of attempting to keep an instrument in tune as humidity changes. It goes like this:
Humidity goes up - strings go flat
Humidity goes down - strings go sharp (and sometimes break!)
In my experience too much humidity is annoying but nowhere as destructive as too little humidity. As things get drier and drier strings lose mass and go sharper and sharper, sometimes increasing the tension to the point of breaking the string. But often the real victims of dry climates are wire wrapped lower strings. The gut core of wrapped gut strings, the most unstable strings on any instrument, can eventually dry out to the point where the husk of the core will buzz loudly inside its wire wrapping. If humidity doesn’t eventually go up and moisture content of the string return to normal that very expensive string will soon be worthless and beyond any remedy. It’s these wrapped strings that seem to benefit the most from being oiled - destructive drying ceases to be a worry, and pitch stability is greatly improved.
Before I outline my process for oiling strings, just a couple warnings and FYI’s:
The strings will take longer to become pitch stable than new un-oiled strings.
Wipe the strings with paper towels until there is no longer any visible residue. Many wrapped strings will leave a dark mark on a paper towel well after all the oil has been removed.
ROSIN ROSIN ROSIN. When you bring your bow to these new strings add much more rosin than normal. The rosin will serve as a protective barrier to the bow hair in case there is any residual oil on the string. Also, the oiled strings needs extra rosin build up to start pulling a good sound. Un-oiled strings go through the same rosin impregnation, but their oiled counterparts seem to be even greedier!
I’ve heard anecdotes that oiling wire wrapped strings can over-swell the gut core and damage the string. While I have not experienced this myself in the five years I’ve been oiling my strings, I do think it is wise to keep an eye on any wrapped strings you’ve got immersed and perhaps limit them to a 24 hour soak just to be safe.
Expect a slightly darker or denser sound. I believe the added mass the oil contributes to the string does change the sound in noticeable ways.
OK, so now that you’ve been warned let’s go over this. It’s seriously so simple, but it’s a little scary the first couple of times!
HOW TO OIL GUT STRINGS
Fill a bowl up with a couple inches of oil (I use olive oil). Make sure the bowl is large enough that you don’t have to coil the strings up so tight they might get bent or damaged. Just use enough to cover the strings - and you can save the oil for future strings.
Coil up your strings and place them in the bowl.
Let the strings soak for 8 to 24 hours. I’ve not found any difference between an overnight soak and a 48 hour soak.
After the strings have soaked for at least 8 hours, take the out and let them drain on paper towels for another 8 to 24 hours. Be sure to turn over the coiled strings a few times so any oil can easily be drawn away by the toweling. If you’re in a hurry you can skip this step and go straight to wiping down the strings.
Now that the strings have drained wipe the excess off by gently running the length of the string through paper towels. Keep an eye on how much oil the paper towel is soaking up, moving to unsaturated parts of the towel or a new towel. Do this with repeatedly until there is no more visible residue deposited on the paper towel. Remember wrapped strings often leave a dark mark when rubbed on paper towels - just look out for oil residue.
Put the oiled strings on like normal, but remember these will take more time to become pitch stable than un-oiled strings. By more time I mean an additional day or so. Just be patient - they will eventually hold pitch.
When you start to play with the bow ROSIN ROSIN ROSIN. The oiled string needs more rosin worked into its surface to produce a good sound, and that extra rosin will protect your bow from any excess oil. If you are scared of creating slick spots on your bow hair use a spare bow just to be safe. Make sure to get rosin worked into the entire playing surface - not just one narrow band across all the strings. Expect the bow to have trouble grabbing the string at first.
After about 3 to 7 days of playing your new strings should become pitch stable, but you still might need to use more rosin than normal. Again, be patient - this will return to normal once you have worked enough rosin into the string surface.
So, that’s oiling strings! I know many of my colleagues and students are in the habit, and several have shared my experience of increased pitch stability and durability after oiling. And while this is the process Curtis shared with me, I’ve heard other folks say they will just wipe down strings with oil applied to a paper towel. Regardless of how you oil your strings I think you’ll find the benefits to outweigh the time it takes from start to finish.
Let me know your experiences with oiling gut strings - different methods and tricks would be great to hear about and share with each other!