What It All Boils Down To – Boiling Bass Strings

Posted on November 19, 2010

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The other day I read on a bass forum a thread about boiling bass strings.  Out of 5 pages of postings I didn’t learn much.  Most responses were just a hurling of insults concerning; only a cheapskate goes through the hassle of boiling strings, made up scientific facts such as “Steel can’t get wet” or this new and improved method of building a pipe filled with Denatured Alcohol.

1) Bass strings cost $20-$40 a set.  Boiling strings takes 20 minutes.  Ummm … who are these guys that feel their time is worth $200 an hour?

2) You’re right Steel can’t get wet.  That’s why it’s been used to make cars, buildings, planes, trains, bridges, school buses etc.

3) Denatured Alcohol, well I don’t have any witty excuse not to other than the fact that: if consumed it causes blindness or death!  It dries quickly, but well what will that do to the wood of my bass over time?  What if I go for a handful of popcorn after I play bass?  Saving $40 isn’t worth my life!

Now that we’ve discussed blindness and death, let’s go back to the low risk alternative: Boiling Strings.

Rundown

1. I went to my local Thrift Shop and bought an old sauce pan for $1.  I felt better about boiling my strings in something I wasn’t going to prepare food in later.

2. Cleaned the pot out with dish soap.  I didn’t want anymore funk getting on my strings.

3. Boiled a pot of water.  While the water was coming to a boil I removed the strings from 2 basses and grabbed a set of old dirty flatwounds I had in a drawer.

4. I coiled the strings up similar to how they come new, basically made a small circle out of them and fold the inside the circle.

Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith showed up to admire my coiling

5. Dumped about 1 tbsp. full of white vinegar in the now boiling water.

6. Threw the strings in the boiling water.  (I started with one set, then boiled 2 sets later)  I didn’t use a lid.

7. Set the timer for 15 minutes (No rhyme or reason, just 15 minutes felt right)

8. While the strings were boiling I took that time to rub down the fretboard with Lemon Oil and clean the rest of the hardware with Dunlop Formula 65.  I also draw in the nut with a graphite pencil.  This makes the contact between the string and the nut smoother resulting in better tuning.  I ran a Q-Tip with some cleaner over the bridge and pickup edges that can’t be reached with an old T-shirt.

9.  The strings were done.  I used a fork to fish them out.  (Remember your strings will be boiling hot)  I put them on a paper plate and threw them in the freezer for a minute while I dumped out the water from the pot.

10.  I took the strings out of the freezer.  They were a temperature that was comfortable enough to handle.  I wiped them down with a paper towel.  I laid them out flat on a table to air dry for a few minutes.

11.  Now that my strings were dry and my bass was cleaned I was ready to install the strings.

*Your strings are already cut to size and you don’t need to intonate your bridge so putting them back on is quick.

12.  Tune to pitch.

Results

The strings were much cleaner.  The dull thud they gave before was closer to, but not as much “Zing” as a new set of strings.

Something to remember is strings age due to dirt (sweat, dead skin), corrosion, and natural stretching from the tension of being tuned to pitch.  Boiling only removes the dirt.  If your strings are dented from the frets or stretched to where they don’t hold tune, you will not benefit from boiling strings.

Flatwound Strings

The flatwound strings I boiled turned out the best.  Flats sound the best worn in, so boiling a nice set of worn in flats is most cost effective and a time saver.

Nickelwound Strings

The Nickels came out very well.  I did get back the that was brightness lost to dirt.

Steel Strings

Well my test was kind of flawed.  The edges were sticking out of the water and turned a rust color from all the steam.  They were at least 5 years old anyway, so I threw them out.

Coated Strings

I didn’t test any, but I spoke with my friend Steve, a licensed fellow bass junkie, who mentioned he didn’t have good results.  I’d imagine the strings get their distinct tone from the coating and once the coating is gone, so is the tone.

Wrap Up

Well it was a fun experiment.  I invested $2 in a sauce pan and a bottle of vinegar that will last me, well for approx. 256 more boiling sessions!  I lost a set of strings that I’d have tossed anyway, but I’m now playing my “beater” Squier Jazz Bass which was in the corner getting no love due to dirty strings.

Some claim boiling will weaken the strings.  I doubt this.  The older a string gets and the more it stretches, the sooner it will snap.  I suggest the method of string boiling as a “quick fix” or a “eh don’t have money to replace the strings this week.”  The fact is you will have to replace the strings at some point, but hey, it’s a great way to stretch the dollar and I know I’m not alone when I realize I need strings and the clock tells me my local music shop closed 15 minutes ago!

My trusty P-bass and Squier Jazz Bass re-strung.

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