You already understand that the violin family of instruments is delicate. But did you know that something as seemingly harmless as the amount of moisture in the air can damage your instrument? Humidity is an important factor to keep in mind if you own a stringed instrument.
The Problem with Humidity
Why are instruments in the violin family so sensitive to humidity? Because they’re made of wood–fragile, thin wood at that. Wood is a porous material that exchanges water with the air around it, and expands and contracts as it does so.
The fact that wood expands and contracts with moisture can be a good thing. Humidity, along with heat, was used to bend and contour certain parts of the instrument in the first place. Consider the sides of a violin–they weren’t carved into that dramatic shape.
That same expansion and contraction can be a very bad thing after the instrument is made. When an instrument is moved from an area of high humidity to an area of low humidity, the wood contracts as it loses the water it had previously absorbed from the air. If the wood contracts at different rates across the instrument, stressing and cracking can occur.
For example, you’ve probably heard that it’s a very bad idea to leave your instrument in a hot car. That’s true enough, but the high temperature is only part of the problem. More dangerous yet is the rapid drying (dehydrating) effect of the hot air. Air dries out quickly as it gets hotter, and a hot car can leach all the moisture from your instrument’s wood in minutes. The odds of your instrument emerging from an automobile “oven” unscathed are slim indeed.
Measuring humidity is simple with a tool called a hygrometer. A hygrometer measures humidity in percent, from 0% (no moisture in the air) to 100% (air saturated with moisture). A small, portable hygrometer will cost about $15-20, a worthwhile investment for the health of your instrument. Some instrument cases even have them built in.
Though experts agree that humidity has to be considered with wood instruments, not all approach the management of humidity the same way. Thoughts regarding instruments and humidity generally fall into two camps:
Keep it Constant
This first camp promotes keeping the humidity in your instrument’s environment constant at all times, usually 40-50%. A comfortable, constant humidity level is the goal, from manufacturer’s warehouse to your home. Controlling the humidity in the environment is accomplished with humidifiers and dehumidifiers; adding humidity to the instrument or case itself is accomplished with accessories like the Dampit. In a perfect world, all these work together to insure your instrument never experiences a change in humidity.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. We often need to take our instruments out of our home or music room for lessons, rehearsals, concerts, and other musical activities. An instrument may need to be shipped somewhere for a repair, stored for months in a dry locale, or played under an umbrella in a drizzle. Since we have no way of controlling the humidity all the time, folks in the “keep it constant” camp will tell you to do what you can and hope for the best.
Change it Slowly
The second group says that it’s not the amount of moisture in the air that can damage instruments, but the rapid transition between humidity levels. Take an instrument from the sticky air of New Orleans to the high deserts of New Mexico, and it will be perfectly happy–as long as the transition doesn’t happen too quickly. Make a rapid change from 80% to 10% humidity (for example), and uneven contraction can crack the wood.
This camp doesn’t try to control the humidity in every environment the instrument will experience. Instead, they slow the transition from high humidity to low humidity (or vice-versa).
How is this accomplished? If you’re travelling with your instrument, take a look at a weather forecast to see the predicted humidity at your destination. If it’s only slightly different, you don’t need to do a thing. If the humidity is going to be significantly different, leave your instrument in its unopened case for a while after you arrive. The case acts as a buffer, slowing down the humidity change.
How long do you leave your instrument in humidity time-out? It depends on the severity of the humidity change. A small change may require little to no transition time, especially if the instrument was slowly acclimating as you traveled. If the change is rapid and severe (a 50% decrease in humidity, for example), leave your instrument in its case for several hours if possible. If you’re really wanting to play it safe, leave it buttoned up overnight.
If you have to take your instrument out of its case and expose it to a drier environment immediately, consider using an in-instrument humidifier like a Dampit. Put it in before you travel and leave it in after you arrive. It will provide a source of moisture that will slow the transition.
Ask an Expert
If you’re unsure which approach is best for your instrument, try asking your luthier. He or she will likely have an opinion on the topic. Many other online resources can also help demystify the issue of humidity.
Until then, you are now “humidity aware” and can begin taking steps to protect your instrument from potentially damaging changes in humidity.
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