Practical guide for maintaining your musical instrument in the coldest months
Are cold and music just awkward companions?
The truth is, they aren’t.
Tuning your musical instrument every little bit due to the cold and humidity of the room, or even adapting your technique to improve the sound (pressure and speed of the bow for example) are NOTHING, compared to a microcrack or fungus in your instrument.
And why does these happen? Stay two minutes and you’ll find out.
The wood of the instruments in winter
Wood is a hygroscopic material, that is, it absorbs moisture from the environment. It’s like a very empathetic friend, but with the microparticles of water.
It works like a little sponge. When wood is exposed to high humidity, its fibers swell, increasing in volume. This increase can cause:
- Surface tensions: torsions, bowing
- Defects or removal of water-based glues from joints (for example on violin corners)
- Interactions between the assembled parts of different types of wood
Perhaps you are realizing that since wood is a sponge, it will also give part of its internal humidity if the outside climate is very dry. So the thermal stress of extreme cold will cause the opposite effect to the previous one: the fibers will contract instead of swelling.
- If when different types of woods are joined together, (as in violins, violas, cellos or double basses) one type of wood can be stiffer than its neighbor, so cracks may appear at these joints.
- If you have a violin or guitar from your early years in the storage room, (we will see some tips for keeping them there later) the tension of its strings when shrinking , due to cold temperatures, can cause severe damage to the mast.
So, what degree of humidity is optimal for instruments?
Ideally, keep string and wind instruments in an environment between 35% and 55% humidity. Thus, they will be kept in perfect condition and with a stable sound.
I remind you that you can absorb environmental humidity using the typical silica gel bags. Instead, to increase the relative humidity I leave you two homemade tricks.
Ideas to prepare homemade humidifiers for your instrument
- Place a glass of water in the room where you study. It’s that simple.
- Put a piece of wet pottery inside your case. Let a piece of brick soak for 8 hours with its edges filed (so you don’t cut yourself) and dry it. It will gradually release moisture inside your case. If you are afraid of getting the case wet, wrap the ceramic piece in aluminum foil with holes in it.
Where to keep the instrument in your house
The first issue is to keep it out of the passage of people. Keep it at a safe distance from doors, windows, corridors, umbrella stands, coat racks and running children. The best areas of the house to store it are those with the best orientation and thermal conditioning… typically the living room.
Before you place your instrument nearby, remember that the heat from the radiators goes UP and the cold from the air conditioners goes DOWN.
If you are very attached to your first instrument, or maybe you started to learn one that got stuck, you will be interested in knowing how to store it for a long time in your storage room. Here I leave you some keys.
Tips for storing instruments
- Disassemble it if it has parts
- Don’t take the strings off, loosen them up a bit
- If it has a bow, loosen it too
- Clean it well inside and outside
- Store it in its case, safe from dust, fungus and shock
- Do not leave it at ground level in case water enters the storage room
- You can put a thick blanket on top
But, what if you have to travel with your instrument?
On trips, especially long ones, it is crucial that your instrument is acclimatized or tempered. If you are going to radically change the climate, before taking it out of its case, leave it unopened for a while in the hotel room. Of course, the quality of the case is decisive for better or worse thermal insulation.
5 keys to protect your instrument on short trips
- Make sure you have a good case. That the closures work perfectly, that the instrument does not move inside and that there are no damages to the straps and handles.
- If you travel by car, your instrument travels more safely in the back or front seat. The temperature there is milder than in the trunk. You can also hold it with the seat belt. Thus, there are fewer chances of accidents.
- On the train, subway or bus, keep your instrument between your knees as much as possible, to avoid the ups and downs of the journey and absent-minded travelers.
- Include your phone or a profile from your social media inside the case, so that it can be returned to you if you confuse it with another case or lose it.
- Secure your instrument, especially if you’re a pro. To do this, you will first have to request a detailed appraisal from the luthier. Remember that you can also include it in your home insurance.
Finally, I want to highlight an important section on the last point: insurances. All insurance for musical instruments such as Casablancas, Mercaseguros or Axa, usually cover damage due to accidents and theft, but not those due to negligence or lack of maintenance.
Damage caused by cold and environmental humidity is not covered, because it is not considered an accident, but rather a lack of care and maintenance.
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