Winter is a hard time for wood instruments. The extremes in temperature and fluctuations in humidity can really wreak havoc on our poor friends! Here are some tips on how to cope, how to protect your instrument, and how to minimize the impact of winter weather.
Winter is hard on wood instruments, because of indoor dry heat and outdoor freezing temperatures. It’s both the dryness AND the fluctuation in temps that wreak havoc. Often, we get seams split open, or old cracks will re-open, or our instruments sound out of adjustment due to this fluctuation. Cellists often have a “winter bridge” and a “summer bridge” due to the extreme change in the height of their bridge due to the expansion of the wood. Many violinists have their sound posts changed, or at least adjusted from summer to winter, because everything contracts and shrinks tighter in winter.
If you notice huge changes in your instrument with changes in the weather, I would recommend visiting your luthier each time the season fully changes. Have them check for open seams, the fit of the sound post, and any other old cracks that may have opened up.
The MOST common problem in winter time is caused from the dryness brought about by running our indoor heaters. There are several things you can do to mitigate this problem, and most of them involve humidifying your case. Here are some ideas:
- Buy “Dampits” for your violin. These are spongy tubes that hold water, and you stick them in the f-holes. The problem is, people get lazy and forget to keep them wet, and so it’s even worse because the violin gets a little moisture, and then it goes away, and then you wet them again, and then it dries out. So, if you do this, you MUST get in the habit of wetting the sponges. These must be used with care.
- Make a “case dampit” for your violin, or simply use “Dampits” in your case instead of sticking them in your f-holes. To make a case dampit, simply take a pill bottle, or a 35mm film canister, poke some holes in it with a drill or ice pick, cut a sponge about to the size and shape of the container, wet it, ring it out, and stick it in the container, then put the container in your case. Same as the “Dampits”, you MUST keep it consistently wet all winter.
- Buy “Bentonite Clay”, an idea from my student Keiko. Bentonite Clay has unique moisture retaining properties, it stores moisture, and releases it when the air is dry. I have a feeling the moisture in this would last longer than in a sponge. You keep the clay in a little cloth bag and stick it in your case! There are some who claim that bentonite clay is messy and risky to valuable instruments, so use this with caution.
- You can get a humidifier for your practice room or home, but that is less consistent, because you have to take your violin places (usually) and that means leaving your humidity behind.
The second most common problem is caused by going from hot and dry indoor conditions, to FREEZING outdoor conditions, then back to hot and dry. All the back and forth causes little expansions and contractions in the wood and glue, and this causes seams to open, sound posts seem too tight (or even too loose), and instruments can just freak out a little. There is little you can do for this problem, except to MINIMIZE the time you are outside in freezing temps. You can also buy high grade cases that are insulated and have better zippers and seals on them to help keep out the cold. There are thermal “cases for cases”, an outer layer you can put your violin case INSIDE, which also helps to retain a constant temperature inside your case until you can get from outside back inside.
The bow is a whole ‘nuther story. Horsehair really shows fluctuations in humidity. Every time I go to Flagstaff for symphony rehearsal, I loosen my bow about 4 times during rehearsal, as my bow adjusts from Kingman moisture to Flagstaff dryness! WHEN YOU GET YOUR BOW REHAIRED: Tell the bow person about your climate. Also, tell them if the current hair was TOO SHORT, or TOO LONG. You should have enough “play” in your bow nut to allow for all of your weather needs. If they cut your hair TOO SHORT, then your only choice is to get it rehaired, because it will ruin your bow if it stays tight (despite the nut being loosened) If the hair is too LONG, well, you still have to take it into the shop, but at least they can still use your same hair, they just trim it, and it will still cost you, but not as much. I have a really cheap bow with the hair TOO SHORT, and I refuse to pay for a re-hair, which would cost more than the bow, so I’m going to cut a notch out of the thumb leather, to allow the bow to loosen properly.
When the weather tightens up your horse hair, if you don’t correct the problem, it will warp your bow; and if it alarmingly tight, (for instance where the bow starts to look more like an archery bow…..), don’t mess around. Remove the screw, and release your frog from the stick until you can get to a shop. Some people will try to “re-humidify” the bow in order to stretch the horse hair, but this can invite disaster.
The presence of both humidity AND pressure (tightness) at the same time is a perfect recipe to WARP your bow. If your bow is tight, and you try to humidify it to loosen the hair, your good intentions could cause your bow to warp–exactly what you are trying to avoid! If your bow is unable to loosen, follow my advice above and remove the frog from the stick until you can get it rehaired.
Winter presents its challenges, but once you know what to expect, you can anticipate and adapt to any changes in weather reasonably well.
I Live in Central America, Belize and instead of winter we have a very wet rainy season. Belize is considered a very humid country. I do not own dampits, Bentonite Clay, a Humidifier or any thing else. Neither do I live close to a music store, and buying online is expensive and it takes forever to get here. I have noticed though that when I leave my violin in an air conditioned room the bow tightens horribly and my family members insist they didn’t tighten it. What should I do if I don’t live near a bow rehair shop either? How can I protect my violin?
Aha, Melanie. I have just the trick.
I once had a luthier rehair my bow on the East coast, and when I got back to the desert of the West, SLURP….my bow hair dried out and my expensive bow was permanently tightened.
Well, I didn’t want to get a new rehair after I had just paid $60 for this one, so I cut a little notch out of the thumb leather, (carefully with an exacto blade) just enough to allow my bow frog (the ebony part) slide a little bit into the leather.
Of course, eventually, I had to replace the thumb leather….but I have to do that every 4-5 years anyway.
Do you understand the operation I am talking about?
You know on the ebony where your THUMB contacts the bow? That little part gets stopped by the leather when the hair is too short….
Air conditioners suck humidity out….unless it’s a swamp cooler, which I am certain you do not use down there!
That’s why when you are driving in a rain storm and the windows get super foggy, it’s better to turn on the A/C with the defrost instead of the heat….because that air conditioning sucks the water vapor right out.
Let me know if you don’t understand.
That will at least take the pressure off your bow stick, and then when you get a rehair next, tell the bow person to lengthen the hair a couple millimeters.
I wonder if cigar humidor technology would be useful here, too?
In my desktop humidor, I use a type of “dampit” as well as a tiny humidity gauge so I always know exactly how much ambient moisture is in the cedar box. Both items are inexpensive in any cigar shop and take up very little space.
Here in New Orleans, fluctuating humidity is a constant concern, especially during the months of hurricane season. I was recently gifted a 100 year old fiddle and am deeply grateful for all your notes on tenderly caring for stringed instruments.
YES! The humidor is useful for tracking your humidity. That combined with your “dampit” is all you should need for your new old fiddle! The most important factor of all is CONSISTENCY. If you can’t be consistent, it’s better to not even start messing with it.
Congrats on the fiddle….I hope you will enjoy it!
Thanks for these tips, Lora! Our violins can be fickle little things, huh? Just re-watered my dampit after reading this. It was long overdue.
Do you like to store your instrument in a different area of your home than in the warmer months?
My violin is a modern instrument (1999), so it’s not too terribly fussy, and it has been in desert dryness its whole life, so no. I sort of leave it to fend for itself….in my studio, a space heater…..it’s terrible, but my violin does ok despite it. (I learned all I know about winter care from my friends who all have old instruments!)