Right now, wet and damp and cold are very much on all our minds. When will it stop raining? And what effect does the climate have on our instruments?
Most stringed Instruments survive well in Auckland’s temperate climate if they’re being played often – taken out of their cases and exposed to body warmth, fresh air and ambient temperatures. While we Aucklanders lament our lack of central heating and air conditioning, its absence does rule out excessive dryness, one of the major threats to any wooden object.
Wood normally absorbs a certain amount of moisture from the air, but when the air is dry, the wood can dry out too, and shrink. Which means your precious violin, viola, cello or double bass can crack, usually up or down from an “f” hole.
This is a particularly dangerous problem if you’re on an aeroplane for any length of time, where the average humidity is well below safe levels, at less than 20%.
A safe level for wooden musical instruments is between 50% and 60%, so you can see what the problem is. Increasing the humidity inside the closed case is key, and there are several brands of humidifiers commercially available, including Dampits – most of them look like big green worms!
But too much moisture can also be a problem, especially if you are not playing your instrument often and you have left it in a cold, damp part of the house. Water dissolves animal glue, the glue used to assemble all the 70-plus parts your instrument is made of. And with damp comes mould. If mould gets into the glue, it doesn’t just soften it, it can destroy its ability to hold your instrument together.
Keep the violin and its case away from the southern end of your house, and avoid any cupboards, wardrobes or “under-the-bed” storage areas close to “outside” walls – those where the outside world, cold, bleak and wet, is just on the other side of the wall.
Check the instrument regularly, and if you are not going to play it for a while, lower the string tension by at least a semitone, if not more. The main thing is to keep enough pressure to hold the bridge and the soundpost in place, but release enough tension to keep the strain on vulnerable parts of the instrument low.