The Dangers of Dry Weather: Humidify Your Violin

November 6, 2019, 6:16 PM · A dry environment can play all kinds of bad tricks on a stringed instrument such as a violin, viola, cello or bass.

humidifiers

I experienced this recently in California, with an extreme bout of dry weather that had all the surrounding mountains burning. The humidity hovered around 10 percent for nearly a week, and one day in the neighboring mountains it measured an alarming 0 percent.

My violin freaked out. Over the course of just one day, every single peg slipped - completely let go, sending me scrambling to re-wind and tune string after string. And once a peg slips that badly, the string tends to act rather offended about the whole incident for several days, losing its tension more easily than normal.

The same scenario repeated with each of my 16 students; nearly all of them came in with at least one string completely devoid of tension. Some of my younger students didn't know what was going on - one family actually went to the violin store mid-week to ask, "Why are the strings falling off?!"

Well let's answer that question: Why do pegs slip? Unless they are a geared pegs, they stay in place simply through friction: the peg is jammed into a hole which allows it to fit tightly enough to stick. Pegs are typically made of one of three kinds of wood: ebony, rosewood, or boxwood. The scroll and pegbox, in which the pegs are jammed, are typically made of another kind of wood: maple. When the humidity or temperature changes or becomes extreme, these different woods shrink and expand at different rates. Thus the hole that was custom-shaped to hold the peg in place suddenly become a different size from the peg, and -- whoosh! The peg loses its grip, releasing the pressure and allowing the string to unwind until all tension is gone and the string is completely lax. Another cause is that the lubricant (often "peg dope") that both greases and holds that friction, simply dries out and stops working.

Low humidity can also affect parts of the instrument, and the bow, as it generally causes wood to shrink. For the violin (or viola, cello, bass..) dryness can cause seams to come unglued and cracks to emerge. Tiny cracks that were barely noticeable might grow, and old repaired cracks might re-surface.

It's bad news for bows as well. A hairline fracture in the wood of the bow -- never noticeable before -- might simply give way. This also happened to one of my students in the last week: the bow simply broke from the regular tension. It was sitting on a table at the time, not even in his hand, and it snapped.

Sometimes the dry weather comes from outside, but in the winter, it can also can come from inside. When your heater kicks on during colder weather, that can create dry conditions inside your home, depending on how much you humidify. Here's another place where you will encounter low humidity: flying in an airplane.

So what can you do to prevent the problems that come with dry air? Humidify!

There are several ways to do this. First, try humidifying the room. I use a simple cool mist humidifier, but there are plenty of options.

Second, humidify your violin case.

My Musafia case actually came with a humidifier: a plastic tube with many holes in it, filled with fabric. To use it, I immerse the tube in water so that the fabric absorbs the water, then I dry off the outside and place it inside my case. It just naturally releases the moisture into the air as that water evaporates from the fabric.

Of course, if you don't have a humidifier built into your case, you can buy one. One option that V.commies have recommended in the past is the Stretto, a Swiss-made system with a small microfiber bag that goes into a plastic case, which you simply place inside your violin case. It promises to humidify your case up to two weeks. And here is an entire page of humidifiers from SHAR.

A reminder for those who already have such systems: if you have not soaked your humidifier for three years, it will not humidify the case! In dry weather, you probably need to soak it every few weeks. When the air humidity generally is above 50 percent, you don't need to do this.

Of course, if you are going to humidify your case, it helps to be able to measure it. To measure the humidity in your case you need something called a "hygrometer." These can be round and old-fashioned, or digital, or even Bluetooth-connected so you can monitor your case at all times! Longtime Violinist.com member David Burgess recommends keeping the humidity in your case between 40 to 60 percent. Many, but not all, cases come with hygrometers. If your violin case has no hygrometer, you can always buy one from Shar or from Amazon or from your local violin shop.

Finally, you can actually humidify the instrument itself. The most common way to do this is with a dampit, which is a soft rubber tube with a sponge inside - it looks like a small green snake. You immerse it in water for about 20 seconds, dry it off, squeeze out any excess water, and then put the entire snake inside the fiddle, feeding it into the round part of the f-hole. This seems to scare a lot of people, the idea of putting something wet inside the fiddle, but most luthiers seem to be okay with it, and many recommend it.

I hope these ideas help you with balancing the humidity for your instrument - or maybe just remind you to attend to it! Also remember that if you have a "spare" violin or two - they also need humidity! Make sure the violin that is sitting around, not being used, is still getting the care it needs.

Note: Some of the links in the story above are Amazon Associate links; purchases made by following these links help support Violinist.com.

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Replies

November 7, 2019 at 07:21 AM · Thanks for the good advice, Laurie. I live on the San Francisco Peninsula, and the prevailing breeze almost always comes from the northwest, more rarely from the southwest, but in both cases it's coming off of the Pacific Ocean so extremely low humidity is a relatively rare event. But we recently had a few weeks of dry air moving from the east, and I had the same problem you did, with pegs popping loose. When that happens I feel a bit anxious about pushing my pegs back in too tightly, because the humidity is going to return, and a peg that's snug in dry air can become extremely tight when it absorbs that moisture back. A potential cracked cheek on your pegbox is a much more tragic event than a slipping peg.

And bows are at risk in low humidity not so much because of the wood drying out, but rather because the hair shrinks. If you're not paying attention the hair can shrink enough to overstress the stick, and breakage can result. During this recent dry period I found that I couldn't relax my bow hair completely, though the tension wasn't excessive to the point of being dangerous. If this becomes extreme, it can be a good idea to remove the bow screw and let the frog sit off the stick for the duration of the dry air, assuming that you don't have a humidification system.

November 7, 2019 at 07:47 AM · Excellent article as always, Laurie! I would only like to stress that an accurate hygrometer is necessary, as one that gives false readings is worse than none at all.

Digital is not synonymous with accuracy, and most digital hygrometers lose accuracy over time as the sensor gets dirty. The vast majority of dial-type hygrometers are likely imprecise and/or poorly calibrated, and some of the in-case hygrometers don't work at all because they are installed flush with no possiblity of air getting to them.

Our friend David Burgess can recommend the best hygrometers to purchase, as his research in the field is second to none.

November 7, 2019 at 06:07 PM · Great article, Laurie. Couple of comments:

(1) I recommend against "cool mist" humidifiers unless they are charged with distilled water because the water scale will deposit on everything in your room including instruments (but not if they are zipped into their cases because the scale particles will not diffuse through the case materials).

(2) Sometimes people think "cool mist" humidifiers consume a lot less energy because they are not heating the water, but that is an incorrect conclusion. The latent heat of vaporization must be applied to bring the water from the liquid state to the gaseous state, and this is either applied locally by the humidifier or more generally by the surrounding room air (which must then be re-heated by your home furnace). The number of BTUs expended is the same, but your furnace may be cheaper to operate per BTU than an electric water-boiler.

(3) As Dimitri says, measuring RH is fraught with peril as most of the little devices, whether analog or digital, are simply wrong. Case hygrometers are legendary for their inaccuracy. I have an idea -- a possible opportunity for the folks at Boveda or some other entrepreneur. The Boveda type humidistat is supposed to release or absorb water to maintain a certain level of RH. As such, the mass of the Boveda salt mixture should increase when placed in an environment of high RH and decrease in a low-RH environment. So it should be a simple matter for Boveda to design a device (just a porous container filled with one of their salt mixtures) that would sit inside your violin case or anywhere in your home, and then anytime you want to know the humidity, you would simply weigh the device and look up the RH on a chart provided by the manufacturer (the temperature will be important too). Any chemist will tell you that the gold-standard laboratory measurement is the mass of a sample. The question is whether the Boveda salt material undergoes a sufficient change in mass for this approach to be viable with the kinds of balances that consumers ordinarily have such as kitchen or postal scales. If the mass change is such that only a $4000 analytical balance will suffice, then obviously that's deal-breaking.

November 7, 2019 at 06:58 PM · Hello Laurie

It always amazes me the ordeal some people go through to care for their instruments.

I am proud to say that I have a permanent solution to all the humidity problems associated with string instruments.

www.prima-sonoro.com

Carbon fiber instruments don't require any humidity or maintenance what so ever. I have been building these instruments for the just over 7 year's, the sound quality is amazing while offering absolute peace of mind, whether you're playing in the rain or flying at 30 thousand feet.

November 7, 2019 at 07:56 PM · I suspect a standard milligram scale would suffice, which is generally much less expensive than its analytical +/- 0.0001 g brother.

November 7, 2019 at 11:42 PM · Mark you could be right. A few hours with some data and I'd probably have a good theoretical model but I don't have that few hours right now. Nor the data.

November 8, 2019 at 09:33 PM · The reason the pegs slip is not that the different woods expand and contract at different rates. The reason is that wood expands and contracts more cross-grain than long-grain with changes in humidity. Even pegs made from the same wood (maple) as the pegbox will slip when the environment becomes dryer.

November 9, 2019 at 03:47 PM · Here in Montana, it is always VERY dry. I never add humidity to my instrument because it is just used to dry, and the change would create problems. I think that the issue, more than anything, is change.If I travelled to somewhere humid, I'd have to start aclimating it ahead of time to avoid a sudden change in humidity

November 10, 2019 at 01:52 PM · Thank you doe your useful tips on humidity. Now only I understood the purpose of hygrometer in my Sandner violin box. Thank You.

Rosario Rajkumar Xavier Raja

India

November 11, 2019 at 12:28 AM · Boveda brand is the absolute best. Definitely worth checking out and comes highly recommended by renowned violinists.

November 12, 2019 at 10:02 PM · The ultimate result is having to learn to do your own work.

I've put necks back on fiddles twice, put the fingerboatd back on the neck once, opened up a fiddle and glued cracks (with hide glue of course). I don't carve those stupid cleats though -- I use engineered fabric embedded in hide glue, across the cracks.

I've carved bridges and soundposts too but only to get by. To get the best out of your fiddle you need someone who is more than a woodworker and thoughtful engineer--you need a wizard.

https://live.staticflickr.com/65535/49056356491_4ca6b27fa6_4k.jpg

https://live.staticflickr.com/65535/49055840098_6fabed4ce3_4k.jpg

November 12, 2019 at 11:27 PM · On the topic of carbon fiber instruments, a friend of mine is one of the two names in the first ever carbon fiber instruments. The first time it was played in public, on the way there from Boston, it was strapped on top and went through a torrential rainstorm on the way to Tanglewood. Tuned up played perfectly. Haha.

November 12, 2019 at 11:37 PM · Bo Pontoppidan mentioned grain. But his wording is also incorrect.

Wood has three principal axes, in a cylindrical coordinate system.

Grain direction (that's the length of the tree)

radial direction (that's woodpecker direction, from surface to center)

tangential direction (not a straight line but a circle, travelling along a circumference.

Wood barely moves in the grain direction--neither temperature nor humidity does much there.

But the difference between radial and tangential is significant with humidity. Not just a few percent but over 2:1. What happens is that the tangential shrink swell is much greater than the radial. This takes round things out of round--it makes round pegs eliptical.

November 13, 2019 at 06:25 PM · In India during summer season humidity will be only slightly lower than the optimum level of 40%.Then I will place the violin in comparatively more humid room of my house.

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