It's a dangerous time for instruments

February 21, 2015 at 06:50 AM · It's a bad time for wooden instruments in much of the US. Currently, where I live, it is -21 F. Even way down south in Kentucky, it is 0 to minus 10 degrees.

Relative humidity (which controls the moisture content of wood) relates to temperature more than to the type of heating system used. In Louisville, the current outdoor temperature is 0, and the outdoor relative humidity is 75%. When this air is heated to 70 degrees, the relative humidity drops below 5%. Very dangerous, unless you are adding supplemental moisture.

Replies (29)

February 21, 2015 at 12:54 PM · What can happen to an instrument under these conditions ? Is there a danger of the belly and the back splitting ?

February 21, 2015 at 12:59 PM · The whole fiddle might 'splode. That's why they dont let 'em on planes.

We had a cold snap here too, but I dont think that the humidity is too low, at least in the house, because my lips are not chapped. But we also have whole-house humidification.

February 21, 2015 at 03:02 PM · In Paris, its cold and damp,my students' and my own fiddles sound awful!

February 21, 2015 at 03:29 PM · We have also had an awful winter for 'sound' violin and my bassoon reeds are each having issues...

I have been considering -21 C it is -30 C ...and with the windchill feels more like -40 C (which is -40 F).

February 21, 2015 at 04:23 PM · I have officially threatened my violin if it continues to pop the pegs. I have globs of the peg compound applied but I'll never move the pegs come Summer!

February 21, 2015 at 04:31 PM · When I was a student in Cincinnati, winter humidity would usually be around 10%. My violin's seams would regularly pop open, even while using two dampits. My teacher suggested I keep a dampened new clean sponge inside an open plastic sandwich baggie in the case. That worked better, but still...

Here in The Ham it was in the high 20s yesterday, with sporadic sleeting. Not the usual, but, thankfully, it will be about 60 today, with rain. My violin sounds miserable.

Louisville is indeed getting very nasty weather, although I hear it is worse in the rest of the state. Although not a native, I grew up in Louisville. So, on behalf of my home city, David, please keep that Yankee weather up north, where it belongs. Thanks. :)

February 21, 2015 at 08:07 PM · It is a dangerous time for musicians as well!

-38C with windchill the other night and continuous cold wave for many, many days.

@ home always at least 40% humidity. I try to avoid dry places whenever I can.

Please, please do not EVER leave your instruments inside your car, even for a few minutes.

February 21, 2015 at 09:22 PM · How did Stadivari survive the first couple hundred years without humidity control?

February 21, 2015 at 10:57 PM · full of shrinkage cracks.

February 22, 2015 at 06:45 AM · I'm definitely concerned and have been taking measures in the case and in my home. But even after some recent Googling, I'm still a bit confused about the difference between and among relative humidity, absolute humidity, and dew point. Which should we be most concerned with? Which is usually measured by hydrometers? Why - at least in my experience - is there so much variance in comparing some hydrometers

whereas thermometers tend to be in close agreement?

I tend to rely on a digital hydrometer that I have, and surprisingly, I find that there is a lot of agreement between that and Dampit strips. The ones built into some cases seem almost random. I sometimes think that on a practical level, a bow's hairs give the most reliable indication - as they tend to tighten and loosen by themselves as the humidity changes - although it depends on the hair length to begin with.

February 22, 2015 at 09:22 AM · Though many of my compatriots will complain about the rainy weather, as a fiddle-player I am darned lucky to live in a part of the UK where the textile industry flourished - perpetually damp enough so that the cotton fibres didn't snap in those satanic weaving-sheds.

News from the USA that one should change the sound-post several times a year, and alarmist warnings about plummeting humidity, amazes us over here.

I have fiddles that have set-ups undisturbed for 20 years !

February 22, 2015 at 10:29 AM · Raphael, it is RELATIVE humidity which relates most closely to the water content of wood, and this is what hygrometers generally display.

Absolute humidity refers to how much water (by weight) a given amount of air contains. Dew point refers to the temperature at which the air is holding all the water it can, and the moisture will begin to condense as a liquid, or dew.

The latter two can be converted to relative humidity if one also knows the temperature, and does some calculations.

Why are many hygrometers so inaccurate? I don't know. My guess is that most consumers don't have an easy way to check them, so manufacturers can get away with it. I like to show this photo of a number of hygrometers side-by-side to illustrate the problem. You can see that readings vary from 40 to 75%. (I didn't include some I have that don't respond to humidity changes at all).

February 22, 2015 at 10:43 AM · "FYI, Kentucky ain't "way down south".

Dixie Land is WAY down south."

We Northerners figure the dividing line for "way down south" is where people start talkin' funny. :-)


"What can happen to an instrument under these conditions ? Is there a danger of the belly and the back splitting?"

Yes, it's when we see the most "spontaneous" damage of this type. As the moisture content goes down, the wood becomes dimensionally smaller, and also less flexible and more brittle.


"How did Stadivaris survive the first couple hundred years without humidity control?"

They didn't, exactly. Most have had many many repairs over the years (even if the the restorer managed to make the repairs "invisible"). I don't know of a single Stradivari without repaired cracks, and many more have had periodic extensive restorations.

February 22, 2015 at 02:32 PM · Thanks, David. BTW, "way down south" really refers to my current home in Coney Island! (At least relative to NYC)

February 22, 2015 at 07:09 PM · I have a question concerning humidity while on the subject.

Some violins like a humid environment and some don't. For example, Humidity here in the wilderness of Cyprus has been in the high 70's for the past couple of months with temperatures around 14C.

My violin didn't like this and now that humidity dropped down to 45-50% (temperature remaining constant),the violin's tone has improved. With a friend's violin the opposite is true.

Wood is hygroscopic, thus it follows that all violins made of wood should respond the same way with fluctuations in humidity when temperatures are constant.

February 22, 2015 at 07:50 PM · Kypros, moisture content changes the mass and the flexibility of the wood. A violin which is a little too stiff and light might sound best when the moisture level is high. A violin which is a little too heavy and flexible might sound best when the moisture level is low.

For makers, this can be used as a crude diagnostic tool.

February 22, 2015 at 08:38 PM · "A violin which is a little too heavy and flexible might sound best when the moisture level is low."

Interesting. A maker told me he MIGHT use the internal coating as Sacconi alleged was used by Stradivari if the wood was soft.

I think that Vernce Bianca, made of albumen, gum arabic & honey, would be what he had in mind.

Could some such treatment have been used to affect the water-absorbtion by a softish wood ?

NB one of my violns was alleged to have been treated in this way, but living as I do in a temperate zone with fairly constant humidity I would be unlikely to notice the difference !!

February 22, 2015 at 10:37 PM · Most coatings only slow the exchange of water vapor slightly, and don't eliminate it. Some coatings even accelerate it!

Three of the most effective vapor barriers are aluminum paint containing flakes of actual aluminum, aluminum foil, and a thick coating of wax (as from being dipped in molten wax). For some reason, none of these has become wildly popular with violin makers or their customers. ;-)

February 22, 2015 at 10:55 PM · except on their honeymoon....

February 22, 2015 at 11:10 PM · I thought latex was for honeymoons...

February 23, 2015 at 05:16 AM · Thanks for the warning! I pulled my violin out this morning and it was not a happy instrument - and I live in a very mild area compared to some of you folks! It had come untuned overnight (very rare) and was squawky and very dry sounding. The hygrometer in my case didn't seem to say it was much dryer than usual, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it's broken, or at least not performing up to snuff.

Of course I immediately thought of this discussion! I popped an apple slice in an open plastic bag into the case for the night (that usually keeps him pretty happy).

February 23, 2015 at 07:52 AM · Robin,

If you put the violin inside a silk bag, it will slow down changes in humidity.

This is what I do and the violin is perfectly in tune every time I take it out of the bag.

February 23, 2015 at 07:56 AM · It was rumoured that a few years ago a local orchestral principal 'cellist took to using a CARBON FIBRE instrument. Colleagues disapproved, but was there a "sound" basis for doing so ?

According to a prominent manufacturer of CF instruments:-

"(such) instruments are used throughout the world by many of the finest players in world class orchestras, crossover popular artists, and musicians from every walk of life who value powerful sound, pure pitch, and exquisite craftsmanship."

Is this the way to go, if you live in a problem area ? During inclement times your "fine" instrument could be taken to a temperature and humidity controlled storage facility. If the demand arose, enterprising business folk would be quick to establish these.

Fail to pay the fees, though, and your instruments would wind up being auctioned off on the telly, Brandon and Lori among the bidders .....

February 23, 2015 at 09:33 AM · I did read, I think in the New Scientist, that much of the effect of weather on violin sound is due to pectin still left in the wood, and if this has been removed by exposure to weather (perhaps before the wood was stored) the effect is reduced.

Mind you, violin longevity is a different issue.

February 23, 2015 at 07:27 PM · Here in Canada one commonly gets the saddle area and the neck area "released" to prevent cracking due to humidity changes.

Just a 1/10th to 2/10th of a mm sliver of wood is being removed.

Please ask your luthier to do this - DIY may leave a bigger

hole. ( One can rub some black or brown crayon in any excessively wide space but it isn't recommended to create a big space in the first place).

February 23, 2015 at 10:04 PM · Thanks kypros for the suggestion! That's really interesting - do you think it's the bag or the silk that does most of the work?

I've found out of all the methods the apple slice works best for me. It keeps both me and the violin healthy as I usually finish off the apple after giving a slice to the violin. :)

February 23, 2015 at 10:49 PM · Robin,

A silk bag has the quality of insulating whatever is put in it. A bag made of other materials will not have the same effect, unless it's purpose made.

I've heard of using a slice of apple to humidify cigars, but not violins.

I would guess that in extreme cases, a slice of apple will not be sufficient. I use a precipitube (gel) humidifier in extreme conditions and the usual case humidifier in less severe conditions.

But believe me, using a silk bag is a must.

You can buy them at most music shops and they are not that expensive.

February 24, 2015 at 01:51 PM · I believe that most if not all commercially available bags are made of satin or something similar to it. Does anyone know if this has similar properties to natural silk?

February 24, 2015 at 04:17 PM · "Here in Canada one commonly gets the saddle area and the neck area "released" to prevent cracking due to humidity changes."


Ideally, an instrument is originally made this way so the job doesn't need to be done later.

In the photo below, pieces of waxed paper have been inserted to better illustrate the gap at each end of the saddle (it's almost invisible otherwise), which allows for different rates of expansion and contraction. .

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music: Check out our selection of Celtic music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Thomastik-Infeld's Dynamo Strings
Thomastik-Infeld's Dynamo Strings

National Symphony Orchestra
National Symphony Orchestra

Violins of Hope
Violins of Hope Summer Music Programs Directory
Find a Summer Music Program Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

ARIA International Summer Academy

Borromeo Music Festival

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine