Extreme instrument danger!

Edited: January 31, 2019, 3:02 AM · If you live in the area which is experiencing record cold, do what you can to keep the humidity up to a reasonable level.

Where I live, it is currently -18 F, and the outside humidity is 70%. That means that when this air is brought inside and heated to 70 F, the relative humidity inside will be below 2%.

Why does it matter? When we have cold conditions like this, it is followed by repair people getting a flood of crack repairs.

If you don't have proper humidification equipment (which you should), it will help slightly to put the instrument in a cooler place. For example, in a 50 degree room, the relative humidity will be 4% rather than 2%. That's still horrible, but better than nothing.

Replies (23)

Edited: January 31, 2019, 3:16 AM · Tips from someone for whom this is standard fair:

1. Your instrument now lives in it's case (It already does, right?)

2. After moving buildings with your instrument, give it a few minutes in the case to warm back up. I like to unzip (but leave closed the case) for 10-15 minutes to let it get 'used to' the new room temperature before snapping it open and tuning up.

3. Accept the fact that your pegs are going to do weird things no matter how well and professionally fitted.

4. Don't store it near a window - much like heat in the summer in the winter you're going to get a cold draft from incorrectly insulated windows. Normally up here we will put plastic sheeting over our windows, but folks down your way probably haven't prepared for winter that way.

January 31, 2019, 6:35 AM · Thank you for that David...
January 31, 2019, 7:38 AM · Thanks for this, David. Up here in Boston it's around -10 F - I'll be sure to keep this in mind.
January 31, 2019, 7:57 AM · Wow. I'd been keeping my violin outside on these -30° nights, and with blotting paper in the case as well to make sure it doesn't get too moist. With this new information in mind, I'll be sure to find a new place for it.
January 31, 2019, 10:29 AM · Thank god it's only been 25 degrees in Oklahoma.
January 31, 2019, 11:01 AM · I run an evaporative humidifier in the room my violin is stored in, and use Stretto humidifying packs in my case. I'd been using a Dampit, but took it out for a performance and decided that my violin doesn't need it in there for now. My hygrometer (the humidity gauge) says the humidity percentage is in the 40-50% range, which is pretty good I'd say - considering!

January 31, 2019, 2:55 PM · My model airplane fleet is kept in an insulated shed with sealed seams and door, double HVAC systems with humidifiers and dehumidifiers, each system completely separate from the other, even plugged in to two different circuits from the board. The shed is kept in a corner of a shop away from wind and water. Some of my planes are 50+ years old and still look good. They used to win antique R/C competitions when I played that game.

Doesn't cost much to use the smallest equipment available, hooked to self-filling supplies and drainage, with electric controls. Regular household components will keep temperature 60-70*F, humidity 40-60% in a semi-protected location. Perfect for wooden violins. Probably less than $1000 at today's prices, a small price to pay to protect a back-up or restoration project, especially since many violins, home restoration projects, will be valued at $100,000 or more when complete, and every one of those is stored in a room set up with the same climate control functions.

January 31, 2019, 3:11 PM · Even with a whole-house humidifier system that is installed next to my practice room, I'm still not getting a humidity level above 27% to 28% (with a house temperature of 70 degrees).

Any thoughts on this?

Edited: January 31, 2019, 3:26 PM · We have just had a dip to -30C (with windchill) in Toronto, while same parts of Canada went as low as -50C!
Even 10 minutes spent outside presents a real danger to your instrument if you fancy a BAM fiberglass case with no thermal protection. The only way to protect your instrument is to use a "matryoshka" system of many layers of insulation; violin in a silk bag, in a case inside a violin winter cover inside a blanket inside a viola winter cover. Plan your trip and never ever leave your instrument inside your car! Humidify your home and practice room; if nothing helps, spray the curtains with water, or let the wet towel hang. Measure humidity like you have an OCD.
January 31, 2019, 5:07 PM · Excellent point and warning David. Where I live those temps along with very low humidity levels are common for our winters and prudent musicians have learned the big "pay now or pay later" cliché. Invest in adequate humidity control for your instruments or pay dearly later. Our summers can be just as bad with average humidity levels of 15 to 20%.
January 31, 2019, 8:13 PM · What can happen to a violin in low humidity? I guess I've been lucky--I did nothing to maintain humidity while I played through Chicago winters--and nothing happened to my violin.
January 31, 2019, 8:16 PM · I live in Denver, and we have humidity like this several times a year. Fortunately my whole house humidifier is up to the task, and I monitor humidity daily with devices calibrated by David himself.
January 31, 2019, 8:30 PM · Low humidity can crack a violin.

I had issues with seams opening when I lived in Chicago.

Edited: February 1, 2019, 5:08 AM · It was once common to get ribs shortened on old violins in the US. Central heating shrank top and bottom lengthwise, but the ribs stayed about the same size.

I am away from my old instruments now, but left them in good cases with humidifier gel packs inside. (49%). Should be OK, unless the packs dry out and crystallize.

Edited: February 1, 2019, 3:56 PM · In the place we used to live, we had an underfloor heating - and a wooden floor. What a stupid idea! In winter the wood of the floor shrinked and huge gaps between the planks opened. Not only that it looked untidy, the extremely dried out wood seemed to absorb any moisture one would add! Even with a huge humidifier in the living room = practice room it was absolutely impossible to keep humidity above 35%. Without the humidifier it went down below 20% in winter, record was 12% but I'm not sure how exact my hygrometers are working in this range. The only good days were when the floor was wet mopped, but one cannot soak the floor on an everyday basis "only" to maintain a room climate healthy for violin and violinist. Yes, it's not only a problem for wooden objects, it isn't healthy at all for us humans as well.
Although I seem to own healthy instruments which never suffered any crack or open seams, the slipping pegs in winter are a pain. And my main violin (interestingly not so much my viola) looses a lot of it's balance and smooth roundness when it gets dry - it's tonewise optimum is somewhere around 55-60%, and if it goes below 45% it begins to moan. I swear I can tell the relative humidity by the sound of this violin, with tolerance below 5%.

Since we moved to another place (in the same town) the situation has improved a bit. It's am old building with thick brick walls and normal radiators under the windows. Humidity now may go down to 30% now, but not below. With a bit of humidification I can keep it around 40% in the room the instruments are stored.

Additionally to the room humidifier, I use a stretto case humidifier in each of my wooden Negri cases. I fix it with velcro on the leather strap which holds the SR so it nicely sits under the neck, near the pegbox. For proper humidity in the case, the Stretto alone definitely isn't enough in my winter environment. But it helps a lot in preventing the pegs from slipping, and as long as I don't forget to soak the humidity pack every three or four days they're always tuning smoothly now.

BTW, if you're using a case humidifier it is crucial to close the lid, even if the instrument is out for playing.

February 1, 2019, 4:49 PM · Agreed. The case and materials can serve as a moisture reservoir and buffer, and that reservoir can be quickly depleted if the case is left open.
February 2, 2019, 10:23 AM · Just to be a party pooper, here's a list of things that can happen due to low humidity: plate can crack, seams can open, fingerboard can detach, and of course pegs slip and strings unwind. Bridge dries out too, and if it's not kept perpendicular to the top plate by adjustment after tunings, the bridge can fall and crack. I have seen all this stuff happen to me and/or friends who think that their houseplants release enough humidity to sustain their violin/viola/cello. BTW, the hygrometer in your case is probably wrong, according to Mr. Burgess's excellent article on humidification:


February 2, 2019, 11:27 AM · Erin, agreed, as in an older thread on hygrometers, that on average most case mounted ones are inaccurate, but that is easily remediable by periodically buying one of the Boveda (or comparable) hygrometer calibration kits and recalibrating your hygrometer, as long as it is capable of being adjusted.

I have an Oasis Caliber IV that has proven to be very accurate and stable. I test it periodically with a Boveda kit and over the past year have only had to tweak it once, and that was due to my OCD because it was only a point or two off.

Don't forget that your wood bow is subject to the same effects of humidity levels as the violin, not to mention wood tailpieces, of which I have seen one crack during a particularly cold and dry spell we had several years ago, given it was over 80yrs old, yet many of us have vintage tailpieces that old or older.

Edited: February 2, 2019, 5:26 PM · Timothy, it definitely wasn't installed perfectly, but I think this is another story. I believe the main issue was the combination with the wooden floor. David described how the wooden violin case can serve as a moisture reservoir and buffer, and so can any larger quantity of wood (like a floor) serve for a whole room. But when you expose this wood to a permanent heat drying process, it will absorb any moisture you will add via a humidifier. And a 40 square meter wooden floor can absorb some moisture, I'm telling you! One could see it, the largest gaps in the floor were about 5mm - and closed immediately after wet mopping. But opened again the very next day. So if you're going for a heated floor, cover it with stone or tiling, and you'll be fine.
Having said that, I have to admit that I enjoyed the cosy warm feet in winter, too. But anyone suffering from varicositas will tell you the opposite. And btw, our room temperature was preset to 19°C.
Not all instruments are the same. On other instruments I didn't experience it that strongly, but on this very specific violin it's extraordinary obvious. Probably David could be able to tell us more about it, if it depends on the thickness or tension of the top plate or whatever. At least I could compensate the effect a bit with lower tension strings, like Obligato, but I prefer keeping humidity high enough if any possible. (In our previous home with that humidity problem I felt my violin dry out within two hours outside the case! I had two Stretto humidifiers inside and had to refill them every other day - the wooden cases breathe...)

Erin, to be honest I never calibrated any of my hygrometers. But when I leave my two Negri cases open, the difference between the two hygrometers isn't noticable. I use two digital hygrometers to monitor the room climate, one TFA Dostmann 30.5005 and one Stretto (which is identical with the Dostmann, except the "Stretto" printing on it and it's price). The two digital hygrometers show exactly the same, and are about 2% lower than the two mechanical ones. For me this was coincidence enough to believe they wouldn't go off that far. But not really evidence based...

February 4, 2019, 10:05 AM · Mr. Smith: I am so glad you asked! NO! Never spray water at or in your violin or case.
Relative humidity is the amount of water VAPOR (gaseous state of water) in the air compared to the maximum the air can hold at a given temperature. Water from a spray bottle is not vapor, it is water droplets. You need a humidifier to provide water vapor. I use an evaporative humidifier; it uses 2-3 gallons of water daily to produce 30-40% relative humidity in the apartment.

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