David Burgess on Humidity and Hygrometers

October 23, 2019, 10:30 AM · It's that time of year--we all need to be aware of maintaining proper humidity. Here is everything we need to know:


Replies (12)

Edited: October 31, 2019, 12:02 AM · Thanks Erin for reminding us all. I for one use the one room control approach, it does work well for me.
October 23, 2019, 11:17 PM · I bought one of the little case humidity meters from David, and have been very pleased by its very high degree of accuracy. (My local HVAC guy is shocked by how precise it is.)
October 24, 2019, 4:59 AM · The use of hygrometers and room/house humidifiers/dehumidifiers is all well and good and can hopefully keep our instruments from cracking or having joints let go.

How did people before the advent of all this technology keep their instruments properly humidified? From all the 100 and 200 year old and older violins still around today, it's obvious that it was possible to keep string instruments safe without technology to help us.

How did they do it? Did they even think about it?

October 24, 2019, 5:07 AM · In the UK and (I suppose) most of the rest of Europe humidity stays within reasonable bounds. I've never given it a single thought and currently play a 200-year-old instrument that appears to have developed just one crack in the table all its life
Edited: October 24, 2019, 5:30 AM · Hi,

David Bailey, you bring up an excellent point. My thoughts and experience is that violins like all things made of wood don't like sudden changes. Living in Canada, I am not partial to humidity things inside the violin or case for the simple reason that in freezing weather, water freezes into ice very quickly, expands and can easily cause damage. I do have a home humidifier, which I keep at a reasonable level in the winter (not too high) as heading out, many concert halls are bone dry and the shocks can be extreme. I do often get bows rehaired for winter with a different length of hair if it is cold and drier to adapt. Better to flow with nature than fight it.

Maybe it is different in a more temperate climate, but here, it's pretty extreme...


Edited: October 24, 2019, 8:52 AM · David Bailey, most instruments that date from an era before good climate control, and which were kept in places that didn't have a mild Mediterranean-equivalent climate, ended up cracking. (And probably needed to have seams periodically re-glued. Seams coming open doesn't damage the instrument as long as they're promptly fixed.)

The 100+ year old fiddles still with us are the ones whose cracks were repairable, thus resulting in the instrument continuing to be preserved. It's very rare to see 200+ year old instruments that haven't had cracks.

Well-repaired cracks are invisible to the casual observer.

October 24, 2019, 9:11 AM · I have one of the Burgess hygrometers (thanks, David!), and find it entertaining to watch the humidity swing wildly depending on whether the breeze comes from the ocean or the desert (here on the So. Calif. coast). However, I'm too lazy to try to get control of things with humidifiers and such. The wood pegs pop loose in the dry spells, but as yet I haven't seen any cracks develop, nor any seams open up. Thus far, the only open seams have been due to sweaty hands and chins.
Edited: October 24, 2019, 4:54 PM · David Bailey asked:
"How did people before the advent of all this technology keep their instruments properly humidified? From all the 100 and 200 year old and older violins still around today, it's obvious that it was possible to keep string instruments safe without technology to help us."

David, most people have no idea of the carnage and extensive repairs many old instruments have undergone. We luthiers can often find extensive past repairs on instruments which a casual observer would think are pristine.

By the way, I am not the one who started this thread, but I do think it was good advice from Erin on minimizing "spontaneous" damage to an instrument.

Edited: October 24, 2019, 7:44 PM · I live in a hot, dry climate, with the summer about to make itself known to us. I use two hygrometers, and right now they claim the relative humidity is 45% or 44%, take your pick. (And, as David Burgess wrote, both might be some considerable amount off target.)

The manufactures of these two hygrometers both claim their instruments are accurate to 5%. Therefore, I aim to keep my studio in the range 45% - 55%, believing that my cello will cope nicely between 40% and 60%.

I do use a snake, and I will rethink that, having read David's article.

In my studio I also keep a 15L bucket of water, under a table, to evaporate as required.

I also use a room humidifier, a Buerur LR330, which appears to do an excellent job, according to its controls, and the two widely spaced hygrometers I use.

My cello has had opened seams in the past, and my luthier urged me to a) keep the instrument in the case when it was not being played; b) keep the bucket of water in place; c) use a small atomiser to puff one very faint spray of mist into the cello on extreme days.

A touring cellist wrote that he would keep his cello in its case in the hotel room bathroom and drape a damp towel over his cello case when staying in hotels.

All in all, I want to say that in my experience, hot, dry weather has a significant impact on both my cellos, and the matter of controlling relative humidity is to be taken seriously where I live.

Thank you, Erin, and David Burgess, for "flashing the orange light" about this matter.

Edited: October 25, 2019, 1:04 AM · Just a word about the in-case hygrometers… Most don't work or are inaccurate due to their placement (fully flush with no airflow), low quality, or improper calibration.

Those that do work however are measuring the relative humidity inside the case, not of your room, especially if you leave your case closed most of the time.

Some cases have in fact hygroscopic lining materials, which aid in stabilizing the rH inside by absorbing moisture or releasing it depending on the amount of contrast of conditions within the case and outside of it.

That means that even if you leave your case open all the time an accurate in-case hygrometer will react more slowly to changes of rH than one placed independently in the room.

Edited: October 25, 2019, 9:29 AM · Violins don't crack until they do, and then you lose significant value as well as compromise the structure and possibly the sound (depending on where the crack is located). David Burgess outlines easy and effective methods to control and monitor humidity inexpensively.

I started out with his hygrometer, then added the controller and now use the complete system. It came pre-programmed, is dead simple to use, and effective. A side benefit is that the sound and adjustment remains more consistent throughout seasons.

October 30, 2019, 7:54 PM · I checked out the website, it looks like the plug-in controller will work with pretty much any humidifier? I have one from last year but it doesn't have it's own hygrometer or really any automatic settings.

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