15% humidity

April 16, 2021, 5:59 PM · Here in Portland, we're going through a heatwave blended with very low humidity. At the moment the temperature is 80 and the humidity is 15%. I went to a park to play some tunes, but for the life of me, I couldn't get my violin to stay in tune. I don't have fine tuners on all the strings, so it was work with the pegs. They kept slipping. I know many of you live in climates where low humidity is rather common, while here in Portland, the land of rain, it's rather unique. I tried to get that violin in tune for about ten minutes, then gave up and went home. Any suggestions for a situation like this? Thanks.

Replies (32)

April 16, 2021, 6:51 PM · The humidity in my apartment in the winter is about 20%. I use Boveda packs on top of the blanket, centered over the pegbox. The required humidity is determined by the permeability of the case. In mine the 65% packs keep the humidity between 40 and 50%.

In such an extreme case as yours I would resort to a temporary solution of a piece of sponge soaked in water and not wrung out and put in the case near the peg box. I would put the sponge in place about 2 hours before playing and remove it after the playing session. Other people probably have much better solutions than this.

April 16, 2021, 9:31 PM · In such situations I have used a "Dampit" in my instrument.
I lived in the high Mojave Desert of California for 33 years and have played outdoors in situations whee the day's temperature had cooled to 100°F and the humidity was in single digits.

My instruments survived those desert years. I humidified our house year-round - but for playing either outdoors or in air conditioned spaces I always planned and prepared ahead. I did not have either fine tuners or geared pegs in those days. And when I moved there in 1962 I continued to have gut strings for the next 10 years.

April 16, 2021, 10:02 PM · Andrew, that is interesting because my Dampit was no help at all in keeping my pegs happy. I'm glad it works for other people.
April 16, 2021, 10:37 PM · With large temperature and humidity fluctuations your pegs will never be happy. Dampits really only affect the body of the instrument from the inside.

I know some pro violinists who use Dampits in their valuble instruments when they travel by air just to avoid the drying effect of the airplane atmosphere.

I never liked to use Dampits because they do put liquid water on the instrument's inner surfaces - but in the extreme environments I used them the moisture must have evaporated quickly.

I even played in a night-time outdoor orchestra concert in Death Valley back in the mid '60s (by the ranger station). Talk about a venue sucking sound!!!

April 17, 2021, 3:52 AM · If you put something in your case to add moisture, be sure to also keep an accurate hygrometer in the case to monitor the humidity level. Too much moisture isn't good either.
Edited: April 17, 2021, 7:09 AM · Geared pegs from Wittner : you will never have to worry about these sort of tuning problems ever again.

April 17, 2021, 10:45 AM · David, Yes, I have a hygrometer in there right next to the viola peg box in the double case. Even though I have the Wittner pegs on both instruments I use the humidification because I have discovered the instruments sound better when they are at a normal humidity. Is this just my imagination?
Edited: April 18, 2021, 3:48 AM · No, not just your imagination. Instruments will sound different with different amounts of water in the wood. I wouldn't take it over 70% RH though. In my shop, I use 60% as the upper limit, mostly because the resistance of wood to bending and permanent deformation is reduced as the relative humidity level increases, and starts to go precipitously downhill over about 80%.
Edited: April 18, 2021, 4:05 PM · Thanks for your help! I've set up a humidifier in my music room, and now I have a stable atmosphere of 50% humidity, and a temperature of 68 degrees. The instruments are back in good condition, and they stay in tune. I think the lesson is to avoid doing my Park Shows when the temperature gets into or above the upper 70's, and to avoid low humidity. I can control the indoor temperatures and humidity, but outdoors is a whole other situation. Again, thank you for your thoughtful comments.
April 17, 2021, 1:47 PM · David, Anything over 60% would allow mold to grow in the case, as I discovered to my dismay once. It could damage the finish as well, as it did with my viola. I wasn't paying attention to the hygrometer and in 2 days the damage was done!
Edited: April 17, 2021, 2:54 PM · Michael, taking the violin out of your controlled environment shouldn't do much, if it is done for less than 24 hours. Fortunately, wood takes some time to gain and lose moisture.

Ann, if you had noticeable mold growth in two days, I suspect that your actual relative humidity level was well above 80%. Hygrometers can be wildly inaccurate, including those which claim to be calibrated to NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) standards.

I'd tested hundreds of the inexpensive Caliber 4 brand hygrometers, and have rarely found one to be off by more than plus or minus 5%.

Here's one of many sources:

April 17, 2021, 2:37 PM · I am wondering if it would be worth experimenting with the 59% RH Boveda pouches. 49% version gets it to a pretty steady 40% in the case, so I am guessing that the wood and cloth are sucking water up even faster than the gel can emit it. In any case (heh), a New England winter won't be giving any humidifier much help.
April 17, 2021, 2:59 PM · David, I'm pretty sure it was more than 2 days now that I look at my journal from that time. Anyway, I'm all straightened out now!
April 17, 2021, 3:01 PM · Stephen, I used the 49% ones and also only got to 38-40%. The 65% get it to 45-50%. It might help to use the 80% conditioning packs (with the instrument stored elsewhere!) in the fall before the cold weather comes which I failed to do so the packs are playing catch up humidifying the wood of the case.
April 17, 2021, 3:24 PM · Stephen, I have a Core double violin case with 2 instruments and one bow. I use all 4 65% Boveda packs arranged just beyond the velcro for the neck and heading toward the compartments on the corners. Boveda says you can put the packs in instrument compartments but that didn't work at all, they just humidified the case, there isn't enough air exchange. During the winter, the packs will lose moisture overall so when they seem thinner, long before they get crispy, I remove 2 and put them in a closed plastic container for 12-18 hours with plenty of water. I wipe them off and return them to the case. Then I do the other 2. These have lasted me all winter. I think there's a polymer inside the packs along with the salts so if you feel a piece of soft gel in there it's more than time to get it soaked again.
April 17, 2021, 4:10 PM · Interesting thought to expand their usefulness. And thanks for the data points on RH.
April 17, 2021, 7:27 PM · Vote No. 2 for Wittner Finetune pegs.
April 18, 2021, 11:29 AM · Vote No 1, against Wittner fine tune pegs! ;-)

The humidifier supplied with Musafia cases are very good. I use automatic room humidification for the showroom. The automatic sensing humidifiers are now super cheap and easy to use. I have a separate and calibrated hygrometer to keep an eye on it.

Cheers Carlo

Edited: April 18, 2021, 5:43 PM · When I've tested the Boveda packs when they were new, they were quite accurate. Upon re-hydrating them (which Boveda doesn't recommend), they were not. In both situations, they were tested in a ziploc plastic bag, so varying moisture permeability between one case and another wouldn't have been a factor.

However, I've only done this test two or three times, and can't rule out that a larger sample size would reveal more.

April 18, 2021, 1:32 PM · David, rehydrating them should work because the salts they contain and which are responsible for their two-way characteristic remain. However, the presence of other ingredients to which the barrier is permeable would make a difference over time.
April 18, 2021, 3:13 PM · I agree that rehydrating them SHOULD work, so the variation came as a surprise to me. I don't have an explanation yet, just the results.
Edited: April 18, 2021, 4:02 PM · Another vote for geared pegs--I have them on two violins and am gearing up to get them on the cellos. And, another vote for Caliber IV hygrometer (thank you, David!) Trouble ahead if you don't have a reliable relative humidity gauge...
Edited: April 18, 2021, 4:58 PM · I found Damp-it doesn't cut it on a 15% day. I rely on the Stretto humidifier for my viola case when taking it out for more than a day.. It doesn't dry out for several days, is easy to redampen, and doesn't leak.
In Southern California there are many dry days, so I use a Taotronics humidifiier to keep my practice room at about 40%. It is quick to empty and dry if needed only for a few days. In the winter, it runs a week or more before it needs a cleaning, which is simply done.
I put geared pegs on my acoustic and electric violas, but they are not expensive instruments. I wouldn't do it to my dream luthier-made viola or other fine viola.
Edited: April 18, 2021, 5:00 PM · I put geared pegs on my dream luthier-made violin, and will do it to my dream luthier-made cello. By the way, I use a Venta Airwasher room humidifier (and no humidifier thingy in the instrument cases at all).
April 18, 2021, 5:03 PM · Thanks Erin, for the reply to my remark about geared pegs on fine instruments. I will consider that.

I have used Venta Airwashers also. They are more effective than the Taotronics, and probably more robust. But they are heavier for me to lug into the kitchen to clean.

April 18, 2021, 5:26 PM · David, I read the primary Boveda patent (I used to read chemical patents for a living). It lists nothing which should change upon adding more liquid. It does list a couple of gums which would explain the way the pack feels as it becomes less liquid.
April 18, 2021, 5:42 PM · Richard, There is a Stradivarius played by Elizabeth Pitcairn which has Wittner pegs.
April 18, 2021, 5:43 PM · Do Boveda humidifier packs feel like liquid inside? I assumed they would be mixtures of salt hydrates that intrinsically liberated an equilibrium vapor pressure of water -- different salts, different vapor pressures. One thing about such materials is that the particle size might be pretty important and if moisture is not added in the correct way, then there could be aggregation of the particles -- which should not affect their equilibrium vapor pressure but it might effect the rate at which water vapor is liberated. If the packs feel like a gel then it could be a polymeric gel that is swelled with water (which might contain salt to modulate the vapor pressure). Likewise if these dry up then the gel could be very difficult to rehydrate properly. I notice Boveda tells you not to do that -- that you won't get good results. I'd have to learn more about the substances inside. Ann, what are those patent numbers?
April 18, 2021, 5:45 PM · Richard wrote, "I wouldn't do it to my dream luthier-made viola or other fine viola." That's fine if your pegs are turning nicely and you never find them slipped when you take your instrument from its case. But if I were commissioning a new instrument from David Burgess or LUIS CLAUDIO MANFIO, I would ask for Wittner pegs from the outset.
April 18, 2021, 5:51 PM · For my outside jobs in the summer dry Cal. central valley, my quick fix is to blow a full lungs worth of hydrated air through an F-hole.
Edited: April 18, 2021, 5:59 PM · Paul, Boveda lists them on their web site. Google Boveda patents. The first one seems to be the most appropriate to our discussion. What I thought felt like a polymer forming a lump is a gum like hydroxycellulose which also clumps when drying out and has a feel like what I felt through the package material. The other salts listed don't seem to be ones that will change through cycling of hydration.

They list things in the patent that they don't use of course. A patent is a license to sue for patent infringement therefore "claim the world" is the order of the day.

April 18, 2021, 6:11 PM · Richard, Venta now sells wheeled carts for their airwashers. I dread the cleaning thing, but waiting till the tank is almost empty, and lugging only the tank + water wheels into the kitchen cuts down on the aggravation. I just wipe off the fan so I don't really have to give it a shower. (BTW, once you get geared pegs, you will wonder why you didn't do it sooner.)

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