Many of our customers who are new to the violin world are often surprised to find out that instruments and bows are affected not only by extreme temperatures but also by changes in humidity. Here we hope to explain why and how humidity affects violins, violas, cellos, and their bows. (Image above: a violin which was left in a cold, dry car overnight.)
Traditional violin family instruments are made with as many as 80 different pieces of wood. The cells in wood are hygroscopic which, according to Merriam-Webster, means the cells "readily (take) up and (retain) moisture." Like a sponge, the wood cells in an instrument or bow can gain moisture (in humid, summer months) and lose moisture (in dry, winter months).
Common Low Humidity Problems/Changes**
There are a number of issues which can arise as a result of low humidity. Listed below are several of the more common problems associated with drops in humidity.
This is the single most common complaint we have during dry fall and winter months. Pegs, like a sponge, quite literally swell and shrink with changes in humidity. Because traditional wood pegs are held in with compression, when the humidity drops and the pegs shrink, the tension of the strings cause the pegs to unwind.
In humid summer months, the opposite problem may happen--pegs may swell and become difficult to move.
The solution for slipping pegs: Use a case/instrument humidifier(s) to maintain a level of 40%-50% humidity. Additionally, bring your instrument in to your favorite luthier and have peg compound or LAVA soap applied to the pegs to act as a lubricant and a filler between the peg and the peg-box holes. You can also visit our blog about Slipping Pegs to learn more.
The solution for sticking/stuck pegs: Move the instrument to an environment with lower humidity like an air conditioned room for an hour or more. If the pegs are still very difficult to move, bring the instrument in to your luthier to have the peg freed (if it is stuck) and to have a peg compound or LAVA soap applied to improve peg mobility.
Can't take the slipping/sticking pegs anymore? You may want to consider getting a set of Wittner Finetune Pegs installed on your instrument. You will need to have them fitted by a luthier, but the beauty of these geared pegs is how easy they are to use. With a minimal amount of pressure, anyone can easily tune their instrument using the pegs and, because they are geared, they hold their tune! Unlike other geared pegs available on the market, the Wittner Finetune Pegs are not permanently glued into the peg-box, but simply fit in with compression like a traditional wood peg so they can be removed for future musicians. They are also a nice option for musicians with conditions like arthritis who struggle with the amount of pressure needed to turn traditional pegs.
When wood cells lose humidity, they shrink in size. This cellular change means your instrument is shrinking and swelling with changes in humidity. A number of different factors affect how each piece of wood changes in dry weather, but it is important to know that each different part of the instrument shrinks and swells at a different rate.
For example, during a large drop in humidity, the top of the instrument may shrink more quickly than the ribs of the instrument. Because the ribs have not changed and they are holding the top in place, the top is unable to shrink at a consistent rate and a crack occurs in the top.
The Solution? Bring the instrument in to your local luthier and have the crack glued and reinforced to prevent future problems.
How to Prevent Cracks from Happening in Dry Weather: Use a case/instrument humidifier(s) to stabilize the humidity at 40%-50% humidity during dry months and try to avoid exposing the instrument to extreme changes in temperature/humidity.
The glue used in violin-making is a water-based, hide glue. One of the reasons we use hide glue is so that when a portion of the instrument shrinks in size during an extreme drop in humidity, the glue itself with dry out and the seam connecting two pieces of wood will open. Open seams are not an uncommon problem and they are much better than a crack in the wood!
The Solution: Bring the instrument in to your local luthier to have the seam/fingerboard glued ASAP. Open seams will only get worse over time and delaying the repair will not only be more costly, but can cause the unglued portions to warp out of shape.
How to Prevent Open Seams from Happening/Fingerboards from Detaching: You guessed it--Use a case/instrument humidifier(s) to stabilize the humidity at 40%-50% during dry months and try not to expose the instrument to extreme changes in temperature/humidity.
Using the sponge analogy once again, imagine the top of the instrument shrinking and swelling with the changing seasons. Although this change is not exclusive to the cello, it is much more evident on a cello because of the large size of its body. During summer months, the top of the cello will become physically taller which means the bridge will also raise up. During winter months, the top of the cello will shrink back down and become lower, bringing the bridge along with it.
The solution: Use a case/instrument humidifier(s) to maintain a level of 40%-50% humidity. If you still experience a large drop/rise in your bridge height, have two bridges made for your cello. If you purchased your cello in the summer, bring the instrument in during the winter to have a taller bridge made to accommodate the drop in top height. If you purchased your cello in the winter, bring the instrument in during the summer to have a shorter bridge made to accommodate the rise of the top.
*We acknowledge the need to dedicate an entire, separate discussion to the strange, string-world phenomenon known as wolf tones. For now, we will cover how humidity affects this nuisance.*
As many cellists know, wolf tones can become a more obvious problem during dry winter months. Why does this happen? When the wood cells are exposed to higher levels of humidity and absorb moisture, the speed of sound in the instrument is slowed. When the wood cells dry out and shrink, sound can travel more quickly throughout the instrument. In a dry environment this means that sounds which were once subtle, like a wolf tone, are now amplified.
The solution: Use a case/instrument humidifier(s) to help maintain 40%-50% humidity for your instrument. If the humidifier still isn't helping, you can apply a wolf eliminator, bring the instrument in to have an existing wolf eliminator adjusted, or have other adjustments made to the instrument to help mask/shift the wolf tone.
This is a problem specific to wood bows and hybrid bows which have solid wood heads. Bow hair is a natural product which means it, just like wood, is affected by changes in humidity. In humid climates, the bow hair lengthens as it absorbs humidity. In dry climates, the bow hair shrinks and the length of the hair physically shortens.
A bow left in a room/case with low humidity can have the hair shrink at such a dramatic rate that the tension causes the head of the bow to break off. (Unfortunately, this is a real thing! A ribbon of hair can be too tight and break your bow!) In fact, in dry months your luthier will rehair your bow with extra length to accommodate for the lower humidity, but this still means that the bow must be stored in a safe level of humidity. Bows left tightened in the case or left in a case/room without a humidifier are highly susceptible to this problem. We have seen it happen to new bows and old bows, $60 bows and $6,000 bows!
Prevention: Never leave your bow tightened when the bow is not in use. In addition to making it susceptible to the head spontaneously breaking off the bow, leaving a bow tightened when not in use shortens the life of the hair and can cause warping and straightening of the bow stick camber. Additionally, store your bow in its case and use a case humidifier to maintain 40%-50% humidity.
Solution: Bring your bow in to a luthier to see if the bow is worth having the head reattached. This injury is detrimental to the value of the bow, so a luthier will discuss with you how much a spline/graft will cost and whether or not your bow is financially worth the repairs.
How Do I Humidify my Case/Instrument?
There are several great options on the market for humidifying your instrument and bow. We will list three of our favorites below.
1. The Precipitube Humidifier
Whenever possible, we will always choose a case humidifier over an instrument humidifier because it offers the most protection for both the instrument and the bow.
The Precipitube Humidifier is a whole case humidifier which can simply replace the commonly unused string tube in a violin or viola case. One of the reasons we are fond of the Precipitube Humidifier is how little work is required to maintain a decent level of humidity within your case. In the Maryland/greater Washington, D.C. area, most violinists/violists only need to soak the Precipitube every 7-10 days during dry months and are able to maintain a level of 40%-50% humidity. Although the standard size does not accommodate a hard cello case, The Precipitube can be ordered in custom lengths for any violin, viola, or cello case. You can buy The Precipitube Humidifier in our store or online HERE!
2. The Stretto Humidifier
The Stretto Humidifier is another wonderful whole case humidifier we recommend often. This is a great option for cellists with hard cello cases as it fits well near the scroll or can be attached in spaces near the C-bouts of the cello body. The Stretto is another low-maintenance humidifier and many players find they only need to re-hydrate the included humidifier bag every few days.
3. The Dampit
With just a little bit of extra care when you take your instrument out of its case to play every day/week, you can easily help prevent humidity related problems. And as always, if you've got a problem, please don't hesitate to stop by! Our professionally-trained repair staff is always happy to help with problems as simple as an out of tune string or as complicated as an extensive restoration.
**The problems listed above are often caused by changes in humidity, but humidity changes are not the only cause of some of these problems. When in doubt, bring your instrument or bow in for evaluation to see if there may be other underlying issues.