by Kathy Schwar
I recently attended a workshop on caring for musical instruments during Rochester area winters. While much of the information may be common sense to some people, I found it really helpful for protecting instruments. As they say, “Instruments still think they’re trees,” though they are not, so they need special care in maintaining the wood and lacquer. Plus, the effects of the cold can affect the sound.
Dave Stutzman of Stutzman’s Guitar Center was the workshop speaker. This information is intended as a summary of “need to know” points:
- In winter, it’s all about maintaining humidity to prevent cracking. While every instrument will not crack, it is hard to say which will and which won’t. But Stutzman knows that harsh winters will bring so many panicked musicians in for repairs that he has had to turn some away.
- Keep instruments out of the cold as much as possible. But if they’ve been subjected to it for some time, let them acclimate, best for a few hours, in their cases when they get home. Don’t immediately open the case; Stutzman has actually seen that cause instantaneous cracking of the finish.
- An easy rule of thumb is that when you turn your furnace on for the season, start humidifying your instruments. When you turn it off in late spring, humidifiers aren’t necessary.
- Keep your instruments in their cases with a humidifier, not on a stand. This keeps the humidity constant and also helps humidify the neck.
- If you use a console home humidifier, know that the gauge on the machine may not be accurate. A digital hygrometer, available where indoor-outdoor thermometers are sold, provides a more accurate humidity reading. Indoor humidity should be maintained at 45 to 55%. Keep all instruments in one room if you can. In winter the basement would naturally be more humid than upstairs, but don’t leave instruments there in summer.
- Some humidifier choices are the Dampit-type humidifier, which is easy to use by following directions on the package. Also, hold it by both ends when shaking it out. MusicNomad’s The Humitar and similar options are available. If you fill the devices routinely once a week, twice a week when temperatures plummet, you’ll be reasonably sure there’s enough moisture. Take care that humidifiers don’t drip.
- In summer, by the way, keep instruments out of a hot car or loosen the strings. When outside keep them in the shade with the case cracked open. But overall, Stutzman said, instruments subjected to cold “lose more moisture than they gain” in heat.