Instrument Maintenance Through the Seasons: Part 2

In part 1, we discussed the effects of hot, humid summer air on string instruments. Here we look at the flip-side of New England weather: cold, dry winters.

What to Expect In the Winter:

There’s nothing like the onset of frigid temperatures to make string instruments crazy – but it’s not the cold outside that gets to them as much as the heat inside, and what the heat does to the air. When the furnace is cranked up for days or weeks at a time, indoor humidity levels plummet. And just as high humidity in the summer can cause issues with our instruments, so can very low humidity in the winter.

Pegs – pegs shrink and slip, and violins, violas, and celli go out of tune. This often leads to another issue: broken strings. Tuning with pegs is tricky, and many of us are forced to try for the first time during winter, when our pegs have slipped and we won’t be seeing our teacher for a week.

It’s good to remember three rules of thumb when tuning with pegs: 1) First, set the tension by pushing the peg firmly in towards the pegbox wall, 2) turn slowly, and 3) avoid going over pitch. If the peg continuously slips back once you have brought the string up to pitch, return to rule-of-thumb #1: push the peg further into the pegbox before turning again.

Fingerboards – Just as humid air causes fingerboards to drop, dry air causes them to rise. As we noted in part 1, this change isn’t likely to be noticeable on smaller instruments – but on adult-sized celli and basses, adjustments are usually necessary. In some cases, the fingerboard may rise so much that it touches the strings and creates a “buzz”. Many basses come with adjustable bridges to make dealing with this issue simpler. For cellists, it is often necessary to switch to a “winter” bridge once cold temperatures settle in.

Bowhair – Just like wood, bowhair will release moisture and shrink. Again, like in summer, bowhair that is already on the short side might become impossible to loosen, in which case it’s important to rehair your bow so that the stick does not become warped.

Seam openings – Seam openings occur most often in very dry conditions, when the shrinking front, back, and sides of your instrument are liable to pull apart. This is a built-in survival response, one which avoids cracks in the body by releasing tension at the seams. Regluing seams is a simple and straightforward repair, but it is always better to do it so sooner rather than later to prevent further openings. Check for seam openings regularly in very dry conditions – if your instrument develops a mysterious buzz, there’s a good chance that a seam opening is the culprit.

How can we minimize these issues? Keeping your instrument in a room with a humidifier can be a great help at home; but what about other spaces – school, for example? Here’s one low-tech, make-at-home humidifying system you can take with you: simply dampen a sponge (be sure it is not dripping), roll it up inside an open prescription bottle, and store it in your case. Monitor and re-dampen it whenever it becomes dry in order to keep humidity levels stable.