With the changing temperatures, a few tricks can help keep your fiddle happy and trouble-free
Violin maker Christopher Jacoby responds:
A: Violins are close to living things—they change, expand, and shrink with the weather and with humidity cycles.
The less you expose your instrument to extreme changes, the fewer problems you’ll have. Unfortunately, every stringed instrument is susceptible to the extremes in temperature and humidity that your instrument faces during the winter.
You can do more to prevent cracks and damage by paying attention to humidity, in your violin case and in your practice space.
Cold usually means dry, and fiddles hate dry.
There is some lore about the great Cremonese violins, made in a humid city between Venice and Milan. People say the great violins love humidity.
As a violin maker, I have had better luck with my tonewood and varnish in dryer climates, but there are more fallen necks in the spring, and as bass players will tell you, bigger instruments want to come to pieces when the cold—and dry—sets in.
So how do you monitor humidity? Honestly, most of the humidifiers and hygrometers built into cases don’t work very well.
There are some exceptions in the high-end market, but it’s a good idea to go talk to a luthier about your case and your instrument, and see what products are available to help you protect your instrument and bow from seasonal damage. [Editor’s note: Radio Shack offers inexpensive digital hygrometers that can be quite accurate.]
The Arion gel humidifiers are nice—they hold moisture longer than most, and I have even known players to slip a hand warmer or two into the music pocket on a case when they have to traverse the subways and streets of their winter city.
Here’s what I have in my violin and viola cases: An old aspirin bottle with several small holes drilled into the lid—kind of like when you’d catch an insect as a kid and needed to give it air holes to breathe.
In the fall, I put a wet, but not sopping, kitchen sponge into the bottle, and put the bottle into the shoulder rest compartment of my case.
The case will stay hydrated, and your violin will better resist the cold snaps it may have to suffer. Check it when you practice—when the sponge dries out, add a little more water to the sponge. (My mom taught me years ago to dunk a sponge in diluted bleach for 30 seconds when it starts to smell a little moldy.)
When the spring arrives and brings rain, I throw the sponge away and fill my aspirin bottle with dry rice.
It will drink the extra moisture from your case. Change the rice about once a month. (Luthier Andrew Carruthers has some wicked stickers for sale on his website that I’ll be customizing my aspirin bottles with this year.)
As for where you practice or play, houseplants and ferns, prayer plants, and succulents will help regulate the humidity in a room, if you remember to water them, and they love classical music, I hear. Cacti won’t do much, except for the ambience.
I started by saying that violins are close to living things. If you can clean the dust from your plants and keep them watered, then you can do the same for your violin.
As they say on HBO’s Game of Thrones, winter is coming. Be prepared.
Christopher Jacoby lives and builds violins south of Omaha, Nebraska.