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How the winter weather can affect your musical instrument and how to prevent it!

As temperatures start to drop during fall and for the coming winter months, our musical instruments reflect the change as much as we feel it. Just as we take extra measures to take care of our skin and body during this season, our instruments would need some extra care too to keep it working at 100%. Today we will be discussing important instrument care tips to prevent the bad consequences of the Winter season.

Why Cold Weather is Bad News for Musicians

Science class will teach you that water occupies less and less volume as it changes temperature from gas to liquid and finally to solid when frozen. Simply put, the colder the water is, the less space it takes up. As your musical instrument gets cold it shrinks, just like water (but not nearly as much!).

If you play a woodwind instrument, then you may notice more squeaks this time of year. If your woodwind instrument uses reeds, they will be harder to work with and sound “dry.” If you play a brass instrument, maybe a tuning slide will get stuck. Guitars and other string instruments will drift out of tune more frequently. And many schools and churches that own pianos have a lot of problems maintaining them in the winter.

Damage can be done when an instrument shrinks as a result of the cold air. If your instrument is made of real wood, the cold air can cause cracking, which is very expensive to repair. Sometimes they are broken beyond repair.

What You Can Do to Protect Your Instrument Against Weather-Related Damage

1. Avoid Temperature Extremes

Extreme cold is mainly detrimental to the finish and varnish checking of wooden instruments (small cracks in the varnish), especially where temperatures drop below the freezing point.

The problem most commonly happen when you have your instrument outside in below freezing weather for 15 to 20 minutes. For example, walking home with it, then immediately upon entering a warm room, opening the case to remove your the instrument. 

The solution to this problem is prevention:

  • Minimize the amount of time your instrument will be outside.
  • Prepare your instrument for the change. Keep it in a cool place 7.2°C to 10°C (45°F to 50°F) for an hour or so before going out. The same rule applies when bringing it in from the cold.
  • If the instrument has been outside in the cold for a long period of time, do what you can to gradually warm it up. Never take it from the freezing car and then drop it off by the fireplace or close to a heater for a quick warm up. Instead, pick a relatively cooler room in the home to leave it for an hour so it can gradually warm up.
  • If possible, try not to take your instrument out in extremely frigid temperatures. Don’t leave it in the car at all during the winter.

2. Maintain Proper Humidity

Lack of humidity is another problem. Because the air is cold, the water in the air condenses and/or freezes and leaves us with very dry air. Damage caused by dryness can be much more serious than damage caused by excess humidity, and usually requires the prompt attention of a competent repair person. 

One symptom of excessive dryness is a change in the contour of the back and top of the instrument. String instruments have slightly arched top and back. If the wood becomes to dry, it shrinks, and top and back can become flatter.The finish can also distort with low humidity, especially caused by the wood shrinking. Happily, this problem usually corrects itself when humidity returns to normal levels.

The worst problem associated with excessive dryness is cracking of the top of your instrument. Repairing these cracks and the subsequent damage to the finish will require an experienced repair person to swell the wood with humidity, glue the cracks and touch the finish of the top. This can be very time consuming and costly. 

Just like using humidifiers in the winter to add moisture into the air and create a more comfortable environment, your instrument can also benefit from some quality time next to a humidifier. The best practice is to avoid any big swings in the humidity levels, and to keep it consistent between 40-60%.

The most reliable way to track the humidity levels in your home is investing in a highly rated hygrometer with thermometer. Even though they are not 100% accurate, it will give you a rough estimate of the humidity surrounding your instrument. Watch your instrument, it will also tall you when it is particularly dry.

In addition to a standard humidifier in the home, consider using a humidifier in your instrument case or your instrument. Professional  cases often have a humidity gauge built into the lid so that the owner always knows that their instrument is stored at the proper humidity. Be careful, though, to not rely on the case humidifier as the only source for humidity, as they may not release enough moisture to make a difference.

Final Thoughts

Avoiding most if these winter problems require only the use of a little common sense. 

  • One very important thing to remember is never to leave your instrument hanging on a wall during the winter months, as the heat from the furnace rises. While floor temperatures may be 18°C, five feet off the floor it may be 22°C and raise at it goes up. At higher temperature humidity becomes lower.
  • During winter time keep your in-home humidity at approximately 45% relative to 22°C for your instrument safety.
  • Keep your instrument in the case as much as possible and in a cooler place. Use an instrument humidifier that helps retain water and check it regularly, especially during extreme cold and low humidity season. These units contain small amount of water and can dry as fast as 24 hours.


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