Does humidity (or lack thereof) affect musical instruments ?

I seem to be having more difficulty keeping my psaltery and dulcimers in tune now that winter is here and the woodstove fired up.  We keep a big pan of water on top and need to refill it daily but I find I need to retune almost every day....the dulci's are sharp & the psaltery goes flat.  Anyone else have this experience?

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Humidity can have extraordinary effects on instruments.  A severe lack of moisture over extended periods can cause irreparable damage.  Sudden, dramatic changes can harm finishes.  Tuning can be thrown off noticeably and often in counter-intuitive ways.  Rather than just a pan of water on the stove, I suggest keeping the instruments cased with individual humidifiers, checked frequently.  The case helps retain moisture longer and acts as a thermal buffer.  None of the above should be considered reasons not to play during the winter.  Just be mindful of your instruments' needs.  It's not rocket science and you don't have to worry every moment about it, just keep the humidifiers full and all should be well.  The ideal solution is perhaps to have whole-house humidification, but that is seldom practical when heating with wood.

Cindi I have psalteries that were tuned and put in storage two years ago and are still in tune. If I set one within two feet of a radiator they will go out of tune. Sometimes I will hear a wood peg on a dulcimer pop in the middle of the night reminding me to move it to a cooler place. I live in a humid climate 70% is a dry day for us. my instruments have adapted to it... Bob

Looks like I'll be changing my decorating scheme....I really love the look of my instruments displayed.  For me the look is as important as the sound but rather than damage them (or at least the good ones anyway)  casing them sounds like the best option.  I am going to get a humidifier for the livng room (my plants and my sinuses should be happy) and see if that makes a difference.  The tempurature remains pretty constant in here.....dust ?  well, thats another matter.  I don't remember having this much of a problem over summer/fall.  Guess this is why my (guitar genius) grandson keeps all his guitars cased unless he is practicing...even the not so good ones.

I'm sure that's a very big part of why he does it.

We always need to remember that the needs of instruments vary significantly from place to place.  When asking about this topic one should always include information about where they are located and what their conditions are.  Everyone has valid answers, but they can be very different ones indeed.  Consider Jeremy in the UK and Bob with 70% RH as dry days.  Your environment happens to be very similar to mine, but my advice might not be wise for someone else and might even be dangerous for Jeremy or Bob (yes, you can over-humidify an instrument as well).

You'll only need these precautions during the heating season.  The rest of the time the instruments can actually benefit from being out and about.  At least they get played more and complimented often!

Point well taken, Tim.  Now I have yet one more reason to look forward to spring and warmer weather    It's one thing to tune up a dulci...another altogether to tune up the psaltery every time I want to play

What is a good humidity level to try to keep a room?  I have a humidifier that can be set to shut off and on at a preferred level.  I use it in the room where I keep my string instruments.  Having to take a relatively large instrument (cello, bowed dulcimer, and bass bowed psaltery) out of a case and set it up every time I want to practice sometimes takes away my motivation (lol).  Guess I'm lazy. 


Only instruments I keep in cases are the ones I never play... Bob

We're on the same page, Bob.  :)

Sadly enough, that's a very true downside.

As to ideal conditions, a generally accepted guideline is to keep things at an average of 60 +/- 10% RH and 70 +/- 5 degrees (F).  But that's often much easier said than done.  As Bob mentioned, instruments can acclimate to conditions that are very different if the conditions remain mostly constant. It tends to be big, rapid swings that cause the most trouble. The problem areas are those regions that see large shifts seasonally.  Heating in winter is especially bothersome.

The idea behind casing the instruments in winter is to provide a buffer, that is, to allow the changes to happen more slowly.  An instrument doesn't dry out the instant you take it out of the case, so you needn't worry about taking them out to play.  The objective is to keep as constant an amount of moisture as possible for the longest period.  A lot of people fret and worry to death of this, but remember that musical instruments are made to play.  If they were so terribly fragile that they self-destructed instantly, no one would be able to play them.

One thing I do that seems odd to many is to breath into the sound hole before casing the instrument for the night. The moisture in your breath gets water inside where it does the most good.  It's a little weird sounding, but you're sort of giving the 'breath of life' to the wood.

Tim, In an earlier post you mentioned individual humidifiers....I never heard of these but someone at our dulcimer group mentioned them yesterday and then we got off on another tangent and I never got to see one after all.  Please, elaborate....

They're just small perforated containers that have a sponge of water inside.  The water evaporates inside the case and keeps the humidity up.  You can buy a dozen different brands (Google case humidifier) or make your own.  A lot of crafty folks make them out of those plastic travel boxes that hold a bar of soap or any small rust-proof container that fits inside the case.  Punch a few small holes in it, add  damp sponge, and put it in the case.  Re-wet the sponge as needed.  In the olden days players would put half an apple in the case.  As it dried out the instrument got a little humidity.  That's super trad but kind of gross at the same time.  Used for all kinds of string instruments.  Easy to buy or make.

Update:  Over the weekend I attended a dulcimer festival and one of the classes I took was about caring for instruments...naturally the discussion of humidity came up.  The luthier who was teaching also is a fan of case humidifiers but one thing he said was, "If your instrument is used to being cased, then leave it cased, if it is used to being out (and displayed) then leave it out."  He also recommended using a humidifier and getting a hygrometer to check the level of the humidity in the room.  I did buy a humidifier and (maybe I'm just imagining it) it seems the instruments are staying in tune a little better.  Fortunately, the woodstove is in another room  from the instruments so they're not affected by the super-dry heat up close.  The humidifier is about 15-20 feet across the room from the psaltery & dulcimers.  Still looking forward to Spring's single digits here tonight 


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