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String Teacher Workshops

Winter Instrument Care

by Scott Sleider

The winter season can pose some dilemmas for the violin family instruments.  The main concerns are extreme cold temps and low humidity. Once we start heating our homes and schools the hair on the bows shortens and the softer spruce tops will shrink laterally (across the width) at a greater rate than the hard maple back and sides. With a few steps of precaution, many problems can be eliminated entirely, of at least, somewhat diminished.

I recommend a digital hygrometer to monitor the humidity of the main room where you keep your instruments. We attempt to keep our shop as close to 42% humidity all winter.    To achieve that we use up to two Bemis brand humidifiers in opposite corners of the room. I recommend monitoring the humidity year round to detect when it starts to drop.  When the humidity drops below 30%, the tops shrink laterally.   The arching height will become lower, bringing the bridge string height nearer to the level of the fingerboard. Some cellos and basses require higher bridges or shims to raise the height if buzzing is a problem. The soundpost will be tighter during winter which will alter the voice.  Instruments typically become brighter and edgy with more of a scratchy surface noise with each directional bow change. Sometimes switching to a Iighter gauge of string helps to reduce these tendencies. Try exhaling in through the instruments f-hole a few times, and then play it to see if you get a rich, clearer voice. This is a quick test that gives you an immediate result as to whether or not a Dampit will help.   If you use Dampit, be certain to thoroughly squeeze out excess water with a towel to prevent pooling on the backs of violins and violas and lower ribs of cellos and basses. If used properly, Dampits are an excellent way to maintain equalized plate widths. Recharging them every other day should be enough as wood takes on moisture faster than it releases it.  The hide glue used to attach the top should be the weakest strength used on the violin to allow pressure to release at a seam which will prevent a longitudinal crack if there are imbalances.

A sign of an open seam of purfling separations would be a sudden drop in overall volume with the diminished tone quality occurring mostly in the lower two strings.   As durable as the violin family instruments are, one thing they cannot tolerate is the rapid transition from a frigid mid 30° of lower outside temperature to a sudden rush of 68°-70° heated inside air.  Opening the case in this sort of condition can cause a rapid expansion of the top creating length wise cracks before your eyes. Try to arrive at your destination a bit early to let the instrument warm up gradually.  Violin sacks, interior case blankets and insulated case covers help maintain the heat in the case as long as possible. Never place instruments in unheated car trunks.

More bows break in winter than other seasons. While playing under stage lights, periodically check hair tightness, as the hair may shrink even more, causing the head of the bow to snap off on a strong down bow.

The first sign of the dry season is usually when the tuning pegs let go during storage.  When you see the humidity dropping you can prevent this from happening by chalking the contact points on the peg shaft which creates friction. Rewrapping the string closer to the tapered peg wall will drive the peg deeper, making it turn tighter. The clear humidistat tubes in the scroll compartment of your case also helps prevent the pegs slipping.  Once you’ve reset your pegs, always check bridge straightness as retuning will pull the bridge top toward the fingerboard.  Apply soft pencil lead to the bridge notches prior to retuning to allow the strings to glide through the notches.  Once you are finished with that, it would be a good time to check the reading on you digital hygrometer.   It’s the cheapest insurance you can buy.

Scott Sleider is a Milwaukee based violin maker who started repairing violins at the age of 13 and finished his formal training under Franz Kinberg in Chicago.  He is the first person from Wisconsin to be admitted into the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. Contact him at   for any further questions on this topic or for ideas for future articles.

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