Protect Your Instrument From Old Man Winter

Feb 8, 2023

Well it’s that time of year again. Most of the leaves have fallen from the trees. You can see your breath late into most mornings. You make sure you and your loved ones are bundled up warm before heading out. Some places in the world have the luxury of mild or even warm winter seasons, but here in Toronto if you go out in early December unprepared, you’re going to have an unpleasant day. We have to take precautions against the cold, dryness, and weather for our own well being. And we are not alone; instruments suffer from the season as well. Southern Ontario’s winters are notoriously unpredictable, but even if you’re not living in a climate that can fluctuate wildly from one day to the next, playing jump-rope with the freezing point, it is extremely important that you protect your instrument from Old Man Winter.

How you go about winterizing your musical instrument depends somewhat on what it is you play. And you’re in luck! That’s exactly our topic this week. We’ll briefly discuss some basic winter maintenance for most of the orchestra, with a little special attention payed to the string section and guitars.

Protect Your Instrument

First and foremost, there are a few important points that apply to all instruments.

  • Make sure to store your instrument in a warm place. Ideally, it should be inside your home, but keep it away from doors or windows, and out of unheated closets, basements, and garages.
  • If you travel anywhere with your instrument, keep it in the car with you, rather than the unheated truck.
  • Leave your instrument in its case as much as you can when it isn’t in use. The case is like a big overcoat, slowing down the changes in temperature and humidity. Padded cases are even better.
  • Never leave your instrument in below freezing temperatures for long periods of time, even in the case.
  • If you have left it in the cold, do not open the case! Rapid temperature changes can damage any instrument. Allow it to slowly rise to room temperature, inside its case.
  • Lastly, do not blow warm air through a cold instrument, or try to warm it over a heat source. Any rapid heating may cause condensation, warping, or cracking.

Flutes & Saxophones

The single most important thing to do to protect your instrument in the winter is to swab it every time you finish playing. Any moisture could freeze and create a layer of frost on your pads and keys. This causes pads to stick and can cause permanent and very expensive damage to the springs, screws, and pads.

Clarinets

Clarinets are especially unhappy during the winter months. In addition to the exact same routine as the flutes and saxophones, corks freeze when it gets really cold, making it hard to assemble your clarinet. Don’t force it. You can rip the cork, and make it unplayable. Instead, let it warm and use cork grease. In addition, if your clarinet is made from wood it should be oiled on occasion to keep it from drying out. Humidity at either extreme can be very bad for wooden instruments, but the dry winter months suck all the moisture out of wood, and instruments contract. The best case scenario is an out of tune clarinet, however the worst case is a cracked clarinet. This is extremely costly to repair, and usually not worth the trouble. To protect your instrument from the low humidity, read on to where we address it with the string instruments!

The Brass Section

As any middle school science class can tell you, cold makes metal shrink. So, keep in mind that your valves and slides will contract at a different rates than the casings – don’t try to force them to move when they are cold. Taking the valves out will help speed up the warming process. Remember to use plenty of valve or slide oil when moving them, and don’t force anything until all the parts of your instrument are at room temperature.

Drums

Drums aren’t affect too much by the cold, dry months of a Canadian winter. The drum head will contract a bit in the cold, resulting in uneven tension and a “just off” sound. As with the rest of the band, keep drums out of the extreme cold, and allow them to slowly warm to room temperature for the best sound.

The String Section

The winter season is especially hard on the members of the string section. While the cold is bad, it’s not actually the biggest problem. Instead, when it comes to the strings, the main issue is the low humidity. Wood reacts to both low and high humidity, swelling when there is more moisture in the air, and shrinking when there is less. Where the problem lies is that different kinds and cuts of wood will change at different rates in the same humidity. Thankfully, the good people who build these instruments know this and have built in a fail-safe: the glue. In most cases the glue will break before the wood. This is an easy fix. Cracked wood is not, and while wood is rather durable and forgiving, it will crack if it gets too dry. Strings prefer a steady temperature of 15 C to 20 C, and a relative humidity of 35 to 50 percent. Most string instruments make it through the winter just fine, but just to hedge your bets, here are a few additional things you can do to protect your instrument:

  • Get a hygrometer. These handle devices are fairly inexpensive, and can give you the relative humidity accurately. Stay away from small, case sized models though, they are often inaccurate.
  • Consider a humidifier if the air where you store your instrument falls below 20% humidity.
    • You can also try an in-case humidifier. They come with some mixed reviews (mostly because they only work if used properly, and it can be hard to remember to keep it filled), but it may be worth looking into.
    • If you do go with a humidifier, don’t over-humidify. This can sometimes be even worse than leaving it dry, as the shock can cause damage.

Guitar

Guitar maintenance for the winter is extremely similar to other string instruments. That said, an important difference is their preferred humidity. Guitars like it a bit more towards the wet end, around 40-50%. If you keep your guitar out of a case in your home, keep in mind that using your heat may also lower the relative humidity, so you’ll need to monitor it in the room your instrument lives in. Keep an eye out for some warning signs that your guitar is taking damage from the season, like lower action on the neck, the fret ends sticking out, a bending on the face of the guitar, cracks in the finish, and open bindings. If you find any of these, take immediately steps to repair and protect your instrument.

Closing Thoughts

If you feel that your instrument sounds “off,” for example, if you hear an odd buzzing or rattling, or if it sounds too tight or too loose, it’s time to bring it in to an expert for repair. Each of these may be an indication you have a weather or season-related issue.

Staying proactive with your instrument care over the winter months can provide long-term benefits in the form of fewer repairs and higher-quality sound. With a little extra love and care, both you and your instrument will be ready for the spring!

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