In January a few years ago I had a gig in Fairbanks, Alaska. It was 30 below (F); I watched in horror as my host placed the case with my thousand dollar guitar inside into the back of her open pickup truck. I said a little prayer and wondered if my guitar should have its own parka.
Turns out, I didn’t need to worry. Cold temperatures generally aren’t damaging to musical instruments made of wood. (I’m not talking about extreme temperatures. I’m assuming none of you live at the North Pole.) It’s abrupt changes in temperature that are damaging. Humidity – or the lack of it – can also hurt your instrument.
Carrying your instrument in from the cold
If it’s a chilly winter day, don’t bring your instrument into a warm building and immediately take it out of the case. Leave it in the case and let it acclimate to the new temperature. It only takes a few minutes. Not only will it protect your instrument but you don’t need to spend as much time tuning it. Changes in temperature can mess with the length of the strings, thereby changing the tuning. The warmer the instrument, the closer to the correct tuning it’ll be.
Storing your instrument
If you keep it out on a stand don’t put it near a heating vent or a fireplace. The heat and dry air is death to wood. You may end up with cracks in the wood and damage to the finish. It could cause the top to buckle, making the bridge loosen and in extreme cases, fly off the guitar. You want to make an impact with your music but not that kind of impact. “Yeah, I enjoyed her show but not the trip to the emergency room.”
I once brought a mandolin in from a chilly Colorado night into a cozy cabin, took it out of the case and promptly sat down next to the fireplace. Right away, the finish cracked, leaving a spider web-like design over the whole instrument. Oops.
It’s best to store the instrument in a case and even then, don’t put it near a source of heat. It’s not just heating vents and fireplaces you need to worry about – attics aren’t great because heat rises, making for a very dry environment. (And basements are sometimes too damp but that’s a topic for another blog.)
Humidify your instrument
Even if you’re not taking your guitar or mandolin in and out of the weather, your furnace can create an environment that’s too dry for your instrument. The reason we oil our fine wood furniture is to keep it from drying out and cracking. You can do something similar for your instrument.
You can buy a humidifier that fits in your guitar case or in the sound hole. The ones that fit in cases are also good for other instruments. Usually it involves wetting a sponge, wringing it (so it doesn’t drip), and placing it somewhere where it’s not directly touching the wood (or you could stain it). Check it periodically and wet it when it dries out. Here’s one that fits in the sound hole:
If you want something simpler, get a common household sponge. I’ve found that a full sized sponge is too big so I cut mine in half. Wet it, wring it well, then put it in a small plastic bag with tiny holes. Stick the bag in the sound hole and leave a little plastic sticking out so you can pull it out when it dries. If you prefer something that fits in the case – under the neck is a good place – a small plastic soap holder works if you drill a few holes in it.
You can also run a common household humidifier. I have one in the room where most of my instruments are stored. It doesn’t run all the time and I don’t put it too close to any instruments. Too much humidity can be damaging too.
Oils and cleaners
These will also help keep your instrument from drying out. Don’t use commercial furniture polish on your instruments. Buy something specially made for them. Ask your luthier or repair person what they recommend.
So forget about the guitar parka and regardless of the photo above, you don’t want to hang your Taylor on a snowperson unless you want the ASPCG cops to come after you.