How to keep your instruments in working order during Philly’s brutal winters
Ron Ruggiero sees it all the time—especially in the colder months. The owners are invariably upset and panicked, worried that they’ve somehow contributed to the injury and possible death of their baby or babies. But, such is the plight of the Philadelphia musician in wintertime.
It’s been a cold snap, polar vortex-filled winter on the east coast so far, and for those of us who like to plunk out our own tunes, that means one thing: Instrument repair. But, well, why exactly?
“We’re seeing lots of de-humidified guitar problems this winter,” Ruggiero says. “The difference in humidity levels outside and indoors can crack guitars’ wood tops—humidifiers bring help bring everything back to normal.”
Ruggiero, as you may have guessed, runs Ruggiero’s Guitar Workshop in GradHo, which specializes in instrument repair—guitars specifically. Since the start of this winter, Ruggiero says he’s seen lots of cracked-top cases lately, all of which are a result of the uber-cold winter we’ve been facing. However, it’s not just guitars.
“This is a perennial problem world wide—not just in the Philadelphia area,” says Frederick W. Oster Fine Violins’ Catharine Jacobs. “A good rule of thumb is: If you need Chapstick, your instrument is dry.”
Violins, for their part in all this, face similar problems as guitars, pianos, and the like. As the story goes, the dry, indoor heat we pump through our houses tends to parch our instruments’ wood, leading to contraction and, eventually, breakage. The problem, of course, is that the outer materials tend to separate from inner bracing, leading to cracks and other functional problems. And that’s saying nothing of fret board-shrinkage, bowed neck syndrome, detuning, or ruined action.
The root of the issue is that many instruments—from drums to guitars and others—are made of wood, a natural material. The particular cell structure of wood doesn’t respond well to these changes in humidity, expanding and shrinking in response, and thereby developing cracks that can harm the function of the instrument.
“Wood instruments need constant humidity—around 50 percent,” Jacobs says. “We see these problems every winter, so it’s important to follow precautions.”
She’s talking, of course, about preventative maintenance. The goal this winter (and all others) should be to increase that preventative maintenance—which, in this case, is as simple as keeping your air moisture levels consistent. AKA, you need to buy a humidifier—and, please, put your instrument away when not in use.
“Guitars should be stored in their cases in wintertime,” Ruggiero says. “Humidify the case, humidify your house or apartment—it’s better for you, anyway."
Failing that, though, don’t worry too much. Ruggiero says almost any thing can be fixed—all it takes is some humidity, a little glue, and maybe a couple of small braces.
“It’s not that the instrument is out of commission for life,” he says. “It’s just that it has been hurt.”
And, what’s more, he’s right. Dryness cracks in wood are a fact of life, like taxes and death. The difference is that they occur mostly on objects we don’t care about, so when they happen on our beloved instruments, we tend to lose our minds. The good news, though, is that quickly repaired cracks tend to be almost unnoticeable down the line.
“We hate to see customers come in with cracked instruments,” Jacobs says. “It’s sad.”
But with some proper preventative care, that sadness never has to happen. Please, folks, humidify and store your instruments.