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Humidify! Humidify! Humidify!


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At least for those of us in The States the first real blast of cold winter air is upon us. I want to remind all concertina owners and concertina lovers that concertinas do best with a relative humidity between 50 and 70%. When it gets cold and the heat comes on humidity can drop very quickly in a house and the concertina's environment.

 

When we play our instruments the bellows are blowing air across the wood parts. If that air from the outside is dryer than the wood of the concertina we are, in effect, doing practically the same as kiln drying!! While the metaphor is extreme you really want to do all that is practical to keep the humidity around your instrument at a reasonable level and from changing too quickly.

 

It is usually the first couple of months of winter when I begin getting calls that concertinas are acting up. The symptoms are often indistinct, weak or rattling notes or notes that are bleeding into one another. In the worst cases there can be considerable and sudden volume loss and notes that continue to sound. The causes can be shrinking wood inside the instrument that allows reed shoes to come loose in their slots; reed pans and bellows frames that shrink and compromise the bellows chamois seal; corner blocks supporting a reed pan that come loose; a button board that dries out enough or so fast it cracks!

 

I don't want to unnecessarily scare you. Concertinas are fairly hardy little beasts that adjust to their environment over time. It is the sudden changes that affect them most dramatically. The onset of winter coupled with central heating and subsequent quick drops in humidity can be one such dramatic event.

 

So here is a reminder to do what you can to make the change to winter and a lower humidity as gradual and less extreme for your concertina (and other instruments).

 

Greg

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Sensible advice Greg. Here in the UK I have always taken care to avoid the instrument being subjected to any unnecessary fluctuations of temperature throughout the entire year. Relatively easy for someone who never ventures from home with the instrument. When not in my hands it is always securely protected in its well-fitting, well-padded, almost airtight, hard case and located in a well chosen place where it will be virtually oblivious to any changes brought about by humidity levels, sunshine, climate change, central heating and the passing seasons. Not so easy of course for wandering minstrels and those who are subjected to greater degrees of climate change than we usually experience in this part of the world.

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[My concertina] is always securely protected in its well-fitting, well-padded, almost airtight, hard case and located in a well chosen place where it will be virtually oblivious to any changes brought about by humidity levels, sunshine, climate change, central heating and the passing seasons.

 

I'm asking out of curiosity, not as a challenge: can an "almost airtight" case such as you describe protect against humidity changes? Do you ever having problems when your instrument goes from its in-case environment to room environment? And, finally, which case do you use?

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Mike. I know next to nothing about humidity. If I were small enough to squeeze into the case and close the lid I would expect to suffocate. I have never been conscious of experiencing any problems when transferring from case to room environment. In answer to your final query, the case is a strong, fabric-lined, lockable, rigid, black plastic ' Samsonite ' Vanity Case purchased 1979 . I defy anyone to show me a better case for the job. A quality job, a perfect fit. I removed the tray and I use the elasticated internal wall pockets to accommodate padding and other oddments so that the instrument is a snug fit. When I lift the lid I can see myself in a mirror which can be rather depressing !

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Down here in West Australia we have the same lack of humidity problem but during summer, caused by the extremely dry heat… I have had wooden picture frames hanging on the wall that have 'sprung' a corner and warped so much that they have ended up twisting out as far as 12 inches from the wall. I have a lot of books and many of them end up with curled up pages… it's a big problem. As it cools down the pliable objects, like book pages, return to their flat position, but if a wooden object cracks, or glue melts, etc. then one is in all sorts of trouble! Most music shops here sell tiny humidifiers that sit inside instrument cases, and for a few dollars more you can purchase a gauge that lets you know the amount of humidity inside the case and when to top the humidifier up with water. The big problem is when you take the instrument out from its case… as my old Lachenal came over from the UK and hasn't experienced the Australian summer heat yet, I am very worried about how it will react. Most houses have the air conditioning going full blast throughout the summer and, although the rooms are cool I'm not sure if the air conditioning provides any humidity or not… I don't think so. Usually, when the sun starts to go down in the evenings the houses begin to crack and creak as they cool down, even heavy pieces of furniture expand and contract with audible creaks as the temperature rises or falls… I wonder how those early settlers from Europe managed with instruments that they brought over with them? There are many photos showing early settlers playing out in the 'bush' or sitting around camp fires… they surely must have had all sorts of problems?

 

I'm going to try and keep my concertina in the coolest and most stable room throughout the summer months. I only play at home so I'm hoping this will help keep the concertina at a fairly constant temperature… keeping it cool is one thing but combating the lack of humidity is something else completely!

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The situation in West Clare is a different one: I have a dehumidifier going at the moment to keep the humidity at least below seventy. Heating, especially the woodstove, will dry the place a bit during the winter but I have never seen relative humidity go below the low/mid fifties. The (second half of) summer is something else too, sometimes the hygrometer goes up inside, you open a window to get some ventilation only to see, within the hour, the humidity go into the mid nineties. During bad years, mould will grow.

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keeping it cool is one thing but combating the lack of humidity is something else completely!

They are in fact very related. When air gets hot the molecules expand and can take on more water, in fact they are thirsty for it. So in conditions of low humidity it is best to keep your instrument in a cool place. Nothing is worse than low humidity, heat and wind together.

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When the Humidity changes radically and quickly, or when an instrument is transported to a very different climate there can be problems with the wooden parts especially an instrument made from 'new' wood but blowing air through the instrument in this situation can cause much greater shock.

 

Older instruments should not suffer so greatly because most woods appear to stabilise with time . Those Concertinas that we now call Vintage, and especially those from the more prestigeous models, will have been made from very well seasoned woods in the first place and, if treated carefully during these seasonal changes, as in allowing, somehow, a more gradual transition in humidity , there should be no great problems.

 

Nothing like the difficulties that Uilleann Pipers have with their Reeds!! But I have noticed that if these Cane reeds are used for more than five years they become far more tolerant to changes in weather.

 

Incidentally, I own a 'new-ish' concertina ( less than 10 years old) which started life in Europe,continued with a sojourn in a very dry part of the USA and then moved to Australia. When I got it, last year, I noticed that there had been some small amount of wood shrinkage which caused a few reeds to be too tight in the reedpan slots but over all it has survived very well.

Edited by Geoff Wooff
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When air gets hot the molecules expand and can take on more water, in fact they are thirsty for it.

 

That's why it's called "relative humidity", expressed as a percentage.

 

E.g., 50% humidity means that the air contains half (50%) as much water as the maximum it can hold at the current temperature, but the maximum for warm air is greater than for cool air, and much greater for hot air than for cold air. Differences in humidity will tend to equalize, with water moving from the more humid to the less humid, and greater the difference, the greater the rate of transfer.

 

So with air at 20% RH, the water in your lungs will evaporate so quickly that it feels like it's being sucked out of you. At 90% RH, even if you're not sweating you're likely to feel "sticky", as water doesn't evaporate from your skin quickly enough. At 100% RH, the air starts to drip, even if there are no rain clouds overhead. That last can happen if humid air cools, because then the maximum water that it can hold becomes less, and when it becomes less than what it already holds... oops!

 

Getting back to concertinas: Water molecules travel much more slowly through wood than through air, so a significant difference in humidity between the wood and the air will remove (or add) water from (to) the surface of the wood faster than it can be transferred from (to) the deeper layers. Drying wood shrinks and wetting (is there another word for that?) wood swells. If the difference in volume between the outer and deeper layers of the wood is too great, you can get twisting and even cracking. Gradual changes in humidity are less likely to do that, because there is time for the slow flow of water within the wood to equalize the humidity throughout.

 

That latter happens in a couple of my concertinas. Making sure that humidity changes are gradual avoids warping and cracking, but the reed pans can shrink (or swell) enough for some reed frames to become loose (or pinched) in their slots, resulting in funny noises or no sound at all. When this happens, all I have to do is take out the reed pan and reseat all the reed frames. (I could do only the few "culprits", but doing them all insures that I don't have to do it again for 6 months, when the seasons change again.)

 

And for what it's worth, I've only had this problem with my larger concertinas. I'm guessing that it's because the smaller reed pans of my standard-size concertinas don't show enough total change (where I live*) to cause the trouble.

 

* Caveat: In places with more extreme temperature/humidity changes, I wouldn't be surprised to need to adjust a treble English or 30-button anglo, as well.

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I had a note from Wim about my Peacock and he said to keep the humidity between 30%-50%:

 

"The only thing you need to do is to monitor the humidity, keep it between 30-50% rel. humidity. I would invest in a (de)-humidifier depending on your situation. Your local music store might carry the small ones that they use in violin cases etc.."

 

In Ontario, Canada this can be quite challenging.

 

In the summertime I have seen the relative humidity hang around 70-80% indoors. This year was particularly wet and it topped 90% at times. For the first time ever we have had a mould problem both indoors and outdoors, I hope that this is not a forewarning of things to come ...

 

In the winter, it gets very dry and cold. If it is really cold then raising the humidity with a humidifier too much causes constant heavy condensation on the windows, doors and any poorly insulated outside walls. More mould!

 

We actually used a mould bomb ('Mold Bomb' in the US) inside the house this year to try to combat this development.

 

Dehumidifying in a non-air-conditioned house is tricky. I have had some success by keeping two of these inside the concertina case along with a small hygrometer:

 

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They are intended for gun cases. I bought mine from Amazon.com, but I have seen them elsewhere, or you can make your own.

 

To humidify during the winter I have a little plastic tray (a pill case actually) that I filled with some open cell foam (you could use some sponge). I soak the foam with water and squeeze it out so that it is just moist. I put that in the case again with a hygrometer. Occasionally, I have to remove the tray if the humidity rises too high. Mostly it stays around 50-60%.

 

I am not really sure if I am doing the right thing because in both cases I am keeping the humidity at an artificial level different from the ambient room humidity so there will be quite a humidity change whenever I take the instrument out of its case. I suppose that I should be using air conditioning and humidifiers throughout the house, but so far I have resisted that option.

 

 

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When I lived at Pinewoods Camp (in an old cabin next to a pond; the humidity varied from high to higher) for a whole summer, I kept a cup of DampRid crystals in my melodeon case. I'm not sure that was the best possible thing I could have done, but DampRid was easily available at the nearby hardware store, and it was far from the worst thing I could have done....

 

As to the mystery of whether a seemingly airtight case is truly resistant to humidity changes, you could get a small hygrometer/thermometer for your case, and then a small humidifier or dehumidifier that fits inside your case depending on what your needs may be. You can conveniently see examples of all three of these here: http://www.buttonbox.com/accessories.html#Humidifiers (You may be able to find these locally at any musical instrument store, but if you wanted to, you could buy them at that link too! ;) )

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I am not really sure if I am doing the right thing because in both cases I am keeping the humidity at an artificial level different from the ambient room humidity so there will be quite a humidity change whenever I take the instrument out of its case. I suppose that I should be using air conditioning and humidifiers throughout the house, but so far I have resisted that option.

According to a guitar manufacturer I would consider fairly respectable, an instrument outside the case is never a problem as long as it's played because the natural humidity transmitted by the player via the skin is always sufficient...

 

I doubt that the amount of water vapor from the skin of a person -- even one who is sweating profusely -- would be enough to noticeably affect the humidity of the air surrounding the guitar. However, I suspect that a guitar would be much less susceptible to ambient humidity because its outer surface is protected by a finish and only the relatively slow process of diffusion through the sound hole would affect the humidity inside.

 

But using the bellows of a concertina forcibly and rapidly replaces the inside air -- that in contact with the various wooden parts -- with outside air.

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I am not really sure if I am doing the right thing because in both cases I am keeping the humidity at an artificial level different from the ambient room humidity so there will be quite a humidity change whenever I take the instrument out of its case. I suppose that I should be using air conditioning and humidifiers throughout the house, but so far I have resisted that option.

A problem is that after you've played your concertina, the air inside has been replaced by air from the outside. Once you've compressed the bellows, that's not a great deal of air at the wrong humidity, but it's still something. There's probably not a lot of air "at the right humidity" inside the closed case, either. Furthermore, when the concertina's in the case, there's no opening (no significant opening, even in a very leaky concertina), so even if you humidify (or dehumidify) the air in the case, I don't see how it can reasonably affect the air inside the bellows... which is in direct contact with the reed pan.

 

The ideal, then, would be to be able to open and close the bellows a few times in a humidity-controlled chamber before storing the concertina in its case. Maybe construct a small (but not too small) cabinet with a humidity control similar to what you're using for your case? One with a relatively small door opening... just enough to let you hold the concertina inside and work the bellows, but not big enough to allow significant exchange of air during the brief time it's open.

 

This is, admittedly, theoretical, since I haven't yet had to deal with the extremes of humidity that you and others have been reporting here.

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