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General Stringed Instrument Care and Tuning

Acclimatisation:    When receiving a new instrument, bear in mind that it may have been built or restored in a very different climate to your own. It should be acclimatised very slowly to the new environment. Keep in a case/box when not in use. For instructions in converting a posting box to a serviceable case, follow the Box-building link.

Tuning:    Tune up slowly, and make sure you have a pitch pipe or tuning meter handy, and that you know the correct tuning so you don't over tighten the strings. All old instruments should be strung with only light gauge strings, as they are fragile to varying degrees because of their age.

Buzzes:    You may find there is a metallic rattle on the odd string when you first tune them up, particularly when changing strings.

  1. check that the cover on the tailpiece is not touching the strings, if it is, bend it up.

  2. where there is a zero fret, check that the slot behind the fret not to be cut deep enough for the string to touch the zero fret. The slot can be deepened with a penknife or a needle file. Where there is no zero fret, check the nut slots as below.

  3. the slots on the bridge saddle may not fit the string exactly. First check the bridge is in the right position (see intonation), then slacken the string, examine string seating with a hand lens, the saddle should stop the string cleanly. Adjust with a small file and tune up and re check.

Intonation:     Mandolin and bouzouki bridges move! They should be placed so that the note fretted at the 12th is in tune with the harmonic at the 12th fret. With a plain bridge, it often needs to be at a slight angle with the treble end closer to the nut and the bass end closer to the bottom. With a compensated bridge, the depth of the compensation may need to be adjusted slightly. Check all 4 strings to get the best compromise of bridge position, perfection is not physically possible.  

Relative Humidity:     Keep a check on the relative humidity. Keep the humidity in the case/room between 45% and 55%. Remember this will be changed by the outside temperature as well as the humidity. A hygrometer can be bought fairly cheaply.

Old Italian mandolins especially need to have humidity controlled, as there is no protective varnish on the tops of most. It will also be necessary for many other instruments, to ameliorate the differences between temperature and humidity changes from season to season.
This is a 'Planet Waves' small case humidifier designed to fit in small instrument cases.

Ideal for keeping the case humid in dry conditions.

Retails at around 12

This is a 'Planet Waves' temperature and humidity meter, small enough to fit in a case. 

It is necessary to keep a check on both.

Retails at around 25

Cold or Dry Conditions:    Sudden temperature changes can be dangerous for stringed instruments. When going from warm to cold or cold to warm, your instrument needs to be insulated. If you have a padded case, use it. When the instrument is left in the cold for a long period, you need to warm-up very slowly

The heating is often on when it is cold, and cold air can hold less moisture. This is when humidity can drop to dangerous levels. (Below 40% at 24*C) Wood will shrink in very dry conditions, and cracks may appear in your instrument.  Particularly in softwood parts such as the top. In very dry weather always keep your instrument in a case, with a bowl of water next to it to keep up the humidity. 

Heat:     Luthiers purposefully use wood glues which soften when heated (to 145F) so that an instrument can be disassembled for service when necessary. Direct sunlight is hot enough to soften the glues in your instrument and weaken or destroy the joints in the piece. Do not display any instrument anywhere that will be exposed to sun as the light moves across your room during the day. Never leave any of your instruments in the car on a hot day - it is too hot for your instrument.

Damp & High Humidity:     Never store your instrument in a damp place, eventually the neck or other parts will warp as they soften up. In extreme cases the glue may be affected too. If you live in a very humid climate, silica gel in the case can help to absorb some of the moisture. Warm air can hold more moisture, and heating is off. High humidity is dangerous, (>60% at 24*c) will cause the instrument to swell.

Moisture Content:  Wood for instrument construction is dried to a 6-8% "moisture content" in the US, whilst in Europe to 12-15%. To maintain this level of MC a relative humidity of 45% is needed, or 55% for European instruments.

Possible Effects of Indoor Humidity
Winter: cold, central heating on full Spring, Summer, Autumn: damp, warm
Less than 30%, TOO DRY More than 60%, TOO WET
Damage to wood floors, furniture, MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS Termites, cockroaches, and other insects
Static electricity; electronic equipment damage Condensation and stains on walls, ceilings, windows
Increased dust Flaking paint and peeling wallpaper
Respiratory, throat, and skin irritations Mold, mildew, dust mite growth; allergic reactions
My instruments are made and repaired in an ambient humidity of around 45-55% in my humidy-temperature controlled workshop.

For assistance or problems with an instrument, contact me.

Enjoy playing, I do, Dave Hynds