March. Even in Sweden, the sun occasionally shows its shy face, and the days get longer and longer. What used to be the usual boring weather becomes all of a sudden a pressing matter for the harpsichord owner: it gets too dry. Not surprisingly, this has been a problem at all times, as you can read in Robin’s new post about an unlucky Schiedmayer fortepiano.
Usually mid-December is where things go dry in these parts. Any relative humidity lower than 40 per cent brings one’s instruments into the soundboard crack risk zone. Some of the changes that happen to wood in extreme conditions are not reversible, as this excellent article explains. In any country where the outside temperature can drop below freezing point, harpsichord owners need to have a good humidifier (and a trained dog to refill it).
The first humidifier in our house was an electrical fan, mounted above a container with water, that turned so fast that it tossed a mist of water drops up in the air. I loved crouching above it and getting my face all wet – this shows how long ago this happened. This gadget was quite useful as a humidifier, but it made a hyperactive combined whine and hiss, and it also distributed an indissoluble layer of mineral matter on surfaces such as keys and instrument lids.
The humidifier of my student days was based on evaporation; here, a zigzag strip of thick blotting paper was immersed in water and the fan blew cold air along the wet paper. The whole machine was only moderately effective to begin with, especially in combination with the drafty Dutch way of not-fitting their single-pane windows. In this case, the residue from the water stayed in the paper which had to be replaced every two months. Other humidifiers that I tested were either noisy as industrial vacuum cleaners or huge as a freezer box (or both); some spread a sinister white mist around where they stood without affecting much of the rest of the room. Others emitted convulsive boiling noises at ten-minute intervals. One had a fan that needed to be coaxed into working every month or two and developed a high-pitched squeak, while the fan axle wasn’t accessible for the application of the necessary half drop of oil.
It is a little confusing to realize that, simultaneously to making and selling such utter rubbish, humanity has had the capacity to develop functional rat-traps, computers and triangular toothpicks. No wonder the people from Venta ended up giving their excellent products a very high price: they let us pay for the fact that nobody else was able to figure out how easy it is to make a great humidifier.
The Venta works according to the same evaporation principle as my student-house paper fan, but the water is blown away from a stack of very many slowly turning slotted wheels made from solid plastic – the various models differ in the number and size of these stacks of wheels (I run a one-stack model upstairs in severe winter conditions and a two-stack model downstairs during every winter. This is enough for my whole house). These machines are effective according to the specifications given by the manufacturer, possible minerals from the water stay in the machine and can be cleaned away if necessary. Additionally, dust is being sucked in the apparatus and stays in the water. Their noise is relatively low. As said before, their price isn’t. We’re paying for the invention – not for a fan, a container and a stack of plastic wheels. Still: this is the best solution of all, in my experience.
As the old spoof ad about the fire extinguisher goes: the best humidifier is useless if you’re not at home. My solution for Decembers abroad is this:
You need a bucket for every instrument. Stuff this bucket with tightly rolled-up, vertically arranged newspapers. Fill it with water, re-fill until the newspapers are completely soaked through, place right under the instrument. Adjust your central heating to a frost-safe minimum. Take care that no direct sunlight reaches the instrument. Don’t miss your plane/train.