Harps And The Environment
Your stringed instrument lives in two worlds. It is both the hardy companion to your musical bent and a sensitive and fragile set of thin woods. With proper care, your harp should see you through your lifetime and well into the next generation.
Think of the cellular structure of wood when it was a living thing when it was a plant. The wood in trees is a cellulose material allowing the living organism to grow, expand, contract, wave in the wind and lean from the weight of snows. When a living tree becomes lumber, its outer protective coating is peeled off and its sensitive heartwoods are exposed directly to air. The lumber in your kitchen table or home is then kiln dried to remove the moisture trapped in the cellular structure. Kiln drying pulls the water out of the lumber at such a high rate that the fragile cell walls within the structure collapse, taking along with them the air pockets stringed instruments rely on for internal resonance. Luthiers, such as William, prefer to use air dried lumber for their instruments. Air dried woods respond better as instruments and, because they have retained more of their intended cellular structure, can be more environmentally resilient than kilnned woods.
One of the two most important things to remember as you strive to preserve your instrument is that, under nominal conditions, instrument woods will adjust to most benign environments. The primary danger to woods is an actual, sudden change of environment. The classic example is receiving the crate with your new harp inside during January at your home in Montana. Excitedly, you manhandle the crate inside, rip it open and pull your harp out into the warmth of your 80 degree home. Your harp has just been pulled from five degrees to eighty degrees in a period of three minutes. It is the rapidity of the change, rather than the warmth, that becomes the threat.
Wet: woods swell in high humidity. As moisture creeps into the inner cellular structure it evenly expands. If your instrument is always in a wet environment, it should go through its initial expansion and then stabilize. Your kitchen table, lacking the even distribution of undamaged cells, will sometimes crack as the woods attempt to distribute the stresses associated with internal expansion. The other thing to keep in mind is that air conditioners are not good for woods in the same way they are not good for your skin. If you keep your home bonedry but live in a humid area, you risk cracks in the instrument's soundboard which Chapstik cannot heal. If your instrument is moving into a humid region from a dry one, it will require retuning. It is better to retune often as the piece is going through its expansion rather than to let it sit for several weeks and then introduce a sudden increase in pressure.
Dry: as one would expect, low humidity is the reverse of high in terms of the structural nature of woods. Wood can lose so much moisture that it becomes brittle. Your skin will also be flaking off at this point so you have a builtin early warning system. If you need to humidify the air in your home for the sake of your tissues, the same will be true of your harp. Again, the key is moderation and consistency. If you are moving your instrument from a wet environment to a dry one, loosen the strings a half step in tone. If you can, allow harps (especially) to settle in for several days before you retune. The harp will naturally stretch the strings and retain pressure as the soundboard falls.
Cold: the only really dangerous element of cold for instruments is the sudden differential described above. When going from warm to cold or cold to warm, your instrument needs to be insulated. If you have a padded case, use it. If not, wrap the instrument in blankets or towels. Once you arrive at your destination, keep the instrument cased or wrapped until the outside of the case has been at room temperature for several hours. If your harp is still icy when you open the case, zip back up and wait a while longer. If you take your wrapped harp from your warm house, to the inside of your warm car, to the warm inside of your harp teacher's home, do not worry at all. It is only when the instrument is left in the cold for a long period that you need to go through an extended acclimitization.
Hot: heat joins sudden change as the other serious menace to stringed instruments. Luthiers purposefully use wood glues which soften when heated (to 145°F) so that a harp or guitar can be disassembled for servicing 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 your harp in your bay window unless the sun is never on that side of your home. Do not leave your stringed instrument anywhere that will be exposed to sun as the light moves across your room during the day. Never leave any stringed instrument in a car on a hot day. If it is too hot for you to sit in the car, with all the windows closed, in the direct sun, without sweating it is too hot for your instrument. Car trunks are even worse. The simplest rule of thumb is that the same environments which are comfortable for you are appropriate for your stringed instrument.
[Harp Care Hints] [911 Harp] [General Articles]
[Download Resource Articles] [Search the Rees Web Site] [Web Site Map]
© Wm. Rees Instruments, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2002
222 Main Street, Rising Sun, Indiana 47040 • voice: (812) 438-3032 • web: http://traditionalharps.com
The address of this page is: http://traditionalharps.com/HarpCareEnvironment.html