What Every Ukulele Player Should Know About Humidity

In working with the ukulele community for the last 20 years I’ve witnessed the joy and fulfillment many times when someone finds that “special” ukulele. Those of us who are musically sensitive and find self expression through our music can really develop a strong attachment and bond with our most loved instruments. My friend Jerry Turney had this to say in that regard,

“It’s really the equivalent to our cultural dating tradition which allows us to find that perfect mate. The resulting special attraction and bond are much the same emotion that we find with the perfect spouse, the love we feel when we watch our children sleep and other special relationships in our lives. People today live hectic lives in an impersonal, unforgiving world and their families and their music are an important refuge from the insanity.”

I couldn’t agree more and I love my job in helping people find their musical match. We regularly get emails and calls from customers that are overjoyed with their purchase. Once in a while though we get an email from a distressed customer whose cherished ukulele has developed problems or even cracked. While we do our best to help these people, many times these issues are a direct result of them not being aware of their environment and the affect it has on their ukulele. The biggest issue, especially this time of year, is the lack of humidity in peoples houses. So let’s look closer at why this problem exists and what we need to know to make sure our instruments stay healthy.

Wood always contains moisture and it swells or shrinks as its moisture content changes. If you have a solid wood ukulele then it needs to be kept between 40%-60% relative humidity (RH) so the thin panels of wood do not fluctuate too much. Higher than 60% and the wood will swell which can cause higher action, quick corrosion of your frets, and in extreme cases a bridge or braces can come loose. Below 40% and the wood will shrink causing even worse problems. The top and back will sink in, often causing loose braces or separation at the seams, the action will often become lower creating fret buzz, the frets protrude from the fretboard causing them to become sharp (metal does not shrink like wood), the body wood can pull away from the binding causing separation, and the wood can only shrink so much before it….cracks! This is is not uncommon. Since the vast majority of issues come from excessive dryness we’ll focus on that.

Many parts of the world are known to be very dry. In the United States portions of Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming, and California are actually classified as desert regions and ukulele owners that live in these areas have learned (sometimes the hard way) just how important it is to raise the humidity level where they store their ukuleles. Jerry, who I quoted earlier, lives in a part of Arizona that’s usually under 10% relative humidity. He has a process that has successfully cared for his ukuleles for many years. When not playing he keeps them in their case with one Oasis OH-5+ hanging in the sound hole and one at the headstock area. He notes, “The most important factor is consistency. Every Friday afternoon I religiously refill the humidifiers in all of the cases. I don’t like it to get below half full. Also if the humidity level goes even lower than normal, or with my larger instruments like tenor guitars, I have travel soap cases that I’ve drill holes in the top of and put a moist sponge in, not so wet that they can leak all over, but moist, and I will leave them in the case along with the Oasis humidifier hanging in the sound hole. Also I should note that I put a bread tie around the Oasis humidifier where it attaches to the strings if I am traveling to prevent it from falling into the instrument”. This might seem like a lot to get and keep up with but if you care about your instruments and live in a dry climate you have to do something like this, especially if you don’t have a quality room or house humidifier.

So customers in these types of areas know they have to address this issue but many problems come from seasonal environments with cold winters where customers heat their homes. In these areas it can seem like the humidity is fine from the weather report but it’s actually not. Let me explain. This is where understanding the difference in absolute humidity and relative humidity comes into play.

Air contains a certain amount of water vapor. The amount of water vapor any mass of air can contain depends on the temperature of that air: The warmer the air is, the more water it can hold. A low relative humidity means that the air is dry and could hold a lot more moisture at that temperature. So for example, at 32 degrees Fahrenheit a cubic foot of air can hold 5 grams of water. If that air is at 100% relative humidity and you bring it into your house and heat it to 77 degrees Fahrenheit then the relative humidity falls to a drastic 23% because at 77 degrees a cubic foot of air can hold 22 grams of water. If that 32 degree air you are bringing in is at 50% RH, then after getting heated it will be at 11% RH. Relative humidity is what affects your instrument and as you can see, most houses in the winter time get well below dangerous levels.

Getting a quality hygrometer that fits inside of your case to measure the humidity where your ukulele is will tell you what you need to do. Oasis makes one for this purpose but If you want to stay very informed of the humidity inside your cases at any given time Planet waves makes a cool new digital hygrometer called Humiditrak with an app that will show you all the details from your phone or computer and also sends you a notification if it gets below or above certain levels.

There’s a number of different instrument humidifiers on the market to choose from but you may also want to look at room humidifiers. Not only is low humidity hard on ukuleles, or anything made of wood, but it’s also hard on our bodies. Raising humidity levels to 45% greatly reduces risk of infection and air borne viruses. It improves your sinuses, skin, and as a side benefit it will make your house “feel” warmer even at a lower temperature so you can save on your heating bill.

Conversely, with very humid environments you want to take humidity out of the air. One way is with an air conditioner, but you should monitor the humidity levels because it can easily get too low if you’re using it all the time. There are also dehumidifiers you can buy for your room which are relatively inexpensive. For those that travel and encounter a variety of humidity changes Planet Waves also makes a two-way humidity system for your case that will add or deplete humidity as necessary.

Hopefully this article will be helpful in bringing awareness and help you take the necessary measures to ensure your ukulele is a healthy and happy musical companion for many more years. Let me know with any questions.

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Aloha!

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Aloha!