Violin + Bike + Cold
November 17, 2010 4:47 PM   Subscribe

Anyone have experience with biking their violin to and fro in a cold northern US climate? Should I be worried about it? Are the easy things I can do to minimize the chances of a string breaking, the finish cracking, or the wood warping?

I bike 7 miles each way to work. Once a week I have a lesson, so I bring my fiddle. I carry it in a very basic, old case inside my backpack. The ride to work is about 25 minutes, then a 10 minute ride to the lesson that afternoon, then back in two legs. The instrument isn't outside for more than 30 minutes at any point.

Is the cold a problem? My instincts tell me the bigger worry is getting myself crushed by a truck. But I already look like an idiot biking around with a violin sticking out of my backpack (and for various other reasons), but I don't want to actually become one by doing harm to the thing when I should've known better.

posted by kjell to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I've biked through Boston with my violin in the winter. It makes me very, very nervous - even after doing it for years I never got used to it. Once, I went around a corner in a windstorm and got blown over by a gust - and I grabbed my violin before anything else and ended up rather bruised. I'm a pretty die-hard cyclist and bike even in the freezing cold and snow, but I make an exception if I have my violin with me.

If you can't avoid biking... Mine's been out in the cold for 30 minutes at the most and suffered no ill effects, but it does make me nervous and I try not to do it often. However, I have a VERY insulated, thick case, which I think is essential. Without good insulation I wouldn't take it outside for more than a few minutes. Some violinist friends of mine have puffy "parkas" for their cases - you could probably get one of those for winter use.
posted by Cygnet at 5:14 PM on November 17, 2010

How cold does it get where you live? What kind of finish is on the violin?

I think the biggest risk is to the finish, especially if it's nitrocellulose lacquer. You can prevent damage to the finish by letting the violin sit in its case for a while after you take it inside. As long as it warms up gradually enough it'll be fine.

Or perhaps you could insulate the violin from the cold by wrapping a blanket around the case before sticking it in the backpack?

I transport my acoustic guitar in a TRIC case. They are very light and insulate guitars in temps from –50 C to +150 C. I don't know if there's anything like that for violins, but it might be worth inquiring about at a music store.
posted by keep it under cover at 5:21 PM on November 17, 2010

I used to bike with my violin in the northwest during the winter all the time, but definitely not 7 miles, or anywhere near it. Still, the way it worked for me was to get the kind of case with straps- I would sling it over my back like a messenger bag almost, with my other bags on the side. I think your best bet is a good case, this is similar to what I have. It will insulate your instrument from the weather and help with the moisture in the winter. I think you can buy a humidifier separately as well if you don't want to spring for one of the more expensive cases. Also, lots and lots of retuning.
posted by goodnight moon at 5:23 PM on November 17, 2010

I have virtually no specialized knowledge about musical instruments, but I do know quite a lot about wood. Wood is not much affected by cold. It doesn't shrink and expand significantly with temperature changes, so I doubt the cold itself is much of a threat to the structure or the finish. However, wood does shrink and expand quite a lot with changes in moisture content. The finish, be it shellac or lacquer, won't enjoy moisture either. If your violin gets very cold, and is then brought into a warm and humid environment, I'd be worried about moisture condensing on the surface, raising the MC of the wood and/or having some effect on the finish. So, aside from protecting the violin from obvious crushing hazards, I'd put it inside of a sealed plastic bag before leaving, and I wouldn't remove it from the bag until it had a little while to warm up again.
posted by jon1270 at 5:43 PM on November 17, 2010

As others have said, you have to worry about any drastic changes in humidity, and moisture. How air/vapor/water-tight is your case? If its a plastic or fiberglass one, that would be safest. I'd worry about a fabric softcase though.

As far as impacts go, I'd be sure to have a 'suspension' type case, where the only contact the instrument makes with the case is at blocks of foam, which hold the instrument by its edges, away from the sides of the case.
posted by Hither at 6:03 PM on November 17, 2010

"I doubt the cold itself is much of a threat to the structure or the finish...The finish, be it shellac or lacquer, won't enjoy moisture either."

No, cold very much is a threat, precisely because wood does shrink and expand with the temperature change. The wood expands more quickly than the lacquer, which causes the finish to crack. Moisture is actually not a threat as long as the finish is intact and the instrument is not soaking wet. In fact, guitar manufacturers recommend that you wipe down your guitar after every use with a damp cloth.

In a closed case, I really doubt humidity or moisture is a problem (unless rain or snow is actually seeping into the case itself). Humidity changes have to be quite extreme in order to have any immediately disastrous effects on an instrument.
posted by keep it under cover at 6:52 PM on November 17, 2010

Get a decent case, like the BAM Explorer, and whatever humidity control system your instructor recommends.
posted by halogen at 7:14 PM on November 17, 2010

Response by poster: Awesome! Thanks for all the answers.

I'm in Minneapolis, so it's not quite *cold* yet but it's getting there. My case is old, that's about all I can say: form-fitting to the violin, not one of the newer rectangular ones. It's made out of some kind of almost cardboard, but a thick and hard cardboard. Then there's a thin canvas sleeve that zips around that.

My plan from here out is to bike home. When I get back I'll see how far the tuning has fallen and check for any signs of cracking, but that should all be OK. I'll spring for a dampit or maybe an actual in-case humidifier. Then I'll read back through these again in a bit to make sure I think I know what I'm doing…
posted by kjell at 9:51 PM on November 17, 2010

In the winter, I used to carry my ukulele in its case inside of a big insulated shopping bag. I had to fit it in diagonally, but I was able to zip the outer bag. After I started using the second bag, I no longer had the long adjustment period once I got back indoors.

A quick google yielded only this picture of a bag of the same style: here
posted by bink at 11:10 PM on November 17, 2010

Best answer: keep it under cover: No, cold very much is a threat, precisely because wood does shrink and expand with the temperature change.

Really, that's incorrect. As explained in that link by Gene Wengert, former professor and extension specialist at Virginia Tech, researcher at the US Forest Products Lab and Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wood does not shrink or swell in use except if its MC changes....Temperature alone does not cause any significant size change in wood. Heating does causes moisture changes to occur faster.

That said, I totally buy that sudden temperature changes could threaten the finish due to rapid expansion and contraction of the finish, especially heavier finishes used on guitars, especially electric guitars. I also agree that a good case alone is likely to buffer temperature changes and prevent excessive MC fluctuations as well.
posted by jon1270 at 2:01 AM on November 18, 2010

I'm not sure about biking, but I remember that my mom used to drive my cello to school when it got below about 20 degrees (and my walk wasn't long). We also were really careful to humidfy it all winter, based on luthier recommendations.

However, that same cello spent 50 years in an unheated, uninsulated attic, and needed very little work when it came out. And it hasn't been humidified in years and is doing well. So while extremes aren't good for your fiddle, I'd say it's probably ok to have it out in the cold within its case.

But if I were you I'd also ask your instructor if they have suggestions for when it gets down into the teens.
posted by ldthomps at 9:08 AM on November 18, 2010

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