TAKING CARE OF YOUR INSTRUMENT : (1) AMBIENT HUMIDITY
The humidity of the air is probably the most important factor of didjeridu care to consider, depending on where you live.
To make things clear from the start : an authentic Aboriginal didjeridu requires a certain amount of care and attention. Yidakis in Arnhem Land are traditionally cut green, i.e. worked out of a log within days of cutting the tree and then left untreated except for the occasional layer of paint. They are not usually made of well-seasoned wood like "western" instruments are. In Arnhem Land, they don't need to be.
If you live somewhere where the humidity is (sometimes) low, then you need to artificially compensate for the difference in climate. Even if you do this, there is no way to completely guarantee that a didjeridu will never develop cracks, other than smothering it inside and out with something like an epoxy varnish, which will affect the sound, look, and naturally the integrity of the instrument. However, if you're unlucky and cracks do appear, they can usually be fixed. We hope to have a page available on repair techniques in the near future. Meanwhile, prevention is better than a cure...
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Despite first appearances, wood remains "alive" long after the tree has been felled: that is to say, the wood continues to "work" (twist, expand and contract), due to temperature and especially humidity.
When wood absorbs humidity from the air, it expands. If the air is dry, it contracts.
If you live in an area where you have a cold season, you will have the following situation: as the temperature of the air outside cools, the amount of moisture it can contain reduces rapidly. You can see how this works in Spring or Autumn: the days are warm but the nights are cold. What happens? At some point the air cannot hold the moisture anymore and you get a mist and a layer of water deposited over the ground. As the temperature rises, the air can absorb more moisture again and the ground soon dries out.
So much for theory. Now for some specific facts:
- When a didjeridu leaves Arnhem Land, the water content of the wood is still high. In the hold of the plane, they are subjected to a very long trip at temperatures of around -40°C and very dry air. One big shock, even if the instrument has been packed really well. Instruments quite often arrive with cracks.
- If it's wintertime in the northern hemisphere, then the relative humidity in Arnhem Land is usually 80% or more. In northern and central Europe for example, the humidity is usually around half that level. Inside houses, with heating, the relative humidity of the air drops again because the air's capacity to hold water has increased and thus the amount of moisture available from the air is reduced again, often to below 30%.
- The net result is that your didjeridu continually dries out, especially on the outside. The big problem comes when you start playing it. The inside of the didjeridu is damp, and the outside is dry. The inside of the instrument expands, while the outside is still contracting. Crack!
So what should I do?
- First of all, forget your intuition or feeling about the level of humidity in your home. Humans are particularly unaware of low humidity, though a humidity level of somewhere around 55% is said to be optimum for our bodies.
- Buy a hygrometer, if possible well before your instrument arrives. A hygrometer is a device for measuring the relative humidity of the air. A digital hygrometer is often cheaper and more accurate than all but high-end analogue devices and does not need to be adjusted regularly like analogue models do. They also often have a max/min feature so you can see how stable the humidity has been over a set time. Digital hygrometers are often combined in all-in-one devices with a digital clock, thermometer etc.
- Buy a humidifier. This is the only reliable way you can raise the level of moisture in the air. There are many models to choose from, using various methods of getting the water into the air, and the price range is very large too. It's worth getting a better model with an economic use of electricity as it will be running 24 hours a day in the colder months.
- Maintain a constant humidity in the room where you keep your instruments. You may want to put your didjeridu in a room where you keep other wooden or partially wooden instruments like a piano, which will also stay tuned longer when the humidity is maintained at a constant level. Recommended minimum relative humidity 50-60%, absolute minimum 40-45%. Check your hygrometer regularly !
- Seal your instrument. Purists may not want to do this as it impinges upon the integrity of the instrument, but a protective layer on the wood means that temporary abrupt changes in the humidity level (like when you play or travel for example) are buffered. We recommend oiling (not varnishing) the inside. Oiling affects the sound minimally if you use well-penetrating oils, and still allows the wood to "breathe" so that the level of moisture in the wood can adjust slowly over longer periods. The outside of the instrument may need several different treatments depending on how it is finished. For more details, see the page on sealing didjeridus
- Break your instrument in slowly. Play for very short periods at first, building it up slowly: say 5 mins max. for the first day or two, then 10 and so on.
- Rotate the didjeridu when you play. If you don't, saliva will gather and all run down the bore in the same place.
- Try to avoid playing extended sessions and then not at all for days afterwards. This will rapidly saturate the inside of a dry instrument and then it will dry out again quickly too.
- Holidays. No-one at home for a week or two to fill the humidifiers. Arrange a "didjsitter" or put several humidifiers on time-switches while you're gone.
- Transport. Always use a special didje bag or other insulating material (bubble foil, blanket etc.) when you move your instrument from place to place so it is protected from shocks in temperature and humidity and against knocks. A knock when the wood is under stress due to changes in the air can be fatal.
- Luck. You will need a bit of this, no matter how much care you take. Some didjeridus are more sensitive than others. There is no way of knowing this for sure in advance.
- Look after your didjeridu and it will look after itself. A neglected instrument often reacts negatively. If you can't look after your instrument(s), consider letting it (them) move on...