Weather-and-Banjos-300x194There is an old folk tune in which the lyrics are:
Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah,
Someone’s in the kitchen I know;
Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah,
Strumming on the old banjo!

While this song has been popular through the ages, I cringe when I hear it. The reason is that I am a banjo player. Now, that may sound very odd and off the wall but listen to the reasoning.

The chances are that if Dinah and the banjo player were in the kitchen, then that means the old wood stove was probably fired up with a kettle of water heating on it, pouring steam and humidity into the air. The wood stove had to be roaring hot, and with the kitchens so small back then, could you imagine the heat and the humidity that was surrounding that poor banjo? The lyrics should have been:
Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah,
Strumming a flat tune on the old, cracked and warped banjo.

So, what is the problem?

Banjos are very sensitive creatures, just as all wood instruments are. The environment in which the banjo is in greatly affects the sound, and that is a big deal. Since the banjo is constructed mainly of wood, it is influenced by the alterations and inconsistencies in temperature and humidity. Most banjo experts agree that the ideal climate for optimal quality of sound from a banjo is 70-77 degrees Fahrenheit and between 35%-45% humidity.

When there are abrupt fluctuations in temperature and exposure to the cold, cracks will form in the finish known as “lacquer checks” that the warranty from the manufacturer will not cover because it is considered neglect. Exposure to extreme heat or cold can warp the wood. If a banjo is left in the car in the sweltering heat with no air circulation, the lacquer finish will often blister and/or peel as well as changing the shape of the wood causing the resonator or neck to warp.

Since banjos are mostly wood, they are magnets for moisture and draw moisture from the air around them. Despite its looks, wood is not as solid as it may seem. It is made up of millions of tiny cells that hold moisture which allowed the tree to thrive in dry conditions. Humidity in weather conditions causes the wood to hold moisture, causing it to swell and expand. This is not normally a problem, and there will be no permanent damage if there are gradual increases in humidity. Problems are caused by the combination of high heat and high temperatures. Sometimes this will cause the glue to soften and open the joints. Humidity can also cause the banjo neck to curve and arch back in dry weather and bow up in high humidity requiring a truss-rod adjustment.

If a banjo is constructed of several types of wood, there may be a variety of reactions to the humidity going on at the same time since different types of wood have different moisture contents. This can cause joints to come apart, waves in the structure of the grain, twisting of the neck, loose braces, uneven frets, or cracking near the pickguard.

If there are dry spells in the weather, a humidifier should be kept in the case. However, when a banjo player is in dry conditions and needs a humidifier but is low on cash, here are a few tricks on solving the problem with homemade humidifiers:
• Half-a-Potato Trick: To maintain humidity in the case, place half of a potato in the string compartment so that the compartment is slightly open. The potato will release a small amount of moisture as it withers away. The potato must regularly be replaced, and works best in an emergency situation.
• Plastic Soap Container Trick: Drill holes in the top of a plastic soap container and place a damp sponge inside. Place in the string compartment.

There are two main types of heads: plastic and calfskin heads.

Plastic heads are currently used in banjos. While not affected by humidity as much, heat is detrimental to a plastic head as it softens, stretches, and loosens the plastic. Tightening and adjusting the head under average temperature conditions will improve the sound of your banjo and keep it in tune longer.

Calfskin heads provide a warm tone and have been used since banjos were first constructed. Skin heads will become loose or will expand with a rise in humidity and will contract and tighten with lower humidity. Care must be taken in tightening skin heads in high humidity because if the level drops, the head will split when the moisture evaporates, and the head shrinks. To adapt the banjo to these rises and falls in humidity, it has been suggested to have two or three different bridges in various heights on hand to adapt to the fluctuations.

Banjos survive best when stored indoors in a latched, hardshell case or delta banjo case made specifically for that type of banjo.
• Hardshell cases have a firm, non-flexible exterior and protect the banjo if dropped.
• Delta cases are constructed with an internal wood frame and a plywood back and top. They are layered with foam to absorb any shock or rough handling and built-in pads to protect the neck and peghead.
• Wall hanging: If a banjo must be hung and displayed as a work of art or for easy access, hang on an inside wall away from direct sunlight, drafts, heat and air conditioner vents.

While cases do not protect a banjo from the heat and cold entirely, they do offer a haven for the instrument to protect it from dings and nicks when not in use. If bringing the banjo in from the cold or heat, leave it in the case for a while so that the banjo can temper to the climate of the room. It is not advisable to hang a banjo open on the wall, to lean it on a chair or sofa, or set it next to a heat vent or radiator. Cases can control a good deal of the temperature and humidity a banjo may be exposed to.

When traveling with a banjo, the following safety measures should be in place to protect the instrument:
• Store in a hardshell case or a delta case to protect it from dents, chips, and temperature and/or humidity changes. Hardshell cases offer more protection than a gig bag or soft, padded case. A sturdy case is a must if traveling on an airplane.
• For traveling in a car, carry the banjo inside the car where the temperature can be controlled. Cover with a sheet or blanket to avoid exposure to direct sunlight. If packed in the trunk, the banjo could freeze or become overheated.
• If traveling by air, ask if the banjo can be brought on board where the temperature is constant. Some banjo owners have even gone as far to purchase an extra seat at half fare to ensure the protection of their instrument.

Banjo players need to take temperature and humidity conditions seriously. This way, the instrument will give a lifetime of enjoyment!