As most oboists know, the winter months can be grueling on our reeds and instruments - especially for those of us who live in cold, dry regions. While there is no real 'preventative' measure to keep a wood oboe from cracking, there are things you can do to help significantly reduce the risk. Remember that wood instruments, just like anything wood (furniture, etc) are very susceptible to changes in ambient temperature, humidity, etc, and it's best to know how to help regulate these things in order to keep your instruments (and reeds!) happy through the winter!
First and foremost - never blow warm air into a cold instrument! While this seems obvious, it should always be reiterated. With hectic schedules and running from classes to rehearsals, gigs, and the like - there may seem like we don't have time to warm up the oboe before playing, but it is a crucial part of instrument care. Always make the time, even if you have to miss the first few notes of the rehearsal or your second oboist has to give the tuning note. The main culprit behind cracking is taking a cold instrument from its case and forcing warm, moist air through it. This stresses the wood and does not give it sufficient time to acclimate to the room temperature. The moisture then is able to get into the wood from the inside of the bore and force its way through the grains and cause a variety of cracks ranging from surface cracks to major cracks which require pins and tone-hole inserts. The best way to warm-up the instrument is to hold it between your hands or place the joints underneath your arms. Anything you can do to bring the wood of the instrument up to an acceptable temperature to play. During the winter months if you have to ship an instrument anywhere for repairs or especially instrument trials - allow the instrument(s) to sit, cases open, in a warm room for at least 24 hours before attempting to play them. Allow the instruments to reach the temperature of the room before playing them.
Humidification - there are many options for providing and keeping moisture in instrument cases; some will prove more effective than others. Our number one recommendation is the humistat. This is a handy product that helps you regulate the amount of moisture being released and will fit right in the case (usually where the reed case goes.) What's nice about the humistat is that it allows you to adjust how much or how little humidification you want whereas other products/methods don't allow this. The dampits, for example, are another option and can be good for especially dry months, but one must remain diligent on keeping the sponge moist at all times. Once the sponge dries out, the dampit is actually not doing anything. Keep them soaked until fully saturated in order to maintain the level of moisture in the case. The inherent problem with the dampit is you only get one level of moisture and no way to adjust how much is released - which is another reason you must keep the sponge moist at all times. Another method is the use of a piece of sponge placed in the case. Like the dampit, this can be very effective as long as the sponge is kept moist - a dry sponge is an unhappy sponge! This method along with the dampit is an effective method but there is no way to regulate the level of moisture in the case. Another thing to be aware of is to keep the sponge clean; check frequently to make sure the sponge is not molding in any way. If you see any mold remove the sponge immediately and throw it away!
Another thing we recommend is the use of orange peels in the case. This is an older method but something that we find very effective. Once or twice a month, place a few orange peels inside your case. Place them around the inside of the case and even put a small slice of the peel inside the bell. Leave the peels in the case for a few days until they start to dry out, remove them and throw them away. Leaving a dried out peel in your case does not help with humidity and can be a breeding ground for bacteria and mold. Simply use them for a few days and then throw them away. The peels not only introduce humidity into the case but the oil is good for the bore as well.
One final thought - oiling the bore. This is a well-debated topic by oboists and technicians around the world. When it comes to oiling the bore, we recommend oiling the inside of the instrument once every 2-3 months if you want to oil. To do this, we suggest an organic bore oil - we carry the Naylor's Organic bore oil - and turkey feathers. Put a light coating of the oil on a turkey feather and swab the inside of the top joint. This will help protect the bore from moisture as well as keeping water away from the tone holes. Leave the instrument to sit for 24 hours with the case open and then swab first before playing. Play long notes in the lower register of the instrument for 5-10 minutes and then swab again. If you have questions or concerns regarding bore oiling, please don't hesitate to call us and talk with our oboe department or repair department about this process.
Winter is always a challenge and can be very hard on all instruments, but we hope these tips will help relieve some of the aches and pains of the cold season. Don't forget that our specialists are always here to help with any questions or problems that may arise!