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Oud and the humidity problem

by Pablo D. A. Gonzalez

 

The humidity problem is a common one regarding every wood-built musical instrument. As you probably know, luthiers care about humidity content into their workrooms. For instance, I had the opportunity to see the work of an Argentinian luthier who builts European lutes. He use to keep burned a kerosene can all time (Buenos Aires is a very humid city!).

Ouds are not the exception. Indeed, they are instruments originally built in extremely dry climate countries. And it is common to use certain glues to fix some pieces, which eventually could detach themselves if oud is exposed to humid climates. Why Arabic luthiers use them? because it is easier to repair any problem. They just expose the problem piece to the steam of boiling water, and they are ready to repair it.

I suffered the humidity problem with my own oud. I discovered the most problematic piece to keep out of humidity is the bridge. Note that the bridge has to support string tension in a direct way, since strings are not connected with the bowl (for instance as mandolins are). The glue between bridge and soundboard is of that kind I mentioned above, since so it is easy to repair the soundboard if needed.

The bridge detached spontaneously when my oud was into its case. So I decided to refix it, but considering the high humidity Buenos Aires has, I began to investigate and finally I decided to use Carpenter's glue. I put bridge in position, then I put some heavy books above it to make some pressure (not much) by at least 24 hours. Warning!: an excessive weight could arch (and damage) the soundboard, be aware of it looking if soundboard keeps straight well! A friend told me how to make it, he is a French-Canadian lute player. It worked fairly well, since I did not had any other problem with it. Of course, the bridge will be fixed to the soundboard forever... not the best thing, but what else can I do? I am not a luthier!

We should care about the rest of the instrument, we must accept that oud's "useful life" is indeed shorter in humid cities. I use then to put some "silica gel" bags (dessecant) into the case, 2 or 3 of them. It helps to keep a drier "microenvironment". They must be replaced from time to time, when they "charges" themselves of humidity. Never keep oud (with or without case) into closets! they are generally the most humid places of the house!

Also it is not good to keep ouds into their cases for long periods of time. Humidity keeps trapped into them. So, if you are not playing your oud regularly, it is helpful to make it "take some air" outside the case from time to time.

Finally, the other problem with high humidity is the peg fixing. Wood from pegbox and pegs gets distended because it traps water, no matter if covered with some varnish. If you note some fixing, you can: 1) wait some days to see if climate changes spontaneously to a dried one, and then check what happens with pegs (if motion improves); 2) follow the counsels shown here (item 1).

I hope these concepts helps you against the humidity problem.

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