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Caring for Your Kalimba

Hello friends and fellow kalimbaphiles and kalimbistas! In this post, we’re going to explore an important but oft-overlooked aspect of owning a kalimba, and that’s caring for it.

About This Guide

The kalimba may have rich and storied origins, but the modern format of it is relatively new, and unlike other wooden instruments, not much has been written or studied about its proper care.

cracked kalimba
It’s painful to look at! D: Photo courtesy of u/kpjformat on Reddit.

As such, we’re going to have to borrow some proven information and practices from experts on other wooden instruments. For this guide, we’ve consulted information on guitars, violins, pianos, woodwinds, ocarinas, and many other types of instruments to get a consensus on care and then distilled the information into what we feel is most applicable to kalimbas. (We have linked to most of our applicable sources.)

What this guide isn’t is a be-all-end-all set of rules.1Like the pirate’s code, they’re more what you’d call guidelines. We don’t claim to be an expert on all kalimbas or all wood types, etc., so we encourage you to seek out your own information. (And, naturally, we take no responsibility or liability for what you do or don’t do to your kalimba based on our advice.)

That being said, this may become a living document as we learn more through observation, experience, and knowledge gained, but we have done our best to provide the most accurate information that we can.

We really want to help you care for your kalimba. And we especially want to help you avoid situations like the one in the attached photo. (The owner said they heard a crack, then later discovered their kalimba’s face had split down the middle.)

Let’s keep all of our kalimbas happy and well fed so we can avoid similar heartache, shall we?2Frequent walks with your kalimba are encouraged but not required. 😛

A Wooden Instrument

Although some variety exists,3E.g., some kalimbas are now being made of acrylic and other materials the vast majority of kalimbas are made of wood. And, like all wooden instruments, kalimbas can be sensitive to both humidity and temperature, with some types of wood being very susceptible to changes.

Kalimbas are crafted or manufactured, and then transported to different areas around the world, often far from the native regions and climate of whatever wood(s) they are made of.

A Brief Primer on Wood

Most manufacturers do not disclose their factory processes or sources, so unless you buy your kalimba from a crafter or an artisan who cuts, dries, and maintains the wood themselves, it is nearly impossible to know if proper care was taken of the wood used in the kalimba before it reaches your hands.

The wood used in resonator box kalimbas is typically quite thin – generally about 2mm – 4mm in most areas, which can also affect durability. Comparatively, solid-body kalimbas can range from roughly 8mm – 15mm thickness on the same piece, in our experience.

Hardwoods typically come from tropical areas. How susceptible they are to moisture after the initial drying process is likely due to a lot of different factors, such as how porous the wood is. Paint and varnish – or a lack thereof – can also affect how the wood reacts to moisture or dryness.4 Kalimbas are often only varnished on the outside, but not the inside.

There is a ton to know about wood, and it’s actually kind of a fascinating read! (Who knew?) We’re focusing on care for this post, but if you’re interested, here are some example scenarios: 5Some woods can crack or split if dried too quickly during the initial process. 6While high-end guitar manufacturers often have climate-controlled (temperature and humidity) environments, it is unlikely that the same care is being taken for instruments that typically cost $15 – $40. That also throws up a possible flag when purchasing really inexpensive kalimbas. To be clear, we’re not suggesting that more expensive kalimbas specifically source correctly dried wood, only that it is less likely to occur with less expensive ones. 7Most woods shrink at different rates in different directions (e.g., along the grain or opposite to it), even to small degrees. Bamboo shrinks more in the outer wall than the interior. 8The durability of some wood varies between the heartwood and the sapwood. Sapwood is always considered perishable. 9The way the wood is cut – e.g., quarter sawn (more expensive) vs flat sawn – can affect how dimensionally stable it is. If you’d like to look up a specific wood, The Wood Database is an amazing resource, as is the Tonewood Data Source.

There are some really pretty kalimbas that use two different wood types, like this one from Eison, which combines mahogany and maple, or this one from Moozica, which combines koa and spruce.10Combining woods in this way raises questions for us, such as if the woods have similar expansion rates and if their grains are going the same direction. (Presumably so, but those are questions we would ask.) There are additional seams or joints involved here, which could be another weak point if excess stress is induced. We’re not trying to shy you away from these kalimbas at all, but if you live in a very humid-unstable area or are buying a kalimba as a gift for someone who may not be able to care for it properly, it may be something to consider.

Susceptibility of Wood Types

Here are most of the wood types we’e seen used so far for kalimbas; when found, we’ve provided information about how susceptible they are to humidity, which could include the rate of expansion as well as stability (e.g., expanding more in one direction over another). We’ll try to update this list as we find more wood listings and as we learn more about the topic.

This part will probably be a work in progress for a while.

Many wood types have similar names and/or origins, so we’ve done our best.11If you happen to be a wood expert and notice anything amiss or have anything you’d like to add, please contact us and let us know! (The most common ones are bolded.)12Kalimbas are also commonly made of gourds or coconuts, but we’re just talking about wood for now.

Wood TypeNotes
Acacia / KoaShrinks pretty equally (length and width), so considered stable. However, much research online indicates it may be prone to sudden cracking in dry conditions. And, anecdotally, all of the kalimbas we’ve seen cracking recently have been made of koa. (Produces a beautiful sound but is more delicate.)
AshUnknown
Bamboo“Somewhat stable”
BasswoodUnknown. But porous.
Birch
Bubinga 
Camphor
CedarModerate shrinkage and expansion
CherryResists warping and shrinking “extremely well”
Durmast
Elm
Fir
Iroko
Kiaat  (African Teak)Teak “stands up extremely well” to moisture exposure. Its durability is also mentioned repeatedly in this article. Hugh Tracey kalimbas are made from Kiaat, and that might help account for their durability. Anecdotally, we had a chihuahua try to gnaw on our Hugh Tracey, and he didn’t even scratch it.)
Lacewood
Locust“Very durable”
MahoganyResists shrinking and warping. However, there are many different types and grades of mahogany. Could be listed as “peach core”. Online forums suggest that it is very durable but might absorb a lot o water. Anecdotally, we have had cats knock these off of high tables and shelving with no noticeable damage.
Maple (curly)Moderate shrinkage
OakVery resistant to absorption and warping
Olive
Pear Wood
Pine“Stands up great to moisture”
Purple Heart
Rosewood / African Padauk
Sandalwood (yellow, black / ebony)
Sapele
SpruceModerate shrinkage. Listed in several forums as a common wood for instruments but that is very susceptible to moisture.
Walnut
Zebrawood

Humidity

Because wood is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs moisture from the air, a degree of care should be taken to both monitor and control the humidity levels your kalimba is exposed to. Interestingly, it is not the humidity you need to be concerned with, but the Relative Humidity (RH).13” Wood doesn’t always move with changes in humidity, just the relative humidity. The relative humidity is the ratio of the actual moisture in the air (absolute humidity) to the maximum amount of moisture the air will hold at its present temperature. The warmer the air, the more moisture it will hold. Because of this, it’s possible for the absolute humidity to change while the relative humidity remains the same. If both the absolute humidity and the air temperature rise at the same time, the relative humidity will remain constant — and the wood won’t move. ” http://workshopcompanion.com/KnowHow/Design/Nature_of_Wood/2_Wood_Movement/2_Wood_Movement.htm

The relative humidity indoors can be vastly different than outdoors, depending upon many factors, so simply reading up on the weather will not give you a good indication of what your kalimba is actually around, unless you spend most of your time outside.14” Relative Humidity a measure of how much water is in the air at a given temperature.  That’s why you will see a 100% humidity day in fall or winter at 48 degrees, and yet have so little humidity in the house at 70 degrees that your instruments can get damaged.” https://americanmusicfurniture.com/humidity-matters/

If the relative humidity is too low, the wood can shrink, causing cracking of the wood and buzzing tines. Too much relative humidity causes the wood to swell, which can put pressure on any seams, and the glue joints may come apart. The wooden bridge or bumper/backstop may also become damaged or loosened in either scenario.15Adapted / modified from https://americanmusicfurniture.com/humidity-matters/, based on our own experience.

Most wooden instrument sites recommend keeping the relative humidity at 40% – 60% and in temperatures of 65°F – 78°F or 18°C – 26°C.

So how do you monitor it, and how do you control it?

Monitoring Humidity

Relative humidity (RH) can best be monitored by using a hygrometer, which measures the moisture in the air. These can range drastically in price and accuracy. We were looking for the best of both worlds.

An online search led to the ThermoPro TP50, which supposedly (at least according to one article) has an accuracy range of 2%-3% RH. At a cost of around $10, it’s already a fairly inexpensive investment.

Our tests indicated that the readings became stable within about an hour or so. It has a “comfort” scale using happy faces (which almost immediately stopped working for us, unfortunately), and as a general rule, if it’s comfortable for you, it’s probably okay for your kalimba. It has some other nice features, such as the ability to switch between Fahrenheit and Celsius, as well as a high/low range from the last reset. (This feature is sometimes found on more expensive hygrometers for instruments, such as this one from Music Nomad.)

However, we also wanted to test hygrometers that were even less expensive.

And we came upon these guys, the AikTryee Mini Hygrometers. At a cost of about $6 for two of them, how accurate could they possibly be?

We did some data collecting over the course of several days, and (much to our surprise) they seem to pretty much hold their own with the TP50. They do seem to take much longer to stabilize, but within 2-3 hours, their readings were nearly identical to the TP50; readings were usually off by about 1% point (e.g., 53% vs 54%) RH and by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit.

two different hygrometers side by side
We found that the $3 hygrometer was just about as accurate as the $10 hygrometer when it came to measuring relative humidity.

One potential drawback of these little ones is that the ones we got apparently only measure the temperature in Fahrenheit. But they are reasonably accurate, super cheap, and small enough to carry in your kalimba in its case.

We plan to look into other hygrometers, especially for our international audiences. There are some really inexpensive ones on Aliexpress, such as these, which sell for about $1 with free shipping! They have both Fahrenheit and Celsius available. (Some of the models on there happen to look exactly like the ones we ordered from Amazon, so we’re very curious about that.)

We’ll update this post and create a new one as we test this and other things, so keep an eye on the updated date.

Controlling Humidity

For the most part, you either want to increase or decrease the amount of humidity around your kalimba.

Storage

Keeping your kalimba out in the open is subjecting it to all of the fluctuations that environment experiences, so it’s a good practice to keep it safely stored.

If your kalimba came with a waterproof case, this is probably the safest place to keep it. Our tests indicated that the case we used (the one that came with the Gecko “big boy”) did a really great job maintaining a different RH level than the external environment. It only changed over time as we kept opening it to check the hygrometer readings.

Another good place would be a closed environment, such as a cabinet or wardrobe.

If you have neither of those, a shoebox should work as a decent stand-in.

The goal is to create a controllable environment.

Also, it might go without saying, but you should probably store it in a place that is well guarded from animals and young children.

Climate Considerations

If you live in a desert or other dry-climate area (such as places where it is very cold), you might be dealing with a lack of humidity year round. Other areas are likely to experience low humidity in the winter, when the air is less able to hold moisture. (Among the online groups we are active in, we’ve noticed several kalimbas cracking in November and December for our Northern Hemisphere friends.)

In humid climates, you may have the opposite problem, with excess humidity being a year-round issue, especially in the summer.

There are a lot of different ways to add or remove humidity. Depending upon your budget, some require a little more monitoring or tweaking and upkeep than others do.

Adding and Removing Humidity

By far the cheapest way to add humidity is to simply set dishes of water in a cabinet or box where your kalimba is stored. There is little to no control over the rate it will evaporate, though, so be sure to closely monitor your hygrometer.

One tip we learned on a cigar aficionado forum (of all places) is to use condiment cups from a fast food restaurant and then cut slits in the lid to control the amount of moisture that escapes into the air. (This technique works for the water method or any of the absorbent bead methods.)

If you want a little more control for slightly more money, you can use floral or sensory beads, which absorb 100x their weight in water. They will release moisture into a drier environment or absorb it from a wetter one. However, you will likely need to experiment to reach the correct humidity level. Use distilled water only.

Cigar humidor beads look and react very much the same.16The package says they maintain 70% humidity, but their effectiveness will be determined by how many beads you use, etc. In fact, they may well be identical to the sensory beads – but at 4x the price. We paid about the same for 2 oz. of humidor beads as we did for 8oz. of sensory beads.

Is it because they’re all clear? (Smart marketing towards the cigar types?) Or do they absorb and release moisture at a special rate? What’s going on, here?

picture of a silica gel packet
A silica gel packet. Resist the urge to eat.

Well, we don’t know, but we aim to find out! We are currently experimenting with both of these bead types and will update this post and/or write a new one as we get results.

With these beads, you’ll need to drain the water, first. Size and opacity are your clues as to how much moisture is being held in the beads.

Silica beads are another option. They often come packaged with electronics and in bottles of vitamins, etc., – one might even have come with your kalimba! Instead of throwing them away, like the packet says (go on, be a rebel), have your family and friends stockpile them for you. And BAM! Free silica gel.

You can keep them in the packets, as is, if you primarily want to use them to absorb moisture. Or you can open the packets and put the beads in a container or breathable satchel of some sort (organza bags or used pantyhose would work well), if you plan to add moisture to them.

Silica gel can also be purchased inexpensively in slotted plastic boxes or cassettes. These beads are often colored and actually change color based upon how much water they contain,17Blue beads turn pink, while orange beads turn green. so they also more or less function as a very basic hygrometer, and you’ll be able to tell when to add more moisture. Same disclaimer on experimenting and using distilled water.18Superabsorbent polymers are often used to add larger amounts of moisture into the air for cigars. However, they require the use of propylene glycol (PG) to prevent mold growth, so we don’t really recommend them for that reason.

Another option is to control your overall environment on a larger scale by using water fountains or humidifiers / dehumidifiers. This will be a more expensive option that will require a lot of upkeep. However, it will allow you to make your own environment comfortable, not just your kalimba’s. And you’re important, too! 🙂

Maintaining proper relative humidity levels is one of the best things you can do for your kalimba.

Budget Adding HumidityRemoving HumidityDegree of Control
Ultra-Low Small cups of water
(such as condiment cups or ramekins)
Silica gel packets
(from vitamins, electronics, etc.)
Low to moderate
Low Floral or sensory beads (similar to Orbeez)
Silica gel box or cassette
Floral or sensory beads (similar to Orbeez)
Silica gel box or cassette
Moderate
Mid Cigar humidor beads Cigar humidor beads Moderate
Higher Humidifier
Water Fountain
DehumidifierModerate

General Wood Care

Living wood contains oils that it self-regulates. Once the wood is cut, it is dead and no longer produces or regulates these oils. Over a period of time, this can contribute to dryness or rotting, depending upon the environment the kalimba is in. Oil can help protect the wood from too much moisture, and it can also help it stay supple. Adding oil or butters to wood is often referred to as “feeding” it.

Varnished vs Unvarnished Kalimbas

Wood that has been varnished or lacquered19these terms are used interchangeably traditionally (but not always) will have a shiny finish. (This practice is more common on resonator box kalimbas.) If a wood has been colored (e.g., these kalimbas in blue, black, and orange), it almost certainly has a protective coating of some type.

The wood will still absorb moisture in vapor form, even through any place where the varnish or coating has been applied; however, oils or butters are unlikely to get through.20“Finishes can slow the drying of the wood, but they can’t stop. All finishes allow moisture to pass through in vapor form. You experience the inadequacy of finishes (and paints) to fully encase the moisture in exterior wood doors that swell and stick in the summer and shrink and allow air through in the winter, even though the wood is finished (or painted) on all sides.” https://www.woodshopnews.com/columns-blogs/finishing-both-sides-is-warped-thinking

When used, the coloring and/or coating is typically applied to the outside of the kalimba only, so most absorption would occur through the inside of your resonator box kalimba. (More on that coming up.)

However, you can still use oils to clean the protected surface.

Feeding Your Kalimba

How you “feed” your kalimba, as well as what and how often – and whether or not you even should, depends upon several factors, such as if your kalimba varnished or unvarnished, if it’s a resonator box or has a solid body, what type of wood it is made from, and how tolerant you are of tonal changes.

At the risk of sounding odd, caring for your kalimba is almost like a bonding experience with your instrument. 🙂

If you do choose to feed your kalimba, you should know a couple of things.

Structurally, occasional feeding is probably better for the wood itself and could help it last a long time.21Oils also help prevent mold and fungus from invading the wood, causing it to rot, though some wood is naturally resistant to rotting.

Tonally, there may be some changes to how your kalimba sounds. Wood is porous to varying degrees, and oil may fill in the pores. High-end instrument makers are very particular when it comes to selecting and placing wood, but this is probably not as much of a factor with kalimbas.

After talking with musicians, woodworkers, and kalimba manufacturers, as well as reading publications from expert luthiers22makers of stringed instruments, we have come to the conclusion that any sound changes to the kalimba should be minimal, and it is our opinion that the benefits of preventing your kalimba from cracking and other types of damage far outweigh the risk of any tonal shift.23Also, who is to say the shift would be unpleasant? However, we invite you to draw your own conclusion; whether or not you choose to feed your kalimba is, of course, up to you.

Regardless of these circumstances, do not feed your kalimba while it is “wet” or over-saturated. The oil or butter will seal the water (at least temporarily) into the pores of the wood, and it’s possible for the wood to split during normal expansion and contraction.

Don’t overfeed for the same reasons. Unlike bathing (yourself, not your kalimba), this is not a daily thing. If you live in a temperate area, once every 3 – 4 months should be sufficient,m perhaps even once a year. If you live in a very wet or very dry place, you may want to consider doing it once a month.

If your kalimba is extremely dry (e.g., really old and looks like it’s never been oiled), do NOT try to “super oil” it all at once. Instead, very lightly oil it once a week for about a month or so to avoid the risk of splitting.

Unvarnished Kalimbas

Kalimba Magic recommends moisturizing about every month or so and seems to lean towards shea butter, though Mark mentions it can darken and harden the wood over time. We recommend this one. (Hugh Tracey kalimbas are not lacquered.)

He says to rub it into each face of the wood and let it soak in for 20 – 60 minutes before wiping off. Mark is pretty much the expert on Hugh Tracey kalimbas, so we’re going to take him at his word. 🙂24Whether he advocates feeding once a month because he lives in the desert or as a normal practice for everywhere, we couldn’t say. Use your better judgment.

Shea butter has a very interesting feel and texture. It is initially hard, like a wax but will melt into your skin. It should buff into wood like a polish. It has a light scent that is not sweet like the almond oil is but is not generally considered unpleasant.

Sweet Almond Oil (cut with vitamin E oil) is also recommended. Having it premixed with the vitamin E will prevent the oil from going rancid (which wouldn’t be good). The one we’ve recommended has the sweet almond scent, which we find pleasant. You might want to do some additional research if you want something unscented.

Same idea: rub it on all faces of the kalimba and let it sit before wiping off. The length of time to let it sit there is really unknown at this point. We’ve seen instrument sites recommend anywhere from 1 – 10 hours. And at least one site claims it depends on the type of wood (and how readily it absorbs oil).

Varnished / Lacquered Wood

Since the coating is likely only on the outermost portions of the wood, you’ll need to oil it from the inside.

Owners of wooden ocarinas advocate plugging up all the holes and pouring a bunch of oil in. :O Owners of recorders and clarinets take a “less is more” approach and gently rub or paint the oil on.25Part of this is likely because of potential damage or contamination of other instrument components, like pads and mouthpieces. Considering the structure of the kalimba and the limitations of the size of the sound holes, as well as lack of easy drainage options, you may need to take a combined approach.

If you are able, you may want to wrap a thin cloth around your finger and sweep around the insides or use a paintbrush of some sort; however, you may also need to lightly pour some oil inside to coat hard-to-reach areas.

Never use any oil you think you might be allergic to. If necessary, wear protective gloves and/or take other precautions.

Oil / Butter TypeNotes
Shea ButterOkay to use. Preferred.
Sweet Almond OilOkay to use. Preferred. It is recommended to use one that has been premixed with vitamin E oil, which protects it from becoming rancid.
Bitter Almond OilDo NOT use. Oil is toxic.
Macedamia Nut OilOkay for use on wood but not recommended. Can provoke an allergic reaction in those allergic to tree nuts.
Avacado OilOkay for use on wood but not recommended. Can provoke deadly cross-reaction to those allergic to latex.
Mineral OilDo NOT use. Often contains additives that can react with existing oils. Greasy.
Linseed OilDo NOT use. Considered a “dry oil”. (Over time, oil hardens into a thick, resin-like coating.)
Olive OilDo NOT use. Promotes rotting.
Walnut OilDo NOT use. Considered a “dry oil”. (Over time, oil hardens into a thick, resin-like coating.)
Groundnut Oil / Peanut OilOkay for use on wood but not recommended. Known to be a highly reactive allergen that could be deadly for some people.
Camphor OilOkay to use. Recommended for camphor wood. 🙂 Has a very strong and distinctive scent.

Tines

Almost all kalimba tines are made of steel of some sort – be they spring steel or “ore metal” or any number of the various terms manufacturers use to describe them. (See our Kalimba Buying Guide for more information.)

Kalimba Magic recommends using ink erasers (like these) to clean up the tines. These erasers are made with sand and rubber, so they are a bit abrasive. It is probably best to use them on straight spring steel tines vs plated tines.26Tines that are super shiny and silvery in color are likely plated with nickel or chrome, while those that have a matte or satin-like grey finish are “naked”. (If you’re not sure, test it out in an inconspicuous place.)

To clean plated tines, one of the above safe oils or a little soap and warm water is recommended.

If your tines are rusty,27more likely to be an issue with unplated spring steel Kalimba Magic recommends using a little mineral oil and steel wool, as well as occasional use of mineral oil on the tines (just remember that it is not recommended for wood).

DOs and DON’Ts

Adapted from acousticmusic.org:

  • DON’T leave your kalimba in a vehicle or outdoors for any length of time, as temperature changes and exposure to the elements could be disastrous.
  • DON’T leave your kalimba in direct sunlight.
  • DON’T clean it with alcohol or harsh chemicals.
  • DO keep it in the case, when possible.
  • DO monitor and adjust the humidity levels.
  • DO give the kalimba time to acclimate to sudden temperature changes. (E.g., if the case is cold, and you are someplace warm, allow the case to warm up before opening it, and vice versa.)

That’s all for now! We hope this helps you keep your kalimba safe an happy. 🙂

Looking for a good starter kalimba? If it's within your budget, we recommend the Gecko. Find it on Amazon. Don't have Amazon in your country? Get $19 worth of free coupons for signing up on Aliexpress.

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