When you're picking out a violin case you usually have three choices of materials - compacted foam, wood, plastic/composite, or carbon fiber. There are benefits and drawbacks to each type as well as structural factors which contribute to safety and weight of each case. So, to break it down simply, here are some facts about each type of case:
Compacted foam - lightweight, low-cost, thermally protective; these cases are a good price point and weight option but one should be careful not to put the case under pressure.
Wood - sturdy, heavy, controls temperature moderately; a wood case will usually last a good long time, though they tend to be on the heavier side of cases. A good oblong wood case will provide lots of storage space and years of use, but lugging it around may be a chore.
Plastic/Composite - Many cases that are accidentally called "carbon fiber" cases, such as BAM Hightech Cases, are actually not carbon fiber at all, but a several-layer composite of ABS, Polycarbonate, or other plastics. Sometimes the carbon-fiber style appearance is misleading. These plastics provide a great combination of light weight, strength, shock absorbtion, and insulating properties.
Carbon Fiber - Very lightweight, strong shell, but low temperature control; carbon fiber cases generally provide sleek, extremely light-weight options with rigid and strong resistance to crushing forces when closed. They provide the structural protection you may find with a wood case while keeping the weight down, though these cases provide little thermal protection or shock absorbtion.
I find that a compact, lightweight case is safer for me to carry because I won't run into things and am not tempted to leave it somewhere. If you know yourself well, these factors should help you decide which case is a good fit for your needs in terms of price, durability, and size restrictions. The SHAR Professional series offers some of the benefits of both foam and a wooden shell, or choose the new American Case Eagle wood shell case. You can also choose from two different interior looks making the Pro and Eagle series very versatile.
Oh the Places You'll Go! (with your case)
You've bought a brand new case, and now it's time to show it off to the world! But no matter what kind of case you buy, you'll need to help your case out so that it can do the best job possible protecting your instrument. As a well-seasoned instrument traveler, here are some tips and tricks I've picked up:
By Car: Instruments are very sensitive to changes in heat and temperature, and even the most protective case won't prevent damage from heat or cold. Never leave an instrument in a car, if you can help it! When you drive somewhere with your instrument, make sure the case is not upside down - you don't want to put stress on the bridge! If you put the instrument in the trunk, make sure it's a heated trunk, and support it with boxes or blankets. Just like people, instruments don't do well if they are slammed into the side of the car!
By Plane (violin, viola): Yes, most cases are larger than the average carry on. But don't despair! Though there is no law that requires airlines to allow instruments as carrry ons, many airlines specifically mention instruments as allowable carry-ons in their policy statements. Check the individual airline's website for its official policy - some airlines are more musician-friendly than others. Consider buying a dart-shaped case, which fit more easily in overhead bins. However, I've never been on a plane (even small puddle-jumper planes) that couldn't accomodate my (16.5") oblong viola case! If you run into trouble, be firm (but gracious) with the gate agent, and explain that your case will fit in the overhead bin, despite appearances.
By Plane (cello): If you can, buy an extra seat for your cello (this is the way most professionals travel with their instruments). It's inadvisable to EVER check your cello - even the most protective case cannot guarantee protection against a luggage compartment.
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