Flying with a musical instrument is always a scary business, one that’s especially unpredictable when your case slightly exceeds the official carry-on baggage dimensions–as do violins and violas, guitars, and of course nyckelharpas. A nyckelharpa in a soft case actually fits fine in the overhead compartment of most non-tiny airplanes, but first you have to win your way past the gatekeepers with their size-check rules, and then you may still require a bit of luck with your nearby fellow passengers. Whenever I fly with a nyckelharpa, I remain nervous right up until the point when the bins all close and the plane pulls away. (Pro tip: if you place your instrument in a bin across the aisle from your seat, rather than immediately overhead, you can keep an eye on it more easily while everyone else plunks their suitcases heavily on top of whatever’s already there.)
Flying with two instruments, though, that’s a dire prospect: there are almost no situations in which you can get away with carrying on both a nyckelharpa and a violin at the same time. Unless you want to hire a travel companion or buy an extra seat, you’re looking at checking one of your instruments as baggage. We’ve all heard plenty of horror stories about how that can turn out.
For my most recent CD recording project, though, there was no way around it: I needed both of my own instruments with me, and we were recording in Finland. With this new motivation I revived the “it’s time to invest in a flight case” project. Before that I’d spent several years periodically researching the options, each time giving up because the best answer I found sounded too expensive, or too heavy, or not quite the right size.
I’d determined that the optimal solution would have the following features:
- Big enough to fit the nyckelharpa in its soft case (so you can use just the normal case on arrival)
- Small enough to fit into normal-size checked-baggage guidelines
- Strong yet lightweight
- Cost maybe $200, not $500+
(Some options I had previously looked into: David Eriksson provided a helpful diagram of the custom-built plywood case he uses for flying with a second nyckelharpa, but even with wheels that sounded too heavy for me to manage. Industry leader Pelican’s nearest fit, the Pelican Storm iM3220, measures a little over the airlines’ regular-size maximum; Pelican’s minimum order for custom sizes is 1000 units. Earl Holzman had commissioned a custom case from CaseXtreme, but it was not roomy enough to hold also the regular soft case, didn’t look sturdy enough, and they quoted me $700.)
Happily, this time I had finally waited long enough for someone else to experiment for me: Vicki Swan, the preeminent nyckelharpa teacher in the UK, had posted a YouTube video detailing her experiences with the Pelican Storm iM3220 case. Yup, that’s the one I’d earlier worried was a few inches too big. She didn’t wind up having an issue with the size, and her video offers some instructions/advice about packing and padding securely. When I emailed her with a couple of followup questions, she was super-friendly and helpful. Sold!
I’ve now completed several successful trips with the Pelican case (to Finland, to Sweden, to California), and it has served me flawlessly. Nobody has yet challenged me about its borderline size, which is a relief since oversize baggage charges would run to about $150. It rolls well (or even drags pretty well, if you’re in such a hurry you forget to notice you started off with it upside down), feels super-solid, has handles at top and side that snap satisfyingly down flat, sports six secure latches. It shows some scrape marks from being baggage-handled but nary a sign of wear to the inside.
Want to replicate my results, or improve on them? Here are some guidelines. They draw from several sources: advice from Olov Johansson during the ESI course year in Tobo, Leif Alpsjö’s expert packing of my instrument for shipping, Vicki’s experiences with this specific case, and my own findings from several successful trips.
My nyckelharpa flight case solution
Pelican Storm iM3220 size 47.20″ x 16.50″ x 9.20″ 120cm x 42cm x 24cm weight empty 20.4 lbs 9.07 kg
airlines calculate linear size as L + W + H
our total = 72.9″ (186cm)
a common max = 62″ (158cm)
- Buy a Pelican Storm iM3220 case. (Google Shopping results.) Choose the configuration that’s empty, without their signature customizable padding: their foam is too thick, so you’ll need to get your own anyway. In 11/2017 I paid $235 at B&H.
- Line it with dense foam. My local fabric store sold me their standard sheet of 1″ foam for about $30, and it was pretty much the perfect amount. I used a layer on the top and bottom of the case, a double layer at the head and foot, and the rest became smaller pieces for further padding/stabilizing.
- Prepare the nyckelharpa: The tallest part is the fine tuners, so you’ll need to unscrew them all the way and take them out altogether. Detune all your strings as well, to help it cope with all the pressure changes. I leave them a bit slack but not so loose that I’d have to worry about the bridge coming down. (I also pad around the bridge; see below.)
- Set the nyckelharpa in its soft case into the flight case. Remember that you’ll want the tailpiece at the bottom and the head at the top, same as in your regular case. The standard gig-bag soft case fits, but barely: you’ll need to remove the backpack straps to set in alongside the instrument, else it will be too tall for the lid to close comfortably. If you usually carry your bow in the outer bow-pocket, move that down lower next to the instrument as well.
- Basic padding: At the foot of the instrument my case’s own shaped padding was worn out, so I’ve now replaced it with a double layer of this same 1″ foam, or there’s room for a triple layer in there. While I’m there, I also add a strip of foam across the tailpiece, right at the bottom of the instrument body. At the head I’ve cut a single slitted rectangle to create a snug little folded surround for the pegbox, so a security inspector can easily see what’s in there without needing to do anything more complicated afterward than just pull the flap back down. Now the head and tail of the instrument are the highest-padded parts of the case, which should help protect the bridge.
- Finer padding: With the remaining smaller bits of foam, add a strip under the keys, a thinner strip between the keys to keep them from rattling, a block of foam on each side of the bridge. Maybe pop other little snippets in under the tailpiece, the bridge end of the keybox, the slackened strings if there’s room.
- Clothes or other lightweight items: Now that the instrument itself is pretty much stabilized, you want to fill in the areas around it so it’s well cushioned. Not too tight, so can absorb a little shock if needed.
- Leave the case zipper open. The security folks, at least in the US, will feel compelled to peek.
- Stickers and labels: I’ve got a Fragile sticker on each face of the case and, following Vicki’s lead, a sign “Fragile! Musical instrument, nyckelharpa” with a photo of what the instrument looks like. Pretty sure this case size was designed for guns, but at least we can keep some people from reaching that instant conclusion.
The weakest point of this arrangement is probably the spot right over the bridge of the instrument. The case is only barely tall enough, so it’s not possible to pad it quite as well as we’d like. If someone in the baggage department were to jump up and down on the case right over the bridge, the instrument would probably sustain damage. Otherwise, though, the case is exceptionally sturdy and seems like it would weather just about anything.