Vince Pawless’ “rant” on
Acoustic Guitar Care
The Three Most important things to remember:
1. An acoustic guitar is made of wood.
2. An acoustic guitar is made of wood.
3. An acoustic guitar is made of wood.
If there was a 4th “important thing” it would be:
“An acoustic guitar is made of wood”
“It is made of WOOD” That’s the first thing you have to accept in the care of an acoustic guitar. Wood CAN crack, but it’s what makes the beautiful sound an acoustic guitar produces. Wood is always changing, so deal with it, especially if you have a "solid" wood guitar. Whether it’s still part of a growing tree, or if it’s a 100 year old pine beam in a barn, it will change with the environment.
Take a barn for example. Ever seen a 100 year old barn made of wood that’s never had any maintenance? Enough said. Yes, that’s extreme, but back to the point of “It’s made of Wood”, not aluminum, not steel...it's made of something that CHANGES with the environment.
This is not to scare or alarm you, as with care your solid wood guitar will last.
It’s almost probable that if you enjoy your acoustic guitar as much as you should, it’s could happen…that crack. “Probably” is the key word here, as there are guitars out there that are “old” and have not cracked. So, how do cracks happen? It's sometimes a good sign that the guitar has been enjoyed to the "fullest". There can be numerous reasons, and in the spirit of not just giving a list of “dos and don’ts”, here are some tips, and hopefully an education that can help your guitar reach a “crackless” mature age. Just some things to keep in the back of your mind.
Starting with the EASIEST way for the owner to control an "environmentally damaged" guitar:
Duh…Impact..we won’t go there. Pretty much elementary that when you hit something it can break, especially if it’s made out of wood. Make sure the guitar fits in a case that holds the guitar secure without “rattle”. A guitar moving loosely in a case when it is promptly placed on the ground goes through an impact.
Soft-shell cases are basically protection from scratches, and yet I agree it is nice to use in carrying the guitar around. If you travel with your guitar in a soft-shell case, NEVER let it get out of your sight. Always be with it.
I do not condone leaning a guitar up against a wall, but I know people do that. If you're one of those that do that, make sure it's at a very strong angle. At least a "10 minute" angle. This will keep most of the weight downward and will make it less likely for the guitar to fall to the side, which is the direction it falls most of the time.
Stress however…this is an area that can be controlled by the builder AND the owner. This is also the EASIEST part of helping your guitar arrive at an intact old age. Just use common sense. The guitar is built to handle the string stress, so that’s easy….make sure the strings used and the tuning does not exceed the builder’s specs. In most cases medium gauge or lighter. It’s always best to know what the builder’s “specs” are. Stress also comes in the fashion of where you “put your guitar down” or store it. Make sure the neck and the box of the guitar are supported equally, and there is no downward pressure on the top, between the neck and box areas. “This will break the neck or loosen the neck from the guitar. Again…common sense, but areas of sensitivity.
This is important because wood will contain an amount of moisture that will try to seek the level of moisture that’s in the air around it. Ever heard the term “water seeks it’s own level?”. When wood is moved into a higher humidity environment, it absorbs moisture to the air’s level, and the wood expands, or “swells”. When the wood is in a low humidity environment, it also seeks that level and releases moisture, contracts, or “shrinks”. Acoustic guitars are built in “medium” humidity environments, depending on the builder…. 45-55% humidity. Realistically, the guitar being in the “low” humidity environment is the bigger “demon”. It is more critical as it can separate the wood at a glue seam or even at the grain in “thin” wood pieces of your guitar such as the top, sides, or back of the “box”. Fortunately, even though this looks horrible, in most cases this is not a “stress” issue and may not effect the sound or playability of the guitar, as the guitar is designed to have the grain running against the stress factors. High humidity can do damage, too, but probably not as prone to do so, but can be effective in producing a crack. In that case it swells the wood, and in fact, creating a stronger bond at the “seams”, but can eventually in extreme cases “buckle” the wood up to produce that crack.
Winter months are the worst for the guitar. First of all, there's dryer air, and then you have the element of heating systems inside the home that just makes it even more dry.
My favorite solution is getting a room humidifier, (not a "mist" type!), to control the humidity in the room you keep your guitars in. It's not only healthy for the guitar, it's healthy for you and seems to create a very comfortable atmosphere. The next option is keeping your guitar near where showers are taken frequently. You CAN purchase those case/guitar humidifiers for your guitar, but honestly, you're going to spend a lot of time making sure they have moisture in them.
Sorry, but there’s another factor that causes contraction and expansion and most know this…..it is temperature. The author of this personally doesn't think it's THAT BIG an issue, but it IS an issue. The issue is more in the area of the finish though. Wood and the finish material change to heat at different rates. This is what creates cracks in the finish. In other words, if you change your guitar’s environment from one temperature extreme to the other, (cold to hot, or hot to cold), let the guitar change slowly by using the guitar’s case as a “buffer”. Use the case to let the guitar slowly attain the current environment temperature. If you still don’t understand… if you don’t want your finish to crack on your guitar when you move it from cold to hot or hot to cold, put the guitar in the case before moving it, and when you arrive at your destination, make sure you do not remove the guitar out of the case for at least an hour. If you’re an artist on the road and you don’t have time for this “waiting”, your guitar finish will crack, but it’s not critical to the construction or playability of your guitar. In fact, some like that weathered look.
Being that great guitars are made of wood and as we know by now, wood can change. Great guitars are built in a manner so they can easily be taken apart for repairs, (that's because the builders have accepted the fact that wood changes). This is done by glues that can be loosened with heat easily without damaging the guitar. Again…heat will loosen the glue joints. HEAT WILL LOOSEN GLUE JOINTS. Use commons sense. It’s always best to keep your guitar up to “tune”, but you might thinks twice about keeping your guitar strung up if it’s going to be in a very hot environment. On the same note, if a glue joint loosens due to heat…it’s not the end of the world as the guitar is easily repaired. Remember, it was designed and constructed to be taken apart at those areas easily. It can be glued back. If that happens, stay calm, and get it re-glued. Most common seems to be the bridge loosening from the top. It happens to the best guitars in the world.
In a nutshell:
If you are to get ANYTHING out of reading this page.....
Humidity stabilized Again, lower humidity is more apt to damage. If you’re forced at gunpoint, and you are told your guitar will be put in extreme humidity, and you have the choice between high or low, pick the high.
Sudden temperature changes will crack the finish. Use the case to slowly bring the guitar to current location temperature.
Extreme heat can loosen glue. Again, not a “bad”thing to go wrong, that’s the least of your worries as it only loosens what glue will fix back.