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When Guitars Send You Running For Cover

It’s that time of year again… the time to humidify guitars from cracks!

One of the biggest dreads that guitar players face is seeing their own guitars (sometimes really expensive guitars!) develop cracks in various places.  Cracks can eventually develop over time because low humidity, or can suddenly happen with the sudden change of humidity and temperature.

Some guitars are more susceptible to humidity changes than others; some have finishes that make it more resistant.

Nitro Finish

From my experience, electric guitars both new and old tend to be more resistant to problems with humidity.  I don’t put any sort of humidifier in my electric guitar cases, and have not seen any problems in their finishes, or their playability (though I always do seasonal setups).  Certain finishes on guitars (like nitrocellulose or poly with some basic information – https://proguitarshop.com/andyscorner/nitro-vs-poly) sometimes have finish checking, but a lot of people like this look.

Acoustics need more attention because some of the finishes are more susceptible.  Steel stringed guitars still tend to use poly and nitrocellulose finishes, which help them to stay resistant to extreme humidity change.

But for nylon guitars, many luthiers and manufactures use finishes that are less durable than their steel stringed counterparts.  They instead focus on using finishes that helps maintain or support the type of sound that they are going for.  Two of the commonly requested finishes from players are french polish (examples are Kenny Hill Signature, Otto Vowinkel Concert model, and German Vasquez Rubio Solista) and shellac finishes (examples some of the Cordoba line, Ramirez).

French Polish

Shellac tends to be more resistant to everyday dings/normal wear and tear, and humidity changes.  French Polish tends to be more volatile, but popular consensus says that french polish makes the guitar sound better and more open in sound.  I have heard and played really great sounding guitars with both finishes and think that they have very little affect on the overall sound.

Here in NY the winters are especially brutal because central heating keeps humidity down in homes, and the constant temperature changes from heated homes to freezing subways and commuting puts strain on guitars.

Signs that your guitar needs some moisture or is under the effects of humidity –

  • Frets are sticking out of the fret board (fretboard shrinking and expansion from humidity is one of the most common causes for top cracking in acoustic guitars; happens most commonly along the fretboard where the neck meets and runs into the body)
  • Certain frets are fretting out, making metallic or buzzing sounds when played (humidity is causes the action or raise or lower messing with the setup of your guitar)
  • Top behind the bridge is bulging or wavy in appearance (appears in acoustic guitars and is a sign of too much humidity, which is another potential problem in the winter months)
  • The grains of your guitar top or back are slowly opening or finish starting to a little rough in touch (on acoustic guitars the wood pores are drying out and is often the precursor to cracks)

Whether or not you have steel string guitars, or nylon string guitars, it would probably be best to use some type of humidifier to keep your guitar from getting damaged.  I myself use case humidifiers on all my acoustic instruments, from my really cheap guitars to my expensive ones.  There are all sorts  of guitar case humidifiers designed for the different needs of the users.  There are case humidifiers that you stick in your case and are connected through magnets or sticky tape.  Other humidifiers are put directly into the sound hole to hydrate the inside of your guitar.  I have used the following humidifiers and will give a brief review of each one –

Image Courtesy of American Musical – http://www.americanmusical.com/ItemImages/Large/MIS%20HE360.jpg
  • Herco Guitar Humidifier (link and reviews here – http://amzn.com/B000BYPJ1U) – They are little containers that use a type of clay material to absorb and release moisture in your guitar case.  The ones that I bought did not come with any sort of adhesive so you can stick it inside your case, so I found them best to stick them in cases that I don’t move a lot.  In the winter time, my home gets into the single digits in humidity, so I use 2 – 3 in a case to humidify.  I find that they last up to a week before I have to recharge them with water.  It is very easy to refill them, just stick them in a container of water for 15 – 30 minutes and viola!
Image Courtesy of Guitar Salon – http://www.guitarsalon.com/productimages/resized/0fb3cad7f6872f32c13ca110e6efb1da-1248822672-large.jpg
  • Oasis case and sound hole humidifiers (http://oasishumidifiers.com) – These are the main humidifiers that I use for my guitars.  In my more expensive guitars I use both a case and sound hole humidifier to maintain proper humidity.  They have +models that are supposed to hydrate the guitar faster and keep the humidity level higher, but my experience with that is that they do indeed hydrate faster, but I still need another humidifier to help keep the levels.  I have to refill these every few days but I haven’t had any problems with my guitars.  I do find it does take quite a bit of time to refill these so often.
Image Courtesy of Dampits – http://www.dampits.com/_img/dampit-packaged.jpg
  • Dampit (http://www.dampits.com) – Once recommended to me by one of my teachers, I found it does a good job but it was tricky for me to set up properly.  My teacher used them in his instruments with no problems at all.
Image Courtesy of Musicians Friend – http://static.musiciansfriend.com/derivates/6/001/680/310/DV019_Jpg_Regular_421147_package.jpg
  • Planet Waves Humidipaks (http://www.planetwaves.com/PWVideo.Page?MediaId=8108&sid=e389327d-a520-46cf-a317-0602a5a5a974) – I found that this humidifier does the job very well but it is costly because they are not rechargeable.  I am not sure how long this humidifier would last in a guitar that is regular used (i.e. opening the case a lot for gigging, teaching, etc) but it supposed to last 2 – 6 months.
  • DIY sponge in a perforated bag – I used a cut up sandwich bag with a kitchen cleaning sponge to humidify a guitar during a winter season in Boston before I realized how important it was to devise a good humidification system.  That winter I was lucky the guitar didn’t crack from lack of humidity but it did have symptoms like frets sticking out of fret board, pores looking like they were going to open up, etc.  This experience was enough for me to not risk it anymore with being cheap on humidification.  The guitar belonged to a friend and felt terrible at the time because of my lack of care for it.  This method didn’t work for me as I wouldn’t do this for any other guitar.

I’m sure that the other humidifiers in the market are just as good as the ones that I have listed and would help keep your guitar safe from damage.  If you have any experiences with other humidifiers feel free to post how it worked for you.

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