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Hand Made Guitars by Luthier Dan Koentopp

Watch out, Winter is here!

As I write this article, fall is moving into the dryness of winter. The changing of seasons, depending on where you live, brings the most varying weather conditions. This is perhaps the worst time for a musical instrument. These boxes of wood are already put under enormous stresses from the strings and the poundings we put them through. To make matters worse, the best guitars, the most efficient guitars, are extremely fragile. Many scientists and guitar makers have written about humidity and temperature and its affect on wood extensively, but every year, there is still enormous evidence that suggests that this knowledge still needs to be shared.

There are simple things anyone can do to avoid catastrophes or even small problems that arise as the result of climate changes. Every guitar is different but the level of precaution should always be the same. It is important to maintain consistency and keep a healthy guitar.

Wood is an organic material. Long before it was a music box, the wood on your guitar served a purpose as a highway for moving moisture (nutrients) up and down the tree. Never in its growing life was the wood dry. It is essential when constructing anything out of wood for it to be dry. It is natural for wood to soak up moisture because that is what nature designed it to do.

As a guitar maker, the wood I use, not only has to be dry but well seasoned. This means that the sugars, resins, and all the soft cellular structure in the wood begin to crystallize.  Wood that is seasoned reacts less dramatically.

Any sudden and drastic change in an instruments environment can be very damaging. These are changes in humidity and temperature. A guitar maker does their best to seal an instrument and build it in such a way to deal with these changing conditions. In fact, most factory made guitars are over built in order to withstand harsh climate changes.

There is no way around it, the wood in your guitar wants to equalize to its surrounding environment. An acoustic guitar is built with hardwoods and softwoods with grain directions in all different places. As wood absorbs moisture it expands and swells and just the opposite if it gets to dry. If you are unlucky and the wood moves more than it can handle, it will find the weakest point and crack.

“The dry symptoms”- how to tell when a guitar gets too dry:

–The top shrinks, it compresses and the nice arching that was built in your top is sunken.
–The neck pulls forward as guitar is compressed.
–Strings buzz and action is lower.
–Fingerboard shrinks in width leaving fret ends protruded.
–Top cracks along edge of fingerboard.
–Bindings and purfling come open.
–Finish cracks.

“The wet symptoms” – how to tell when a guitar gets to much moisture:

–Top swells and arching bubbles
–Action raises.
–Buzzing occurs because neck moves upward with top resulting in buzzing above the octave.
–Cracks can occur in finish, on the top, and around the edge.

Neck movement with changing humidity is a little different. In the nature of their design, they are built to be stable. Necks vary from one to another depending on how they are constructed.  A solid one-piece, quartered neck will move differently than one piece flat sawn neck, a two piece neck, or a three piece laminated neck. However, all these necks are often made with structural integrated parts like a truss rod and reinforcement strips.  On a flat top guitar, the top and bridge are mostly what affect the strings’ heights and the presence of a buzz, not the neck movement.  A dry neck will mostly always want to go back to where it was when it was first cut. A neck that has seen a lot of moisture will probably want to bow a little more than normal. A guitar neck is always under the tension of the strings so it must always be adjusted to meet the balance between the pull of the strings and the amount of change a neck takes from its surrounding environment.

“Preventative medicines” use this tips to help avoid changes to your instrument due to climate:

–Monitor the humidity levels around your guitar by keeping a Hygrometer close by.
–Keeping the range between 40-50% is ideal.
–A small digital hygrometer can be stored inside your case’s storage compartment. (Stewmacs digi-hygrometer)
–Use humidifiers inside your case to keep the moisture in the acceptable range.
–If you keep your guitar out, monitor the room’s humidity levels and adjust with a room humidifier.
–As soon as you turn on your heat you need to add moisture to the air.
–Be careful because a lot of people over humidify!
–If you are traveling and your guitar experiences a cold or hot climate for a long period of time, let it acclimate back to a normal temperature before you remove it from the case.

2 Responses to “Watch out, Winter is here!”

  1. Thomas Cray Says:

    For archtop guitars the Oasis In Case Humidifier ( ) is sensational. It attaches to the edge of the case (since you don’t have a soundhole you can fit a normal humidifier into. Also, the Oasis is superior to sponge humidifiers because it ONLY emits water VAPOR (read more at their site).

    Additionally, if you want to get really crafty go to, search “Chamberlain Visor Clip” and buy a garage door opener visor clip. Attach it to the back of an in-case hygrometer (duct tape, epoxy, adhesive velcro, etc.) and clip that into your case as well. That will keep things from moving around.

    I’ve had numerous fine archtops over the last 20 years and have never experienced any damage to any of my guitars. Great article, Mr. Koentopp!

  2. i`m blues Says:

    well,I like your article.I am a great acoustic fan,playing acoustic guitar,and just wanna look for new friends with someone who has something in common.How about making a reciprocal link with my blog?so that we can visit each other easily.If you are interested,just contact me.

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