Guitars and humidity

Humidity is normally not a problem with guitars, it’s the lack of humidity that’s the problem. If you have ever looked at an old piece of furniture or wood siding on a house and noticed a crack or split in the wood, it was not because the wood became too wet, it was most likely caused by the wood becoming too dry. Guitars, especially solid wood (not laminated) acoustic guitars are very sensitive to low moisture in the surrounding area of where it is kept. I will discuss how to detect low humidity problems in guitars, what causes it, and how to correct the problem in this article.

How do I know if I have a problem?

One of the first signs to show up when you have a low humidity problem is fret buzz. This is common to acoustic guitars and rarely experienced on solid body electrics. It’s like everything is going alone fine and one day you pick up your guitar and the strings seem to be much closer to the fretboard than usual and when you play (assuming the string height was correct before) you have noticeable string-to-fret buzz. You know no one has been messing with your expensive guitar (you made that very clear when you first brought it home) because you told everyone in the household that if they did, the next thing they would see would be a pale horse running up the driveway, and death and hell would follow after.

So what happened?

You have just experienced the first signs of low humidity in your home. When humidity goes down in the home, some of the moisture in the wood of your guitar escaped into the surrounding air. In other words, it evaporated into the dry air. When a guitar dries out, the sides, top plate and back decrease in size. As your expensive guitar gets smaller, the strings (which are attached to the top) have no choice but to drop down with the shrinking. Not only do the back, sides and top of an acoustic guitar shrink, but also the braces, the end block, kerfling, neck block, bridge plate, fingerboard and anything else that is not completely covered with some type of finish.

If things get extreme, you will notice wavy lines in the top of the instrument and the ends of the frets seem to stick out past the edge of the fretboard. If you run your finger up the edge of the fretboard and the frets seem to have become sharp, your guitar is getting in bad shape. This sharp fret edge protrusion is caused by the fingerboard drying out and becoming smaller while the frets themselves, being made of metal, do not. If this condition continues, the guitar will develop cracks (most likely in the top) and glue joints start breaking loose.

But what really caused it?

Most of the time I see these problems is when cold weather sets in and people begin turning on their heat. Heat dries out air. Dry air dries out instruments. Dry instruments bring me a lot of work! I like work. Work brings me money.

So what do I do?

The first thing you should do after bringing your nice guitar home is go out and buy a hygrometer to hang up in the room you keep your guitar in. This will tell you what the moisture content is in the room. You want the hygrometer to read 50% humidity or a little higher. While you’re out getting a hygrometer, purchase a decent air humidifier. Buy one that will only come on at a pre-set level. You don’t want a humidifier that runs all the time and create excess moisture for your room which can lead to mildew and other problems.

What do I do if my guitar has already dried out?

I use to advise customers on how to get the moisture content back into the wood of their guitar quickly, but one or two took my advice a bit too far and damaged the instrument. I now ask them to leave the instrument with me for 3-5 days and I will recondition it for them. Because of the chance of doing damage to your guitar if this condition develops, I recommend you immediately restore moisture to the room, keeping the instrument out of the case, but not in direct contact with any moisture the humidifier is putting out, or take it to a knowledgeable guitar tech who knows how to recondition the instrument for you.

I hope this article helps in understanding the importance of keeping good instruments at correct humidity levels and how to accomplish it. If you have further questions about humidity and instruments a quick search at Martin Guitar or Taylor Guitars is a good place to begin.




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