By David A. Maurer
Each implement of joy will need care, especially those made of wood. Excessive heat and cold, as well as arid and damp conditions, can savage wood and lead to an array of costly problems.
Winter months can be hard on finely crafted woods, especially those that are delicately thin.
Oded Kishony has been making and repairing violins, violas and cellos for 25 years.
During a typical workweek, the master luthier will spend two days making instruments and three days repairing others. Having studied advanced repair techniques under John Decker, he is qualified to repair the finest instruments in the world.
Decker is considered nearly peerless when it comes to repairing violins. He works exclusively on top-of-the-line instruments, such as those made by Antonio Stradivari and Pietro Antonio Landolfi.
Of course, these rarified masterpieces of the luthier’s art are handled with upmost care. New, high-quality instruments deserve the same, especially during this time of year.
“What makes winter particularly difficult on wood instruments is not so much that it’s dry or humid, cold or warm,” said Kishony, who works out of his Albemarle County shop. “It’s the sudden shift of conditions.
“Wood is a living material that expands and contracts with temperature and humidity. You can have an instrument in very humid or very dry conditions as long as it doesn’t change. It’s when it’s being switched back and forth that problems can occur.
“When it gets cold outside, the heat comes on in the house. The instrument has absorbed a lot of moisture during the summer.
“When the heat comes on, the humidity drops very quickly. The instrument starts shrinking rapidly. Often, that’s when the most stress happens to the structure.”
Wood grain and the design of instruments like acoustic guitars and violins create something of a push-and-pull dynamic. If the give and take exceeds the instruments comfort zone, serious problems can result.
“Wood shrinks across the grain, and the grain on a guitar or violin is longitudinal on the top and back,” Kishony explained. “The ribs also have longitudinal grain structure.
“So the top and back shrink across the grain, and the ribs don’t shrink. One of two things can happen. A seam, the joint between the ribs and the top or back, will pop open.
“If it doesn’t pop open, the top or back will crack.
“We often deliberately use a weaker glue when gluing the top and bottom to the rib structure. That way, if too much stress builds up, the plates will pop open rather than cause the instrument to crack.”
For more than two decades, Billy Brockman has been giving free care advice with every guitar he sells from his store — Charlottesville Music. Some listen; others, not so much.
“One guy bought a Taylor guitar from me, and then took it backpacking in Colorado,” said Brockman. “He had been out there for days in cold, dry weather with the temperature below freezing.
“He was amazed that his guitar split on the top at a seam. As I recall, Taylor fixed it on warranty, but said they really shouldn’t have had to with the circumstances being what they were.
“You want to treat your guitar like you would treat yourself. You wouldn’t put yourself in a car trunk for two hours during the summer, so don’t do it to your guitar.
“And in the winter you wouldn’t stay out in the cold for hours on end without warm clothing. Don’t do it to your guitar.”
Another thing Brockman tells customers is that guitars, like humans, are most comfortable when the humidity is around 48 percent. When winter weather causes it to drop well below that, he suggests guitar owners invest about $20 in a humidifier.
There’s a number of types of instrument humidifiers on the market. Some are designed to be placed in the case, others inside the instrument.
If a crack does appear on the instrument, no matter how small, get it fixed immediately.
“A tiny crack is usually very easy to fix,” Kishony said. “If it’s ignored, it will travel farther up the plate. If it’s allowed to travel all the way up to the bridge, then it becomes a sound post crack.
“The sound post is a little piece of wood that’s wedged between the top and back of instruments such as violins, violas and cellos. With a sound post crack, the value of the instrument is immediately reduced by 32 percent, no matter what the value of the instrument is.
“So when you insure an instrument, it’s important that you make sure you’re covered for loss of value. You may lose much more value than just the cost of repair.”
Solid-body electric guitars are not immune to damaging weather conditions. The wood in the neck can shrink slightly, causing the fret ends to stick out.
The truss rod that traverses the length of the guitar’s neck tends to get looser in the winter. This can cause a buzzing sound, especially when playing the upper frets.
“Guitars made years ago were less susceptible to moisture changes,” Brockman said. “That’s because woods were cured a lot longer and were better quality.
“The newer guitars are definitely more finicky, and more vulnerable to changes in humidity.”
Fine, handcrafted wood instruments are designed to withstand a certain amount of abuse, be it inflicted by humans or Mother Nature. But, as in the care of other living creatures, love and care go a long way.
“Basically you want to treat an instrument the way you would treat a baby,” Kishony said. “You want to keep it away from extreme heat or cold.
“Obviously you don’t want to drop it. People ask me if they should put furniture polish or wax on their instrument, and I discourage them from doing that.
“You just need to wipe off the instrument after use, and keep it dust free. Once every year or two, you can have it polished and cleaned professionally to keep it looking nice.”
Filed under: Guitars
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