While winter is the season of Thanksgiving and good cheer, it is the one that is hardest on your guitar. Cold weather means low humidity, and low humidity has adverse affects on guitars. Fifty percent is ideal for instruments. Winter will mean humidity much lower than our guitars comfort level. Unfortunately, the more expensive a guitar is the more it is likely to be adversely affected. Solid woods will react more to low humidity than laminates.
Changes in the fret ends and guitar top are signs of lack of humidity in a guitar. Have you noticed fret ends suddenly stick out and feel sharp? No the frets didn’t grow! Loss of moisture in the fingerboard has caused the wood to shrink. I recommend that you oil the fingerboard twice a year. Too many applications can cause problems too, so don’t go crazy! Once at the beginning of Winter and once at the end should do it. I use lemon oil, it is cheap and readily available. Wipe the oil on in a thin coat, let it sit for ten minutes, and then wipe off any excess. If you are the proud owner of a Strat or Tele or any guitar with a finished maple fingerboard, do not oil it.
Ninety percent of acoustic guitars are built with a slight arch or dome to the top. Lack of moisture can cause this dome to flatten out. Left unattended the top can actually dish or become concave. These extreme stresses can in time cause braces to become loose and can even crack the top. Tears will not be enough to rehumidify the top!
If you like your action low and everything seems fine in the summer, but you notice fret buzzing in the Winter, this is a sure sign that the top is shrinking. Place a straight edge across the lower bout behind the bridge. A gentle convex arch is ideal. Flatness or worse a concave arch means you need to humidify. Compare the arch from season to season and be aware of what is happening.
A relative humidity of fifty-percent is ideal for storing guitars. If you have a room to store your instruments and can use a humidifier, this is the best way to go. I use an Air King sold by Grainger. They cost about one-hundred and thirty dollars. This, used with an electronic hygrometer, makes it easy to control the humidity in an entire room. If this is not practical for you, buy one of the sound hole humidifiers at your local music store or online. These work by soaking a small sponge in water, then a holder lets the moisture release slowly into the interior of the guitar. Follow the manufactures instructions and check it often. It does not take long for the sponge to dry out. Keeping your guitar in the case can help slow the effects of low humidity. Keep your guitar away from sources of heat like fireplaces and heating vents.
I cannot think of one manufacturer who will warranty a guitar due to lack of humidity. So remember when you turn the heat on it is time to humidify. I hope this was helpful. And if your guitar becomes unhealthy for any reason please call Mike Haney the Guitar Doctor at 610 207-3918.
Disclaimer: I live and work in Reading, Pennsylvania near the central east cost of North America. Your weather conditions may differ. Remember fifty-percent humidity (plus or minus ten percent) and moderate temperatures will help insure the health of your instrument.
Stay tuned for our next article “Summer Ain’t So Great Either!”