Did you know your guitar is caught at the center of a constant tug-of-war? This tug-of-war is between extremes of moisture and temperature, and these fluctuations damage and destroy guitars every day. But with the right balance, your guitar will last longer, play better, and cost less to own.
Your guitar can’t help reacting to nature, but you can play a part! You’ll also learn why guitars (especially acoustic guitars) need humidification, what to look for when buying a humidification system, and how to recognize signs of humidification damage.
Ready to become an Orangewood humidificionado? Let’s start where all guitars begin: inside of a tree.
At the Roots: Why Guitars React to Relative Humidity and Temperature
Some trees give us apples. Others give us wood that we can build guitars out of.
While the benefits of using wood to build guitars are well known, one of the biggest costs is wood’s sensitivity to moisture. This relationship between wood and moisture is critical to understanding how to care for guitars.
Like us, trees need water to survive. Their bodies are incredibly efficient at using water in their environment. This efficiency comes from the very structure of their cells and tissues.
The wood pieces of your guitar respond to moisture by shrinking or swelling — literally absorbing or releasing water vapor — as if they were still in a living tree. This two-way physical property of wood is known as hygroscopicity.
Assuming you aren’t watering your guitar along with your house plants, where does a guitar even find moisture? Moisture comes from the atmosphere in the form of water vapor, and we refer to the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere as humidity.
But what about temperature (aka “how hot or cold something is”)? The temperature of the air affects relative humidity, which is a percentage used to monitor the environment around guitars. You’ll see relative humidity referred to in most humidification products.
So what’s the right balance between relative humidity and temperature?
Finding the Balance: What Relative Humidity and Temperature to Keep Your Guitar In
Different makers recommend different ranges for storing acoustic guitars. You’ll want to keep the relative humidity of your guitar between 40 – 60% and the surrounding air temperature at about 73°F. We recommend keeping your Orangewood between 45 – 55% relative humidity and around 72 – 74°F.
You might find a couple of degrees above or below these ranges suit your guitar quite nicely. No two guitars are exactly alike.
But how do you find out if you’re within the recommended ranges? And once you know, how do you control your guitar’s climate?
You’re gonna need some tools.
Tools of the Trade
Your guitar wants to be where you want to be: indoors, preferably at room temperature, with neither too little nor too much humidity. Nature will sort things out one way or the other, but here are some tools that’ll help.
Hard Case or Gig Bag
Guitars should be kept in a hard case or gig bag when being stored. For humidification purposes, cases shrink the volume of air that your guitar spends time in, making that environment easier to monitor and control. Some hard cases even come with climate control features.
Many players prefer to keep their guitars on stands or wall hooks for ease of access or for display. We would recommend investing in room humidifiers and keeping your guitars away from sources of dry heat or moisture like wall heaters, personal humidifiers, and poorly insulated windows and doors.
Hygrometers & Thermometers
Physical barriers are a good start, but you’ll want to know what conditions are like around your guitar. This is where measuring instruments like hygrometers and thermometers come in.
You’re probably familiar with a thermometer, but a hygrometer is an instrument that measures the relative humidity of the atmosphere. Typically, you’ll buy a combo hygrometer/thermometer because a combo sensor is relatively affordable, compact enough to fit in a guitar case, and able to give you accurate readings within a few minutes.
Lastly, you’ll need something to introduce or take away moisture from your guitar’s environment.
You can buy a variety of humidifiers from literal sponges that sit in an acoustic guitar’s sound hole to two-way humidification packs that hang out in your case along with your guitar. Each design has its costs and benefits, which is why we recommend reading the manual before using any product. You should aim to marry the recommendations of your guitar’s manufacturer with the instructions of the humidification product you choose.
We feel you if you’re against buying accessories after getting your guitar. But we promise your guitar — whether it’s a layered entry-level strummer from our Playa Collection or an all solid stunner from our Topanga Collection — will be better off with proper humidification.
What if you suspect your guitar’s already feeling under the weather? It’s time to play doctor.
When the Levee Breaks: How to Recognize Signs of Improper Guitar Humidification
Guitars don’t grow on trees.
Someone has to precisely measure, cut, fit, and glue together all of the wood pieces required to build a guitar. The dimensions of a guitar have to be exact to get music out of otherwise inert materials.
Remember that wood can shrink or swell when it comes into contact with moisture. Not only that, but guitars are built with different combinations of wood that each react at different rates to temperature and humidity. And if these dimensions change too much or too quickly, guitars begin to fall apart in subtle — and sometimes dramatic — ways.
Commonly, we refer to guitars at either ends of the humidity spectrum as “wet” or “dry.” Wet guitars have too much moisture in them; dry guitars have too little.
Some signs of a “wet” guitar are:
Overly high action
Fret buzzing in the high registers
Cracks in finish
Finish “crazing” (when caused by very low temperatures)
Bindings coming apart
While some signs of a “dry” guitar are:
Fret buzzing and lifting
Sharp fret ends (known as “fret sprout”)
Sunken or rippled tops or backs
Cracks in wood or finish
You can possibly fix some of these problems by adjusting your guitar’s relative humidity or temperature. If that doesn’t work or the damage is too great, ask a luthier or guitar technician to evaluate your guitar for repair.
Learning to spot these signs ahead of time can help you avoid costly repairs over the life of your guitar. Even if your guitar is playing better than ever, we recommend getting a fresh set up every six months as the seasons change.
A Guitar for All Seasons
Humidifying your acoustic guitar may be the last thing on your mind whether you’re catching your first cowboy chord or finessing fingerpicking à la Jamey Arent. Now you can turn that tug-of-war into a humidification routine in harmony with Mother Nature.
Got more questions about how to keep your Orangewood fresh? Check out our Care & Maintenance page for TLC tips and tricks.