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Buyers' Guide to Humidifiers

Humidification is probably one factor that would appear pretty low down on the list when you think of playing the guitar.  It’s one of the most overlooked topics and something to seriously look into if you have any inclination whatsoever of looking after the safety and wellbeing of your guitar.
 
Atmospheric conditions such as temperature and humidity can play a huge role in altering your instrument’s tone (for the worst) if not paid attention to properly.
 
Don’t worry you don’t have to create the equivalent of the Met Office weather station, but just a bit of careful consideration goes a long way to ensuring your guitar stays in the best condition it can be in maintaining its tone and prolonging its years of service….so let’s get started.

So what exactly is humidity?

Put simply, humidity refers to the amount of water vapour that is present in the air. 

During the summer months when the air is hotter, it has the ability to hold more moisture, whereas in the winter when the air is colder, it cannot hold as much moisture.  In short, this means that in summer the air is moister (higher humidity), whereas in the winter, the air is drier (lower humidity).   We know this as our skin tends to dry out a lot more in the winter, and your guitar is no different.

What we’ll be referring to in this guide is Relative Humidity and this is often expressed as a percentage.  The higher the percentage (or relative humidity) the more moisture there is in the air. 

Depending on which guitar manufacturer you listen to, most will specify that the best range of ideal RH for your guitar will lie somewhere between 40 and 60%.  The good news is that as humans, we like it around the same measurement so there isn’t any drastic need to keep your guitar in a separate micro-climate to help keep it in tip top shape.

If your guitar has become a victim of humidity and temperature changes you may well have noticed some changes in its shape and/or the way it plays and feels.

So what are the symptoms?

Too Dry (less than 45% humidity)

As we approach the winter months, the air will become drier with a lower relative humidity and as a result the wood in our guitars may be susceptible to drying out.   Although flat top guitars are referred to as “flat” – they normally have a nice slight curvature, arch dome-shape to them.

If your guitar is too dry, the top can turn into more of a bowl shape and become concave.   As a result, the top will effectively start to sink and in extreme cases the bridge can separate from the body of the guitar.  As the body sinks, you may notice that the action will start to lower so the first thing you may notice is some fret buzz.

Another symptom of a dry guitar is a dry fretboard.  Particularly on darker wood fretboards, when they become dry, they tend to lose their rich dark colour.  As the wood dries it may also shrink.  If the fretboard has shrunk, you’ll probably notice the edges of the frets will feel sharp against your hand as you run your hand up and down the neck.

As with the fretboard, the top can dry out too and this can manifest itself as cracks in the top of the body in extreme cases.  Cracks are usually the last thing to show themselves and in reality your guitar could be suffering unknowingly under the surface long before you see more severe symptoms such as these.

Too Moist (Over 55-60% Relative Humidity)

Conversely, if your guitar has been exposed to a lot of moisture (conditions of high relative humidity 55-60% plus) the body can become bloated.  I like to liken this to our own bodies…just think about how we feel when we’ve eaten too much…we feel bloated and in a similar fashion the guitar body does the same.

If the body does bloat, the top can get an excessive arch in it and this can raise the bridge.  If this is the case, you may notice that your guitar has developed a higher action.  Sound wise you may notice the guitar losing a bit of its tone and becoming a bit “muffled” too.

If the moisture is overly excessive, you may start to see some mould developing on the inside of your case.  

If either of these symptoms sound familiar, it’s time to get to work on helping to rescue your guitar.

So what can you do to help?
 
Depending on whether your guitar is too dry or holding too much moisture, you’ll need to look at ways to help balance out the moisture levels.
 
If your guitar is showing signs of dryness, you’ll need to pop a humidifier in.  The purpose of a humidifier will be to add moisture to the guitar.  We’ll discuss the types of humidifier available below but they’ll all be capable of performing this task.  The humidifier releases water vapour into the guitar’s surroundings allowing it to absorb the moisture and return to a healthier state.
 
If your guitar needs to dry out there’s a few things you can do.  You could move your guitar to an area with lower relative humidity, perhaps a different room in your house that’s relative humidity is closer to the optimum 50% level.  You may also wish to consider using a dehumidifier in an attempt to draw some moisture out of the air a little quicker.  Alternatively, a small hack that you could use is to get hold of some silica gel sachets…y’know those small packets you find in the box when you get a new pair of shoes.  These handy little guys act as small dehumidifiers as they draw in and hold water vapour from their immediate surroundings.  These are great for use in your guitar case and they take up hardly any room.

Hygrometers

A hygrometer is an essential bit of kit when you’re looking to ensure you are storing your guitar in a healthy environment.  It really helps you to see straight away where the issue can lie and helps to ensure you are storing the guitar correctly.

The Planet Waves Hygrometer is a great little item that measures the relative humidity and temperature as well as keeping a record of the highest and lowest humidity and temperature levels your guitar has recently experienced.

If you do find yourself using a hygrometer, it’s worth keeping it close to your guitar or if you are keeping your guitar in its case, keep the hygrometer in their too…this way you can get a much more accurate idea of what conditions your guitar is being exposed to.

For all you gadget lovers out there, you may wish to consider the Planet Waves Humiditrak Humidity and Temperature Sensor.  This is another hygrometer that sits inside your guitar’s case.  It works very much like the one described above, but goes a few steps further.  It continually captures humidity and temperature data readings and this can all be accessed from the free mobile app you download with the unit.  If any of the measurements approach levels that could potentially cause harm to the guitar, it will send a notification to your device letting you know you need to act well before things start to get serious, clever huh! Not to mention, if you travel regularly or have any of your instruments in somewhere such as a storage facility, the Humidtrak detects when your guitar has been dropped or experienced an impact of some sort. 

It’s worth bearing in mind that whilst all the measurements will be of huge benefit, you do need to pay attention to your guitar itself.  Pay attention to how it feels, looks and plays.  Whilst a hygrometer will give a great idea of the atmospheric conditions your guitar is being kept in, don’t be totally governed by the readings and use them as a guide.  It’s important to get into the habit of looking at your guitar. Pay attention to it how it feels and how it plays.  For instance, whilst 50% RH is considered optimum, your guitar may well still be a little dry and need a little more moisture, likewise your guitar might just need to be allowed to breathe a little more to get it playing at its best.  It’s important to look at your guitar and see how it’s reacting.

For example, you may have two or more guitars in the same room.  If this is the case, treat each guitar individually, don’t assume just because they’re kept in the same room, they’ll both be exactly the same.  One may seem perfectly fine whereas another, whilst being exposed to similar conditions, may appear to be a little drier than the other or vice versa.  In which case it may require a bit of humidification.

Types of Humidifier

There are several different types of humidifier available in today’s market.  Some of them operate very simply and are great value for money, whereas some are a little more sophisticated.  Either way, they’re all built to achieve the same result, they just might achieve it in a slightly different way.

 

It’s worth noting that if you are using a humidifier, try to use one and store your guitar in its case to ensure that you get the most from it.  If you are humidifying your guitar in a wide open room, only a portion of the water vapour that’s dispersed will be transferred directly into your guitar and some will escape into the surrounding space…if your guitar is dry you’ll want to get maximum effect from the humidifier so try and keep the humidifier working in a more confined space such as your guitar case.

Martin Humidifier

This strange little tube-like contraption is one of the cheapest (but still very effective) humidifiers on the market.  You simply soak the humidifier in water and then wring out any excess water it is holding (to avoid any of the water dripping inside the body).  The humidifier is then suspended from the strings and it will hang inside the body of the guitar.  The water vapour is then released slowly through the small holes in the humidifier into the body of the guitar adding much needed moisture.

Planet Waves Humidifier

The Planet Waves GH Guitar Humidifier is the companies best value for money humidifier.  It works in a similar way to the Martin Humidifier and is suspended form the strings after soaking the sponge inside the humidifier and then wringing out any excess liquid.  The sponge is then placed back inside the humidifier and placed inside the guitar whilst being suspended from the strings.  The good thing with these humidifiers’ is that they never actually touch the guitar’s body.

For some people, they really don’t like the thought of water potentially leaking out of a humidifier like this.  Whilst these are very safe and the water vapour is dispersed evenly, these concerns are understandable and there are other humidifiers on the market that may sound more pleasing.

Planet Waves Humidipak Restore Kit

This kit by Plant Waves is their accelerant kit that gets your instrument back to its ideal humidity levels when it needs it most.  The Humidipak Restore kit is a bit like a giant sachet and adds all important moisture to your guitar.  It pre-conditions your instrument to its optimum relative humidity levels.

Herco

The Herco Guitar Humidifier is a nice compact humidifier designed for storage in a guitar case.  There is less chance of leakage with this particular humidifier and is not kept inside the guitar itself so may appeal to those who don’t like the thought of something being suspended from the strings and hanging inside the body.

Kyser Lifeguard Humidifier

The Kyser Lifeguard Humidifier is a nice little item that looks a bit like a feedback suppressor.  This humidifier works by soaking it in water and shaking off any excess liquid.  It’s then placed over the soundhole allowing the vapour to disperse into the body and keeping your guitar at a healthy humidity level.  The Kyser Lifeguard is actually recommended by Martin and Taylor and is a great humidifier as it closes up the sound hole and allows more of the vapour to pass into the guitar’s body as opposed to the chances of more of the vapour escaping into the surrounding areas.

Planet Waves Two Way Humidification System

The Planet Waves Two-Way Humidification is the mac-daddy of humidification and takes the process of humidification to the next level.  This great product not only has the ability to humidify your guitar but also acts as a dehumidifier too maintaining your guitar at a perfect humidity level.  It takes the guesswork completely out of what you need to do with regards to your guitar’s humidity levels.  This revolutionary technology automatically maintains your guitar’s humidity at the optimum 45-50% level.  If the RH is too low, it’ll release vapour, if the humidity is too high, it will draw moisture out of the air to bring the guitar’s RH back to safe levels.  The Two Way Humidification pack works using packs so there’s no need to fill with water and no chance of leakage into your guitar. 

Add to this Lee…..

Recommended by Taylor Guitars….high praise indeed!

 

As you can there’s several types of humidifier available and some will be more efficient than others e.g. the Kyser Lifeguard Humidifier closes up the sound hole whereas the tubular humidifiers will have a lot more air around them so the vapour will tend to will dissipate into the atmosphere more.  Either way, whichever one you opt for you’re making a sound investment in your instrument’s future.

Conclusion

This may seem like a pretty obvious thing to state, but all guitars are different.  Guitars are made of different woods, they have different finishes and they are different sizes.  It all contributes to each guitar being as unique as we are humans.  As a result, each one’s needs will need to be treated on their own merits.

Whilst it might not seem the most exciting investment in the world, acquiring some good humidification tools will keep your guitar in as best shape it can be and will save you money in the long run.  You don’t have to spend the earth but so long as you are conscious of these issues and are prepared to take action when needed, your guitar will be forever thankful.