Champ’s Shop Talk: So long, farewell

by Devin Champlin

It was just about two years ago that I was walking down State Street and ran into Brent Cole, our esteemed editor, and after catching up briefly he asked about possibly interviewing me for the magazine.  I thought for a minute, and said “Hey how about instead of an interview, I write an article on weird shop stuff, like how to build a banjo from a cookie tin?”  And thus, Champ’s Shop Talk was born.  Although I never did give instruction on building a folk banjo, I have rambled on plenty about guitars and how to adjust and care for them.  These days I’m finding myself extra busy and so I’m going to step down from my regular column.  Don’t worry, I’ll still chime in here and there with some thoughts from the workbench.  Part of the reason I’m extra busy is I’ve opened up a storefront repair shop downtown, as opposed to working out of home by appointment like I’ve been doing.  I’ll be offering repair and set up for acoustic and electric guitars, as well as mandolins, banjos, uke’s, and other stuff like that.  And I’ll always have a selection of vintage instruments for sale, and strings and accessories.  I’m totally stoked and hope to see you all there.  Instead of just reading about it, you can come down and have some genuine shop talk.  OK, enough about that and onto some goods.

This is a sensitive time of year for those of us who play stringed instruments.  As the temperature starts dropping outside, we fire up heaters that have been dormant since May.  As the scent of burning dust from the furnace or wood stove dissipates and our homes warm up, the air inside starts to dry out.  Even when everything feels soggy and it seems to rain for two months straight, the air inside most heated buildings is actually very dry.  For me personally, this is noticeable by my skin feeling drier, and my lips might chap.  Anything made of wood is going through the same drying out process.  I’ve touched on all this before, but now is the time to reiterate, don’t hang your guitar in front of a heat vent or above a wood stove. Wood shrinks as it loses moisture. Most guitars are made of a bunch of pieces of wood glued together, and when that wood starts to dry out it can show up as a warped neck, the action changing, fret ends slightly poking out, or open seams and cracks. There are a few ways to prevent all that. As I said above, don’t leave your instrument directly in the line of fire so to speak. If you must have your instrument out and ready to play, find a spot away from your heat source.  Some people recommend keeping a guitar in it’s case when not being played to keep it from going through dramatic humidity shifts.  I think that’s a fine idea, but I still tend to leave my instruments out, hanging on the wall or on the couch, where I can grab them when the inspiration strikes.  There are small humidifiers on the market made to fit in a guitar or violin soundhole. Most of them are basically some sort of sponge that you soak with water and then keep inside the guitar when it’s not being played, as a slow release humidity regulator. I use those occasionally in the middle of winter when things get really dry. I think the best way to go is to keep a small humidifier in your house during the winter months. Not only does it help your instruments, but it keeps you from drying out.  It’s not just indoors in winter months, but sometimes travel can really put a guitar through the wringer, so to speak. There is a festival I often go to with friends in mid-June in Weiser, Idaho. It’s basically hanging out in a very hot and dry field, nerding out on old fiddle music. A bunch of musicians come from the cooler, wetter westside, and our instruments quickly dry out upon arrival in the dusty sagebrush valley.  Our dearly missed Lucas Hicks had a guitar that you could see straight through the back, only when at Weiser, because of the seam that would open as the wood dried and shrank.  Our pal Carl, who came all the way from the Oregon coast, horrified the purists as he poured some water directly into the soundhole of his old battleaxe guitar, to keep it at the “proper” humidity level.  While you might not want to do like Carl, hopefully you’ll keep an eye on your guitar as we shift seasons.

It’s been a real pleasure writing and sharing my thoughts here.  Come visit down at the shop and I’ll tell you how to build a cookie tin banjo and remind you to humidify that guitar.