Although many people, especially those not very familiar with the genre, will think of folk music as something that started in the 20th century, this is certainly not the case. For as long as people in primitive huts, around communal fires or sleeping rough by the roadside could sing or strum, music has existed. By default, these countryside melodies and they style in which they are played can only be called “folk music”.
This means that a few of us are lucky enough to own instruments that may be a hundred or more years old and still play well. The difference is more than sentimental: at least in theory, it should be possible to create a perfect replica of a Stradivarius using modern composites, but most serious violinists will certainly prefer the original.
Keeping your instruments in top quality is usually not a question of doing things to them, but rather of protecting them from environmental factors that can do them harm. Certain things are obviously good ideas if you plan to extend such an instrument’s useful life: loosen the strings and keep it in its case when not playing, don’t use solvent-based cleaners, but also keep them free of grease and dirt.
However, there are also a few less obvious hazards that can turn a family heirloom to a fancily-shaped piece of kindling:
Although most of this happens behind the scenes, museums tend to take great care to control their interior humidity levels, and this is not for the comfort of their visitors.
Vintage instruments are usually made out of wood. This means that they absorb atmospheric moisture, which causes the wood to swell and can even lead to it cracking. Old-fashioned adhesives can also be affected, and air that is too dry can also lead to problems.
If the weather is sometimes humid where you live, you might want to consider setting aside at least one room for the storage of objects sensitive to this kind of damage. And/or buy something to fight the humidity, like a dehumidifier. Taking a look around Dehumidifier Web will give you an idea of how much this will set you back.
While storing a vintage guitar in a broiling attic in summer or in an outside shed when it’s snowy is obviously not advisable, the greater danger to well-seasoned wood isn’t necessarily how hot or cold it is but how rapidly the ambient temperature changes.
Storing an antique instrument in direct sunlight is a bad idea for this reason, and also because this can lead to discoloration of the wood or varnish over time. What fewer people realize is that taking an older guitar from sub-zero weather into a warm room can be equally harmful. If you have to do this, it’s recommended that you keep it in its case for at least half an hour to give it a chance to warm up gradually.
Have you ever heard the several songs entitled “United Breaks Guitars”? Catchy tunes.
Apart from a few very permissive legal requirements, airlines write their own terms of carriage, and these are naturally not in their passengers’ favor. If you have absolutely no other option but to consign an antique instrument into their care, make sure to package it as if you expect the plane to crash into a mountain, and take out insurance. Most importantly, make sure to have an airline employee inspect it before the flight and sign a document stating that it’s free of damage. Insist and make a (polite) scene if you must – they’re trained to accept no liability whatsoever on their employer’s behalf.
Restoring an Antique Instrument
If the worst should happen and your four-year old uses your great-grandfather’s lute to teach his brother who’s boss, all may not be lost. Although restoration tends to be pricey, the value of the item may still make it worthwhile. The Smithsonian Museum maintains a database of dependable craftsmen and institutions to ask for advice.
Unfortunately, sometimes the only repairs that can be made are cosmetic and the instrument in question will never be restored to a playable condition. In this case, at least it remains valuable even if only as an ornament. If you own one of these, you can consider loaning it out or donating it to a suitable museum. You’ll not only be sharing it with hundreds of other people, but also ensure that it receives the care it needs.