How to Ship an Acoustic Guitar
You can reduce your fears about shipping your instrument by taking the right steps to protect it in transit.
Even if you own only one instrument, if you’re an active guitar player, chances are good that sooner or later you’ll have to pack your guitar for shipment. Although it’s hard for some packers to realize, the dangers of shipping your guitar by UPS or FedEx are essentially the same as putting your guitar on an airline’s luggage conveyor belt when you fly.
Of course, thousands of guitars are safely shipped and flown in airline baggage holds every day with no protection besides a hardshell case. But a significant percentage are damaged, too, so the tips you’ll read here will improve your odds. And even when a guitar is in its case and the case is in a sturdy cardboard box, shipping a guitar is risky business. Is shipping a guitar or flying with it riskier than it used to be? You bet. Is there anything you can do to improve your guitar’s odds of survival that doesn’t cost a fortune? Absolutely.
Although caved-in guitar tops and splintered sides do occur sometimes when an acoustic guitar is shipped, the chances of that type of damage when the instrument is in a sturdy hardshell case, especially when the case is boxed, are actually quite slim. And by far, the most common shipping damage to guitars is shared equally by solidbody electrics, which probably tells you that I’m referring to the dreaded cracks that appear around the base of the headstock. This is so common that it’s sometimes called the “airline break.”
What confuses many people is that, despite the fact that their guitar arrived at its destination with a cracked neck, the shipping box shows no damage whatsoever. Along with the mystery of how the crack could have occurred is the added misery of realizing that filing a damage claim with the carrier is usually fruitless, because there’s no sign of mishandling. And repairing the cracks are only part of the pain, for even with the best possible repair yielding a good-as-new result, the guitar’s value has been diminished.
“No matter what the speed your guitar’s case is traveling, the best insurance you can give your instrument for safe arrival is to limit the distance its headstock can travel when the case comes to an abrupt halt.”
If you think of it as a whiplash injury, the cause of the cracks to your guitar’s headstock is easy to understand. Your guitar’s case, or the shipping box containing the case, was traveling at significant speed, but then its movement was stopped abruptly. Maybe it was dropped, or maybe it was on a conveyor system and a jam halted everything instantaneously. The damage occurred because the headstock had room to move within the case, and so it did—resulting in a crack where the headstock curves down at the nut. This is much the same injury as when your guitar is knocked off its stand and falls face-first on the floor. Even nice carpeting won’t save your guitar from headstock cracks for the same reason.
Especially when fitted with cast, enclosed tuners with metal buttons, a guitar’s headstock is a heavy object, and its momentum is simply more than a typical narrow mahogany guitar neck can withstand. A set of metal button Gotoh 510 tuners, for instance, weigh approximately half a pound. That’s about a third of the total weight of a typical mahogany neck on an acoustic flattop. And, of course, the cracks almost always appear around the nut, where the neck is narrowest and where there’s a significant angle. This can also happen when a guitar, in its hardshell case, is left standing vertically on end. If the case is knocked over and the guitar lands face-first, that short drop is sometimes enough to crack a headstock because the barrel of the neck has far less room to move within the case compared to the headstock.
I could natter on for pages about how the dramatic increase in shipping traffic in recent years has resulted in far larger, longer, and faster conveyance systems for both airlines and shipping companies. But no matter what the speed your guitar’s case is traveling, the best insurance you can give your instrument for safe arrival is to limit the distance its headstock can travel when the case comes to an abrupt halt. You can add stiff padding behind the headstock, which functions similar to the headrest in a car, and supplement that with additional padding over the face of the headstock that is slightly compressed when the case is closed. The objective is to make sure that all of your guitar stops moving at the same time when the case is dropped or tossed.
Loosening the string tension is also helpful, but there’s no need to make the strings totally slack. Just tune it down a couple of steps. Packing your guitar in its case in a shipping box doesn’t relieve you of the need to pack the headstock as outlined above, because the same whiplash dangers still apply.
Perhaps the greatest advantage to carefully packing your guitar before flying with it or shipping it is that you’ll sleep easier when it’s in transit.
The construction of your dream guitar can be a fun journey, but learning the language is essential.
You’ve visited countless websites, played as many guitars as you could lay your hands on, and zeroed in on the luthier that resonates most with you. You’re ready to take the plunge and your next step is to have a conversation with the builder. You’ll both have lots of questions. Be sure to listen and let them guide you through the process. This is when the fun begins.
From my end, I try to find out why a client has come to me for a guitar. Was it one of my instruments they heard in a recording, at a concert, or one they had the chance to play? I need to learn what they’re looking for. Are they firm on a size, the materials to be used, a particular feel and tone? Can they reference qualities of other recognizable instruments? What guitar do they currently play and what do they like about it, and what don’t they like? Inlays? A zillion strings? Or do they just like the idea of letting the luthier do their own thing? The list grows....
Of the over 500 guitars I have built, pretty much every customer has had a slightly different vision. My job has been to bring that to life, which is why it’s important for clients to communicate their wishes as clearly as possible. Describing how something sounds or feels can get tricky. I once had two clients in the same week use the word “syrupy” to describe sound. What does that word mean to you? For one it was good, for the other it was bad. A word meant completely different things to each of us, so in each case, we had to establish a common language.
“When Pat Metheny asked me to make him a guitar with ‘as many strings as possible’ I had no idea what that might be, but I immediately said ‘yes!’ because I knew he trusted me, so I ran with it.”
By going through my questions, I’ll get an idea about a player and form a profile in my mind. I’m gathering details—preferred body materials, neck, fingerboard, nut widths, string spacing—which will end up in a file with a client’s name on top. For those who don’t know the exact measurements, don’t fear, we can guide you. Luthiers have tried-and-true models we build as a reference, and a custom guitar is often a simple variation of these standards.
Most luthiers give clients the option to select woods from their stock, and I strongly advise letting your builder make the final selection because they know their materials and their history. Each builder has a unique alchemy around which wood combinations work best, so listen—and learn, too. Should you insist on a wood species that the builder has not combined before, he or she may have reservations and need to explore before moving forward. If I’m the builder, and if no immediate alarm bells ring, I try to keep an open mind and will do the research to either proceed or hit the brakes.
After the structural and material details are locked in, decorative options like pearl inlays, marquetry, painting, and finish colors come next. You will have to trust your maker in this department, because artwork takes on a life of its own. If you’ve seen examples of the builder’s work, you know what to expect, and you may have some ideas of your own which the luthier can flesh out later.
Some luthiers will be willing to act as a “jill or jack of all trades” while others will not, so communication is a key part of any custom guitar order.
Photo by David Wren
Luthiers are generally a polite bunch, and our goal is to make our clients happy, but sometimes we are asked to do things that are outside of our wheelhouse. One example is a client asking a luthier renowned for their archtops to build a harp guitar. One luthier might totally embrace this, while another might not. When I started making guitars, I had to be a “jill of all trades”—see what I did there?—and would build whatever I was asked to, just to keep a roof over my head. This often meant stepping far outside my comfort zone. When Pat Metheny asked me to make him a guitar with “as many strings as possible,” I had no idea what that might be, but I immediately said “yes!” because I knew he trusted me, so I ran with it. The result was the Pikasso guitar, and I am forever grateful for his faith in me and that I grabbed the opportunity to expand my knowledge.
Many folks ordering a handmade instrument are like expectant parents, wanting updates and photos at every stage. We understand your enthusiasm, but please remember that most of us work solo and we literally and figuratively have our hands full, so we can try, but please be patient. And don’t be concerned by our silence, it just means the dust is flying and magic is at work.
The way I look at it, this is your guitar and not mine. My hands are building it, but you will be the one playing it. My job is to deliver you a guitar that will inspire you to create for years to come. We instrument makers are honored that you have entrusted us with the task of making you a guitar. There is nothing we’d rather be doing and we’re deeply grateful for that trust. Enjoy the journey!
So, You Wanna Be a Luthier?
From enrichment classes to six-month master-luthier training, here’s a big-picture view for potential lutherie students.
As many of you know, I have operated a school of lutherie for over 40 years. It all started when I took control of the Guitar Hospital repair shop from my friend Dan Erlewine in the mid ’80s. The establishment was already offering short-term training to select individuals, and, at first, I focused on teaching repairs, which was the prime area of interest for most students. Since then, my school has grown from working with one student at a time to a peak of over 20 students in a single term.
Our training options eventually segued into ground-up builds of both electric and acoustic guitars, and grew from a single-month session to two-month and six-month training programs. To date, we offer enrichment classes, extra-curricular seminars, and expanded graduate classes that, in total, can run up to a year in length. Like all trade schools, our classes constantly shift and change with the times, and, in many cases, our research has developed technology and techniques that keep our school relevant and up to date.
Surround a person with like-minded people and inspiring topics, and they will blossom.
So, what does it mean to be enrolled in a program such as mine and how does it prepare you for the guitar industry? Let’s start with the name of my six-month Masters Program. This title, by no stretch of the imagination, means you will be a master luthier after six months of training. The name came from a questionnaire I sent to many top luthiers asking what topics a student should be able to cover and what skills they would want to see from a potential employee. Then, I took that information, kicked it up a few notches, developed a reasonable curriculum, and founded the Master Class.
What would a day in the life of a fledgling luthier look like once enrolled in our program? First, the name of the game with any trade school is safety, safety, and safety. We are dealing with jointers, band saws, and routers—all of which could certainly cause harm if not monitored appropriately. Then there are the solvents, finishes, and exotic woods that could all be irritants (or worse) if the proper precautions are not taken into consideration.
After safety is covered, students can fully consider what classes they want to take and what their personal lutherie goals are. For those who already have a job in the industry, they could choose the longer sessions. However, for many students the much shorter à la carte session—which can be taken over time–—is the way to go. Retirees looking for a second career generally opt for the longer sessions, grinding through the program and getting back to work.
To stay current, trade schools constantly adjust their programs so students are up to speed with current trends. Nylon-string crossover guitars have become very popular in recent years, so we added it to the program to round out the flattop guitar program.
And, as with all trade schools, vocational rehabilitation is always part of the picture. We collaborate with many departments nationwide, retraining people for a career in lutherie. Additionally, we work with the U.S. military to offer our knowledge and education to disabled veterans, or those taking advantage of the post-9/11 G.I. Bill. This has become a popular way for veterans to jumpstart a career in lutherie.
It’s the younger students who need to put a little more thought into how they are going to make the most of their training dollars. There are many who have already gone the university path and now want to focus on something they feel more passionate about. Many of these students end up going back to school, focusing on business-related classes once they see a clearer path for their future. I also see students arrive here fresh out of high school that are right-brain thinkers. If you plug these students into the wrong environment, they may never flourish. I have seen this time and time again. But surround a person with like-minded people and inspiring topics, and they will blossom.
For me, after four decades of operating a trade school and watching students maneuver their way through the world of lutherie, I have come to understand that my student body can take many forms. However, the bottom line is this: Choosing the correct training program is key for success, and there’s no one training class that’s right for all. Each student has to figure out their own goals, and then my school will provide the path to achieving it.