Guzheng Care and Maintenance
The guzheng is a precious musical instrument and should be respected and cared for accordingly. Store it well and keep it clean. If an issue arises deal with it quickly. Ignoring a problem can lead to greater problems.
Do's and Don'ts of Guzheng Care
Handle with care and respect.
Keep in a stable temperature and humidity, about 45-55% Relative Humidity.
Wipe the soundboard with a soft cloth or brush after playing to remove dust.
Tune and play it frequently.
Cover it with a cloth or return it to its case when not in use.
Don't leave it in direct sunlight for long periods of time.
Don't place it next to windows, heating/cooling vents, radiators, and other sources of sudden temperature changes (European-style ambient water heaters aren't as much a concern as long as they don't get hot).
Don't get it wet.
Don't let cooking oil get onto it, directly or through the air (keep it out of the kitchen).
Don't let dust build up.
A wipe with a soft cloth will take care of most of your cleaning needs on the soundboard, paneling, and frame.
DO NOT use a cleaning chemical, oil, or spray on the soundboard even if there is something you want to remove. Take it to a guzheng luthier for an assessment before trying anything yourself.
Furniture-grade Orange and Lemon oil can be used to clean finished, sealed wooden surfaces on the instrument such as the sides and framing of the head and tail.
Any cleaning oil should be tested on an unobtrusive part of your instrument first. Your instrument's finish may react differently to different oils; test them to avoid unfortunate surprises.
These orange and lemon oils should be used straight. Do not mix them with water.
Their cleaning power is limited to smudges and fingerprints.
Don’t wipe cleaning agents over decorations such as fabric panels, paintings, or stone inlays.
For a complete clean, remove the movable bridges and use a soft cloth or brush to remove dirt from the entire soundboard.
If your soundboard is smoothed or lacquered, a simple cloth wipe should take care of everything.
If your soundboard is textured or was otherwise roughened by the manufacturer, take care to avoid trapping dust in the nooks and crannies of the wood. You may need a special brush.
Dust stuck to string holes and captured near the fixed bridges can be removed by brushing with an extra-soft toothbrush while holding a vacuum nozzle nearby.
Specialty vacuum adapters like this set from StewMac might also be helpful though I haven't used it.
For more extensive or intensive cleanings, seek the advice of a guzheng luthier.
If you cannot find a guzheng-specific luthier, violin and cello luthiers and related repair professionals can give you some general musical instrument tips. Some may even be willing to perform simple maintenance and repairs but speak with them first.
Luthiers who are unfamiliar with guzheng may not be comfortable working on your instrument. Don't try to force them; listen to their professional advice and respect their self-imposed limits.
Your instrument should spend most of its time at a stable temperature and a relative humidity of between 45-55%. This prevents the instrument from cracking. I'll answer your inner doubts right now: Yes, you DO need a hygrometer and some form of humidity control. As wood dries it shrinks and shrinking pieces will pull away from each other. That builds up stress that WILL find a way out either by pulling a seam open or cracking. Prevent that shrinking by keeping wood as close to the equilibrium moisture content it had when it was produced. For a technical discussion visit the Wood Drying page. Below are practical options:
Option 1: Humidify and monitor the instrument in a hard case. Store it in a hard case whenever you aren't playing it.
Pro: unobtrusive, mostly set-it-and-forget-it. You can check every time you take the instrument out.
Con: You need a hard case. Hard cases are expensive ($500 USD and up).
If you stop playing for a while (and let's be real, at some point you will) you might forget to check the humidity for a long time.
To follow this approach, get a small hygrometer or humidity gauge at a music store and some in-case humidifiers. Hygrometers range from about $10 USD for analog models to $30 and up for digital models. The in-case humidifying products run in similar ranges of $10 for what is effectively a sponge in a plastic holder to $20, $30 and up for devices with a bit more design savvy to them. One community member uses humidifying packs from a company called Boveda; there are many other companies and products as well.
Option 2: Humidify and monitor the room the instrument lives in.
Pro: Easy to keep track of regardless of how much you play. Also good for your health as the humidity range for an instrument is also ideal for humans.
Con: requires near-daily maintenance.
This is my preferred option because I maintain multiple instruments but only one hard case, plus I enjoy living in a humidified environment. I place an electronic humidifier in a room next to a hygrometer, set the desired humidity level on the humidifier, and monitor and tweak until the humidity stabilizes. A room hygrometer is about the same cost as one for an instrument case ($10-$30) but room humidifiers tend to be more expensive, trending towards $50.
There are four (4) types of humidifiers: Evaporative, Impeller, Ultrasonic, and Vaporizer (also known as Warm Mist).
Evaporative humidifiers let the water evaporate at room temperature. Typically they have wicks or fans to help accelerate this process.
Impellers fling water at an internal target to break it into a mist.
Ultrasonics vibrate the water until it separates into vapor.
Vaporizers boil water to create steam.
Evaporative and Vaporizers humidifiers build up mineral deposits in the device that must be cleaned off, either by soaking in vinegar or replacing an internal filter. Ultrasonic and Impeller humidifiers push those minerals into the air with the water. That isn't harmful but can add to the dust in the room. As dust dampens the sound of a guzheng I'd recommend using a Vaporizer, an Evaporative humidifier, or making sure it is covered when you're not using it.
You can use distilled water in your humidifier to eliminate these mineral issues but that adds to the cost. A whole-room humidifier can easily consume more than one gallon per day. With distilled water typically $1 per gallon or more that’s $30+ per month in water alone.
Instruments are happy in the same temperature range that humans are happy in. The biggest issues for guzheng are the rate of change of temperature and total change in temperature. Sudden changes lead to stress buildup and cracks as materials shrink (cold materials are typically smaller than warm materials). Some instruments can weather the changes, others will experience lots of negatives effects. Its best to avoid the changes entirely.
The total changes in the temperature detunes strings. It's frustrating to retune your instrument frequently, so avoid retunings by keeping temperatures stable.
Avoid temperature changes by not storing your guzheng near windows, near heating vents, or in direct sunlight. Avoid exterior walls entirely if possible. All of these places can have surprisingly large temperature variations during a normal day and night.
Sunlight causes two extra problems: it causes focused, localized heating which both causes temperature change issues and dries out the wood it is heating, and it can bleach and fade the color of the decorations on your instrument. The less direct sun your instrument gets the better.
Dust muffles sound. Instead of string vibrations making the soundboard vibrate and produce the sounds you love, a dusty instrument spends all of its energy vibrating dust particles. Prevent the dust from accumulating and enjoy your instrument's brilliance.
The difference is profound. I once received an instrument that looked beautiful but sounded atrocious. Truly, it was as if I had a blanket wrapped around my head. Fearful I had wasted my money I took out the bridges and used a dry cloth to wipe up the dust. It instantly sounded better. Keep your instruments free of dust!
Water / Oil
Liquids soak into wood and change their physical structure and acoustic properties. Even after liquids evaporate those changes can stay. Avoid placing or using liquids around your instrument. Wash your hands before playing to avoid transferring oils. Allow your hands to dry completely before playing.