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Didgeridoos and Cracking

Posted: Tuesday, May 11, 2010 in Uncategorized by Posted by

I just love working with wood. I love the smell of the different timbers as you cut and sand. I love crafting, shaping and finding the Didgeridoo inside every log. I love listening to and working with the grain as I shape, sand and carve. I love finishing the inside and outside to highlight the unique grain and features, so special, beautiful and different in every log.

Yet with every draw of the blade and every stroke of sandpaper, every chip of the chisel, weakens the original integrity and overall strength of the log. The termites have already removed the softer pithy centre and more. Termites often eat to within millimeters’ of the outside of a log, for lengths of two inches to 5 feet. It is impossible to predict the strength of the remaining timber beyond those deep termite grooves.

Timber is created from living cells. As with all of Gods living creation, water is a huge part of the living and growing process. Because of this living cellular construction, even when dried out, timber is very prone to expanding and contracting with ambient changes in temperature, moisture and humidity. It is quite common for timber furniture of a few months or even one hundred years old to just crack for no apparent reason. Yet the reason is simple, changes in temperature and moisture content in the wood.

So imagine a timber didgeridoo. The strength of the outer log removed during shaping, often additional removal of timber from the inside to brighten and tune the sound. Then hot moist air being breathed into it for extended periods of time. This hot moist air can expand the wood cells inside the didgeridoo. Meanwhile the outside may be in a dry hot or cool environment causing the outside of the Didgeridoo to shrink. The result can be cracking.
Sometimes just surface or superficial cracks appear on the outer surface of the instruments as the outside adjusts to the new environment, more often than not the timber is that settled and strong that it just never moves at all, no cracking.

In the old traditional days a number of Didgeridoos were collected for any one ceremony. The Didgeridoo players would often spit mouthfuls’ of water down the inside of the instrument to make the wood cells expand and stretch, causing the inside surface to tighten up and harden. This gives the instrument a crisper, cleaner playing sound. Often though the expanding tightness of the inside and the contracting drying of the inside would cause these Didgeridoos to crack. So the players would just grab another one and keep going. The cracked sticks would find their way to the fireplace that night!

Due to the fact that most of us do not have a termite infested Eucalyptus forest in our back yard, we generally cannot afford the same luxury of throwing away Didgeridoos and getting another one! So makers today will seal the inside and the outside of the instruments one way or another. Sealing the inside gives the same tight hard property, which was achieved by spitting water through in the old ways.

The seal stops moisture from soaking into the wood therefore preventing many of the cracking problems otherwise associated with expanding wet timber. The seal on the outside offers the same protection for the exterior of the didgeridoo.

Seals vary from nearly boiling beeswax and oils through sanding sealer to polyurethanes, varnishes, marine finishes and epoxy resins. Although the beeswax and oils sound environmentally appealing, they also have a limited lifespan and need regular maintenance for the rest of the Didgeridoos life. Timber finishing is an art and my experience is that most Didgeridoo players want to play, not take up training in timber finishing.

The traditional Yidaki from Arnhem Land by Djalu and others are often unfinished on the inside and finished with modern acrylic paint on the outside. At Didgeridoo Breath we never change anything about these Didgeridoos and their finish. We recommend hat you keep playing to about a 15 minute daily limit to reduce the chances of the instrument cracking.

All other Didgeridoos at Didgeridoo Breath are sealed inside and out in one way or another. If your instrument is oiled we display this information clearly. The end result is about one in two hundred Didgeridoos will crack either superficially or enough so air will leak. Once air leaks the sound quality of your Didgeridoo will be significantly reduced to possibly the point of being unplayable!

The great news is just about all cracks are very repairable and in 99 percent of cases repaired Didgeridoos sound exactly the same before and after repair. The other great news is that once a didgeridoo has moved and is repaired they rarely ever do any more moving or cracking. Sometimes they are under  a bit of stress from their new shape after being made, so they just have to get comfortable and then they are right for the long haul!

Even $3000 plus Didgeridoos crack, it is really no big deal, sure it’s a shock, possibly even a disappointment, but that is what happens with living materials. If this prospect puts you off Eucalyptus or timber didgeridoos then maybe a plastic, hemp or slide Didgeridoo is more for you.

The percentage of Didgeridoos that crack is low and repairing them is easy! Check out the information in Knowledge Base about how easy it is to repair a cracked Didgeridoo.

Hopefully you have heard this all before from everybody who sells Didgeridoos. If you would like to know more or have questions in mind I haven’t answered here or in How to Repair a Cracked Didgeridoo in our Knowledge Base, please contact us