“Why do shakuhachi crack and what can we do about it?”
“Why does bamboo crack and how can I prevent my shakuhachi from cracking?”
Cracking is a part of bamboo’s natural life cycle. Out in nature bamboo poles crack when they die and dry out. Once they crack open they decompose more readily which makes room for new shoots and returns nutrients to the soil.
To keep this natural process at bay with shakuhachi proper storage is required unless a flute has be fully bound. Bamboo can crack when the humidity drops so as a general rule of thumb shakuhachi are stored between 50% and 70% humidity. Storing shakuhachi in an air-tight bag or case is usually enough. Some people twist a bit of damp cloth or paper towel into the top of their flute bags but if you do this make sure that it doesn’t touch the flute and be mindful of mold. Avoid leaving your shakuhachi out of its protective bag or case when you’re not playing it especially when you find yourself in harsh dry environments such as air-conditioning, heaters, camp fires, closed automobiles, deserts, beaches, snow, and so on.
Utaguchi inlays cause cracks
Inlays at the utaguchi or blowing edge can and often do cause cracks. These inlays are intended to provide a more durable edge however the risk of cracks far outweighs their usefulness, let alone that they’re also susceptible to being damaged and falling out which results in very costly specialized repairs. A better solution is to lacquer over the natural bamboo edge or to simply leave it be.
As seen above, there are topical bindings using various colors of nylon cord and then there are bindings set into a carved out channel topped with rattan veneer inlay. Just like with utaguchi inlays inlaid bindings can cause additional cracking. For this reason I also avoid them when repairing shakuhachi which I’ve handcrafted.
Bindings are high-tensile string wrapped under extreme tension, tied with a special slipknot, and then further secured with glue or lacquer. For aesthetic reason most people wait until their flute cracks to have it bound though some opt to have their flutes bound as a preventative measure. Bindings can close just about any crack and usually keep the crack(s) closed for life. Topical bindings often prevent cracks from ever forming.
“Should I oil my shakuhachi and does it help”?
I don’t recommend oiling shakuhachi. Whether or not it helps prevent cracking is unknown. Most oils have strong odors, will go rancid, and will probably grow mold more easily. If you oil a shakuhachi it will make it impossible for lacquer to adhere to it which should be kept in mind if lacquering might ever be desirable. I don’t accept returns if a shakuhachi has been oiled.
“Do cracked and repaired shakuhachi sound different?”
Cracked and repaired shakuhachi usually sound the same because the bamboo will join back together like two puzzle pieces. That is, unless additions to the bore using paste are effected (jinashi or jiari). Pictured below is a 1.8 “D” shakuhachi I made for a student of mine which suffered a crack. He lives in Arizona and he was very concerned that the crack would not be fixable, however, I assured him that it would be just fine. Fortunately none of the additions to the bore were effected, though if they were I could have fixed them as well. To date, the instrument has not suffered any more cracks and the existing crack has not moved.
Click images to enlarge
Below are images of a jiari type shakuhachi made by a Japanese maker which cracked. Thankfully none of the plaster on the inside came loose. As you can imagine, cracks in jiari can be much more troublesome due to the plaster (ji), lacquer, and blowing-edge inlay. This customer chose a nice deep burgundy binding cord which resembles the cherry bark used in many fine Japanese crafts. I used brown ki urushi on the center joint rattan veneer and buffed it out for a nice effect that would blend well with the new bindings.