If a shakuhachi cracks in the Arizona desert and no one is around to hear it, will it make a sound
“Why does bamboo crack and how can I prevent my shakuhachi from cracking?”
Cracking is a part of bamboo’s natural life cycle. Culms crack out in nature so that they’ll decompose more readily which makes room for new shoots and returns nutrients to the soil. Humidified storage helps to keep this natural process at bay with shakuhachi. Fully binding a shakuhachi, however, prevents cracks from ever being an issue, and in my experience it’s the only way to completely prevent cracks.
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, closed automobiles, deserts, and so on.
Bindings are high-tensile string that’s wrapped under extreme tension around the bamboo to keep cracks closed or to prevent them from forming. There are topical bindings (bottom right) and bindings set into a carved out channel (inlaid) topped with veneer, usually
rattan (bottom left).
For aesthetic reason most people wait until their shakuhachi cracks to have it bound, though some wise individuals opt to have their’s bound as a preventative measure. Bindings can close just about any crack and usually keep the crack(s) closed for life.
Utaguchi inlays cause cracks
Inlays at the utaguchi or 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 in my opinion. 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. Inlays at the edge do not inherently affect the sound. Any change in the sound is due to the geometry being changed when an inlay is put it.
“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.
“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.