In the Aboriginal cultures of northern Australia, a good didgeridoo is highly coveted due to the fact that instruments with the correct sonic characteristics are rare and difficult to find. Consequently, there is much excitement and a general uplifting of spirit in the community when a good instrument is found and made, and it would not be unusual for the didgeridoo to be immediately borrowed by players in the area eager to test it out. From the start, efforts are made to prolong the life of a good instrument. This may be something as simple as coating the instrument’s body with a wash of ochre or a mixture of plant resin and ochre, though it is more common these days to ‘seal’ the outside of the instrument with a coating of PVA glue. Attention would also be given to any air leaks, which are patched with plugs of native beeswax, plant resins, or the choice of other materials from the hardware store.
In past times, instruments that are not in use are sometimes maintained by keeping them constantly moist in a creek or waterhole. This has two functions: to prevent wood shrinkage and the consequent splitting of the didgeridoo in dry air, and to ensure the instrument is well primed for use when the need arises. In more contemporary times, it is far more common for didgeridoos to be kept in family dwellings such as within a house or underneath a bush shelter. Priming instruments stored in this way merely requires sluicing the bore with water for a few minutes. This is also done during ceremonial performances or during recreational playing to ensure the bore of the instrument is constantly wet and that the sound of the instrument is optimised.
Didgeridoos used frequently for ceremonial events or recreational purposes often develop air leaks due to the wet-dry cycle that the instruments are put through. These are again patched as required. For more extensive cracks, a contemporary method for preventing air leakage during playing is the use of electrical tape wound around the length of the instrument. This is similar to an old method for extending an instrument’s lifespan using a wrap of paperbark, secured with bush string, which covers the whole instrument keeping it airtight. Whilst in theory a didgeridoo could be used indefinitely through constant repair and maintenance, the lifespan of a didgeridoo in Aboriginal society is usually 2 to 3 years. A good instrument that has been used extensively, and displaying the battle scars (electrical tape and all) endured during its lifetime, is as highly cherished as a good new instrument in prime condition. However, when it becomes too troublesome to maintain an old instrument – usually because it leaks too much air – then a suitable replacement is found for it and the old one discarded. There is no sentimentality associated with this as material possession in Aboriginal society is something quite different to Western society’s notion of wealth and status.
Your didjeridu will last many years, even a lifetime, if it is looked after properly. Below are some notes on taking care of your instrument as well as some tips on repair.
A didgeridoo needs to be gently ‘broken in’. If an instrument has just landed on your door-step that was sent by iDIDJ Australia (or any other overseas retailer), take extra care of it because the first few days are crucial as the didgeridoo starts to adjust to its new environment. Remember that in aircargo and at high altitude, the humidity level of the packaged didgeridoo would be somewhat different to the humidity level in your home. For this reason, DO NOT play your new didgeridoo for more than a few minutes on the first day. Your didgeridoo would have absorbed moisture from your breath in those few minutes, and the wood in the didgeridoo would start to expand a little from this. Allow the didgeridoo to reach some sort of equilibrium with its new environment by resting it until the next day. Then play it again for a few minutes and continue this play-rest pattern for a week until you are confident that the didgeridoo has adjusted itself adequately. There are no hard and fast rules to this so use your intuition.
Once your didgeridoo has been ‘broken in’, it is best to limit your playing of the didgeridoo to short sessions as prolonged playing can lead to excessive absorption of moisture from your breath which may result in cracking. Again, there are no hard and fast rules. The safest bet against cracking is to have a number of instruments in your home and to play them alternately, so that no one instrument ever gets too much attention. A good size collection to aim for is 6 didgeridoos. Some players and collectors have as many as 30 didgeridoos, and with this number of instruments, it is highly unlikely that any of them would ever crack.
Air temperature and humidity are the two most important factors in looking after your didgeridoo. Because wood is a dynamic substance that expands and contracts according to the environmental conditions it is exposed to, maintaining a fairly constant air temperature and humidity level will minimise your didgeridoo movement. When transporting a didgeridoo in a vehicle, keep it wrapped in a layer of thick fabric to insulate it from exposure to heat, especially on a hot day. Some didgeridoo players, especially professional performers, use hard cases or sealable tubes for transporting their instrument. Storage of an instrument when it is not being used is best in a room that is not heated nor air-conditioned. Temperature-controlled rooms are often very low in humidity, which may cause the didgeridoo wood to differentially shrink and crack. To safeguard against unexpected cracking, you may wish to consider buying a hygrometer and a humidifier. A hygrometer is a device that measures the humidity level in the air, and it can be a handy piece of equipment to have in the room where you store or display your didjeridu. Digital hygrometers can be bought cheaply and are sometimes incorporated into alarm clocks and thermometers.
Didjeridus players around the world have found the use of oils, sealants and stabilisers effective in protecting their instrument from ‘movements’. A vast number of different products are available for this purpose, including PVA glue, raw linseed oil, tung oil, olive oil, sunflower oil, shellac, chemical resins, furniture varnish, polyurethane, lacquers and a host of other commercial hardware products. Some of these are used to seal the bore of the didgeridoo, whilst others are applied to the outside of the instrument.
Caution should be exercised in the use of any of these products for three main reasons. Firstly, applying a substance to the inside of a didgeridoo will change the acoustics of the instrument, with brightening of timbre a typical outcome. High-specificity instruments such as authentic yirdaki from north-east Arnhem Land generally do not respond well to such treatments as their traditional sonic characteristics are compromised.
Secondly, some chemical sealants and stabilisers are toxic to humans which makes reading of labels and warning notes on products mandatory. Commercial linseed oil products, for instance, contain toxic additives that speed up the curing process. Polyethylene-glycol (PEG), a detergent-like substance used for stabilising green wood, is highly toxic and a carcinogen though it is known that a number of non-Indigenous didgeridoo makers in Australia have or are continuing to use it. Varnishes and other chemicals intended for furniture should be assessed very carefully: it may be ok to sit on furniture treated with such products, but to put your mouth to a didgeridoo coated with the same product is another thing altogether. Even if you find something in the hardware store that is deemed to be safe when cured, preparation of the product and the fumes given off leading up to full curing may present a health hazard. (As an aside, authentic Aboriginal-made didgeridoos are the safest instruments from a health point of view, as unlike their non-authentic counterparts, harmful chemicals are not used in their production). Thirdly, it is not advisable to apply oils, varnishes and sealants to traditional Aboriginal didgeridoos that have been decorated with ochre-painted artwork. This is because the ochres may change colour, and, in the case of white pipeclay decoration on some authentic instruments from Arnhem Land, may vanish altogether.
Very recently, iDIDJ Australia has put to trial an oil mixture that is claimed to be very effective in stabilising wood and that is totally non-toxic. It has been recommended and used by a friend and supporter of iDIDJ Australia (thank you Bernhard!) who has treated all his instruments with this product to good effect – no cracks! The mixture is composed of Chinese tung oil, cooked linseed oil, castor oil, French pine oil, Portugese balsamic turpentine and Brazilian orange peel turpentine. iDIDJ Australia has obtained samples of this product, which is blended by Sehestedt’s, an ecologically-oriented small enterprise focussed on the old ways using things that nature has given us.
We really like the product and can highly recommend it! In the iDIDJ Store, didgeridoos offered for sale can be sealed with this oil mixture if you wish to have this done. To cap things off, the best approach to looking after your didgeridoo is simply to look after it. Keep it in a happy environment at a stable temperature and your instrument will reward you with a lifetime of musical enjoyment. If you live in a country or region where the air is dry, consider the use of Sehestedt’s oil mixture.
A didgeridoo is very easy to repair. Should your instrument develop air leaks, an electrical tape job does the trick if you are not bothered with the change in aesthetics. If you do want to preserve the look of your instrument, there are some simple repair techniques that would restore your instrument to full glory. The most effective and fastest method for patching a split is with PVA glue mixed with fine sawdust or charcoal. Combine the sawdust or charcoal with an amount of glue and mix until a soft putty-like substance is formed. If the putty is too liquid, mix more sawdust or charcoal as required. If the putty is too stiff or crumbly, add more glue. Lightly sand the area on your didgeridoo that is cracked with a fine-grade sandpaper, and then push the putty into the crack ensuring no air leaks remain. When the putty has hardened (best to leave for 72 hours), sand it back to the level of the wood and your didgeridoo should be as good as new. A stronger glue such as a two-part epoxy resin may be used in place of PVA glue, but be sure to read the label and any health warnings the product might have. Touching up or restoring the artwork on instruments is easy if the correct colours can be found; your local state or national museum might have information on specialist restorers that can do this for you.