The Case for Cases
By the time you reach the point in your playing, collecting, and appreciation of fine instruments that you are seriously beginning to consider acquiring a custom-made instrument, you will have doubtless come to appreciate the utility of a good case. A case is not there to look good, to act as a status symbol, or to give you a place to put neat stickers; your instrument's case is your instrument's shield, the only protection your instrument has against the elements of destruction that lie in wait whenever your instrument is not in your loving hands.
There is no one "ideal" case for every situation and every person, as every situation and every person is different. The factors that make every player different must be taken into consideration when deciding which type of case is best for you. Are you a collector whose instruments are pampered and lavished with care, seldom leaving your climate-controlled vault or music room? Are you a player who never ventures outside the comfort of your own home with your instrument, strictly a "living room player"? Are you a part-time amateur musician who goes to the occasional gig, music contest, or just to gather at other local players' homes for a jam session? Are you a studio pro, lugging your instruments from place to place with regularity but in relative safety? Are you a touring pro, whose instruments travel many thousands of miles subject to the ravages of baggage handlers and brutally-hot (or bitter-cold) baggage compartments? Obviously, the same type of case would not be ideally-suited to all these scenarios; for this reason, we will take a look at some of the types of cases available today and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses given their intended purpose.
Chipboard ("Softshell") Cases - Given reasonable care in adult hands, a Chipboard case can offer adequate protection for carrying an instrument around for short periods, but in reality Chipboard cases are worthless, and they can even cause more damage than they prevent.
"Chipboard" is a nicer term for cardboard - yes that's right, a Chipboard case is actually made of paper! While these are the cheapest type of case available, the economy they offer is a short-sighted and false one; you may think that since you don't travel with your instrument, a chipboard case will be OK for just around the house. Think again - just sitting in a chipboard case can damage your instrument! Let me explain: because they are made of thin cardboard, Chipboard cases are held together with staples and rivets, and the interior of these staples and rivets are covered by what amounts to felt-covered pieces of tape. It doesn't take long for these pieces of tape to wear through, and when they do your instrument is exposed to the rough ends of the staples and rivets, often with disastrous results to your instrument.
Chipboard cases also offer no protection from heat and cold, which is one of the most basic functions of a case. A good case can also be used as a regulator when going from a hot environment into a cold one or vice versa (for more discussion on this, see my earlier article at Caring For Your Instrument's Finish). Chipboard cases also offer no protection from moisture, and can actually exacerbate the problem if the case gets wet with the instrument left inside. Have you ever noticed what happens when cardboard sits in water? Not only will it come apart, but it will actually wick up water from the surrounding area and concentrate it around your instrument.
Finally, Chipboard cases feature essentially no padding. Because of this, any impact will be transferred to your delicate instrument with virtually no resistance from the case. Think of it this way: would you carry your instrument around, or store it at your home, in nothing but a cardboard box? Well, if you use a Chipboard case, that's exactly what you're doing!
Gig Bags - Gig Bags (those nylon soft cases that are so popular on campus these days) are the modern version of a Chipboard case, offering minimum protection at a minimum price. While padded Gig Bags do offer more protection from minor bumps and bruises, and offer more thermal and moisture protection than a Chipboard case, a Gig Bag is still a BAG. While a padded Gig bag might work fine if you're just going over to a friend's house to pick a few tunes, any major impact will have dire consequences for your instrument (and folks have had car wrecks on their way to a friend's house to pick a few tunes...).
Molded Styrofoam Cases - Looking something like a hard gig bag, these cases, such as the "Ambassador" line made by Modern Case Company and others, are really quite nice in many ways. Molded Styrofoam Cases do not offer quite as much strength as a conventional arched-lid plywood Hardshell case, but they make up for this somewhat by weight reduction and superior thermal protection, and the better examples on the market offer good moisture resistance as well. Since these cases are usually made of several layers of rigid and semi-rigid foam materials, they tend to be substantially lighter in weight than plywood Hardshell cases (even though they are quite bulky), and they are probably the strongest cases for their weight available. Again because of their layered-foam construction, the thermal protection offered by Molded Styrofoam Cases is rivaled only by that of the best premium Fiberglas flight cases. Another plus is that these cases usually feature lots of storage pockets, as well as shoulder straps. They may not look like a case should, but they do work pretty well, and they even outperform flat-lid plywood Hardshell cases in certain ways. They are also moderately priced and offer good value for the level of protection that they afford.
Molded Plastic Hardshell Cases - This type of case, which has been used by all the major manufacturers over the past 30 years or so, works pretty well as long as you remember that although they look like flight-type cases, they are not. These cases basically consist of a layer of plastic outside a molded Styrofoam core, offering decent strength at a decent weight, but they are not equivalent to a good arched-lid plywood Hardshell case. Their plastic shells tend to warp in the heat and crack in the cold, and their hardware has a tendency to pull loose over time. I have also found that these cases have a tendency to leak around the main seam when exposed to a good deal of moisture, and their impact resistance leaves something to be desired. Still, they serve very well for those who do not need a very robust case, and they generally sell for a few dollars less than a plywood Hardshell case.
Plywood Hardshell Cases - This type of case offers the best protection for the money today, just as they have over the past century, and are rugged enough for all but the real "road warriors". Consisting of a plywood shell covered with an imitation leather for scuff resistance and generous interior padding, these cases can stand up to years of travel and abuse. Somewhat heavier than the previous types of cases we have discussed, they nevertheless tend to be less bulky than Molded Styrofoam cases. The best plywood Hardshell cases feature an arched lid (and even an arched bottom) for maximum strength, and thanks to the typically thick padding and plush lining, they offer excellent thermal protection as well as impact resistance. Less-expensive flat-lid plywood Hardshell cases sacrifice a good deal of crush protection and impact resistance for a mere few dollars, and I would prefer a Molded Styrofoam case over a flat-lid plywood Hardshell. However, arched-lid plywood Hardshell cases offer better overall protection and an excellent value, and I recommend them for nearly every application. Because of this, a good-quality arched-lid plywood Hardshell case is included in the purchase price of every CB instrument.
Fiberglas Flight Cases - This type of case is the ultimate in today's market, offering maximum crush protection, impact protection, thermal protection and moisture protection at a price that is typically several times the cost of a good-quality plywood Hardshell case. Besides the price (usually at least $500-$600 dollars), the downside to this type of case is weight and bulk. Constructed of a shell made of hand-laid Fiberglas layers surrounding a foam inner core with a plush lining, with embedded hinges & hardware and premium gasketing for moisture protection, these cases are quite large and heavy (I've often joked that the only thing they need that they don't have is wheels!). Made by such companies as Calton in Canada (my favorite), Price and Eastman, these cases are preferred by touring pros who require the ultimate in protection, and although they are expensive they can easily pay for themselves with one careless baggage handler.
Quite often when I am playing at a jam or gig, someone will bump my case against the wall or scrape against it with some equipment and apologize profusely for the damage that was done. I always smile and point out that every mark on my case is NOT on my instrument! That is the thankless job of your instrument's case - to absorb all the damaging forces that are out to destroy your treasured instrument. I suggest you evaluate your situation and carefully choose a case for your instrument that best suits your needs. Since your case is your instrument's last line of defense against heat, cold, sunshine, rain, dings, dents, kids and pets (just to name a few potential destructive forces), careful consideration of the different types of cases available today is a good idea. I have carefully considered the pros and cons of all the types of cases currently available, and I believe that 95% of all musicians would be well-served by a good-quality arched-top plywood Hardshell case. This is why I recommend them, use them myself, and include them with of all my instruments. Of course, I can substitute any type of case that offers an acceptable level of protection, but I owe it to my customers and my instruments to see to it that each instrument that I build is protected in the most effective way possible.
Last modified: November 27, 2015
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