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Let us not judge the past by present knowledge. . .
The Way We Were
© Frank Ford, 2/7/99; Photos by FF, 1/1/99

Fretted instrument repair has come a long way in our generation. Thirty years ago when I first started repairing guitars the general state of the art was just coming out of the Dark Ages. Not surprisingly, the average quality of repair work has matured and improved along with the average value of the instruments being repaired.

When we're examining a repair job that was done many years ago, it's important for us to remember that the instrument may have been of little actual cash value at the time. So, in a way, it's understandable that some pretty poor quality work was performed on instruments that are now taken as precious. When we are horrified to see a 1940 Martin D-28 with varnish brushed all over it, we must also be glad it the guitar wasn't simply thrown away and replaced because it was "ugly" at the time.

The same thing goes for customization. Some old instruments were converted for other use, some for electric amplification and some for "beautification."

Let's look at a few of the more common repairs and customization of the past.

Add a Tailpiece

If you just can't seem to get the bridge to stay glued down, you can always add a tailpiece:

This Washburn guitar was made around 1910, and originally had a pin bridge. From the damage underneath, it's obvious that it had been reglued several times. Musical supply houses used to sell these cheap tin tailpieces for quick repairs, and we often see the scars left by their application to elegant instruments.

Neck Resetting by "Slipping the Back"

When I first started working on guitars I was told it was "too difficult and messy" to remove the neck for resetting to the correct angle. Our standard method of resetting Martin necks was to loosen the back of the instrument from the neck block and the linings, and push the neck backward, allowing the back to overhang at the heel. That technique allowed for really good control in adjusting the neck angle, but presented a host of other problems.

The back was easily cracked in the effort to loosen it from the neck block. The binding and purfling had to be removed, the back trimmed to fit, the binding channel recut and the binding reglued in place. Then there was all that finish touch up, if it was done at all.

In the best case, this is the result:

You can see the little piece of binding that had to be inserted in the gap at the joint behind the heel.

There are signs of the binding having been removed and reglued, and the finish touched up:

Inside at the neck block, you can see the results of the loosening and regluing.

Now, this one is a good example. I've seen lots of damage caused by this kind of reset work, including massive cracking and splintering of the back over the neck block, and damage to sensitive wood purfling.

After doing a few resets in this manner, I started to work on a technique for removing the neck intact, even though I was told it was too difficult. It turns out to be MUCH easier than doing the reset by loosening the back, but then who knew?

Cut Through the Fourteenth Fret

Early on, I was told that in order to get access to the neck joint it was necessary to cut the fingerboard through at the fret slot right at the body:

Then, after removing the end of the fingerboard from the top, the idea was to pour hot water into the joint to soften the glue. One serious problem with this system is that the fingerboard is no longer intact to provide support to the neck joint. That leaves the neck vulnerable to a sideways force (say if the guitar is dropped while it's in the case) which can cause the neck block to crack.

Thankfully, it wasn't too long before I (and lots of others, too) developed techniques for steaming the neck joint apart without cutting the fingerboard.

Teeny Dowels

Dowels are used to reinforce wood joints, right?

Here's a classic example of a good idea in the wrong application.

This 1940 D-18 had a broken headstock, which was reglued and "reinforced" with dowels:

As you can see, the dowels were really small, and because of the location of the crack, the were also really short. So, they didn't hold at all. They did look ugly, though. The neck broke again because the guitar was dropped, and the dowels pulled neatly through.

You can see the results from the top, too:

This is an example of a misguided effort to improve a simple glue joint. The dowels were visible from both the front and back, and only served to reduce the gluing surface by a small amount. I've seen much bigger diameter dowels make a much bigger mess, by the way.

Add a Pickup

This isn't a particularly valuable guitar today, but it serves as an example of two interesting techniques.

The first is the application of a pickup system. Here, it's simply screwed into the face, so when it becomes obsolete, it leaves behind a bunch of little holes:

Nowadays, we're more sensitive to the application of pickups, because we've seen generations of electronics go into obsolescence.



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