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An impossible job?
"Spanish Heel" Neck Reset
© Frank Ford, 3/3/98; Photos by FF, 3/2/98
For decades, we've been aware that virtually all steel string guitars
will eventually need to have their necks reset to compensate for the glacier-slow
body shape change, that results from the relentless pull of the strings. Eventually
the neck no longer "aims" toward the bridge at the proper height. High
action and a low saddle, and a low cut-down bridge give us no alternative but to
consider changing the neck angle.
Conventional dovetail neck joints can typically be disassembled and reset to achieve
the original geometry for reasonable action and "new life" for guitars.
Modern bolted necks are even easier! These instruments are built by manufacturers
who recognize the predictability of the neck reset.
Guitars made in the Spanish tradition have their necks integral with the neck block.
In fact, the neck block is part of the same piece of wood. There is no neck joint
to take apart since the guitar's sides are actually set into the neck and the body
built around the end of the neck. Typically this is not a big problem with low-tension
classical and flamenco guitars.
Guitars with Spanish heel construction, or (typically Asian) guitars with necks epoxied
into the body, cannot be disassembled easily. How, then, do we deal with the neck
reset problem? There are lots of creative solutions; here are a few:
1. Remove the fingerboard and insert a "wedge" of wood underneath to elevate
the fingerboard and lower action. I don't like this solution because it requires
massive finish touchup, changes the neck profile, and is only good for one time.
How about later when the problem continues to get worse? Add another wedge?
2. Take the body apart behind the neck block and "shorten the back" to
change the body shape and the neck angle. Very messy job. Lots of chance for breakage,
and lots of touchup work even if there is no breakage. Also, some guitars are made
with very unfriendly glue, from a repair standpoint.
3. Loosen the fingerboard over the body and clamp the neck backward to change the
angle, then glue the fingerboard back. Some repair people actually do this. It's
risky, and has the potential for only a slight angle change. Clearly not repeatable
on the same instrument.
4. Convert to another style of neck joint. This is a bit controversial, but with
the popularity of the bolted neck, there is a good opportunity to "update"
the neck joint on instruments we used to consider not restorable.
Number 4 is my choice! It seems reasonable to me to convert an otherwise unplayable
instrument to a modern bolt-on style of neck joint if there is no other reasonable
alternative. The photos on the following pages describe my method of resetting the
neck on a high quality steel string guitar originally made with the Spanish heel.
Bolted Neck Conversion
The subject of this repair is a 1970s B. C. Rich 17" jumbo with Brazilian rosewood
back and sides. It's in mint condition except for the horrific neck angle. Even with
the drastic need for resetting the neck, this guitar sounds great!
All indications are good: the guitar's cash value is high enough to justify the work;
the owner really loves the instrument and wants to restore it to good playability;
the style of repair won't adversely affect the structural integrity or appearance;
the repair will increase both the playability and resale value.
By the way, I called the B. C. Rich factory and asked them how they approach the
problem. They choose method #3 for mild cases and #1 for more serious ones. When
I told them about my idea for converting to bolt-on neck, they said it sounded like
the best of all possible repairs, but way too much work. I think with the procedure
below I've cut the work down to a manageable size.
Here's a view of the action. Bear in mind that the bridge and saddle are very low,
and there is no way to make them lower!
First job is to heat and release the end of the fingerboard over the body. I'm using
low-tack masking tape to protect the finish from any radiant heat. My heater is the
heat blanket available from L.M.I.
I've got a sandbag to stabilize the power cord and a couple of tiny lead bricks to
hold the blanket down. The blanket is wrapped in aluminum foil for a little better
heat transfer to the fingerboard. I'll feel underneath the top of the guitar to check
the heat. When it's quite warm, I'll start to lift the fingerboard off with my thinned-out
flexible putty knife:
Once the fingerboard is loose, I can proceed with removing the neck.
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