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Getting an old guitar 'back' into service...

Confessions of a luthier

(First published in Guitarist magazine, issue #472)

This month Alex attempts a tricky repair job on an unusual handmade guitar, and tries to preserve its character at the same time, warts and all.

Since I started working as a guitar maker, I have always taken on repair and restoration jobs. As well as helping to establish a steady income stream in the feast-or-famine world of guitar making, repair work has allowed me to see first-hand the successes and failures of various guitar designs.

Given the physical abuse players dole out to their beloved instruments, it can take some serious creative problem solving to fix the multitude of crises that present themselves. If you asked me to summarise my decade of experience so far in this field I would propose there are two types of guitar repair: those you have done before, and those you haven’t.

This challenge is often set against the demands of a rapid turnaround: I recall once having to fix all the instruments belonging to a mariachi band that had just stepped off a plane from Mexico for a concert that evening, only to discover some major baggage mis-handling had occurred. I toiled hard and fast that afternoon, but free concert tickets and plenty of tequila that evening certainly helped to make up for it.

Ultimately I’m always drawn in by the unknown, so when a beguiling walnut guitar arrived at the workshop a few weeks ago, I was under it’s spell even before I knew what I was getting myself into. Made almost entirely from an old piano, this guitar was put together by a furniture maker with no formal lutherie training, who did a very fine job nonetheless in crafting an exquisite guitar with a sonorous voice. However, the use of dangerously thin flat-sawn timber and an ill-prepared batch of hide glue meant large areas of the back of the instrument were very badly cracked. An improvised repair had been attempted which had only made matters worse. Loose braces were barely held to the surface with toothpick-sized dowels and glue was liberally drizzled around the interior, none of which would be doing any favours to the sound of the instrument.

Considerate guitar restoration is sometimes about preserving things that are “wrong” at the

expense of going about a more convenient repair. For someone in my position the obvious

solution to fixing this guitar may have been to make a new back for it. However, given the maker had expertly attempted to repair the gaping cracks with wavy strands of mismatched hardwood, and peppered the back with ebony dowels, it didn’t feel right to destroy these quirky features so we opted instead to install a network of cleats throughout the interior to strengthen the cracked areas, preserving in the process the appearance of the instrument on the outside.

I carefully removed the thin padauk binding, which came away in three separate pieces, and then gently prised the brittle walnut back away from the sides. With the back removed I was able to tease off the braces one at a time, replacing each one with a new plumply curved brace before moving onto the next. With all four braces in situ, I set about sticking in more than 40 cross-grained spruce cleats to the interior, each of which had to be shaved down into a neat little pyramid in an effort to reduce excess mass. Upon seeing these wooden stitches running along the inside my customer remarked that it now looked like Frankenstein’s guitar…

I knew that my customer already loved the way the guitar played, so ensuring that the action and feel of the neck remained the same was crucial to a successful repair job. Fortunately, when it came down to stringing back up, only a minuscule adjustment to the saddle height was necessary to keep things in balance. The feeling that comes with playing and hearing the guitar again after many weeks of effort is when things truly pay off, and seeing that a customer is happy after trusting you with their precious instrument for so long is a big relief. Deeper than this is the joyful feeling of being part of the story of another maker’s work, paying respect to their craftsmanship and keeping that guitar

on the road for another 20 years.

Do you have a guitar that needs restoring to its former glory? Email to book it in for an appraisal today.

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