1919 Gibson A Mandolin Restoration
Slowly but surely, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth, my old 1919 Gibson A mandolin has come back to life. I got this Mandolin from Ken Carlysle, former bandmate and leader of Ken Carlysle and the Cadillac Cowboys sometime around 1980 after he left it next to his wood stove for a winter (do not do this!). Repairman John Grey put it into playing condition for the very reasonable price of $25.00 soon thereafter. This is the mandolin that Deanie Richardson played on my “Best of All Possible Worlds” CD. I played it backstage with John Hartford when he appeared on the Rural Route 3 show in the early 90’s and on all my recordings until the years finally caught up with it around the turn of the century and the face caved in yet again.
At one time it was the best sounding mandolin I ever heard and played amazingly well. A couple years ago I sent it off to a highly regarded luthier to be restored but he declined saying it would cost more than the instrument was worth so it sat until I recently decided to tackle it myself. My repair chops have been improving and, as usual, I figured I couldn’t make it any worse.
Repeated repairs and re-glueing of the back made for a difficult back removal but once that was done I could easily see how serious the damage was. The mandolin had been re-braced with a second brace added and both braces had torn loose. There were several crude patches (one made from a paint stirring stick) holding breaks together and I counted over 15 open cracks and at least another 7 that were poorly glued. The wood at the sound hole was crushed and the sound hole was seriously out of round with entire sections of the face out of alignment.
As with many early Gibson A’s, this mandolin had a top that was quite thin and had split many times. Several of the cracks in the face ran the length of the instrument and were so wide there was no doubt that I’d need to splint them (add in new wood). In the course of removing old patches and undoing bad repairs, I realized the damage was much more extensive than I had thought and included an across the grain fracture on the bass side parallel to the sound hole. The structural strength of the instrument was completely compromised which went a long way towards explaining why this had collapsed so many times! I was beginning to question the wisdom of my actions…
I gently clamped the body to try to push it back to shape and was surprised at how well it worked. After several weeks of gentle pressure, I was able to glue the serious crack by the bass side of the neck that had caused much of the damage and pushed the entire top out of shape.
Over the next few months I splinted the two biggest cracks with new spruce then gradually moved on to splinting the smaller ones as well. Once I got the cracks dealt with, I began to deal with the tear out damage inside the instrument. This was caused when various patched and braces had failed in the past, taking chunks of the face wood with them. A posting of a similar mandolin repair by Master Luthier Frank Ford showed sections of interior wood that had been carefully chiseled out and replace with new wood from beneath. This added structural strength and left the top wood original. I began to explore this option and found it to be quite successful. I was able to add significant support to the damaged area’s by simply rebuilding from below. I used this technique to re build the sound hole, deal with tear out from old repairs and most importantly repair the across grain fracture that was my major concern. Ultimately I would do this about 8 times inside the mandolin and 2 times on the face where a previous repair had consisted of replacing lost wood and missing sound hole purfling with putty. This technique would largely be the reason this mandolin would survive!
After building up the tear out from the braces pulling loose (neither was original), I decided to re-use them since they seemed to be properly curved for the arch of the top which had long since lost any resemblance to it’s original profile. This went a long way towards restoring the original arch. Once this was done, I was able to splint the remaining smaller cracks from the inside.
I replaced the damaged back kerfing on the treble side and was able to keep the original kerfing on the bass side. I used the Frank Ford technique of chiseling out, then replacing damaged wood to fix the rather serious tear out on the neck block that resulted from removing the back. A former owner had drilled out a hole in the side for a pick up jack and after locating a source for birch and having it re-sawn to proper thickness, I was able to cut a patch with a tapered plug cutter and ream the hole with a tapered reamer for a good, tight fit. A little hide glue held it all in place.
One big issue remaining was replacing the damaged binding inside the sound hole. It had been ruined past re-use when the instrument collapsed repeatedly. It was an unusual cream cellulose with a vertical stripe to it. Thanks to some helpful advice from the Musical Instrument Makers Forum I was able to locate a source for this material and replaced this before re-gluing the back.
While I used hot hide glue for all the small wood inlays and minor repairs, I used Tightbond to put the back on since it gave me more time to get a good fit. Of course, after many years of abuse the back had shrunk and didn’t fit perfectly anymore. After re-gluing, I was able to graft new birch onto the section of the back that had shrunk, effectively covering the mis-alignment.
Missing purfling around the sound hole proved to be the final challenge. In a previous repair, missing binding had been simply filled in with wood putty then colored with a pen to resemble the original purfling. It was a simple black, white, black, white, black purfling similar to violin binding, but nothing available commercially matched the size. Since the missing sections were very small, I simply re-made those sections by hand by sanding down then glueing up other black and white binding I had.
When all the structural work was completed, It was time to deal with the finish. This mandolin had been over coated in the past to cover up damaged, flaked off finish. There was also a fair amount of wood exposed when the splints were sanded to match the original profile. I used Stu Mac stains to color match the new and exposed wood the french polished the top with de-waxed garnet shellac. The damage to the original finish was quite severe but repeated drop filling as well as numerous (easily 20 or more) coats of french polish plus sanding between coats ultimately brought the finish back to life. I was able to clean up, then lightly french polish the sides and back with just a couple thin coats to keep them original.
The mandolin was re-strung with light gauge strings and I was delighted to find that it played beautifully, with excellent action and magnificent tone. It played it’s first gig the next day. It was a long and sometimes difficult journey, but I learned a tremendous amount about restoration and saved a fine instrument in the process.
April 22nd, 2012