Sep 28

1950s Gibson 160 E

This is a mid 1950’s Gibson 160 E guitar frequently referred to as the “John Lennon” guitar due to John Paul having a matched set. This one had suffered significant water damage, possibly flood damage. The bridge was pulling off, the top heavily warped beyond playability, the pick guard coming off, but with the top beneath it, even more deeply warped that the rest of the top. There was a major gouge across the top through the spruce veneer into the 2nd layer of laminate.  Serious water damage to the back finish was causing large flakes to come loose. Upon inspection, it became clear that the original spruce bridge plate was deeply warped and split, adding to the extreme bellying of the top. Most of the top braces were lose and several the bottom ones as well. This guitar was a hot mess!

I removed the original adjustable bridge and all it’s hardware (no small task since some of the screws were rusted and the inserts were loose in their holes). Once the  bridge was removed, I was able to remove the damaged bridge  plate and create one slightly larger out of Maple rather than the original spruce. I also patched the large holes for the brass inserts.  Several of the top braces (ladder braced) were so loose that 2 of them fell out completely. With the loose braces out of the way, I was able to gently clamp the top back and slowly remove the extensive warp and belling. This was largely the result the bridge plate failure and the loose braces although the plywood top was broken across the line of holes drilled for the bridge pins and bridge screws.

Once I had addressed the most serious part of the top warpage, I began to re-glue the braces starting from the farthest from the bridge  and moving forward. Before re-gluing the braces nearest the bridge and sound hole, I removed the original pick guard, and clamped that section of the top to reduce it’s extreme warp. When this was completed, I then re-glued the braces in that area before re-installing the pick guard.

Once all the braces were in place, I began to consider the bridge issue. My original suggestion had been to replace the adjustable bridge with a non- adjustable replacement and I purchased one for that purpose, but with the restoration progressing as well as it was, the owner asked that I re-use the original adjusting bridge for collectibility reasons.  This would have been a simple process, but in the course of re-installing the brass inserts and adjusting screws, one broke off inside the insert. I was able to remove it and spent a significant amount of time looking for an original replacement, but was not able to locate one. The early adjustable Gibson bridges had larger screw heads the later versions.  I was able to locate a replacement set from a later version Gibson adjustable bridge that matched the screw thread and proceeded using those (the original set is with the guitar).

Having dealt with that issue, I turned my attention to the large gouge on the face of the guitar. This was too deep to deal with by drop filling the damage. I ultimately inlaid new spruce into the gouge, then did a nitrocellulose finish touch up with multiple flash coats, buffing the finished area out by hand.

While all this was taking place, I cleaned and polished the frets and fingerboard, stabilized the significant finish damage on the back, and touched up the damaged black lacquer on the guitar head.

Once the finish work was done, I re-installed the adjustable bridge, put on a new set of Phosphor Bronze light gauge strings and adjusted the saddle height.

The guitar plays very well with a clear bright tone and more “ring” than I would have expected for a ladder braced, plywood top. I suspect that the tone will open up dramatically as it is played more.

Dec 09

Harmony Monterey H417 Mandolin


IMG_2925This is a Harmony Monterey H417 mandolin in it’s faux Alligator original case. These were made between the late 1930’s and the 1970‘s and have solid spruce tops (pressed) and solid maple back and sides. This one appears to be a very early model. Judging from the style of the headstock and name lettering, as well as the oval stamp on the inside (which indicates that it’s pre war) I’d guess late thirties, perhaps ‘38. I bought this to steal the cover plate from the tailpiece for a better grade mandolin I restored a while back. The instrument already had 2 face cracks repaired but a center seam was split wide open and the previous repairs, while solid, were quite conspicuous.

IMG_2898After re-humidifying the mando, I was able to glue the center seam split with hot hide glue. I colored the damage from the previous repairs with a lacquer pen and over coated with french polish. Then did a full fret level, crown and polish (my first). When I went to string it up, it was clear the the mandolin needed a neck re-set as well.

Up to this point, I thought it would be an easy fix but pulling the neck proved to be quite an adventure! After heating and loosening the fretboard tongue, I pulled out the 12th fret, drilled down into the neck block and applied steam, the standard method of neck removal. Unbeknownst to me, these have a butt joint rather than a dove tail joint, and while the neck eventually gave away, it was very slow going and broke the poplar heel in the process. I was eventually able to remove the broken section of heel and epoxy the pieces back together.

Image 3The neck was glued back in place with hot hide glue and big rubber band straps. Due to the neck re-set, the fingerboard pulled slightly up after the neck met the body. I created a spruce wedge to fill in the gap and also bring the fretboard back down. The mandolin now required quite a bit of drop filling around the neck joint and I went ahead and drop filled the larger crack by the lower end of the bass f hole as well. Once the drop filling was sanded out, I began the finish work.

Image 6The top, upper sides and and the heel of the neck got about 10 coats of french before buffing out and waxing. Finally, she was ready for strings and set up.

I had to re-level and polish the frets again, then set it up for the easiest action I could and still have it play clean.

This should be a good, solid instrument and the 75 + year old spruce top should sound beautiful. The tone is quite bright now, but will become fuller and richer the more it’s played.

It’s nice to know that a perfectly serviceable mandolin will live on! This one is destined for a Christmas Tree at an undisclosed location.Image 7

Nov 21

The Potato Chip Guitar, Fall 2014

birch-spruce-guitar1It was possibly in the worst shape I’d ever seen any guitar in.  The body of the guitar was actually curled like a potato chip.  The back was off, split and warped, braces were missing, the guitar was split on the bass side from the endpin up to the hip, the shoulder was split, a section was crushed inward and the sides had lost much of their curve.

I thought the $8.00 price tag was just too much so I talked ‘em down to $5.00.

And so began one of the strangest restorations I’ve done so far.  The woman who sold it to me at the yard sale asked if I was going to fix it.  I told her I wasn’t sure, but I’d try.  And I guess it sort of became a challenge.

birch-spruce-guitar2Badly mildewed and filthy, I wiped it all down with a damp rag which caused the already warped, flat sawn birch back to go berserk. I wet it down fairly well then laid window weights on top of the back sandwiched between 2 pieces of plywood for about a week to level it out.  When I took off the weights, I could see the splits in the back closed to the point where I thought I might eventually be able to glue and cleat them.  Several more wetting and weighing sessions made it possible and I eventually got the back in shape, glued and cleated together.  I pulled off the already loose 2 remaining braces and cleaned and sanded them down to good wood.  I then made  new spruce replacement braces for the two missing ones and re-installed them all.

In the mean time, I tried weighing down the warped body and was surprised to see that it came back to shape fairly well and would also be glue-able.  With time, it took shape, perhaps 4 or 5  weeks.  I glued the end block back to the split side and was able to close and cleat the lower break.  I also was slowly able to close and glue the shoulder break. birch-spruce-guitar3

birch-spruce-guitar4The crushed area was all there but severely damaged and pushed in. I saturated it with Titebond, then gently pushed it back into place with a clamp and a curved caw with only a few small splinters falling out. It left minor distortion on the outside that disappeared with sanding and touch up.  All the kerfing was missing from the back and much of the remaining kerfing was damaged due to the side splits.  Virtually all of it was loose.

About the time I got the major bodywork completed,   I began to contemplate modifying the guitar.  Though incredibly damaged, the top was intact.  It was a decent parlor for a cheapo.  Birch sides and back, walnut fingerboard and bound spruce top.  Make that a 100 year old spruce top.  I’ve been thinking about X bracing several old Washburn parlors I have and it occurred to me that this would be a good place to learn the process.

birch-spruce-guitar5I removed the old top braces, sawed new spruce braces and drew up an X braced plan.  I wanted a scalloped, X brace, fairly light weight bracing, with a fixed bridge.  I went with a Pre War Martin style X scalloped bracing modified to fit the small body.   I removed damaged kerfing as well as kerfing where the new braces would go, installed the new braces and a maple bridge plate then re-glued all the old loose kerfing on the top and replaced missing kerfing with new.  While I was at it, I trimmed down the large brace just above the sound hole to reduce it’s mass, but not it’s strength.

birch-spruce-guitar6Once I’d completed the new top bracing, I replaced the kerfing on the back egde the back.  I kept the guitar in a body mold and checked to make sure the shape was close to the back shape because once I added the kerfing, the sides would be largely set to shape.

I used an old stock Martin vintage style replacement bridge (no belly, just 1” x 6”) with a 2.25 “ pin spacing to fit with the neck width.  I’d bought a 2 3/8 spaced bridge, but felt the strings were too close to the edge of the fingerboard.

At this point, I was able to determin that the guitar also needed a neck re-set.  I removed and re-set the neck, then removed the fingerboard to plane out a slight twist in the neck. I re-installed the fingerboard, re-used the original ebony nut, made new bone saddle but when completed, action was tight with a high saddle in order to clear a hump in the fingerboard at the neck joint.  I then removed frets 12-15 and sanded out a hump in the fingerboard then re-used the original frets. This allowed me to lower the saddle and action significantly.birch-spruce-guitar7

I drop filled and french polishing the seriously damaged finish.  During  the week I applied the french polish, I continually played the guitar and noticed that the tone “ripened” considerably, taking on a richer resonance.  As a matter of fact, I composed a new finger style piece, “Ma Belle”, on the guitar as I worked it.

At every step of the way, I was never sure if this would work out but this old guitar constantly surprised me.  The wood seemed to have “memory” and would go back to it’s original shape with a bit of gent persuasion, multiple clamps and a fair amount of time.

The results are impressive.  It plays beautifully with a clear, crisp articulate tone (that’s the birch) and surprising ring and sustain.  I originally planned on flipping this guitar, but I don’t know… it’s a very fine fingerstyle guitar.  I might have to play it for a while first!birch-spruce-guitar8

Jun 25

Latest additions

Here are a couple of the latest additions to the “finished”pile. I’ll add more details later.

This is a 30’s to 40’s era mahogany Gretsch Ukelele. This is currently for sale on the Orphan Instruments page.


photo copy 6

photo copy 7

Here’s a “Tulip Head Mandolin, probably from Regal in the 20’s. This one’s nice!~ Clear, bright tone, easy action. This is currently for sale on the Orphan Instruments page.

photo 2

Lastly, here’s a Carl Fischer “Sangamore” Terz Guitar. Brazilian Rosewood back and sides, Spruce top. A 3/4 sized beauty. I’ll probably be keeping this one, at least for the time being.

Image 2

Jun 10



It all started in 1991 when my friend and fellow instrument enthusiast Steve Endsley (and builder of excellent mountain dulcimers) interrupted me in the middle of a performance to give me a paper bag containing the pieces of an strange old parlor guitar as a prank. It was a old birch 9 string parlor, possibly a Kay Kraft or Stromberg- Voisinet, with the top three strings doubled and the lower three strings single. He then demanded the $1.79 he’d paid for it in cash! It was a great joke but the guitar was clearly a hopeless cause; the top was in pieces, the back and the neck were both off. All in all it was a disaster!


Figuring that it was a cheap guitar of no collectible value in it’s sorry condition, I decided to experiment with it. Being younger and bolder, I figured “How much trouble could it be?” I replaced the loose poplar ladder braces with X bracing, added an oversize maple bridge plate, and swapped out the cheap floating bridge for a fixed rosewood pin bridge with a bone saddle. Lyon and Healy 9 String top
When I got it all together, the new sound was striking. I’d set it up for bottle neck slide and the doubled first three strings added volume and shimmer to the top end while the single three lower strings kept the bass runs clear. It was a great combination.
Lyon and Healy 9 string back
Now I love to actually use these strange old guitars. The quirks each instrument possesses lend themselves to unique musical expressions that I find quite appealing. I was booked to perform at the 1995 Music in the Wild Festival along the Illinois River Valley (think hardwood forests on the bluffs above the river bottoms, bald eagle nests in the tree’s, restored prairie), so I decided to take the 9 string along for it’s first gig. I had just finished performing the Peter Rowen song Rainmaker bottleneck style on the 9 string guitar when all hell broke loose. Unbeknown to me a massive storm had been building up behind the stage as I started my set. Just as I put down the 9 string guitar, we were hit with violent winds and driving rain that immediately shut down the festival. Needless to say, the blame was placed on squarely me, the Rainmaker song and the 9 string guitar!

The guitar itself got caught in the deluge, the top came loose and the braces all popped off. Then it sat for about 10 years, the subject of more than one good storytelling session.

Then in early 2000 I came across an old demo I had recorded with the 9 string and was amazed at it’s unique sound. I got the bug again. I re-braced it with new, laminated scalloped braces, then put it into a guitar body clamp to re-shape the body. After about 2 years in the clamp making small adjustments every month or so, I glued it up and put top back on. It sounded even better than before so I took it to Rick Cremer (Cremer Custom Guitars, Aurora, IL) for a pro set up. I was enchanted by the sparkling highs of the doubled first three strings, but also liked the clear bass notes of the single lower strings. It made for a sweet, unique slide sound that I featured on the Shawneetown track of my Abraham Lincoln in Song CD.


The sound this guitar made was unlike anything I’d ever heard but playing it was like wrestling a bear! The un-reenforced neck had serious issues but even so, the tone was astonishing and I began to suspect that there were things I could do on this guitar that I couldn’t do on any other instrument. Ultimately it came down to a question of pulling off the walnut fingerboard and installing a truss rod in a very cheap guitar or simply building a new guitar based on this example.

In the summer of 2010, after a year of telephone tag and mis-matched schedules, I managed to catch Master Luthier Tony Klassen at his workshop in Chesterton, IN. I’d heard about Tony for several years and had seen pictures of his gorgeous Larson guitar re-creations. I was very interested in meeting him and trying out his guitars and frankly, I wanted him to see the 9 string guitar.

I finally got together with Tony in July and got to see his work and hear his guitars. I was immediately struck by the outstanding quality of his craftsmanship. As mutual admirers of old guitars we found a lot of common ground but it went over the top when I showed him the 9 string. He was as infatuated with the guitar as I had been and before long, we had made plans to have Tony re-create the guitar based on this old instrument’s specs but built to Tony’s high standards. It was a tremendous opportunity, to work with an outstanding craftsman and bring this hybrid instrument to life.

While the original guitar was flat sawn birch, we decided to go with high quality wood for the best possible sound. I’m a fool for highly figured woods and tend to appreciate dense tonewoods with a full, deep, yet clear sound so after a bit of research, I chose Ziricote, a Mexican hardwood with dramatic figuring and serious density. Tony loves Adirondack spruce so that was our choice for the top and we decided to keep the scalloped braces but laminate them Larson style (spruce, ziricote,spruce). He suggested going with a coco-burst top, a Larson style finish he is renowned for. We went with Larson style 6 details for the binding and fingerboard inlays and decided to keep the original unique headstock shape and body measurements (which, by coincidence were almost identical to the Maurer Concert size). I wanted to add a truss rod and go with a more modern neck profile rather than the original V for a more comfortable fit to my hands. Since I planned on using this for slide work, I also wanted a flat fingerboard and a slightly higher nut than standard. I’ve found that this makes for a cleaner slide sound and works better for the behind the bottle fingering which I have a tendency to do.

I was invited to join Tony for the initial stages of the build. In early December 2010 I arrived at Tony’s shop to begin assembling the new guitar. 9 String build Now I consider myself a dedicated amateur when it comes to guitar repairs but Tony’s level of craftsmanship was simply stunning! I spent the next 2 days working with Tony bending sides, building braces and generally assisting in any way I could. By the end of the second day, we had the sides bent and assembled, the kerfing added and the top and back glued up and braced, and the body ready for assembly. Tony Klassen  Numbering the 9 String It was an truly inspiring experience and Ihave to say, I would have loved to have stayed for the remainder of the build.

The next three months dragged slowly by as I was no longer involved in the build. I received the occasional teaser photo as the body came together, the neck was shaped and the finish work begun and was able to stop by while I was on the road and see the progress. Still, it felt like things were going tantalizingly slow while I kept holding off recording a new CD in hopes of getting this guitar on the project.

I’m happy to report that it’s everything I had hoped for;  beautiful to look at, but awesome to hear, and I mean that in the original sense of the word.  It has a full deep rich low end but with clarity, very clear and articulate mids and highs with sparkling overtones.  Tremendous volume with the potential to play a large dynamic range very well.  

Click to View Details

Click to View Details

I broke it in with a new instrumental I wrote on the old 9 string specifically to play on this new one (The Last Day of Winter). And yes… there are definitely things I can do on this guitar.

Sep 30

1919 Gibson A Mandolin Restoration

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 IMG_0512Worlds” 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…

IMG_0553I 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.  IMG_2162Once 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.  IMG_2536I 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 IMG_1192resulted 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.  IMG_1230

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 IMG_1494more) 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.


Chris Vallillo

April 22nd, 2012