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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