We do a lot of restoration work for vintage acoustic guitars here in the shop. These guitars fight an incessant battle against the ravages of time and the elements and are essentially in a constant state of collapse under their own string tension. New Orleans is particularly rough for guitars because of our extreme heat and all year round humid conditions: rust never sleeps, hardware destroys; Glue joints are stressed, causing guitars to fall apart. In this case, it turns out that weeks of immersion in high water isn’t that great for guitars either. Yes, 15 years later we are still rescuing Katrina survivors! In this article, I’m going to restore an old Gibson LG-2 to its former glory.
When the guitar got to us it was in really bad shape. The bridge and crosspiece were torn from the body, the soundboard was bulbous, the body was covered with cracks and loose struts, the neck was rather squat and urgently needed a new version. This guitar was a prime candidate for what we call the “full meal deal”.
I started the process by disassembling the soundboard to bring it back to its original shape so that I could reattach the bridge and bridge plate, as well as any loose struts. This was accomplished by heating a matched pair of aluminum concave / convex cushions and making a tightly clamped metal sandwich on each side of the pre-muffled soundboard to flatten the bulge created by decades of stringing. This phase is the foundation on which the rest of the restoration will be based.
Satisfied with the more subtle and even curvature of the ceiling, I reattached the bridge and the bridge plate with Titebond Original wood glue. Some purists insist on using skin glue on vintage guitars, but Titebond works really well – especially when battling the hot New Orleans summers. This is the glue I used for the entire restoration.
After the bridge and bridge plate were reattached, I examined the entire instrument closely for cracks and delaminated bonds and began to glue them back together. The cracks on the back were spread so wide that they couldn’t close even after being moistened for several days when the guitar first came in, so I had to make small patches to fill in the voids, and they stuck in the.
Once the top and bottom were back in place, I was able to reattach the loose bracing inside the guitar.
The final stage of any crack repair is the installation of studs. These are small strips of wood with opposing grain that reinforce the cracks. Without this, the cracks will likely resolve at some point in the future. In this case, I had to do several.
After the body was reassembled in one piece, I was able to string the guitar up to pitch and check the angle of the neck. The full tension of the strings showed how stocky the neck was.
After some measurements and calculations of the neck angle, I started removing the neck, starting with the fingerboard tongue.
Once the fingerboard tongue was loose I drilled two holes in the 15th fret slot and down the end of the dovetail joint where I could then use a soldering iron with a special neck reset tip to melt the glue holding the neck in place with a pipette to put in a Squeezing a few drops of water into the holes will help create steam to help the glue dissolve faster.
The neck peeled off the body with little effort and with minimal swearing. After letting everything cool and dry, I used my calculations to determine how much heel reshaping it would take to correct the angle of the neck.
With the heel cut at the correct angle, I glued shims to the male side of the dovetail joint and to the underside of the fingerboard tongue to fill in the gaps that the new neck angle created.
I always dry the neck joint and stretch it up to the pitch before gluing anything. A properly seated dovetail should be able to withstand string tension without glue. If a gap opens under the heel of the neck when you tune the strings up, the dovetail is not tight enough. After making sure it was snug, I glued it back together.
Before removing the neck, I pulled the frets out of the tongue area so I could read an exact angle of the neck (because the tongue was so curled up at the end). When the guitar was back together I pulled out the remaining corroded and worn frets so I could dress the board in our PLEK machine before putting in new ones.
After a fresh new bone saddle and saddle and a neat setup, this looks, feels, and sounds great! Definitely a gem worth saving.