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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Tenor guitar restoration

This post has taken me several years to write. 

A couple of, or three maybe, years ago my wonderful friend Brian read a comment I made about them ultra cool Gibson SG tenor guitars. He emailed me at once asking "why have you never told me you like tenor guitars, I'll send you mine". And he promptly did, in a totally shit package which left it to luck whether or not the guitar would arrive in one piece. From Arizona to Stockholm. 

And what was it? It was only a Dobro resonator tenor from 1937 wasn't it. Now old Dobros were made by different factories as far as I understand, some of them under different brand names. But this one has the Dobro lyre on the headstock and it was marvellous. 

But it had neck issues. The neck was bowed and had a twist too, making it very hard to play with my poet hands. And the frets were shot, some of them grooved so they looked like nuts. So I thought, hey, I'll fix this. And if I still can't play it when it's perfect I'll send it back to Brian.

I had a couple of other clunker guitars with bowed necks and someone told me they could be set straight with heat and clamps alone, so I tried that. One of them went straight but suffered some lacquer damage, the other one got a bit straighter but it felt very unpredictable. And I didn't want to risk the lacquer on the Dobro. 

So I posed some questions at a luthier's forum about those fretwires with fatter tangs, as I'd heard they could be used to straighten necks. The tang is the part of the fret that goes into the slot in the fretboard, and a fatter tang can push that slot out, lengthening the surface and bending the neck backwards. I've read about restorations were a set of frets with tangs of different thicknesses fixed bowed necks, but I had trouble sourcing the special fretwire. 

At the forum some guys said it might work but the legendary luthier Rick Turner chimed in saying "that's the most back asswards way of doing it! The only way is to pop off the fretboard, plane the neck straight, route a channel in it and glue in a carbon fibre rod."

That sent the whole idea of fixing the guitar to the back burner. I felt very poorly equipped to pull an operation like that off. 

Then my friend Brian died. 

I was devastated. And so were all of his many friends. The Dobro was in its case (a case I bought in a thrift store for it since it came only in that ratty box) and the case got covered in dust. I would show the guitar to friends sometimes but I couldn't play it unless I used a slide. 

But things happen. I was shopping for fretwire for a friend's guitar and found fretwire with fatter tangs. So I bought some, thinking it might be worth a shot at least. I was still reluctant to pop, plane and route as mr. Turner so kindly had advised me to do. 

And then this weekend I had a couple of hours and examined the old frets in their slots. I realized right away that not even magic super tangs from the fourth dimension would do anything to that old and weird fretboard, it was stained birch or something soft like that and when I pried an old fret up it brought enough crumbling wood with it to make the slot wide and uneven. I went into fight mode. 

I ran a scalpel along the edge of the fretboard (because I've seen Dan Erlewine do that) and put a clothes iron on the fretboard at the nut end. When it smelled bad enough I put a wooden wedge and the nut end and pushed it in. 

And off it popped. Or started to pop anyway, I had to move the iron down the neck a bit so it was a suspended pop lasting a few minutes. (Not poop though as I'm sure many of you already read into the above description.)

Sighting down the neck (which was a soft stained birch) I saw the bow and the twist but it was easily fixed with a couple of different hand planes. Good thing I have a few of those. Then I looked for a carbon fibre rod, and did find one of the exact required length. I tell you, this was meant to happen, as mr. Turner no doubt knew. I needed a two mm wide slot, no problem, and also a way of guiding the router. Could be a problem. I tried a few ideas for building some rails to guide a sled in which the router would be mounted, but saw it would be unwieldy and overly complex. 

Then I looked at the router bit and it has a three mm shaft. Hm. There is useful information in that fact. Let's continue this with pictures, shall we. 


Two slats of scrap wood, but with smooth and completely straight edges three mm from each other. Screwed onto the neck, which is held steady by clamps and struts. 


Me routing with my Proxxon router. I let the shaft of the bit ride between the guides, and went deeper with each successive pass. I made three or four passes for a ten mm deep channel. 


The rod in a very snug dry fit. The width of the channel was perfect despite the several passes. 


I drilled some holes in the rod and roughed up the surface a bit, then put epoxy glue on it and in the channel. 


And let it sit for 24 hours. I actually planed down the excess, a fun experience that sent the plane iron to the sharpening queue. 


Then I pulled all the old frets out, sanded the fretboard and replaced a broken position marker. 


The fat tang frets was a perfect choice. Notice also I re-stained the fretboard. I took my time and filed the ends of each fret before glueing them into the slots. Who wouldn't want PSFE:s on their own guitar?


And then I glued the fretboard back. I managed to put it exactly right, a bit of a challenge since the width was the same as the neck. When I build ukes I usually keep the neck a bit wide and scrape it down to the fretboard edges after glueing. 

Yesterday I put strings on and it came alive. Growly and coarse but with a unique warmth and a truly loveable voice. 

Just like Brian. 

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