We do a lot of vintage acoustic guitar restoration work here at the shop. These guitars fight a ceaseless battle against the ravages of time and the elements, and are essentially in a perpetual state of collapsing in on themselves under their own string tension. New Orleans is particularly rough on guitars due to our extreme heat and year round humid conditions: rust never sleeps, destroying hardware; glue joints are strained, causing guitars to fall apart. In this case, turns out steeping in flood waters for weeks isn’t that great for guitars either. Yup, 15 years later and we’re still saving Katrina survivors! So, in this article I’ll be restoring a vintage Gibson LG-2 to it’s former glory.
When the guitar came in to us it was in really bad shape. The bridge and bridge plate had pulled off of the body, the soundboard was bellied, the body was riddled with cracks and loose braces, the neck was quite a bit underset and it’s was in desperate need of a refret. This guitar was a prime candidate for what we call the “full meal deal”.
I started the process by de-bellying the soundboard to get it back into it’s original shape so that I could reattach the bridge and bridge plate as well as all of the loose braces. This was done by heating a matched pair of concave/convex aluminum cauls and making a tightly clamped metal sandwich on each side of the pre-dampened soundboard, to flatten out the bulge created by decades of string pull. This stage is the foundation on which the rest of the restoration will be based.
Satisfied with the more subtle and uniform arch of the top, I reattached the bridge and bridge plate using Titebond Original wood glue. Some purists insist on using hide glue for vintage guitars, but Titebond works really well – especially when combating those hot New Orleans summers. This is the glue I used for the entire restoration.
With the bridge and bridge plate secured back into place, I closely inspected the entire instrument for cracks and de-laminated glue joints and started gluing them back together. The cracks on the back were spread so wide that even after humidifying them for several days when the guitar first came in, there was no way they were going to close up, so I had to fabricate little patches to fill the voids, then glued those in.
Once the top and back were solid again, I was able to reattach the loose bracing inside of the guitar.
The final phase of any crack repair is installing cleats. These are little strips of wood with opposing grain that reinforce the cracks. Without these, the cracks are likely to come back apart at some point in the future. In this case, I had to make several.
With the body all back together in one piece again, I was able to string the guitar up to pitch and check the neck angle. The full string tension revealed just how underset the neck was.
After taking some measurements and making some neck angle calculations, I began the neck removal process, starting with the fretboard tongue.
Once the fretboard tongue was loose, I drilled two holes into the 15th fret slot and down into the end of the dovetail joint where I could then insert a soldering iron equipped with a specialized neck reset tip to melt the glue holding the neck in. Using a pipette to squeeze a few drops of water into the holes helps to create steam for quicker breakdown of the glue.
The neck came off the body without too much trouble and with minimal swearing. After letting everything cool down and dry out, I used my calculations to determine how much re-shaping the heel needed to correct the neck angle.
With the heel cut to the proper angle, I glued shims to the male side of the dovetail joint and to the bottom of the fretboard tongue to fill the gaps the new neck angle created.
I always dry fit the neck joint and string it up to pitch before gluing anything. A properly fit dovetail should be able to withstand string tension without glue. If a gap opens under the neck heel when the strings are tuned up the dovetail isn’t tight enough. Once I was assured it was a tight fit, I glued it back together.
Before I removed the neck, I pulled the frets from the tongue area so that I could get an accurate neck angle reading (because the tongue was so badly curled up at the end). Once the guitar was back together, I pulled the remaining corroded and worn out frets so that I could true the board in our PLEK machine before installing new ones.
After a fresh new bone nut and saddle and a proper setup, this this is looking, feeling and sounding great! Definitely a gem worth rescuing.