Fixing a broken Gibson neck

Here’s an airline horror story for you: on a recent trip to the Philippines, David’s beloved Gibson ES-135 had it’s neck broken off. Unfortunately, David had signed a waiver stating that the airline wasn’t responsible for the damage, which apparently is an increasingly common practice on international flights. Bummer – fixing a broken Gibson neck can be expensive. I talked David through his options, explained that it could possibly be expensive depending on the severity of the damage, and he took it home with him to consider his options. A few days later, he decided he’d rather fix it up than sell it for parts, and brought it back to me to take care of it. David was prepared for the worst, but he lucked out: I was able to fix it WAY under budget. Here’s how it went down:

The guitar must have been dropped while it was in it’s case, but the case didn’t show any significant damage. But the combination of a drop plus string tension was enough to break the guitar’s neck right at the heel:

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It appears to have mostly broken right at the joint, and there wasn’t any significant wood breaks. Now, Gibson typically uses a mortise and tenon joint in their electric guitars, and typically removing a neck like this involves: removing a fret above the joint, drilling a hole down into the joint under the fret, then inserting a hollow needle which is attached to a hose that is then attached to a steaming device (in my case, an espresso machine), and then very carefully steaming the glue joint apart. It’s a tedious process, but it turns out I didn’t have to do that at all. Upon examining the neck, my guitar tech’s intuition told me that this was a clean break at the glue joint, and lo and behold! I was able to gently remove the neck by hand. My hunch was correct – the glue joint severed, but the mortise and tenon were undamaged:


There was almost no glue in there! So now the blame isn’t completely on the airline: Gibson didn’t bother to glue this together properly. Way to go, guys!

I cleaned up some of the wood and glue remnants off the joint with a chisel, making sure I didn’t reshape any of the wood, so it would be a tight fit when I clamped it back together:


Another common aspect of doing a neck reset is to reshape the heel to accurately set the neck angle as it joins the body. Fortunately for David, I discovered that this wasn’t necessary once I tested the fit before gluing to make sure the angle was correct:


The plane of the neck terminated just above the bridge, which is exactly where it should be. Awesome!

Now that I was satisfied with the fit of the mortise and tenon, and had checked the neck angle, it was time to glue it all up. Unlike Gibson, I used an appropriate amount of glue in the neck joint, clamped it all up, and let it sit for two days:


Two days later: success! This neck joint is stronger than ever!

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Since the job came in way under budget, David opted to do a Fret Level and Setup next, and we’ll talk about fixing some of the finish cracks upon his inspection. This guitar was one step away from the garbage bin, and now it’s going to play and sound better than ever! Sweet!

[NOTE: For guitarists flying with your instrument: If you must check your instrument as luggage, make sure you slack the strings, and also make sure that nothing is in contact with your headstock while it’s in the case. Do not – I repeat, DO NOT pack anything around the headstock – this a sure way to break it right off if the case is dropped even a little bit. Also, be aware that Congress passed a bill in 2012 that relaxes restrictions on musical instruments as carry-ons, so if anybody gives you any guff about bringing your 1959 Gibson Les Paul on the flight, refer them to the Section 403 of the legislation, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which states “An air carrier providing air transportation shall permit a passenger to carry a violin, guitar, or other musical instrument in the aircraft cabin, without charging the passenger a fee in addition to any standard fee that carrier may require for comparable carry-on baggage ….”. Good luck and happy flying!]

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