Katrina guitar rescue

Hurricane Katrina not only wrecked my beloved city of New Orleans, but it also destroyed countless musical instruments. Somewhat surprisingly, nine years later not only are there whole swaths of houses that are untouched since the storm, and there’s also tons of guitars that haven’t been fixed up yet. Last week I had one such Katrina guitar come into my shop, a 1981 Gibson SG. The owner, David, had the electronics replaced elsewhere, but still had complaints of a high action and was having some difficulty playing it. He suspected that the neck joint had shifted, and might be causing the entire geometry to be out of whack. David also noticed that the neck had developed a significant twist. He really liked this guitar, and he wanted it rescued. It was time to get to work!

I instantly noticed that the neck joint was loose. Gibson uses a mortise and tenon joint to join their necks to the bodies, and are glued in with hide glue. I suspect that this guitar had floated around in the flood waters for several weeks, and the combination of water and heat had softened the glue, weakening the neck joint. Upon removing the strings, I could shift the neck around in the neck pocket easily:


As it turns out, the only thing holding the neck on was the strap button screw! Once I removed the screw, the neck just pulled right off with very little effort.


Fortunately, there was no structural damage to the wood, so I didn’t have to rebuild the neck joint. Usually when there’s a problem with the neck joint, it requires significant wood work to make sure everything lines up perfectly, so avoiding this shaved off hours of delicate work. Phew!

With the neck off, I opted to heat press it in hopes to take out some of the twist and get it to a reasonable degree of flatness before I refretted it. (The straighter the neck, the less wood I would have to plane off the fingerboard during the fretting stage.) Katrina did a number on this neck – check out this twist!


I clamped the neck flat and left it to cook for 45 minutes. Not only does it convince the wood to set straight, this process softens the glue between the neck and the fingerboard, so that when it cools it resets flat. Neat!


The heat press was a complete success – the neck set very straight, which was pretty surprising considering all it’s suffered through. Now all I had to do was clean up the neck joint, remove all the old glue, and put it back together. Of course, before I glued it up I dry fitted it to make sure that the neck angle and alignment was correct – if it was even slightly off I’d have to take the neck off again and reshape the heel. No point in making extra work for myself – get it right the first time!

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I let the glue set for three days, and then got started refretting the neck. The fingerboard was looking pretty rough, and the original frets were worn down to almost nothing. I’ve explained refretting in detail elsewhere on this blog, so I’ll not get too much into it here, but I thought I’d show what I had to do to get the fingerboard flat.

The original, worn out frets and hurricane distressed fingerboard:


Carefully removing the old frets (no fingerboard chips!):


Strapped into the neck jig, and beginning to level the fingerboard:

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After a few passes with the leveling beam, you can see how far from flat the fingerboard was after going through a major hurricane. Good thing I did a heat press on this neck before this step, otherwise I’d have blown through a lot of rosewood to get this thing flat!


Drifts of rosewood dust accumulating on the neck jig:


That’s better – dead flat and now at a perfect 30cm radius:


Now that the neck was in good shape, I refretted the guitar with stainless steel fretwire, made a new bone nut, and gave it a complete setup. I gotta say, this came out spectacularly. It plays great, sounds awesome, and looks… well, it looks like it went through a category 5 hurricane! I think it’s totally awesome. People pay thousands of dollars to buy brand new guitars that have been “reliced” to look old and beat up, but there ain’t nothing out there that can relic a guitar like a Mother Nature. Bad ass!

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And that’s it! On to the next patient!

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