Repairing a Broken Gibson Headstock and Adding a Volute

We all love Gibson guitars. Gibson is a seminal contributor to rock and roll history and some of their designs (like our two personal shop favorites, the Explorer and the Firebird) are among the coolest guitars ever made. Period.

But it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room: the Gibson headstock design.

Repairing a broken Gibson headstock is something we unfortunately have to do monthly, if not weekly, at the shop. Sometimes they come in completely severed and splintered, like the broken headstock I repaired in a previous blog post (a job sent to us by Gibson themselves), and sometimes it’s a clean split with the faceplate still intact, like the specimen in this article. Regardless of the severity of the break, every broken Gibson headstock is definitely repairable.

The real world of gigging, or not gigging, leaves a trail of broken Gibson headstocks in its wake…

It really doesn’t take much force to break a Gibson headstock. There are three main factors for this. The first is the type of wood that is used for their necks. The majority of Gibson headstocks are made using mahogany. Mahogany is a much softer timber than maple, which is widely used by many other manufacturers for its strength and structural reliability. Why does Gibson insist on using such a soft wood for their necks? Many may claim for tone, but one can’t factor out that it’s also simply easier to work with, therefore cheaper to build.

The second factor is the 17 degree angle that is carved into the neck blank to create a headstock without the use of a scarf joint or any other type of opposing-grain joinery that would help to strengthen the headstock. This neck construction method exposes vulnerable end-grain of already soft wood, to potentially great peril.

Another noteworthy factor is the significant amount of material that is removed to create the truss rod access cavity, right at the most critical and fragile part of the neck. At the thinnest point of the headstock, behind the truss rod cavity there is sometimes as little as 2mm of material left after the neck is carved. This is where nearly all Gibson headstock breaks occur.

These factors, coupled with string tension that can be as high as 130 lbs. across all six strings, are enough to spell impending doom for a Gibson headstock if it takes a spill. We repair so many broken Gibson headstocks that we’ve developed our own repair technique specifically for these instruments.

Headstock repair stages (three different ones)

The way we address these issues, if the customer opts to do so, is by correcting as many of the inherent weaknesses of the Gibson design as we can. After gluing the break back together I will use a router and our in-house custom made router sled to cut two 1/4″ channels across the break as deeply as possible into the headstock and neck, and inlay two quarter-sawn, symmetrical grain hard rock maple splines. Then I’ll carve most of the mahogany away from the surrounding area and replace it with a quarter-sawn hard rock maple backstrap overlay.

Lastly, as I shape the intentionally oversized backstrap overlay, I carve a volute (a three-dimensionally curved protrusion adjoining the two planes) into the back of the headstock to add roughly 5mm of maple to the point directly behind the truss rod cavity. This is somewhat similar to how Gibson made them in the 1970’s. Back in the day, when Gibson was owned by Norlin, they actually built some of their necks using three-piece maple billets, and they carved a volute into the headstock. We almost never see those guitars come in with broken headstocks. Why did they stop making them like this and go back to the old, more fragile way of doing things? Again, some may say for tone, but we would say that maybe, just maybe… they did it because it was cheaper.

Example of a Norlin era headstock volute.

Okay, now that we’ve got all of that covered, let’s get into the details of how I repair a broken Gibson headstock and add a volute to fix all of those pesky underlying issues, and end up with a headstock that is much stronger than the one that left the factory.

This break is about as clean as you can ask for. The guitar will still benefit greatly from the reinforcement process by gaining a significant structural upgrade to guard against any future breaks. Notice there is currently no volute.

I open up the crack as wide as possible and flood it with glue, flexing back and forth to make make sure I get the glue all the way to the back on the break. I’ve had many years of great results using Titebond Original wood glue.

For a clean break like this, I usually use an F-clamp or a C-clamp. This doesn’t require a ton of pressure. Too much clamping pressure can starve a glue joint as a result of excessive glue squeeze-out.

Once the initial glue stage is complete I load the neck into our router sled to cut two 1/4″ channels across the break.

I make these quarter-sawn, symmetrical grain maple splines by hand to fit into the 1/4″ channels. They extend most of the way through the headstock at its weakest points.

Maple splines glued in across the break.

Once the glue is dry, I clamp it to a work table and start carving a concave relief into the headstock.

I use a Japanese pull-cut saw to establish the broad edge of the overlay. I haven’t found any structural need to go beyond this point. Besides, I want the serial number and “Made in USA” stamps to remain intact.

All of this work is done using hand tools.

I remove as much material as I can without exposing the truss rod cavity. Keeping the surface perfectly straight from side to side is paramount.

I pre-make batches of 5mm thick quarter-sawn hard rock maple plates to use as backstrap overlay material.

I generally cut the blank down to be just larger than I need, and I keep the rough edges at full thickness to help with even clamping distribution.

I’ll soak the wood in water, then bend it to shape using an acoustic guitar side bender. Once it’s bent to the shape I want I let it dry overnight, before gluing it down.

Here are some of the hand tools I use to carve the volute. I’ve had these for a long time, and have made custom hardwood handles for some of them.

Carving begins. Note the tuning machine screw holes in this picture. I use these as indexing points so the maple doesn’t slip during clamping.

The volute is formed! On this job I will only be shooting color on the maple, not the surrounding mahogany. In cases like this I go to painstaking lengths to not scrape or sand through the factory finish around the overlay.

I cut the tuning machine holes at this stage and make sure the tuners fit and line up before I start shooting finish.

After carving and prep sanding is done, I tape off everything that won’t be getting a color coat. Not every customer wants a color coat, and we’re happy to do it that way, too. We were asked to make this one match.

Here I’m shooting nitrocellulose lacquer, which is what Gibson used at the factory for this particular guitar. I mixed my own color from scratch to make the maple the same color as the surrounding mahogany.

I’ll let the color coat dry overnight, then come back in the next day and shoot a clear topcoat over the entire area. The great thing about nitrocellulose is its ability to “burn in” or melt into the factory lacquer.

With a translucent finish its impossible to completely hide the repair, but after some wet sanding and buffing, this ends up looking pretty slick!

All put back together and ready to rock again!

And that’s how we do it! This is much stronger than it was when it left the factory, and looks pretty elegant to boot! We’ve done this on hundreds of Gibson guitars, and not a single one has ever broken again. If you’ve got a broken Gibson headstock that you don’t know what to do with, hit us up! We’d be happy to help.

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