Published On: Tue, Aug 23rd, 2011
Uncategorized | By Dave Walsh

Damage Control

Disasters happen, but sometimes an expensive fix just doesn’t add up. Luthier and repairman Dave Walsh helps assess whether your guitar is worth mending

Are guitars disposable objects? Luthiers don’t think so; after all, they make their living maintaining them and increasing their lifespan.

Every so often, though, they run into a repair that isn’t viable. Sometimes it’s a case of sentimental value, as when a customer strolls in with a mangled guitar that their late great aunt left them.

The trouble is, even if mint, it’s only worth a couple of hundred quid – but a full rebuild will cost double that. At other times, a customer may request a repair on a budget instrument that just isn’t worth the work.

You’ll be amazed at what can be fixed, but in the current climate of very low-cost far eastern manufacture and well-made budget models, the lines can become blurred. 
 

So when is it time to assign your axe to the skip? Here’s a rundown of some common and some not so common repairs/issues that may seem deceptively simple to repair.

Broken headstocks

 
Broken headstocks are an extremely common ailment, particularly on mahogany-necked instruments, and thankfully in most cases – well, on a decently-made guitar – they can be relatively straightforward to repair within a reasonable budget.


However, this is not a repair for the novice, even if it seems tempting to apply superglue, Araldite, Prit Stick or wood screws (I’ve seen them all). Specialist clamps and cauls plus a lot of experience is needed to assess the correct method and approach for returning the headstock to a one-piece item. 
 

A shallow-angle split with the headstock still attached and plenty of gluing area is a reasonably inexpensive fix on a mahogany-necked guitar (minus any refinishing work to conceal the repair), but on maple – or with a full break-off at an acute angle – then more elaborate surgery including wooden splints to reinforce the join may push the repair beyond a sensible budget on cheaper guitars. 

Snapped truss rod

 
A broken truss rod – less common, and usually a result of heavy-handed ‘maintenance’ – can be one of the trickier jobs to rectify. In many cases the fingerboard will need to be removed to allow a new rod to be inserted.


On a Fender-type electric, the walnut skunk stripe will need to be routed out and replaced after installing a new rod. It’s certainly worthwhile on an old, valuable guitar or a higher-priced model, but if we’re dealing with a cheap acoustic then, realistically, it may be time to assign it to the bin. On a cheaper bolt-on electric, a new neck may be more cost-effective than repair.

 

Detached bridge/belly top

 
It may look spectacular – particularly if you’re tuning or playing the guitar at the time – but a detached bridge is a common occurrence. There are often unseen reasons for the bridge to lift away from the soundboard.

On older guitars the hide glue may have reached the end of its adhesive lifespan, drying and becoming brittle to the point where it can’t handle the string pressure; in this instance the bridge can be re-seated, and all will be well.


However, if the top has begun to ‘belly’ upwards because the internal struts and bracing beneath are loose or broken, then more extensive surgery will be required. On a cheaper acoustic it’s common to see a bridge come away that was never glued down well in the first place; some modern manufacturing dictates that bridges are glued onto the lacquered guitar top, so the bond is only as strong as the lacquer adhesion.

On older or more expensive guitars the lacquer is carefully removed so the bridge is glued firmly to wood, and any repair should include this simple procedure.

A good luthier will also check that the bridgeplate which the string ball ends anchor against is sound and strong enough to effectively spread the string pull across the bracing. On very cheap guitars the bridge can be re-attached with countersunk bolts.  

 

Separated neck

 
It’s unusual to see a set-neck guitar come away cleanly in two parts these days, as modern glues tend to keep the heel joint somewhere between pretty snug and indestructible. However, if it happens to you, it can usually be repaired – unless either part is smashed into smithereens in the process of becoming detached.


Old hollowbodied Hofners are particularly susceptible to this sort of break, as are certain vintage Gibson SGs where the neck tenon joint has been routed away for the neck pickup. On older acoustic guitars, the neck often pulls into the neck block and raises the action; this means a neck re-set, where the old glue is softened (usually using steam), removed, and then re-set at the correct angle.

As all of the above is specialised work, it’s only viable on guitars above a certain price bracket. If you have a cheap acoustic with a high action caused by a badly angled neck but otherwise in good shape, then consider keeping it for slide.

 

Smashed Acoustic

 
Acoustic guitars are under a lot of pressure. If you think of the body as a lightweight speaker box, then add the pressure of the neck being pulled inward by string pressure while the strings 
simultaneously try their best to pull the bridge away from the top of the guitar, then you’ve got a volatile mixture.

An innocuous knock against a door frame or table can open a small crack in the body which can soon open up into a major structural problem unless patched and strengthened. Now, anything can be repaired, but if the back, top or sides on a relatively inexpensive acoustic are split – particularly across the grain – and the bracing is smashed, then it’s full-rebuild time.


Also, as most acoustics also have a translucent finish, any repairs will always be visible without a refinish of some sort. Solidbody electrics are still ‘acoustic’ in nature and suffer some of the same string pressures, but they’re far hardier so even a body completely split into two pieces can be glued back together.

However, refinishing will still be needed to hide any serious repair, and this puts the repair costs into the unviable bracket on budget guitars. 

 

Trigger’s broom

 
Upgrading electronics or hardware on a budget electric can often improve its tone and tuning reliability for relatively small outlay. But sometimes an owner wants to change the neck, body, hardware and pickups – oh, and have it painted, too!

Often the only thing that remains of the original is the strap button and pots. Although this sort of work can be enjoyable, it’s often advisable to simply go for the custom build option from the word go – that way, you’ll spend the same amount of money but actually keep your old guitar as a spare.

 

Refinishing

 
Refinishing a guitar – either electric or especially acoustic – is a far from simple task. When you wander into your local repairer shop with a black-finish Strat copy and ask for it to be painted red, don’t be surprised if he tells you to sell it and buy another one in your chosen colour. 
 
Higher value guitars or badly refinished vintage pieces are a different kettle of fish. They’ve already been devalued, so a really good sympathetic refin can restore some collectability.

Acoustic guitars require a lot of work to refinish, including removal of the bridge, and unless you’re going for an outlandish ‘video prop’ design you’ll rarely be greeted with a positive reaction, as changing the finish will also to some degree change the tonal output (the same is true on an electric guitar, but it’ll be particularly noticeable on an acoustic).


Be prepared to pay high prices if you insist on this type of work – usually more than it’s worth if it’s a mid-budget sub-£500 guitar. 
 

The other refinishing conundrum is the scratch/ding situation. I’ve often had players come to me in a devastated frame of mind because their brand new guitar has a scratch or chip. At this stage their pride and joy needs to be restored to its original pristine condition or the world will stop turning on its axis.

Of course, it’s possible; many scratches can be polished out, but if the finish has been scratched down to the wood then in truth the only way to completely hide any finish damage (and I mean completely – not a touch-in job) is a total refinish.

I usually point out that even if it’s stripped down and refinished then it will soon pick up another knock along the way, and it’s best if at all possible to try and live with the knocks.
 

The vast majority see sense at this point, but not all. I’ve seen a chap pay hundreds of pounds for his electric to be refinished to hide some relatively minor damage, only for him to arrive to collect it from the workshop, take it from the case in an over-excited manner and turn around to show his mates… and whack it hard against a door frame. You live and learn!   

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