Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Guitar neck reset

I seem to feature a lot of 19th century guitars on this blog: here is another example. This was a recent restoration commission; the neck had pulled forward significantly resulting in an unplayable action. This is a common problem encountered on old guitars.

The guitar is by Valance, a French maker working in the first half of the 19th century, and is typical of guitars of this period, the back and sides are of flamed maple, the front of spruce and all the details are ebony and ivory. Aesthetically it is typical of many of these French guitars with a simple rosette, figure of eight headstock and elegant smiling bridge.

This guitar had been restored at some point in the past ( the evidence points to the back having been removed) but was still in lovely condition and the owner was not unreasonably anxious about the major work to be undertaken.

Of all the neck joins used in guitar construction, this is possibly the simplest. The neck itself is made of 3 main parts, the headstock, the main shaft of the neck and then a separate triangular heel, with the grain running at 90 degrees to the neck itself. This is commonly referred to as an 'ice-cream cone heel'. The neck is joined with a simple butt-join; no dovetail or mortise, just 2 carefully fitted surfaces and animal glue. It seems an incredibly precarious method of attaching a neck, but this one had remained solidly glued for nearly 200 years and the reason for the neck reset was not due to a failing in the neck itself, but a distortion in the body, possibly caused by the previous restoration.

In order to gain access to the neck join it was necessary to remove a small portion of the spruce that made up the flush fingerboard. Hide glue is perhaps the easiest glue to disassemble and the inlays came apart easily as can be seen in the picture below. The neck join itself however proved more challenging, partly because I was being so careful not to damage the beautiful and original finish.In the end it took 7 hours of painstaking work to remove this neck; patience was the most valuable tool in the workshop that day.

The job of realigning the neck is simple, in theory at least. A small amount of wood is removed from the heel to adjust the overall neck/body geometry and the action and alignment are constantly checked. The neck is reglued to the body and the fingerboard section and inlay reinstalled.
This guitar was fitted with gut rather than nylon strings and it was lovely to have it restrung and properly playable again. The only sign that any work had been done was that the action and saddle were now at the correct height!