1. A close-up of the violated and damaged 1977 Martin D-35. 2. The anatomy of the original
soundboard. 3. Martin’s replacement soundboard. 4. The original top’s finger braces. 5. The
finger braces on Martin’s replacement top. 6. Inside view of Martin’s legendary craftsmanship. This
’77 D-35 is extremely clean.
This 1977 D-35 arrived at our shop
with a big hole in its Sitka spruce
soundboard and a bag of miscellaneous broken
braces and slivers of spruce top wood.
Of course, I was curious to know what had
happened, but I was simply informed that
someone had expressed themselves a little
too much. The good news was the neck
and fretboard showed no signs of damage,
nor did the East Indian rosewood back
and sides. Clearly this was a guitar worthy
of being saved and not just laid to rest or
For those not familiar with the D-35 or
the era it was built in, here’s some background:
Martin introduced the D-35 in
1965 and it was the first Martin model with
a three-piece back. This design reflected
a shortage of Brazilian rosewood that was
wide enough to make a two-piece, dreadnought-
style back. In addition to the three-piece
back, the D-35 included a bound
fretboard and black-and-white purfling on
the sides adjacent to the binding.
Martin had concerns about the three-piece
back’s effect on tone, so as a part of
their research, Martin luthiers made a few
guitars using variations of the company’s
different top and back braces. The builders
concluded that using 00 top braces and 000
back braces worked best, and this resulted in
the D-35 design we know and enjoy today.
The ’70s were tumultuous times for
Frank Martin and the company, even
though 1971 came with a record-breaking
increase in production. The change from
Brazilian to East Indian rosewood didn’t
concern the buyers, as Martin’s sales weren’t
slowing down. From the success of this
boom, Frank Martin reached out and
found other financial adventures to pursue,
which for the most part never panned out.
Towards the end of 1977, Martin employees
who worked on the factory floor crafting
the instruments went on strike. During
this time, Martin’s office and management
staff had to step up to those empty work
benches and start building guitars.
With its history in mind, I carefully
examined this D-35. There are times when
an original soundboard can be restored—after warping, cracking, or receiving a mild
blow, for example. In the vintage world,
you want to preserve the instrument and
keep everything original whenever possible.
However, after diagnosing the damage, I
concluded that the soundboard was too far
gone and that the guitar would be much
better off with a replacement top.
The first step was to remove the ebony
bridge and soften the glue joint of the fretboard
extension using Stewart McDonald’s
bridge heater and fingerboard iron (item
#4607 from stewmac.com). Then I
removed the neck by applying steam into
the dovetail joint while using the neck
joint steamer (item #4059) to soften the
glue in the pocket.
At this point, I traced out the top to
give me a reference for replacing it later on.
Then starting at the dovetail, I removed the
top binding using a hair dryer and channel
spatula. (Had the original binding not been
damaged, I would have used a delicate procedure
for removing the soundboard while
leaving the binding attached to the rib.)
Now with the binding off, I used a razorblade
and chisel to separate the soundboard
from the sides, while being careful to avoid
splintering or loosening the kerfed lining.
I decided to use a replacement soundboard
I’d purchased from Martin more than
10 years ago. Looking at the original ’77
top and its newer replacement, I noticed
a few obvious differences. The original
had the larger rosewood bridge plate that
Martin implemented in 1969, whereas the
replacement had a smaller but very stout
maple bridge plate. The finger braces on
the original soundboard are trimmed leaner,
and I decided I’d shape the replacement
top’s braces to be more like the original. I
felt this would help the top respond better
to the string vibrations, and not obstruct
the glorious tone with a stiff soundboard.
Having taken a very close look at the
exterior and interior of this D-35, I believe
it exemplifies Martin’s legendary quality.
Who knows? Maybe this was the last guitar
to be built by the craftsmen in 1977 before
they went on strike. Perhaps this was their
final statement—a way of showing build
quality as it ought to be.
Next month, we’ll discuss attaching the
replacement soundboard to the Martin
inventor of the Fretted/Less
bass. He owns and operates
Brown’s Guitar Factory,
a guitar manufacturing,
repair, and restoration facility
staffed by a team of talented
luthiers. His guitar-tool and accessory designs
are used by builders all over the world. Visit
or email John at