august 2010

The ''74 Gibson J-50 Deluxe with tortoise binding rot is finished

We’ve come a long way in restoring the decayed binding on this ’74 Gibson J-50 Deluxe. In part 1 (May 2010), I discussed "binding rot," which is when tortoise binding begins to deteriorate as the plastic binders— the substances that cause the material’s components to cohere—start to age. We lightly scored the top and side edge of the decayed binding using the Sloane purfling cutter, then simultaneously softened the glue joint and binding using medium heat from a hair dryer, and finally removed the decayed binding with a channel spatula. Part 2 of this restoration (June 2010) was one of my favorites, as I used the new MacRostie binding trimmer to properly size the replacement tortoise binding down to .100" in height. The MacRostie, with its adjustable fence and large-dimensioning gauge, precisely duplicated the dimensions of the original binding.

Seating and Gluing the Purfling
We were ready to glue the .060" white/black/ white purfling in place after using a flat luthier’s file to finalize and remove any leftover slivers of old purfling and tortoise binding. Weld-On 16 is a fantastic and widely used glue for adhering wood and plastic laminates, but due to the specifications of the repair— the original finish on this Gibson body was to stay intact with no alterations, other than some lacquer overspray on the replacement binding—it would not be the glue of choice for this factory-finished body. Weld-On sets very quickly, can have a webbed taffy texture, and requires acetone as a clean-up solvent. So I chose Super Glue because it’s easier to control and offered me a much cleaner end result.

The Whip Tip attached to a bottle of medium Super Glue.

A scarf joint is used to hide the seam where the two pieces of purfling meet end-to-end at the tailblock, centered with the top’s center seam. A scarf joint is the angled mating surface and can be angled across either the top or the side of the binding strip. I attached the Whip Tip to a bottle of medium-textured Super Glue. The Whip Tip, a 1-3/4" precision nozzle extension for glue bottles, makes my job so much easier, helping me control the glue and minimizing cleanup. I started at the tailblock end of the guitar working my way up towards the dovetail joint, gluing about 3" to 6" sections at a time, using binding tape and whispering amounts of Accelerator. Note: Always pre-check if the finish is too delicate before using binding tape, as the adhesion strength of this tape may cause a major tear-out in the final removal.

Flexing Tortoise
After gluing in the purfling, I went around the channel to make sure there was no excess glue buildup anywhere, which helps to guarantee tight seam lines in the final stages. We were almost ready to shape this single strip of tortoise binding to the top, but first we needed to scuff up the bottom and inside surfaces of the binding with 320-grit sandpaper, which was double-stuck to a flat work- table. This gives the glue something to bite into for a secure fit.

Using a hair dryer to flex the new binding into place.

Using a hair dryer for heat—mounted on our ShopStand and Guitar Repair Vise set for controlling the heat’s direction—I was able to flex the binding into place. I placed 1-1/2" strips of tape—alternating top to side, and side to top—spaced ½" to ¾" apart to secure the binding in place and create a new memory for where the material needed to be positioned.

The next day, I removed the tortoise binding and then glued it permanently into place, using the same procedure as in the previous gluing and taping process. Using the medium Super Glue allowed extra time for fitting and getting the plastic to gently melt and bite in before permanently setting up. After all of the binding was glued into place, I used Stew Mac’s thin Super Glue for final touchups.

Performing the final level trimming with a razor blade.

A razor blade with masking tape on one end of the cutting surface, used as a spacer, works very well for protecting the top and sides when doing the final level trimming before light sanding and airbrushing on a thin nitrocellulose top coat.

I used the following supplies for this restoration (all are available at
  • Luthier’s file set (0842)
  • Binding tape (0677)
  • Thin Super Glue (0010)
  • Medium Super Glue (0020)
  • Whip Tip (1161)
  • Accelerator (5984)
  • Drop-fill toothpicks (3110)
  • ShopStand and Guitar Repair Vise set (5391)

You can buy the hair dryer, razor blades, and masking tape at your local hardware or convenience store.

I hope this series has given you some valuable insights on rebinding a vintage instrument. This is truly a major job and requires many, many hours if you’re looking to rebind while keeping a treasured original finish intact. Until next time, keep those chisels sharp!

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