restoring an original

After concluding that the damage was so severe that the top could not be restored without compromising the guitar’s sound—not to mention its looks—I began the process of outfitting this fine instrument with a replacement soundboard.

1. Using a custom sanding block to remove old glue and level any raised wood fibers. 2. Referencing the original and replacement top bracing with a thickness caliper. 3. The gently curved blade on this guitar-brace chisel makes it easier to trim and shape the new braces to match the originals. 4. My custom workstation made from a shaped piece of Formica countertop attached to a ShopStand and Guitar Repair Vise from Stew-Mac.

In my previous column, I described how a 1977 D-35 arrived at our shop with a big hole in its Sitka spruce soundboard. After concluding that the damage was so severe that the top could not be restored without compromising the guitar’s sound—not to mention its looks—I began the process of outfitting this fine instrument with a replacement soundboard I’d purchased from Martin more than 10 years ago.

After removing the ebony bridge and mahogany neck, and then separating the original soundboard from the body, I was ready to clean and remove any old glue or raised wood fibers from the kerfing, neck block, and tail block.

I made a leveling sanding block from materials I had laying around the shop. For the platform, I used a long rectangular piece of Corian. First I leveled the 1/2" plank using my thickness sander and then I attached a soft rubber handle. To the bottom of this 26" long custom sanding block, I attached a length of 220-grit Stikit Gold self-adhesive abrasive paper (item #5768 at This is the perfect grit and material for the job.

To stabilize the body on my workbench, I used a plywood cradle (#5657) and body support blocks (#5656), both of which are replacement parts for StewMac’s TrueChannel routing jig. I’ve discovered that many jigs and tools can be used in other ways than originally intended. I’m sure many of you have come across this and perhaps you’ve adapted tools this way too. Using a gentle back and forth motion, I used the sanding block to square the top surface of the kerfing.

I’m really excited about my new workstation. It consists of a Formica countertop shaped like a dreadnought top that’s attached to the ShopStand and Guitar Repair Vise (#5391). This is just the cat’s meow for freeing up needed work space at my bench. The best part of this workstation is how much easier it makes gluing, clamping, and carving braces.

For starters, the height of the ShopStand is adjustable and that really takes the stress off my back. Also, if you’re looking for a good source of Formica, check out your local businesses that install countertops. The sink cutouts are usually taking up space and collecting dust and the staff is usually more then happy to move them out. The sink cutouts are perfect for band sawing out the work platform, as well as many other uses in my shop.

With a thickness caliper (#5193), I measured the original top braces and then used a guitar-brace chisel (#1629) to trim the braces on Martin’s replacement top to closely match the originals. This chisel has a specially curved blade that makes it easier to carve the smooth curves needed for scalloped braces and tone bars with feathered ends.

Diamond fret levelers (#5259) work well for keeping my chisels sharp in the shop. I do like to finalize the cutting edge with an 8000-grit Japanese water stone, which is available online from both Woodcraft Supply and Luthiers Mercantile International.

Here’s a tip: When working with extremely sharp tools, I often wear a safety glove made of Kevlar, Spectra, and stainless steel to protect my hand and fingers. I know a few too many people who have slipped with a chisel for the first time, causing severe tendon damage followed by surgery. Safety, safety, safety!

With a very busy schedule, it’s hard to make the time to keep chisels sharp. But remember that a dull chisel needs an increase of pushing pressure and that can invite accidents. A well-sharpened edge allows the tool to do the work—a better situation for you.

I hope this column has provided you some enjoyment and invaluable insight into the beginning stages of retopping this 1977 Martin D-35. Looking forward to next month!

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If you’ve been reading this column recently, you’ll recall we’re in the middle of restoring a ’72 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe.

If you’ve been reading this column recently, you’ll recall we’re in the middle of restoring a ’72 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe. In my September 2011 column, I took you through the evaluation process we used to determine exactly what this restoration would entail. In October’s column, I covered extracting the flat and pitted frets, and explained how I prepped and skimmed the rosewood fretboard to remove any micro high spots.

When you’re dealing with vintage guitars, some clients don’t want us to even take a polishing cloth to the instrument, because it changes the mojo for them. So when it came to micro-spot sanding this LP’s fretboard, I made sure the owner was okay with the procedure.

Once I’d checked the fretboard with a straightedge and radius gauge, I confirmed the guitar was ready for its new frets. After consulting with the client and referencing the original frets, we decided to go with Wide/Medium fretwire (item #149 at This is slightly taller than the old Gibson jumbo wire, and its .046" crown provides ample height for a precision leveling after the frets are installed.

For starters, I used a Japanese Fret Slot Cleaning Saw (#3616) to deepen any shallow slots in the fretboard, measuring the depth as I went with a Fret Slot Depth Gauge (#5435). I then used the Fret Slot Cleaning Tool (#4870) to remove old glue and debris so the new frets would seat correctly.

Tailoring: Over the years, I’ve occasionally chosen to bend each individual fret by hand before installing it, but typically I use the FretBender (#0345)— a time-saving tool that lets me accurately radius 24 inches of fretwire at a time. Once a strip of fretwire was radiused, I laid it across the fretboard slot, gauged the length I’d need, and cut it with a Fret Cutter (#0619). This Les Paul has neck binding, so I used a Fret Tang Nipper (#1626) to undercut the fret ends so they’d sit over the binding properly.

A Deadblow Fretting Hammer (#1296) and brass Fret Setter (#1666) are my tools of choice for this task. As part of this process, I used StewMac #10 Thin Super Glue (#7001) glue to secure each fret in its slot.

After the frets were installed, I used a Fret Beveling File (#3759) to put a uniform, 35-degree angle on all the fret ends, and then took off any burrs with a Fret End Dressing File (#1175). The next step was to give the Deluxe’s new frets a full dress. When it comes to fret dressing, there are a variety of tools and procedures for leveling, crowning, and polishing fretwire. You’ll find lots of information online, including reputable demonstrations on YouTube. If you’re interested in this subject, my advice is to keep an open mind and really do some homework.

Bonus Trade Secrets:
Before we wrap up this installment of the ’72 Deluxe project, I thought I’d share a couple of trade secrets we used during this phase. As I mentioned in the September column, the guitar’s original ABR-1 Tune-o-matic bridge had collapsed and was unusable. Over the years we’ve experimented with different jigs for correcting this problem, and we’ve now developed a system that’s consistent and easy to use.

We call this device our ABR-1 Correct-o-matic, and it consists of two polyethylene plates mounted to a vise. The bottom plate is radiused, while the outer wings of the flat top plate have .015" shims added to create the desired pitch. The idea is to clamp the bridge and—in a very controlled way— bend it back into its original position by applying pressure to the vise. Once the bridge’s underside is snug against the radiused polyethylene plate, the bridge is correctly arched and ready to come out. This process literally takes seconds.

My second trade secret comes from a farm-and-horse supply store. Such outlets sell a tool called a revolving leather-hole punch. It’s designed to punch holes into leather straps of horse saddles, but we are using it to make mahogany end-grain caps. This punch lets you select multiple hole sizes— from 5/64" to 3/16". Very handy. As you can see in the photos, the tool works perfectly for capping unwanted screw holes in the Les Paul Deluxe.

Thank you for allowing me to share my world with you!

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This time around, we’ll begin restoring the guitar based on last month''s diagnoses.

Last month, I walked you through the evaluation process that precedes any restoration work I do. The subject of our evaluation was a ’72 Les Paul Deluxe. This time around, we’ll begin restoring the guitar based on our previous diagnoses. (If you missed that column, check out “Evaluating a ’72Gibson Les Paul Deluxe” at

As you may recall, there was an assortment of worn-out parts and alterations to this Les Paul. Knowing it had been heavily played for several years, the new owner did not have any delusions about it being in mint condition after work was completed. He was enthusiastic about his find and asked us to breathe life back into the instrument.

Fret Condition.
This guitar’s frets had seen better days, and they were extremely low and flat, with some pitting. In this condition, there is no realistic chance of producing a properly intonated and bell-like sustained tone. Even the fretboard binding nibs were mostly nonexistent. Because the original frets couldn’t be resurrected by leveling and re-crowning them, I needed to extract and replace them with fresh fretwire.

Extracting the Frets.
Over the years, I’ve gravitated toward an assortment of tools and procedures for extracting frets smoothly with minimal or no tear-out to the fretboard wood. The first step is to condition both the frets and fretboard before starting the actual extraction. If you don’t take precautions, there can be catastrophic repercussions when the fret barbs pull up against the wood.

I conditioned each fret by placing a thin layer of water over its top and sides and then heating up the fretwire using a soldering gun with a custom tip. This tip consists of two brass rods that are radiused so their ends sit on the fret crown. When the rods contact the fretwire, the circuit is completed, and this generates heat between the rods throughout the fret. It’s important to pay close attention to the rods’ temperature, because excessive heat will melt the fretboard binding.

I use a special tool called a Fret Puller (available from, item #1637) for extracting the frets. During this operation, I rely on the Rock-n-Roller Neck Rest (#3722) to securely support the guitar neck.

On the ’72 Deluxe, all the frets came out smoothly and without damaging the fretboard. The quality of the Indian rosewood slab contributed to the smooth extraction. Occasionally, I come across fretboards that are extremely brittle, and no matter what I do it’s nearly impossible to avoid some chipping.

I should also note that, whenever possible, I protect guitar bodies with a thick leather skirt during restoration. I acquired this leather from my father, as these particular pieces were too thick for his needs— leathering accordion and concertina reeds. Thanks, dad!

Removing the Nut.
The original Gibson synthetic nut was coming off, and the string slots were worn and bottomed out to the point that they wouldn’t accommodate the height of replacement frets. When removing a nut on this type of headstock, the first step is to use a razorblade to score the lacquer around the nut at the seam lines. This limits any chance of damaging the finish around the nut when it pulls away from the fretboard. While doing this work, I clamp the neck in the Ultimate Vise (#3412). I apply feather-light pressure and just let the blade do the cutting.

After scoring around the nut, I try to gently tap it loose using my ergonomically designed wood block and Deadblow Fretting Hammer (#1296). Luck was on my side as the nut broke loose fairly well. There are times, however, that a nut is glued in too securely to tap loose. In that case, you need to cut the nut lengthwise down the middle with fine saws (#3600) or a Dremel tool (#0358), and then gently work the pieces out of the nut slot.

Using the Erlewine Neck Jig.
The Erlewine Neck Jig, ShopStand, and Angle Vise (#5392) has endless uses in our shop. This jig has various adjustment options, including dial gauges to allow for precise setups. For this project, I used it to simulate normal string tension after I removed the strings. Once I’d pulled out the frets, I used a 10" radius block (#0411) with 280-grit sandpaper to skim over the rosewood fretboard and eliminate any micro high spots.

A parting bit of info on this ’72 Deluxe: In last month’s column, I described how someone had added low-profile crème plastic rings to surround the original pickup rings. However, after reading this in PG, Dave Rogers of Dave’s Guitar Shop wrote me to set the record straight. “I just wanted to let you know,” he said, “that those goofy thin pickup surrounds were stock on that LP Deluxe. You don’t see them often, but they are original to that guitar.”

This little-known fact illustrates how there’s an endless pool of knowledge to be gathered throughout life. Next month, I’ll be back with more restoration techniques. See you then!

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