Here is the project. It’s a Gibson Les Paul, likely from the later 70’s or so. The current owner has owned it for something like 30 years and while he hasn’t played it in a while, he has a very sentimental attachment to this particular guitar. He was fully aware of its history and some of its defects, and told me about them before he even brought it in as he wasn’t sure I would take on this project. What can I say, I’m a sucker for a tough project. And this is a rough one. Here it is pretty much as it came in. I pulled the strings and bridge while I examined and talked over the scope of work with my client.
There was lots of ugly black paint all over, even on the bindings. And that still couldn’t hide one obvious flaw that was sort of resistant to photography, but was easily seen as soon as the case was opened. This guitar was one of those that was cut up into pieces at the factory and then put back together by someone. Judging by the deluxe bindings top and back, this one was going to be a black beauty. In this pic if you look where I scraped the paint off the binding, you can see the cut.
I could see other issues. Right off the bat, there was something really odd about the headstock besides its obvious lack of adornment. The hardware and electrics were beyond salvation. This quickly went from a refinish job to a full on restoration . . . or maybe resurrection might be a better term. He agreed and told me to use my best judgment on all matters; he just wanted this guitar to finally look as good as it sounded. So, the first real order of business was to strip off the finish. A job that seemed to go on forever. They must have put 2 qts. of lacquer on, perhaps at different times. But it was a thick, amateurish mess. Here you can get a good view of the cut where the body was put back together.
And here is the view from the back. Not any prettier back here.
Any missing binding was simply filled with what appeared to be some type of epoxy: whatever was used to glue the body back together, most likely.
Here we can see the absolutely awful prep work at the base of it all. Bad enough, old Lester here was cut up like the magicians assistant, but look at the marks left by the ¼ sheet sander. Looks like 80 grit was it . . . that’s good enough. The edges of the bindings were all torn up by someone trying to sand the ABS plastic round. Yeah, that didn’t work out so nice either, so they just filled it with paint.
Now, we can start to see what was wrong with the headstock. I had initially thought it was a broken neck repair gone wrong. I was partly right: it was a repair gone wrong, just not a break. The headstock had been sawn off as well and put back together not quite right.
Here was a large part of the problem with the headstock: it was from a different guitar. You can see a sunburst finish here where I stripped the paint. This would also explain the lack of binding or large pearl inlay that should have been here.
It played and stayed in tune as it was, and I was going to leave it until I noticed something disturbing. A back veneer had been used as part of the graft. As I striped the paint, my putty knife caught the bottom of the veneer and lifted it. Looks like there was nothing but lacquer that had seeped in, actually gluing a portion of the veneer down. That was it. This needed to be fixed. And in for a penny, in for a pound. I just couldn’t see leaving the rest of the repair as it was with a slight twist, so the whole thing was coming back apart and being put back to spec. Here, you can see the lacquer in the joint after I popped the back veneer off.
Now, you can see where the head was sawn off and put back together. Hey, I guess at this point I should just be happy that both the neck and the donor head were maple. There are quite a few holes and broken screws in the center as well that were lurking under the veneer. Not sure what that’s all about.
The whole mess was done in epoxy too! That makes this harder than it had to be. It would have been one thing if the original repair had been straight and solid, but taking apart epoxy is a bummer. Then, you need to get to clean white wood again, because nothing will stick to epoxy that has been heated and taken apart, at least not for all that long. It was then that I found the true seeds of a bad repair: two fluted concrete nails with their heads ground off were used as dowels. To make matters worse, they were centered on the glue joints in the neck lamination, visibly breaking the joint in a few places. Nice!
Here is the donor head. You can see where the faceplate didn’t make solid contact with the wood and was sorta kinda filled with epoxy.
To complicate matters more, a twist had been put into it due to misalignment of the nails in the different pieces and then partially sanded out. This left me with the only true surfaces left being at a 90 degree plane, one being the top edge of the donor head, and the others being the walls of the tuner holes. I made a fixture to hold the pieces so I could machine them back true and also hold them in the correct alignment for reassembly. The only thing I had for a reference was the tuner holes, so that is what I indexed in my jig. By using a set of attached side rails, I could use my joiner to true up the faces of the donor and get back to flat and true. And get rid of all that nasty epoxy.
When I made my jig and loaded all the parts into it to see how it all stacked up, another problem arose. Manufacturing tolerances at the Gibson factory are not as tight as most might like to think. The two parts we are trying to mate were made on different jigs. A picture is worth a thousand words.
I glued some maple wings onto the places that needed it so the two parts could mate properly and be reshaped to fit the face veneer. In this shot you can see how much twist was in the original repair.
So, here we are with the two parts of the headstock glued back together with nothing but the face veneer holding them when the jig is removed. It is very fragile right now and you can see the wings that were added so the overall shape can be restored.
This obviously needed some reinforcement, I still had the split joints from those damned nails to deal with. So, I cut in some splines and glued them in. Then, I carefully carved and shaped the splines and the lower part of the headstock back to flat and true.
This left the headstock way too thin, by 5/16”! So I cut and fitted a new piece of maple and glued it on to replace the missing back of the headstock. Here it is all shaped in. All I need to do is drill the tuner holes through it and it’s almost perfect. Once it’s finished, you won’t ever know. Plus, all this was done with hide glue, so if this happens to need to be worked on in the future, it will be easy to do so.
I thought that I may be able to simply splice in some new bindings at the waist where the cut was. But, after stripping the finish and getting a good look at how chewed up some of the binding was from the original finisher and his 80 grit palm sander, I thought better of it. So, I cut the bindings and purflings off. On the top, all the plys are the same height. This is a wide binding model.
On the back, the arrangement was more typical of a binding and purfiling combo with a full height binding and shorter purflings.
For the back, I welded together the 3 ply purflings to make this a 2 piece affair when it came to gluing it to the body. The top is an 8 ply arrangement and they are all full height. So I welded together some subassemblies. One 3 ply and one 4 ply to be used with one thicker binding around the outside. This matter is made a bit trickier as the neck is still attached. So the pieces need fitted around the horn and back underneath the fret board. I used my heat gun to soften the sections at the tight bend around the horn so they would bend easily and the black plys did not become pale. I also had to build the section up in height as well because of the wide binding which I did before bending and fitting.
I glue it up and use a few pieces of strapping tape to temporarily hold it in place. Then, it’s time to bind the bindings. I have used rope in the past, and sometimes even just tape, but for this, with all these plys, rubber bands are the only way to fly.
After the glue has set I use a crane neck chisel to trim the new bindings. I hunt them down until they are only a few thousandths of an inch above the surface like this.
Then, it’s time to scrape them flush with a card scraper. Here, we can see the new work on the back.
The only reason I could find for this guitar being scrapped was bridge position. Even after being cut and put back together, the scale length was still about .030” long. I cut some maple plugs and filled the old holes so I could marks and drill new ones at the proper location.
All the hardware is being completely replaced with gold. As it turns out, the bushings for the new stop bar are slightly smaller, so those holes were then also plugged and redrilled to the proper size. A bit more work on the headstock yet as well. The area where the nut will sit is only flat for about half of what it should be from the double repair of the headstock. The black fiber veneer stops a wee bit short of nut as well, leaving a white line of maple showing. This will get filled with some black filler before I prep for finish.
With those last few items taken care of, it is time to begin the finishing process. Previously on guitars with major repairs like this, I have always used an epoxy as a filler and sealer. This helped ensure the repairs will not ghost through the finish. Certain finishes are more forgiving in this respect than others. But, the epoxy is a laborious affair taking three days and is a bugger to sand out. So, beginning with this guitar I am using a new (to my shop) product. It is a post catalyzed high build polyester filler/sealer. It is water white (completely clear) and HAPS free. It can be applied at up to 10 mils wet and easily build to 12 mils dry with a few coats as it does not have the usual mill barrier of 5 mils typically associated with post cat coatings. The guitar is sanded out by hand to 180 grit. The bindings are lightly scraped and it’s into the booth for a few coats of sealer. Here it is later that day, ready to sand and prep for the black nitro.
This should also take care of any remaining artifacts of the headstock repair.
The sealer was sanded out at 320 to give a good anchor to the lacquer on the polyester and the bindings were taped off. I have scraped bindings, and these will still get scraped, but I do a lot of guitars with wood bindings which can’t be scraped, so I have gotten accustomed to just taping them off.
Finishing is a process. It differs somewhat by the type of material being used, but it is always a process that will work to its own particular schedule. While my sealer is a catalyzed product, the actual finish I am using on this project is nitrocellulose. The product I use is a pure nitrocellulose just like was used in the old days. As such, it needs to dry thoroughly between coats. The weather here so far this year has been quite soupy, limiting days that I can run my spraybooth. I will not spray on rainy days or days when RH tops about 80%. It’s just not productive and doesn’t yield the quality I strive for. Anyway, the color coats got sprayed over the sealer. In this case basic black, five coats. I actually had good holdout at four, but wanted a bit extra to block out, since there are some large repairs that are not mine involved here.
After drying for about a week here in the shop, the color coat is block sanded out. This is done with a small cork lined block and 400 grit paper, dry. A lot of attention and care is focused on the edges of the binding. Any paint out on the binding is carefully scraped away and the edges of the paint very carefully sanded out. When taken care of, the chance of burning through the clear coat when buffing is greatly reduced.
The face of the headstock got two wet coats of clear and was block sanded out. A new water slide Les Paul decal is placed on the headstock. Next week it will go back out to the booth and get five or six coats of clear, depending, and then we wait.
I noticed before level sanding that there was quite a bit of shrink back over the diagonal line of the old body repair. That joint has been keeping me up at nights. I hate finishing over old repairs done with questionable methods. Also, there was a lot of shrinkage over the factory joints in the top, it is a three piece top. Everything level sanded well, though, so I buffed it out. The buffing wheels generate a good deal of static electricity. Here, you can see how the epoxy in the old repair takes a charge and the fuzz from the wheel sticks to it. This is another reason I have moved away from epoxies.
Here, you can see after it is all buffed out that the old repair is gone.
I then unmasked the fret board and preceded to do a full level and crown.
Time to start prepping for assembly. I used a countersink bit to cut back the lacquer a bit and chamfer the bushing holes so they will not chip or crack when I put them in.
It was at this time something caught my eye. The joints in the three piece top run not only through the control cavities, but they run right through a set of potholes. It was in the area between the potholes and out to the very edge of the cavity that there was the faintest hairline crack formed in the finish. There was a good bit of shrink back of the finish over these joints in the top, but it sanded out when I leveled, so I gave it not a second thought. I took a close look at the switch hole, and sure enough, there were little hairline cracks in the finish, through the hole and stopping at the edges of the cavity. These defects are the type that I refer to as photographically resistant. So, while they won’t show in a picture, I could see them and knew what it meant. There was also a stability issue with the joints in the maple where it was not backed by the mahogany, so these joints must be stabilized and the top will get refinished. That’s just the way it goes on jobs like this. If it doesn’t meet my standards, it gets redone. I consider this my problem, so the refinish of the top doesn’t go on the invoice.
Ok, we are back on track. It’s time to wrap this project up. It’s like déjà vu all over again. I swear I spend half my life sanding things. Here I am level sanding the top that was re-finished so I can buff it out.
The first thing I do after getting it all buffed out again is install the tuners. In this case, I am using some locking Grovers. I do them in pairs working up the headstock. I use my 6 inch rule as a straightedge to make sure they line up
One of the handiest tools I have around the shop is the Stew Mac guitar tech screwdriver set. Not just because it has almost any size bit you will likely need to work a guitar in a small package, but for these. There is a set of taps that fit all the small woodscrews we use. So after I drill my pilot holes I lube the tap with some bee’s wax and thread the hole. This virtually eliminates the possibility of a buggered screw head as the screws go in smooth as butter.
Here it is with all the tuners in. Looks really good considering that it was a real mess when it came in. You’d never know all the work that was done by just looking. And that is always my goal.
Now, it’s time to start with the wiring. First, I need to make sure the pickup mount rings fit the body perfectly. To do this I line the back of a strip of 220 paper with some packing tape. This provides for scratch protection on the backside of the paper. The rings are then gently slid back and forth to floss them into a perfect fit. The trick here is to hold the paper firmly so it doesn’t move and to clear away sanding debris and check the fit often.
The wires are fed through the chase and the pickups aligned to the fretboard. I use blue tape on the top so I can make reference marks with a fine sharpie so I can get that alignment. I pilot drill the holes and again use my tap and some wax and then mount the pickups. I have also ran a 4 conductor lead in the channel for the switch prior to mounting the pickups.
I wire and install the switch. I always leave a loop of wire around it as you see here after install to make any future repairs easier.
Time to finish this up. I completed the wiring. Some people don’t like the metal base plate that Gibson uses, but I actually like it. The plate provides some shielding and provides ground for all the pots. The pots are CTS 500K and the caps are ceramic .47’s This is a standard les paul type set up without any coil taps or other tricks.
I leveled and crowned the frets earlier. Now it is time polish them up. I do them one at a time, working my way up the board. I use the 3M polish cloth sold by Stew Mac. I wrap small pieces around a rubber eraser and work my up through the grits. It goes pretty quick and puts a mirror like shine on the frets leaving them feeling super smooth.
Now, I can get some strings on and make a nut. I make all my nuts custom from blank pieces of bone. I do not like the pre-made, pre-slotted ones. After I have cut the blank to size and beveled the top, I lay out the string positions and take my .010” fret slot file and make a slight cut on each center mark. This helps me maintain proper spacing, especially on the thicker wound strings that are wider than my original pencil marks. I then go back and make a starter slot with the correct size file for each string and string up the guitar to pitch. I check that the truss rod is close to final adjustment and then set each string slot to proper depth with the correct file. I check the depth, lift the string out of the slot and adjust. I use a piece of leather across the head stock above the nut like you see here so when the E strings drop off the edge to file the slots it doesn’t mar the finish.
After that it is a matter of final adjustment on the truss rod, setting the pickup heights and pole pieces for balance and setting the intonation. Clean off all my paw prints and it’s finally done. Now that it is set up and playing I can see why Jim loves it so much, this is one sweet feeling and sounding Les Paul.
And you cannot see that the body was ever cut in half. While it was a rejected by Gibson during manufacturing, it is definitely worthy of the Gibson name now.
Originally published in Brian Howard's Guitar Building & Repair Blog.