Monday, November 22, 2010

Weissenborn Style 1 Repair - Addendum

Following the restoration and repair of the Style 1, the owner of the instrument and noted Musician, Composer, Engineer, Producer, Author and now certifiable Weissenborn aficionado, Bruce Kaphan, asked if he could share his thoughts on the process. Bruce has been professionally involved in the music industry since the mid 1970s, and it was a true pleasure and honor to do the work for him. But I will let Bruce take over from here. -TF

I'm primarily a pedal steel player, but in recent years I've become
interested in branching out into non-pedal slide instruments,
especially for recording. I purchased a Gold Tone Weissenborn a few
years ago, and enjoyed using it on a number of recordings, but fairly
quickly became frustrated with the tone- it was great for the price,
and served its purpose of getting me hooked on Weissenborn style
guitars, but its tone wasn't so golden to my ears... There were so
many resonant and dead spots in the instrument's response. I decided
to splurge and began searching for a real vintage Weissenborn. I
found a shop online that advertised having a few in stock, hopped a
two hour flight and compared them. One instrument, a style 1, clearly
stood out among the others. Its top was pretty bellied, but otherwise
it seemed to be in reasonably good shape, made of absolutely
beautiful koa- it just looked like it should sound good, and it did.
The tone was beautiful; especially compared to my Gold Tone and the
other vintage Weissenborns I played at that shop, the tone on this
particular one was way more balanced, with fewer resonant or dead
spots. I purchased the instrument, and soon after, recorded my first
track with it. It sounded great!

There's a really great acoustic guitar repair shop in the region in
which I live. Not long after I purchased the instrument I took it
there, to ask the staff if there was anything they could recommend
for the bellied top. They shrugged their shoulders and said no.
Sadly, not long after this, as I was preparing for an upcoming gig,
the bridge cracked, rendering the instrument unplayable. After the
bridge cracked, knowing the local repair shop didn't seem to have a
great deal of familiarity with Weissenborns, I did an online search
for Weissenborn repair, and came across Tony Francis' website. I live
in California. I really didn't know very much about Weissenborns, and
had never heard of Tony. To be sure, knowing how much fraud exists
online, based only on a website, I have to say I was a bit nervous
about shipping my Weissenborn to a stranger in New Zealand for
repair, but Tony's blog, complete with a discussion of repairing
bellied tops on Weissenborns, appeared to offer a solution to my
instrument's problems. I contacted him and found him to be a very
well-spoken, considerate individual. Although I saw some very nice
comments about him online, I didn't see any testimonials about
shipping instruments from far away; nevertheless, I decided to take
the risk, and was absolutely not disappointed. And that's why I'm
writing this testimonial. As you can see in these beautiful
photographs, Tony was able to address all of the problems with my
style 1. He finished the job in the time frame he said he would. He
held to his quote. When I received the instrument, his work was
absolutely impeccable, as you can see in these photos. I asked Tony
if I could write this testimonial- I just want to encourage anyone
who might have the same misgivings I had about shipping my instrument
to a stranger so far from home. Tony is a man of his word and an
impeccable craftsman. I'd be happy to vouch for him any time- please
feel free to contact me at the contact page of my website,, if you need further encouragement to take the
plunge to send your instrument to him. Thanks Tony, for breathing new
life into my style 1! -BK

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Weissenborn Style 1 Repair - Part 3

These are my reproduction pins that I had custom manufactured in Germany. They were made as a direct replacement for vintage Weissenborn's, as well as my modern reproductions. Unlike the originals however, these are individually turned, not molded, so I have been working on an antiquing process to better match the look of the original pin when used in restoration.

Scribing the pin heads:

After an acetone bath, they are have lost much their gloss, and developed a slight patina:

Because these are unslotted pins, the bridge must be slotted to fit each individual string. Before the 1970s this was just a standard detail. Nowadays you will only see this at high end acoustics. Here you can see the pin holes being reamed:

Setup complete, back to original specifications:

Inside you can see each string ball is seated how they should be, on the repaired bridge plate:

Weissenborn's bat-wing bridge is some of the highest quality bridge work performed at any guitar. Aesthetically it remained highly refined signature of his work through the production years, and is still one of the hardest and most critical details to get right today:

This is a great shot of the distressed french polish or varnish finish:

Following the repair, its hard to compare the sound of the restored instrument to how it came into the shop. I could barely tune it without fear of the previous bridge tearing off. Technically and functionally acceptable (more or less), but perhaps most obviously the previous (and no doubt well meaning) repairman missed the details that are so critical to the instruments voice musically.

I took these last few shots before the instrument was shipped back to its home in the US. A gorgeous sounding instrument.

Thanks for looking and please feel free to comment or if you have any questions.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Weissenborn Style 1 Repair - Part 2

With the top under clamps, my focus switched to the new reproduction bridge. Of course the original was Maple, not Rosewood like the former replacement, and so we begin simply with the wood itself. West Virginian Sugar Maple, the finest of which are cut from Mandolin billets.

For restoration work like this where the new must fit the old footprint perfectly - I will make several and pick the best one:

The finish process begins with Gamboge - a resin used by old time violin makers, but also interpreted by other greats such as Lloyd Loar and Weissenborn, under the dye:

Black aniline:

The new bridge will be french polished and distressed to match the old, but more on this later.

Internally the guitar needed several back braces re-glued, and just the X brace patch on the top.
Here you can clearly see the partially loose back brace:

Sticky sandpaper and a feeler gauge preps the brace to be re-glued. You don't want to remove material here, so much as clean out the old dirt and junk:

Different repair situations require different kinds of techniques. For this brace I am using a simple but extremely effective stick jack against the X brace to glue it back in position:

Another brace re-glued. In this case the new glue reactivates the old glue squeeze out:

Where there was no squeeze out originally, you can clean away the excess and without a trace:

Next comes the plugging / rebuilding of the top for the new bridge. Following the previous "repair", there were three critical details in my eyes both from a structural standpoint, but also musically speaking.

1. Repair worn bridge pin hole ball end damage. This is what happens as a result of improperly slotted bridges, or slotted pins. And quite frequently its a combination of the two such as with this guitar.

2. Plug pin holes. The previous replacement bridge had incorrect bridge pin arrangement, which had almost doubled each hole in size, making it almost impossible for the string ball ends to seat properly.

3. Re-glue damage from the previous repairers bridge removal attempt.

These reverse tapered plugs covered issues 1 & 2 in one single operation step. Each plug is cut to fit each pin hole exactly, and glued into place:

Plugs glued and leveled. The damage from original removal was repaired through a partial re-glue of the top, and also filleting slithers of Koa and hide glue into the damaged areas.

The top and new reproduction bridge fitted, and ready to be glued:

The final part in our repair story tomorrow!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Weissenborn Style 1 Restoration and Repair

Although not a rare guitar in Weissenborn terms, historically the Style 1 was the backbone of Weissenborn's musical empire, and still is today. In the same way Martin brought their unsurpassed quality across a range of models and materials, Weissenborn wanted to make his proprietary steel guitars available so the average musician could obtain such an instrument.

This gorgeous Style 1 was produced in the mid 1920s at the height of the Weissenborn Company's success, and features beautiful figured Koa wood, Spirit varnish finish and all the typical construction details we would expect to see on an instrument dating from this era.

When the guitar came to my shop for repair, it had not long left another where it had received a new bridge:

Face view:

Rear view:

Now clearly this does not appear to be the work of an expert, and its unfortunate but not uncommon to see this kind of work on Weissenborn and related instruments. You can see the saddle was made so tall that it actually cracked the bridge. I couldn't tune this instrument to pitch without it threatening to tear right off.

Here you can see why you should NEVER use slotted pins on your guitar - more on this later.

The repair begins. Heat shield, Aluminum tape, and heat lamp:

The tape is used to come up and over the edges, protecting any finish missed by the somewhat universal shield:

After a few minutes under the heat lamp, the resins in the rosewood begin to bubble. I slide my repair knife underneath, and the bridge comes away without problem:

A close examination and the previous "repair" disaster begins to show. Here you can see what happens if you don't heat the joint sufficiently, or pay attention to grain runout:

The "bellied" or distorted top:

Another view:

The top distortion is of course the most likely reason behind the previous replacement bridge. In an effort to increase action height, the tall saddle was installed, much like how at old Martins they would shave the bridge instead of resetting the neck. The heart of the problem was never addressed and the tall saddle only compounds the problem on an already sensitive instrument.

One of my favorite luthiers, restoration icon T.J Thompson, recently developed a tool to reduce the belly in the old prewar Martins he is associated with, without permanent alterations to the guitar. Of course his tool would never fit a Weissenborn, but I thought it might be possible to take the same idea and custom manufacture one for Weissenborn:

Although they look simple, each tool part is machined as a matching convex / concave set:

They are headed up in my glue pot to 150 degrees:

The top is dampened, and the hot cauls are clamped into place without delay:

The repair story continues tomorrow!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Solid-Neck Weissenborn - Part 3

Part 3 - Construction.

In the process of patterning Tom Noe's gorgeous Solid-neck, one of the great mystery's surrounding Weissenborn, was his early years as a maker of wooden Hawaiian Steel guitars. As far as I am aware, it was Tom Noe and Dan Most who were the first to talk about Weissenborn guitars in a chronological order, which for me at least, is a reflection of how the design, construction and manufacture of Weissenborn's instruments are inextricably linked.

The Francis/Noe Solid-neck Hawaiian is made as reproduction of the original thin body version, with two refinements by Tom's request;

1. The guitar was to be made for genuine solid head tuners (Early Weissenborn's such as the Solid-neck featured slot head tuners on a thin solid head) .
2. The bracing was to be mortised, rather than but jointed as per the original.

Here you can see the gorgeous Koa picked out for this project in its rough sawn form.

Gluing the plates together. This simple gluing contraption is called a Spanish Tourniquet.

Rosette channels cut. Although at first glance similar to the production era marquetry rosettes, the spacing and purfling details are different.

Gluing the marquetry and holly purfling in place, and making a mess!

The completed rosette. Later it is planned and scraped flush.

Here you can see the mortised or tucked bracing. The stress caused by Hawaiian A Major tuning can be brutal to old wooden guitars, and the Solid-neck is no exception. I wanted the new guitar to be able to be kept under tension without Tom having to worry about it. The mortised bracing allows me to recreate the original bracing design in its fundamental glory, and is an elegant solution to the fragility associated with early Weissenborn guitars.

The braces are glued in one single operation step, using hide glue of course.

The top carved to original specifications. There were no top seam splints or sound-hole reinforcement of any kind.

Hand bent sides.

Gluing back braces and seam splints.

The carved back.

Front view.

Back view.