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Turn-of-the-century parlor guitar restoration

Benson approximately 1905.
Mouse-over guitar to see the finished result.

This old guitar was probably bought in America in 1905 by my friend Tom's great-grandfather when he came over from Italy, and had seen a fair bit of playing, as you can see. It had spent the last 30 years or so hanging on the wall. It was so frail, I was afraid to tune it to pitch for fear of it imploding. Tom wanted to restore it to playable condition and keep it as a family heirloom. I was originally going to simply get it playable, but ended up doing a much more thorough restoration.

There were a number of issues that stood out. Besides numerous cracks on the front, sides and back, the bridge was coming up even though a hack repair job was done by bolting the bridge to the body. I knew this because there were 2 black epoxy filled holes on the bridge and I assumed there were machine screws under there. Also, the strings had been pulling on the bridge so long that the saddle slot was actually curved! The top was "bellying" pretty badly behind the bridge as well.

I also noticed that there was a repaired break in the neck heel and there was the tell-tail black epoxy at the 12th fret covering what I assumed to be a wood screw holding the neck to the heel. The neck was also at the wrong angle and needed resetting.

Upon further examination inside I found a loose brace, but more serious was the bridge plate where the ball end of the strings rest. It was all eaten up from 100 years of string changes, so not only was it weak in that important area, but because the bridge was narrow, and the bridge pin holes were close to the saddle, the windings of the strings were actually going over the saddle, causing intonation and action issues.

Because of the many issues with this guitar I broke it down into several areas:

  1. Remove the neck, re glue the heel and reset the neck at a new angle, as well as doweling and inlaying a large dot of Mother Of Pearl to cover the wood screw hole on the fretboard.
  2. Remove the bridge and reset it, doweling the holes in the top left by the two machine screws and inlaying 2 dots of Mother Of Pearl on the bridge to cover the holes left by the machine screw heads .
  3. Fill the bridge slot and re cut it for correct intonation.
  4. Cut and fill the area of the bridge plate that was damaged, as well as add a small 1/8 inch maple plate to thicken the distance between the top of the guitar and the bottom of the bridge plate
  5. Glue the numerous cracks on the body.

I decided to use hot hide glue while working on this guitars as that is what was used when building it. It holds strong and comes apart easily with heat and moisture. I started by removing the epoxy dots on the bridge and removed the machine screws. I then applied some heat to the bridge, which also came off fairly easily.

For some reason, cleaning it seemed like a reasonable thing to do at the time, so I broke out the Virtuoso Cleaner (the best) and took off a hundred years of dirt and sweat. You can see the difference.

I decided to fix the one cracked brace on the top next. There was a crack on the top that was the result of this cracked brace, so I glued up the brace, which brought the top up a bit, then glued the crack over the broken brace.

Next I removed the epoxy on the fretboard at the 12th fret and indeed found a wood screw. Removing the neck wasn't too difficult, but the tongue of the fretboard over the body didn't cooperate and some of the top came with it. Not really a problem, as it would all fit together fine when it was glued back into place. I had to apply some steam to remove the heel of the neck from the dovetail, but it came out without too much of a fuss. I glued the neck and heel back together. The dovetail on the neck was a bit beat up, so I rebuilt it by adding some wood and trimming it down to the proper size.

Next thing to tackle was the deteriorating bridge plate I took a straight razor and trimmed away the old bridge plate where the strings went through until it was a long rectangle. I wasn't able to see inside while I was working, so I had to do it by feel. I trimmed a new piece of maple to the same size to patch the rectangle and glued it in place. After it dried, I made another oversized rectangle and glued that over the patch I had made. That would give the strings another 1/8th of an inch to keep the windings away from the saddle. Once that was dry, I re-drilled the bridge pin holes, and re glued the bridge back into place.

Next order of business was the neck reset. By sliding sandpaper between the neck and the body (while holding the neck in the dovetail) I was able to not only correct the neck angle, but also make the fit between the neck and body nearly flawless. This technique is called Slip-Sanding. Once the angle and fit were correct, I then experimented with different thicknesses of shims to make the neck fit into the dovetail snugly. I found the right size and glued it into place and let it dry a few hours. I then came back and used carbon paper between the dovetail joint to find where it was hitting, then I'd scrap a little wood of the neck dovetail where the carbon showed, then do it again, until I could snug the neck nearly into place. The rest would snug down with a clamp. Once the fit was right, I glued the neck joint together and the tongue of the fretboard back on the body. Once that dried I took a look inside where the top came off with the fretboard, and it was nearly invisible once it was glued back into place. I checked the neck angle and it was perfect...the neck was pointing straight towards the top of the bridge.

Next I decided to take care of the many cracks on the guitar. They were on the sides, back and one long one on the front. I used ultra-strong magnets to hold the cracks flush while the hide glue was drying.

Hiding the offensive screw holes in the bridge was next on the list. The bridge was pretty easy. I had 1/4" Mother Of Pearl Dots that, with the help of some ebony dust and Super Glue, did a perfect job of filling the two holes. I scraped the MOP level to the bridge, then sanded and polished it smooth. It looked beautiful.

The 1/2" MOP on the fretboard I had to hand cut. Using rosewood dust and Super Glue I set the MOP, scraped, sanded and polished it, and it looked fantastic.

I had decided that since there was an issue with the top "bellying", and in order to enhance the strength of the bridge area, I'd install a Bridge Doctor. This product not only reduces or eliminates the belly, it enhances the sound as well. It works so good, some guitar manufacturers are installing it as a stock item. This involves drilling one more hole in the bridge (also to be covered by a MOP dot).

One of the major issues with this guitar was the saddle, more specifically, the saddle slot. Not only was it thin (more opportunity for the saddle to lean) but it was straight and too close to the front edge (bad for intonation). Not only that but the current one was made from a piece of binding! The slot was an open slot (It went through the bridge from treble to bass) and the years of constant pressure from the saddle had caused cracks at both ends of the slot. First I routed a deeper, wider slot and glued in a new piece of ebony. After it dried, I trimmed it down with a sharp chisel and sanded it so it looked like there was never a slot to begin with. After careful measurements, I routed a new slot that was closed at the ends, wider than the old slot, and angled for correct intonation. The closed ends and new slot angle fixed the cracks, and the wider saddle put less pressure on the front of the bridge where it was weak before.

After cleaning the guitar with Virtuoso Cleaner (highly recommended), all that was left was to string it up and play it.

It went from a weak sounding guitar, ready to implode, to a rich sounding instrument with deep bass and nice clean highs. Not only that, but it felt solid as a rock. The frets were already pretty low and the neck reset didn't upset the fretboard too much, so I was able to get the action to a decent height. It sounded so good, and was so much fun to play, I was sorry to see it leave the shop.

The client was pleased beyond his expectations, and guitar should last another hundred years (with proper care) before it needs any major attention.

NOTE: I recieved an email from a Jim Kaler who identified the maker as P. Benson of St. Paul, Minnesota. Apparently there aren't too many of these around, as he seems to have the largest collection of them (2)! I think that also means great-grandpa bought it not long after he St. Paul!

The wrong way to fix a loose bridge

Slowly working the bridge off

A little bit of spruce on the bridge, but not too much

Cleaning the beast

more cleaning

What a difference!

Brace separated from top

Gluing the brace

A crack in the top ready to be repaired

What could possibly be under this glob of epoxy?

Just as I suspected!

Separating the fretboard from the body

Not as clean as I'd like, but it will glue back together fine.

Removing the heel

After gluing the heel and trimming the dovetail

This will build the dovetail back up

Gluing the dovetail piece in place

This is more like it!

Trimming it to shape

Deteriorated bridge plate

After trimming a shim to fill the slot

Bridge plate overlay

Re drilling the bridge pin holes

Resetting the bridge

Checking the fit of the neck

Shim to help the neck fit tightly

Gluing and clamping into place

Gluing the neck to the body and the fretboard to the top

All dry and looking tight

Looking good

Perfect alignment

Gluing up the many cracks on the body

Super Gluing the MOP into the screw holes

Filling the screw hole

Using a 1/2" drill bit by hand to widen the hole

Glued into place, scraped, sanded and polished


Bridge Doctor before installation

The only trace - a MOP dot

The thin, cracked saddle slot with open ends

First we widen it...

...then we fit a piece of ebony in there...

...and glue it into place.

Looks like it never happened

Tape to guide the router

New slot cut with closed ends

New wider saddle

Finished and ready to be played!

Finished body

This beautiful family heirloom was on it's way to vintage heaven before I got a hold of it. It was weak, cracked and ready to implode if tuned to pitch.

After a lot of restoration, this fine guitar turned into a real player. Great tone, easy to play, and solid feeling. It has many, many years of music left in it.

I'd own it.

Other mods, repair, and custom work available as well.

To find out more, email me!

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