10 worst “do it yourself repairs”

Here’s my 10 WTF moments in my guitar repair/building experience.

Let me start out with my labor rates:

$75.00 an hour

$85.00 an hour if you watch

$95.00 an hour if you help

$125.00 an hour if you tried to fix it yourself first

Now I know that this is kind of a smart ass intro but it makes the point that you have to look at the job as a whole when making your estimate.

10.  A 1981 Martin D-28 with the binding top and back coming off.  Customer “fix” Scotch taping the binding on the body.  Result: tape UV cured to the finish.  Real fix:  New binding and refinish of the sides.

9.  Jack plug installed on the side of a Martin D-18.  Result: Jack pulls out and takes a good chunk of side with it.  Fix: Make football sized patch to repair side, refinish and install proper jack in end block.

8.  Customer refinish of Gibson Flying V using bar top epoxy as a finish.  Result: The epoxy is improperly mixed so a great deal of it never hardens.  All of the studs for the tail piece were left in and covered with epoxy.  Fix:  Physically removing the epoxy, installing new studs and refinishing.

7.  Customer installed Grover Rotomatics. Holes enlarged with conventional drill bit.  Result:  Cracked peg head when drill bit torqued and caught the wood.  Fix:  Re-gluing peg head, plugging holes, drilling new holes in the plugs and reaming out the ones that didn’t get drilled.  Finally touch up finish the cracked areas.

6.  I’ve said this before but think it needs to be said again… Customer using truss rod to “fix” action.  Result:  Broken truss rod.  Fix:  Well, the fix costs more than the instrument and the guitar was scrapped.  This one depends on where the break occurred and what kind of rod was used.  If it’s a conventional rod and the break is close to the adjusting nut, Stew-Mac has a tool to re-thread the rod and save it.  If the break is farther down the rod or double action you may have to remove the fret board and that my friend is major surgery.

5.  Customer installed strap button on heel of acoustic.  This was a simple job that went horribly wrong because a pilot hole wasn’t drilled.  Result:  Cracked heal.  Fix:  Careful application of cyanoacrylate glue and touch up refinish.  I’ve also seen strap button installations on guitars with bolt on necks where the pilot hole has hit the threaded insert in the heel.  Make sure you know where the insert is placed on that particular guitar before you drill.

4.  Cracked end block because customer used a drill bit meant for steel to enlarge hole for the jack used on an acoustic.  Fix:  This can be tricky.  First you have to assess the damage and that can be challenging.  Some of these miniature cameras work great.  I’ve had success using a point and shoot on a timer to take a snap.  If the crack is small you might be able to use cyano to repair it.  If the end block is cracked all the way through, the back may need to come off and the block replaced… Again, not something you’re going to do on a cheap guitar.   The proper way is to use a step reamer to get the correct sized hole.

3.  This one is not so much a customer fix as customer negligence.  A crack in the top of an acoustic that is not addressed right away.  Dirt and grime are allowed into the crack and oxidizes the surfaces so that what could have been fixed with a diamond patch on the inside has now become a fix that includes taking away the rotten wood and inserting a splint.  It can be very difficult to match the new wood with the old, and you better make sure the customer knows that his or her guitar will not look brand new.

2.  Cracked peg head.  Customer “fixed” with mystery glue and a wood screw.  Result:  Peg head and neck shaft not aligned. Fix: If the peg head can be re-broken you may be able to re-align the neck and re-glue (if it was glued with aliphatic glue you won’t be able to as the glue will not stick to itself).  The joint may have to be resurfaced and new wood may have to be inserted, possibly a spline as well.

1.  And now for my favorite customer fix… A re-glued bridge on an acoustic using Gorilla Glue and wood screws.  This is an epic failure on so many levels.  Wood screws should never be used to hold a bridge on (Gibson, take note) .  And anyone who has ever used Gorilla Glue knows it has no place in guitar construction/repair.  It’s a polyurethane glue that works very well in certain circumstances (water contact, etc.) but the foaming that occurs when the glue is curing can create a humongous mess.  Fix:  Take the bridge off and refinish the top.  What could have been a $85.00 repair is now over $400.00.

The last thing to remember is that repairing a cheap guitar takes just as long and just as expensive as a high end one (sometimes more).


One of my students two week guitar build

This is a slide show from my two week class.  The class is an intensive 12 day course in which up to two people build a guitar from scratch.

I use a “Tell, Show, Do” style that starts by me giving information on how we’ll be building, then follows with me showing them how and finally, they do the work.

The photos were taken by the student so most of them show me executing the procedure.

Sharpening chisels and planes

This basic skill is often overlooked in wood working.  You can’t carve braces or joint a top if your tools are dull.  You can buy all manner of sharpening devices and the array of “stuff” can be very confusing to someone starting out.  The simple fact is everything can be done with a piece of 1/4″ plate glass and various grades of sandpaper.

To start, there are two basic kinds of sharpening:  Hollow grinding and flat grinding.  Hollow grinding is the most common.  The chisel is held against a wheel with a rest and ground at 25 degree angle (some people prefer a slightly steeper or more shallow angle but 25 works for most things).  After the grinding the edge will need to be honed.  This is done at about 30 degrees so that you are only working on the very tip of the chisel or plane iron.  A word of caution when grinding… you can ruin a chisel by using a cheap grinder that runs at 1750 rpm.  If you use this method be sure to use a purpose built grinder that uses a slow speed and with at least a ten inch wheel.  Grinders like this can be expensive but if you do a lot of chisel work, they are very good.  The Tormek system works well (I don’t own one but have used it) and I expect the Jet slow speed sharpening system would work well too.

These systems are very fast but hollow grinding has one drawback… the very nature of the hollow grind means the cutting edge is also weaker than a flat ground one.  Systems that use the flat ground method use various grits of sand paper or wet stones and progress to the final polish all the while maintaining a flat edge.  Work Sharp is what I use.  It’s less than half the cost of a Tormek but is much slower in getting to the finished product.  It is a flat 1/4″ disc with sand paper attached to it that revolves at a slow speed.  The chisel or iron is held in jigs to maintain the angle.  Both systems require a certain amount of accessories.  For example the Work Sharp requires an attachment to sharpen wide plane irons, and the Tormek has a myriad of jigs and contraptions to sharpen every possible item.  If my primary job involved lathe turning, this would be my system.

If you are a hobbyist luthier, you don’t need any of this…  Just a piece of  1/4″ glass and various grades of sand paper will do.  You will have to buy or make a jig to maintain your angle.  General and several other companies make such things.  Some of the pricier models will cost almost as much as an entire system so take that into consideration.  You can also make one.  The important thing is to maintain that 25 degree angle.

I start with 100 grit if the chisel is in bad shape.  Then progress all the way to 1500.  The bevel side is important but no more than the flat back.  If a chisel or plane is to work properly it must have a flat back.  If it’s not flat it’s a knife!  I like to get my chisels to the point where I can see reflections.  This is not for vanity but to allow me to make perfect miter cuts on purflings by using the chisel’s mirror image as a guide.

Now a word on chisels and planes themselves.  Buy an expensive tool, pay for it once.  Buy a cheap tool and you’ll pay for it every time you use it.  This old nugget is especially true with chisels and planes.

This doesn’t mean you have to go out and buy a 300 dollar set of German chisels.  Marples now Irwin are fine to start. They won’t hold the edge that Two Cherries brand of Lie-Nielson does but the steel is good enough to get you through.  Do not under any circumstances buy any of the junk from Home Depot or Harbor Freight.  The steel is soft and will not hold an edge.  The Japanese chisels are very good as well.  They are laminated with a soft steel in the body (very flexible and resilient) and a hard steel for the cutting edge.  They also have a hollow back to make flattening easier.  This does have the drawback of limiting the chisel’s life, but most people will never have to deal with that.

Planes are a different story.  Buy the best you can.  Look for good old ones or buy a new Lie-Nielson or Veritas.  A 24″ jointer can run almost 500 dollars but it is truly a thing to behold.  I know now I’m talking tool porn.  You can’t go wrong with a jack plane to start and add more as you go.