’50 Gibson J45

This project is another old Gibson from Fletcher’s collection of old Gibsons…

This guitar is another J45 (I think) but this one is far older than the 1968 guitar just completed. This Gibson dates from- again, as near as I can tell- 1950! It has no serial number, just a factory order number and this indicates that it was perhaps made either late 1949 or 1950. Fletcher knows about these things and confirms that it was made in 1950.

That means that when this guitar was made, I was two!…so it’s nearly as old as I am and generally, it’s in better shape. Well,nearly…

The string tension over 60+ years means that the J45′s action has become gradually higher and has now become unplayable. There have been several attempts to get the saddle height down sufficiently, reducing the fret heights along the way.

The only solution to making this guitar playable again is to reset the neck angle.

The place to start is to remove the fourteenth fret, where the fretboard joins the body.

The fretboard is carefully sawn through using a very fine saw blade. A bit of concentrated heat from my heat gun is applied…

…and a spatula is gradually worked under the end of the fretboard.

The fine texta line on the spatula indicates the distance that I have to go to reach the saw cut.

The fretboard tongue is gently lifted…

…until it can be removed, exposing the dovetail joint. Notice how neatly that saw cut through the fret board…

Now the dovetail is clearly exposed…

…and steam can be introduced into the dovetail to soften the glue that has held the guitar together for sixty-odd years.

The towel stops my hands getting burnt and soaks up some of the moisture that accompanies the process.

When the steam has done its job, the neck just magically pops up and out…

…with a bit of help from the neck press that I demonstrated a while back.

This has to be the most satisfying moment when nothing breaks or splits- it just lifts straight out…

Now I’ll allow the damp wood dry out for an hour or so.

Cleaning out the old glue is easily done using a largish scalpel blade, specifically shaped to get into corners.

Interestingly, the old hide glue has become sort of rubbery. I suppose it could be that the steam has changed the nature of the glue, but it’s not something that is all that usual.

However, I’ll let the dovetail joint dry out over the weekend before the next step…

The reason that the neck needed resetting was this:-

A straight edge laid along the frets indicates that the neck angle is insufficient. The end of the straightedge butts into the bridge, rather than being just above it. The saddle had been reduced in height as much as possible, but the action was just too high.

So, the neck was removed and the angle of the neck has to be increased enough to allow the action to be lowered. I’ve put masking tape on the join so that I can mark clearly the small amout that the neck join is to be modified.

There doesn’t need to be much of a change to correct the neck/body join angle and the small adjustment is made with a sharp chisel…

…and constantly checked by replacing the neck and checking with the straightedge.

The clearance above the bridge should be about right.

The heel is level with the back and all looks good…

Fletcher has asked me to refinish this old guitar because some well meaning previous owner has attempted his own refin and the result is perhaps not as it could have been.

So before the neck is glued in, I’ll clean up around the neck-body join…

…in fact, it’s probably going to be easier to strip back the old finish without the neck in the way!

The old finish would seem to be liberally applied coats of french polish- shellac- and its removal proved to be fairly entertaining. The most effective way to remove it is to just scrape it all off and then apply methylated spirits to produce a surface that can be sanded a bit more effectively.

The sanding had been done with very coarse sandpaper and under the shellac were some serious scratches and these had to be removed.

Anyway, with most of the old shellac gone, time to put the guitar back together…

With the dovetail smeared with glue, the joint is reassembled and clamped.

And one last check…

Yes- just right…

Now that the neck is back where it should be, I’ll start on the rather arduous task of sanding the entire guitar.

Great care is taken not to sand away any more of the binding…

But the sanding off of the original finish hadn’t been as careful as we would have preferred-

-so the sander has been used in places.

I had to find a means of not having the old guitar fall on the floor during the sanding process and this means of holding the guitar so that two hands could be applied to the sander, worked well.

But just before I reglued the fretboard tongue back into place, I discovered this…

This might be as a result of the sanding or it might just have been loose all along. Anyway, its being reglued.

The next thing to address is the non-existent frets…After pulling out what was left of them, I’m levelling the fretboard…

…and then refretting using the original sized Gibson fretwire.

You will have noticed that the fretboard was cut through at the fourteenth fret. By being as careful as possible in regluing the fretboard tongue, the new fourteenth fret could be just tapped into place.

After the fret ends are clipped flush, the fret ends are filed flush with the fretboard edge…

…and then filed at the appropriate angle.

I know when they’re right by running my finger along the ends of the frets.

Using the glue-in method of fretting has the added benefit of filling any gaps at the fret ends which disappear when the frets are levelled.

There will always be sharp ends after filing the angle on the fret ends, and that is taken care of by using this handy file.

Again, the finished frets are checked.

Before masking up the fretboard for the painting process, I’ll level and dress the frets.

Now, we want to return the top to its original appearance, but we also need to bear in mind the age of this guitar. The top wasn’t refinished in the french polish like the back and sides had been. The top was, in fact, nitrocellulose lacquer and that’s exactly what I’m going to redo the back and sides with. But, the shading around the edge of the top is going to be redone and therefore, the entire top is going to be resprayed.

So- the scratchplate will have to come off…

…and look what was under it…

It would seem that when it was taken off last time, the removal wasn’t as proficient as it might have been.

And it was glued back on again with some totally indeterminate variety of glue- again. The removal process? A sharp chisel…

The bridge removal was much more straight forward.

The bridge position is cleaned up and then masked.

The mask is cut to shape…

…and the excess peeled away.

Now the fretboard and headstock are masked, and the guitar is ready for refinishing.

The guitar will be finished in nitrocellulose lacquer, because that’s what it was finished with originally. Because the old Gibson has already been stripped and refinished, it’s going to be a bit of a tall order to make it look as though it’s still the finish from 1950, but we’ll hope for a sympathetic appearance when it’s done.

Monday, 29th…

Time to get on with spraying the n/c lacquer. Colour matching is decidedly nerve-wracking because a mistake at this stage means a lot of work has to be repeated.

Anyway, here’s how it’s looking before it’s polished, along side the 1957 J45 that Fletcher has given me to match it to…

And the back and sides…

The J45 has been hanging up in my lounge room since Monday because

a) that’ s a nice warm place for the lacquer to harden and

b) I look at it on a regular basis to make sure I’m satisfied with what I’ve done. (I figure if I’m happy, then hopefully, Fletcher will be as well….)

Now it’s Friday and even though I would have liked the luxury of allowing the lacquer to harden for a bit longer, it should rub back ok, but the proof will be in the polishing.

There is no short-cut to rubbing back…

It all has to be done by hand, first with 800 and then 1200 wet & dry paper. I use a big light so I can see exactly what’s happening.

The lacquer is rubbed back wet …

…and dried off as I go so I can see what I’ve done and what I’ve missed.

Oh, and here’s a nice photo of my workshop and my Bonney…

…or a clear indication that the back of the J45 has come up really well and is now nice and shiny!

And so is the front…

After lunch- yes that took all morning- I can peel the tape, clean up the edges and glue back the bridge and the scratchplate.

Saturday…I’ve fitted a set of age-appropriate Klusons that Fletcher has provided, made a new nut to compensate for the refret and made a bone saddle to fit the bridge that now allows for the setting of the correct action.

So now it’s time to string up the old Gibson and see what all the fuss was about.

And the  guitar sounds as one would hope- warm, woody and resonant with a lovely bottom end.

It sounds as good as it looks.