Kalamazoo KG-14

Grant brought this old guitar to me late last year and asked whether it could be made playable again…

Now, from what Grant and Richard have told me, their dad Jim had acquired this guitar in the very early Fifties- perhaps from an American serviceman?- and used it enthusiastically as a young man.

Richard sent me this photo of Jim- in full cowboy regalia- perhaps playing one of his beloved Hank Williams tunes…

As I said to the boys, here’s a cute old guitar with a story, and that’s my favourite kind of restoration project.

First though, a bit of history…

In 1934, Gibson introduced the Kalamazoo brand as a “budget” range of instruments which included flattops, archtops, mandolins and banjos.

Even though they were built in the Gibson factory, the guitars were differently constructed from their more expensive Gibson stablemates, using cheaper construction methods and were less ornate. But they were built using quality timbers and in the case of the KG-14- solid spruce top with ladder bracing and solid mahogany back and sides. The KG-14 is very similar in size to the Gibson L-0.

The headstock shape on this guitar suggests that it would have been made between 1938 and 1940. The “Kalamazoo” brand seems to have disappeared in 1942, when the US joined World War Two and Gibson’s production became focused on the war effort.

Now the other aspect to this story is that the old Kalamazoo is rather an iconic instrument in that it figures in the story of one of the earliest bluesmen, Robert Johnson.

Perhaps the most famous photos that exist of Johnson, dating from the late Thirties, shows a smartly dressed Johnson posing with a Gibson L-1. But the other well-known photo, below, shows Johnson holding a Kalamazoo KG-14, which he apparently preferred…the same guitar that Jim is holding in the photo above.

Enough history…

The guitar’s condition is probably best described as “fair”- it has a couple of soundboard cracks, the guitar’s original sunburst has been sanded off and the old machine heads are no more.

The other complication is that the neck angle is no longer correct and to add to the complication, the neck has been redowelled without the neck angle being corrected.

And it looks as though epoxy resin was used to glue in the dowels, and there is no chance of that being dissolved and so the neck angle will have to be addressed some other way. And, the guitar’s neck is slightly twisted…

Ok- where to begin?…

Well, the original machine heads looked like this…

…and fortunately, StewartMacDonald- my favourite luthiers’ supply company- make these which aside from the button colour, are spot on.

So to the repairs required…

The split in the bass side will actually clamp back…

and the sound hole binding can be gently coaxed back in place and reglued.

The split at the sound hole…

…will require an appropriate piece of spruce being spliced into the crack, like so-

The neck angle problem is going to be a bit of an undertaking. But considering the redowelling of the neck-body joint…

…perhaps I can address the neck twisting issue…

…at the same time

The frets are pulled, the slight warp and forward bow in the neck are planed out- and the fretboard is tapered appropriately and neck angle is thus improved- all at the same time.

The neck is refretted using the same sized wire- which just happens to be standard Fender wire- and the neck is looking much better.

Interestingly, the fretboard really looks to be dyed maple. I’ll darken it again after the painting.

The headstock now needs a little attention.

The headstock has been tapered towards the top and a lump has been taken out just at the point.

I’ll correct the shape using a polyester filler, because the guitar’s colour is going to be returned to its original dark brown sunburst.

The serial number on closer inspection actually reads “EK-” rather than “FK-” and that dates the guitar as having been made in 1939-(E stood for 1939, F for 1940)-a year earlier than I originally thought.

All preparation work is pretty much done and painting is next.

Now, doing a bit more research, I can’t tell exactly how the KG-14 was originally painted. Some photos show only the top being sunbursted and the back and sides left natural…

…and others suggest that the back and sides were painted black…

…with just the neck given a sunburst treatment.

So I’m going to compromise and sunburst the top, the neck and the back. I’ve had to fill dings in a couple of places on the sides so they can be painted in solid colour.

And one more thing. If the faintest remains of the “Hank” that Jim had painted on the front still remain, I won’t mind…

After allowing the new paint to harden, the guitar is polished and the new machineheads installed…

…and the new bridge glued into position and the replacement scratchplate made and fixed on.

And then-strings fitted…

The “Kalamazoo” logo was entertaining.

Originally, the logo was screened on after the painting was completed and probably the best solution to replicating the logo was to get Paul- my favourite graphic designer- to make me a logo that could be cut from vinyl and Troy from Drever Signs did a lovely job of producing the very thing…

Not “museum quality” but certainly very effective for this project.

And how did it all come up?…

In my view, a very satisfying result.

Today, this email arrived from Richard…

Wow! Sandy the Kalamazoo looks incredible….a real credit to you mate!

I will catch up with grant so i can give her a strum can’t wait!
Again Sandy thanks from myself and Grant for breathing life back into Dads old guitar.

Fantastic job well done!

Richard.

Like I said- very satisfying result…