Gibson

Les Paul Neck Removal and Repair

les paul broken neck heel

Yikes. If you've been reading my stuff for a while, you've probably spotted a few different examples of neck breaks. Most of these have been up at the headstock end as that's the more likely place for a break.

It can happen down the other end too, though. This Les Paul took a tumble and broke in a nasty way. The exterior damage is obvious but it's pretty certain that crack extends into the neck tenon too (the tenon's the bit that gets glued into the neck pocket in the body).

This neck needs to come out to be properly repaired.

It's not too often that I need to remove a Les Paul neck, which is lucky as it's a relatively involved job. With a strong cup of tea to steel myself, I set to work.

les paul heel repair frets
les paul neck removal

First up, a few frets need to come out. To remove this neck, I need to soak and steam the glue out and that means getting access to the internals of the neck joint. I do this by drilling small 'access' holes. These are drilled in the fret slots. When it's all done, I'll fill the holes with rosewood plugs and re-cut the slots. All of this is hidden by the refitted frets.

Your eagle-eyes will have noticed a little dot on each (numbered) fret. These frets will be refitted and the dot tells me which is the bass end.

Keeping fingers crossed, I take a look under the neck pickup, hoping for a long tenon. No luck. If I could have seen the end of the tenon, I'd know exactly what size it was so I could position my holes to accurately access the sides of the neck joint  (if it's not clear what I mean here, a photo later on might clarify things).

Since all of this tenon is hidden, I have to measure out the usual Gibson size and position for this guitar and hope that it's built properly to spec.

In the photo, above on the right, you can see the pencil marks I've used to plot out the tenon and the holes I've drilled to get access to the joint.

gibson neck removal
steaming off gibson neck

This one's a bit weird-looking, I'll admit.

In the left image, I'm using a syringe to insert boiling water into the holes I've drilled. I give it a few seconds and then suck it back up again. What comes out is cooler water with some manky-looking dissolved glue. I repeat this process a lot over the course of a couple of days. A Les Paul neck joint is a hell of a strong joint and doing this gives me a little bit of a head start before I hit it with the steam.

Which is what's happening on the right. That nozzle lets me get piping hot steam deep into the joint. The heat and moisture helps to dissolve more glue and, after some time and work, the glue eventually lets go…

les paul neck tenon
les paul neck joint repair

…Leaving most of the bloody tenon still in the pocket. D'oh!

The heel crack extended into the tenon as we thought. Now I have to keep working to get this piece out with pretty much no leverage.

More tea required, I think.

Some steamy swearing later and it's out. Now, in the side of that neck tenon, you can see the tracks of those holes I drilled earlier. We were right on the money with the positions too—nice.

gibson guitar neck tenon repair
les paul neck joint fix

And here's the jigsaw we need to get back together. You'll notice a small shim in the neck pocket. This was installed at the factory (it's not uncommon) and I'll reuse it for this repair.

All of the old glue is cleaned from the mortice and the tenon and then, the two bits of neck are glued back together. Again, the tracks of those access holes are clear in the photo on the right.

gibson neck tenon repair
les paul repair touch-up

Once it's sound again, the neck is reattached to the body. Those frets are reinstalled and all the frets are levelled to ensure clean playability.

Then, it's just some touch-up to hide the evidence. As the rear and neck of this Les Paul are black, the opaque colour easily disguises the repair.

It took a bit of thought, a lot of work and twelve buckets of tea but this job's a good 'un.


This In Strument Is Hereb…

Gibson Forgery Label

There is no guarantee against typos and misspellings on the label, however. I have a feeling this may not have been made in the USA after all.

I get a few fakes through the workshop. There are decent and not-so-decent examples and many are nice guitars in their own right. If you know you're buying a fake Gibson and are ok with that, off you go. If you're interested in buying the genuine article, be aware that there are lots of dodgy instruments and a few dodgy sellers. Keep 'em peeled. I've no problem with someone knowingly buying a fake but I don't like the idea of people getting ripped off. If it helps, check out an article I wrote a while back comparing a Chinese Les Paul to the real thing.

Let's be careful out there.

Tun-O-Matic Turnabout

Gibson Intonation 01Gibson does things Gibson's way. Whether it makes sense or not.

Anybody who works with guitars could, most likely, give you a list of 'quirks' that help keep Gibson's guitars traditional. For 'traditional', you can sometimes read, "stuff that doesn't make sense but it's the way we've done it for decades so we'd be mental to change".

The saddles on the usual Les Paul bridge—the Gibson Tun-O-Matic—are individually adjustable so that each string can be tweaked to help intonate the guitar (to allow it play mostly in tune over the length of the neck). The bridge is installed at an angle to provide some extra backwards travel to get things where they need to be.

All seemingly reasonable.

There are two type of bridge generally fitted to Les Pauls (and most Gibson electrics): The ABR-1 and the Nashville. The ABR is the original and, if you've ever paid it any attention, you'll probably have seen that it has the three bass-side saddles installed backwards (that is, with the sloped/angled side towards the pickups)*. If you think about it, this isn't the best way to have a string contact a bridge—ideally, you want a clean, definite take-off point like you'd get with a straight edge, as on the treble strings.

So, why this craziness?

Basically, it's to make up for the fact that there is insufficient travel on the ABR bridge to properly add the compensation the wound strings need. Flipping the saddles allows a little bit more compensation before the saddle can't go any farther.

Now, to be fair, Gibson tried to address this issue (and others) with the ABR when they developed the Nashville Tune-O-Matic. And, just like when Gibson change anything, many people think that the original was best. Of course, I have an opinion on this but it's not really the point here, so I won't go into it. Suffice it to say, the Nashville bridge has a bit more travel for its saddles and so, it usually intonates reasonably well.

Gibson Intonation 02Sometimes though, it doesn't.

Sometimes, you need to do the ABR trick and flip a saddle. Good intonation takes precedent over any drawbacks associated with the backward saddles.

Not all Nashvilles are created equal when it comes to doing this. It tends to be easy on a Gibson bridge (just back the screw out until it disengages) but some aftermarket bridges are a bit more hassle.

Incidentally, the ABR-style bridge (with the already-reversed saddles) sometimes requires one or more saddle-flips too. A lot depends on factors like string-gauge and even whether the bridge has been installed slightly out of place (it happens). Saddle-flipping on an ABR-1 is really simple—pop out the retainer wire and lift out the saddle. Easy-peasy.

Perhaps I can make this the first in a series of Things That Are A Bit Mental About Gibson Guitars.

*Incidentally, occasionally, more or less than three saddles is reversed. It depends on how the particular guitar intonates.

Reinforcing A Broken Headstock

SG Broken Peghead Repair

A while back, I outlined a (slightly) unusual method of repairing the broken neck of a Gibson SG. I mentioned that guitar would make another appearance soon and here it is. The guitar suffered a broken headstock while still in its case. A neck-break in the case was the final straw for the owner—who's had more than one Gibson require a neck repair— and he wanted to consider options to help prevent it happening again. We talked over the pros and cons of the various solutions and eventually decided on a backstrap overlay.

This methodis sometimes used where the break is too nasty or offers insufficient glueing surface to guarantee a sound repair. A backstrap was not a necessity to repair this particular break (and, indeed, it entailed additional expense to carry out) but the owner wanted to do something that would go towards preventing a reoccurrence.

Illustration of backstrapoverlay

Illustration of backstrapoverlay

A backstrap overlay involves removing some wood from the rear of the headstock and some way past the broken section. A patch is cut from new wood and is bent to conform to the curve between headstock-angle and neck. Because the inlaid patch has been bent to shape, its grain has no run-out and remains strong.

I explained to the owner, and I will to you, that this offers no guarantees. However, this method of applying bent wood certainly strengthens a weak area of the guitar and it will be stronger than the original.

Backstrap peghead repair
Headstock repair backstrap overlay technique

The first thing that needs to be done is to repair the existing crack. I've discussed this in a previous post so I'm not going into any detail here. A repaired crack is necessary so that the section to accommodate the backstrap can be removed. My usual preference, when doing this, is to run the strap right to the end of the peghead as the inlaid wood is more discrete. In this case, doing so would have removed the serial number and 'Made in USA' stamp and I decided keeping these better served the future value of this guitar.

A 3mm section is removed from the back of the headstock. The Saf-T-Planer allows me to do this cleanly right up to the point the neck angle gets in the way. The remaining section along the neck is removed with hand tools.

Bending wood for broken guitar neck repair
Repair patch for broken headstock

A piece of mahogony is thicknessed to the appropriate size and cut out roughly to shape. Out comes the trusty bending-iron and I work the wood into a gentle bend to conform to the section I've cut in the neck.

Clamping backstrap overlay on broken peghead repair
Reinforcing weak neck on Gibson SG

Some inelegant, but effective, clamping and glueing and the backstrap is in place.

But it's not pretty. The patched in piece does allow you to get a look at the bend clearly though. Because the grain in that patch (backstrap) runs—uninterrupted—from end to end it's much stronger than the piece that was removed.

Neck repair on Gibson SG
Completed SG headstock repair

A little work with routers, drills, knives and sandpaper and the new piece looks a little more like a headstock should. Some touch-up work helps hide the evidence. A (relatively invasive) repair like this can never be completely invisible under a translucent finish but this is pretty discrete.

We've repaired and strengthened a broken-necked SG and preserved the serial number. Not a bad few day's work.

Cross-posted to Guitarless

Refinishing Gibson Les Paul Custom

Refinish Gibson Les Paul Custom

You know when you paint your sitting room and you break out the masking tape to stick around all the bits you want to prevent getting covered in that weird green colour that's going on your walls?

Yeah?

Well, I'm certain you know the wonderful curvaceous ins and outs of a Gibson Les Paul.

Imagine having to fiddle about, awkwardly trying to mask off all that beautiful, curvy, binding on the top before you spray it? How much effort and time must that take in the Gibson finishing department every day?

Well, none really. Gibson don't bother masking the binding here before spraying that sunburst or that Black Beauty. It's just too much work. It's far easier to spray over the binding and then scrape it off again.

This Les Paul is being refinished with a black top. I spray solid colour (after some surface prep and sealing coats) over the whole top, let it dry a little (not too much, though) and then scrape the new finish off along the binding. It's actually pretty easy to use a blade, with a knuckle as a depth-stop, to remove the finish cleanly.

Custom refinish on Les Paul guitar
Binding on guitar refinish

With that done, I'll let some of the solvents evaporate a day or two before starting on the clear lacquer top-coats (including a little 'antiquing' for the binding). This bundle of top-coats then needs to cure before being sanded and buffed out to a gloss—a gloss that I'll actually knock back with some gentle relicing to get things in keeping with the rest of the guitar.

None more black. None more beautiful.

By the way, you'll notice that the sides are masked. It's a lot easier to mask here than on the top and, often (as in this case), you'll want to keep the top colours off the side.

Cross-posted to Guitarless

Broken Necked SG Gets Strapped

Gibson SG broken neck

Gibson SG broken neck

Nobody likes to see this. It's the headstock of a Gibson SG and, as you can see, it's broken. Ouch. Something slightly unusual about this is that this guitar suffered a headstock break while still in its case. This is unusual but not unheard of. I've seen a few in my time (and I mention it in my general article about Broken Necks). It's a real pain to hear this but even a good case might not protect your guitar in all circumstances. If you want to be even more safe, you can slacken off the strings before you pop your guitar in its case. Not the most practical solution but it is what it is.

Anyway, we've looked at headstock breaks before but I wanted to show you some unusual clamping arrangements on this one.

Hide Glue Guitar Headstock Repairs
Compression Strap Clamping for Guitar Repair

First off, let's get the glue pot heating up. I'll often use hot hide glue for repairs. If you use it correctly, it's very strong and creep-resistant. I like the 'traditionalist' vibe of it too. Depending on the repair, it can be particularly suitable too (as it was in this case).

And the next photo—whoa, what's going on here?

We've looked at various clamping methods before and discussed making custom cauls and whatnot. Sometimes though, headstock breaks can be very soundly and securely clamped by the clever application of ratchet compression straps.

"Are you mental?" I hear you cry.

Nope. If the neck crack is held on by the headstock veneer and, if it mates cleanly and securely, it can often be easier to use this method of getting the break back together. The strap is secured at either end—around the strap-button and through the tuner holes and it can apply a strong, directional pull to keep the break together for glueing.

Inventive Clamping for headstock repairs
Ratchet strap clamping for repair

The block of wood I've used at the front of the headstock just protects it. Likewise, the cork padding on the rear of the body. Once the glue has been applied where it's needed, tightening the ratchet applies the pressure that pulls the cracked headstock together again. There's plenty of force—in fact you could probably pull the headstock off completely if you over-tightened.

Let the glue cure and clean up the excess with some hot water and a rag (another great advantage of hide glue) and it's done.

This guitar will be making another appearance soon. Stay tuned.

Incidentally, I didn't invent this clamping method (more's the pity). Years ago, Stewart MacDonald's catalogue used to include occasional tips from guitar techs and luthiers. I read this there and have been thankful for it plenty of times since.

Neck Gets Ears

Just a quick post here. I'm making a neck for someone. It's going into a Flying V style guitar (not one of mine) and the builder wanted to 'outsource' the neck. This is understandable. Necks can be scary on a first guitar. I confess, I bought an aftermarket neck for the very first guitar I made and it's a fine way to go.

Making a neck for a non-standard guitar that's been designed and built by someone else can be a bit of a challenge. A one-off neck to fit a body made by someone else needs quite a bit of care and requires some pretty exacting measurements. Not to mention accurate cutting of the tenon (it's a glue-in).

To be honest, though, I'm quite enjoying it. It's nice to do these one-off jobs from time to time as it pushes you to 'keep your hand in'.

In this case too, I've had to modify the body mortise in the body I was provided in order to allow for a longer tenon and try to prevent any weak-neck-joint syndrome.

That's down the other end though. In this photo, the headstock gets its ears. In common with many Gibsons, the billet this neck was cut from needs some additional wood to be wide enough for the headstock. Gibson have been doing this forever and it makes sense - if the entire neck blank was as wide as the widest part of the headstock, there would be a lot more wastage. Glueing on 'ears' avoids that.

Let's hear it for the ears.

What To Do If You Break Your Guitar's Neck

I've written a little about specific headstock repairs and it occurred to me that might be a good idea to give you an overview with some tips  and considerations on how to prevent broken necks and what to do if the worst happens.  It's a little long but could well prove useful to know…

The worst thing in the world?

You're finished the gig and you're enjoying a well-earned beer at the bar. You're careful to keep an eye on your pride and joy, propped up against your amp on stage, to make sure nobody swipes it. It's safe though, the drummer's up there packing up his gear.

Wait! The drummer's knocked against your amp with his fat arse*. Your guitar tips, slowly, very slowly, it's going, it's going… And it's gone. It hits the ground and the headstock keeps going. You can hear the crack over the noise of the crowd.

Is there anything worse?

Of course there is, but for a guitarist this is one of life's grimmer moments. A broken neck. You fall to your knees, hands imploring the heavens, and bellow, "Noooooooooo!" The security guy eyes you suspiciously.

Why? Why? For Clapton's sake, why?

Gibson_Headstock-thumb.jpg

How could this have happened? Well, you could possibly go so far as to call it a design flaw. On any guitar with an angled-back headstock, the area where it angles is naturally weak. This is because of a number of factors but primarily to do with the timber's grain direction and the fact that the area is pretty thin - the thinnest part of the neck. Add to this the fact that many instruments have a truss-rod access channel here, effectively removing even more wood from an already weak area, and you have a recipe for breaks.

The image on the left shows a Les Paul neck/headstock. I've added a dotted line to indicate, approximately, the depth that the truss-rod access cavity is cut. You can see there's not a lot left.

Many guitar makers try to alleviate the potential for trouble in this area with a variety of means; multi-ply 'sandwich' necks, truss rod-access moved elsewhere or reduced, scarfed headstocks, and the most common, a volute. A volute is simply a shaped/carved 'bulge' that's left in the weak area to strengthen it (although it might be more accurate to say 'not to weaken it').

Gibson are frequent stop-outs on this though. Although a volute was introduced on many Gibsons in the late '60s, it was phased out again and it's appearance on modern Gibsons is hit-or-miss. Most don't have one. Indeed, while all instruments with angled headstocks have breakage potential, Gibsons (SGs and Les Pauls in particular) top the charts in the headstock repairs I perform. If Gibson ever start strengthening this area, guitar repair guys all over the world are going to see their incomes drop.

My guitar neck is broken. What do I do?

If you do manage to break or crack your guitar's neck or peghead, don't panic. Almost anything is repairable. Here are the immediate steps to take.

  1. If the headstock is still attached to the neck (the headstock veneer often keeps it attached), gently - very, very gently - slacken off the strings. Pop it in it's case and get yourself to a good repair guy.
  2. If the headstock is just cracked, do the same - slacken off and get it repaired.
  3. If the headstock is completely detached, carefully wrap it up in something (a bag, newspaper, etc.) and try not to knock, damage or disturb those jagged splinters of wood poking out.
  4. Don't try to fit the headstock back to the neck as the joint should usually be examined and cleared of any misaligned splinters or loose timber before this is attempted.
  5. Check for any splinters that have come loose and if you find any, pop them in a bag - they'll help complete the jigsaw and assist in getting a good, clean repair.

Repairing a broken guitar neck

The first repair is the important one. If it's not done well, then you've got a reasonable chance of the guitar breaking along that fault again. Sometimes string tension alone can be enough to pull a badly repaired break apart. And, repairing along a previous repair is much more difficult, time-consuming and often more invasive. Not to mention more expensive.

The lesson? Don't break your guitar neck but, if you do, get it repaired properly first time around.

Talk to your repair guy and ask him/her to discuss the repair. A good repair guy will be happy to chat about their plans. What glue will be used is important for example. For most repairs either hot hide glue or aliphatic resin is the right choice. If your repair-guy decides immediately to slap in a load of epoxy, you might want to ask them why. While epoxy certainly has a place in headstock repair, it's generally a limited one. Epoxy is incredibly strong if used properly but its nature makes it difficult to penetrate cracks and it's not usually a first choice adhesive for most of these jobs.

Headstock_repair_-_backstrap_overlay-thumb.jpg

The majority of broken necks tend to be relatively straightforward. Some, however, require a bit more effort. 'Short' breaks across the neck or the headstock that allow very little 'glueing' surface will often need to be reinforced. Reinforcement may involve glueing in new pieces of wood, called splines, that extend beyond the break and provide additional strength.

Other reinforcement methods include the use of 'overlays'. A back-strap or front-strap overlay is a veneer of wood that gets glued on to the back or front of the headstock and will often extend down into the neck area (as shown in the diagram). It's necessary to remove existing wood from these areas to fit the overlay and the newly-glued overlays must be drilled for tuners and so on. Refinishing the area is also necessary. Overlays take a lot of work but can often be a relatively discrete way of reinforcing a break.

This sort of reinforcement is often necessary for repairing previously-repaired breaks (i.e. second repairs) too, as it's often not possible to get a clean joint on on a break that's been glued before - that's why it's important to get it right first time.

Prevention is better than cure.

Almost all headstock cracks and breaks are caused by the instrument falling. If everyone put their guitars into their cases after they were finished playing or gigging, I'd be able to afford less beer every month.

Cases are not a guarantee - I've seen a headstock break after a fall in a case - but they certainly get you most of the way there. A good-fitting, hard case will protect your guitar from most things. If you wanted to be a bit anally-retentive about it, you could slacken the strings off before stowing your guitar but that's probably overkill for most people (although you should definitely do so if you ever have to ship your guitar anywhere).

If it's too much of a pain to put your guitar away, get a decent stand or locking hanger. There are even hangers that can attach to your amp combo or cabinet now. Stands and hangers obviously won't give you the same protection as a hard case but they're better than just leaning your guitar against your amp (no matter how cool that might look).

The upshot

Protect your guitar and you might never have to get its neck repaired. If the worst happens though, don't panic - things can be put right again. Make sure you trust whoever is repairing the broken neck though - the only thing worse than having to get your neck repaired is having to get it done twice.

If you've any questions, feel free to drop me a line. I'll do my best to answer them.

*With apologies to drummers everywhere - I'm a bad person, going for the easy laughs. ;-)