backstrap

Repairing a Nasty Headstock Break

I’ve written a bit about headstock breaks before. I get to see a lot of them. Probably ninety percent tend to fall into a category I call “Gibson-Style Headstock Breaks” and are usually relatively straightforward to repair.

The other ten percent can prove a bit more challenging, though.

That's a nasty break

This one’s nasty. It’s a ‘short’ break meaning there’s not much glueing surface to provide ‘grip’. It's also got some nasty splintering and, while the owner thought to collect some of the loose splinters, most of these won’t jigsaw back cleanly (and there are some missing).

If ever a headstock repair needed reinforcement, this is it.

Splining is one option for reinforcement but there’s too much damage here to make that a viable option (and, as an aside, the truss-rod has a pretty big ‘anchor’ that leaves little room either side of it).

Nope. We’re going overlay on this one. Again, I’ve written about overlays before (here and here for example).

The wrinkle on this repair is that there’s some serious splintering and I want to be as sure as possible.

Double-overlay, baby!

Overlay on the front and the rear.

Lots of photos follow:

As usual, I have to repair the break first to get the headstock reattached. While this isn’t too much trouble, there’s no way the repair could stand up to string tension without additional reinforcement.

Partial overlay on front of broken headstock (untrimmed)

The front first. I wanted to keep the maker’s logo intact so I removed some wood for the overlay and ‘feathered’ it towards the end of the headstock. The image above shows the inlaid overlay before the edges were trimmed.

Zoomed section shows feathering from new to existing wood

You can (probably) see in the side view photo. There’s a ‘fade’ from the existing wood to the overlay I’ve added. I’ve still extended the overlay well past the break so there’s plenty of good wood for it to grip.

Overlay trimmed and re-drilled for tuners

Above is the trimmed front overlay. The raw wood is the new section and the black headstock end is (obviously) the pre-existing section. I've re-drilled the tuner holes that were covered by the overlay. It's a good idea to do that now. If I'd waited until the back overlay was on, I'd have lost them. ;-)

The backstrap overlay. 

Now around the back. Again, I remove wood from around the repaired section and into the good wood either side. Then a new piece of wood is inlaid into this ‘lower’ section to bring it back to the height of the original wood. These glued-in overlays provide a lot of strength to the repair. 

Because the headstock is angled back, I pre-bend the overlay/backstrap before it's inlaid. Some more info on the backstop bending if you want it. 

The feathered transition from old to new is clearer here

Cleaned up around the front and applied some sealer. This lets you get a better look at the feathered edge of the overlay—the transition between new and existing.

A little lacquer tidies things up

Now we’ve got some colour and lacquer applied. Everything’s nice and tidy and, as you can see, it’s strung-up and holding. Great.

And around the back, it's looking ok too. 

Around the back and the clear finish means we can’t have an invisible repair but it’s pretty discreet.

Not too shabby, I reckon. 

Guitar Neck Repairs: Splines

Headstock repairs are nothing new in these parts. If you pop by the Haze blog from time to time, you'll probably have seen more than a couple over the last few years. We've also talked about the need to reinforce some broken headstocks with a 'backstrap' (a piece of wood that overlays the repair to add strength).

I like backstraps. They're an effective and discreet way to strengthen a neck repair. They can take a bit of time and effort to do properly, though, and splines are not the only game in town. There are times when an alternative is preferred. 

Splines are the prime candidates.

Spline Headstock Reinforcement

A spline is a slat of wood that's inlaid into a channel cut in the neck.

Like this:

Reinforcing a broken guitar neck repair with splines.

The idea is that the channel runs for a distance either side of the repaired crack. A slot is routed and the spline glued in. The newly inserted 'good' wood of the spline ties together the good wood on both sides of the crack.

As you might expect, the splines are carved down to match the neck and the finish touched up. Splines are not quite so inconspicuous as a well-executed overlay but they are an excellent way to bolster a neck repair that needs some reinforcement. 

And, in the right circumstances, you can even get inventive in your splines

 

Headstock Repairs - Reinforcement

Broken Gibson headstock repair

We've talked a lot about neck resets over the last few weeks so let's move down the other end of the neck. Headstock breaks.  

Nobody likes to see it happen but sometimes your guitar takes a tumble and the impact can—all too easily—snap the headstock. In most cases, this is a (reasonably) straightforward repair and can be re-glued soundly.  

Sometimes, though, the nature of the damage can force us down a more 'involved' path. If the break is 'short' (i.e. it doesn't provide a lot of glueing area to ensure a sound repair) it may be necessary to consider some reinforcement to ensure the repair holds.  

One solution is what's called a 'backstrap overlay'.  

This involves overlaying some fresh wood over the repaired break. The new wood glues onto the unbroken wood either side of the crack to add strength.  

Let's take a look at one. 

Reglue headstock before applying backstrap

Remove wood to accept overlay

In the first photo directly above, I'm repairing the break. This might seem odd but I need to get everything back together properly before I apply any reinforcement. The repair is carried out as it would normally be since the actual re-gluing isn't the real problem—the problem is keeping it in one piece after string-tension is applied. I need to glue-up everything as normal and then reinforce things to ensure the repair is strong.

When the initial repair is done and the glue has dried, I can begin the real work on this one. I remove a few millimetres of wood from the rear of the headstock and, past the break, along the neck. It would make for a more discreet repair if I brought this all the way to the end of the headstock but, on a Gibson, I like to stop short of the serial number. If the guitar is ever sold on, a perspective buyer may be put off more by the lack of a serial number than a well-executed repair. 

The photo above on the right shows the removed section. I'll inlay the new wood here so let's get on with that.

Clamping for backstrap overlay on Gibson neck break

New wood overlaid over broken neck

The wood to be overlaid on the headstock is thicknessed and cut to the rough dimensions. To accommodate the angle between headstock and neck, I bend the new wood. It's this bending that adds extra strength to this repair as the wood grain curves to the correct angle.  

Repairing guitars often makes for some intricate clamping setups and overlays are prime culprits. A shaped caul is useful to get the wood in that curved bit glued in properly. The roughly shaped wood overlay is pretty obvious (and pretty ugly at this stage) in the photo on the right. 

Newly inlaid wood cut to shape on headstock

Tuner mounting holes drilled in overlay

This is where things take shape (pun intended). The overlay is cut to shape and the tuner holes drilled.  

At this point I can go through the usual finish prep. Grain-filling, sanding, etc. In cases like this I need to match the colour of the original finish on the newly overlaid wood. I also have to manage the transitions between new and old finish carefully to keep things looking as inconspicuous as possible. Sealer, colour, and a number of clear-coats later and I'm ready for the next step. 

Waiting.  

Have to wait for the finish to cure properly. Then sanding and buffing and polishing and reassembling and stringing-up and… 

Playing. 

All is well with the world.  

Gibson headstock break repaired with backstrap overlay

Les Paul neck repair with reinforcement

ASAT OUCH

ASAT broken headstock.jpg

Oh, that's not pretty. And it's a shame, as this is a nice guitar. It's a G&L ASAT (as you can see) but it's got a bit of a 'hybrid' vibe going on. Mahogany neck and body and a tun-o-matic bridge with tailpiece gives a Gibsony vibe while the bolt-on neck and slab body bring things back to the G&L/Fendery end of the spectrum. As a man who appreciates some of the advantages getting the best of all worlds, I quite like this guitar.

So let's get it fixed.

You can't really tell from this image but this is actually the second time this guitar has broken in the same place. A second repair is usually more complicated because the residue of the original repair-glue makes it very difficult to ensure a clean joint. Also, this is a reasonably 'short' break—there's not a lot of glueing surface to bear up to string tension.

All of this means that the best chance of long term success with this is to reinforce the repair. A strong and discreet way to handle this reinforcement is a backstrap. We've talked a little about backstraps before—the method involves taking a little wood off the back of the head/neck and overlaying new wood in its place to add strength.

Asat2
Fender-style neck repair

First up, though, we need to get those two pieces back together and that calls for some inventive holding/clamping. This repair necessitates the pieces be mated longitudinally which required some thought. Meet the all-new Haze 3-D Fender-Style Neck Clamping System (patent application pending). This contraption allowed me to keep the neck aligned and rigid while I pressed the two pieces together and while the glue cured.

G&L Neck repair
Fix guitar neck

Once the parts are joined again, I can remove some wood from the back of the headstock, going past the break and into 'good' wood so that the applied backstrap has something solid to grip. We're not taking a lot of wood here—around 2mm in this case.

I then search out a piece of mahogany that's got a reasonably similar grain pattern to the headstock and thickness it to about the same thickness as we removed (in reality, it's generally a hair over to allow for sanding out). Off to the bending iron to work in a slight curve that will match the transition from flat headstock down to the neck.

guitar repair dublin
Instrument neck repair

OK, I know that's not the most attractive clamping arrangement ever but it gets the job done. You can see a curved hunk of ash acting as a caul to clamp the curved area. Once the glue's cured, I tidy up the edges with a magnificent array of routers, rasps, knives and, finally, sandpapers. The overlaid piece is pretty obvious in the photo above right.

G&L ASAT guitar neck repair
Electric guitar neck repair

A bit of work is required to fill the missing chips and chunks from the break. A little lacquer, some spit and polish and we have a guitar that's soundly—and pretty discreetly—repaired. It plays great and it sounds great. This repair should outlast the owner if he can avoid Pete Townsending it into a speaker cabinet or something similar.

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

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. ;-)