neck joint

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.

Mass Manufacture Acoustic Neck Joints

I should definitely preface this post by stating that what follows is my opinion only. It may be that I'm alone in these views or it may be that other guitar builders and repair-techs agree. The post below, however, is my take on things. I recently had a Tanglewood TW130 through the shop for repair.  It's a nice little acoustic—I've always been a sucker for all-mahogany acoustics. The guitar had taken a fall and the heel had come away from the body. I'll detail the steps taken to assess and repair this damage in a later post but I wanted to discuss the guitar's construction as a separate issue.

Before I get to that though, a little primer on 'usual' acoustic guitar neck joints. Bear with me…

The Traditional Dovetail Neck Joint

Acoustic Neck Repair Dovetail

Acoustic Neck Repair Dovetail

Historically, acoustic guitars had their necks fixed to the body with a dovetail joint. This is a very strong joint and when glued is damned solid. The dovetail is considered the 'traditional' neck-joint and it tends to be more prized by many who consider it imparts a superior tone to the guitar. A good dovetail joint tends to require a little more work and care to accomplish well though, and it makes for a little more work when performing a neck-reset on an older guitar.

The Bolt-On Neck Joint

Acoustic Neck Repair Bolt on

Acoustic Neck Repair Bolt on

For these reasons (and possibly others), many modern guitar makers use a bolt-on neck joint. In this joint, a short mortice and tenon is cut in the neck block (in the body) and in the neck. This is used mainly for alignment purposes although it provides some strength. Most of the joint's strength, however, comes from the bolts that are attached, through the neck block, into threaded sockets in the neck heel. These tighten to pull the neck securely into the body and, questionable arguments about tone aside, provide a strong, solid joint. And, when it comes to setting the neck at some stage in the future, it's much easier to undo some bolts than it is to steam out a glued-in dovetail.

The New Neck Joint?

This Tanglewood doesn't use either of these methods, however.

Acoustic Guitar Neck Joint Repair
Acoustic Guitar Neck Repair

This guitar has a quite small neck block (the part that the neck usually bolts or dovetails to) and has a slightly larger than usual support under the fingerboard extension. The reason for this latter is that there are channels cut here to accept the truss-rod (in the middle) and two square, box-sections of steel on either side.  It's these steel sections that—glued into the channels on top of the guitar—that provide the bulk of the joint's strength.

You can see three dowels poking out the front of the neck block/body—one of these is wooden and two are plastic. In my opinion, their primary role is alignment as they're not going to provide much support.

The face of the neck-heel—where it butts against the body—is a glueing surface on this guitar and I guess this was considered sufficient support when combined with the dowels and channels. I've a couple of problems with this.

  • String tension does a mighty fine job of trying to pull the headstock of a guitar down to meet the bridge. Poor support along the heel area can only make this job easier. Think of a long-bow. The tension of the bow-string pulls the bow into that arched (bow) shape. That's what the strings are doing on your guitar too. The poor thing needs all the help it can get to resist those damn strings. One knock was enough to break the (slightly brittle) hold this glue had.
  • Dovetail and bolt-on neck joints both pull the neck snuggly into the body. As well as strengthening the joint, this can only help tone and string energy. The Tanglewood's neck is, effectively, sitting on the body with a bit of glue and a couple of pins holding it in place.
  • While it's fair to argue the practicalities of the owner of a lower-cost guitar deciding to plump for a neck-reset at some stage in the future, should that happen, legitimately disassembling this sort of joint would (perhaps counterintuitively) be much more problematic than what was achieved with a simple fall in this case. As it happens, reassembly is more difficult too.

Now, I'm not being elitist here. This is not a guitar that cost thousands and there are many valid reasons for manufacturers to economise where they can. I've owned, played and repaired many cheapies and budget instruments in my time and many have been absolutely fine (and some have punched brilliantly above their weight). I've no idea how much money was saved in the manufacture of this instrument in this manner rather than with a regular bolt-on neck and I'm slightly conflicted in passing judgement as it's great the there is now such a selection of fine instruments available for peanuts. It certainly wasn't the case when I began playing guitar.

Personally, though, I can't help feeling that the decision to go with this joint over a regular bolt-on has compromised this instrument. At very least, I feel it's durability, and therefore longevity, is compromised. I don't think that's a good thing on any instrument, no matter how much it costs.

What do you reckon?

Cross-posted to Guitarless