Today I put the finishing touches on the job of all jobs here at my little shop. This project really brought me into new territory – both within myself and on the bench top. A heartfull thanks goes to Aurora Baer for bringing me the job in the first place, and more so for her extended patience with me as I took my time working things out. Aurora, you’re golden.
This Washburn had an issue with the truss rod. It was rattling and a couple attempts to remedy the problem were unsuccessful. I explored a bit and decided to peek in a little further. Using a drill, I bored into the neck through the fingerboard at the fifth fret. In due time, I uncovered a broken truss rod. The only move to make now would be to replace it with a new one. Easy, I thought. Heh, heh.
Turns out, this fingerboard was originally glued to the neck with polyurethane glue – in other words, no heat, nor moisture, nor chemical means could be used to soften the adhesive. Well, great. What now?
I was shocked at this development and decided to close up the shop in favor of a long walk in the afternoon sun. I had some thinking to do, some problems to solve, and as it happened, some folk to call. My big brother, Erik Furo; and Ron Koivisto both offered some really solid advice and it helped a lot to calm my nerves.
Here are the elements I had to work with:
- a broken truss rod
- an elaborately inlayed fingerboard that needed to be preserved
- an unsolvable glue joint
What would you do?
I decided to use a thin, Japanese handsaw to slice the fingerboard in half. I built a jig to aid my cut.
If I was successful, I’d be able to preserve the inlay. This was the type of act that could only be attempted one time, and it would either be a daring success, or a destructive failure.
It worked! The fingerboard tops came off clean, in six sections. Now I could mate these caps to a new ebony backing board and recreate the original fingerboard in dimension.
I planed and scraped the remaining ebony from the mahogany neck and exposed the truss rod at last. After taking measurements I contacted the friendly folks at Luthiers Mercantile and had a custom truss rod built for the replacement. The original was a traditional one-way rod, but I opted for a two way replacement because, why not?
Next, to tackle the re-creation of the fingerboard. “Easier said than done” became my new motto as I continued to push forward into new territory with this project. Admittedly, the idea was pretty straightforward: align the pieces and glue them to a new backing board. In reality, because the caps came off of the neck in six separate pieces, each one had to be shimmed and sanded from their bottomsides to achieve a level plane along the topside of the fingerboard. This was a time consuming process.
For the shims I used alternating layers of ebony and maple veneer. By doing it this way I was able to keep an eye on my progress. Look how easily the maple veneer can be seen against the black of the ebony. This really made my job a lot easier.
Once I got things in the ballpark – less than 1/64″ difference between thicknesses of all six pieces – I prepared a piece of ebony to act as the new fingerboard’s foundation. Thanks to Luke Kuettle for milling a board for me!
Next I trimmed all the pieces and pinned them to the backer. I used small nails inserted in the fret slots to keep everything in place.
I used Smith’s Allwood Glue to do all the laminating of layers. Ralph Watten, thanks for the tip on this glue all those years ago. Trustworthy stuff.
Once I had things all glued up I trimmed things with bandsaw, belt sander, plane, scraper and hand-sanding blocks. Fortunately, I had recorded measurements for nearly all aspects of the original fingerboard before beginning this job. Using them and my old gray matter, I was able to pull off this re-creation.
I purfled the fingerboard (see the black-white-black strip along the left side of the fingerboard?), bound it, and re-radiused the top. During re-radiusing I sanded through some of the inlay. Something to tend to at a later point in the repair.
I also added a pearl dot at the fifth fret where initially I had had to drill into the fingerboard to explore the issue with the truss rod.
When I installed the new truss rod I padded the channel at five points along its length with small daubs of silicone – two at either end, and three along the length.
Next, I made a clamping jig for gluing the reborn fingerboard to the neck. Took some measurements for intonation. Checked it.
Checked it again.
Checked it one more time, then I glued the fingerboard in place. I used Titebond 3 for this job. A very strong glue with a ten minute open time, and a glue able to be opened later, if ever needed.
Once I got everything clamped, I cleaned up all the squeeze-out. I then did a little dance of joy and closed up the shop for the night.
The next day I could hardly wait to get the clamps off and see how things were looking. Everything was perfect. Stars and Stones! It worked!
It was time to fix the inlay I had sanded through.
Then time to fret the fingerboard. After leveling, crowning, and polishing the new frets I finally reached the point when it was time to string it up and see how things looked under tension. I was pretty thrilled to see things turning out beautifully. The action was less than 1/64″ different from the initial measurement I had recorded from the day Aurora brought the instrument into the shop.
I was pleased to get a very clean joint between the new fingerboard and the neck. A small disturbance to the original finish along the seam occurred during removal. After preparing the surface, I applied a few coats of polyurethane clear coat. It lay down pretty flat, and looks almost perfect. In order to get any better result in the finish touch-up, a full refinish of the neck would be required – something I chose not to do. All in all, considering what this guitar has been through, this is a very small concession to accept.
I’ve done a lot of complex work at my shop over the eleven years I’ve been in business. I’ve pulled off many difficult repairs, but this one, this one takes the cake. None of the others pushed me so hard as this one. None of them brought me up against so many unknown variables as this one. And none of them led me down the darkened path and, eventually, brought me out into a brilliant sunrise on the far side.