Getting Into Musical Restoration

It was around four years ago now, when I decided to make an electric guitar for a course I was studying on. It was not a great feat of musical and design genius, but it inspired me to continue working with musical instruments.

The restoration of guitars in particular is not as hard as one may think. Once you have basic woodwork skills, the specialist skills required for instrument restoration are easily picked up. I think, by the time I had worked on my fourth parlour guitar I understood the methods sufficiently well.

I began my restoration projects by firstly identifying and writing down every small detail about the instrument I was to work on. I began with guitars because I am a classical guitarist. Once I had identified the jobs I needed to look over or correct I got started.

Usually the first thing I did was to either remove or replenish (by sanding and re-applying) the coat of varnish or lacquer. Quite often I would entirely remove it and replace it with a French polish finish. Next I would attempt to fill and re-glue any cracks in the bodywork. With these old guitars there are often many hairline cracks that need to be dealt with sooner than later. The next thing to do was to check the bridge and top-nut and if the either was broken beyond repair, it would have to be replaced. I replaced them with a handmade bridge of my own (design based on an original, of course). Once the actual body of the guitar was in good order, and the action of the strings had been checked (and lowered if necessary). Between 3-4mm is ideal. The guitar often just needed a good clean before selling it on.

Occasionally with some jobs, the fretboard would have groves in – these can be filled with ordinary wood-filler. As long as they are coloured to look like the original wood used. If you happen to have a large problem, i.e. the neck has warped and needs replacing, you can either sell the guitar with a warped neck and declare it to be so, or replace and rebuild the entire neck (including frets I’m afraid). Now for an amateur restorer that is perhaps not advisable without a lot of practice. In which case you could also buy a pre-built neck from a registered luthier, if you like.

Otherwise, simple problems like ‘bad tuning pegs’ can easily be replaced with the use of a screwdriver.

The most important thing to remember when restoring instruments is their sound! If you loose the sound, the instrument has no value other than the wood it is made of. I cannot stress that point enough. Many people restore these instruments as they would a chair. The most important thing to do whilst restoring it is to play it and check that what you are doing isn’t damaging the fundamental sonority of the instrument.
Happy restoring!