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This Martin 0-18 was made in 1927, and is typical of its era. It's incredibly light and resonant, and an ideal fingerpicker's guitar. Construction for steel strings only became the norm a few years earlier, and this guitar should sound great with a light gauge set.
Unfortunately, it has been subject to some pretty brutal repairs over the years. The neck joint completely collapsed at some point and although a stable repair was achieved little was done cosmetically - you can see where several separate pieces of mahogany were used to repair the ribs and back. The top was also removed to make the repair. Usually removing the top is the last thing one would do to a flat-top acoustic - going in via the back is a much better alternative. In this case, presumably, the neck and fingerboard were already off, so the repairer decided to take the top off. The Brazilian rosewood binding around the top was badly splintered in the process, and there was no attempt to repair the damage. The purfling and the soundhole binding was also damaged in places.
After the repair, the neck was reglued crookedly, and the bridge was moved slightly towards the treble side to ensure the strings were properly aligned. The neck was also set at the wrong angle - or possibly it slipped over the years - so that a the action at the 12th fret was way too high. It could only be played with a capo in the third or fourth fret. A major neck reset was needed.
That wasn't all. A large bald patch had been worn in the finish on the top - there was no pickguard on this model originally - and it had been 'repaired' with a copious application of brown boot polish. There were loads of cracks, especially in the back and sides, which were very thin. The saddle was missing, and the ebony nut had cracked. The original bar frets were badly worn and some had been crudely lifted and reset in an attempt to prevent rattles. There were deep divots in the 'cowboy chord' positions, obviously caused by the nails of a previous owner - though common on rosewood fingerboards, these were some of the worst I've ever seen in an ebony board. Oh, and the original tuners were missing and had been replaced by a very low quality set.
Not surprisingly, the guitar had been a wall ornament for more than a decade. However, we decided to get it back into playing order. All the structural elements would be checked and repaired, but cosmetically we would do as little as possible - no way would this guitar get a refinish!
All the cracks were checked and stabilised. In some cases, this meant breaking open old repairs and realigning the edges. Fortunately hide glue had been used, which could be softened by gentle steaming. Cleats were fitted where necessary, and old ones were reglued and in some cases replaced. After a lot of pondering the splintered binding round the top edge was removed and replaced by a new piece of Brazilian rosewood. Unlike plastic binding, this has to be steamed to shape on a bending iron before fitting. Bits of missing binding and purfling in the back and around the soundhole were also replaced.
The new binding was touched up with shellac. Although the existing finish was to be retained wherever possible, the damage around the neck joint had been badly refinished with some opaque varnish, which was carefully removed and touched up. It was aged to blend in as closely as possible with the original finish, but no attempt was made to hide the fact that it had been worked on.
The old bar frets were removed and the divots in the fingerboard filled using Frank Ford's technique. This involves raising the grain of the existing wood to ensure that it blends well with the ebony dust and glue used as filler, and 'wears gracefully'. The fret slots were filled with strips of ebony and recut for modern fretwire. I know some luthiers like to retain the original bar frets on an instrument of this vintage, but frankly the condition didn't seem to warrant it - and playability was the principal objective, not authenticity. Rather than hammer in the replacement frets, I used Stewart-MacDonald's fret presses.
Then it was time to reglue the neck. Major adjustments to the angle of the heel were needed to ensure that a good action could be achieved. Again, have a look at Frank Ford's website for detailed illustrations of how this is done. Provided that everything has gone according to plan, the neck can be reinstalled using just a few clamps - three in this case. 'Check and check again before gluing' is the basic message. I used hot hide glue because it doesn't creep like modern aliphatic resin adhesive and PVA, and because it can easily be removed in the future if needed by a gentle steaming.
Finally, setup time. A new bone nut and saddle were fitted, and the action adjusted for fingerstyle - in this case 1/16" on the treble and 3/32" on the bass. The tuners were replaced with a pre-war set in good working condition. These are not quite the right period or make, as they are Klusons rather than Waverleys, and come from a later Oahu lap steel, but they are a good fit and a reasonable compromise. I also fitted an OM-style small teardrop pickguard made from an old piece of cellulose nitrate to cover the bald patch on the top.
What's it like? Well, I've very pleased with the result. Apart from a couple of slightly low frets which needed a gentle stoning and repolishing, it's settled down well. Fitted with a set of 011 light gauge strings, it is surprisingly loud, very responsive and resonant. It's easy to 'overplay' it with a pick, but really comes into its own as a fingerstyle guitar. All in all, quite a success - and now it's ready for a good few years more as a playing instrument rather than a wall ornament.