A true pre-war Martin rides again with a neck reset, crack repair, and bridge reglue!
The owner of this 1930 Martin 518 saw work we performed on another Martin and entrusted us to repair a lengthy side crack, separated bridge, and to reset the neck angle. This is work we frequently perform on older Martins, but we thought you might like to see it done on a real pre-war model.
For more than a century, guitarists have recognized something special about Martin guitars. Great feel, great sound, great looks. But we repairmen have grown to love them for a different reason. For most of that time period, Martin has built guitars with certain qualities that make extensive repairs possible even on very old instruments. Until they recently began bolting necks into bodies, all of their parts have been held together by precise fitting joints and small amounts of glue. A little bit of heat or steam in just the right place allows us to loosen that glue just enough to correct even very small changes. They suggest that even 70 years ago these craftsmen understood that some day their work would need to be taken apart and put back together. Thanks guys!
We began this repair by addressing the most obvious problem: a split in the lower side that stretched across most of the lower bout. We glued and clamped it together using spool clamps and traditional hot hide glue. For a guitar like this with its original finish intact, we’ll skip the touch-up and just try to smooth and clean the crack area so it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb.
Next we move on to the neck. Over time, the pull of steel strings has pulled the neck into a steeper angle. As a result, the string action gets higher and higher, requiring the bone saddle to be lowered nearly to the top of the ebony bridge. Since we can’t go any lower with this saddle, we’ll remove the neck completely and reset the dovetail joint so we have a healthier angle and more comfortable playing action. At the same time, we noticed that the back of the bridge was beginning to pull off the top, so with the owners permission, we removed it and cleaned the gluing area. We’ll glue it back down later.
The neck reset begins with removing the thirteenth fret and drilling a tiny hole in the fret slot where we’ll inject steam to loosen the glue that holds the neck joint together. Why the thirteenth fret? Because That’s where you find the end of the dovetail’s tenon on every guitar. In the picture below you can see the two drill holes right at the edge of the tenon.
Once the neck is off, Dan removes the remaining old glue while it’s still soft. Then he changes the neck angle by removing small amounts of material from the neck heel. How small? He pulls strips of sandpaper against the neck heel, keeping count of how many pulls per side. Once the angle is right, the neck goes back on. (You’ll notice the bridge is now back in place too.)
The next day, when the new glue is set, he planes the fretboard level and replaces the frets… usually. But in this case, the fret wire is actually steel bars, not modern nickel fret wire. Bar frets are not only part of the guitar’s history and character, they’re also no longer made. So to make the original frets taller, he raises them by filling the fretboard slots with glue and ebony dust. Then he hammers them back into place, levels the tops and dresses the fretboard.
The final steps are a new vintage style bone saddle, handmade here for this guitar alone, then a fresh set of lightweight strings – to put minimal stress on this old instrument, and our Works setup.
This pre-WWII Martin has survived nearly seventy years and with this work, should be playable for many more. It sounds incredible.