Newsletter #14, February, 2004

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The state of restoration and repair

When I first opened my shop in 1970 I used to joke that if I lost a finger on my left hand for each independent luthier producing fine quality hand made guitars suitable for professional use on stage or in the studio, I would still have at least as many usable digits left as Django Reinhardt and would still be able to play a tune (although I'm under no delusion that I would have rivaled Reinhardt's musical talent). At that time Martin, Fender, Gibson, Guild and Rickenbacker were by no means at their peak for quality, but they were certainly producing instruments suitable for professional use. Other than D'Aquisto, however, there were hardly any independent luthiers producing instruments of truly inspirational quality. This is in marked contrast to today's scene. Currently the Guild of American Luthiers and the Association of Stringed Instruments Artisans each have several thousand members. Even if only a very small fraction of these people are truly skilled luthiers, there are still far more builders turning out really fine instruments today than ever before in the history of the instrument. While it remains my opinion that no one today is producing a better flat top guitar than Martin did in the mid-1930s or a better mandolin than the original Gibson Loar-signed F-5 of 1922-24or a better banjo than either the early Fairbanks five-strings made in Boston at the turn of the century or Gibson Mastertone flat-head five-string models of the early 1930s, there is no doubt that what human hands did once is still possible to do today. The best builders on the scene now have great skill and are turning out instruments of inspirational quality.

In 1970 the state of guitar building was in many ways akin to the state of craftsmanship in general which at that time was at a low ebb. From ancient times through the 1930s the old system of master craftsman teaching apprentices remained intact. World War II disrupted this system. The new technological society emerging after the war encouraged mass-produced products rather than fine, limited-quantity handmade pieces. Master craftsmen lived onward but took on few apprentices such that the craft was not handed down to future generations. This was true not only for guitar building but numerous other crafts ranging from woodworking, glass work, pottery, weaving, basket making and onward to virtually every other aspect of handwork. By the late 1960s there was a renewed interest in fine antique pieces of the past, but there were virtually no schools teaching such skills nor were there many individual master craftsman left to act as mentors for aspiring artists. It was exceedingly difficult to find instructional books or even proper tools, whereas today there are numerous large catalogs featuring a wide variety of exquisitely made hand tools and machine tools for virtually any craft imaginable. I vividly recall talking with a master engraver I knew, who had trained at the great silverware company Kirk & Sons in Baltimore, who told me at that time that the only way to get engraving tools of the quality he needed for his work was to make them himself. I used to refer to the craftsmanship I saw at local craft fairs of the time as the "hippy dippy school of workmanship." The artisans certainly meant well and were doing the best work they could, but craftsman in a wide variety of arts ranging from guitar building, woodworking, glass, pottery, leather work, and onward were doing the best they could to resurrect lost arts without guidance from trained master craftsman. These self-taught artists had little experience in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but those who persevered went on to far greater heights of accomplishment over time as they gained experience. By the mid-1980s the state of craftsmanship in the USA as well as Europe and Japan had greatly advanced. While we can now go to Wal-Mart and other mass merchandisers and find vast arrays of factory made goods, we also have currently available an enormous array of exquisitely made handcrafted items in a greater variety than at any time in the prior half-century. While a master guitar builder, woodcarver, or leather worker might have had a very rough time making a decent living in the 1950s, today such craftsmen find ample work and are very well compensated if they are truly skilled.

Musical instrument repair and restoration has followed a similar path. Unfortunately most of the "repair" work done during the 1950s through the mid 1960s was so poor that rather than enhancing the value of an instrument, such work frequently caused great damage sometimes to the point of virtual destruction. By the late 1960s there were a few craftsmen such as Randy Wood, Bob Givens, Jon Lundberg, Matt Umanov and a handful of others who were aware of the merits of vintage instruments and were endeavoring to train themselves to much higher standards of craftsmanship to be able to competently work on these instruments. These people were part of a new wave of awareness that the vintage instruments were truly special and needed to be viewed in much the same manner as violins by the great masters of the past.

While violins have been made since the -1500s and have a very long tradition not only of building but of repair and restoration, guitars, banjos, mandolins and other fretted instruments are relative newcomers to the scene. Violins and other bowed instruments due to their design are relatively easy to take apart, which greatly facilitates restoration. By contrast guitars and mandolins are much more difficult to disassemble and were not specifically designed with this in mind. Companies such as Martin and Gibson maintained in-house repair shops; however, typically they had little regard for any special considerations when working on vintage instruments. Rather than doing restoration or repair, their approach was to view their work as refurbishing or replacement of worn out or defective parts with whatever was the closest currently available new component. Fingerboards were replaced with modern ones with different types of wood and inlay. Instruments with a moderate number of scratches were refinished in a historically inappropriate manner. Original tuners were frequently replaced, and metal hardware with tarnish, which today we would leave alone or replate only if extremely corroded, was often simply thrown away and replaced with new components which frequently were quite different from the correct historical originals. If a top or back was cracked, it was often replaced rather than repaired. When repairs were done, splices typically remained highly visible. If a back or top was replaced, it was typically done with whatever was the current new style which usually had little resemblance to the original. A pre-World War II D-45 Martin with an early 1960s back with no abalone edge trim and the 1960s D-28 style center stripe, or a 1933 original Gibson Mastertone Granada banjo with 1960s replaced metal hardware, has only a small fraction of the appeal or value of an original, even if the original shows significant wear. While today neck sets are a relatively common procedure for skilled craftsman to correct high action due to string tension over many years of use, in the 1960s Martin and Gibson apparently had no idea how to take out a neck and reset it. Gibson routinely would saw off a neck at the heel and then chisel out the dove tail joint before installing a new neck, whereas Martin would plane the fingerboard such as to be almost paper thin by the nut and standard thickness at the body end to compensate for a poor neck set. Individual luthiers of the time, including those employed at my own shop when we first opened, did their best to treat vintage instruments with respect and maintain their integrity, but all of us at that time were self taught and far less experienced than we are today after over thirty years of experience. When we look back on work we did in my own shop as well as that done by others at that time, we feel not only a sense of accomplishment and pride in our present level of achievement but also a profound sadness that we did not have more guidance when we started out.

I am frequently asked if it is advisable to work on vintage instruments or if they should be left strictly alone. In retrospect I wish I could go back and undo some of our own work of thirty years ago, but today I am very firmly of the opinion that the work we and other fine craftsman are now doing is a great asset and that we are enhancing the utility and value of instruments as well as prolonging their useful lifespan. Virtually all violins of the 1800s and earlier have needed work in order to be played. If they were never restored they would either have to be kept simply as display items with the strings slacked or they would have long since fallen apart. Today we know what marvelous instruments Stradivarius and Guarnerius violins are because there have been expert craftsman doing proper restoration and conservation of these instruments over the years. Vintage guitars, banjos and mandolins are now old enough that they also require such work to maintain their playability and structural integrity. While I agree that a pristine perfect unaltered original example is worth more than a reworked instrument, I am firmly of the opinion that worn out frets should be expertly replaced, warpage should be corrected, cracks should be repaired, and other needed restoration is essential. Bad work obviously diminishes the value of an instrument. Much of our time and effort in our own repair shop involves undoing others' previous botched work. A poorly repaired instrument in some cases may be virtually beyond restoration, but frequently can be salvaged. It is far easier, however, for us to work on an instrument which, although it may have serious problems, has not previously been incorrectly glued, sanded or refinished. After proper restoration an instrument's value is typically increased significantly more than the cost of having the work done. Needless to say, if prior to the work an instrument is unplayable and after the work it is not only cosmetically pleasing but is now a fine sounding playable instrument, the advantages of such work cannot be measured simply in monetary terms.

When I opened up my shop in 1970 new instruments made at that time were nowhere near as good as those made today. Likewise repair and restoration work of that time was not nearly as good as what we and other skilled craftsman do now. It was very easy to spot repaired cracks, refret jobs or refinish work. After regluing and touch-up work the cracks might be strong, but they frequently looked as bad or worse than before. Amateur refinish jobs looked like barn paint applied with a broom. Even the best restorers of that time were not doing work equivalent to the factory original jobs. By contrast today we and some of the best other restorers are capable of doing work which is virtually undetectable. While a great builder may be proud to hear that his work is as distinctive as his signature, by contrast if a restorer's work is highly distinctive, effectively that means he did not do a good job, since his goal is to leave no visible trace that he was ever there. Since fully original instruments are especially sought by collectors and bring the highest premium prices, needless to say, it is critically important to deal with reputable sellers who accurately represent their merchandise. While I am strongly of the opinion that proper restoration enhances value, I also firmly believe that this work should be clearly disclosed to buyers.

At Gruhn Guitars we have seven full time repairmen (more than our total number of salesmen) who work solely on repair and restoration of instruments we are preparing for sale. All of our instruments are thoroughly inspected and receive whatever setup work, restoration or repair is needed before they are offered for sale. The repair department takes fully as much floor space as our entire showroom. We do not take in outside repairs, because we simply do not have enough manpower, time or space to handle more. It is a full time job for our entire repair staff simply to restore and maintain our own inventory. Needless to say, our repair department is a clear indication of the importance we place on this aspect of our business and our confidence that proper repair and restoration not only enhances value, but also is essential to the continuation of our business. Just as the state of the art of guitar building today is in a new "Golden Age," the state of restoration and repair today is at the highest level ever seen in the history of guitar making. While I still maintain that no modern maker is producing new acoustic instruments better than those of the Golden Age of the past or new electrics better than a 1952 Fender Telecaster or 1959 sunburst Les Paul Standard, it is my firm opinion that the state of repair and restoration today is absolutely the best it has ever been at any time in the entire history of fretted instrument building. I am confident without a shadow of a doubt that the work we do at Gruhn Guitars today is vastly superior to anything we did when we first started out or even as recently as four or five years ago. We have finally achieved what in my opinion is work fully on par with that of the finest violin restorers who work on Stradivarius and Guarnerius instruments costing two million dollars and more. We, as well as the best other craftsman on the scene today, will never be fully content with our efforts. We always want to learn more and improve our skills, but we have no doubt today that when we restore or repair an instrument, we are enhancing its value.

George Gruhn