Ask the Expert: When it Comes to Repairs, When Is Enough Enough?

If restoration is executed by craftsmen as skilled as those charged with maintaining Stradivaris, the spirit of the original guitar will eventually return after a bit of breaking in.
vintage martin

Q: I have a D-18 from the mid-’60s. Before I owned it, a lot of repair work had been done to it, including a neck reset, a refret or two; the bridge had been replaced, a couple minor cracks were glued, and parts of the top and sides were refinished. Unfortunately, almost none of the work was performed expertly, and the guitar looks like a mess. The good news is that the guitar plays nicely and everyone who hears it agrees that it sounds amazing. I’m torn between feeling that a guitar as good as this deserves a better looking bridge, refinish work, crack repair, and so on, but worried that unnecessary rework might damage its sound. I’m also wondering what effect repairs will have on the long-term value of vintage guitars, not that I ever plan to part with this one. What would you do if you owned this guitar? —Tuck Turner, St. Paul, Minnesota

A: A number of years ago, Tim Olsen wrote an interesting piece in American Lutherie exploring attitudes about repair and restoration in the violin world. The article included a diagram showing nearly two dozen patches that had been applied to the underside of a Stradivari violin top.


What’s more, over the course of its life, the violin had been converted from gut to steel strings, its scale had been lengthened, the neck angle was altered to accommodate a taller bridge, and its bass bar was beefed up to support a higher string load. The original peghead was grafted onto a longer neck and reinforced with peg bushings; its original fretboard was replaced, along with the neck block, tuning pegs, tailpiece, bridge and soundpost. Over an original layer of finish, additional layers had been applied. All that was left of the original Stradivari was the violin’s back, rim, peghead, some finish, and a thin veneer of its top.

And yet this instrument, one of hundreds of existing Stradivaris, is widely regarded as a prime example of Stradivari’s work, still possessing the revered “Stradivari sound.” But after such extensive alteration of an original instrument, is it even possible that a recognizable Stradivari sound exists? Olsen’s conclusion was that generations of musicians, luthiers, violin dealers, and collectors needed a “Stradivari mystique” to define, promote, market, and maintain whatever gave the mystique its intrinsic value.

Does this history sound familiar?

When I started playing the guitar, what we now regard as vintage instruments were preferred by a few knowledgeable players, but otherwise the instruments were just considered used. When at least some of the repairs were performed on your old D-18, it probably wasn’t quite valuable enough for the owner to spend a pile of money fixing it, let alone seek out a vintage restoration specialist—if, indeed, one could have been found. Times have changed. The emergence of a community of vintage restoration specialists such as T. J. Thompson, Ken Fallon, Mark Stutman, and others, whose craftsmanship is rivaled only by the finest builders of our day, is evidence that help is on the way.

Therefore, I wouldn’t do anything to fix your D-18 right now if it sounds great and plays properly. Your guitar will likely continue to grow in value, even if it now looks like a mess. The longer you, or future owners, wait to commission cosmetic improvements, the more options you will have and the more likely that the cost of expert service will be justified by the value of the result.

At some point, your guitar will need routine maintenance, and that’s a good time to consider a cosmetic makeover. The key, of course, is finding a repairman who is properly experienced in the work. Significant repair can temporarily affect the sound of a vintage guitar. But if restoration is executed by craftsmen as skilled as those charged with maintaining Stradivaris, the spirit of the original guitar will eventually return after a bit of breaking in.

Dana Bourgeois
Dana Bourgeois

Dana Bourgeois is the founder of Bourgeois Guitars and regular contributor to our "Ask the Expert" column.

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