Friday, March 1, 2013

Inside a 1926 Gibson L-3

Or is it? There's a bit of a mystery.  There are so many shifting style attributes that I'm not exactly sure despite some study.  I do know it was manufactured in 1926, as the serial number (82941) - falls nicely into that year's sequence. Unfortunately the area on the label where the model number was inked has fallen off!
At any rate, this is a guitar which spent some time in the unforgiving temperature and humidity cycles found in Texas, and it needs some care.  It's 13-1/2" across the lower bout and features a 24-3/16" scale. Side depth is 3". The fingerboard joins the body at the 13th fret and the shape is very much like the L-1 played by Robert Johnson in a famous photo.
There are a few things missing. The string retaining portion of the tailpiece has disappeared. That's not uncommon in earlier L-series instruments, as it was fabricated from volatile tortoise celluloid that eventually rots away. By 1926 I believe it had been replaced by a steel retainer. I'll probably have to make one, as finding a replacement would be difficult. No bridge, either. That's not so hard to deal with though. As for the pickguard? I won't be making one of those.

The back has come off cleanly. It's suffered some scuffs which I'll try to minimize. About half of the single-ply binding has fallen away. I'll replace it and do my best to match the color.
Jazz-era bracing and work indicative of speedy production.
The lining is surprising in just how irregular it looks. There's disparity in the size and spacing of the kerf.
This instrument must have taken a hard knock. The lining broke along the grain, and the glue held firm to the back. These are maple sides, and there's evidence of scorch marks from bending. The Spanish cedar reinforcements seem about the size and profile one might expect to see used for a flat-top back joint reinforcement strip.  Notice the marks from a circular saw on the side?
The dovetail is holding strong. The soundboard has a number of pencil marks on it, denoting the locating points for braces. I don't know why the head block is so gnarly. The glue squeeze-out on the back suggests it always looked this way.
The tail block is similar in execution. You can see that it's come loose from the side assembly. Based on observations I've made from the case, I imagine this guitar was stored upright in its case in a garage or some place similar. Moisture wicking through the concrete eventually deteriorated the case covering, migrated through the plywood and started affecting the glue joints and finish where the instrument sat against it.
The lacquer is flaky and it's down to bare wood in these areas on either side of the wonderfully graceful screw plate.
The temptation to spend $14 and throw on a modern replacement was there, but... no.  I'd like to retain these funky period-appropriate details.
The tuners are missing posts and cogs. As luck would have it, Stewart-MacDonald has just recently started offering replacements for this style of three-on-a-plate tuning set. And hey! -There's a truss rod!  That's good news.
The neck is in great shape. It's very flat and the frets are in excellent condition. Note how they stop short of the binding and are beveled, as opposed to the fancy method Gibson later used on bound boards where the binding was left proud and filed down into a little nub on the end of each fret. The neck is generally wide. 1-25/32" at the nut, 2-1/4" at the 13th fret.  It's a substantial piece of mahogany.
More interior details. They vigorously scrubbed the glue off around the soundhole brace with a chisel, compressing the grain. The main braces are obviously hand shaped, but they're strangely rough down at their junction with the soundboard. Like, ...really rough.
The back has two cracks, one in the upper bout that runs roughly parallel to the back joint, and this one down by the tail block.  If you look closely you can see that the entire perimeter gluing surface has been scratched up -scored with the teeth of a fine handsaw. In those times it was thought that a slightly toothed surface provided better glue adhesion. We now know that a perfectly smooth surface is better.
Step one is to glue and cleat those cracks. I see that the Gibson guys didn't want to waste time masking the soundhole when they sprayed. There's a nice line of lacquer overspray across the back. I'm debating on whether I should remove and re-line the whole back. All that kerfing is inviting though- it acts as a perfect registration for re-alignment, and the glue is obviously still going strong. I might just remove it from the bare places. I don't want to inject too much water into this old wood.


  1. That's an ambitious project! Looking forward to seeing the updates.

  2. Hi Ted... Thank you for contacting us with the photos and information..... we have been saying we were going to contact you and see how she is doing.... She is BEAUTIFUL and you have done an amazing job....Tears are streaming down my face having let family history go but I know she is in a good place now and only would have continued to deteriate here since we had no idea how to bring her back to her glory ... Once we got her she was stored in our home but who knows what she went thru in the hands of the other family members. I am very very pleased and feel certain that she is where she is suppose to be. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR SHARING. you can send videos of you playing her anytime..I believe she would like to do some Willie Nelson since shes a bit twangy and a texas... hahaha.. the videos will always be welcome. xoxox glenda and jeff - San Antonio TEXAS 2013