The Amateur Luthier

Cataloging my experiences and encounters repairing and restoring guitars

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Image Credit:  Reverb - Hippie Holidaze Pinless guitar bridges are the designed so that the strings loop through the bridge and then ove...

Image Credit: Reverb - Hippie Holidaze
Pinless guitar bridges are the designed so that the strings loop through the bridge and then over the saddle eliminating the need for plastic pins and holes drilled into the guitar top. Kay started using them more in the early 1960s on their flat top guitars.

This design has the strings come in through the front of the bridge (saddle-side) and out through the back where they wrap over the bridge and onto the saddle. I consider these bridges to be less stable for the high tension of steel-stringed instruments and with subpar sound. The strings are held in place solely by the bridge and so the pulling tension is counteracted only by the strength of the rosewood bridge and the top is merely glued to this bridge. The top doesn't contact the strings nor offer any direct support but instead holds the bridge which is trying to be pulled away from it.

I set out to convert this bridge to a pinned one.


 My first step was to cut some Indian Rosewood to fit in the rectangular channel cut into the bridge. I rounded the corners to match the corners of the bridge and got a snug fit after trial and error. I used a plastic circle tracing sheet to get a good radius and then sanded to it using my belt sander. I glued the piece into the bridge using thick Cyanoacrylate, because this patch is permanent, and filled any small gaps with thin CA and rosewood dust which form a surface that is very similar to real wood after sanding.

 The other side of the bridge includes a similar rounded, rectangular channel cut into the side with 6 string holes drilled through it. I filled the holes with maple dowels (thin Rosewood dowels aren't something you can easily find and this is structural, nobody will see it) and cut another piece of Indian Rosewood to fit in that channel and filled using the same methods as above.


 Then I took the bridge to my belt sander to sand the grafted wood flush with the bridge. I had to be careful to not hit the base of the bridge and change the footprint because that would be very difficult to hide on the top of the guitar. This picture was taken after I sanded the patch and oiled the wood.


I used LMII's bridge drilling jig to place 6 perfectly spaced holes through the bridge for the strings about where the old strings came through. You can see the grooves that the strings left in the bridge which were filled with rosewood dust and thin CA. 

Then I hand sanded the bridge from 220 to 2000 grit to expose fresh wood which slightly alters the color of the wood because of the removal of the oxidized layer. Now the bridge should age and color uniformly which will help disguise my patch work

This guitar did have a spruce bridge plate so I drilled my holes, capped it with a piece of maple, and drilled through again. The maple cap helps protect the bridge plate from the ball ends of the strings hitting it and causing it to chip which compromises the integrity of it and leads to warped tops and lifting bridges.

The bridge area was properly prepped and the bridge is glued using fish collagen glue.


This is the front part of the bridge showing the other side that was filled, its barely noticeable but you can see the darker rosewood if you look close enough.


I ramped the saddle slots using a Dremel and a set of diamond bead reamer bits. Then I used an old bone saddle and some white plastic pins to complete the look of the instrument. The bridge is stable and should hopefully stick together for another 50 years!

Step 1. Don't 1960s P-bass I photographed at the Springfield, MO guitar show Owner unknown (contact me for credit) Why not? W...

Step 1. Don't

1960s P-bass I photographed at the Springfield, MO guitar show
Owner unknown (contact me for credit)

Why not?

Willie Nelson's guitar 'Trigger'
Image Credit: MentalFloss.com

Guitars are not like furniture in which a fresh coat of poly or shellac rejuvenates them and increases the value. With guitars it is actually more desirable for them to be worn in and show signs of age such as lacquer "checking" (the lines that appear in old finishes from age, temperature, and humidity). Vintage instruments are typically finished in nitrocellulose lacquer (which crackles in long lines) or shellac (which shrinks into cube-like shapes) which act quite differently than modern polyurethane finishes. Old instruments will get dinged and show that wear much more prominently than modern instruments and that is part of the charm.

People love to see the play-wear and the history that a guitar holds in its appearance and you would be erasing that by refinishing the instrument. 

There is a huge fad in the instrument world of "relic-ing" which is the process of taking a new instrument and trying to make it look like an old, well loved instrument. Relicing has its fans and opponents but it is usually always more expensive than an instrument without such a treatment. It often doesn't make sense to people outside the industry but its a serious money maker because the demand is there.

Value 

Instruments have value historically, monetarily, and sentimentally. I keep the original finish on every guitar I work on and recommend it to anyone who asks because a damaged guitar with original paint is worth more than a guitar with new paint. I've owned guitars with original lacquer that flakes off if you look at it wrong but I kept it the way that it was because of the value held in that original, flaky paint

Of course a vintage instrument in pristine,original condition will sell higher than one that has been worn-in but a refinished instrument will almost always sell for less than an instrument that has been worn-in naturally

For example, I have this 1970s Harmony-built Fender acoustic that is dirty, yellowed, and most definitely worn through years of being played and years of being poorly kept. It looks rough to most people but I wouldn't dream of refinishing it because if this is a $400 guitar, it'll be worth $150 after being refinished. It will lose its character and the history behind it.


The neck from the above Fender acoustic
*Note the carvings in the neck*


Amateur Refinishes

Of course I say this as a man whose website is entitled "The Amateur Luthier" but I tend to stay away from finish touchups or work unless the guitar has already been refinished before. It is typically my last resort to try and restore some value to an instrument or make it look somewhat original. As I mentioned above, a refinished guitar will almost always sell for less than an original guitar but it is also important to note that a poor refinish will sell for the value of the parts on the guitar. A guitar that has been refinished poorly with drips or unevenness or a terrible color choice can be worth as little as the value of the parts on the instrument.

If a guitar has already been refinished, you probably can't hurt its value by refinishing it again. The exception is, of course, with very old refinishes or ones that were done quite well.

Here is a 1966 Harmony H56 Rocket that has been refinished, poorly, with a wipe-on lacquer and has had some body work done to make it look like a double cutaway. These are normally $500-600 instruments but the refinish work makes it a $200 instrument.. The poorly done body work and refinish made it nearly worthless so I pulled the parts for use in a better quality guitar and sold the husk to someone who needs a neck and gave them the body for free.


This is a 1964 Hagstrom HIII that was originally sky blue but the finish was stripped down to natural and no finish was applied on top of that. The value of this instrument was tanked by the refinish and the lack of original parts made it nearly worthless. I sold the parts off and the husk to help revive other Hagstroms from the era because it wasn't worth the money to rebuild.

 

What do I do now?

Take it to a decent luthier (not a guitar tech that you would find at Guitar Center) and have them look it over to find an approximate value of the instrument. I've seen thousand dollar instruments that were stripped and became hundred dollar instruments. Especially during the "natural wood" fad of the 70s, that was a rough time for guitar finishes.
  • Use guitar-oriented polishes to gently scrub dirt and grime off the guitar without losing original finish
    • Do NOT use any automotive waxes or polishes 
    • Do NOT buff the instrument unless you are very sure of what you are doing
  • Has the instrument been refinished before?
    • Yes, poorly with drips and runny paint
      • Then it is likely well within reason to strip the paint and make the instrument look better
    • Yes, quite well but its not my style
      • Perhaps consider selling the instrument and buying another that suits your fancy. No need to ruin good work
    • Nope but it is ugly/flaky/cracked
      • Leave it alone, your instrument and wallet will thank you when you go to sell it. Plus you are keeping the decades of history and character 
If you are deadset on refinishing your instrument, consult with luthiers to get a price and find someone who is capable of doing good work.

If you are interested in doing it yourself, stay away from store-bought finishes (especially polyurethane!!) and find some good Shellac or Nitrocellulose. 

Here are some great resources for finding finishing supplies

































The Regal Octofone (or Octophone) was an attempt by the Regal Musical Instruments company to design a unique instrument that could repl...


The Regal Octofone (or Octophone) was an attempt by the Regal Musical Instruments company to design a unique instrument that could replicate the sounds of 8 other instruments. Those instruments were the tenor guitar, tenor banjo, ukulele, taro patch, tiple, mandolin, mandola and mandocello [1]. I strung mine up and tuned it like an octave mandolin which is one of the more common ways to play these instruments. 

The shape is curious, it has two points and looks like a double cut away mandolin

1932 catalog scan [3]
The No.25 Octofone has a birch neck, back, and sides finished in a dark lacquer to mimic more expensive woods. It is ladder braced with a dowel rod neck joint. The fretboard is ebonized maple with 3 pearl position dots. The tailpiece is stamped "Bell Brand Patented NMS Co”


The No.26 Octofone features mahogany instead of birch. These are much, much more rare.

These instruments were first released (and patented) in 1928 with the patent approval coming later in 1931 [2]
"PAT.APLD.FOR" stamp on a pre-patent Regal Octophone. 

Patent scan [2]
President of Regal Instruments and Inventor Frank Kordick was behind the design of this peculiar instrument.

Dates are often hard to track down so take these to be approximates  to give you an idea of the era in which they were made. Buttons ...

Dates are often hard to track down so take these to be approximates 
to give you an idea of the era in which they were made.

Buttons

Plastic

The most common material for open-back Kluson buttons is probably plastic

Shrinking and crumbling buttons are very common on old Kluson tuners but not every set of old tuners needs to have that done. I suspect different plastic formulations circulated through the factory and led to some buttons being chemically stronger. 

I've noticed that the inclusion of dyes in the plastic usually leads to stronger buttons. All the black tuner buttons I've encountered have been structurally sound while the cream colored ones are very much hit or miss. I actually came across a set of red, white, and blue buttons on a WWII-era set of Kluson tuners in which the red and white buttons had both crumbled but the blue buttons were intact with no sign of being replaced.

Factory-original red, white, and blue tuner buttons


I can only imagine how many sets have been discarded before the internet and the availability of replacement buttons. I've seen quite a few hodge podge'd sets of tuners where buttons or shafts broke and people cut that section of the plate off and replaced it with another tuner.

StewMac has an incredible video on replacing the buttons
on vintage Kluson tuners with modern replacements


Metal

These metal buttons are superior to the plastic buttons and last much longer. They also tend to bring higher prices
1940s-50s Kluson octagonal tuner

1936 

Image Credit: [2]
WWII-era Harmony 'Webster' branded guitar
with the plate variant

Patent Applied: Dec 30, 1936
Patent Number: 2,132,792
Patent Granted: Oct 11, 1938
Post Mounting: Flat head screw

In 1936, John Kluson patented a guitar tuner that looks remarkably similar to the modern units we see today. Not much has changed on these in 80 years owing to the innovation of his designs.

These tuners use bent "wings" on the mounting bracket for the worm gear (Fig 6, Fig 7) which were designed to facilitate "...preventing outward bending or distortion of the plate metal brackets in response to end thrust of the shaft resulting from a tuning operation..." This solved the problem of the brackets being bent out of square with each other and resulting in tuners that would bind or not work effectively. 

Also note the use of a screw to mount the gear to the tuner post.

1938

1938-1939 Kay K-60 archtop
Patent Applied: ?
Patent Number: ?
Patent Granted: ?
Post Mounting: Circular stamped

These tuners have an etched border around the plate for decoration which puts these as tuners which would only appear on high end models. They have the stamped shaft except the stamp is circular and not shaped like seen in later models.

1943

Image Credit: [1]
1946 Gretsch New Yorker
Patent Applied: April 10, 1943
Patent Number: 2,356,766
Patent Granted: August 29, 1944
Post Mounting: Rounded rectangle stamp, removable

Likely inspired by rationing of materials during WWII, these tuners are notable for their stamped yet removable posts and their thin gears (Fig 5). The gear is affixed to the tuning post via stamped metal but is easily removable by tilting the gear away from the worm gear and pushing the tuner through the plate (Fig 7). 

1948

1948-1949 Silvertone Aristocrat 712

Patent Applied: ?
Patent Number: ?
Patent Granted: ?
Post Mounting: Waffle stamped

These are the individual Kluson tuners with the waffle stamped posts affixed to the gears.

1949

Image Credit: [3]

Patent Applied: Oct 7, 1949
Patent Number: 2,557,877
Patent Granted: June 19, 1951
Post Mounting: Unknown

These were Kluson's design for slot head tuners. Note the departure from the typical decorative plate edges into something a little more rectangular. 

Era of Closed Back Tuners

#1 Image Credit: [4]
#2 Image Credit: [5]

#3 Image Credit: [6]



Patent Applied: June 8, 1949
Patent Number: 160,400 and 160,399 and 160,397
Patent Granted: Oct 10, 1950

These are three Kluson tuner gear housings which were patented in 1949 and all approved on 1950. 
  1. The ubiquitous Kluson case which can be found on most sets of sealed Kluson tuners and on nearly all the modern reproductions. 
  2. Kluson "waffle back" tuners 
  3. A tuner housing with two concentric circles engraved on the back
40s Kluson "Deluxe" closed back tuners
(w/o second tuner hole in the casing)

GuitarHQ mentions 1947 as being the earliest date of Kluson enclosed tuners [7]. At the earliest, 1947 was the year that Kluson switched from open back to closed back tuners.

The best guide for closed back Kluson tuners is GuitarHQ

Sources

This focuses on Kay-built instruments from the 1930s through the late 1960s. All pictures are mine unless otherwise cited. Design  B...

This focuses on Kay-built instruments from the 1930s through the late 1960s.
All pictures are mine unless otherwise cited.

Design 

Branding

Not all Kay instruments had a big "Kay" on their headstock, many times they were built without a brand for distributors. I do not know at what point in the manufacturing process the brand was added but I have seen Kay instruments without a trace of a badge or logo. Frequently these instruments were bought by companies like retail stores who were looking to sell their "own" brand of guitars and so Kay guitars are seen with a variety of names from Airline to Marathon to Windsor! 

Check my article about the different names that Kay instruments can be found under.

Headstock Shapes

Michael Wright has compiled one of the largest picture galleries of headstock photos in his book "Guitar Stories Vol. 2: The Histories of Cool Guitars". I own the book and have found it to be an invaluable resource in identifying these old guitars. You can buy the book on Amazon here

Here is an excerpt from his book. 

Quintessential Kay shape
[1940s-1968]
Gibson-esque "open book"
[1930s-1944]
Harmony-esque 
[1940s]
3 point
[1940s-1965]

Vanguard
[?-1967-?]
'Cleaver'
[1965-1968]

60s Narrow 
[1966-1968]


























'T' shape
[1961-1965]

Plectrum shape
[1966-1968]




Tuning Machines

Kay guitars can be found with tuners built by Kluson Manufacturing Company. Kluson tuners can generally be identified by their distinctive plate shape which comes to two points with a dip in the center. 

The absolute best guide for identifying 1947-1960s Kluson closed-back tuners is GuitarHQ

Kluson tuners with and without the 2nd tuner
post hole
Summarized dates from Guitar HQ 
  • Without 2nd tuner post hole.
    • Single Line ~ 1947-1952
    • No Line ~ 1952-1953
  • With 2nd tuner post hole
    • No Line ~ 1953-1956
    • Single Line ~ 1956-1958
    • Double Line ~ 1964-1969
Open-back Kluson tuners are typically pre 1950, rarely have identifying stamps, and must be identified by the style and what is known about the instrument they are on. Kluson tuners are reproduced by WDMusic and so the best way to confirm that they are vintage is to look at the washers under the end of the tuner shaft. Originals will be metal and reissues will be nylon or a white plastic.

Nylon tuner washers indicating reissue tuners

1930s Kluson single, open-back, stamped shaft with border 

1940s Kluson plate, open-back, stamped shaft
Late 1940s Kluson single, open back,
'waffle' stamped shaft
Late 1940s Kluson plate, open-back,
removable stamped shafts
1940s Kluson plate, open-back, screw shaft
Late 1940s Kluson 'single-line' tuners
wihout second tuner hole


1960s Kluson 'double-line' tuners



Bodies

Kay guitars are known for their laminated woods (as opposed to Harmony's reputation for solid wood) and were advertised as "crack proof". Solid wood is not impossible on Kay guitars but is unlikely for backs and sides. The best way to identify whether your guitar is solid or laminate is to have a mirror and a flashlight and inspect the wood to see if the grain is identical from the outside and inside.
  • Solid body
    • 3-piece hardwood construction with maple cap on front and back
    • Plywood started picking up in the late 60s
  • Acoustic
    • Spruce tops are solid until the late 1960s where it becomes hit or miss
    • Birch or maple tops are often laminated
    • Backs and sides are laminated more often than not
      • Mahogany is a common wood to find
      • Figured maple is just a veneer 

Carved vs Pressed

Carved top instruments have their tops built from a large solid block of spruce and are shaped to the ideal profile. Pressed tops are either solid or laminated wood of the final thickness and pressed to their shape via heated molds. Carving a top is much more labor and time intensive than pressing so carved tops are typically reserved for the high end instruments and are less common than a pressed top. If you have a standard looking Kay archtop guitar, chances are the top was pressed and it is almost guaranteed with laminated tops.

Necks

Kay necks were 'guaranteed' against warping by the inclusion of steel rods (some adjustable) in the neck. Their truss rods were referred to as "thin lite" and their design most closely resembles the Gibson truss rods of the era [5]. These are prone to breaking at the welds.
  • Solid poplar with grafted headstock wings is the most common 
    • Often finished in a brown nitro lacquer to mimic mahogany
  • Maple on higher end models
  • True mahogany appeared as late as the 1940s
  • Philippine 'mahogany' appeared in the 1970s after the shift to production in Japan

Neck Joints

1961 was the transitional year for Kay where instruments started switching from using dovetails to their 3 bolt system. This change did not affect all the instruments and many acoustics kept their dovetails (except the most inexpensive models).

1960s neck joint


Fretboard

Wood analysis comes from personal experience and www.wood-database.com's article on identifying Brazilian
  • Brazilian Rosewood
    • Standard for instruments up until the 1960s 
    • Started becoming reserved for only the high-end models
    • Tight, closed grain
    • Will not fluoresce under a blacklight when dissolved in water [1]
    • Reddish brown to jet black color
  • Indian Rosewood
    • Picked up in the 1960s as a budget alternative to Brazilian
    • Open grain. Twice the pores per square inch as Brazilian [1]
    • Dark brown or purplish brown color
  • Maple
    • Painted black, brown, or chemically ebonzied
    • Dyed red or lacquered natural on 1960s archtops

Position markers

    • Dots
      • 3/8" pearloid or white dots in a single line pattern appeared in the 1960s
      • 7/32" mother of pearl dots at latest in the 1950s
      • 3/16" white dots in an alternating 1 and 2 dot pattern were common prior to 1960
    • Blocks
      • Appeared on higher end instruments
    • Pick shaped inlays
      • Appeared on mid to late 60s guitars
    • Some painted inlays can be found like the K1160 "music note" guitar.

Bridges

Brass decorative bolts are a staple of American-built Kay flat top bridges from the 1940s until the end of the 1960s. 
Kay bridge bolts
Flat top bridges can either be pinned or pinless and generally look similar to the picture below. Some Kay jumbo guitars have an adjustable saddle built into the bridge and a third decorative bolt

1960s flat top bridge
Standard on most all Kay flat tops

1940s archtop bridge
(with added B string compensation)
1960s hollow body bridge
(no B string compensation)

Stamps

  • "K-#### ####"
    • Stamped inside the body on the back
    • Numbers following the "K" are the model number of the instrument
    • Remaining 4 numbers are meaningless and likely batch related
  • "L#### ####"
    • Stamped inside the body on the back
    • Assumed to be related to the batch in which it was built
    • Commonly (and wrongly) attributed to be a model number
    • Has no discernible meaning towards the date of manufacture
  • "N#", "P#", "B#"
    • Stamped inside the body on the back
    • Unknown meanings but 
    • N numbers can go up to 15. [3]
    • P numbers can go up to 7. [2]
    • B numbers can go up to 10. [4]
    • N and P numbers can occur together
    • B and N numbers can occur together

Pickups

Check up my write up and pictures of the pickups used on Kay guitars. Also comes with helpful date ranges

Research

The internet and the incredible effort by members of the community to digitize old catalogs make it quite possible to date instruments made by Kay between the 1950s and 1970s. Anything before 1950 gets a little trickier to date due to the lack of available catalogs and so

Once you have used the above information to get an approximation of how old your guitar is, I would recommend checking out these resources to try and narrow down the date of production.

Catalog Scans

Model Numbers and Production Dates

This excerpt is one of the most complete lists of Kay guitar model numbers and production dates from Michael Wright's book "Guitar Stories Vol. 2: The Histories of Cool Guitars"


Sources