The Amateur Luthier

Cataloging my experiences and encounters repairing and restoring guitars

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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

Reserved for more expensive tuners, these metal buttons stand the test of time and can bring the most money because of the instruments they were found on. They are more rare during the open back era
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
Brittle buttons? Yes

These are the individual Kluson tuners with the waffle stamped posts affixed to the gears. The design is plain and simple other than that. These buttons crumble

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]
30s Gibson-esque shape
[1930s-1944]
40s Harmony-esque shape
[1940s]
60s 3 point with metal badge
[1940s-1965]

60s Vanguard-style
60s 'Cleaver'
[1965-1968]

60s Narrow 
[1966-1968]



























60s
[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

(from below) Kluson 'removable' stamped shafts appear on open-back plate tuners from post WWII and although the shafts are stamped to the gears, they can be removed from the plate by pushing the tuner up and tilting it at a 45 degree angle away from the worm gear. 

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 (see above) 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 aftermarket 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

1960s Kapa Continental XII 12 string electric KAPA Guitars was founded in 1963 by a Dutch immigrant named Koob Veneman. Mr. Veneman w...


1960s Kapa Continental XII 12 string electric

KAPA Guitars was founded in 1963 by a Dutch immigrant named Koob Veneman.
Mr. Veneman was the owner of Veneman's Music Emporium, a musical instrument store in Silver Spring Maryland. 
During the early 1960’s Veneman made the decision to build his own unique line of guitars. This was the years of the British Invasion and the Guitar Boom and Mr. Veneman wanted his piece of the pie.

The necks, pickups and electronics originally came from German manufacturer Hofner. The guitars generally were equipped with two slider switches to control on/off function of the pickups, which is typical of Hofner's design of the 1960’s. In the company's later years they made their own pickups, which looked similar to Hofner units.
The tuners were made by Schaller. Kapa made his own bridges and tremolo assemblies. Most KAPA guitars are equipped with the tremolo.

CTS pots
Image Credit: Mine

Authentic Hofner Staple Pickups
Image Credit: Reverb - Victor's Shop

Kapa vs Hofner pickups

Note the differences in the base plates and especially the mounting method. The Kapa pickups are hardly height adjustable due to the poor design of their base plate. I also doubt that they are true humbuckers as my pickups were quite noisy.

Image Credit, Mine As is typical of my content, this will focus primarily on pickups found in instruments build in the United States a...

Image Credit, Mine

As is typical of my content, this will focus primarily on pickups found in instruments build in the United States and not of the later, import instruments.

Who Built Them?

Gibson? DeArmond? Teisco? Guild?
There is a lot of misinformation about who built these pickups and I want to try and share my research and things I've noted about the instruments I've had my hands on.

The Barney Kessel "Kleenex Box" pickup is commonly claimed to be a Gibson P-35 but I have yet to see any evidence to support it.

Design

Wire

I measured the wire from a completely dead Kay Speed Bump pickup and found the gauge to be closest to 44 AWG


I've found pickup lead wire from Kay and DeArmond to be quite different from each other in both the insulation and conductive wiring. They have both used plastic or rubber formulas which have turned brittle in age but DeArmond included an extra attempt at insulation with cloth in some of their wire. DeArmond wire is typically twice as large as Kay wire.

Stamps

As far as I can tell Kay only began consistently stamping their pickups in 1964. I have seen 5 Speed Bump pickups in person from the early 60s without stamps. When they were stamped it was with black ink in a distinct font in MMDDYY format. The first digit of the day is often skewed lower than the rest in 1965 and 1966.

The font was not used by any DeArmond pickups that I can find and isn't that close to any of them. The font does appear in the stamps inside the body of Kay instruments (when they remembered to stamp them)

Kay Pickups

1966 Kleenex Box pickup, Image Credit: Mine

1965 Speed Bump pickup, Image Credit: Mine

DeArmond Pickups

DeArmond pickup stamps, Image Credit: Music Pickups.com

Conclusion

I cannot find any evidence to support that Kay brought in pickups from outside manufacturers. It is much more likely that they were built and designed in-house .

That is not the case with Harmony which used Gibson pickups for the H63 Espanada and H1446 "Chris Isaak" models and frequently used DeArmond pickups in their guitars.

Encyclopedia

"Jimmy Reed" Thin Twin (1948-1965)

Image Credit: Reverb - TheElectricVintageGuitar
Most famously used on the Kay Thin Twin bass which was famously used by Jimmy Reed. These thin pickups appeared on the Thin Twin bass and some 1950s mandolins

Inductance: ~7k

Speed Demon Adjustable (1956-1959)

Image Credit: Ebay - Lawman Mike
Predecessor to the Speed Bump pickup with adjustable pole pieces that are very similar to the Kleenex Box pickup.

Inductance: ~5k

Barney Kessel 'Kleenex Box' (1958-1968)

These pickups were found on high end hollow body guitars and sometimes a solid body guitar.

Commonly referred to as a "Gibson-built P-35" pickup, I am unable to find any evidence to prove that Gibson had such a model or provided parts to Kay.

Inductance: ~11k

Speed Bump (1959-1968)

Image Credit: Mine
Appeared on archtop instruments and most commonly the Speed Demon models. 

Inductance: ~5k
Alternative designs:
  • Gold plated

Pancake (1959-1965)

Image Credit: Reverb - Luthier's Closet
Surface-mounted pickup that was sometimes mounted via rivets. Commonly seen on solid body electrics like the Value Leader and Vanguard series but also appeared on archtops.

Inductance: ~5k
Alternative designs:
  • "Cheese grater" metal cover with raised bumps (Example)
  • "Star" metal cover with stencil (Example)
  • "Kleenex box" plastic cover with stencil (Example)
  • "Arrow" metal cover with stencil (Example)
  • Thicker variant which also appeared on lap steels (Example)

Kleenex Box V2 (1965-1968)

Image Credit: Reverb - Thunder Road Guitars PDX
The successor to the Barney Kessel Kleenex box pickup. This one featured a more simple, yet just as reflective design, and appeared on hollow and solid body instruments.

As with the original Kleenex Box, I am unable to find any evidence that Gibson built these pickups or that they were labelled 'P-35'

Inductance: ~11k
Alternative designs:

Vanguard Gold Foil (1965)

Image Credit, mine

Appeared on the revamped Vanguard models of the mid 60s with a textured gold plate and mounted via rivets. Only was around for a year before being redesigned.

Inductance: ~5k
Alternative designs:


Vanguard P90 (1965-1968)

Image Credit, Reverb - Chicago Guitars
Appeared on the newly revamped Vanguard models and replaced the previous year's gold foil pickup. This one has a sleek black panel and adjustable pole pieces.

Inductance: ~5k

Sources

Most of my dates came from catalog scans at VintAxe.com and KayVintageReissue.com
Images are cited unless they were taken by myself