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Jumble of Kluson tuners from my collection About Kluson tuners appear in two variants; one which has the exposed gear assembly (se...

Guide to Kluson Open Back Tuners

Jumble of Kluson tuners from my collection

About

Kluson tuners appear in two variants; one which has the exposed gear assembly (seen above) and the other which has a covered assembly. The former were used up until the late 1940s when the covered tuners took over. This article focuses on those open-back tuners and is my attempt at a chronological order for them.

Buttons

Most Kluson buttons are composed of an early, unstable plastic formulation which shrinks and crumbles with age. The Kluson Curse. They become a light brown, clay-like color which leads some people to, incorrectly, assume the buttons are made of clay. The green 'keystone' buttons, which appear on vintage Gibson guitars, are subject to the same faults due to the composition of the plastic. Its uncommon to see Kluson tuners with original buttons intact but they do exist and are likely due to variances in the plastic used.

Metal buttons are obviously the most stable and last the longest; they also command a higher price.

Replacing the buttons

The buttons break, we all know that. Replacing the original, 'butterbean' tuners with reproductions will not hurt the value of your tuners and is better than a crumbling set held together with superglue. I've seen custom aluminum buttons attached with JB Weld and plates with the bad tuners cut off and a new tuner installed and can only imagine how many sets were discarded before the advent of the internet.

I've also seen people selling original "keystone" tuners (the ones that appear on old Gibsons) with terribly shrunken buttons and while I can't imagine they are selling, I would probably opt to leave those alone until you consult an expert .

So don't throw those old Kluson tuners out and don't let anyone tell you that they are junk! They can be easily replaced.

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

Kluson Tuner Guide

1936 (Patent)

Image Credit: [2]
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
Period of Use: 1930s-1940s

In 1936, John Kluson patented a guitar tuner that looks remarkably similar to the modern units we see today. 

These tuners use bent "wings" on the mounting bracket for the worm gear (Fig 6, Fig 7) which were designed with the purpose of "...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. This is the most accurate way to identify a Kluson tuner as 90% of them follow that design.

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

1938? (Example)

1938-1939 Kay K-60 archtop

Post Mounting: Circular stamped
Period of Use: Late 1930s

These tuners have an etched border indicating they are were meant for more expensive instruments.

Note the stamped shafts which are in a uniquely different shape than the stamps seen later.

1940s (Example)

Early 1940s Harmony-built guitar

1942 Continental Music Catalog
Image Credit: VintAxe

Post Mounting: Flat head screw
Period of Use: Wartime 1940s

These are pretty rare but I did find multiple examples and catalog references to support that they are original and done by Kluson. The red and white buttons had fallen to the typical Kluson shrinkage but the blue button had resisted most shrinking and is still strong. I suspect that the blue dye helped stabilize the plastic formula.

1943 Patent and 1946 Example

Image Credit: [1]
1946 Gretsch New Yorker with black buttoned tuners
Patent Applied: April 10, 1943
Patent Number: 2,356,766
Patent Granted: August 29, 1944
Post Mounting: Rounded rectangle stamp, removable
Period of Use: War-time, 1940s

Likely inspired by rationing of materials during WWII, these tuners are notable for their stamped (yet removable) posts and their thinner 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). 

Variants of this tuner exist with different gear heights depending on metal shortages.

1940s (Example)

Image Credit: @notaluthier

Post Mounting: Circle stamped
Period of Use: ?

These tuners have a circular stamp that can form into a rectangular shape. The bottom of the plate is stamped concave directly underneath the gear. 

1948 (Example)

1948-1949 Silvertone Aristocrat 712

Post Mounting: Waffle stamped
Period of Use: Late 1940s

The pictured units are individuals with the "waffle iron" stamp on the post but they are also commonly seen as 3 on a plate. 

1947 (Example)


Post Mounting: Screw
Period of Use: 1947-1950s

This is an octagonal plate Kluson which loses the scalloped plate edges in favor of a simpler aesthetic. This particular one has the desirable metal button but they can also have plastic buttons. 

1949 (Patent)

Image Credit: [3]

Patent Applied: Oct 7, 1949
Patent Number: 2,557,877
Patent Granted: June 19, 1951
Post Mounting: Unknown
Period of Use: 1950s

These were Kluson's design for slot head tuners. Note the departure from the typical scalloped plate edges toward a more squared off design.


Era of Closed Back Tuners

In 1949, Kluson patented three different tuner gear housings which were approved a year later.
  1. The ubiquitous Kluson case with vertical lines PAT. 160,400 [4]
  2. Kluson "waffle back" tuners PAT. 160,399 [5]
  3. Kluson "sealfast" tuners PAT. 160,397 [6]
The most common Kluson case became the de facto standard for their machines after this patent. There do exist some tuners that are "open back" but they appear to be limited to classical tuners with the occasional 3x3 or 6 inline plate set. 

The aforementioned case appears in three variants:
  1. 'No Line' - No branding on the case
  2. 'Single Line' - "Kluson Deluxe" stamped down the middle through the lubricant hole
  3. 'Double Line' - "Kluson Deluxe" runs on either side of the lubricant hole in two columns

Very early single-line tuners the removable-shaft
plate, no second post hole, flat base plate,
and no hole for gear lubricant
Image Credit: @notaluthier
1947-1951 single-line tuners without
the second post hole but more traditional

Sources

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