Uncle Joe's Martin

John Whiteside
by John Whiteside

Woodworking, pursued mindfully, opens doors to new experiences, realizations, and, most importantly, to meeting new people. Since I took up guitarmaking a number of years ago, the rewards in all these areas have been unparalleled. One of the very best experiences has been to get to know Pat DiBurro of Exeter, NH. Pat is arguably one of the best acoustic guitar repairers in the United States.

The meeting happened by serendipity. My sister-in-law had come into possession of her deceased Uncle Joe’s vintage C. F. Martin guitar which was in terrible shape. The bridge was broken and the top warped upwards to an astonishing degree. The body was cracked in many places and, of course, it was totally unplayable. She wondered if I could do anything to fix it. Coincidentally, guild member Brooks Tanner mentioned to me that he had met a luthier from Exeter, NH who had expressed some interest in our Guild Luthiers’ group. So I called Pat and asked if he would be willing to present at one of our meetings. He said yes and thought people might be interested to see a demonstration of re-fretting. Guitars have metal frets that are press-fit into slots cut in the fingerboard. Over time these frets can wear down and require replacement. Pat made the interesting comment that he probably did more fretting in a week than the average builder does in a year, to say nothing of re-fretting. I was curious to see how re-fretting would work. The parts of the frets embedded in the fingerboard (which is often hard, brittle ebony) have tangs (barbs) and it seemed that trying to pull them out would tear out parts of the fingerboard.

Also, I thought it would be interesting to ask Pat to evaluate Uncle Joe’s Martin during the meeting and give a judgment as to what work was needed. He asked for the serial number, looked it up, and we were both surprised and pleased to find the guitar had been made in 1930 and was one of less than a hundred guitars of that model made in that year. The meeting came around and was well attended by both guild luthiers and also members of our sister organization, the New England luthiers. To put it briefly, Pat’s demonstration had us spellbound (photo 1), including those members who are themselves professional repair luthiers. In his introduction, Pat made a remarkable comment — If you are a guitar maker, sooner or later you will become a guitar repairer.

This seemingly simple comment has really stuck in my mind. Is it true of furnituremakers? Some years ago a lady asked the Period Furniture Group if someone could repair the leg of a Georgian occasional table. The leg had been shattered into fragments during a move. At the meeting when the group viewed it, it was clear that repairing a shattered leg was a completely different proposition from building a leg. In fact, only a handful of members had any idea how to proceed. Fortunately expert restorer Harvey Best stepped forward, and undertook the complex repair to the delight of the owner.

Pat’s comment leads an interesting line of thought. As a builder, do I need to build in such a way that repairs will be easier to make? How many of us build our furniture, that is the pieces we hope will last for 100 years, in this way? In any event, for the re-fretting demonstration, Pat had brought one of his customer’s guitars that needed a fret job. As we all watched, he heated a fret with a soldering gun and then melted solder over it. The molten solder, he explained, distributes the heat quickly and evenly throughout the fret and in Uncle Joe’s Martin and in turn, to the surrounding ebony, rendering it soft. Then quickly, using a tool called a fret puller, which like a small nipper with the face ground flat, due to the softening effect of the heat he was able to simply pull the fret straight up and out with no damage to the surrounding wood. The method aside, it was astonishing to watch the economy of motion, the certainty and quiet confidence with which Pat executed this job on what was, after all, an actual customer’s expensive guitar. I have never in my life seen a craftsperson more comfortable with his tools. It was the same with pounding the new frets in with a fret hammer. Each blow perfectly and accurately placed, no hesitation, no wasted movement.

Next Pat examined Uncle Joe’s Martin. Using mirrors to examine the inside, he determined that several braces were loose and the bridge plate was cracked and needed replacement. Outside there were numerous cracks in the back, sides, and also the soundboard. And of course the bridge itself was cracked. Also over the years the neck had angled up, rendering the instrument unplayable, and so it needed a neck reset. Again, Pat had no hesitation, no uncertainty. He looked over the guitar in the manner of one who knew exactly what he was looking for and explained his observations with assurance. After this meeting, I asked Pat to restore the Martin, but with me watching and taking photographs of the procedures, the idea being to write this article. He readily agreed and I happily spent the next several months visiting Pat in his Exeter shop on a weekly basis, watching both the Martin restoration and also the repair and restoration of many other guitars, and taking over 1000 photographs. It was truly the opportunity of a lifetime. It offered the chance to study a master craftsman for a long time and to learn a great deal about guitar repair.

But there was much more. Obviously Pat plays all the guitars that come into the shop — both before and after repair. I got to hear dozens of guitars, to really hear what they sound like and what distinguished the great from the mediocre. I got to hear the difference between factory models and custom-made guitars. I would always ask Pat what he thought of the sound of such and such guitar and over time venture my own opinions. This amounted to training my ear because by the end of the adventure we were in significant agreement about the sound quality.

To make a long story short, there is little correlation, maybe even a negative correlation, between appearance and sound quality. We played visually gorgeous guitars, their fingerboards dripping with mother-of-pearl inlay, that sounded, for want of a better word, dead. In fact the best sounding guitar of the whole episode, and certainly the most humble looking, was, you guessed it, Uncle Joe’s Martin. Pat says one of the reasons is the quality examination of the wood and the craftsmanship from those days, but also he speculates that over the course of decades the sap in the soundboard hardens and crystallizes, giving a sound quality that is simply not obtainable with new wood.

But there was even more to be learned than this. Pat is a member of a rare breed — a professional woodworker who works alone, who loves what he does, and who is able to make a comfortable living doing it. How does he do this? Wouldn’t many of us like to know? How many of us have this as a dream? How is such a thing possible?

The rest of this article deals with Pat’s repair skills as evidenced in the repair of the 1930 Martin. Of his skills and experience there is no question. But that is only part of the story. The other part is self discipline, people skills, and business acumen. So first a few words about these. Take self discipline. During the winter, Pat works seven days a week. As many as two dozen guitars may come through his shop in a single week. Why so many in winter? Because people leave them in over-heated, unhumidified conditions and the tops crack. How to deal with such volume of repairs? — by excellent organization of the workflow. Monday is re-fretting day, Tuesday is neck-resetting day, Wednesday is crack-repair day, and so on. Early mornings are spent refinishing at a separate location, allowing the main part of the day to be spent in the shop greeting customers.

Does the constant flow of customers interfere with the work? Amazingly, no. Pat has trained himself to continue with his work at the same time as he talks engagingly with people. Earlier in his career, working at the big box retailer Guitar Center, his repair station was in the main sales area and so he got used to working and relating to people at the same time. Even today, he travels to guitar clinics, put on by the big name manufacturers Martin and Taylor (for whom he is a factory-certified repairer) in various cities where people bring their guitars for on-the-spot evaluation and repair. You have got to be good at relating to your public in that kind of work.

What about business acumen? For one thing. Pat’s shop is highly customeroriented. It is just off of Water Street in Exeter with windows that overlook the Exeter River. The space is light and airy. Comfortable chairs and a bowl of snacks are provided. The walls are decorated with guitar soundboards. Pat puts his tools away after every single operation, resulting in a clean workspace. Truly his shop is a pleasant place to visit.

Pat would love to build guitars. But he ran the numbers and could not find a way to make a good living doing it. Repair is where the money is. Does that mean he has to work on instruments he himself would not choose to play? Of course. But part of his secret is that he does it cheerfully and happily. By the way, his dream for retirement is devoting himself to making guitars.

Repairing the Martin

Uncle Joe’s poor Martin has seen better days. Photo 2 Step 2 shows the cracked bridge. Also the entire area of the soundboard has warped upwards to an alarming extent. In photo 3 you can also see that the white bone saddle has, over the years, been shaved low in a losing battle to keep the instrument playable. step3Also the body is filled with cracks, one of which Pat is evaluating in photo 4. step 4 Aside from all this the neck has rotated upwards with respect to the body, further elevating the strings up from the fingerboard, which renders the instrument unplayable.

The first step is to remove the neck. In this style of guitar, the neck is held in place to the body by a tapered dovetail joint secured with hide glue. Also the fingerboard extension (the part of the fingerboard that sits atop the soundboard), is glued down. Fortunately, hide glue is reversible. Heat and/or moisture will cause it to release. So the first step in removal is to heat the fingerboard extension with a heating pad (photo 5). step 5Once the glue has softened, Pat works under the fingerboard with a putty knife to work it free. Next the neck-to-body joint must be freed. To do this, Pat removes the 13th fret (which is directly over the joint) and drills two small holes into the fret slot and down into the joint below (photo 6). step 6Then, as shown in photo 7, a basketball inflating needle is inserted into the hole. This needle is attached by a hose to Pat’s espresso machine with the result that steam is forced into the hole, around the joint, and escapes out the other hole. (photo 7) step 7Also, you can see in photo 7 that a special jig has been attached to the body which will force the neck up once the steam has softened the hide glue.

This particular joint takes quite a bit of steam and pressure, a testimony to the very tight-fitting joinery achieved by the Martin luthiers in 1930. But eventually the neck comes off, step 8 as shown in photos 8, step 9 and photo 9.

Next Pat removes the bridge, again using heat. Once off (photo 10) step 10

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we can see quite a bit of damage underneath. Photo 10 shows the bridge removed, and photo 11 shows the area inside the guitar (taken with a mirror) under the bridge. step 11 Notice that the soundboard is cracked between the holes where the string pegs are fitted. Recall also that this entire area has warped upwards. To correct the warp, Pat moistens it and applies caul and clamp which he lets sit for a week (photo 12). step 12Once the clamp comes off, the pressure and moisture have done their work and the soundboard is flat again (photo 13). step 13Directly underneath the bridge and the soundboard is a reinforcing bridgeplate. This particular plate was extremely narrow, much narrower than on modern guitars. In guitars, the lighter you can make the components, the better the guitar will sound but also, the more fragile it will be. Master luthier Alan Carruth likes to say that a guitar sounds best if it is right on the verge of collapsing into itself. This extremely narrow bridge plate (which Martin beefed up shortly after this guitar was made) presents us with a dilemma. To duplicate it exactly will result in the problems Pat has just corrected recurring at some point down the road. On the other hand, if the plate is made more substantial, there is the risk on impairing the sound quality. Pat decides on a middle course and photo 14 step 14shows the plate he designs, makes, and glues in place under the soundboard.

All the time I am with Pat, a constant stream of customers comes into the shop with their guitars. One couple arrives from Vermont with a unique repair problem. The guitar is a 1945 Martin. Their visiting young nephew has shot the guitar with his bow and arrow. Photos 15, step 15and photo16, step 16show the entrance and exit wounds. Pat agrees to repair it, giving a time estimate of several months. The repair eventually comes out perfectly. This is why Pat has the reputation as the brain surgeon of guitar repair.

The most critical angle in a guitar is that between the neck and the body. This determines the height of the strings over the frets. Too low and the strings buzz against the frets. Too high and the fingers have difficulty pressing the strings down against the frets, meaning the guitar is hard to play. The tolerances are tight — C.F. Martin factory specifications call for the sixth string to be 3/32˝ above the 12th fret with the first string at 2/32˝. 1/64˝ either way is unacceptable.

The neck angle is determined by joint between the neck and the body. In many traditional guitars, this joint is a tapered dovetail, which has to fit perfectly. Guitar-making expert and author William Cumpiano calls this the woodworking joint from hell. In photo 17, step 17Pat is delicately shaving the mortise cheeks so that when the neck tenon (photo 18) step 18is inserted, the entire neck will sit at a slightly lower angle (about 0.75°) below where it did before. In guitarmaking school with Alan Carruth I have seen students spend weeks to get this joint correct. Pat gets it right in about 20 minutes.

Once the neck is reset and reattached, the fingerboard extension now rides above the soundboard (photo 19). step 19This is because the neck has been rotated downwards. A tapered ebony shim must be made that will fill the gap precisely
(photo 20).step 20 Once glued in place under the fingerboard extension, the glue seam is invisible
(photo 21).step 21

Now back to the bridge area. Bear in mind that the soundboard is only about 3/32˝ thick. Both the old bridge and the soundboard under it are in terrible shape
(photo 22). step22The damaged area of the soundboard needs thin layers of fresh spruce. This involves delicately routing away a layer of the damaged wood and gluing in a patch photo 23 photo 23 and photo 24. step 24Once this is in place and planed and scraped flat (without damaging the surrounding finish!), it is time to make a new bridge from an ebony blank (photo 25). Pat essentially makes his bridges freehand with a bandsaw (photo 25), step 25a stationary belt sander (photo 26),
step 26and a drill press (photo 27).
step 27The result is a new bridge (still to be “finessed”) with identical dimensions to the original (photo 28).
step 28This new bridge is glued in place with special bridge clamps (photo 29).step 29

The bridge still needs a bone saddle in it for the strings to rest on. The precise placement of this saddle is crucial. The slightest error and the guitar will not play in tune. To measure where the saddle must go, Pat strings up the guitar with an ingenious device called an intonator serving as a temporary saddle. This is shown
in photo 30
step 30(on a different guitar). Little brass hooks rest under the strings, serving to lift them above the bridge, just as the saddle will. Furthermore, the exact position of these hooks is adjustable by means of screw mechanisms. Pat adjusts each screw until the corresponding string is in tune and then marks the position on the bridge. When the marking is complete, off come the strings and using a special router guide, a slot is routed into the bridge in exactly the correct place (photo 31).
step 31The new bone saddle fits into this slot and is then tapered and shaped in the classic Martin open saddle slot style (photo 32).step 32

The rest of the repair, the part I thought would be really difficult, namely repairing cracks and gluing down loose braces, is anti-climactically simple. Repairing cracks is basically a matter of flooding them with hot hide glue and holding them in place while it sets. Similarly for gluing loose braces which are held in place by simple sticks while the glue sets (photo 33). step 33 Believe it or not, this primitive stick method is what the C. F. Martin factory uses, which is where Pat learned it. We discuss refinishing the guitar but Pat dissuades me. Similar to genuine antique furniture, refinishing would substantially reduce the worth to collectors of this valuable antique.

After three months, we finally get to string Uncle Joe’s Martin up and play it. The sound is gorgeous, especially in the bass where there is a sweetness I have never before heard in a guitar. And the action (the guitarist’s term for playability)? Like butter, in the words of one professional musician.

Exeter RiverTwo final photos capture, for me, the excitement and pleasure of this remarkable time. First is the view of the rushing springtime Exeter river as seen through the window in Pat’s shop.

PatThe second is a candid portrait of Pat in his shop playing his ukulele. pdf icon

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Attention!

The best way to reach me is by email pat@diburro.com

Thanks, Pat.

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