A Smiling Skull From a 1940’s Decal Haunts Two Guitars

My favorite uncle gave me his home-repaired guitar when I was in college. A black paint job hid the Bondo he’d used to smooth out damage from a detached bridge. A mismatched tailpiece and floating bridge restored a sad semblance of functionality.

Introduction by Harold Fethe

I carried that guitar around for sentimental reasons until one night when Bill Drennan, my college roommate, explained to me that it was something called a “herringbone Martin.” I raced over to a drugstore near the dorm and bought some bottles of nail polish remover. When the black paint came off, Drennan was right–a Martin 00-21 from the 1940’s.

Years of searching for a trustworthy restoration expert finally led to the Gryphon gang. They repaired that double-O and even gave me $100 discount in lieu of the Martin lifetime warranty. Martin doesn’t really cover reversal of repairs done by relatives who are sports car mechanics, you know. I gave it back to my uncle when he retired.

Bill Drennan recently lost his battle with cancer. His wife wanted me to have his best guitar–another Martin, a D28 he’d bought shortly after college. I accepted with immense gratitude. It got new life from a refret-and-reset cycle at Gryphon, but that didn’t seem quite enough. I decided that the skull image from the decal on my uncle’s old Martin would be a fitting acknowledgment of the education I got from Drennan–something like a bus transfer, so Billy’s spirit could come along for the rest of the ride. After consulting for several months with the Gryphon shop, Beth Drennan, and a graphic arts company, we had a reincarnation of the smiling skull.

Pictured below: before the bridge damage and black paint, my uncle Pat Moore with the 00-21 in his heyday.

Pat Moore with his 00-21 and Skull decal

Pat Moore with his 00-21 and Skull decal.

Below, the black paint is stripped off and I’m still bewildered.

Harold and the now busted 00-21

Harold and the now busted 00-21.

Martin 00-21 pat moore headstock

Headstock detail.

Skull artist rendering from original picture

Artist rendering from original picture.

Frank Ford and James Hingston take the handoff from here:

So Harold brought us this interesting project, and we’ve been scratching our heads wondering how to go about doing the inlay justice, both physically and narratively. We were given the artwork to replicate in the pearl.. and the level of detail involved was what made Frank think twice before just grabbing the inlay saw.. here’s the image.



Harold requested that the inlay be no bigger than an inch wide. So the teeth are the main problem.. how do we get the inlay small enough, while preserving the level of detail in the artwork?

Frank happens to have a pantograph at his home shop. He thought this would be a fun way to actually use it!

The way a pantograph works is to have an original with the overall shape and pattern established. Using a parallelogram structure, one side of the tool traces the pattern, while the other end cuts out a duplicate. As shown below, the scale can be adjusted.. which is what we’re after.

Animation of a pantograph

By AlphaZeta – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16115008

So the first step is to use the artwork to make a template. We glued the image to a piece of plexiglass with rubber cement. Then I got to work cutting it out.

Cutting the perimeter on the bandsaw.

Cutting the perimeter on the bandsaw.

Then I used a variety of sanders and files to dial it in.

Sanding the edges smooth

Sanding the edges smooth.

The oscillating spindle sander gets into the tight curves.

The oscillating spindle sander gets into the tight curves.

Once satisfied with the overall shape, I brought it back to my vise to cut out the interior details. First I drilled holes through each shape. Then I ran the inlay saw blade through the hole and proceeded to rough in the shapes.

Tidying it up with a round file

Tidying it up with a round file.

Next came the teeth. Using an engraver, I dug into the acrylic making a big enough groove for the pantograph to trace.

Engraving the teeth

Engraving the teeth.

Teeth after engraving

So the template is ready, Frank and I took a field trip to his home shop to put it on the machine. Here’s a video of the pantograph in action. We increased the speed of the footage, because we’ve watched too many longwinded shop videos. Thanks A.J.!

Now it’s time to rout it into the peghead.

Checking the depth.

Checking the depth.

Getting it centered.

Getting it centered.

Tracing the outline with a sharp blade.

Tracing the outline with a sharp blade.

Routing the peghead.

Routing the peghead.

Dropping it into place

Dropping it into place.

Adding the black filler to the interior

Adding the black filler to the interior.

Fitted and ready to sand and add some lacquer

Fitted and ready to sand and add some lacquer.

Check back in a week or two for an update… the lacquer is drying upstairs in the meantime!