Restoring Judy Collins' Guild 12-String

“If I buy this guitar, can you restore it for me?” Now, there’s a question that ordinarily strikes fear and panic into this old heart of mine as I try to find some nice polite weasel words to get me out of actually answering.

But this time was different – it was our friend, Lisa Sanchez, asking with a real sense of anticipation in her voice. She’d just shown me a tiny online photo of a guitar on an auction Web site. It was one of several owned by Judy Collins, a 1968 Brazilian rosewood Guild 12-string. Lisa went on to spin a compelling tale of how Judy had been so important in her early interest in guitar playing back in the day. She’d followed Judy’s work and career closely, and as so many others, was influenced by her all along the way.

“Well, I dunno – even from that teeny picture, you can see the top is all cracked up, and there’s no way to know what’s left of the rest of it – but maybe.”  For sure it would be a REALLY big job.

“What do you think it might cost?”

I hoped she wouldn’t ask that one, “No way to know at this distance – maybe it can’t even BE fixed.”

“OK, well I’m going to go for it, and if it sells for what I can afford (not much) then I’ll just hang it on the wall if you can’t restore it.  That way, I’ll still have my piece of my hero, Judy Collins.  But if you can…”

Wouldn’t you know it. All the other guitars went for pretty high prices, but this most iconic one actually took a trip to live at Lisa’s house! It is, after all, the one featured in so many situations, recordings, concerts, album covers, photos and all. It still even has the strap Judy used for so many years with the little decorative tassel things hanging down.

And, wouldn’t you know it, I got drafted. After looking it over carefully, I finally decided it was appropriate for me to dig in and give it a good effort. Lisa was clear that she didn’t want to change its appearance or lose any of the mojo of such a world traveler. In other circumstances, replacing the top might well have been the logical choice, but not this time!

Lisa Sanchez is a San Francisco based professional guitarist and teaches here at Gryphon, so as I started to work on the guitar, she was on hand to see the slow progress as I worked on it. Terrible cracks ran the length of the top, and all the top braces had been broken and/or knocked loose. Cracks in the back, through the end block, terrific fret wear, neck angle issues, broken bridge, and a decomposing peghead veneer didn’t help a bit, either.

All in all, this was big fat restoration job, and the cost would exceed the “cash value” of the guitar many times over. But that wasn’t the point. Most importantly for me it was a mighty rewarding project because of what the instrument represents in our music world, and especially what it means to Lisa.

— Frank Ford

Lots of disassembly needed
Lots of disassembly needed, and here I’m removing the decomposed plastic peghead overlay - I’d be making a new one, with new inlay work. Off to the side: tuners, pickguard and broken bridge.

Taking the top off
Disassembly of an acoustic guitar body is touchy work with risk of causing more cracks, so we generally try to do as much repair as we can without actually taking the body apart.  But, when the damage is really severe, it’s an advantage having access to do the best reconstruction.  With the top off, I’d be able to flatten the wood as I glued and repaired all those cracks.

Removing the top braces
Almost all the top braces were damaged or loose, so I removed them in preparation for the crack repair. I glued up each crack individually and flattened the top by clamping it between heavy boards for a week or so after applying a bit of heat and moisture.
Replacing and contouring the top braces

I made replacements for all the top braces, glued them in position and formed their contours with chisel and sandpaper.

It’s customary to install nice little reinforcement patches or “cleats” to reinforce top cracks, but I didn’t want to influence the flexibility of the top too much, so I made sure to use the thinnest, lightest reinforcement I could.

Making reinforcement "cleats"
In order to make those thin pieces, I split them from solid spruce stock to be certain that the grain direction would be exactly parallel to the surface, minimizing the possibility of breakage in service.

Reinforcement "cleats"
My reinforcement cleats had a maximum thickness of .040". Once they were glued in place I sanded them even a bit thinner, tapering the edges right down to the guitar top.

Reinforcement cleats in place
It’s nice to have the assurance that the top is now flexible and strong, despite the large number of cracks.

Crack in the end block
All around inside the guitar there were other bits of damage, like this big crack through the end block - probably a result of dropping the guitar on the end pin. The pin fits into a tapered hole, and if it gets hit hard enough it can split even such a heavy piece of hardwood.

Gluing the body back together
Finally, after all that interior work it came time to put the body back together again - I glued half at a time to avoid any misalignment.

Lisa supervises progress
On and on the work went for a total of several months - that’s Lisa in the background, keeping me honest...

Neck removal and resetting, fingerboard leveling and refretting, peghead veneer replacement, and setup followed as things took shape.

Shaping the replacement bridge
I reproduced the original broken bridge with one I carved from Brazilian rosewood.