Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Harmony H1203 Sovereign - A Slow Deconstruction

During one summer in the mid 1970's, a guitar-playing childhood friend introduced me to John Denver's music.  The song "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" was on Denver's 1974 Back Home Again album.  The forth verse sums up the way I feel about my hobbies and pastimes:

I'd play "Sally Goodin'" all day if I could
But the Lord and my wife wouldn't take it very good
So I fiddle when I can, work when I should
Thank God, I'm a country boy

One of the reasons I thought this would be too large of a project was because of the amount of time I figured it would take.  Between working full time, being a husband to my wife of 20+ years, being a dad to two children, and all that comes along with those roles, it has been a struggle to find even a few hours some weeks to put into this old guitar.  Because of the time factor, I started documenting this project with pictures to keep me focused, which has turned into writing this blog months after starting the project.  Writing this blog has also been a way for me to keep connected the project when I haven't been able to work on it.  After letting her hang on the wall for almost a year, I stated working on this old guitar in the fall of 2010, about eight months prior to publishing Part I.  It's been an interesting journey and learning experience so far, and just getting past the deconstruction and in to the rebuild has already been a lot of fun.

One of the major repairs this old guitar needed was a neck reset, and I decided removing the neck was a good place to start on this project.  From my research, an espresso machine is commonly used as a steam source to apply heat needed to melt the hide glue used to build musical instruments.  Being new to this, I didn't know how much steam I might need, and didn't want be limited by the size of a small espresso water tank.  So, I decided on something with a larger reservoir, and bought a Wagner 705 Power Steamer wallpaper remover.  After fitting an inflation needle to the end of the hose with a compression fitting and some two-part epoxy, I was officially in the steam business.

Before I could use my new tool, I had to do two other things.  First, I needed to drill an access hole into the dovetail joint for injecting the steam into the joint.  Second, I needed to build a jig to push the neck out of the joint.  I carefully removed the 15th fret so I could drill the access hole.

The hole I drilled was just the right size for the inflation needle, but the bit felt way too solid going past the first quarter inch and pulled out lots of lighter colored woods from the first quarter inch underneath the fretboard.  Although the scent of these 50-ish year old woods was great, it also told me I did not hit the void in the dovetail joint.  To replace the truss rod, the entire fretboard would have to come off.  So, applying the heat of a clothes iron on to the frets and using some putty knives to separate the pieces, I carefully removed the entire fretboard from the body and neck.  Fortunately, the edge binding remained intact.

With the fretboard out of the way, I could confirm the drill had gone into the end block instead of the joint, and heating up the glue in the dovetail joint became an simpler task.

With some scrap metal beams, 1x4's and some hardware, I made a jig for pressing the neck out of the joint.

With less than a minute of steam, and a few effortless turns of the wrenches, the neck slid right out of the dovetail joint without damaging the neck or neck block.

After cleaning out the dovetail joint with some steam, I turned my attention to the neck and used some steam to clean off the excess glue.  Next, I found that the one-way truss rod was stuck solid in its channel and very rusted.  A combination of rust from excess moisture and over-tightening are probably what caused the truss rod to break.  With a couple of taps from a hammer on an old screwdriver, the rod and bushing popped cleanly out without damaging the neck.

To get at the loose back bracing and thoroughly check out the insides, it was necessary to remove the back binding and the back panel.  It would have been nice if the binding had come off in a few pieces, but it did not happen that way.   After some failed attempts at cutting away the back panel binding with a razor blade and a straight knife, I started using a Dremel. The binding came off in many small pieces, too small to salvage.  I eventually used the Dremel attachments on my DeWalt drill to finish the job.

To remove the back panel, I used a clothes iron again.  This time, I used an old towel between the iron and the guitar to protect the finish.  With some heat and some patience, the glue melted just enough to separate the perimeter joint easily with a pair of putty knives.

The sides and kerfed lining split and separated in a few spots, but they would be easily repaired.  One detail I did not like about this old guitar was that the back braces were not notched into the linings.  That's something I modified during the rebuild, to add some strength to this old guitar.

After warming up the power steamer again, I took the back braces off and steam cleaned some of the old glue and dirt off of the back panel.  The smell of 50-ish year old old hide glue and wood was delightful.

After a good cleaning and thorough inspection of the insides , I was disappointed to find no traces of a model number or date stamp.  On the brighter side, she also had no damaged or loose top braces.  As for her original bridge plate, it was just a thin piece of spruce that was no longer attached well, and like the back braces was not notched into the linings.  This meant that, by design, the front panel had no assistance to keep it from rotating between the two nearest ladder braces.  This is an inherent weakness of ladder braced front panels that can eventually result in deformed top panels like this one was already showing.  I've come across a few shops that offer bracing conversion services, but that seemed too risky to me at the time.  Although I did not want to get into replacing the front bracing with a more modern X-braced pattern, I decided to try a simpler modification to the bridge plate and adjacent bracing during the rebuild.  With a little more steam and a putty knife, I took out the original bridge plate just after taking this picture.

With the neck, back and back bracing off, I was ready to start in on the long list of repairs to be made to this old guitar.

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