Top Replacements Introduction
Sometimes A Soundboard Just Doesn’t Want To Be Part Of A Guitar Anymore
by Pat DiBurro
(Originally appeared in the Winter 2011 edition of Guitarmaker magazine (www.guitarmaker.org). Used with permission of the author)
Easily identified are the tops with rather large portions of spruce missing in action or so cracked up the glue to repair it would weigh more than the wood. A soundboard with a huge belly behind the bridge may be salvaged but is it going to end up back on the bench in a few years with the same issues? My own training in guitar repair came from within the repair shops of several American guitar manufacturers. Problem or suspect soundboards were dealt with swiftly. They were removed and discarded, problem solved. In a large production factory a new top is braced and attached then sent back into regular production passing through the same department stations as new bodies. Replacement of a soundboard is a major modification and the appropriateness of this procedure to a vintage instrument has to be considered on a case by case basis. The ethics of top replacements can, has and will forever be debated. Perhaps I’m flicking matches at a powder keg by detailing these procedures so choose your victims wisely. Recognizing that if I were able to easily replace soundboards I could also resolve some serious issues I sought out a method for accomplishing this.
In June of 2009 at the ASIA Symposium in Stroudsburg, PA I presented a demonstration on top replacements. The following text and photos may be considered a refresher course for the attendees of that demo and to others an introduction to a method for your consideration. Remember to practice on junk instruments before you tear into something good. Like most tasks in the trade of guitar repair there are many different techniques and methods to reach the same outcome. Some may be determined by skill level or perhaps by equipment limitations. The method presented here is just one of many ways to replace a soundboard. A production factory or independent builder using standardized forms and bracing pattern may choose a different technique. This method is excellent for a repair shop because no molds or forms are required and the original bracing pattern can be transferred to the replacement top. Additionally the outer binding remains in place leaving the finish on the sides intact.
I learned the basics of this method from Tim Luranc and Dave Staudie of the Taylor Guitars Repair Department. Issue #30 in the spring 1996 Guitarmaker Magazine had an article written by Bob Taylor describing removal/replacement of the soundboard leaving the sides undisturbed. The following instructions were excerpted from the Guitarmaker article, a Taylor procedure sheet and my personal revisions and amendments.
There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. - Bruce Lee
The instrument in the accompanying photos that received a new soundboard was a CF Martin D-42 that was about 10 years old. (Photo 1)
It arrived in my shop with an open crack extending from the bridge to the end on the lower bout and a sunken top. This instrument arrived here in April and after 4 weeks of acclimation to return it back to equilibrium moisture content there were no improvements. The crack was still wide open and a straight edge laid over the soundboard just behind the bridge revealed a dip from the bridge wing to the side. (Photo 2)
It was clear that the soundboard was not coming back to a reasonable radius so the decision was made to replace the soundboard. The original top was shot with an aging toner under the clear-coats. My preference is to spray clear and let the top age gracefully on its own.
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