Saturday, August 18, 2012

Dumpster Ibanez, Part the First

About two years ago, while walking back from the shops near my house, I saw a guitar headstock sticking out of a bin. Curious, I walked over and had a look. I saw a slightly battered looking 90s Ibanez, with an RG-shape body, very worn and battered looking hardware, and a snapped neck. I didn't recognize the model name on the headstock, but it was clearly a fairly low-end guitar. If it wasn't for the fact that I could see ‘Seymour Duncan’ written on the bridge pickup (SD are a maker of nice aftermarket pickups that cost about £70 each) I would have left it where it was. The neck didn't look that badly broken and I figured that, if nothing else, the electronics were worth salvaging, so I pulled it out of the bin and took it home, much to Kristen's annoyance.
The poor thing when it first arrived

 It had suffered an accident, possibly guitar flip related.

Top half is sheared along the neck join, bottom half is ragged.

When I got back to the house I cleaned it up a bit and gave it a closer examination. The break was worse than it had initially appeared; the neck and fingerboard were sheared through and the strings were the only thing holding the headstock in place. Some material had split off and been lost from the back of the neck, exposing the truss rod. The rest of the guitar was in a similarly poor state. The neck pickup was covered with a layer of gaffa tape that disguised a gaping hole in the front. The hair-thin wire of the coils had clearly been damaged, rendering the pickup useless. When I tried to dismantle the Floyd Rose tremolo I found that several of the machine screws holding the saddles in place had been cross-threaded. It took some vice-grips and a great deal of effort to get them out, and, once removed, they would not go back in.

For a guitar that probably cost no more than £200 to begin with, it was clearly too badly damaged to be worth the effort of repairing. Nonetheless, I decided to try. I'd been doing minor repairs to guitars for years and was excited by the opportunity to try my hand at the woodworking and fretting side of things.

Things didn't start well. In fact, they started pretty terribly. I'm not sure if this was entirely down to my incompetence (it was a cheap instrument, designed without much consideration for how it could be repaired), but I'm pretty sure my incompetence was the main contributing factor.

I decided that the first thing I needed to do was remove the fretboard so that I could remove the truss rod. I used lots of water and a heated palette-knife to try and ease apart the glue-join, but it would not cooperate. I had to use increasing amounts of force which eventually resulted in the fretboard disintegrating. This was probably unavoidable – to save costs, the fretboards on these instruments are very thin, with barely 1mm of clearance between the bottom of the fretwire and the underside of the board – but in retrospect I'm not sure if I actually *had* to take the fretboard off. It may have been possible to reattach the neck without doing any of that.

So, after round one I had a shredded fretboard which I would have to replace and re-fret. I wanted to teach myself how to do fretting anyway, however, so I wasn't overly bothered. Moreover, not only do I rarely every play electric guitars, I also already have one. So I wasn't in any rush. I bought two pre-cut fretboards from Stewart MacDonald (one just in case I fucked up the first one) and a few metres of fretwire.

While waiting for the fretboards to arrive, I decided to get on with the business of attaching the headstock. My plan was sound – reglue the bits I had, then square off the ragged hole in the back of the neck and plug it – but my execution was lacking. Having never really done any woodworking before, and not having any of the proper tools, I struggled to make the hole square. Each attempt to make the gap a more regular shape just made the hole bigger, until I had carved out a section that was so deep it critically weakened the neck join. After a great deal of practice with scrap wood I was able to carve out a half-decent plug for this hole, but it was never going to hold.

Gluing the neck back together.

The plug. I got a lot of practice carving wood before I scrounged a chunk of scrap maple from a guitar workshop on Denmark street. That large vertical glue join would undoubtedly fail the second strings were put on. Seeing as I buggered up the Fretwork, however, this never actually happened.

I decided to plow on anyway, however, because I figured I may as well get practice making the whole neck, even if it was never going to be usable. I glued the fretboard on (with gorilla glue – a bad choice) and had a go at fretting. Again, this wasn't something I'd ever attempted before, and I didn't have any of the right tools. I had no consistent way of bending the fretwire before I pushed it in, so the ends tended to spring out of their slots the second I turned my back. Also, as the fretwire wasn't curved to a consistent radius, it tended to be all lumpy and odd even when it was seated properly.

It didn't help, of course, that I was essentially just trying to mash the stuff into place with a clawhammer. Each fret was traumatisingly battered by the time I've managed to get it seated halfway right.

I declared the neck to be soundly and completely fucked up, and gave up.