“AD The Maine Tumbleweed” Stella Restoration

Part of the vintage guitar adventure is to find old guitars that have been neglected over many decades, but have good ‘bones’ and a cool vibe, and get them back into optimal playing shape.  The ‘Maine Tumbleweed’ Stella is one example.  We bought this guitar at the Philly Guitar show a few years ago, mostly for ‘parts’, like the tuners and end pins, but the more it sat in my workshop, the more it called out, “Rescue me!”

So last week I began to disassemble.  First, I looked it all over, inside and out, like I do all guitars we get in.  Next I jot down pertinent info in a log that I keep on my bench, so that 1.  I can refer back to the guitar in case I get one like it in the future (like to find the  dovetail ‘pocket’ location for a specific year/brand of guitar) and 2.  So I can remember what I’ve done and need to do to get the guitar finished.

The Tumbleweed needed a host of things:  neck reset, braces reglued, bridge repaired and reglued, top cracks addressed, frets leveled and dressed, tuner parts sourced and tuners repaired.  As usual, close to a thousand dollars worth of work in order to sell it for $500 .. what a business model!

Job one was to address the old top crack repairs.  Someone, a long time ago, used something like Plastic Wood to repair the cracks.  Keep in mind, my goal was to stabilize the guitar, not make it look like a shiny, new one, so, least invasive are the watch words.  I meticulously picked away the old Plastic Wood using mostly dental tools I scarfed from my daughter’s dental cart she left here after graduating from dental school.  Then I glued and cleated the cracks, using hot hide glue.  Hot hide glue is a time proven glue, easy to use (once you get it down pat), and it what these old guitars were put together with back in the day.

Here’s a shot of my glue pot.

My glue pot
My glue pot

I took a hint from Frank Ford’s www.frets.com website, but instead of using disposable cups, I use the glue pot heater and a weird Martini glass immersed into the water.  I keep freshly made hide glue in the refrigerator, and when needed, tear off a small chunk, put it in the Martini glass, which is nice and cozy in the hot water.  Very simple.

Next, I began to glue the braces, again with hot hide glue (all the repairs to this guitar were with hhg).  Some don’t like to use hhg if there is a chance of a minute or more of open time before clamping because hgg will begin to gel quickly.  Here’s how I overcome that:

Heating up the guitar before gluing
Heating up the guitar before gluing

I use a combination of heat lamp and hair dryer.  I blow hot air into the guitar body while at the same time burn a heat lamp within a few feet of the guitar.  The lamp does a few things.  First, it heats the guitar, and at the same time, allows a lot of light so I can see what I’m doing.  Just got to watch out for a burned forearm!  Notice the two scissor jacks inside the guitar (available at www.stumac.com).  I often put these in place before I apply the glue so I can save a step, and some time.  It works as long as I can still get the artist trowel under the brace.  So I heat the trowel in the glue pot water, dip it in the glue, and slide it under the brace.  I’ll do this as many times as needed, within reason.  I also tape off the back of the guitar so as not to smear glue all over and make a messy job.  Once the glue is applied, I tighten the already-in-place clamps (another time saver).

After all the braces were glued (this usually takes a looong time on a guitar like this) I filled in the screw holes in the bridge, cleaned it up and reglued it back on the guitar top, pretty routine.

Next up was the neck set.  Because this guitar likely sat in a very hot environment for a long part of its life (as evidenced by the ‘cooked’ finish and many loose braces) the neck popped out ‘dry’, no steam necessary.  I love when this happens, and always use it as my first method of choice when removing a neck.  I once had a string of 6 guitars in a row where the necks popped out dry, including a 20s vintage Martin!  This way, there’s no fret removal, and no hot steam to mess up a finish or swell wood.

To gain the proper neck angle I always check my string alignment first to see if I must shift the neck left or right as I remove material from the heel.  If the guitar had no strings on it, I simply use a piece of string held taut from nut to appropriate bridge pin hole.  I had to shift this one to favor the treble side.  I also use a straight edge along the neck to see where it hits at the bridge, and will also sight down the fingerboard to get a quick determination, too.  There’s a lot more to say about the neck set procedure, but I’ll just add that I’m also cognizant of the stiffness of the neck, which will determine how far I go with the angle.  The spongy necks (think cheap Regals, Stellas, et al) will usually get a more radical angle than a good stiff neck with a truss rod, like a Martin or Gibson.

I always dry fit and clamp the neck into place and put on a few strings to tension, and then assess what the neck is doing, and also check my action.  I adjust as necessary before I do a final glue of the joint.  It took me about a dozen neck sets before I learned this valuable lesson.

I clean up the fingerboard extension, guitar top, and the dove tail joint and ‘color in’ any glaring white wood exposed for aesthetic purposes.  Before glueing I always dry clamp to see what’s what.  Next, I heat the parts with the heat lamp and hair dryer, which keeps the glue in liquid form longer, allowing for longer clamping time.  I figure I have about two minutes to get it all clamped up.

Heating the dove tail joint prior to gluing
Heating the dove tail joint prior to gluing

Once the joint is together, I use the typical cauls and clamps.

All clamped up!
All clamped up!

If there are gaps in the fit, I’ll cheat and in-fill quickly with hhg and ebony dust … learned this trick from one of the best in the business!

I did hit one snag, the tuner gears are press-on type, and one was cracked, and I’m missing a few parts, so I had to put on different tuners until I source the parts to restore the original ‘gear up’ tuners from before ca. 1928.  This Stella actually dates to likely the teens, or maybe even a bit earlier.

Early 20th Century gear up tuners
Early 20th Century ‘gear up’ tuners

That’s it in a nutshell.  After cleaning up any glue, and leveling and dressing frets, making a new nut or saddle, I’m always excited to give the resurrected guitar its first strum.  The Maine Tumbleweed did not disappoint!  Great sound, great player, and another oldie back in action for the next century!

M. Iucci – Italian Luthier

We managed to find another fabulous guitar made by an Italian luthier working in NYC in the early part of the 20th Century, this time Michael Iucci.  Iucci built some very ornate banjos and mandolins, and a least a few guitars bear his stamp:  “M. Iucci, Music House, 77 Broome St. N.Y.” Interestingly, early census entries list him as ‘musician’.

This guitar is finely constructed, and bear the hallmarks of the Italian-made instruments from this time, including the ‘tenon’ neck joint, as opposed to the traditional ‘dovetail’, the large, square-cut kerfing, the ornate ‘Nick Lucas’ inlay, and the fancy purfling.  The underside of the top is also cleated along the center seam is the same way guitars made by A. Cerrito were cleated, so perhaps he had a hand in this one?

The standout unique feature of this example is the maple body, very rare on early flat tops, and rarely seen on extant guitars from the Italian builders.  Of note is that this guitar, with its maple body, fancy inlay and graceful ‘mustache’ bridge are identical to the guitar found in photos of early country music pioneer, Earnest Stoneman.   Stoneman’s guitar was an ‘auditorium’ size  (15 1/2″ across the lower bout) and the example here is a ‘grand concert’ size guitar (14 3/4″ across).

The guitar produces a wonderful tone, with powerful overtones not found in many early flat tops.  A beautiful companion piece to our jumbo 12-string presented below.

This is the ink stamp found inside the sound hole.

Cleats commonly found in A. Cerrito guitars.  The blond cleats are simply repairs.
Cleats commonly found in A. Cerrito guitars. The blond cleats are simply repairs.
M. Iucci is said to be the gent with glasses under the umbrella. Photo courtesy of the Silanos family.
M. Iucci is said to be the gent with glasses under the umbrella. Photo courtesy of the Silanos family.

Italian Luthier’s Guild: Galiano Jumbo 12-String Deluxe

Working in lower Manhattan in the very early 20th century were many Italian luthiers who’d recently arrived from Italy with luthier skills.  Some of the best known are Antonio Cirrito, Raphael Ciani (Uncle to John DiAngelico), and Joseph Nettuno.  Many of these men worked across the river in Jersey City in the Oscar Schmidt guitar factory building Stella guitars by day, and returned to Little Italy to build instruments for the Italian community in Manhattan.

This photo, found at a flea market, depicts a likely Manhattan-based Italian-American group of musicians from the early part of the 20th century.  Note the guitarist on the left sitting, with the ‘Nick Lucas’-style inlays, and compare them to the jumbo 12-string Galiano we have pictured below .. surely an Italian guild-built six-string guitar.  And note the mandolins, very similar to those made by the Italian luthiers working in Little Italy at that time.

Italian Mandolin Orchestra NYC ca 1910

Italian Mandolin Orchestra NYC ca 1910

Here’s a very rare Italian-made 12-string from the same time period, very finely assembled with high quality materials and workmanship.  Almost 16″ across the lower bout, and a scale length of over 26″.

For more details and a sound clip and video, check out our website:  www.vintagebluesguitars.com

Galiano 12-String Deluxe Italian Luthiers Guild

Galiano 12-String Deluxe Italian Luthier's Guild

12-String Galiano Inlay

12-String Galiano Inlay

Sovereign Jumbo Six String

Another Oscar Schmidt made jumbo has passed through our hands recently, and it’s a special one. The big 15.5″ body is adorned with top-of-the-line marquetry, and the Italian influence is seen in the “mustache” bridge and inlaid faux-tortoise pickguard. The large mahogany body and 26.5″ scale makes this a nice finger picking guitar, and the harder it’s played, the nastier the tone!

Mustache bridge and inlaid pickguard

Mustache bridge and inlaid pickguard

Sovereign Jumbo Six

Sovereign Jumbo Six

Stella Jumbo 12-String Guitar

A rare and iconic guitar, this one is a ‘Decalcomania’ Stella, named for the application of decal ornamentation, specifically the sound hole ring and back stripe.

Stella Jumbo12-String with Decalcomania sound hole ring

Stella Jumbo12-String with Decalcomania sound hole ring

In fact, this guitar resembles the one held by Blind Willie McTell in his famous photo, but for the decal along the bridge and the tailpiece:

McTell and his Decalcomania 12-String Stella

McTell and his Decalcomania 12-String Stella

Here’s a six-string version of Willie’s Decalcomania 12-String

Decalcomania Stella Six String

Decalcomania Stella Six String

Two Oscar Schmidt (Stella) Jumbo 6-String Guitars

The venerable Oscar Schmidt Company manufactured an immensely popular line of guitars in the first half of the 20th Century.   By 1939, the company was sold and would have slipped into obscurity but for the rising popularity of old country blues music beginning in the 1960’s, and another obscure object from the early 20th Century, the 78 rpm record.  It just so happened that writers on the early blues reported that the Stella brand guitar was favored and used by many of the musicians on the early 78 recordings, some claim for their sound, and some because they were cheap and available (many Schmidt instruments were sold through mail order catalogs, or in local general stores).  Today the Oscar Schmidt brands enjoy a new popularity among fans of the early recorded music.

The vast majority of Stellas that survived were originally cataloged as ‘Concert’ size guitars, those measuring about 13.5″ across the lower bout.  Concert guitars were big sellers because they were cheap and available.  As a side note ..steps up on soap box..many guitar enthusiasts today refer to this size guitar from the 20’s and 30’s as ‘parlor guitar’.  But this is a misnomer.  Catalogs of the era refer to this size guitar as ‘Concert’, not parlor.  The parlor moniker likely came about as a nickname applied to any small guitar.  An argument can be made that only guitars used during the parlor music era (think Steven Foster), from roughly 1850 through about 1920, could accurately be called ‘parlor guitars’.  This parlor music era is so-called because, for entertainment on say, a Sunday afternoon, folks would gather in the parlor and make music, often played from sheet music purchased through mail order or bought at the local general store (sound familiar?).   This era faded into oblivion with the invention of the aforementioned 78 rpm record.  With the rise of the 78, musicians left the parlor and set out to become recording stars, planting the seeds of what we know as pop music today!   But that’s another story.

The next size Stellas, and more rare today, are what were cataloged as a ‘Grand Concert’  guitars, with a spread of 14.5″ across the lower bout and a scale length of about 26.5″.  And largest Schmidt-produced instruments were referred to as ‘Auditorium’ guitars, and measured a whopping 15.5″ across, also with the long scale length.  These guitars today are called ‘jumbos’, and the one most familiar to music fans is the Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter  Oscar Schmidt-made jumbo 12 string.

Lead Belly with his iconic Stella Jumbo 12-string

Lead Belly with his iconic Stella Jumbo 12-string

Schmidt jumbos are quite rare and few have survived today.  The 12-strings are coveted for the Lead Belly and Blind Willie McTell sound, two well known Stella jumbo 12-string players.  It’s likely very few were originally made, because in those days, the 12-string was a pretty obscure instrument.  However, original 6-string jumbos are just as rare, and maybe even more so, because it’s known that, over the past decades, numerous jumbo 6’s were converted to the more desirable 12.

So it’s a rare occasion to spot a Stella jumbo 6, but even more rare when two original examples are together.

Two Oscar Schmidt made Auditorium 6 string guitars

Two Oscar Schmidt made Auditorium 6 string guitars

The two guitars shown share the same dimensions in terms of body size and scale length.  Both are likely made in the late teens into the 1920’s.  Where they differ is wood selection.  The one on the left has a spruce top with painted birch back and sides.  The example on the right has a body constructed entirely of mahogany, a rare top wood compared to Schmidt examples known today (solid birch top, back and sides are much more common).  The spruce topped example is from the upper part of the Schmidt line, as noted by its spruce top, body binding and sound hole purfling.  The example on the right is from the lower end of the line, a notation supported by the ‘cheaper’ mahogany body, no binding or purfling and a headstock shape familiar to guitars on the lower end of the Schmidt line.  The spruce topped guitar has a replaced bridge, and the mahogany example has an added pickguard, otherwise all original.

To add some perspective, here’s a shot of the jumbo 6 along side it’s diminutive ‘concert-size’ sibling.  Note that the soundhole purfling is the same!

Concert Stella, left; Auditorium Stella, right

Concert Stella, left; Auditorium Stella, right

Even though unlabeled, how do we know they were made in Jersey City by the Schmidt company?  One giveaway is the square upper kerfing glued in to hold the top to the sides, a Schmidt hallmark.  Also, the curved profile  of the heel and back is found on Schmidt-made instruments.  The little concert guitar has it’s original yellow Stella label.

Next is the jumbo 6 compared to a  ‘Lead Belly’-type jumbo 12.  Both guitars were from the top of the Schmidt line.

Two Stella jumbos

Two Stella jumbos

Finally, how do they sound?  Schmidt guitars were almost always ladder braced tops.  The sound produced by these type instruments is often described as ‘woody’, full-sounding guitars with a lot of mid range umph, especially the jumbos.  Blues guitar player Stefan Grossman describes the jumbo 12-string “..as if you are playing a giant organ.”

Here are a couple of sound clips..first the 6, then the 12:

StellaJumbo6Demo

Jumbo12BlogDemo

C. F. Martin ‘Wanamaker’ Guitar

John Wanamaker Guitar by C.F. Martin

As many Martin guitar aficionados can attest, the Nazareth, PA factory produced instruments for a variety of sellers imprinted with the resellers own label, stamp or brand.   Oliver Ditson, Rudolph Wurlitzer  and  the Southern California Music Company are some of the names that may come up when discussing rare Martins.  One of the more arcane resellers of Martin guitars was the Wanamaker’s department stores in New York and Philadelphia.   According to the new book, “Martin Guitars:  A Technical Reference”, by Richard Johnston and Dick Boak (the two book set revises and updates the original Martin Guitar book by Mike Longworth), Martin made a few “special models” for John Wanamaker about 1909.  On page 233 of the book, an image of the Wanamaker stamp is shown.  In a recent discussion with Dick Boak, it was disclosed that he’d heard of the Wanamaker Martins, but had never seen one.  He also stated that the Martin archive retains the original Wanamaker stamp.  In another discussion with a prominent and long-time Martin guitar dealer and collector, it was reported that he’d seen only one guitar with the Wanamaker stamp.  So we here at vintagebluesguitars.com were thrilled to take possession of a Wanamaker Martin, even though we didn’t know it was a Martin guitar when acquired.

Wanamaker Martin before restoration

Wanamaker Martin before restoration

Based upon the guitar’s dimensions and woods, this example specs out to be a model 2 ½ – 17.  Currently, this little gem is waiting to undergo careful repairs, to include crack and ding repair, reproduction pyramid bridge, neck set, and the necessary set up work to get the guitar stable and playable again.  In the meantime, here’s a report on the nuts and bolts that make up this unusual Martin, arranged much like Mike Longworth’s seminal book on Martin guitars:

Total Length – 36”

Body Length – 17 5/8”

Width Upper Bout – 8 3/8”

Width Lower Bout – 11 ¾

Depth Upper Bout – 3 1/8”

Depth Lower Bout – 3 ¾”

Width at Nut – 1 ¾”

Width at 12th Fret – 2 ¼”

Diameter of Sound Hole – 3 ½”

Scale 24 ½”

Bridge – 5 ¾” x 7/8”

Bridge ‘Wings’ – 1 3/8”

Cedar Neck

Ebony Fingerboard

Rosewood overlay over headstock

Spruce top

Mahogany back and sides

Bar frets

Engraved brass tuners w/ bone/ivory buttons

Top bound w/ rosewood; wbwb purfling

Sound hole binding three parts:  bwbw – Rope in green/brown/black – wbwb

Ebony end pin with Brazillian strip inlaid where sides join

X-braced with two diamond shaped cleats over  the seam of the two-piece top

End block overlaid with thin vertical strip

Oval ink stamp on mahogany heel:  John Wanamaker Originator New York Philadelphia Paris w/  ‘G’ stamped below?

Date (’09?) and one initial written in pencil underside of top

“Around 1909, special models were made for this large Philadelphia department store.”  P 255 Washburn and Johnston “Martin Guitars” 1997

Beautiful grained mahogany back

Beautiful grained mahogany back

Sound hole rings possibly unique to the Wanamaker guitars

Sound hole rings possibly unique to the Wanamaker guitars

Original tuners

Original tuners and hint of cedar neck

Oddball Harmony

Since Harmony probably made a zillion guitars over the years, there are bound to be some odd combinations  out there.  Here’s one you don’t see everyday:  Flat top with f-holes.  Probably from the late ’30’s to early ’40’s.

f-holes in a flat top

f-holes in a flat top

Someone enjoyed playing something similar back in the day..nice blues hat!

Harm Flat F hole

Another Oddball

Here’s another oddball.  I’d never seen another headstock like this one.  At first, one may think cut down 12-string headstock.  But a quick examination shows that the headstock is unmolested, and originally built in this offset manner..for what purpose  .. who knows? .. but it’s a cool look and an oddball for sure.  Otherwise, a sundry grand concert-size six string with a spruce top and mahogany back and sides.   But, adding to the mystique are the scratched inscriptions and names on the head stock..wonder who the ‘Delta Kid’ was and what music he/she played on the guitar?

The thing above the bridge is an added hand rest of sorts.

The thing above the bridge is an added hand rest of sorts.

Asymetrical headstock revealing intriguing names and symbols.

Asymetrical headstock revealing intriguing names and symbols.