Mysterious buzz repair

I don’t take on many repair jobs, but this one came in from one of Craig’s students, and I couldn’t say no. It is a beautiful, simple guitar made by a Swedish guitar builder, Bo Wretling in 1968. The guitar is really easy to play due to a 630mm scale length, low action, and a narrow and thin neck. The trouble was that it had an annoying buzz on the low open strings, and sometimes in the 1st and 2nd fret positions.

Of course, my immediate thought was that it would be a simple action or fret issue – the action at the first fret was quite a bit lower than I would normally have a guitar set up. Normally I set the first fret action on the 6th string to about 1mm so that I can really dig in when I am playing and not worry about buzzing. This guitar was just about 0.5mm at the 1st fret, 6th string, which is very low for a classical guitar.

With this in mind, I started by trying to raise the action at the nut, adding shims and hoping to get rid of the buzz. Nothing worked – even when the action was well over 1.5mm, the buzz rang out, maybe even worse than before.

So I removed the strings and reached inside the guitar, thinking that I might find a loose brace. And I did – there was a pad just under the bridge that was not glued down very well, so I thought “awesome, I’ve solved it. Simple fix.” I boiled up some glue and worked it into the crack, which took some doing – it is not easy to get glue into a place that you can’t see. It took two sessions of gluing to get the pad secured. I let it sit for a day and then restrung the guitar only to find that my repair had done absolutely nothing for the buzz.

Next I checked the tuning machines – they seemed to rattle a bit when tapped, and the buzz did sound faintly metallic, so perhaps it was just a sympathetic buzz from old tuning machines. But even when I removed the offending tuner, the guitar continued to buzz.

Fed up, perplexed, and frustrated, I decided to get some felt and mute all of the possible rattles from strings and tuning machines just to make sure that it wasn’t just a loose string end buzzing against a piece of wood or a back buzz from one of the strings where it touched the headstock. It wasn’t any of these things – the buzz continued.

Then I decided to take a closer look at the bridge, and noticed that the string holes in the tie block were extremely worn. I also noticed that when I touched the 6th string behind the saddle, the buzz stopped. At this point I was pretty sure that the buzz was coming from the saddle, so I just had to figure out how to stop it. I decided to try an absurdly high saddle to see if that would stop the buzz, and it did. Finally there was no buzz. Of course, it also made the guitar completely unplayable, but at least I knew what the problem was.

Because of how worn the tie-block holes were, there was almost no break angle over the saddle, so the bass strings were flapping against the saddle. This explained why the buzzes only happened with open strings or in the lower positions – playing a note a the 12th fret or in a higher position would put enough force down on the saddle to prevent the buzz, but there was not enough downward pressure with open strings or in the first and second frets.

All I had to do was figure out how to repair the holes and/or change the string-break angle. Luckily I was spending 24 hours by myself in a car last weekend (13 hours to and 11 hours back from Virginia for my concert in Charlottesville), so I had plenty of time to come up with ideas.

Solution number 1 would be to use a higher saddle. The trouble with that is that the action at the 12th fret was already about 4.5mm, which is about the highest that I would like it to be for playability. A higher saddle could also compromise the intonation of the instrument, so I decided against this.

Solution number 2 would be to somehow make tiny wedges to attach inside the worn tie block holes. I ruled this one out because it seemed way too finicky and liable to fail in the next couple of months or when the strings get changed.

Solution number 3 would be to remove the bridge and either make a new bridge or repair the existing one. I decided that this would potentially cause a lot of damage to the instrument, and would be very labour intensive, so I decided not to remove the bridge.

The final solution that I came up with was to just replace the tie block itself. This was by far the simplest, least invasive and most likely to last solution that I could come up with, so I got to work by cutting off the tie-block with my Japanese saw. I then cleaned up the cut with a small plane, chisel, and some sandpaper so that the tie block area was left perfectly flat and ready for a new block.

I used the saw to cut off the tie block because I wanted to save the mosaic inlay that was atop the block so that I could attach it to the new block to make the repair less noticeable.

I made a new block out of ebony – the original bridge is rosewood, but I decided to use ebony so that the holes don’t wear as badly. Once I had the block sized and drilled, I glued the original mosaic veneer to the top

and then glued the tie block to the bridge.

I fashioned a makeshift caul for the inside of the guitar out of cork and a scrap piece of wood, and clamped the tie block much like I would a bridge.

After a little bit of clean up and a quick coat of shellac, I think it looks pretty great:

The repair is not invisible – if you look closely, you can see that the tie block is now a sandwich of rosewood and ebony, but it is not noticeable at first glance.

Of course, the best part is that this repair worked. By increasing the string-break angle by a little bit (I should have measured the before and after), I managed to eliminate the buzz, and improve the tone of this guitar. This was a good exercise for me actually as it proved the importance of a good string-break angle in guitar construction. (This was not the fault of the original builder, just the wearing of time). I will be more aware of this in my own construction from this point on.

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Miscellany

The past few weeks have been filled with all sorts of random exciting things, so I thought that today I would run through a few of them in a newsletter post of sorts.

CD Recording update

Many of you will already know this, but I was successful in my recording grant application, so I will be starting the process of recording a full length album of my favourite classical guitar pieces very soon! The plan is to finish all of the recording work for the project over the course of this year, and then release the album sometime in the middle of 2019. Craig is busy writing a piece for the album, which I am very excited about. The piece is called Vespers, and will be the title track for the CD. Other pieces that I will be recording include John Gordon Armstrong’s monster of a piece The Last Waltz in Boston, an etude by Ida Presti, a few of the preludes by Emilia Giuliani-Guglielmi, a couple of nocturnes, Bach’s most famous Chaconne, and Anne Lauber’s Arabesque.

Concert in the USA

Very soon I will no longer be able to say that I have not been to the United States. I was asked to play a concert as part of the Charlottesville Guitar Festival this coming September, so I will soon be planning my first trip south of the border! This was my first invitation to play at a guitar festival, so it is both exciting and nerve wracking! The Charlottesville Guitar Festival is a small (one day), young (started in 2017) festival organized by Rafael Scarfullery. This year’s festival is dedicated to the women of the classical guitar world, which is why I was asked to play.

Zither repair

A couple of months ago, I had a call from a woman who was looking for someone to repair her Vietnamese Zither. She had been referred to me by a violin maker in Ottawa from whom I had purchased pegs for a Baroque guitar a couple of years ago. I did not know what a Vietnamese Zither was (read a little about it here – although the one I worked on had 17 strings), but I said that I was willing to take a look. It turned out that it was really just wood-work that needed doing – crack repairs and a couple of broken feet. I did have to remove all of the strings and various other bits, so I labelled everything very carefully and took some photos. After the repair, this allowed me to put it all back together! I am sure that I did not tune it properly, but that was not an issue for the customer.

The majority of the work that needed to be done was definitely damage caused by changes in humidity. Instruments that come from more humid areas of the world need to be extra carefully humidified during the harsh Ottawa winters (earlier this year I had a crack to fix in a Flamenco guitar that had moved here from Vancouver – same problem!)

I started by repairing the crack in the centre of the photo above by shaping a small piece of wood to fit in the crack. I did not have any of the same species of wood (Wootung wood, from what I had read), but basswood seemed to match the colour and density of the wood quite well- the finished repair is almost invisible. I used hide glue for all of the repairs so that they can be reversed if necessary in the future. I filled the crack with the basswood and sanded it flush. I also glued a piece of softwood to the inside of the instrument in order to bridge the crack and prevent further damage.

Both of the feet (picture above) needed some work – one was a simple reattachment job, but the other was broken in half and needed to be replaced. I made a replica of the foot in mahogany and stained it with to match the rest of the instrument. I am proud to say that, unless you knew the instrument intimately before the repair, you would likely not be able to tell which foot is original and which is made by an unqualified Canadian.

At the other end of the zither, the soundboard needed to be reattached to the frame and a gap needed to be filled where the wood had shrunk. For this, I made use of my spool clamps, my kitchen, some hide glue, and a few pieces of basswood.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of the finished repair, but it was just about as invisible as the first crack fill and foot repairs.

It is always fun for me to work on different instruments when the repairs are manageable. This one turned out particularly well if I do say so myself 🙂

Guitar Delivered

The classical guitar that I was building from January to early April was finally delivered! It arrived safe and is being thoroughly enjoyed by the new owner :). This was the first guitar that I had to ship overseas, so I was incredibly nervous about the packing and delivery. I packed the guitar with lots of brown paper and bubble wrap in a guitar shipping box that was very kindly given to me by Danielle at Metro Music in Ottawa. The guitar was nestled in a Visesnut case (highly recommended) with even more bubble wrap, so really, if anything had happened to it, I would have been quite perplexed. Here is the box all fixed up and ready for shipping:

I actually ended up with a cold after all of the stress surrounding the finishing of a guitar, the shipping, and waiting for a reaction from the customer. I love building guitars, but I really hate parting with them and I really need to learn to deal with the stress that comes along with all of this!

New Building Projects

So many other things have been happening of course, but I will not babble on for too much longer and will finish this blog with just a quick note on the next guitar builds. I will be working on two guitars over the next couple of months – one that is already in progress, and another new commission. I started the commission this week. It will be a rosewood and cedar classical guitar featuring a maple fingerboard and a rosette displaying the phases of the moon. The next blog post will go into more detail on this guitar – possibly with some detail on the rosette if things go well in the next week. The other “in progress” guitar is the guitar that I will be donating to the Hamilton Guitar Festival as a prize for the competition. More on that in the next blog as well!

As always, thanks for following along with this blog of mine! I can’t believe how many exciting things are happening at the moment – better get back to work so that I don’t fall behind!

Repairing a Baroque lute

Over the past week, I have had the chance to work on a really lovely instrument. This was both very exciting and extremely nerve-wracking as I did not want to make any mistakes! The instrument was a 13-course baroque lute built by Stephen Barber and Sandi Harris in the style of a 1723 lute by Schelle. Stephen Barber and Sandi Harris are incredible instrument builders in England, and if you want to get lost in a fascinating website, I would highly suggest checking them out here.

My task was to re-attach the pegbox to the neck (I forgot to take a before picture yet again), and although I was sure that I could do this, I was not entirely sure how I would do this for the first couple of days. The tricky thing was to figure out how to get the right clamping angle to hold the pegbox to the neck while the glue set up (kind of a 45 degree angle to the neck). If that wasn’t enough, there were a lot of curves and rounded pieces of wood in this lute, so clamping was not going to be easy!

The other thing that I had to figure out was the glue itself. This was a traditionally built instrument, so it was built using traditional hide glue and needed to be repaired with the same glue. I have never used hide glue in my life, so I had to do a bunch of quick research (there are several useful videos on YouTube – I recommend checking out this short video from StewMac and this slightly longer video). Luckily Lee Valley sells a couple of hide glue options. I ordered the stronger granular hide glue as I figured that this is one of the highest stress areas on an instrument! Lee Valley also has a “how to” pamphlet on hide glue which is straightforward and very helpful. I spent a couple of days experimenting with the glue before diving into the project. The test pieces I glued up did not come apart no matter how hard I pulled, so I figured that I was doing it right! My experimenting also forced me to recognize the benefits of working with this kind of glue, so I think that I will be doing some more experimenting in the future.

I knew that I had to make a jig to clamp the joint. My first design attempt  didn’t quite work, so I asked my dad to send me a picture from Lundberg’s Historical Lute Construction book so that I would have a better idea of what I was doing. This set me in the right direction, and I made up a clamping jig without too much difficulty.

I shaped a piece of wood slightly longer than the length of the neck to fit the fingerboard radius and attached some pieces of cork for cushioning along the length. This is the piece of basswood that you can see underneath the fingerboard and lute in the picture above. To the bottom side of the jig, I glued and screwed a triangle of cutoff mahogany for my clamp to grab onto. I also made a curved piece of wood for the other side of the neck so that I could securely clamp the first jig to the lute without damaging the back of the neck. This is just a piece of pine with a curve sanded out to match the curve of the back of the neck with some cork for damage prevention. This is the chunk of wood supporting the two F clamps in the picture above. I should also mention that I was working around tied gut frets, so I had to leave gaps in my cork where the frets could sit.

Once the jig was made, it was just a matter of getting the cam clamp in the right place to hold the joint. I should mention that in the Lundberg setup, he uses two F clamps for this joint. Because this lute is finished and there is a beautiful rounded piece of wood where I needed to apply the clamping pressure, I couldn’t use F clamps without damaging the lute further, so I chose to use a well padded cam clamp.

And yes, I have been working in my kitchen for the last week because I do not have a glue pot for my workshop yet.

After practising a few test runs and enlisting Craig as a second pair of hands, I warmed up the glue, slapped it on, and clamped the joint. This took a couple of goes to get right, but in the end, we managed to get everything in the right place and securely clamped. Hide glue requires 24 hours (minimum) to cure, so I let the lute sit for a day before stringing it up.

There are 24 strings on this lute, so stringing up the instrument was no small feat! As much as I love lutes, this job (and subsequent tuning sessions) really made me appreciate the 6 strings of the guitar and modern tuning machines

And that is it! This project has rekindled my interest in and love for these instruments, so hopefully I will have the time to work on something like this in the future. My dream is to build myself a theorbo, so maybe I’ll be able to get to that in the next few years.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll leave you with a few more pictures of this lovely instrument:

Repairing a mandolin

I don’t do a lot of repair work by choice (I simply don’t have time!), but I do tend to enjoy the odd repair that I am asked to do. Repairing instruments teaches me a lot about building as I am able to scrutinize what another builder (or factory) has done. This project was particularly fun – a friend of mine asked me to repair her grandmother’s Ukrainian flat-top mandolin so that she would be able to learn to play just like her grandmother.

I neglected to take a ‘before’ picture, but the fingerboard of the mandolin had fallen off, and the back was coming off in places and missing a brace.

I started by removing the strings and then prying off the back. Because the glue was so old, the back came off quite easily with  little bit of heat and a narrow metal spatula. In the photo below, I am just repairing one ‘tooth’ of the kerfing that was slightly damaged.

I then cleaned up the back and removed the one brace that was still partially attached. 

And then re-braced the back with two new spruce braces shaped to match the original braces.

With that all cleaned up and the glue removed from the kerfing pieces, I reattached the back. I used tape alongside my newly homemade spool clamps to clamp the back in place.


With the back fixed, I proceeded to make a new fingerboard out of ebony. I had the original fingerboard, but it was very worn and split down the centre, so I decided that it would be better to make a new fingerboard. The scale length of this instrument was just slightly under 13 inches, and I put 17 frets into the fingerboard. I used narrow Nickel/Silver fretwire from Luthier’s Mercantile (FW68 which is intended for mandolins and other small instruments).

The last thing to do was to clean up the instrument with a new coat of stain and finish on the back, sides, neck, and headpiece. I did not touch the soundboard as it was ornamented, and although damaged, was probably the most sentimental part of the instrument. In removing and reattaching the back, I had slightly damaged the already peeling finish on the back and sides, so I decided that it would be good to give the mandolin a new protective layer. I also realized in the process of removing the original finish, that the old finish had faded in the sunlight considerably from a reddish hue to a rather unappealing dusty brown. Because of this, I decided to stain the back and sides a deep “Bombay Mahogany” colour, which I think looks quite good. I went for a satin finish, as this is an old instrument, and a shiny new finish would look quite out of place against the worn soundboard and old hardware.

The last thing to do was to make a new nut (the old one was quite broken), and do the final set up with light gauge strings. The instrument is quite playable now, and is a lot of fun! I kind of want to build myself a flat-top mandolin now so that I can do a bit of Chris Thile inspired bluegrass strumming. I taught myself 3 chords today before the mandolin was picked up in the afternoon, and had a lot of fun messing around with the one folk tune that I could think of and had time to figure out.

I have a few more repairs to do in the near future (I think that there are 3 guitars sitting waiting for a bit of TLC. Somehow, their owners are apparently quite OK with my sluggish pace of work!), so I will try to do a few more posts like this one in the new year. And, as I said, there might be another mandolin in the future of this blog…

In the meantime, I am finishing up the classical guitar that I am working on, and am making good progress on the finishing. The guitar is quite shiny at this point, and I have to say that I think that this might be some of my best work yet. I will have that guitar finished by the week’s end, and should have a blog post on the final stages of building before Christmas. If things go well, I might even have time for a festive video with the guitar before I have to deliver it!

Acoustic steel-string guitar repair

It has been too long! I have been starting all sorts of projects, but have not had time to put enough together to make an interesting blog post. I also went on holiday for a couple of weeks at the end of September/beginning of October and then spent a couple weeks making cutting boards and getting over a cold.

But now it is back to guitar building and a list of repair jobs that need to get done. The first project that I have completed is a soundboard and bridge repair for one of Craig’s students. I have had this guitar sitting in my workshop for several months, so it feels good to finally have it finished!

Of course, I forgot to take a proper before picture, but basically it was missing the strings, bridge, nut, and a chunk of the soundboard underneath the bridge. The first thing to do was to take care of the hole in the soundboard, so I cut out a new piece of wood and shaped it to fit the hole, cleaned out the glue residue, and glued the new piece in.

Then I had to make a bridge. The bridge shape was easy to trace because of the clear lines left in the finish. The trickiest thing was to figure out the scale length (about 640mm) and get the compensation right by putting the saddle slot in the right place. I made the bridge out of a piece of walnut so that it would match the fingerboard. This is a softer wood than I normally go for in bridge making, so hopefully it all works out! (I know another, more established luthier who makes almost all of his bridges from walnut, so I am fairly confident that it will work).

During the clean up and bridge making process I taped off the soundboard so that I would do less damage to the finish.

I fit the bridge by sanding the underside of the bridge to the contour of the soundboard.

Then I just had to glue the bridge on using three clamps to hold the bridge in place.

All that was left was to make a new nut and saddle, polish the bridge, and steel-wool the fingerboard. (side note: if your fingerboard is looking a little shabby, take a piece of superfine steel wool and buff the fingerboard the next time you change your strings. This gets rid of the grime build up, and some say that the notice a difference in sound as a result!)

This was a fairly quick job, but the result is a very playable guitar with comfortable action and a surprisingly good sound. The bridge looks great, but yes, I am aware that the bridge pin holes are not quite lined up – just how the pattern turned out – I’ll do better next time!


Thank you for continuing to read this blog – I know that I have been rather absent the last few months! I’ll be back with more regular posts now that my work pace has picked up again. I have a couple of guitars to build, some recording projects to talk about, and a few exciting other projects to share soon.