I wanted to try my hand at lutherie and, rather than a scratch build or using a kit, I thought that finding old guitars in need of a little TLC at flea markets, etc. and restoring them to playable condition would be a good way to get some experience and confidence. For my first attempt, I came across an intriguing candidate in the junk bin of a local guitar shop. It is a 1970’s (I think) Epiphone FT-165 Bard 12. This is a made in Japan 12 string with laminated sides, back and top. It turned out to be rather challenging as the neck to body joint (it has a bolt-on neck) was broken. Apparently, this is common on these guitars, suggesting that the design is inherently not up to the task of reacting the tension of 12 strings. The neck and the block that it is bolted to were intact but the glue joints holding the block in place were mostly broken and the fretboard had pressed down so far as to break the top. One brace was loose, the nut was broken and the truss rod cover and one tuner/machine head were missing. I couldn’t tell if the truss rod was going to work because the nut was buggered up, probably by someone trying to turn it with the wrong tool. There is some obvious wear on the first two frets indicating that this guitar was played. The general condition of the guitar and finish are quite good for its age. With this folded neck situation, the guitar was not playable but, for the record, the action at the 12th fret, without much string tension, was about 3/8 of an inch. Someone had tried to shim the neck with some folded-up cardboard but I don’t think this was doing any good.
The truss rod turned out to be ok and I was able to get a 5mm Allen key into the adjustment nut. I lubricated and reassembled it. With no string tension the neck is flat and there don’t seem to be any high frets.
Getting the neck block back in position and securely held was going to be critical to rescuing this guitar from the dumpster. I spent some time with clamps and weights (no glue yet), persuading everything back into position. I didn’t trust the original design to hold up if I just re-glued it, so I made some gussets to improve the connections of the neck block to the top, bottom and shoulders. Fortuitously, there were gaps of about 1/16 of an inch between the block and transverse braces, top and bottom. I used 1/16-inch plywood to make reinforcements that connect the neck block to these braces, quite securely. I am fairly confident that the strength is greatly improved. I don’t think that these changes will significantly affect the tone since this area is supposed to be stiff anyway and is far from the bridge.
With the structural integrity restored, some measurements and high school geometry suggested that I was going to need a shim about 1/16th of an inch thick at the bridge end of the neck block pocket tapering to zero at the headstock end of the pocket (about 1.5 degrees). So, another piece of 1/16” plywood was just the thing. I used double-sided tape to hold it down at the edge of my bench and shaped it with sandpaper. Reassembling the guitar and putting a couple of strings on verified that I got it about right.
I made a filler piece for the top to replace the broken section under the end of the fretboard. After staining this patch, black and red ball point pens were used to suggest the missing purfling and the piece was varnished. This repair is obvious but I don’t think it is too unsightly.
I ordered a pre-slotted Tusque nut from GraphTech. This guitar has a zero fret so the depth of the nut slots is not so critical – another lucky break on this project. It only took a little filing and sanding to get a good fit.
A truss rod cover was made from 1/16” plywood in roughly the shape of covers on other Epiphones. It was finished with some sanding sealer and black paint.
I removed each tuner, took the cover off and lubricated it. Most of them were a little tight. I didn’t see any indication that they had ever been oiled or greased.
The guitar has an adjustable saddle which sure makes the setup easier. I had the neck on and off a bunch of times, it would probably have had to do it more times if it weren’t for this feature or I might have had to make a new saddle. As of now, there are just a few thousandths of neck relief and the action at the 12th fret is about 6/64” on both the bass the treble sides. I might tweak this as I get some experience playing this guitar. To further reduce the chance of a recurring structural problem I used light strings and, for now at least, I have the guitar tuned down a whole step.
An experienced luthier had a quick look at it and gave a nod of approval. I think it sounds good and plays well. I will try to get a few people with more experience to give it a play and see what they think.
Strings graciously supplied by a friend
So, for less than $70 I have a cool vintage 12 string guitar.
This was an enjoyable and interesting exercise. I learned a lot and have a bit more confidence to take on more guitar rescues and to make minor adjustments to my good guitars. The most important lesson learned is to spend a lot of time thinking about how to do things before taking any irreversible steps. Don’t worry, I won’t be taking a jackhammer to any vintage Martins or Gibsons any time soon.
Thank you to Route 1 Guitars in Milford and Guitar Fixer Bob in Seymour, both of Connecticut, for their inventories of all kinds of cool guitar stuff and for their advice and encouragement.
I would have included some photos but I don't have the patience right now to try to figure out how.