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1930's KayKraft guitar rebuild.


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Ok, time for a new project. This is another one that has been a long time coming.




In 1989 I was 19 years old. Back then, like today I loved tracking down good deals and cool stuff. The deal is half the fun to me. That’s why I was in a pawnshop in Ft Laud FL looking for a drill. I found one for a good deal. I also found a 1930's Kay Kraft guitar that was totally disassembled in bits in a cardboard box. Now, I didn't know it was a 1930's KayKraft guitar. The guitar was caked in so much dust and grim that you couldn't even tell what color it was. The fret board was off the neck. The neck was off the body. The binding was off the body. The pick guard and bridge were off the body. It was a mess but I didn't have an acoustic at the time and thought maybe I could paint this pile of junk and make it playable. I asked the guy what he would take for it and he said, “If you buy that drill I’ll give you that box of guitar parts. It came out of some old ladies attic.“ and that’s how this bass player came to own my first old guitar.


I decided to show the guitar to my friend Ed Oleck owner of Ed’s Guitars in Miami. I had bought and sold a lot of gear with Ed over the years and always valued his opinion where instruments were concerned. Ed told me I really had a neat guitar there and I shouldn’t mess it up by painting it. “In fact, check this out… “ Ed wet a little bit of cloth and rubbed on the top a bit. Under the caked on dust there was a fantastic sunburst and a gold guild work. “…See? Just clean the guitar up and put it back together. Then if you don’t like it I’ll trade you something for it.”


Thus began my first trip into restoration and vintage guitars. I put all the parts back together and played it for a few years. It looked OK but it was never in very good shape for playing. Over time the old, original bar frets had wore down, the fret board warped and the arch top started to slightly sink in so I loosened the strings and retired the guitar to wall hanger status. I told myself I would rebuild it someday when I had more knowledge of what to do about that top. But the years ticked by and I never did rebuild it.


In 1993 I moved to Nashville and my old habit followed me. I would check pawnshops and thrift stores for deals. One day in 1995 I walked into Barry’s Pawn and I couldn’t believe my eyes. There on the wall hung the exact same 1930’s KayKraft guitar that I had at home. It was hanging high up on the wall with about 7 other old guitars. I couldn’t see it real well but it seemed to be in good shape. I asked the guy at the counter, “Hey…. How much for the old KayKraft?” He didn’t even look up from his paper. “Sorry man…. Those aren’t for sale. They are part of Barry’s privet collection.” Oh well. I figured he would want way too much for it if I insisted he ask Berry so I just let it go.


Over the past 20 years I have only seen two more of these in person. One in high-end guitar shop on Ft.Laud beach for about $700 and the other at a Nashville guitar show for $750. Way out of my range for a nostalgia trip. As time went on I forgot even the idea of playing the KayKraft, it just became a thing on a wall to me like so many other little knick-knacks that sit around a house. They just sort of fade into the background with time. When I ran into Barry’s on my regular bargain hunts I didn’t even look up on the wall at the old guitars any more. Just stroll in, look at the amps and the stomp boxes. Maybe see if they have a fretless bass this month. Then back out onto the street and on to the next shop.


Until one day in 2009… I was near Barry’s on other business and thought I would just drop in. I didn’t even notice at first that the old privet collection of guitars weren’t up on the wall anymore. My eye made it’s way down the line of “for sale” guitars. There’s a nice Alverez, an Epiphone an Ovation and a pair of old Yamahas 12 strings, some banjos, lot's of junk electrics, a new Gretsch cool stuff … but nothing I had to have… until I saw the old KayKraft hanging with all the other “for Sale” guitars. It even had a price tag on it. I took a peek… $500.00 “wow…” I though, “Berry is selling his privet stuff… times must be hard. But this old Kay can’t be worth that much.” I picked it up and played it a little. The action was way too high, as if someone had been playing slide with it but I knew it could be adjusted. The intonation was off a little but that could be fixed too. Then there was the sound. It sounded like a thousand old blues records I’ve heard over the years. It sounded like the opening run to “Black Queen” from Stills first solo record. Not as much bottom end as his Martin but tight lead run tone.


I wanted it…. But I didn’t have $500 so I hung the guitar back on the rack and walked out telling myself that the guitar was too old and too beat up for that much money.


I got back in the car and told Alicia about it. “Is it playable?” she asked. ‘Yes…well, it could be. ” I said “You should go get it. You have the money. I love that guitar!” She was right, I did have the money but I couldn’t pay that much for the guitar so I just drove home and tried to forget it. But I found myself looking up at the wall. At my old pawnshop find from 20 earlier. She was still pretty but she had been silent for over 10 years. I had forgotten what she sounded like until this afternoon. But that was just too much money.


The next day was Friday. It was a crazy day that had Alicia and I running errands all over town. We finally stopped to eat lunch. While enjoying my hamburger I started thinking about the Kay again. If Berry was selling his privet collection he might be in real trouble. I hatched an evil plot and ran it by Alicia. I would offer him a stupid low-ball price, like... $300 and see if they would take it. We were only a few blocks away at this point. Then I would be able to sleep soundly knowing I had offered them a good price and they were simply too foolish to see.


I walked in and headed straight to the old guitar. I snatched it up and plunked around on the high action a little bit making sure the half-fretted notes and out of tune strings spoke clearly about what a junk heap this guitar was to anyone within earshot. Then I looked at the guy behind the counter and said “Hey… take $300 for this old thing?” “He looked back and said…. “Well…. If you pay taxes on it. $330 and you're out the door.”


Damn…. He called my bluff! ::)


And that's how I ended up with two of these. The one of the right is the one I have had for 20 years. The one on the left is the “New” one. These things were made from 1930 to 1935 in Chicago. I adjusted the neck (which is adjustable!), lowered the bridge, and removed the shim from under the nut. It’s actually in very good shape for a nearly 80 year old guitar. The guitar is 100% original accept for a re-fret it got sometime in the 50’s or 60’s judging by the tiny fret wire used. Although the two guitars have different bridges they are both original as this guitar was offered with both types over the 5 years they were made.



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"Then there was the sound. It sounded like a thousand old blues records I’ve heard over the years."


Searcy that's great. This I gotta hear.


What I mean is - I understand that old blues guys might have used a Kay but now I need my ears to really confirm what you're saying so I can feel it.


Sometime in the future a band will want those in a video, probably already been done in fact.

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I'm starting off this project with the guitar we will call "Lefty". The guitar on the left of the picture will be built up to be a total player. I will not change any parts that don't really need it but I will change any part that adversely effects playability. It might also get a pickup system but we'll cross that bridge later. The only part I have ordered for it so far is a modern style bridge.





The first order of operation on this one was to pull off the fingerboard. I need to get the truss rod out because these guitars have a known issue with the truss rod rout not being deep enough. Once the wood shrinks and drys over time the solid steel truss rod will cause the fretboard to pop off or in some cases split the fingerboard right down the middle. The fix is to file down the truss rod a bit or install an adjustable one. This one was already pushing the fingerboard off at the nut end so I went ahead and pulled it.




I'll save the old fingerboard. While it's badly worn, it's not cracked and the binding on it is stull original and good. I may refret it and use it on the other guitar that's I'm trying to make as original as I can.

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Well, yeah, I think it sounds "boxy" and heavy on midtones but... there's a reason for that in the era the guitar was made. Volume was important and middles were important for recording and radio.


Kay and Harmony also seem to have been overengineered a bit and the woods... I dunno how exactly to describe wood that seemed to me to be half orange crate and half plastic from that era. You even saw it with new instruments in the 50s and 60s that were in my price range at that time.


OTOH, the better quality "cheapies" from Kay and Harmony/Stella tended to be pretty doggone long-lasting and would take a lotta hits since they were overengineered to survive their environments.


Looks like a great piece and a fun project. I wish I hadn't stupidly dumped a half-restored 20s-30s Washburn parlor guitar back in late '79 when we moved to Tennessee. @#$%@#$%@# Too soon oldt, too late schmardt.



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  • 2 weeks later...

Since I had the fingerboard off and the truss rod out I figured I would go ahead and install and two way adjustable trus rod to make this a real player ready for another 80 years.




StewMac makes one that almost exactly the right size.




Just need to clear a little room for the nut.




Then drill a hole for the allen wrench.




And there we have it.


Next we look at a new fret board.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Got a little work done on the KayKraft.


Trimmed the new fretboard on the band saw.




Trued up the sides with the sander. Notice the cobwebs on the sander. These tool have been quite for way too long.





Not a bad fit




Glue and clamp.



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