Learning from Selmer

In the past years I had the opportunity to work on several original Selmer guitars. Some came to me in a very bad shape. Forgotten guitars found on attics and even a Selmer guitar with severe damage due to a car crash. In almost every case I had to remove the whole back side to be able to do the restoration work. The inside of a guitar reveals interesting things about the construction. In this item I will discuss some special guitars I worked on, Selmer nr. 430, Selmer nr. 657 and Maccaferri nr. 423

> Selmer 430

This Selmer was owned by a family in Amsterdam. They decide to sell it to Stochelo Rosenberg. It was not in playable condition. I received it in a worn out but original case (photo selmer 430-1). A closer inspection of the inside of the body, with a mirror and a light, revealed very interesting stuff. The top was supported by only 3 sound braces. A strange finding since most Selmers have 5 parallel braces. Looking at the serial number (#430) (photo selmer 430-2) of the guitar it was clear that this guitar was one of the transitional period.

> Transisional period

After Mario Maccaferri had left the Selmer factory, Selmer continued making guitars. They made some changes like introducing the small oval sound hole and the 14-th fret neck (67 cm scale length, 21 frets, 14-th fret to the body). In this period however they experimented, amongst other things, with the bracing of the top. Obviously they tried to make the top as light as possible. That is probably the reason for leaving out some braces. It is quite unique to find such a ‘transitional model’ and, due to the shape the guitar is in, have the opportunity to open it.

> Findings on the outside of the guitar

The guitar was in almost original condition. It is was clear that the top of this Selmer was not strong enough to deal with the forces of the string tension (about 90 kg). A severe dent in the top around the sound hole was visible (photo selmer 430-3 and 430-4). There was a wedge glued between the fret board and the neck (photo selmer 430-5 and 430-6) to compensate for the hollow of the neck. Selmer used a fixed neck re-enforcement made from 3 aluminium strips. Clearly, not strong enough in this case. Several Selmers I came accross with had a bended neck (hollow) and this kind of fix (glueing a spline between the neck and the fretboard) is often seen. The name of Django Reinhardt is engraved in the headstock, but strangely enough upside down, as this is a guitar for a right hand player (photo selmer 430-7). The ebony insert of the tailpiece was missing (photo selmer 430-8).

> The inside

Opening up the guitar by removing the back also reveils more insight into the construction.

1. The tops of Selmer guitars where traditionally bended at the bridge location by using a heating tool (photo selmer 430-9). The marks are clearly visible. 2. The lining is made from laminated wood, shaped after glueing it to the sides (photo selmer 430-10 & 430-11). 3. As often seen in these guitars there was no extra time spend for extra sanding of the parts and cleaning up excessive glue. 4. The grain of the centre support patch (which reinforces the bud joint of the top halves) is running in the same direction as the grain of the top. For higher strength one should expect it to run at a 90 degree angle (photo selmer 43 0-12). 5. The two braces that support the bridge are arched over the centre reinforcement (photo selmer 430-13). 6. There is quite some open space around the dovetail joint of the neck/body (photo selmer 430-14). 7. The braces of the back (and first top brare) are heavy and have a round shape (photo selmer 430-15 & 430-16).

There where only 3 sound braces to support the top (photo selmer 430-17). The lack of the fourth sound brace directly behind the sound hole caused the problem of the dent. A fifth brace, often seen on most Selmers, which is located between the bridge and the tailpiece is not a must. Maccaferri design used only 4 sound braces.

> Restoration

The work needed to restore a guitar is always discussed with the owner. Our goals where to make the guitar playable again but keep it as original as possible. We decided to fix the dent and add a new sound brace directly after the sound hole.

The first step I took was to remove the dent in the sound board. A very delicate procedure, using a specially selfmade pre-shaped fixture, heat and steam. One must be very careful not to damage the lacquer on the top. After the dent was removed and the wood was dried, the new brace was applied directly after the sound hole. This brace will add extra strength and will help holding the (new) shape of the top. A straight forward procedure. The dimension of this new brace I took from earlier Selmer repairs.

The back and the bindings where glued back on. Very important while re-glueing the back is to maintain the tension in the body (this affects the neck angle). Finally, the guitar needed some finishing and touch up. It is very important to do the finishing in the ‘spirit’ of the guitar. This means that the bindings and finish are artificially ‘aged’ to match the cosmetics of the guitar, making the restored spots as invisible as possible. (this kind of work inspired me to the aged finish of the Antique model)

 

When the guitar was finally setup for playing, the result was very satisfying. Playability and sound were very good. (photo selmer 430-18).

> SELMER 657

Selmer 657 was owned by a gypsy family in Germany. They played the guitar almost every day when disaster struck. The guitar was in its case in the trunk of a car, when an accident happened. The car was damaged severely, and the guitar as well. It came to me in thousand pieces held together with tape.

Although severily damaged, I could see that the guitar was an authentic Selmer. It had been in fairly original state before the crash, although there was some previous work visible on the top (crack repairs). Now, the sound board was completely broken in two, just above the sound hole, from left to right. The back had several cracks and twisted fractures. Many people would consider this as a total loss. However, the owner of the guitar and I decided that it was still worthwhile to try to reconstruct the guitar using all the bits and pieces available. Again, to keep it as original as possible. I worked many painstaking hours glueing all the parts together making fixtures and holding fixtures to restore its original shape. During this restoration I developed a love-hate relationship with this old instrument though.

Then finally the day came I could put the strings on the guitar and started to play the guitar.

I remember well sending an e-mail to the owner telling him that a miracle had happened. Unbelievable the sound of this guitar! Good bass, punchy treble, a Selmer at its best. When the customer arrived to take it back with him, I had some mixed feelings. This one had settled in my heart and I would have loved to keep it. But the owner of course did as well, so it left me…. the fate of the luthier.

> MACCAFERRI 423

You won’t easily come across a Maccaferri D sound hole guitar, as they are very rare. Some years ago, I had to do a repair on Maccaferri number 423 owned by Nous’che Rosenberg. During a concert he accidentally bumped the guitar and punched a hole in the side of the guitar (photo mac 423-12). I was able to repair it by pressing it inside out maintaining the original wood. I took some foto’s of the inside of the guitar. Maybe you are wondering where all the dust is coming from? Nous’che explained that he tended to tip off the ashes of his cigarete in the body of the guitar. ‘Keeping it dry inside’ was his motivation.


 

 

> The restoration of SELMER 828

Currently (October 2013) I am working on Selmer 828 (photo). Most owners of such a valuable guitar will not let you open it up to have a look. I know that there are many of you interested in the construction of a Selmer. So I invite you to a journey to the center of a Selmer.

FIRST SCAN

Selmer 828 has a problem which I saw in several other Selmers. (Selmers are the guitars with the oval sound holes. The D sound hole guitar is referred to as the Selmer/Maccaferri guitar). The sound hole area of the top was pushed down (sunken) by the string pressure (photo 1). Obviously the top, around the sound hole was not rigid enough to counter this pressure. As a result the neck angle changed.  There was no room inbetween the strings and the top of the guitar to install a bridge !To solve this problem, in the past, some other luthier took off the fret board and installed a wedge under it (photo 2), increasing the thickness of the fret board in direction of the sound hole. In this way the string action would be acceptable again to play the guitar.  Also the fret board has 22 frets where 21 is the right number on this guitar. The body was not opened before. Some patches were applied from the outside.

 

When the guitar arrived in my workshop it wasn’t playable. Because the wedge under the fret board was not a structural solution for the problem. The top was instable and kept on sinking. Before I start to restore a guitar I discuss all the options for repair with the customer. My main goal is to keep the vintage guitar as original as possible. In this case we agreed that a proper restoration was only possible by working on the guitar from the inside of the body. Only then the problem area is freely approachable. Also the fret board had to come off. It will be replaced by a new one. Main goal is good playability, intonation and tone and bring the guitar back to it’s original condition.

WHAT LIES BENEATH ?

The fret board came off easy. Unfortunately the area, where it lies on the top was already repaired with patches and inserts and lots of glue. Not done very well (photo 1). The neck has no reeforcements. One of Mario Maccaferri inventions was to stiffen up the neck by placing 3 aluminium strips in the neck. After his departure from the Selmer company, and during the development of the oval sound hole model ( the so called transitional period) the neck reenforcement was omitted. Our guitar has no neck reenforcement. Note the typical head stock / neck joint (photo 2) and a double dove tail joint (photo 3) of the neck to the body.  I saw several other Selmers which had a single joint!!

  

Next action was to remove the back. The inside of the guitar became visible. It makes you wonder !! The pliage was not very well executed. Crack and stress marks over the entire pliage line. Also the top was lacquered on the inside. Probably a monday morning job.

THE PROBLEM AREA

Analysing the problem area. First thing I noticed was that top around the sound hole is very thin (fragile, dry wood). Secondly, and in my opinion one of the structural flaws of the Selmer design, is the location of the 2 parallel braces along the sound hole. The are way to far near the sides, not giving the sound hole area enough support.  The location of these 2 braces, as used by the Selmer employees, were taken from the D sound hole guitar. Because of the wider D shape these 2 braces were located near both sides of the guitar. When they introduced the much smaller (less wide)  oval sound hole they should have bring them closer to the sound hole for better support.

THE RESTORATION (‘beating out a dent’)

The restoration plan.

1. remove the fret board, 2. remove the back, 3. Repair the top where the fret board end meets 4. Remove the first bracing (that supports the fret board end), 5. determine the new curve of the top from the sound hole forward), 6. Make pressing blocks, 7. Reenforce the sound hole area with a layer of veneer and press in in the right curve, 8. Reinstalle the newly made first brace with the right curve, 9. Stain and lacquer the wood, 10. Glue on the back, 11. Make and apply the binding on the back, 12. Make and install new fret board, 13. Level/curve and fret the fret board, 14. Install newly made nut stop and nut, 15. Age and lacquer the guitar at binding area, head stock and neck, 16. Make a new Rio Palisander bridge, 17. Setup the guitar, 18. Play the guitar !!

First thing I did was to repair the top around the fret board area. The fret board need a stable surface to rest on. This meant  filling up the holes and be sure this area has a good bond with the first brace.

      

After this job the top is repaires and ready for the next step. The major problem of this guitar is that the area between the neck block and the rosette was severely sunken resulting in a dramatic change of the neck angle. (remember that the neck angle was so low that there wasn’t room enough left between the top and the strings to install the bridge). To reinstall the neck angle there are 2 options. When the neck angle is just slightly off you can reintroduce the angle by pressing the neck block a little bit towards the heel block with a long clamp. This will cause some extra curve in the top. Glue the back on with the clamp in place.

When the neck angle is off too much more drastic intervention is need. The first brace (supporting the fret board end) has to be removed. Then a new, slightly more rounded, curve has to be brought back in the top (this will reintroduce the correct neck angle). I also wanted to reenforce the are around the sound hole, so I glued a veneer on this area and directly introduced the new curve of the top by hand made, curved, pressing blocks. I use glue that sets hard (rigid area). Then I reinstalled the first brace, also with the new curve. The combination of these techniques pushed out the top enough to create the right neck angle. (please note that this restoration is extremely difficult because of the very fragile top wood. The wood was moistured with hot steam for several days to gain flexibility) The applied veneers around the sound hole, and a spruce strip to support the top under the fret board made the top stiff enough. (luckily the top around the bridge area was good. This ares is mainly responsible for the sound)

After staining and lacquering the wood to get a aged appearance the back was reinstalled. Then the bindings were made (heat bend and matched with the top binding). A new fret board was made and glued on.  The fret board leveled, curved and fretted. A new nut stop was made and a new nut. The new binding was aged with dye and stain and lightly lacquered with nitro cellulose lacquer. The lacquer was aged after drying. A Palisander bridge was made and the guitar got his setup.

Old situation(left), New situation (right)


After this undertaking it is always exciting to play the guitar. I can report that the guitar sounded absolutely fantastic.