Crawls Backward (When Alarmed)

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Late 1920s Martin Tenor Ukulele: Assessing Back Crack for Repair

Here's the deal.  I want to realign my Panasonic RF-2200, plus I have a Pilot FM Pilotuner Model 601 I'd like to get going.  But to do FM alignments, I first need to go through my Hickok 288X signal generator to use it.  So I thought the Hickok was next up on the bench, but I also have another ukulele that needs some attention.  I don't think it will take too long, so I'm going to work on that first.

And here it is.

As an aside, right in front of the Gretsch ukulele (on the left) is the Hickok signal generator.  You may have seen it in other pictures of the bench and said "vhut de heck ess dat?"

But back to the ukulele.  It's a Martin 1-T.  A bit older than my other one.  And showing more play wear too.

Here's the headstock.  You might be saying "Uh, there is no Martin decal, how can that be a Martin?  Is the decal missing?"

That's a good question, and the answer is: it never had a decal.  Until 1932, no Martins - guitars, ukuleles, mandolins, whatever - had no decals on the headstock.  Instead, they had a stamp on the back of the headstock (and they were always stamped inside as well and still are).  So we have one clue as to the age of this ukulele.  Pre-1932.

Crazy, huh?

Here's the stamp on the back of the headstock.  Very very cool.  I could look at this for hours.  But I won't, since I need to look at the repair I need to do on this ukulele.  It has been claimed that certain circa 1932-33 instruments had both the stamp and the decal, but I haven't seen any pictures on the interweb.

A couple of other notes:  the headstock is not as 'pointy' as later ones, and the tuners are smaller than the later ones.

When Martin first started making ukuleles, they only made sopranos.  Tenors were built starting in 1927.   And except for the first year or so (1919), no ukuleles were stamped with serial numbers.  So we can narrow the date of this instrument to between 1927 and 1931.  I think of it as a 1929, only because it's the midpoint.

The other early Martin feature is the use of bar frets.  As the name implies, the frets are a solid "bar" shaped piece, rather than having a crowned top and a toothed tang as on a modern "T" fret.  Martin began using T frets on guitars in 1934.  It's not known when ukuleles were given T frets, but I think we can assume it was in that same date range.   The fret dots are also a bit smaller than later ukuleles as well.

That's the good fun history stuff.

Here's the big issue I'll be repairing.  It's the long crack on the back.

It's actually a clean break - I should be able to glue and cleat it with no issues.

Notice all the scratches too.  Some people might think these are ugly, but to me, they give a great patina to the instrument.  This ukulele has been played a lot over it's lifetime - over 80 years!

Notice, though, that the finish itself is in really nice shape - still has a nice gloss.

 The crack from the inside.

The middle back brace has cracked also - see the arrow pointing to it.  The crack started small, then progressed more, and split the brace.  The other arrows show the rest of the crack.

I'll glue the brace back together.  The end of the brace was originally in a small slot cut in the back kerfing (the slotted piece that curves around).  I'm planning to cut a small piece of spruce to act as a 'splice' to tuck the brace back under the kerfing.

Another angle on the crack.  You can also see how the brace originally tucked into the kerfing from this angle.  There was a small chisel cut into the kerf that rode over the brace.

The inside of this ukulele smells incredible.  It smells like the inside of a drawer in a fine cabinet.  It's not moldy or stale smelling at all.  I wish I could bottle the smell and spray it around The Dungeon (new name for my workshop).

The people who built this ukulele were real craftsmen and really cared about what they were doing.  And to think that Martin made 11,000 ukuleles in 1927 with this level of quality!

But enough of sniffing the ukulele and going on about history.  I have a crack to examine.

Here's the crack opened up.  I'm gently pushing it from the inside.  It looks ugly in this picture, but it will glue up cleanly.  It will still be obvious as to where the crack was - I may or may not try to stain it.  Right now I'm leaning heavily toward doing the least invasive repair possible.

Here we're looking from the end of the ukulele toward the headstock.  The crack is visible, but you can see how flat it is.  This is encouraging.  It would be a pain to try and level it.

Again, this thing has been played - a lot!  You can see finger divots in the first four frets.  There is also some minor fret wear on the first three frets.

Other than cleaning and treating the fingerboard, and polishing the fret tops, I'm not going to touch it.  The wear is so minimal that it won't cause any playability problems.


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