John LeVan

Restoring History: The Resurrection of a 1940 Martin D-18

by John LeVan

Vintage restoration is part of everyday business; however, I knew this guitar could have amazing dynamic, volume, and tone; making this restoration most memorable.

In August of 2003, a gentleman called me about a guitar he wanted to restore. To my surprise, he had the Holy Grail of Martin D-18's in absolutely horrific condition. After agreeing to an evaluation, I was astonished to discover the identity, a 1940 D-18. This D-18 was from an exceptional era of Martins; with an Adirondack spruce top, Mahogany back & sides, Rosewood fretboard and an ebony bridge.

Figure 1.1 1940 Martin D-18

Figure 1.1 1940 Martin D-18 (photo by John LeVan)

Unfortunately, it had been the victim of neglect and very poor repair work. The first step to recovery is to admit that there are problems, and then identify them.

This guitar had serious problems!

  1. The guitar had been refinished in polyurethane.
  2. It had the wrong bridge.
  3. The original keys had been replaced.
  4. It had been refretted with the wrong size fretwire.
  5. The bridge plate (pin plate) had been replaced.
  6. Most of the braces were loose, or broken.
  7. There were 2 holes in the side (treble) that had been patched.
  8. The neck angle was in desperate need of a reset.
  9. The Ivory String Nut & Bridge Saddle had been replaced.
  10. The original tortoise pickgaurd had been replaced.

The solution was to embark on a luthier's dream-job. The first thing I did was to take the guitar to the God Father of Vintage Guitars, George Gruhn of Gruhn Guitars. I knew that Mr. Gruhn was an authority on vintage Martins, and could offer sound and valuable advice on the current value and restoration of the instrument. Mr. Gruhn offered a detailed appraisal outlining all the problems with the guitar. In current condition, the guitar was worth approximately $4,000. After clearly explaining the evaluation of the guitar, Mr. Gruhn then said "if restored properly, it will be worth significantly more."

As work began, photographs and measurements were taken to chronicle the restoration process. I started by tuning it to pitch, then measuring the string action at the 12th fret, the 1st fret and then the relief (bow) in the neck.

I measure the action at the 12th fret with a capo on top of the 1st fret.

Figure 1.2 I measure the action at the 12th fret with a capo on top of the 1st fret.

Then I checked the neck angle; which was awful! Even after someone had sanded the actual bridge down 80/1000", the neck angle was still off by over 5/32". The best way to check the neck angle is to lay a straight edge over the frets and see if it clears the top of the bridge. In this case, the straight edge was 5/32" under the top of the already too thin and cracked bridge.

Thin bridge, short saddle and very high action.

Figure 1.3 Thin bridge, short saddle and very high action.

Next, I looked inside the guitar with the help of a bi-fold mirror and a rope light. I found most of the braces either loose of broken. The bridge plate was not only the wrong size and material; but installed wrong as well. Originally, a 1940 D-18 had a bridge plate made of maple and actually tucked under the X-brace. Inside, there were two poorly repaired holes that had been patched with wood putty and a piece of the curfing was missing.

Missing Curfing, Inside View of a Hole Covered With Tape and Filled With Putty.

Figure 1.4 Missing Curfing, Inside View of a Hole Covered With Tape and Filled With Putty.

Outside View of a Two Poorly Patched Holes.

Figure 1.5 Outside View of a Two Poorly Patched Holes.

The bridge was a closed slot, ebony bridge with a plastic bridge saddle; which was the right material but was too thin and from the wrong decade. It should have been an open slot ebony bridge with an ivory bridge saddle.

Figure 1.6 Thin, cracked and incorrect bridge.

Figure 1.6 Thin, cracked and incorrect bridge.

The frets were perfect for a Les Paul, but not a Martin D-18. The original frets were approximately 74/1000" wide by 39/1000" tall, this guitar had frets that were 95/1000" wide by 46/1000" tall. The headstock had been gouged out to allow for the installation of a set of Grover Rotomatic tuning keys. The original keys were Grover Stay-tights.

Figure 1.7 The wrong tuning keys and frets will significantly devalue your guitar.

Figure 1.7 The wrong tuning keys and frets will significantly devalue your guitar.

I began the restoration by removing the components that didn't belong to the guitar:

Next, I repaired the internal components with hyde glue:

The guitar needed to be refinished using the right color and formula for a 1940 D-18. Considering the age of the guitar, I decided to consult Dave Lautner, a man whom I regard as the best finish man in the business. The holes in the treble side of the body and the headstock were going to be a challenge, but not impossible. The putty in the side had to be removed and a piece of mahogany was grafted to patch the hole. The key is to match the direction of the wood grain of the patch to the rest of the guitar. The patch was grafted in, the color was matched, and the hole vanished! The same technique was used to patch the holes in the headstock, the color was matched and now, it looks like nothing ever happened. The pickgaurd was replaced with the correct material.

Figure 1.8 The Two Holes in The Side Were Grafted and Color Matched.

Figure 1.8 The two holes in the side were grafted and color matched.

There is an ethical boundary that must be recognized when restoring a vintage guitar. The structural repair of an instrument so that the damage is not obvious is ethical. However, normal wear and tear should never be hidden or masked because that would distract from the natural imperfections that come from aging.

With the body repaired and the correct finish on the guitar, the next step would be to make a new bridge. Now that the bridge is replaced, I replaced the first and 14th frets and began the tedious process of resetting the neck angle. Once the heel of the neck was re-carved to the proper angle, I rebuilt the tennon and then sanded it to perfectly to match the dove tail block in the body. Using hyde glue, I glued he neck onto the body and secured it with a custom jig and clamps. When the glue was dry I installed the rest of the frets, the string nut, and the new tuning keys. I calculated the saddle placement by stringing the guitar and tuning it to pitch, and using a saddlematic bridge saddle locater; which is available from Stewart MacDonald. I carefully marked and routed the exact location for the saddle slot; if the saddle slot is cut in the wrong location, the guitar will never play in tune. Next I carved an ivory bridge saddle to match the ivory string nut, carved earlier.

Figure 1.9 The right finish, the right bridge, the right bridge saddle and the right pickgaurd.

Figure 1.9 The right finish, the right bridge, the right bridge saddle and the right pickgaurd.

The headstock fully restored and the correct type of key installed.

Figure 1.10 The headstock fully restored and the correct type of key installed.

Finally, the guitar was fully restored and ready to play. I was amazed at how loud and dynamic it sounded and I had secretly hoped that the owner would not want it back. Unfortunately, he did.

It was now time for another appraisal from Mr. Gruhn. I was interested in his opinion and critique of the hard work that Dave and I had put into this historical Martin. The appraisal came in at 2-1/2 times the original appraisal. We were both pleasantly surprised. It was rewarding to receive such high marks from the Godfather of Vintage Guitars; however, the customer's response was even better. He was very excited that the appraisal had come in at several thousand more than he expected. Even better, he had a vintage guitar that looked beautiful, played well, and well in tune.

A fully restored 1940 Martin D-18.

Figure 1.11 A fully restored 1940 Martin D-18.

Of all the vintage instruments I have had the pleasure to restore, this project stands out most in my mind. The historical value of the 1940 Martin D-18 and the response from the customer, as he played the guitar and heard the volume and tone, is what made this project the most memorable.