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Repair & Restoration

Lyon & Healy A-scale Banjo
Lyon & Healy A-scale Banjo

Although repair work isn't really my thing, I have occasionally taken on an interesting project. For example, a friend had had a very old banjo hanging on his wall for years  - he'd been given it and was told that it wasn't worth repairing, but I pestered him to let me do something with it.  It turned out to be a plain, but rather nice Lyon & Healy A-scale banjo, probably from the end of the 19th century or beginning of the 20th (judging by the style and number of tension brackets). I fitted a new Fiberskyn head and No-knot tailpiece, made a maple bridge, reset the neck to get the action playable, cleaned up the metalwork (much of the nickel plating had worn off the spunover brass pot, giving an interesting two-tone effect...), gave the frets a bit of a polish and fitted some Aquila nylgut strings (I suspect most of the trouble with the action was a result of being fitted with steel strings rather than the gut ones it was designed for). The result was a great sounding, very playable old banjo, far from the 'decorator's piece' it had been for many years. To be honest, I struggle to get on with banjos as a rule, but i wouldn't have minded keeping this one...

Harmony H1203 Sovereign

The same friend with the banjo was also given  this late '60s ladder braced Harmony Sovereign (why does no-one ever give me any nice vintage instruments...?). The guitar and its original owner had a sad story, and the Harmony had obviously had a hard life. In fact it was a bit of a wreck - loose braces, a massive crack almost all the way along one side (which seemed to have been repaired with epoxy at some point), a couple of cracks in the top, unplayable action, a mixed bag of crappy, non-original tuners, deep grooves in some of the frets, a missing truss rod cover, and a loose, warped scratchplate - all this over and above the usual wear and tear on a 40+ year old guitar. My friend wasn't in a great hurry to get it playing again (equating the name Harmony with the cheap, trashy instruments of the '70s) but eventually decided (after realising that it was made in the US from good quality solid woods - including a one-piece Honduras mahogany back, and that Mance Lipscombe and Jimmy Page, among others, were Harmony Sovereign users) it would do as a dedicated  guitar  for Nashville tuning. I reset the neck, repaired the top cracks (I only drizzled some superglue into the outside of the long side crack as, although it looked horrendous, the previous epoxy repair had actually made it quite stable) and loose braces, flattened and re-glued the scratchplate, made a new nut and saddle, stoned and re-crowned the frets (there was just enough metal left not to need a refret), and made a new truss rod cover from mahogany. I also replaced the odd collection of tuners with some Golden Age 3-on-a-plate relic nickel ones. It now plays well, holds its tune and sounds lovely in Nashville tuning, while still looking its age - a new life for a great old guitar (and I really wouldn't have minded keeping this one...)

Watkins Rapier 33
Lyon & Healy A-scale Banjo

I've had this Watkins for nearly 30 years. The neck had such a bad back bow that it was completely unplayable, even with ridiculously heavy strings - I suspect it had been left for years with the truss rod cranked up tight and no strings on. I thought I might have a go at repairing it before realising that the task was completely beyond me. My next thought was to fit a really tall nut and use it for slide - until I realised that the zero fret made even that job more complicated than it first seemed. To make matters worse the bridge had no adjustment for intonation and, although I'm left handed, I learned to play on right handed guitars so I string mine the wrong way up, meaning I would have to find, or make, a new bridge. So I did the only sensible thing  - I gave up and put it under the bed for 25 years or so...


Now I've finally got around to restoring it to playable condition - the neck is straight(-ish) with the aid of some heat, cramps and a bit of fingerboard planing, it's been refretted and given a new nut and aluminium bridge saddle (intonation with the original saddle was not even close...), wiring has been sorted and crackly pots and switches cleaned, and missing screws and strap buttons replaced. The terrible original tuners are still on there, but at least they work now (sort of...), and a new Strat-style vibrato arm bent to a more suitable angle has been fitted in lieu of the original (which I've never had). It now actually plays nicely and sounds really good - I think these are still underrated on the vintage market; you'd have to pay a lot more for an equivalent US-made instrument of similar age than you would for one of these (this one is probably a '64). The pickups are an odd design and not very powerful, but sound great; while the quirky controls, with their rhythm/solo circuit - more useful than a Jazzmaster's - and the double switch that many of us of a certain age will remember from our parents' old Pifco hairdryers..., give a good range of tones. The trouble is, I made it too nice to keep, so it's now gone off to a new home in Italy.  Luckily, there's still a Wilson Rapier 22 under the other bed...

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