July 28, 2014

Vega ukulele restoration project

This is a baritone ukulele I restored for my stepdaughter.  It started life as an Arthur Godfrey Deluxe model, made by Vega in the mid 50s.  It wasn’t a badly made instrument off the rack, but whoever owned it played it hard.  They strummed right through the finish on both sides of the sound hole, and thoroughly wore down the brass frets – which takes some effort on a nylon stringed instrument.  The little beast was on its second set of friction turners.  There was a distinct concavity to the soundboard between the sound hole and the bridge.  The saddle was broken and part of it was missing.  Despite a great deal of wear, I think the original owner must have loved the thing.  There were no serious dents in it anywhere, and the ugly old alligator case was still in serviceable shape.

Underneath the old finish everything except the spruce bracing and rosewood fretboard was mahogany.  Honduran mahogany, probably, with a very nice shimmer that doesn’t really show well in the photographs.  I steamed out the concave brace through the sound hole and steamed off the bridge, which turned out to be made of the same mahogany as the rest of the instrument, but was stained black.  The sound board was then steamed and put in clamps for a month to level it.  I made a new, bow-tie shaped, ever-so-slightly-convex brace to correct the problem permanently.  The old bridge was a pretty minimal affair, so I made a new one from ebony with an olivewood accent over the anchor point.  This had to be shaved down quite thin to avoid stiffening the soundboard to much.  Having lost the Vega logo with the old lacquer, the peg head looked kind of bare, so I made an ebony and olivewood decoration to continue the theme from the bridge.

It needed a complete fret job.  That’s not easy work, but it turned out pretty well.  The new nut and saddle are fossil (mammoth) ivory, replacing the original plastic.  Fossil ivory is pleasant material to work with, though it is prone to cracking under any amount of heat.  Being prehistoric in origin, it is legal under the CITES treaty.

The finish consists of about twenty coats of hand-rubbed epoxy.  Despite the number of coats, it is still very thin, and the particular epoxy I used is also softer and more flexible than lacquer, my hope being not to deaden the tone.  I used a set of D’Addario T2 Titanium strings.  The timbre isn’t bad.  A set of Grover Tuning machines replace the old friction tuners.

It was impossible to get all of the old sweat out of the sound board where the finish had worn through.  I used various solvents and even resorted to whiting but still couldn’t get it all.  Figuring my stepdaughter was likely to strum away in the same place anyhow, I made of couple of pick guards from an elm burl veneer I had bought for another project.  These are glued to a thicker veneer of paper-backed walnut to achieve the right thickness, and completely saturated with epoxy to resist the tendency to curl.  There were various other improvements and embellishments not worth documenting.

She was pleased with the results – which is really all that counts.