Refinish for a '38 Kay?

Discussion in 'Setup & Repair [DB]' started by lnichols, Mar 19, 2014.


  1. lnichols

    lnichols

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    I know most will advise to stay away from refinishing, but let me explain. I've found what looks like it can be a very solid 1938 Kay Orchestra model bass. It's somewhat disassembled right now. Someone has done a good job of stripping it, so it currently has no finish. I've been researching Kay bass prices for months, and I can get it for a fair price.

    The top is off, and will need to be reinstalled. Most of the kerfs need to be replaced. The neck is off and the major repair it needs will be to replace the neck block. If I recall correctly, my luthier has a nice block of willow and suggests using that. The neck itself is in good shape and has no cracks or repairs. We'll put a new ebony fingerboard and nut on it. It will need a new soundpost, bridge, end pin, tailpiece wire and strings. The top, back, ribs, neck and end block are in great shape. I think this will be a very nice playing '38 Kay.

    My question is about the finish. It currently has none. I think it would be a problem to leave it unfinished. I suspect over time, moving it around, bumps, weather, etc would cause the top and back to start delaminating. Currently it shows no delaminations. While I don't want to devalue the bass, I suspect any devaluation due to refinish is already done, since it's stripped.

    Does anyone here know what lacquer or varnish was used on the pre-war Kay basses? I suspect a couple of coats of lacquer with the "orange-ish" color, then a coat of lacquer with the darker color, and then 2 or 3 coats of clear nitrocellulose lacquer. Is this right? Any suggestions on what brands/formula lacquers and colors to use?

    BTW, I'm going to leave the work to professionals. I've been working with a good local bass luthier. He knows a local acoustic guitar maker who does great finish work. He says he can do the finish.

    Thanks, Leni
     
  2. Jake deVilliers

    Jake deVilliers Supporting Member

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    Kays were lacquered, your '38 Orchestra model would have been sprayed in lacquer tinted with Mohawk Medium Dark Walnut.

    I use satin lacquer on Kays, as it has a similar sheen to the old finish. You can also sand and polish the satin - it makes for a softer look than polishing gloss lacquer.

    While the top is off, you would be well served to fit a breast patch - it improves the tone markedly. Good luck with the project! ;)
     
  3. lnichols

    lnichols

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    Thanks, Jake! I'd prefer a softer look, than a high gloss. I'll talk to my luthier about a breast patch. I don't know what it is, but I'm sure he does.

    Leni
     
  4. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member

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    Willow would not be a my choice for a neck block. I replace a dozen or two of those a year on old Kays. My current favorite is to make them out of Honduras mahogany. It is very dimensionally stable, easy to work, and my experience is that it is an improvement in the voice. I also happen to have a lot of it on hand that is very old, so it makes good sense all around from my end.'Same for tailblocks. I also use that for my new carved bass builds. The reality is that almost any material is an improvement over the factory stock eastern tulip poplar or construction grade Douglas fir that is most common on those basses. Eastern walnut is my second choice for old ply blocks....far behind that would be maple or red spruce.

    One thing for sure about neck blocks- they used to be quite a task to make by hand, but since I added a nice vintage State B4 spindle sander with 9" (!!!) spindles, the task is suddenly very fast and fun.

    From the description you gave, I hope you get that '38 parts kit for free (better yet, they paid you to take it away) because to completely rebuild the entire thing and then do a professional grade refinish from someone who knows what they are doing will likely ring up a bill twice the cost of a good working 1938 Kay with no issues!

    j.
    www.kaybassrepair.com
    www.condino.com
     
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  6. lnichols

    lnichols

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    Thanks, James. The "parts kit" is not quite free, but it's a pretty good price. Is a block of Honduras mahogany something that my luthier should be able to find? If I'm going to do this bass, I want to do it right.

    Are the neck blocks similar enough that I could just have you make one from your wood and ship it? Or do they need to be completely made "on site" to fit?

    Leni
     
  7. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member

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    That is not something I currently offer to other folks. Look at it as a nice filter: If your man can fit a new neck block by hand to the old Kay, he's probably the right guy for the rest of the restoration.
     
  8. KUNGfuSHERIFF

    KUNGfuSHERIFF

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    I had to replace a cracked neck block on an older Engelhardt last year, and bought a neck block from Tom Link for a small amout of money. I think it was poplar, because it didn't smell, ring or carve like spruce. The new block fit the shoulders perfectly, but was a little too long so I had to file a few millimeters off the face once I glued it into the corpus. It also required some work to open up the narrow mortise to fit the neck tenon.

    This may or may not work for you, but it saved me a hell of a lot of time and effort.
     
  9. lnichols

    lnichols

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    Thanks again, James. He's done neck block replacements before. He's pretty good.

    Leni
     
  10. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member

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    Everyone has their own opion and I respect those choices as your call. I'm of the school that putting in another poplar block is just repeating the same problem that failed the first time; that is why I bring it up. 'Pretty much the same when you replace an old Kay neck with a repro Kay spec neck- you wind up with another skinny little neck that hurts your left hand and has a tiny little dovetail connection that you know is going to fail- 'just like the 15,000 originals that have failed.

    Old Kays were never in the same class as 200 year old Italian basses. What they do represent is a reasonable platform with very known and calculable results during repair and restoration where often a few select specific areas that can be improved upon will result in very pleasing results for a moderate amount of work. Agree with it or not, like most other things representing period Americana, they also have been steadily increasing in value. To me, that is the strong point of them. Vintage vibe and mojo within a framework that is approachable to the common man.

    Leni: You can feel free to call me, or better yet facetime and we can have an informal dialogue about some places to add emphasis to your restoration and some places to relax about. Finish would be my last concern. 'String it up and play the daylights out of it. When you've got so many gigs that people complain about the finish, they will provide the $ for the fancy paintjob. My spray finishing video will give you a short peak to pretty much the exact method and colors I'd paint the old bass if it were just for me, and it is a real bass, not an old Les paul or a Stratocaster. Good luck and keep the rest of us geeks in the loop with some photos- maybee start with images of your parts kit.

     
  11. Turnaround

    Turnaround

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    Keep on trucking'. I think there are more than a few of us waiting patiently.
     
  12. Jsn

    Jsn

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    As the owner of a '38 Kay orchestra that I rescued from a garage sale, I'm eagerly following this thread. It's unrefinished too. I sanded off the black paint, had a single coat of spirit varnish brushed on, and I've been playing it for years like that. Looks like it's been to hell and gone, but that doesn't mean it looks ugly, just authentic. A lot of that "vintage vibe" James is talking about. Making a Kay look like it just got pulled off the shelf of a music store in 1938 is only one approach to "restoration".
     
  13. arnoldschnitzer

    arnoldschnitzer AES Fine Instruments

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    Forget the vintage look. What you have is a musical instrument, not a collector's item. A nice oil varnish finish will look beautiful, sound great, and have the best durability. As far as the neck block goes, any medium density stable wood with vertical grain should work just fine. Ideally, your luthier will deep-six the stupid dovetail joint and fit up the neck with a standard mortise. Good luck!
     
  14. lnichols

    lnichols

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    Yes, my luthier has already said he wants to do a standard mortise on the neck joint. Good idea about pictures. I'll try to get some pics of the "parts kit" soon.

    Leni
     
  15. sq105

    sq105 Country Squire Supporting Member

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    Honduras Mahogany is often used for acoustic guitar necks. It is strong, fairly light weight, transfers sound well and is plentiful. I believe Taylor Guitar Co. uses Honduran Mahogany for all of their necks.
     
  16. sq105

    sq105 Country Squire Supporting Member

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    ... coming to think of it nearly all the vintage steel string acoustics I've seen in the past few years have either mahogany or maple necks. Makes me wonder why we don't seem more maple neck blocks in double basses - it's pretty much standard in violins is it not?
     
  17. Jake deVilliers

    Jake deVilliers Supporting Member

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    It is not. Blocks are usually made of spruce or willow.
     
  18. sq105

    sq105 Country Squire Supporting Member

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    My mistake, you are quite right Jake. I just happens that the two fiddles I have open have maple neck blocks. Actually one with maple neck block (Stainer copy) and one old blockless (Saxony).
     
  19. sq105

    sq105 Country Squire Supporting Member

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    Hah, I'm wrong again, they're both blockless. The Stainer has spruce "side blocks" on either sided of the neck heel.
     

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  20. Jake deVilliers

    Jake deVilliers Supporting Member

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    Funny, eh? Corner blocks but no neck block... Spruce linings?
     
  21. sq105

    sq105 Country Squire Supporting Member

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