Restoring my bass with James Condino

Discussion in 'Setup & Repair [DB]' started by bainpent, May 30, 2011.


  1. Semi-newbie here, maybe this will interest some of you folks who do some of your own repair and/or restoration (or are as nerdy about this stuff as I am). Sorry for all the writing, but I wanted to put as much in as possible so as much could be used by people as possible.

    I just got back from a week long workshop with James Condino, a regular here on TalkBass. It was going to just be a setup workshop, but it turned into a much larger project. I initially called him back in January to see if he had any use for an apprentice, which he didn't, but we scheduled a week for him to show me some setup stuff and also some wood bending techniques which he uses on the mandolins he makes - just to get me up and running. We were going to use my old 5/8 Juzek (actually my main gigging bass) as a test subject. In the intervening months my bass was exposed to various climatic conditions which resulted in the bottom bouts busting open about two weeks before I was to arrive in Asheville, where James lives. He was flexible when I told him, though, and we figured we could use the time we'd already scheduled to do a restoration instead.

    I came down to beautiful Asheville and we got to work. James had set me up with some really awesome people to stay with, and after I'd gone hiking a little I was all ready to dive in to some bass repair. It turned out my endpin block had come loose, and due to many previous less-than-informed repair attempts, the inside of the bass looked like "a garbage heap" as James said. We went over what we could see of the bass, and made a plan: leave the neck as it was, take the top off, clean out the insides, put new cleats on, put the top back on, and then set it up. A little more work than initially anticipated, but way more learning opportunity than I'd initially hoped for.

    We took the top off using hot water on a paintbrush, and a metal spatula. It wasn't that hard, it just took time and patience - something I kept hearing throughout the week. James told me an easier way was to use steam: connect the steam wand of a little home espresso machine to a hose with a needle attached, and stick that in the seams, but his had just broken and he hadn't had time to get a new one yet. The way we did it worked fine though. He also told me about the videos of the old guys in the Paris repair shops who work on Strads all day who can crack off the top of some old cello in like 15 minutes; thus demonstrating how awesome these old guys are, and also the wonderful increasing brittleness of hide glue with age: it starts to almost snap apart, leaving the wood intact.

    XyVDS.
    James using the spatula

    FObg2.
    Top off. Notice the lighter shade of wood around the endpin block. This had been added later and had to be ground down.

    This was not the experience we had with my endpin block, though. The sides didn't fit right on the top, and in order to get them into the proper alignment later we needed to separate them from the block and partially from the back. Apparently the block had broken off before, and someone had used conventional plastic wood glue, or superglue maybe, to glue it down to the sides of the bass. We must have spent six hours just trying to fully separate it from the sides. We eventually had to get out some shims and a blow torch to heat up the spatula enough to melt the glue, and even then it was infuriating how much force we needed. This taught me never to use anything except hide glue in my repairs, out of respect for anyone who has to fix them later.

    VbT2h.
    The endpin block, after we freed one side. Gross.

    With the top off, I spent a day with the palm sander taking off all the old cleats and generally cleaning up old glue on the interior of the top. Then I did the same thing with the interior of the back of the bass. However, in my zeal, I sanded deeper than I wanted to in one area, and James determined that we would put a patch on it later. While I was sanding the back we decided it would be a good idea to try to thin out some of the weird wood which was glued to the inside of the bottom of the bottom bouts and was thicker than the edging and probably stifling the tone of the bass. I tried sanding it with regular sand paper on the palm sander, but it wasn't doing anything, and after an hour we decided to get out the metal grinder. James admonished me to be very delicate with the machine, because it would go right through the side of the bass if I wasn't careful. It kind of burned the wood because it was going so fast, but at least I made some headway with the thickness of the wood. While I was working on the back of the bass, James took the top and, using an electric heating pad, re-bent the depression that had developed in the top over the years. He sandwiched a carved out mould for the arch he wanted, some leather, the top, more leather, the electric heating pad, and some clamps. He carefully adjusted the heat until the top gave way a little, and then he left it in the clamps for a little while, probably not more than 45 minutes.

    cDTu3.
    before ...

    7hVwd.
    after.

    4ytQp.
    Rebending the top arch - note the orange heating pad.


    We made a patch (out of sitka spruce) for the giant crack running over where the soundpost sits against the top, and while gluing that on we took the opportunity to glue all the little cracks along the edges, and put patches outside the purfling. We used little pieces of ziplock bag under the pads of the clamps so they would not stick to the glue joint. For the smaller areas, we used clothespins with rubber bands around them, over guitar maker's tape (for strength) over painters tape (so as not to ruin the finish); or sometimes dispensed with the clothespins entirely and just used tape. We let it dry overnight, and then made a bunch of cleats (also spruce) and glued them on everywhere there had been a crack or a cleat before. For gluing the cleats we mostly didn't use clamps, because hide glue has a pretty fast set time, short enough you can just press on the cleats for like 30 seconds and the glue holds them in place after that. The glue seeps into the pores in the wood and as it dries it contracts, pulling the joint tighter. James had me plane down the ends of the bass bar so that the transitions were smoother (any sharp transition is an opportunity for a crack, he said), and then we draped some cotton needlepoint fabric over the ends and also along the sides of the bass bar and got it all impregnated with hide glue via a paint brush. I'd heard cloth repairs like this last for decades, but James was even more optimistic.


    kXWBY.
    Gluing the top together. Note all three kinds of clamps: large wood ones, medium metal ones, and clothespins. Plus the painter's tape, and ziplock bag plastic.

    4Dbw8.
    The finished underside of the top: soundpost area patch, cloth patches, and cleats.

    CcjaS.

    We also put the bottom-sides and the back of the bass together then. We ended up cleaning the disgusting glue residue and plasticized wood off of the endpin block, and shaving off just a tiny bit of the end of one of the bouts (which had a whole bunch of patches in them already) before putting the clamps on, to tighten everything up down there. Once that had dried overnight, and we'd done a final once-over of the top and the bottom, including using a scraper to get all the old glue off the faces we were about to use, we glued and clamped up the top plate to the top and C bouts. James likes to work from the top to the bottom like that because it keeps everything centered (unlike doing one side and then the other) and it gives you an opportunity to make adjustments with the placement of the last third, as we were about to do. We left the bass like that overnight, and then took the clamps off most of the top. With his fingers, James flexed the bottom sides to where he wanted them to end up meeting the top, which also required flexing the top. So in order to keep everything aligned right, we stuck a dowel in the endpin hole, and ran some adjustable luggage webbing between it and the neck block, tightening it until everything was in place. Then we glued and clamped the bottom bout.


    31Ipw.
    clamping the bottom to the back.

    We used another bass James had in his shop for setup practice, as he needed to get it done anyway. James took a piece of (maple, I think) with nice acoustical properties (ascertained by finding and holding the vibrational node of the piece and tapping the wood) and with a hand plane carved it into a dowel. He measured the inside distance with an adjustable gadget he had made, and cut his dowel to about that size. Then he tested it in the bass and sanded the length until it was right. Taking a bridge blank which we'd already put adjusters on, James measured about where the strings would go with a pencil taped to a piece of wood which he rotated along the fingerboard and marked the blank with. I held sand paper on the top of the bass and he pulled the feet back and forth across it to get them the shape of the bass's top. He put the blank in a vice, and planed down the top to a little above where the strings were to go. Then he took a chainsaw file and filed even grooves along the whole top of the bridge. We strung up the bass and put the bridge on, moving the strings around in the grooves until they were evenly spaced on the bridge and in line with the fingerboard. Once the strings were well spaced, we filed them down to the correct height from the fingerboard, then measured, then filed them again until everything was even. Then James put the bridge back in the vice and planed down the top to just above where the string grooves bottomed out. We discussed fitting endpins, but ended up not having to do any. James doesn't have a collection of endpin reamers, but he told me wrapping sand paper around a tapered dowel works just fine, and is standard in the furniture industry.

    Once my bass was dry enough, we made a tailpiece saddle and a shim for the existing nut out of ebony. Carving the saddle was straightforward; I used a rasp. The shim was simple enough, but I was aghast when James pulled out a bottle of superglue. Superglue is the best thing he's found that binds to ebony, he said, and plus, the shim is never supposed to come apart from the existing nut. Superglue is also the stuff people use when they're doing inlays, for the same reason - it does have its place, it seems. We took some time to put some finish on patches we'd made on the top of the bass. Then we made another bridge the same way, again putting adjusters in (by cutting the feet off the blank, drilling holes in them with a drill press, and then tapping one side), strung it up, and I excitedly took it home.


    hsjfF.
    The nut. Can you see where we glued the shim on?

    We discussed a whole lot more stuff, especially about different kinds of wood and their working properties, as well as wood bending and some other stuff, and finishing (we wanted to leave the patina the way it was), but this was the main stuff about bass repair we did. James is an incredible guy, and I suspect benefits in these teaching situations from his time spent as a wilderness guide and working in the breedlove factory. The man has endless patience and was able to explain stuff to me clearly and concisely: just what you want in a teacher. Plus he's the only other person I've met who hasn't given me crap for taking my bass hiking - he took his favorite guitar to the grand canyon - and showed me the neck he had to glue back together with superglue a dozen times by the campfire.

    I got my bass home, and it sounds like three times the bass it did. While the sound used to have kind of a 'cardboard' flavor and not as much low end, it now humms and resonates really juicily, especially for its size. I suspect that the tension we put on the top of the bass is largely responsible; now the whole instrument, under tension, acts like a drum head.

    lLi9e.
    finished!
     
  2. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
    That was a crazy week of unanticipated work for a couple of fellows who originally had planned on a mellow few days just doing a bit of setup work and maybe a light fingerboard dressing.....'gotta be flexible....

    Ben was great to have in the shop and we were able to cover a lot of information to get him on the path to doing this for a long time. As we laughed and paraphrased another famous fellow " You can fix my bass for a day, or you can show me how to fix my bass for a lifetime...."

    All the spruce we used was local red / Adirondack and I believe we picked some nice aged sitka for the soundpost after trying out about 4-5 different types.

    As for superglueing my guitar neck back together....well....how do I explain to a bunch of internet bass nerds what it is like to run a 25 day expedition in a little boat down the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon where every day you wind up holding on for dear life, manically praying to whoever it is you pray to just please let you make it through this one last rapid with waves and holes bigger than my house that seem to go on forever when you've flipped the boat and are hanging on for life like a flea caught in a giant blender on full speed, only to finally get things back to calmness and find out that, damned if you didn't break the neck on your guitar in the middle of Crystal or the ledge hole in Lava or any one of a thousand other big drops. I've broken 3 guitars on that river.The HUGE salvation in the raft repair kit is that someone threw in a few bottles of superglue for "whatever" repairs that are some kind of gift form a higher power. WHY???? Because 15 minutes later that bottle fo superglue turns you busted up guitar ( and boater's ego) into a mad celebration of music and laughter while you and your biddies spent the rest of the evening camped out in an amazing slot canyon laughing and playing music on your freshly repaired guitar neck until dawn ( or until the tequila runs out)!!!! 'Rarely use CA in the shop here in town, but it sure works good on the river!!!!

    j.
     
  3. Ed Fuqua

    Ed Fuqua

    Dec 13, 1999
    NYC
    Chuck Sher publishes my book, WALKING BASSICS:The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing.
    mmmmm, bass repairs!
     
  4. klyph

    klyph

    Mar 28, 2009
    SE MA USA
    Really cool. Thank you so much for posting this!
     
  5. rgarcia26

    rgarcia26

    Jun 9, 2008
    Miami Florida

    Hi James Nice work Guys... very fast to!!!
    What did you do to the bass bar ends???