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Thread: Washburn Uke Repair question - no real mandolin content!

  1. #1
    NY Naturalist BradKlein's Avatar
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    Default Washburn Uke Repair question - no real mandolin content!

    Here are my two vintage Washburns. One is a UE soprano, the other a model 5317 - both mahogany sopranos, and both in very fine un-modified shape. Although the necks of both are fairly straight, both would benefit from a bit more rake in the neck set, at least to make the action as comfortable up the neck as the Martins that I've known and owned.

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    I tried asking at Ukulele Underground, but I find there is very little Vintage instrument knowledge or interest there - at least as compared to the mandolin or guitar world. And to stretch for a bit of mando content, i've come to own these after many years experience w Washburn/L&H mandolins, so I know their standards were as high as Martin's, for example.

    My question is whether L&H was just more conservative, or even sloppy in their neck sets? ALL those I've seen have been solidly glued, but with higher action up the neck than I would expect on an instrument that was made to such a high quality overall.

    I've never had a neck reset on a uke, although I have on vintage guitars, and I'd expect to pay a few hundred dollars to have it done in the NYC area by a good luthier. On the other hand, I can get enough done in first position on uke, so...

    I'm interested in the experiences of others. And curious about the neck attachment on these instruments since I've never steamed one apart. Given the overall build, I've suspected a tapered dovetail within, but I don't really know.
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  2. #2

    Default Re: Washburn Uke Repair question - no real mandolin content!

    You don't tell us how high the action is at the 12th. But if it's between 3mm and 4mm there's a good chance that this is the spec to which L&H built them. Pre-WWII, performers needed a high action to get the kind of volume needed in an unamplified venue, and these look nice enough ukes to have been aimed at professional players. Martin got loud with low action, which might be why Martin is the highest percentage of surviving ukes from that period.

    I'd guess at a dovetail neck but I can't say for sure. That seems to have been the standard US method of manufacture - not only Martin but the lower end Regal/Stella/Harmony ukes had dovetails as well.

    Those chunky "smile" bridges already give you a lot of height off the soundboard, so it occurs to me that a simpler way to a lower action might be to get a luthier to remove the bridge and replace it with a copy which is a little lower - if the bridge comes off in one piece, it could later on be replaced to return the instrument to original condition if required. If you don't care about originality, there's a lot of bridge there to shave down and cut a lower saddle slot ...

  3. #3
    Registered User Timbofood's Avatar
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    Default Re: Washburn Uke Repair question - no real mandolin content!

    Shaving the bridge, lowering the saddle would not have any great effect on value as far as I’d think. The minor modification remains fully original to the original construction and would be a whale of a lot easier than resetting the neck. Personally, I would convert the “knotted style” bridge to a pin bridge like the second one. The minor modification there may have some value consequence but, I’d think that would be worth it.
    Timothy F. Lewis
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    NY Naturalist BradKlein's Avatar
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    Default Re: Washburn Uke Repair question - no real mandolin content!

    Thanks for the replies. I'd say that the string height between the top of the 12th fret and the bottom of the string is just a couple mm on my Martin, and 3-4mm on the UE Washburn, and >5mm on the fancier 5317. I never really considered lowering the action on the first two. But the third really seems too high.

    I think that for a commercial dealer, shaving the bridge is the only profitable solution. But the Washburn 'smile' bridge is a complicated design (as complicated as a Martin guitar belly bridge, and that's far from easy to get right) and it would take quite a bit of work to shave down it's height from the top, re-contour and re-finish. Most dealers, I think, take that approach, but not with great care. So many valuable guitar bridges have been 'shaved' when modern prices and standards would favor a neck set, that I'm reluctant to go down that road even for a much less valuable uke.

    The knotted string bridges on the Martin and Washburn work fine, and I don't know if the pin bridge is in any way 'superior'. Maybe L&H just found it to be 'fancier' with the tiny celluloid bridge pins matching the tuners and inlay and sound hole ring. :-)
    BradKlein
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    Default Re: Washburn Uke Repair question - no real mandolin content!

    I build my ukes with 2.5mm action (2mm is a bit low for vigorous strumming on nylon strings). 5mm is frankly in unplayable territory!

    I suspect the action height on the 5317 rules out shaving the bridge. You'd need to lose 5mm+ to get it to 2.5mm action, and that's more than would be easy to take off that bridge. So neck set it is.

    Having written that it's probably a dovetail I found this thread, in which Frank Ford (guru) says that Washburn guitars pre-WWI often used a different joint - see http://fretsnet.ning.com/forum/topic...age=1#comments

    If so, it's both an easier and a harder job I'd say.

    The telltale might be the thickness of the neck block. On the Vega parlor guitar in that link, the block is clearly only about 1/2 inch deep. I'm pretty certain the Martin block is closer to a full inch (Ken Timms here in the UK builds lovely 1920s Martin soprano replicas, and has taken detailed measurements of every part - you can see the depth of the neck block here - http://ukulele-innovation.tripod.com).

  6. #6
    NY Naturalist BradKlein's Avatar
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    Default Re: Washburn Uke Repair question - no real mandolin content!

    Thanks for the links, Chris. I'll give them a careful look.

    It's really interesting how different the vintage 'scenes' are. It certainly takes a lot more digging to get unambiguous info about Ukes - but there are enough passionate collectors and builders, that I'll eventually get to the bottom of these and other questions.

    For example - looking over Ken Timms's site I see that he heat bends mahogany uke backs. Is that how Martin did it in the first half of the 20th c.? I'd never heard that and seen it, and now I'm curious to learn. I'd have bet that they were simply bent cold when the instrument was glued up... but I'm ready to learn that I was wrong. ;-)

    Cheers!
    BradKlein
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    Default Re: Washburn Uke Repair question - no real mandolin content!

    Quote Originally Posted by BradKlein View Post
    ... looking over Ken Timms's site I see that he heat bends mahogany uke backs. Is that how Martin did it in the first half of the 20th c.? I'd never heard that and seen it, and now I'm curious to learn. I'd have bet that they were simply bent cold when the instrument was glued up... but I'm ready to learn that I was wrong. ;-)

    Cheers!
    Ken came up with heat pressing for the backs because he'd been struggling to get the *exact* back shape of 20s Martins just by cold bending over shaped back braces. And nothing but the exact shape would do. He's a trained engineer, no-one knows how Martin did it, so he reverse engineered a method which works.

    There's a good chance Martin used something similar because pressed backs and tops are common on low end arch top guitars and mandolins of the period, eg Harmony.

    I haven't seen Ken for a couple of years and he keeps threatening to stop building, so try to get your hands one one of his ukes before they become unaffordable. His worst are as good as anything Martin makes today, and the best are far, far better!

  8. #8
    Mandolin tragic Graham McDonald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Washburn Uke Repair question - no real mandolin content!

    Before guitar repairers worked out how to get dovetailed necks off using steam, a common practice was to loosen the back from the neck block and a little way around the upper bout, and then pull the neck back into line and reglue the back to keep it all in place. There would be a little overhang of the back which would be trimmed off and any binding tidied up, but it was sometimes an economic repair. With the low string tension of a ukulele it could be a way to sort out the neck angle. I have been building a few ukes recently with a book on that on the way and you basically want the top of the neck and the soundboard all in the one plane, so a straight edge sits on top of the soundboard and along the bottom of the fretboard.

    Cheers

  9. #9

    Default Re: Washburn Uke Repair question - no real mandolin content!

    Quote Originally Posted by Graham McDonald View Post
    Before guitar repairers worked out how to get dovetailed necks off using steam, a common practice was to loosen the back from the neck block and a little way around the upper bout, and then pull the neck back into line and reglue the back to keep it all in place. There would be a little overhang of the back which would be trimmed off and any binding tidied up, but it was sometimes an economic repair. With the low string tension of a ukulele it could be a way to sort out the neck angle. I have been building a few ukes recently with a book on that on the way and you basically want the top of the neck and the soundboard all in the one plane, so a straight edge sits on top of the soundboard and along the bottom of the fretboard.

    Cheers
    That could work, though the binding might not survive as it's pretty old. This is the only way to change neck angle if a Spanish heel/foot is used, as in classical guitars and some ukes. I've seen it called a California neck set, or slipping the back.

    But whichever way he goes, Brad shouldn't necessarily get the top of the neck and the soundboard in one plane. Those smile bridges are quite chunky, and there could be a fair amount of back angle to the neck. The easiest way to calculate this is to use a straight edge along the top of the frets to see where it falls in relation to the saddle peak. To get the desired action at the 12th, the saddle peak needs to be twice that above the fret plane (if he want 2.5mm, then 5mm above). If slipping the back, then make up some jig to hold it all in the right place while re-glueing.

    Helpfully the 12th fret body join is the pivot point, so if the current fret plane is, say, 6mm too high, then the fretboard at the nut end needs to be angled back the same amount, i.e. 6mm. If the top is flat (it could be domed!) then I'd take a piece of MDF, hack a hole in it for the bridge, and then clamp the uke face down on the board. Then I'd measure the height of the fretboard above the board at the nut end, and know that I wanted that height plus my 6mm once I was finished. Loosen back, put spacer under neck at the nut, clamp all in place, re-glue.

    But a proper re-set should be neater once the neck joint is worked out.

  10. #10
    NY Naturalist BradKlein's Avatar
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    Default Re: Washburn Uke Repair question - no real mandolin content!

    Thanks Graham and Chris.

    In fact, the 'California neck set' has been much on my mind in regards to the fancier Washburn. Another repair technique that is 'outdated' in the guitar world, but may be just the thing in this case.

    I remain surprised at the lack of definitive information about the major brands of uke and their neck joints and repair online - minuscule, contradictory, and unreliable compared to the wealth of accurate info on Gibson and Martin guitars and mandolins. Of course, L&H products are much less researched, even when it comes to guitars and mandos, but still!
    BradKlein
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  11. #11

    Default Re: Washburn Uke Repair question - no real mandolin content!

    One reason for the lack of information is that ukes almost never need a neck reset! String tension is so low that even lightly built instruments tend to stay in shape. Lots of knowledge about humidity-induced cracking and impact damage, of course.

    These Washburns are decent quality, and there aren't huge numbers around, so it's possible that no-one has ever had the neck joint apart in recent years. The original builders would have known, of course, but they are long gone. And instrument factories then didn't keep much in the way of building records. So if you do discover what kind of neck joint, post it here or somewhere for future inquirers.

    Slipping the back on the fancier one should be fairly easy, except for the binding. I'd be tempted to source some similar modern binding just in case it falls apart as you try to remove it! With luck it was assembled with hot hide glue (binding apart), in which case heat, moisture and a thin spatula should loosen the back. I'd open up the seam most of the way round to the waist I think. One thing to watch out for is that, because you are compressing the body longitudinally, the upper bout is likely to bulge out a fraction, leaving the back too narrow in the upper bout (this is why I wouldn't remove the back completely, to keep the lower bout in shape). So you might want to rebind anyway, adding some purfling all round to fill in the gap.

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