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Beware ! You're in Kamikazie here. Not many pro luthiers around, more often brave souls experimenting in their kitchen.

H1457 restoration and finish - by Zhyla

Zhyla : This is a Harmony H1457 Monterey archtop guitar. It's similar to the H1456 model but in a natural finish. It's got a replacement bridge and tuners but otherwise appears original. I'm not sure the age but I'd guess 60's due to the adjustable trussrod. It is naturally missing the pickguard and trussrod cover. Like all USA-made Harmony's it has a solid top, spruce in this case, which is coming apart at the seams.

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

The gap at the heel makes this an obvious candidate for a neck reset. The action is really bad. I didn't grab a picture of it but it's nowhere near playable.
The frets are a bit worn but not really screaming for a reset. But the inlays are screaming for a fretboard planing.

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

You can see the finish on the top is in pretty bad shape. There are several places where the finish has been scraped away and bare wood is exposed. Also there's a variety of dings and stains. And there's cracks, cracks, cracks.

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

This is the most obvious of the structural damage. The treble-side F-hole is being held together mainly by the cloth back underneath. Completely unstable.

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

Here is a more interesting crack on the treble side of the waist. This is a deep groove. I don't understand how this could be caused. In any case, it's very stable.

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

There's also a minor split in the top behind the bridge which appears stable.

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

In the image above you can see every crack I identified on the top (with pieces of tape). The split in the middle of the top turned out to be pretty serious. This was clear once the neck was removed. This split runs all the way to the neck block. It's movable with a little bit of force. Not good :

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

A closer look at that F-hole. You can see the cloth backing that is holding the pieces together. I got some wood glue into the cracks and a little superglue underneath to hold the backing.

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

A little clamping and wiping off of excess glue and it's done (hopefully).

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

The split behind the bridge I filled with thin and medium cyanoacrylate. I had to switch to medium because it kept wicking away. This will hopefully keep the split from ever growing. I'll use a similar approach on the major top split, but use wood glue where the split is wide enough to get it in there. Ideally I should put a cleat on the back of these splits but that would involve removing the back of the guitar or doing some acrobatic clamping.

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

François : That's a very interesting job Zhyla, thanks for the report !
I wonder about the finish, as it's a blonde one. From many photos I've seen, it's not easy to do a clean re-finish on natural spruce. It looks like most of the time the apprentice luthiers do not strip enough of the old finish, resulting in dark shades, as seen on the Cremona H1300 below...
Are you not afraid the cyano glue could prevent the future finish from "wetting" the wood ?

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

And from this other H1457 guitar (picture from the database), it looks like they may have a problem from the begining... It's surprising to find only this same other guitar with so similar problems...

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

Zhyla : I'm not sure what I'm going to do about the finish yet. My main concern has been getting the top stable enough that I'm not afraid I'm going bump my elbow on it and shatter it. It's feeling a lot more solid now. I would have used wood glue instead of cyano but it's too thick to get it into a syringe.
I've never done finish work. I'm not sure what to do. The finish is so destroyed in some places that it's just bare spruce. So it would be smart to refinish it. But there's also some really deep scrapes and gouges that a new glossy finish may look out of place. At least it was cheap enough I don't mind learning finishing on it.

With all the cracks stable I don't have to worry about pressing too hard on the top and shattering it. So now I can get to cleaning this thing. A wet sock and some polishing compound turn this :

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

to this :

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

The difference is subtle but it turned out a lot of the nastiness of the top was just dirt and grime caked onto it.
A shot of the whole top below. All the cracks are stabilized and the finish is as good as it's going to be. I've considered refinishing the top but haven't decided yet. Except for the places where there is no finish at all it's really not that bad, by my standards at least.

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

There's some really odd curvature on the back of this guitar. It's a difficult thing to capture in a picture but there is a big scoop in the middle towards the neck.
Actually, what really is going on is the back is bulging out from either side of the neck block. If you peer inside you can see the back is peeling away from the neck block a little on either side of the block. I'm not sure what caused this or what could be done about it, but I'm leaving it alone.
As for the top, I'm trying to figure out the refinish thing. It seems like the spray can sealer and nitro from Stew-Mac will do the trick, but I think I need to stain it blonde to match the sides. Has anyone done this? Will an oil-based stain from Home Depot work ok? Or a water-based stain? Which would be better? Any tips about prepping spruce for staining? And what about filling cracks... regular putty for that nasty crack on the bass side?

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

François : I've seen that (bulging of the back) on several archtop guitars, and I saw it around the end block at the bottom as well. I guess it's a result of the structural tensions in the body's woods, when guitar is tuned up. On the birch or maple bodies, when the backs or tops are "wavy", it always go the same way, bulging in the same places, sagging in the same places...
As long as nothing is unglued inside, I look this as the normal aging of the guitar...
About refinishing a blonde, as I said earlier, I'm sure the difficult part is to really clean up the wood before applying a new finish. As the finish is transparent, everything you see before applying a new coat will be seen after, and even worse because of the wetting effect of the finish. Applying a moderately wetted sponge with some water on the stripped wood will show the permanent effect of the nitro coat...
If it was my guitar, as I have no experience with refinishing, I would not risk a bad result, I'ver seen too many awfully refinished blondes. I'd leave it as is with all the mojo. If there is some bare wood, I would spray locally some satin nitro to protect... Hey but it's not mine.

Malbraclay : IMHO, I like the finish as it is - loads of character! Imagine what it would cost to reproduce that 'look' by relicking!
Personally, I'm not keen on the look of over-spray on top of old, cracked finish - unless you're planning to completely strip the top? There is also a chance that the over-spray will de-laminate with time (something I've seen happen to several guitars...), which looks really nasty.
But it's your guitar!

Zhyla : Well I haven't decided what to do yet, I'm just trying to research the refinishing thing before I decide what to do. In places where the finish is worn away there has been considerable damage to the top. The two main unfinished areas have had 1/32" of the top scraped off in grooves along the grain. The dark stains on the treble side are in some spots damaged deeper than the finish (I can't tell much from looking at them though). Ideally I'd like to prevent further damage. Otherwise I'd leave it be with it's mojo.

Unlike Lester this is my first run-in with a blonde of any sort. Were these blonde guitars were originally just natural finished? I.e. no dye, just lacquer? It's practically orange now, but the protected spot under the neck joint is considerably lighter. If I were to do an undyed finish it wouldn't match the rest of the guitar for a couple decades I guess? The old preserved finish is really pretty, I think it would look nice.

Billieg2 : If it were mine I'd putty up the cracks, sand it down good and spray the front black... It would look "natural" and the putty and paint would strengthen the cracks.

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

François : On well preserved samples (those that did not see too much light), we can see the spruce is really a light blonde, so I'd say yes, there was no dye, just clear lacquer.

Snapcase : Hey Zhyla, didn't you used any cleats underneath the cracks? At least on the major cracks ? I wonder how good this badly cracked top would hold the strings downward pressure without any extra help.
It seems to me that this guitar suffered of heat. It shows all the symptoms. heat and dryness use to have these effects on guitars.
When I got my Broadway it arrived with the top badly distorted and the back not as bad, bad distorted too. I slowly rehumidified it for months (fast humidity changes are not good either) keeping it in an almost stable eviroment with relatively constant humidity rate at 45 to 50 %. Now it shows almost no distortion at all. And the two developing non stable cracks are tight and closed without reglueing or anything else. Just correct humidity.

Zhyla : Negative, I didn't use any cleats on this so far. The F-hole cracks have the cloth stuff under them so that will help a little. The splits... well, I haven't got a good way to get some cleats under there.
The previous owner mentioned he spent a lot of his teenage years dragging this poor guitar to the beach a lot. I'm sure it spent a few summers baking on the shore.

François : But... Is the cloth intact ? Usually, if there is a visible crack from outside, the cloth should have crack inside too ? Did you checked inside ?

Zhyla : Yeah the cloth is intact, it had stretched a little instead of splitting.
The F-hole cracks I was able to get a lot of glue on. It's the middle split that worries me more. I think once the neck is reset there won't be unhealthy pressure from the fingerboard extension which I imagine caused that split.

Those with weak hearts avert thine eyes...

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

"Hey, why are you putting tape around my top? Whoa! Let's talk about this first!"

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

A couple hours with 60 grit paper and almost all the serious blemishes are gone. The top is really lumpy, I've got a lot more sanding to do. I've got some lacquer and putty coming next week. The putty is for the big crack and the lacquer is to see how bad a finish I can do.
This was hard to get started on. I'd pretty much decided to refinish the top a couple weeks ago but it's scary taking sandpaper to a guitar, even as messed up as this one was. Wood at least you can glue back together.
What I've gathered so far is that spruce does not need a grain filler and that I need to do like 4 coats of sealer and 10 coats of lacquer, or something like that.

François : It looks great !... I understand your reluctance to attack this poor old guitar.. How exactly did you proceed with the sand paper ? Hand only ? Any hand tool like a sandblock ?

Billieg2 : To do it right you need 4 thin coats of primer with a sanding inbetween each coat with 220 wet/dry paper. Then about 4 coats of lacquer again with a wet/dry sanding between each coat. Good luck...

To do it right you need 4 thin coats of primer with a sanding inbetween each coat with 220 wet/dry paper. Then about 4 coats of lacquer again with a wet/dry sanding between each coat. Good luck...

Zhyla : Since the surface is so uneven I can't see a sanding block working. It would probably flatten out things it shouldn't, etc. So this has been all by hand. It's a LOT of work.
Oh yeah, what do you guys think of this plan? I'm going to refinish the top and do an "overspray" (coats of new lacquer) on the existing finish for the rest of the guitar. I figured it would help make it all match. The rest isn't scratched up enough to warrant a refinish - maple is significantly more scratch resistant than spruce. When I'm done everything except the dings on the edges of the headstock will probably look fairly new except the top won't have the aged lacquer color (at least not initially).
This is going to be a slow project as I've got an amp to rebuild and also work is going to be "nucking futs" starting September.

Well I was doing the 60/100/220 grit sanding and it was looking pretty good but I figured I could get it a little smoother if I wet the surface a bit to raise the grain and then made another pass with the 220 grit. Well that works pretty good except for one small problem, see below... Spruce is really a weak wood. I think the moisture caused the wood dust to stick to the paper and built up some little chunks that caught on the the wood. There's several of these now on the top. Gah. Lesson llearned, I guess that's why they invented putty anyways.

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

Last night I got the putty and filled all the cracks, rips, and dents in this top. Now I have a problem.

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

I'm using the "natural color" wood putty that Stew-Mac sells. It's marked "natural" but I would say that's just plain white. It doesn't match the wood at all. When I wet the wood to give some idea what it will look like finished the wood gets much darker and the putty just looks white.
What do I do ?

Geo : Get some stain and a small brush. Start out light and work toward the match.
Then you may have to grain it with a darker stain to match the grain of your spruce.

Raz : Shellac works really well as both a sealer and to really bring out the grain. It also adds a realistic looking yellowed patina to sanded back wood that comes out real pale. Works well with lacquer on top of it.
Actually with your one I would have been tempted, depending on the size of area to be filled, to mix up a small amount of epoxy and add some sawdust from your sanding to match the colour. Bigger cracks I would be tempted to use a sliver of spruce from another source to fill in most of it and use the epoxy/sawdust mix to fill it in.
And to really smooth it out once you've sanded it even, go up the grits to much finer than 220 eg 220/400/600/800/1000 even.
I wouldn't wet sand at anything except the higher grits and then only when there's a good hard few coats of lacquer on it. Remember with lacquer although you can respray reasonably quickly it really needs at least a week to dry before you sand.
Also if you're not too fussy about having original lacquer, try KTM9 from lmii.com as a finish. It's water soluble, non toxic, dries to sanding level in hours, doesn't need to be sprayed and can polish up like a steinway piano when you've got a few coats on. I love it.
My 2c worth.

[edit by raz] Just reading back through this and I don't want to sound like a smartarse saying you should've done it this way. I don't actually believe there is a right way except the way that works for you. There can be multiple ways of doing things and they can all be good. Like all of us, I work on trial and error based on acquired knowledge and the advice of friends.
An alternate way of filling holes, probably the best way is save any splinters that may come off the top for any reason and use a quality super glue and hardener to glue 'em back asap. Then sand it flush and smooth.

Zhyla : Raz, thanks for the 2 cents. I have noticed two things about finishing data online : 1) not much of it and 2) everyone does it a different way. Do you sand between lacquer coats? Do you agree with 220 grit sanding as surface prep before lacquering or finer ? After the final coat are you saying you sand down to 1000 grit ? Do you follow that with steel wool or buffing ?

Well, on with the show. Death to the old putty, long live the new putty. This stuff is an oil-based putty that comes in a bunch of wood colors. You can mix the colors together like pain to get the right color. It dries, but not really very hard.

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

I mixed these three colors together, dug out the top of the white putty, and filled in with the mixture. Not bad:

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

The big crack is still noticeable but the rest of the top looks great. Even wetted down the putty isn't noticeable unless you're looking very closely. I can't say how it will look with lacquer but it could be worse.
I put a screw into the neck block so that I can hang it in my high-tech finishing chamber.

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

I'll have to put some newspaper down before I start spraying.
Here's my finishing plans, essentially taken from Stew-Mac's instructions:

  1. Sanded to 220 grit.
  2. No grain filler since spruce is a tight-grained wood.
  3. 4 coats of sealer (ColorTone Aerosol). 45 minutes between 1st and 2nd coat, 2 hours between subsequent coats.
  4. 8 coats of lacquer (ColorTone Aerosol). Again, 2 hours between subsequent coats.
  5. Sand and buff final finish.
Comments (and especially answers to my questions at the start of this post) are very welcomed. I'm going to start the spraying in a day or two I think.

Billieg2 : IMHO 8 coats of lacquer is too heavy and will dull the sound. I've always done 4 coats and it turned out fine. Start with a thin coat and build up. Sand between coats and buff the final coat.

Zhyla : What grit sandpaper to use for between coats?

Billieg2 : Wet/dry #400. Use it wet just to get the overspray and bubles out before the next coat. You can also check out this great site for good tips : finishing tips
Good luck !

Raz : Bill is right - 8 coats is too much, especially on the soundboard.
But you have to remember two things about lacquer
1) Lacquer isn't paint. Paint goes on in layers. Lacquer "blends" with the previous coat. IMO you don't need to sand between coats of lacquer which is good because:
2) Lacquer takes a long time to set and cure properly. While you can apply another coat of lacquer within hours, I wouldn't think about sanding it till the coat is at least a week old
I also wouldn't stop at 220 for the bare wood, I would go all the way through the grits to 1500 even. The point of that is that each successive grit takes out the sanding marks of the previous grit. The smoother the surface the finish goes on, the less sanding you need to do on the final finish.
Try lightly wetting a piece of wood (a test piece - not your guitar) that's been sanded with 220 grit - you can see the abrasive marks from the sandpaper - that's what you want to get rid of because a beautiful lacquer finish might even highlight those marks, same as it highlights the grain.
I would do the final sanding of the lacquer with 1000 and 1500 grit paper, you can damp the sheets lightly, but be careful especially round the edges. Then finish off with a very fine, silicon free auto polish, again lightly, with frequent wiping and inspection. Then buff it.
The reason I really like that KTM9 finish is because, apart from the non toxicity and ease of application, it behaves like lacquer in most regards except it is sandable within hours not a week.
That'd be the way I'd do it. I would imagine the other members of the board have 100 different opinions. It doesn't matter that much so long as you end up with a finish that isn't too thick to choke the soundboard but looks great and shows off the wood. Whichever way works is the right way.
If you're really worried about it, test finish a piece of scrap wood. Play with tints if you want that old lacquer look. When you're happy with the look of the test run then do the real thing. Bit more time consuming but it's best not to experiment on the real thing. Stripping a bad finish is even more time consuming.

Oh and Zhyla mate, Bill's way will work nicely, just be careful it's thoroughly hardened when you wet sand.
I'm just more anal retentive about finishes. I get really annoyed when I have to live with a sanding mark I didn't notice and I could have taken out in the initial prep process. Most people will never notice them.

Billieg2 : I agree with Raz 98% but after owning a chopper shop (custom motorcycles) and having one of the best painters in the area, I know in order to get that (glass) deep finish my painter would spray and within 1 hour wet sand and spray again. If you let the lacquer sit for longer than 1 hour you then need to let it cure because it will lift. Lacquer will bond with each coat and (melt) together IF you spray coats before they start to really setup. My painter used white polishing compound to (sand) between coats and the paint after 4-5 coats would look a mile deep. I once refinished a H-48 and didn't sand between coats and it came out dull in spots with dust bubbles and looked bad. After sanding and a re-spray it looked like a million bucks. I guess you could try it on a piece of wood just to get the hang of it and the timing down right. Make sure you are using real lacquer and not some kind of mix. I never used KTM9 so I can't comment on that product.

Zhyla : Sprayed the 1st sealer coat on 5 minutes ago. Hopes this turns out good. It looks great right now, the big putty crack doesn't show up much and the color looks nice and uniform (but my wife stole my camera...). Another coat in 40 minutes (before the 1st one dries - that's what the instructions say) and then it's off to the beach.

[...] Odd thing. After the 3rd coat of sealer dried there is all this fine little strands of lacquer hanging around on the top. It looks almost like fine sawdust but it's definitely lacquer, it wasn't there before the 3rd coat. Did I spray too thick ? I'm not sanding between coats but I think I should sand that stuff off before the next coat.

Billieg2 : That's overspray and you can't help that. That's why you sand between coats because you don't want that stuff getting covered up with the next coat or you will have to sand back to the first coat to get it off. Just do a finish sanding with 400 - 600 paper to get all the overspray off and if you do use compound make sure it's automotive white with no silicons.....
Another tip about the clear finish is to do 3 light coats making sure you get it covered with each coat and then do a heavy coat for the last one (this is the hard part) and let it dry for 3 days and then buff it out.

Zhyla : Well I've got the sealer coats done and 3 coats of clear coat so far. I'm not sure how to tell a thin coat from a thick coat. I've noticed that if I make one or two passes with the spray that I don't end up with any of that fuzzy stuff Billie calls overspray (that's the 3rd use of the term regarding finishes I've heard now). But I'm not sure that's laying down enough lacquer or not.

In any case, it doesn't seem to be a hard science. I realize I haven't gotten to the tricky buffing/polishing phase but so far this refinishing thing seems really easy. It's easier than refretting.

billieg2 : A thin coat is about 3 quick passes, a thick coat is when the paint is just about to run. You will know when you are ready for the thick coat because after sanding the finish will be smooth and a consistant gloss will show with no fisheyes, dust bubbles or dull areas.

Zhyla : Couple more coats to go. This will happily coincide with my work getting super busy for a couple weeks, so it will have plenty of time to dry out.

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

I'm letting the top sit in the closet for a while before I go and polish it. Anyone know how long ? A month ?

But here's a quick update. I refretted the neck last night. I'm getting better at this every time. Here it is all leveled and polished :

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

It could still use some polishing on the ends of the frets, I need a clever way to do that. It takes forever.

Since this is a bound fretboard the fret tangs must be undercut at either end. Stew-Mac sells an expensive tool for this but I saw someone else online had modified a sheet metal nibbler to do the same thing. I don't remember if I mentioned this before, but I used it on the Univox project. I think I got mine on ebay for $12 or so. The modification just removes a little material to give the fret a lip to push up against so that the tang is right under the blade. It works great on this normal sized fretwire but had a hard time with the jumbo wire I used on a previous project. A little cleanup with a file is necessary after nibbling but it goes quickly.
Hey, where can I get a trussrod cover for this? Does someone make repros?

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

Billieg2 : Great job on the neck! I'd let the body sit for about 2 weeks before polishing. I have a few truss rod covers. Does it take a standard one?

Geo : That is one fine job Z man !

[3 weeks later]

Zhyla : I let the finish sit for a good month so that's why I haven't updated this project. Been busy building an amp too. Anyways...

All I had on hand was 600 and 1500 grit sandpaper. So that's what I used. I wetsanded with 600 grit until most of the "orange paper"texture was gone from the finish, sanded with 1500 grit, and finished up with some rubbing compound. In a few spots I rubbed thru part of the finish along the grain lines. I think this happened because it wasn't perfectly sanded in that spot to begin with or some water seeped thru and caused the grain to swell. Either way, it's not really too bad because it makes the finish look just a little worn.

One of the cracks in near the bass F-hole re-cracked itself when I put a bit of pressure on the top during the sanding. I put a little cleat under the crack to make it more solid. When I clamped the cleat it left a really deep indentation in the top. I used the old wet paper towel and soldering iron trick to swell it back up. It worked really well. The top is a little wavy over that little spot, but it's not noticeable.

I didn't actually do a neck reset on this guitar. When I looked at the neck angle it seemed ok. So what I did was shim it so the neck joint would be tighter and glued it back on. The neck angle looks fine and the action can be adjusted lower than you'd want.

Harmony H1457 archtop guitar restoration

The apparent high action on the higher frets is due to the fingerboard extension sloping down towards the body beginning around the 16th fret. It might have been better to plane that dip out, but not a huge deal as the higher frets rarely get played on non-cutaways.

There's still some setup work to do (couple buzzy frets, bridge feet don't really match the top) but the hard part is done. I've got it strung up with some regular phosphor bronze strings and don't like the sound at all. I need to get some Gibson archtop strings for it and see what it really sounds like. Unless it really blows me away it will probably be up for sale - I'm running out of room for guitars !

Garret Levels : Looks really good man!! Congrats on a great job.
And I appreciate the thread too, sharing what you've done.

François : A very good finish job ! Thanks and congratulations !

Zhyla, september 2008

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