Sunday, November 14, 2021

Refurbishing a 12-String Acoustic Guitar

You make me feel brand new... or at least look that way. Photo by Kat.

Each day, I make a point of watching David Lynch give his weather report. It's at the point that if I miss even a single day, I feel a sense of loss, admittedly minor. Anyway, on the weekends, David says the same thing, which is wishing people luck on their weekend projects. In at least that aspect, David seems like me; he is happier when he's being productive. You have work that you have to do during the week, usually for the benefit of someone else, but on the weekends, you are free to do the things you want to do.

This weekend, I awoke knowing I indeed had a project to do; it was the restoration of my friend Bunny Knutson's 12-string acoustic guitar. I'd been planning on this for awhile. The guitar not only had been missing some strings but also the bridge pins that would allow the strings to be replaced. Also, after of years of disuse and storage in the closet, it had accumulated layers of dust and grit. It wasn't pretty. I planned to make it look and sound new again, or close to it.

Entropy Increases
Let's talk for a moment about the second law of thermodynamics. Weren't expecting that, were you? But I promise, it's applicable. On a literal basis, it says that as energy is transferred or transformed, more and more of it is wasted, and that there is a natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state. That disorder is known as entropy, and on a general basis around the universe, things go from an orderly state to disorderly. Entropy increases.

If you find yourself interested in more detail about entropy than a blog post on fixing a guitar will provide, learn more about Ludwig Boltzmann, the guy who is so well known for his brilliant entropy formula that it is inscribed on his gravestone. 

Reversing Time
In a more poetic (as opposed to physics) sense, the increase of entropy seems to happen in many areas of life. You start with a plan but unpredictable and random events make your plan more and more difficult to accomplish, with unforeseen variables derailing your goals. In this case, a guitar that sits around unplayed has many factors going on. Oxygen corrodes the steel strings. Dust settles on the finish. Humidity affects the wood, which expands and contracts. In the worst case situations, a guitar can become forever unplayable as time takes its toll, just by sitting around.

One aspect of entropy in physics is that the greater amount of disorder that occurs, the less reversible those changes are. Fortunately, in the case of Bunny's Fender DG-10/12, an inexpensive 12-string dreadnought model manufactured in China from 1995-2005, the arrow of time and the resulting increase in entropy hadn't yet gone far enough to make it unsalvageable.

You'll Need Things
The first step was getting a few items I'd need. Dunlop makes a very handy maintenance kit called System 65. It includes guitar body polish, fingerboard cleaner, and a couple of microfiber cloths. Side note: Bunny's Fender has a satin finish, but this routine works equally well on gloss-finished guitars.

I don't think this lemon oil has any lemons, which is good. Keep reading...

The next thing I'd need were replacement bridge pins, since Bunny's guitar was missing a couple of them. These are the pins that hold the string in place at the bridge of the guitar. I wanted them to match the existing pins, but fortunately the standard black pins with white dots are easy to find and relatively cheap. I got a set of Fender pins; might as well go with the original, and they cost all of five bucks.

Thirdly, I needed new strings. I went with D'Addario EJ36, a light gauge 80/20 bronze string that I felt would be particularly playable on this guitar. They're about $10, making my total cost of restoring the guitar a massive $30... not a big investment to make an instrument usable once again.

Step 1: Dust in the Wind
A lot of what made Bunny's guitar look bad was simply dust. What is dust? If you want to be grossed out, be aware that about half the dust inside your home is dead skin cells. True story. In my home, which includes four cats along with four humans, dust also includes bits of hair and fur and so on. But as we know, on an overall basis dust is fine particles of any sort of solid matter, and they accumulate on surfaces left untouched.

The first thing I did was take a soft cloth that I dampened slightly, and just wiped off every surface of the instrument. Frankly, I didn't want to even be near it before that first step. My respiratory system is prone to allergic reactions, and I didn't want to spend the next hour sneezing and blowing my nose.

Gross! Then better.

Ew! Then ahhhhh.

Step 2: Old and In The Way
I don't know how often Bunny had changed strings on this Fender, but by the time I did my maintenance, the strings were covered in various kinds of corrosion. Again, corrosion on guitar strings is generally a result of the human factor. Oils and dead skin cells collect in the windings of the strings. Non-wound strings are exposed to oxygen and water vapor and they rust.

I carefully downtuned the guitar. At this stage, when the tension on the neck has been relatively constant for so long, I tend to be extra gentle so that nothing really bad happens -- like the bridge detaching from the body or cracks happening in the area of the headstock or body joint. I tune down a little at a time across all strings so that the release of neck tension is gradual.

When the strings are low enough that they are flopping around, while leaving the strings secured on the tuning pegs, I use a needle-nose pliers and gently pull out the bridge pins and put them somewhere safe for the moment. Make sure to pull straight up from the bridge, not at any kind of angle.

I'm not saying Bunny should have clipped these strings, but Bunny really should have clipped these strings. They were a hazard to life itself. 

I remove the strings from the bridge and then just unwind them from each tuning peg. Side note: old guitar strings can be recycled like any metal, if you're environmentally minded. The saddle of the bridge is usually not secured down in any way; remove it and put it to the side for now. After removing the strings, you're now able to finish the job of removing any extraneous dirt and dust. I did another wipe down with my soft damp cloth, and then, using some wet Q-tips, I cleaned out the smaller crevices, like around the neck joint and bridge. While you're got the strings off, it's a time where you're also able to clean the surface areas that are usually more inaccessible, like the headstock and around the rosette.

Step 3: High & Dry
Now that you've got the dirt/dust handled and the old strings removed, it's time to polish the guitar's body. Spray your polish onto the cleaning rag, not onto the guitar. A little goes a long way. You don't want to use so much that you end up with a waxy buildup.

I like to do this in sections. I start with the top of the guitar, followed by the sides, followed by the back. I also give the beck of the neck a polish, as well as the front and back of the headstock. I then follow up with another rubdown using a clean and dry microfiber cloth to make sure I haven't inadvertently left any polish on the instrument.

I don't even know what was going on here. Pretty sure it was a new civilization of microscopic beings who'd claimed this unfortunate spot for their home in the universe. They're gone now. Goodbye my little friends.

Step 4: The Sound of Silence
Again, while we've got the strings off, it's time to do something you're definitely not able to do when they're on. The constant tension on the tuning posts can eventually loosen the tuner nuts. Using a 10mm nut wrench (or, if you're like me and tend to lose your tools, a pair of pliers) just give the nuts a quick righty-tighty. You don't need to overdo it. Just make sure they're secure. If the frets themselves are showing signs of corrosion, another thing you might want to do at this point is take some 0000 steel wool and give the frets a light rub. Brush off any particles, and now it's time to treat the fingerboard.

What you use to clean the fingerboard is, like so many things in the world of music, a matter of mild controversy. Like many guitars, the fingerboard on the Fender DG-10/12 is rosewood, and lemon oil is often vilified because it can dry out the fingerboard, leading to cracks and other unpleasantness. However, the products like Dunlop's System 65 barely contain any actual lemon oil; it's mostly mineral oil with some lemon scent and yellow coloring. It's perfectly fine for rosewood, ebony, and pau ferro fingerboards. Other people will say to use linseed oil as opposed to any lemon-based product. Do your own research. Side note: if you have a maple fingerboard (which is likely finished, unlike the other woods), don't use any product at all; just wipe it with a damp cloth to clean. 

The project took about two hours total working slowly. I spent part of the time listening to my favorite album from 2019, Deceiver by DIIV.

Step 5: Rise of the Fenix
Now you'll want to put new strings on your now clean and happy guitar. I'm not going to tell you how to restring your guitar, but I will gladly show you a video of my friend Tom Watters of Takamine doing it the right way.

My only note when it comes to restringing 12-string guitars: the higher, thinner, octave-up string comes first, so in order from top to bottom, the strings go (my string gauge in parenthesis):

  • High E (.027)
  • Low E (.047)
  • High A (.018)
  • Low A (.039)
  • High D (.012)
  • Low D (.030)
  • High G (.008)
  • Low G (.023)
  • Regular B (.014)
  • Regular B (.014)
  • Regular High E (.010)
  • Regular High E (.010)
And yes, the two highest strings are the same... simply doubled. Side note: with any instrument that uses two strings that are plucked at the same time, those are called a "course", whether or not they are the same pitch doubled (in unison) or an octave apart. A 12-string guitar is comprised of six courses of strings. A mandolin has four courses of strings, each set in unison. Now you know.

Step 6: Getting in Tune
The very final thing to do is to tune your guitar. Like everything with a 12-string model, this is twice as much of a pain in the ass as a standard 6-string guitar. My advice: if your guitar doesn't have onboard electronics with a built-in tuner, just get a simple clip-on tuner. I use this one from Snark. It's fine, but use whichever one you like.

Tuning 12-string guitars is a special section of hell, because the strings are so close, it's super tedious striking one and tuning it without inadvertently also hitting the paired string. But there are plenty of worse things in life, and before you know it, you'll be done.

Kind of. See, especially in lower-end guitars, the tension of the string and the wood of the neck and body need to settle in for a bit. I was actually impressed that once I'd tuned Bunny's DG-10/12, it actually held tune pretty well for awhile. The following morning, it had gone flat across the board, but another quick tune-up and it's good to go. For this reason, if you're using your guitar for a gig or recording session, trying changing the strings the day before as opposed to the day of.

Last note: I'm sure Bunny will eventually want to take possession of this guitar again, and he'll be welcome to do so. Now that it's playable, I might have to record some kind of goofy-ass 12-string song, so perhaps that's my project for next weekend.

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