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Crack, Check or Scratch?

No, this isn’t a dilemma about how to pay for your drug habit. It’s all in the punctuation, you see. That would be Crack: Check or scratch? Or simply Crack. Check or scratch? Nope. This is about that thin line in your guitar that looks like one thing but might be another. I suppose I could even add in grain separation. The thing is that it’s sometimes really hard to tell-even under a microscope. So, the dealer tells you it’s a scratch. You’re luthier thinks it’s a crack and it might just be a check.  What do you do? Well, there are other things to looks at to help you decide if it’s a dealbreaker or not. Where on the guitar is it? Is it a place -like the neck join, where there is a great deal of stress? I had a terrific ’64 SG that had a half dozen finish cracks at the neck join but none in the wood that got heavily discounted because everyone was afraid the wood was cracked. Finally, the guy who bought it got a great deal and simply had the neck reglued-which most SGs from this period need anyway. The stress cracks came from the fact that the glue had given up and the neck moved a lot. If the guitar is heavily checked and you see what looks to you like a crack somewhere, it’s probably a check. Checks can be open or closed and an open check (one that goes all the way to the wood) can look a lot like a crack. Let’s say you’re convinced that it IS a crack-meaning the wood has split. Where is it on the guitar? If it’s in a place that gets a lot of stress like the heel or the base of the headstock, then you might want to pass it by. If it’s on the side of the body or even in the top or back and doesn’t move, then it’s probably not an issue. Wood can separate along the grain lines and still have complete function and integrity (ask any Martin owner). The beautiful 59 red 345 that I sold had a small crack along the side in one of the cutaways. The buyer didn’t have any problem with it and it was a non issue because it wasn’t in a place that made any difference to the tone or integrity of the guitar. Fifty year old wood is not inert. It still reacts to heat, cold, dampness and dryness. There are very few 50 year old guitars that don’t show the results of their environment. I had a 66 with a 10 inch crack down the middle of the back and discounted it heavily. The buyer, who knew a lot about wood, realized that it was just a grain separation in the plywood along an area that was kept intact by the center block. He knew it would never be a problem. He got a great deal. I sold a guitar with a 4 inch very thin line down the middle of the back of the neck. I looked at the line with a very strong magnifying glass and saw that the lacquer was jagged along both edges-it appeared to have been torn away by something (like a capo). But, I’ve seen cracks in that location as well-often from an overtightened truss rod.  But, again, look at the damaged area. Is it along a grain line? Is the guitar heavily checked elsewhere? Does it affect the integrity of the guitar? Is it active (showing movement when stressed)? You need to be a bit of a detective but no matter what conclusion you draw, you need to ask the next question. Does it matter? Does the price reflect the issue? Is it a small problem that’s going to become a large problem? This is where you have to show some trust in your dealer or your tech or both. Fifty years takes a pretty big toll on just about everything. It sure has on me. I used to be able to run 26 miles. Now, I can barely crank out three. Your 50 year old guitar is going to show some ravages of age. Just pay attention and use a little common sense and you can get a great deal on a guitar that is 100% functional even after all that time. And don’t pay for your crack with a check. The paper trail will come back to you.

2 Responses to “Crack, Check or Scratch?”

  1. RB says:

    Well said as usual CG. A $25 black light is also a valuable inspection tool. And getting to know a couple of really experienced and savvy repair guys, to help with evaluations (and possible repairs) can also improve your odds of finding a great guitar as well as lower the risk of unpleasant surprises.

  2. OK Guitars says:

    A jewelers loup can be valuable too. It’s a fine line (so to speak) between what appears to be a finish check and an actual crack in the wood. Wood cracks on its own. just look at any large beam in an older building. They, in fact, call that “checking” in the architectural business. The fact that a guitar may have a crack doesn’t mean it’s particularly compromised either-it CAN mean that it is but it can also be a grain separation or “check” in building lingo. It’s important to look at where it is on the guitar. The blacklight is great for finding repairs but I don’t see how it would help in differentiating between a crack, a scratch or a check.

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