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Inlay Issues

This 64 had to have its inlays replaced because they curled up and died. This doesn't seem to happen on 345s and 355s or dot necks.

I wonder why it is that the only inlays that ever cause any trouble are the block inlays on 335s. I’ve had at least 80 ES-345s and not one has had a problem with the inlays. Yes, they shrink but they don’t curl or fall out. The dot markers on the early 335’s have only one small problem and that is that they fall out once in a while. So, you glue it back in. Of all the 355s I’ve had, I’ve never had any problem with the big block markers. They don’t seem to shrink or curl or fall out. I wonder if they are mop rather than some kind of low tech plastic? I never looked that closely. Anybody want to help me out here? UPDATE: Yes, I’m told the 355 inlays are MOP or some other non plastic material. ┬áBut the markers on the 62 – 65 (and later) 335s can be a nightmare. They shrink, they curl, they wear down and turn brown and transparent and the fall out. Or they don’t fall out, they just stick up and are very difficult to glue back down because you can’t get the old glue residue out without removing the inlay which is often impossible to do without breaking it. Granted, I’m not Dan Erlewine but, hey, it’s a piece of plastic glued to a piece of wood. How tough can this be? Well, it’s plenty tough because the inlays wear down to the thickness of a piece of construction paper. So, what do you do? I guess you could replace the inlays that are sticking up but they won’t look right because the wear and color will be different. You could replace them all but they will probably look too new. You could send them to a talented repair person who will probably be able to age a replacement to match the rest of them. The thing that puzzles me here is why folks seem to get so bent out of shape when an inlay has clearly been replaced. Most buyers won’t bat an eye when they spend $30,000 on a 59 dot neck with shriveled tuner buttons. They either replace them with a set of Uncle Lou’s or other repros or they just get a set of repro tuners and put the shrunken ones in the case. But tell a buyer than the inlays are coming up or one has been replaced and they immediately start looking elsewhere for a 335 with original inlays. Don’t get me wrong, I like my guitars to be 100% original but when it comes to the natural deterioration of plastic parts, I look at it the same way I look at frets. I would much rather have a properly refretted guitar than a guitar that has its original frets and badly needs a fret job. Similarly, I’d rather have a guitar that has had its shrunken and lifting inlays replaced than one that has inlays that impede proper play. I don’t believe a replaced inlay should have too much of an impact on the value of an otherwise original guitar. I do believe a replacement should be disclosed but I also believe that if you buy a block neck 335, you should be aware that the inlays may be a problem. To make matters worse, it’s something that nobody mentions in their listings. Make sure to ask before you buy.

ES 355 inlays always look really good. I'm pretty sure the material is different. Maybe its real MOP.

345s seem to shrink a bit but they don't curl up and fall out.

8 Responses to “Inlay Issues”

  1. Thanks for the blog posts- an amazing wealth of information and passion on tap here! I’ve already read and re read every post, and I check back weekly for more guitar revelations. You’ve taught me more than I’ve ever known about my favorite guitars.

    I tackled this inlay issue earlier this week! I was doing an appraisal on a ’64 ES-335 this week, and the customer asked me to reinstall its original Bigsby and repair or replace the shrunken, curled inlays on the 7th, 12th, 19th and 21st frets. Luckily enough, the glue holding the inlays in place (they’d been repaired before, and poorly) let go easily enough, and with enough time and a razor blade I was able to remove the dried glue from the underside of the inlay without incident.

    As for curling, my only solution was to lay down some paper and use a heat gun to gently re-shape the inlays. This proved to be much easier than expected, and with some careful re-gluing, everything turned out looking much better and more ‘original’ than when I had first started.

    Still, you’re right; this isn’t easy, nor is it a quick process. Thankfully, these inlays probably weren’t the most curled ones out there.

    Thanks again!

  2. OK Guitars says:

    Thank you for the kind words. Something that I’m not is a luthier. I can handle the setup and the truss and maybe the harness, but there are some things I won’t mess with. My biggest fear is wrecking something that isn’t already wrecked, so I kind of draw the line at actual repair work. I don’t mess with finishes, inlays, nuts and anything that requires glue.
    I suppose if I had some cheap guitars to practice on, I would gain a little more confidence but there are no cheap vintage 335s. My hat is off to anyone who can work on a $20,000 guitar without getting nervous.

  3. Oh, I still get nervous! I had a ’55 Les Paul on the bench six weeks ago that almost caused me to leave the building.

    I’m not a big drinker, but boy howdy I needed one after work that day.

    It’s a lot like playing live for me; if I don’t get nervous, something’s not right. Maybe I’m too cocky or not in the proper frame of mind for a job like that. I think there’s a balance somewhere in there between excitement over a vintage piece and overarching fear of mishap. I look for a healthy respect for the instrument before I start working.

    Oh, and you’re right about the 355 inlays. I’ve never seen shrunken ones, ever. Not even the one I own shows any shifting or liberation of the inlays. Strange!

  4. OK Guitars says:

    I guess natural substances, like MOP, don’t act like plastic. Although the rosewood shrinks-so maybe it’s the ebony that is so stable. I thought I was the only person left on earth who actually said “boy howdy”.

  5. Kerry Leeds says:

    Thanks again for the great blog about my favorite guitars. I thought I knew 345s until I started reading your posts.
    As you probably know, that which we call Mother of Pearl (MOP) is actually abalone, and 355 inlays are indeed abalone. I suspect that explains why 355 inlays are stable; I doubt the wood has anything to do with it. Which still doesn’t clear up the mystery of the errant block-marker 335 inlays. I look forward to your solution to this puzzle.
    Happy Chanukah.

  6. OK Guitars says:

    Here are the sources of MOP from wikipedia–“Currently the chief sources of mother of pearl are the pearl oyster, freshwater pearl mussels, and to a lesser extent, abalone”.
    I’m guessing oyster shells are a whole lot cheaper than abalone, so I’m going to guess that Gibson uses those.

  7. […] MOP is very stabile – the wood – rosewood – will shrink away from it. Inlay Issues | The Gibson ES-335 __________________ "There are a million ways to play guitar." Les Paul. Long ago, […]

  8. cgelber says:

    As the post points out, 355’s (the only one with real MOP) don’t have a shrinkage problem. The celluloid inlays on 335’s and 345’s do. The question is whether it’s the rosewood (or the celluloid) shrinking or the ebony not shrinking.

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