Shrunken Heads

Five out of six "shrunken heads" on that great old red 59 ES-345. I don't think the buyer cared that they were shrunken.

Nope, this isn’t a post about the guys in New Guinea who, for a good time, will kill you, eat you and do something to your head (I’m sure being killed and eaten will do something to anyone’s head). While interesting and probably fascinating, the natives of New Guinea don’t play the guitar as far as I am aware. I’m talking about shrunken tuner heads. This phenomenon is a strange quirk of nature called off-gassing. The plastic that was used to make the tuner buttons changes its chemical makeup over time and the tuner tips shrink and become brittle, sometimes even turning to dust. Tuner tips from the early 50’s don’t seem to do this. Tuner tips from the 60’s generally don’t do this. But it seems that 58 and 59 tuners do. Maybe 57’s I don’t see many of those. When Kluson went from the single ring tip to the double ring, they must have changed the formulation of the plastic because you rarely, if ever, see a double ring tip that has shrunk. It’s the same phenomenon that makes the tortoise pickguard on a 355 turn to dust, leaving only the binding (which must have been a different plastic).

Here's a comparison of a shrunken single ring and an unshrunk double ring Kluson. They were once the same size before the off-gassing began. This came from guitar repair guru Dan Erlewine's site, I think. Thanks, Dan.

On the gold tuners-like on a 345, they used the single ring tips beyond 1960 and those shrink as well. Probably because they had a lot of gold Klusons and didn’t use them up as fast as they used up the nickel ones (since there were more guitars that had nickel Klusons than gold). My otherwise mint 61 has shrunken heads. But not all of them. This is even more puzzling. How can 3 tuners deteriorate to dust and 3 of them stay exactly as they were when they were made? This isn’t an oddity, it happens almost every time. My 59 ES-175 had 5 shrunken tuners. My current 59 ES 345 has 3. The beautiful mint 59 red 345 I recently sold had 5. It seems that the more time the guitar spends in its almost airtight case, the worse the off-gassing is. That makes sense. But why it happens to 3 or 5 of them is a mystery. Anyone with the answer will be duly credited. Sometimes, they still work just fine-they can be a bit hard to get a good hold onto because they are small but they still work. Other times, they will crumble in your hands the first time you turn them. If you see that the guitar you are about to buy-or the one that you just found in Grandpa’s closet has this issue, there is an easy way to stabilize them. Super Glue (Krazy glue or any other cyanoacrylate glue). ¬†You can simply paint it on or you can dip them in a container full of glue and let it soak in. It actually seems to rebuild the plastic. I’m told that if you coat them with baking soda first, it works even better but I’ve never tried it so don’t do it if you haven’t already written off the tuner as useless. I have done just the super glue part and it works very well. Whether it lowers the value of the tuner, I couldn’t say. I think that if a technique makes something that has no practical function anymore usable again, it can’t be a bad thing. If someone came to me with a valuable guitar that had the original tuners on it and functioning I would be more likely to pay a bit more if than if they were in the case and too brittle to use.

This is otherwise mint '61 that spent many years off-gassing away in its case. They aren't too bad though. Maybe the black cases weren't as airtight as the brown ones..

2 Responses to “Shrunken Heads”

  1. I have a 1961 gibson L4C serial No. 29455. which i have owned from new. three of the machine head plastic buttons have gassed , shrank and turned brown. I am worried that they may break when I tune the guitar. What is my best option ?

  2. okguitars says:

    Two good choices. Replace the gassed tuner tips. If they are Klusons they are easy to find. Or, take them off and replace all of them with reproductions (also Kluson)
    and put the original in the case. That won’t affect the value appreciably as off gassing is common during that period.

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