Wise Cracks

This 58 had a few long vertical cracks in the top. This is very common in 58's because the top has one less ply and is very thin. That's a repair by the f-hole. It doesn't look great but it isn't likely to go anywhere either. It occurs in post 58 guitars as well but less frequently.


Wood is fickle. It is completely inconsistent in how it acts, what it weighs and what it sounds like when sound passes through it. To make it even more complicated an ES-335 is made of no less than six different kinds of wood, all of which expand and contract at different rates when subject to temperature changes. They also have differing strengths when they take a hit. So, it’s just about a given that over fifty years or so, something is going to crack or break. The body of the guitar is generally maple plywood with a poplar or other wood core. The top laminate can split fairly easily and it can also delaminate. The neck is, of course, mahogany which has a nasty habit of splitting along the grain lines when stressed. The center block is maple and spruce and since you can’t really see it, nobody really cares if it splits or not but it can affect the tone of the guitar when it does. The headstock veneer is holly and splits really easily because the grain so straight and the wood is so brittle. The fingerboard is rosewood and rarely cracks-probably because of the moisture content which is often replenished from your greasy, sweaty hands. Buyers get all stressed out over cracks and the truth is that many of them are completely benign and will never cause you a problem. It is simply the nature of wood to crack when it dries or when it is subject to temperature and humidity changes. The hard part is knowing which cracks to worry about and which ones to simply accept as part of the vintage vibe. Rule of thumb here is if it isn’t structural and under stress, then don’t worry about it. Top, side and back cracks are usually in the top laminate and don’t extend through the others. That’s part of the point of using plywood. It’s thin and strong and the grain in each adjacent ply goes in a different direction. An unrepaired top or back crack in an ES is nothing to worry about. Knock off a few bucks for cosmetics but don’t treat it like a headstock break because it is unlikely to change much over time. I often see hairline cracks in the back of the neck, usually between the 5th and 9th fret and usually in a very straight line right along the grain. This is a bit of a red flag because it’s usually caused by an overtightened truss rod. If properly glued, it shouldn’t stop you from buying a well priced guitar if and only if the truss rod issue has been resolved. There really isn’t much stress on it as long as the truss is no longer overtightened and the neck is straight. Things get tricky at the headstock. We’ve all heard that glue is stronger than wood and that seems to be true up to a point. That point is that the glue doesn’t last forever and dries out and gives up but that is a different post. A hairline crack in the headstock face is not unusual-sometimes between the tuners, sometimes at the “wings” which are two small pieces of wood glued to the sides of the headstock to widen it. Wing cracks look worse than they are and once repaired are nothing to worry about as long as they follow the lines of the original seam. Cracks in the veneer are never anything to worry about because its very thin and has no structural significance at all. A crack between the tuners or extending from the tuner to the edge of the headstock is often caused by an overtightened or oversized screw and is usually along the grain line. Generally these aren’t structural but they should be looked at by a luthier who may or may not want to float some thin glue into the crack to stabilize it. There is stress at the tuner shaft so if the crack is open and shows movement, you best fix it. Again, as long as its stable and doesn’t move, you shouldn’t worry too much about it. Any crack, whether benign or structural is going to diminish the value of the guitar. Make sure you factor these things into the price or better yet, buy from a dealer who factors these things into the price. Next we’ll look at typical headstock cracks and breaks.

Not the best photo but there is a truss rod crack in this neck. It happens to the ones with the real flat necks more than those with plenty of wood between the truss rod and the back of the neck. Have one like this looked at before you buy.


10 Responses to “Wise Cracks”

  1. Tom says:

    I’ve heard people use the “glue is stronger than wood” argument to try and sell a headstock crack before and I didn’t much care since I wasn’t buying. But now I’m thinking that a great deal might be had for a repaired but otherwise excellent player guitar. What are the chances that the glued repair will fail and, if so, can I repair a repair?

  2. OK Guitars says:

    As a rule, I shy away from headstock cracks but I know plenty of folks who play them year in and year out with no trouble. A properly repaired break diminishes the vintage value by a lot but it also makes it very affordable. I prefer refins as players since the value of a refin and a repaired neck crack are similar. I’m not an expert on glue but I’ve seen the original hide glue give up after 50 years. I don’t know about modern glues and their lifespan. I’ve seen headstock repairs that are close to 50 years old and still seem stable. You can certainly repair a repair if it gives up.There are some very talented luthiers out there who work some kind of voodoo magic on broken guitars, making them whole again.

  3. RAB says:

    Years ago a headstock crack was a deal-breaker for me…over-time I have been increasingly open to the idea that a well-repaired (structurally and cosmetically!) headstock break might be OK…but, at least at present none of my small guitar-stable have a headstock break or any other kinds of wood-crack repairs…

  4. Tom says:

    Thanks. I certainly wouldn’t risk a couple Gs on one but I regularly see cracks going for @$1200-1300 on ebay auctions with lots of bidders.

  5. OK Guitars says:

    Depends a lot on the year and originality. I bought a ’61 dot neck with a bad crack and a bad repair but it was nearly all original with PAFs so the pickups alone were worth close to $4K.
    Add in the rest of the parts and the wood was free. New owner replaced the neck and is playing it. He got a sweet deal on the whole package PAFs and all.

  6. Steve Newman says:

    Every crack and it’s repair procedure is unique. An experienced repairperson/luthier will take the time to determine the least invasive way to go about the proper method for a stable and durable repair. This includes what type of glue/adhesive to use, how much to ensure the correct results (too much glue is worse than NO glue and can make further future repairs almost impossible), how and if to clamp the parts together, making special jigs or cauls to hold the repair stable while the adhesive bonds/cures, and when to introduce splints, fillers, or other wooden reinforcements not original to the instrument. There are a number of very talented, highly skilled repair gurus who are highly respected in their craft (Dan E.,T. J. Thompson Joe Glaser, Randy Wood, etc.) who can make repairs all but invisible, even to experts. A proper repair should last more than your lifetime.

  7. OK Guitars says:

    Good stuff. Thanks.

  8. I just purchased a new 61 335 Warren Haynes model. Fell in love with it at the store, love the neck and tone, everything about the guitar was just right. 3 days of owning it, I noticed two small 1.5 inch cracks on the back, one at each ear. Doesn’t look like finish cracks to me, looks more like a crack in the top laminate layer. I’m totally bummed. Taking to a gibson luthier for inspection. I wouldn’t care if this was a used guitar, but it’s new. Any advice?

  9. cgelber says:

    Return it. Gibsons are fairly consistent these days so just get another of the same model without the cracks. On the other hand they might just tell you it’s “relic’d” and charge you an extra few hundred bucks.

  10. Jonathan Krogh says:

    Old thread but I’m sure people still read these archives. A few comments based on many years of repairs and a few ES refurbs, including a *complete* 345 rebuild that gave a good anatomy lesson.
    In the ES 3X5 series, the side laminations appeared to be made with a different glue to the top and back plates, I have never seen top and back plys separating on their own, but nearly every ES3X5 I see locally has some side delamination, usually at the lower bout around the bottom strap button where they start to get loose and puff out proud of the binding.
    The hide glue joints are the fretboard to neck and and neck to body joints, all else are the urea formaldehyde which is a very hard but brittle glue, and I have seen a few guitars completely unstick everywhere except with perfect hide glue joints intact.
    The crack in the back middle of the neck can possibly be from a truss rod rusting, in which case the expanding flakes of rust can press in all directions, a most extreme example would even cause a fretboard to split etc. In Fenders I have seen this condition push the skunk stripe along the back of the neck right out.
    Bear in mind there are two different types of truss rod operation in these golden age guitars, the earlier(pre 60) is the straight deep set rod that should be called a ‘tension rod’ and the later familiar type is the shallower set curved rod that is properly termed a ‘truss rod’.
    The earlier type when tightened compresses the neck end to end along its length and it resists string tension because it is set deeper at the body end (5/8″ deep at the body, 1/2″ at the nut end) and has harder deep maple filler strip above it, and very little mahogany below it, therefore it leans backwards against string pull curvature and balances out the wood movement.
    The later truss rod type, in tightening this type of truss rod, the tension is exerted upward along the curve as it tries to straighten itself, toward the maple filler strip between the truss rod and the fretboard, this puts a proper backbow into the neck if overtightened.
    These two different types likely also account for the different positioning of the truss rod adjustment recesses and truss rod cover placements as you have pointed out in other articles, and it seems the later type places the truss rod cover closer to the nut.

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