Wise Cracks, Part 2


This is pretty typical headstock crack of the "smile" variety. It is not usually difficult to repair and can be very stable once done. Glue doesn't last forever so take a close look every now and then to make sure it's still stable.

Generally, I don’t buy guitars with headstock cracks or repairs because unless you can inspect it in person, it’s really hard to know how well it was repaired or how bad the crack is. The conventional wisdom is that a headstock crack or break cuts the vintage value in half. Most folks think that’s about right and I don’t argue the point (like I do with refins). But should we treat a “smile” crack the same as we treat a headstock that has completely broken off and been put back on? Or broken in more than one place? There is a pretty big range of damage that falling guitars can sustain and it’s tough to go by a rule as simple as 50% off. The most common break, usually from a guitar falling backwards, is the “smile” crack. It often follows the grain because that’s where the wood is weakest and it usually occurs near the truss rod end where the headstock is thinnest. A competent luthier can simply flow some glue in there and clamp it for a visible but stable repair. It’s when they start trying to cover the repair up that it gets a little hairy. My rule of thumb, at that end of the neck is that if the color is darker around the base of the headstock, somebody worked on it. Blacklight it, look at it in bright sunlight, take a magnifying glass to it-do what you can because it is a very, very rare thing for a repair to be undetectable. It is not rare for a guitar to be represented as unbroken when it has been repaired. The factory didn’t spray opaque color at the base of the headstock. They did at the heel on certain guitars, so that’s another story. They did stingers once in a while usually to cover something in the wood or the finish but not to conceal a repair. Learn what a factory stinger looks like before you take someone’s word for it. Bigger breaks require bigger repairs. I recently bought a 64 with an undisclosed break that was pretty serious. The seller cleverly shot the photos from an angle that effectively hid the work but it was totally obvious when I got it in my hands. In that case, the neck was probably hanging on by a few slivers of wood and a simple glue job wouldn’t have been strong enough. There are a lot of methods for repairing a major break and, since I’m not a luthier (or even a Lutheran) I can’t speak intelligently about the best way to accomplish a stable reapir. The 64 I got had a spline that went from well past the break down to the second fret or so. It wasn’t pretty but it was smooth and stable. It looked like a bit of fiberglass or some kind of resin may have been added as well. The guitar sounded good and will make a good player for someone. I think the only way to buy a 335/345 or 355 with a headstock repair is to see it in person or be prepared to spend some more money of its done poorly. The worst case is a new neck which can be a great solution. It’ll cost a couple of thousand and will ruin much of the vintage value but, I gotta say, I’d buy a reneck long before I buy a broken headstock. A well executed renecked vintage 335 can be a great bargain and pose no issues at all if it was done competently.

Not pretty but pretty effective. This 64 with a major break was repaired with a spline and was totally stable. Too bad the owner sold it to me without disclosing it. Better me than you.

This nasty break in a 64 ES-335 was sent by a reader (thanks, Eric) and occurred during shipping. If you're shipping a 335 in a vintage case, you have to immobilize it in its case with an impact absorbing material. Throwing in a few handfuls of packing peanuts won't do it. Eric says this was repaired and is now his main player.


This happened when I overtightened a tuner screw and the screw end pierced the holly headstock veneer and cracked it. In this case, the crack looks worse than it is since the structural integrity of the headstock is not compromised. If you see a crack like this, make sure there is no movement or the string pull on the tuners could make it worse.

6 Responses to “Wise Cracks, Part 2”

  1. RAB says:

    OUCH! Hard for us vintage git-tar fans to view these photos but a good reminder to all about risks of potential damage and the benefits of taking better care of your instrument. I never use a guitar stand; the guitar is either in my hands or in its case. Also a good point about proper packing when shipping, especially in a vintage case!

  2. Ed Roman says break all Gibson necks right behind the nut and reglue!…stronger!…never heard of a glued/repaired neck breaking again!…man made glues are 10X stronger than the natural resin(glue)in wood!…much stronger than the wood itself!….kinda common sense!

  3. RAB says:

    OK! Based on Ed’s advice, getting out the 5 lb. hand sledge and attacking the headstock on my mint ’59 blonde ES-335’s right now…(ha, ha)…

  4. chuckNC says:

    Of course, after you break/reglue, you have to smash it again to see if the new joint really is stronger. Otherwise you’d just be taking Ed’s word for it. 🙂

  5. OK Guitars says:

    That must be the wise crack I’ve been talking about.

  6. rob says:

    That must be the smoking crack I last saw in the ’80’s.

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