1850s Martin Size 1 Parlor/Classical Guitar

It's not like these guitars pop-up every day. This crushingly-gorgeous old Martin is owned by a local fellow who was, apparently, given the instrument some time ago. I'd worked on an 0-16NY for him a while back but I had no idea he had this hanging-out in his assorted collection.

When he brought it in, I was immediately transfixed. "You know what you have?" was my first question, of course. It was very ragged. I think he understood it was important, but maybe not that it dates to so early in the game for the company. It still bears "CF Martin - New York" stamped in three places.

Robert Corwin's Vintage Martin site is an invaluable resource in dating these guitars, and this one has bracing and style cues suggesting it was built in the late 1840s or early 1850s. Both the "ivory fretboard" Martin and "Spanish X" Martin have almost identical bracing and internal fittings. What's interesting is that this one was ordered with a "Spanish" headstock -- in this case that meant a solid one that would have been fitted with violin-style friction pegs when new. Judging by the sizing information on Mr. Corwin's page, this was probably sold as a "Size 1" but it does align somewhere between a 1 and 2.

As-is, this arrived with a split (and very mangled) heel, portions of the fretboard missing and lots of chip-out on the board, no bridge and a few extra holes below where the bridge would have been, numerous unrepaired cracks, and a split side near the neckblock. It looked destroyed.

Work included: a neck reset, new ebony fretboard and bridge, new bone nut, new bone saddle, new ebony bridge pins, cleating and repairs to various cracks throughout, cleaning-up of a previously-sanded headstock veneer, fitting of new Pegheds tuners (they're 4:1 geared but look like fiddle pegs), and general cleaning and setup. It has a straight neck, plays bang-on with 3/32" action at the 12th fret, and handles like a fancy new guitar. I have it strung with LaBella polished-basses "gold" nylon strings in medium tension.

Scale length: 24 5/8"
Nut width: 1 7/8"
String spacing at nut: 1 5/8"
String spacing at bridge: 2 1/4"
Body length: 18 7/8"
Lower bout width: 12 1/2"
Upper bout width: 9 1/8"
Side depth at endpin: 4 1/8"
Top wood: solid spruce
Back/sides wood: solid Brazilian rosewood
Bracing type: x-braced, extremely lightly-cut
Fretboard: new ebony
Bridge: new ebony
Neck feel: medium C shape, 12" radius to board

Condition notes: lots of old repair crud in evidence, lots of wear to the finish, many old cracks, replacement fretboard and bridge, replacement tuners, finish damage around the bridge, and lots of wear and tear to the back of the neck. Structurally, it's very stable and in good order, however.

Here's where the hate for the repairs might begin -- I've installed a zero fret! Gasp...? The original Martin scale length on this was only 1/32" or so off from 24 5/8" and so I ordered a new fretboard from LMII with that Gibson-y scale and a modern-friendly 12" radius.

Because "normal" placement of the board would've meant the new bridge would need the saddle placed nearly at the front edge to match the old bridge's footprint and have intonation correct, I decided to scoot the fretboard up a little, have a thinner bone nut, and install a zero fret to give myself an extra 1/8" for the bridge saddle to sit farther-aft on the bridge. As a bonus, tone is nice and even and setup is easy-peasy -- just shim the saddle up/down as the seasons change and forget needing to adjust the nut at all.

The fretstock is a mix of medium and bigger-than-medium to help offset a mild backbow that the neck had originally. I like to let wood be where it wants to be and work around problems rather than try to wrestle them into submission.

The StewMac-supplied "blank" pyramid bridge was certainly good-enough for this application.

Under the bridge are a few repaired sections where the top tore-out. I'm guessing someone strung this with steel at some point and the guitar had a fit with it... hence a sprung original bridge and torn-out underside. The bracing on this is incredibly light and the top is super-thin, so steel of any sort would be a huge problem.

Let those be fighting words to folks on the net I see stringing Martins of this era with steel -- just don't do it. Buy a newer guitar. You don't want these instruments, so don't subject them to your forcing them to be something else. These are not made for it.

Someone must've installed "normal" tuners on the headstock at some point.

I forgot that I had to put a replacement heel cap on, too.

This neck was savaged by ugly old repairs. It was missing 1/16" of material right in the middle (where the old glue residue/gunk is built-up) from compression damage and another 1/8" at the cap. After resetting the neck and repairing the neckblock, I did "pin" the two pieces together with a slim bolt (it'd had a giant bolt sunk into it in the past) to help reinforce this area.

The backstrip is nice, huh?


gzunic said…
such a lovely instrument and sweet tone. If it was an historic restoration for a museum your repairs wouldn't be appropriate, but allowing it to be heard again and playable makes sense.
Jake Wildwood said…
Gzunic: I also knew the owner needed something easy to maintain and a repair bill that doesn't run over $800... :)
Ivan said…
The back is gorgeous. Once again great save Jake. If you were a hockey player you would definitely win the Stanley Cup.
Rob Gardner said…
Very beautiful little old-timer, Jake. Having looked at it it in its original basket-case state, seeing in playable condition again, a little battered but unbowed, is great. The parade of instruments through your shop never ceases to be an education.