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1985 Martin HD-28
Fingerboard Replacement
© Frank Ford, 11/30/1; Photos by FF

There is any number of reasons to consider replacing a fingerboard -- catastrophic cracking, repeated fret replacement, undesirable inlay, neck warpage or flexibility to name a few.
This situation is largely a cosmetic one, with an element of preventive medicine. Overly zealous sanding during a previous refret job had left the board quite thin, particularly in the area around the 14th fret. While the guitar played perfectly well, and the neck was straight and solid, the owner wanted to return to the original fingerboard thickness, so it was time for a new board.
1985 was the year Martin introduced the adjustable truss rod as standard equipment, so my first job was to remove the adjusting nut. In the earliest adjustable neck Martins, it's necessary to remove the truss rod nut to extract the neck. Quite soon after this guitar was made, Martin reworked the truss rod mounting just a bit to allow the neck to go in and out of the body without removing the nut.
Neck removal proceeded just as usual, as I've described in a couple of neck resetting articles. First, the heat blanket to soften the glue under the fingerboard.
Then, gently, but not so gently, prying off the tongue of the fingerboard. I could put a new board on this guitar without neck removal, but because it's a fairly standard procedure for me, I prefer to remove the neck so I have complete access and workability. If I need to do finish touchup, having the neck off is a real bonus.
Out comes the 15th fret.
And, in goes the 1/16" drill for access to the air pocket at the end of the dovetail. That's where the steam nozzle fits in.
Here's my neck extraction press, clamped in place.
And, the steaming starts.
A few moments later, the neck comes free.
Now, with the neck out, I can work on the fingerboard much more easily. For a Gibson or a Guild, I'd be more likely to keep the neck in the body as I worked. For guitars made with a Spanish heel construction or other nonremovable neck, there wouldn't be a choice -- the neck would have to stay in place.
L.M.I. provides these neat fingerboard shaped heat blankets which go up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit in just a few minutes. That's the Stewart MacDonald contact thermometer I'm using to check the temperature.
At that high heat, I have to be careful not to blister the finish on the neck, or overheat and crack the fingerboard. Working carefully, and somewhat quickly, I can separate the fingerboard and neck right on the glue line.
See? It came off neatly. Now, I'm not going to have to make a new fingerboard for this Martin, because I can get one from the factory. I'll never cut my own fret slots unless it's absolutely necessary - after all, there are some jobs that are simply better done by machine. I took the old board and held it right up to the new, tracing its exact outline and cut the new fingerboard to the maximum outer profile of the original. The old board had rounded edges to blend with the neck contour, and my new fingerboard had square edges that came to the maximum outer dimension of the old board.
Sorry I don't have pictures of the process, but it was extremely straightforward. Just a couple of simple bandsaw cuts and a few passes with a block plane to true up the edges. Here, I scrape the underside of the new fingerboard to expose fresh, unoxidized ebony. I have no idea how old this part is, but I do know that I got it from the factory more than ten years ago. Nonetheless, I'd scrape it anyway to be sure.
I'll be using fresh hot hide glue, so I want the surfaces to be ready and clean for best adhesion. I'm adamant about using hide glue for fingerboard attachment because the glue is absolutely rigid when it dries and is never subject to flowing or stretching, even in the high heat of a parked car. It's all too common for fingerboard joints to slip microscopically under tension and heat, allowing the neck to bend forward and "set" in that position permanently.
I glued the nut in position temporarily, so I'd have an absolute reference for locating the end of the new fingerboard.
I suppose I could have worked out a system of "locating" pins to keep the fingerboard in position as I clamped, but I find that it's not at all necessary when working with hot hide glue. Unlike yellow and white aliphatic resins, the hide glue has a quick "grab" and tends to hold the piece exactly in position as clamping pressure is applied. The modern glues tend to let the parts squirm around all over the place, as if they were being clamped with grease between them!
To get a bit more working time, I heated the parts with my little hairdryer. Its temperature is low enough that I can warm things to a bit above body temperature with complete safety. I'm still a little shy about heat lamps after seeing a 1920s Martin tiple that caught fire in a repair shop down the road. . .
First at one end, then the other, I applied two clamps very gently, maneuvering the fingerboard exactly in position, with an equal tiny overhang (remember, the board still has square edges) at each edge of the neck. Then I added the remaining clamps nice and tightly, and retightened the first two. The back of the neck is protected with a padded caul, and the fingerboard has a caul with two maple "rails" that apply pressure only at the outer edges of the fingerboard. Absorbing water from the glue, the fingerboard has a tendency to curl upward at the edges and down in the middle. Clamping only the edges gives me adequate pressure in the center, and assures me that the edge joint will look neat.
Next day, after everything is dry and solid, I took my flat sanding blocks and blended the edge of the fingerboard to the neck profile.
I could have inlaid the edge dots before gluing the board on, but I do so much edge dot inlay as a retrofit on existing instruments, I've gotten used to doing it while things are together.
It took me a while to find these 1/16" white plastic rods at a hobby shop, but they are really cheap and easy to use for side dot inlay, so I bought a lifetime supply for about 5 bucks.
Some final sanding after the side dot inlay, and a bit of finish touchup to come.
Yes, it seems I always need to do just a little touchup on this job. I'll be adding a bit of lacquer to the edge of my new fingerboard and blending it down into the finish on the neck.
Reinstalling the neck after making sure of the neck angle and fitting the dovetail just a bit.
Once the neck is on the body I can "shoot" the board perfectly straight with my plane and sanding blocks. Then, I mark the inlay positions.
They're dot inlays, so my brad point drill bit cuts just the right recess.
Pop the inlay dots in with a bit of glue, and they're ready to sand level.
Sanding the board with my favorite refret sanding block - the trusty Stanley #5 jack plane body.
Tap in some frets, level them, etc.
Round off the ends, polish up the frets, string the guitar and set up.
This was a pretty big job. But afterward, the guitar plays like new.
And looks good, too.

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