Yesterday I decided to try something new. It’s not a huge deal in itself, in fact its pretty dull. But in the journey of a self-taught stringed instrument luthier, it’s one of those little tweaks that adds to the sum of hundreds of such refinements that eventually makes an obvious overall improvement in the sound, feel and appearance of one’s instruments .
I decided to try gluing frets in place using hot hide glue instead of the common white glue which most luthiers use to secure their frets. Boom!.. That’s it!… I’ll understand if you click the back button at this point and continue on with more interesting things like real news and social media. But for the true mando/luthie nerds among us , I’ll forge ahead.
Anyone who’s worked on Loar-period Gibson frets has likely noticed they used hide glue to secure them in place. You’ve noticed how solid it is when it comes time to remove a fret and how the glue sizzles and smells as you heat a fret and pull it out. Makes sense that they used hide glue as Hide glue is what they built the rest of the instrument with right? We must understand there weren’t more convenient gluing options like we have today, like PVA (white or yellow wood glue) or even CA (cyanoacrylate or crazy glue). However if you’ve worked with hot hide glue, and if you’ve done some fretwork, you know:
(A) Hot hide glue (HHG) offers very little “open time” as it cools & gels within seconds. And (B). If you’ve fretted a fingerboard you know it’s very finicky work, and difficult enough without adding a time sensitive element like HHG into the equation.
However, it’s obvious that Gibson and others used it 100 years ago and it worked well for them. Hide glue’s final hardness may even contribute to the great sound of those old instruments compared to the elastic properties of most PVA glues. So it’s been rolling around in my head for years that since I try to do “vintage style” instrument work, I should take another baby step and try to incorporate Hot hide glue into my fretwork on Wiens mandolins.
Now, I don’t know how Gibson & others did their fret-work back then, whether they heated their fingerboards prior to, or during fretting, or if they just fretted with great speed in a warm shop. For my own application I know I’m not a particularly fast fretter. I like to work in my cool basement shop. I like to take my time to radius & cut each individual fret for a perfect fit. Then apply glue and press or hammer the fret into the fret slot, checking that it’s seated cleanly. This procedure takes a 30 seconds or a minute per fret. Enough time for the Hot hide glue to cool & gel and become unusable. However it occurred to me that if I heat each fret with my soldering iron…much like I would with fret removal…Then apply the hot hide glue to the warm fret, that might give me enough time to seat each fret before the glue gels and turns to luthier-snot.
So I pulled out my soldering iron and heated up the glue pot and got started..trying something new. Here’s a picture of me doing the first Wiens fretjob using hot hide glue.
You know how they say “you’ll wonder why you never tried it sooner”?… I did. It worked wonderfully and it looks like this may become standard on Wiens mandolins from here on out.
Thanks for reading