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Newbie Restoration of an Alvin Keech Model A Banjulele

Hi, thanks for letting me join the forum. I'm planning my first restoration of a vintage Banjo Ukulele. It's an Alvin Keech Model A. Unable to determine the year because there is no serial number on the thing, but it still has the wooden tension hoop, so I figure mid to early 20s.

Since it's the first time I'm doing anything like this, I wanted to reach out and see if anyone had any opinions or advice. I've posted some photos of it. These are the original photos from the Ebay listing, but they are pretty comprehensive, so I didn't see a need to take additional before photos.

Here's the order I was planning on executing the restoration. Love to have your opinions on whether I'm crazy or on the right track.

1. Humidify the thing.
It's pretty dry and the frets have come over the edge of the fingerboard a bit. I figure humidification will tighten up some of the cracks and buy me some more room on the fingerboard. I've put it in a plastic bag with a sponge that is in a perforated eyeglass holder. Will leave it in here for about a week.

2. Disassemble.
3. Fix the crack in the head.
I plan to create a seaprator that I will insert into the tuning peg hole to open the crack up a little. Then inject wood glue into the crack. Remove the insert. Clamp. Dry.

3.5 Replace the missing veneer on the head.

I was thinking of buying an ebony headplate and cutting it to fit the missing section. Glue it. Sand it to fit.

4. Sand down all wood parts.
5. Refinish wood parts with stain/polish.
6. Sand and revitalize all the metal parts including the brass emblem.
7. Reassemble.

8. New friction tuners.
9. Cut a new nut.
10. Fret dress/level.

Does that sound reasonable? The vellum head is in good shape and I'd like to try to put it back on when I reassemble the resonator/pot. I will look up tutorials, but my instinct is to wet it and put it on just as you would a new head.

Thanks for reading. I'll update this post with progress as I go along. For now, I'm looking forward to seeing what it looks like when it comes out of the plastic bag and humidity.

Tags: banjolele, restoration, ukulele

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You won't need to wet the head, when taken apart, it will slide right out, and go back the same way.

Thanks, Don. That's really great to know. It was the part of the project I was most worried about.

Hi Rico .. for the frets sticking out on the edges of the neck, I doubt that humidity will remedy this, so you need to add in filing the fret ends as part of your level and dress.  On (cheaply made) old timers like this I'd tap and/or inspect closely each fret, since invariably you find some, if not many, lifting.  If you tap and hear a dull thunk, the fret is not seated in the slot.  Glue and clamp is the typical remedy.  If you start pulling frets you'll likely have an exploding fretboard which will then need replacement. ;-)

In regard to your option to refinish...I'm of the opinion that 'original' is good.  I rather like the lived-in look of old instruments, and I think much of the charm of yours is in its patina.  I'd maybe consider just fitting a thin piece of ebony to replace the missing piece, but leave the rest alone.  Refinished little charmers like your little 'uke' loose their aura and sense of time when all gussied up.  Just my opinion of course, it's your instrument.

Anyway, it's a nice piece to begin getting involved with bringing old instruments back to playing life, good luck with it.

Tom

It's a great point about the finish, Tom, and I'm not sure what I'll do yet when that step comes around. It might be I just decide to sand down and finish the neck for playability and then finish over only places on the pot where bare wood is showing.

Because in the end, if I wanted a brand new looking instrument, I should just buy a brand new instrument, it's not like the build or playability on these old ukes is anything to write home about.

Thanks for your input!

Have fun Tom  You never learn until you try these things.The hardest part ais getting the neck reset to have the strings the right height.

I have a like it only cheeper.

Ron

Actually one of the reasons I chose to start with a Banjo Uke is because of the bolt on neck. Right now the angle looks OK to me, but if it turns out it's not, then it's only a shim or two away from being ok :)

 Rico, this is a nice little project, and GOOD for you for rescuing it!

 I would not refinish anything at all on this axe! Just clean it well, with a damp rough piece of cotton and few drops of dish soap, and let it be! The playability thing you mention will take care of itself. When you are glueing up that nasty crack in the headstock, make sure you blow out all the dust and crud that you can, and LaPages white or yellow glue will do nicely.

That veneer on the front poses a few problems. You  will want to see if you can find some ebony wood to match it. Get a piece of paper and  make a trace of the line,  then  thickness match a piece of wood to match original, and see about gluing it in.

Pegs are available at any violin shop or online is way cheeper,  and they do not have to be ebony. They can go for super cheep. You will want to bring your little axe with you down to shop, as they 'may' be viola pegs not violin, so a different size. You should be able also yo make a simple bridge out of almost any wood too. 

Looks like a nice starter project, Rico. 

 Personally, I really hate friction tuners unless it's on a decoration rather than an instrument.  The catch is that I also think that changing them to geared tuners that stick out to the side ruins the look of vintage instruments. I came across a fairly new planetary geared ukulele tuner from Gotoh that I have fit to a tenor guitar I'm rebuilding. In the pictures you find, they look like most of the planetary banjo tuners you see but these are sized to fit the small heads on ukuleles or, in my case, a small tenor guitar. They are well finished,look very nice when installed and keep the peg look while making it possible to to tune the instrument without  the "joy" of slipping tuner pegs.

I don't think they are too pricey for planetary tuners but they may be overkill for your instrument if you intend to resell it. If your intention is to keep it as a player, you may find that you will enjoy your playing more with tuners that are more sure. One caveat; They will require drilling a stepped hole which will make returning to "original" a real chore and it will definitely NOT be original.

The only place I could find them for quick shipment in the U.S. was from a ukulele builder in Hawaii. They shipped quickly and were fairly priced... or at least I think so given the "planetary" nature of the set. You can also find them on a couple of sites that ship from Japan. The shipping isn't expensive and, once underway, it doesn't take a long time to get here but the Japanese don't seem to have completely grasped the idea that "quick" shipment is really only "quick" IF they actually get it out the door quickly. The sites I found promise to have their stuff shipped to the U.S within a month. I got my from Hawaii on a couple of days.

 

Don't know how much you know about repair/restoration of instruments, Rico, so don't take this the wrong way.  I'm a hobbyist too and had to learn from (hard) experience that you can't read/study enough to avoid everything but it can sure make a difference if you put time into learning everything you can before you get in too deep. There are a lot of small details that can ruin your fun if you are not aware of them. You can ask here but they bottom line is that the instrument is in your hands and under your eyes. We can help fill in the blanks but only that and your questions will do you more good if your well informed.

It looks like fun and shouldn't be too much to handle for a first project. Just don't get into a hurry. Make sure you know what you are going to do before you start doing and try to keep "reversibility" in mind. You may not want to return it to stock, if you make modifications but being able to back up and take another try when you mess something up can make a lot of difference in the experience you have doing this. (Honestly, Messing things up is practically a rite of passage in this arena. IF I ever repaired an instrument without messing something up at least once, I'd know I was dreaming). 

Thanks Ned. That's good advice. Of course, it's the hardest thing too. Sometimes you just want to "get at it." But I'm going to go as slow and methodically as I can stand to. I'm hoping that I like it enough to stick with it and make it a part of my life, so I'm gonna be careful to avoid any unnecessary frustration by studying as much as I can along the way.

As for friction tuners, I actually love them. I don't care for the violin style tuners on the Keech at the moment, but I'm going to try to find a pair of vintage friction ones that match the instrument as best as possible. I think it's ok to replace the violin tuners since I don't have a complete original set anyway.

I've also revised my idea of sanding and polishing the wood pieces. I think several folks have well pointed out that the vintage wear is appealing on the isntrument. I'm now just going to clean it up with some soap, maybe murphy's oil, and water. I'll take out the really bad rust from the metal parts with some WD-40, and that's about it, otherwise, I'm going to leave the natural patina alone.

Thanks again for your support. The advice I've found on this board has been invaluable. I look forward to being able to help other people some day with responses, but for now, I'm in learn learn learn mode.

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