c.1870 Haynes-made Tilton Patent Guitar

Update 2015: I've updated all the photos and the description where necessary. I finally took the time to level the warped fretboard and refret once again, followed by a setup. Since originally posting this in 2012, just about every top seam for the diagonal top pieces has been reglued and cleated-up as well since they all started coming open. Most back braces, as well! I'm really happy with the overall end result, though. The above soundclip is the guitar strung up with the oddball Thomastik KR116 classical set which is closer to violin strings than classical strings as they're rope steel core with nylon flatwound on the trebles and silverplated flatwound on the bass. This gives them a sort-of "silk and steel" sound but with nylon tension and compensation at the bridge. Love it.

I was given this guitar (despite protestations to buy it from him by myself) by a fellow who dropped by the store -- if you're watching, thank you! It was, of course, in a pretty bad state when he brought it in, but I will get to the repairwork as I go through the details. Bonnie has been sort of asking after a true, small-size, 6-string guitar for a while, so while I was working on this I had it in mind to give to her, and she learned her first guitar G, Em, C, and D chords on it last night!

The history of the "Tilton Patent" accessories for guitar begins in 1856 when Mr. Tilton himself patented his modified guitar design -- essentially, a tailpiece setup with floating bridge for the strings and an internal reinforcement bar that runs the length of the instrument's body inside under the top, but not connected to the top. In addition, for guitars that weren't retrofitted with the Tilton modifications (as in, ones that were built specifically to use them), the top was incredibly lightly braced to make use of the reduced tension of the floating bridge setup. The "Tilton"-modified instruments were a success during their time and seen in the same light today that folks think of as Martins and Gibsons.

This particular Tilton dates from soon after Fairchild & Zogbaum bought the Tilton patents in 1865. They initially hired out a Swedish builder to make the guitars but soon after Haynes (who made Bay State guitars) in Boston took over the building process, and this is one of the earlier Haynes-made instruments. How do I know, when the design remained practically the same across builders for 40 years? ...it has a Haynes-style serial number stamped in the headstock "top."

Aside from the tailpiece setup and internal bar construction (very odd for the mid-1800s), the Tilton-branded guitars also sported angled top wood -- set at about a 35 degree angle to center. It's also got an almost "x" bracing pattern inside, sort of a hybrid between a "transverse" and x-bracing, and very light. I have no idea what this does for tone considering the rest of the peculiar modifications, but believe me when I say -- this guitar sounds fantastic. It's easily on par, with bare fingers, with a 1920s/30s Martin O for fingerpicking and is hecka loud as well when dug-into gypsy-jazz style.

The downside of the light construction is that while the tailpiece design makes it suitable for using steel strings, the steel strings need to also be kind to the neck and thin top, so extremely light gauges need to be used. These were sort of intended for gut, so I installed a set of steel that brings it up to exactly the same range of tension gut/nylon strings would be -- around 85-90 lbs of tension. On this 24.5" scale, I'm using 42w, 32w, 24w, 16, 12, 09. This is like an electric guitar "extra light" set.

Update 2015: I've since strung it with classical nylon -- which had a big, warm, full sound... and now I have a Thomastik KR116 classical set which is rope steel core with flatwound outsides... nylon tension but much more of a "silk and steel" sound. I like this better than either the nylon or regular steel on this guitar.

As far as repairs to the top went: I had to glue up all the seams and cleat them as well as do some light hairline crack at the treble lower bout edge.

The original tailpiece is silver-plated and feels like old silverware. It's absolutely beautifully cut with all sorts of wonderful details.

Update 2015: I've removed the original tail as it's a "string cutter" and a little too long to give decent back-pressure on the strings. I now have an old German 50s/60s tail on it that's more practical and have the original stashed away. The bridge is now a dyed-rosewood base which is lightly glued-on at the old floating-bridge "footprint" areas with a drop-in bone saddle. Don't mind the extra holes -- I will probably make a nicer bridge later on -- but the tiny pinholes are from a downpressure gizmo I had on here while I was trying to get away with using the original (funky) tailpiece.

The silver-plated medallion sits on the "reinforcement bar" in the soundhole. It, like the tailpiece, is very fancy and looks so, so, so snazzy. It also made in-body repairs extremely difficult because I had to use calipers and various tools to get all of my clamps, cleats, and repair tools inside rather than my hands.

Medallion says: "Wm. B. Tilton's Improvement, New York, Patented March 4, 1856" and then "Zogbaum & Fairchild, New York."

Check out the beautiful herringbone around the soundhole. Everything on this guitar speaks to elegance and care by the maker.

The fretboard extension was missing entirely, as were most of the frets. I replaced the extension with this bit of ebony recut from scrap in my wood box. I inlaid the constellation Scorpio (for the wifey) for a personalized touch. It's not "authentic," but it is fun.

The fretboard is ebony, and the neck has a twist in it but thankfully no warp, so I still managed to get action down to "spot on" with 3/32" on the treble at the 12th fret. The frets are all brand new since so many original ones were missing. The board itself had to be reglued in a number of places, too.

Update 2015: I got tired of inconsistencies in setup with the twist so I pulled the new frets, leveled the board, and refretted a second time (now with medium frets). I also added side-dots at 5 and 7.

The headstock is a bit grungy as it's missing its headstock veneer and I have yet to make a new one (I can't get those tuner screws loose and don't want to have to drill them out... I'm patient...).

The decorative touches on this variant of the Tilton guitar (many were much plainer) are really nice

The soft, rounded shape of this guitar is really just gorgeous to look at as well as hold. It's only 12" across the lower bout.

If you squint closely enough, you'll see the 3" patch of binding that I had to replace. I filled it with "maple paste," sanded, polished, and finished... that meaning maple wood dust and glue.

Also: check out that solid Brazilian rosewood on the back and sides! Didn't mention that, yet. Yes, they sound -- and look -- wonderful. I repaired a big long hairline down the bass side of the back and it, and the loose braces connected with it, are all good to go, now. Do you see the contrasting binding? Both the top and back are bound in it -- maybe holly? maybe pearwood?

The backstrip is lovely. The colors are a pink-brown and the inside bit that looks green here is actually, in real life, a bit more of an intense green-blue, well preserved.

Please don't shoot me for the bolt leavings in the heel. This, like most Bay State/Haynes instruments, was built with a non-dovetailed, simply glued-on in a shaped cut-out, joint. While this works OK under normal circumstances, this one was built with a very, very shallow joint -- less than 1/8" for glue to grab on the sides of the join -- and I knew the glue would not hold it on its own over time  Considering the small, thin, heel shape and obstructions to interior bolts inside, I installed this through-neck bolt instead, to reinforce the joint.

Oh, and the neck is mahogany.

The back of the headstock has rosewood "strapping."

Rosewood sides are in nice shape, too. There were some top/side seams needing glue when I worked on this as well.

Really lovely, engraved tuners. After a lube they work just fine and unlike most period tuners, have screw-on shafts and gears which makes them easy to overhaul.

The ebony strap button is new (there was none to begin with).


Charlie said...

Hi Jake, Wow nice old guitar, I'm envious! I was wondering what the serial number is. I am compiling a Bay State Guitar registry. Their numbers are sequential and I'm wondering if John C. Haynes Co. incorporated their other guitars in the same numbering system. An 1870 Bay State serial number would be less than 5,000 I believe. If you feel uncomfortable listing the number online you could replace the last 2 digits with X's.

Bay State Guitars Registry Project (find by google if you are interested)

Antebellum Instruments said...

Hi Charles -- sent you an email. If you don't get it, it's 3 up top and 2848 on the bottom.

Little White Paw said...

Thanks for the great guitar my dear!

Anonymous said...


Have you ever heard of a speaker 'beam blocker' made by Weber?


It is a sound diffuser. They admit it's not a new idea. Reminds me of the medallion in the soundhole of the Tilton guitar. Perhaps the medallion served an acoustic purpose.

Also, what's your opinion on the top wood grain installed diagonally? Almost seems like it would function as another brace. Sure looks cool too. Do you think modern instruments would benefit from the technique?



Al said...

Hi, beautiful Tilton and nice restore.
The diagonal grain reminds me of how some houses were planked under the wooden shingles -- looks strong. I have a 'Tilton's No. 3' model. It has a wooden resonator with printed paper on top, longitudinal grain, and 'ice cream cone' head-to-neck joint. I can fing no serial #. there's a number on the resonator. The sound is almost banjo-like, and light strings work well.

Anonymous said...

Hi Al,
Your No. 3 Tilton sounds a very early one. What is the number on the resonator? It's possible it was made before Haynes started using serial numbers, probably pre-1870, which is very interesting. Any chance of some photos? My email address is on the Bay State Guitars Registry Page (find by google).

Bay State Guitars Registry Project