6/18/2016

1890s Vega 00-Sized 12-Fret Guitar





Talk about rare, rare, rare, rare! At the time this was built, 00-size (this is 14 5/8" on the lower bout) guitars were essentially unseen items as your average guitar was 12-13" or so. Mix in upscale-but-restrained trim, a jaw-droppingly gorgeous set of Brazilian rosewood back/sides, and a precise, lightweight build, and you have the recipe for what was almost certainly something made for a professional stage musician of the day. It also has deep (4 5/8") sides and, as you'd guess, the tone is warm, resonant, full, and delivers plenty of volume.

The serial number at the headstock seems to place this in the late 1890s, where I'd expect it to have been made. It's clearly braced and built for gut strings, though the modern equivalent of nylon or fluorocarbon are, of course, perfectly-suited, too. I've strung it with a set of Thomastik KR116 "rope steel core" strings (violin-style tech) which intonate and are, tension-wise, the same as an average classical guitar set.

They have a "crossover" sound in-between a brighter classical set and an extra-light steel-string set and I've used them for years, now, on our family's two 1870s/80s parlor guitars to good effect for fingerpicking and light flatpicking. This instrument would both sound "forced" and crumple-up under the tension of an average steel-string set, however, so the KR116s are a great solution for a steel-string player looking to migrate towards the wider, fuller sound only found on a lightweight classical/gut guitar.


Amazingly, the guitar has only two cracks -- a tiny (under 1") hairline/bending-iron flaw on the lower-bout treble side (it took me a long, long time to see it) and a repaired heel crack.

The top is solid spruce with nicely-carved ladder bracing and the back and sides are stunning Brazilian rosewood. Everything except the bridge pins and endpin is original to the guitar, too.

My work included a neck reset, bridge reglue, pin-hole fill/redrill, fret level/dress, and general setup. It plays ideally and if you've listened to the soundclip, you can tell that the sound is big, wide, and full.


This has a 1 13/16" bone nut and a nice rosewood headstock veneer. The tuners are Waverly units and work just fine.


The ebony fretboard has nearly full-height frets, pearl dots, and a 14" radius. The neck is a soft-V 20s/30s Martin-ish shape, very playable and straight as an arrow. I've set the action at 3/32" overall at the 12th fret which is my standard height for classical/nylon guitars. Due to the low tension, this feels very, very easy on the fingers.

The scale length is 12 7/8" which gives it a "12-fret L-00" feel, orientation-wise, in the lap.


This has beautiful purfling and a matching rosette. The binding is all cream/white celluloid. I sometimes wonder if Vega had workers on-board from Bay State/Haynes as some of the design elements are adapted/copied between the two makers. The lovely purfling, however, is pure "Vega" in origin. It would've originally been very brightly-colored (blue, green, orange, red, yellow) but has faded into a mellower "old" state.



The bridge was reglued (sloppily) once before, but was coming off. I reset the neck angle to match action with the unmodified original bridge/saddle height after setup and reglued this. The bridge pins are StewMac ivoroid/pearl-dot ones that I've had kicking around the shop, waiting for something elegant enough to use them on.

Like the fretboard, the bridge is ebony and has "pyramid" wings. The bridge plate is in good order and the saddle is "friction-set" rather than glued, now, so height can be adjusted easily. I also added light string-ramping behind the saddle and these particular strings needed an extra "ball" on their ball-ends to keep the wrapped length of them from coming up over the saddle.

Regular nylon/classical/fluorocarbon strings would simply "knot-up" into a ball and sit without "extra" balls.



 
The Brazilian is... luscious.



The "backstrap" at the headstock glides beautifully into the mahogany neck.


One frustrating bit, however, is at the heel. While I was steaming this off, the neck came out of the StewMac neck removal jig in two pieces!

Generally I shoot steam in, let it soak into the glue, crank the tension on the jig a little bit (which presses "up" on the back of the heel), and let the neck pop-off on its own time (usually 5-10 minutes) while I deal with customers and whatnot. When I returned the neck was off but there was a hairline split in the heel, too. Whether this was there beforehand and simply let loose or if the pressure from the jig had a hand in it, I simply don't know. The matter is solved, however, as it's been glued-up and reset "all pat."

These early Vega (and Bay State/Haynes and Weymman, too) guitars have a simple tenon joint rather than a dovetail with only about 1/8" (!!) of depth to the joint and thus heel cracks are pretty common on their lower bits as it's a weak spot that's more ornamental than useful. Loose necks are also common, too, since the joint is so shallow. During reset I added a neck bolt hidden up inside at the neck block, too, to take extra stress off of the simple glued joint.


Here you can see the repaired hairline in harsher lighting.


The binding on the back, at the waist, has shrunken just slightly away from the sides.

I think we can forgive it, however, as the condition overall is so enormously excellent. I can't believe how well the original French polish has held up. It glows!


The backstrip is quite nice, too.








Lovely, huh?


The markings are faint, but they clearly state "Made by Vega Co, Boston, Mass, USA."


A simple-but-functional old 60s chip case comes with it.

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