1920s Oscar Schmidt "Stella" 00/000 Flattop Guitar

Because I'm mostly a flatpicker when it comes to steel-string guitars, I can sometimes be a bit less charmbed by the older ladder-braced steel-strings since they often sound excellent fingerpicked but sometimes lackluster under a flatpick (or zingy... or zippy). I perk up considerably when an old 20s/30s Oscar Schmidt build, however, is presented to me -- as they always take a flatpick very well. There's something about their bracing and wood thicknessing that presents the player with a robust, woody, rich lower-mids thump right out of the Gibson camp -- but more direct and aggressive.

As you move up the food chain in the OS realm, guitars like this appear. It's clearly intended to be "mid-grade" with a solid all-birch body and "bluesy" trim features, but has the long 26 1/2" scale I associate with the bigger OS Sovereign models and Stella 12 strings and a nearly 000 body size at 14 3/4" on the lower bout. All of this makes it feel down-right "professional" for the time in the way it can deliver the goods like upper-crust OS-related builds.

This thing has rumble, punch, and carrying-power in reserve and the bracing scoops the tone to deliver an uncomplicated, almost x-braced vibe. You can hear it in the soundclip.

So -- this came in on consignment. I had to do a lot of work to it, as you'd expect from an old pearloid-fretboard Stella. The neck got a reset, I replaced the falling-off original bridge with a new rosewood, vintage-style pyramid one, I refretted the board and then leveled/dressed the new frets a bunch to (for all intents and purposes) remove warp in the neck, cut a new bone nut and saddle, replaced the pins with ebony, and set it all up.

It's playing perfectly with 3/32" EA and 1/16" DGBE action at the 12th fret. The neck gains a tiny hair of relief when tuned up to pitch (as in, 1/64" overall) and it's strung with 50w, 38w, 28w, 20w, 16, 12 strings at the moment. I think the best thing to do with this would be to tune down a step to D or use alternate, slackened-string tunings to make use of the long (almost baritone) scale. It doesn't need to be lowered for structural reasons -- but it's so lovely to hear these extra-long-scale instruments blast it out in lower pitches (think Leadbelly's C/C# tuning).

The nut is 1 7/8" and has a medium, soft-V profile to its rear.

I also added white side dots.

Now, the neck has been refretted with modern medium frets, though their heights vary due to a heavy level/dressing. I've found that with pearloid-board necks that the boards tend to develop a convex shape over time and almost always warp a bit, too. As the maple board (veneered in pearloid) ages it also starts loosening-up the original frets in a very bad way, so I almost always have to refret necks like this or at least pull the originals and glue them back down in place.

There are two ways to get rid of warp in an old, unreinforced neck and the preferred solution when the warp is big enough is to pull the frets, level/plane the board, and refret. That's bog-standard and utterly useless when one is confronted with a pearloid-faced board. To do so on this one would require all that pearloid to come up and be reglued (something that inevitably leads to junked pearloid). My solution, therefore, is to refret with bigger fret stock and seat the frets securely with a bit of glue. The convex shape of the board no longer matters because I don't press the middle portion of the frets down into the board fully and instead leave them "straight" on top.

After that's done, I level and dress as normal, which takes more material off the frets in 1-5 positions and 10-12 positions. This effectively removes "warp" in the neck as the tops of the frets are now even. So -- boring tutorial done! I only mention all of this because it's the best way I've found to maintain an original pearloid board on an instrument like this. As a bonus, the bigger medium frets are seated nice and snug and the extra mass of the new frets gives the guitar a better sound and feel.

Note the one tiny hairline crack on the top to the bass side of the fretboard extension -- a non-issue and glued-up.

Under the hood, the bracing is all in good order. It did have one back brace missing (the lowest) which I replaced with "strapping brace" material (flat soundboard cedar) and evidence of reglues to the rest of the back braces (all good). One reglued brace is silly and has some sort of foam glue on 1/5 of its length -- fortunately in a spot very hard to see.

The new bridge is an awful lot like fancier Stella/Sovereign bridges from the time, save that the saddle slot is a drop-in, the wood is rosewood, and the saddle is compensated well, too.

The binding is all cream celluloid.

As you can see, there's plenty of use-wear throughout on this guitar.

I love the look of that neck! The neck itself is probably poplar.

The upper-bout rear has three short hairline cracks -- all of which are cleated/repaired as-needed.

The "shaft-over" original tuners are going strong.

The bridge is nice and tall and the drop-in saddle slot means height adjustment will be easy come wintertime. Note my shallow string-ramps for always-good back-angle on the saddle.

When I reglued the bridge, all the old pinholes were filled properly so the bridge plate is all in good spec.

Side depth is 3 5/8" at the endpin.

Note the smallish (1.5") hairline crack on the side, upper-bout in this picture. It looks like a scratch. I forgot to get a close-up, but it was reglued some time back and is stable/good to go.

I know the side dots aren't authentic, but they make playing this regularly much more enjoyable.

A new ebony endpin replaces a missing original.

Also note that some portions of the back/side seams were reglued by me and some were glued years back by someone else.

The Stella label in the soundhole is a nice touch.


Jason Swedberg said...

hey jake...did you sell this one? Sounds really good...

Jake Wildwood said...

Yup -- it's on its way to... ITALY!

Tom Joad said...

Didn't sound at all like I expected. But it's the biggest Stella I've ever heard of!