The moment we've been waiting for: On Oct. 28, 2012, Bryan Sutton debuted the restored the Banjo Killer at Bourgeois Guitars' IBMA Flatpicking Showcase in Nashville. Before the show Bryan commented that "...it sounds better in many ways than it did before". He later said he didn't realize how much he missed the BK until after getting it back. Throughout the show, the guitar sounded truly amazing, but don't take my word for it. Hearing the Banjo Killer again in Bryan's hands more than justified the effort of restoring it.
I organized the showcase partly to show offf the completed Banjo Killer and partly to provide my restoration partner, Shin Ichikawa, an opportunity to share the stage with his flatpicking idol. Happily, Bryan immediately agreed to my suggestion. I can report that Shin was blown away by his experience onstage with Bryan.
Also featured in the showcase were Bob Minner, Keith Sewell and Courtney Hartman. More showcase footage will soon be posted at bourgeoisguitars.com.
When Shin returned to Tokyo in mid July, the Banjo Killer was playable but far from completed. During his three-week stay the guitar was disassembled, disinfected, reassembled, refretted, and roughly set up. All cosmetic work was postponed until after Shin's departure, as this was the only way Shin would have a chance to play the BK before leaving.
After Shin left, I took a much needed vacation from total immersion in Banjo Killer restoration. A little decompression was helpful before embarking on the next stage.
Bryan, Shin and I agreed that cosmetic restoration should focus more on erasing the intrusiveness of the restoration process than erasing the history of flood damage.
Almost all of the original finish was still intact, though large areas of the neck, back, and sides showed damage from where the wood had once been soaked. After determining that finish adhesion had not been compromised, I decided that as much original finish as possible should remain. The basic plan was to fill visible gaps between joints, level (where possible) noticeably distorted surfaces, and overspray as few coats of lacquer as possible on the back, side and heel. The central part of the neck, the headstock and the top would be left untouched.
My biggest area of concern was the gaps between the binding and the body of the guitar. During restoration, the binding had to be totally separated from the body, permanantly disturbing the original finish. Though the binding went back into place relatively neatly, hairline gaps remained (some gaps were more than hairline). On close inspection these looked like ragged white lines. I filled many inches of the narrowest gaps with a paste wood filler mixed to match the exquisite color of the unstained mahogany.
After applying colored filler, the back and side were sanded level, or paratially level, to minimize back and side distortions caused by water damage. The deepest gaps were later filled with polyester, which pools up nicely and sands easily.
The butt wedge was especially messy. It had to be removed and trimmed when the circumfrence of the side was reduced to fit the water-shrunken top. Low areas had to be filled with polyester and sanded a number of times.
After all gaps were leveled, the back, side and heel were oversprayed with several coats of satin lacquer.
After curing, the satin lacquer was sanded and buffed. Though it looks pretty shiny in this photo, satin lacquer is considerably softer in appearance than gloss lacquer, and helps camoflage the surface ripples and distortions that will never entirely go away. (Note the amount of distortion visible at the very end of Bryan's solo video, when the top catches glare. The sides and back kind of have a similar look.)
Bryan and I are both pleased with the overall appearance of the finished Banjo Killer. I'm over the moon, in fact, especially when I remember all the times I thought I'd probably have to settle for less. The "newness" of the back and sides does look a little out of place with the rest of the guitar. After a couple years of normal playing, I think, the newer surfaces should pick up enough normal wear and tear to look about right.
At casual glance the Banjo Killer now gives the impression of being the only Bourgeois guitar to have been built in 1939! Nevertheless, I don't recommend the Nashville flood as a casual "treatment" for artificially aging new guitars.
After buffing, the BK was reassembled, the frets were dressed, and the origianl label and a new one were installed. I thought the original label had been lost for good, so I asked Shin to sign a new one before returning to Tokyo. Two years ago, when the Banjo Killer first arrived at the shop, I threw away the soggy case that it arrived in and later put it in a used case. Just before consigning the used case to the junkyard, I found the original label tucked in it's foam padding.
In the photo you can see signs of interior staining on the mahogany back. This will never go away. The guitar kind of has a vintage smell now, which I think enhances its overall vibe.
Here's most of what we took out of the original guitar during the course of restoration. Our objective was to use as many original parts as possible. We believed that maximum use of original parts would give us the best chance of recovering the original and unique voice of the Banjo Killer. In the end we replaced tuners (which were rusted), bridge pins (which no longer fit), and a fossil ivory nut (which had shrunken). The reinforcement strip that covers the back joint was replaced because it separated into too many pieces to be neately reassembled. The tenon that attaches the fretboard extension to the top of the guitar (top of photo) was replaced because it was too distorted for proper realignment.
And so I'll end with a blast from the past, the back page of the October, 2000 edition of Acoustic Guitar. Teja did a fine job encapsulating the Banjo Killer's history up until that point. Perhaps it will someday it will make the back page a second time (what do you think, guys ?!)