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Thread: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

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    Question Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    Hi everyone! First post here at the cafe. I've recently taken up the fiddle, and at the same time started finding myself drawn to the mandolin again (after not having touched one for nearly 10 years). I have a 20s/30s Regal I've been playing, but I've always wanted one of those beautiful old Gibsons.

    I managed to snag a really nice looking 1915 or 1917 A-4 from eBay for $850. But…#the thing is, it needs more repairs than the seller let on. Caveat emptor, I guess. The top is sinking, and the neck is bowed (but seems mostly not-warped side-to-side). There are also a few amateur glue "repairs" that should be redone. The finish is in good condition, and the Handel tuners are a little sticky but should be usable when lubed up.
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    My question is, would this be worth putting the money into repairs? Does anyone have a rough (very rough) idea of how much it might cost to repair?

    I don't want to dump another $1000 into this mandolin—at that point, it wouldn't be much of a bargain. I could also just return it to the eBay seller.

    Conversely, could I resell it for more than I bought it for, selling as a "for repair" project? Basically, what would make the most financial sense in this situation? Thanks in advance for the help!

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    Registered User Timbofood's Avatar
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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    You will likely have $500-$1,000 in the amount of time the Mandolin looks like it might need. I strongly suggest that you “Get thee to a luthier” and see what an in hand inspection by someone that KNOWS MANDOLINS has to say, some guitar guys speak mandolin but, not all of them understand the different mechanical demands that these 100 year old jewels need to be restored to their best advantage.
    Where are you located? Someone here will doubtless be able to tell you where you might find the right person.
    Timothy F. Lewis
    "If brains was lard, that boy couldn't grease a very big skillet" J.D. Clampett

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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    Thanks for the info and the rough estimate! I'm located in Boston, MA, so if anyone has any luthier recommendations in the area, I'd be glad to hear them.

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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    I have worked on many of these old Gibsons and am familiar with most of the problems they are subject to.
    We won't send Timbofood to his room for this one. His advice is very good.

    Without having the instrument in hand, I would say that to repair it correctly would cost closer to $1000 than $500. If it landed in my hands, I would expect to find it needs the following work: Top brace reglued, fingerboard removed and neck straightened, fingerboard reinstalled, compression fret job, back loosened for 5" or 6" to allow for a thorough cleaning and re-gluing of the poorly aligned and previously glued joint, and associated set up work including adjustment or replacement of the nut and adjustment of the bridge height. A lot of work, but do-able.

    The mandolin appears to be in good cosmetic shape. If the condition of the back is as nice as the condition of the top, it might bring $2000 on the private market if the work is done cleanly, a bit more from an established vintage dealer.

    I know that Troy Harris in Poughkeepsie, NY, has done good work on the old Gibsons. His web page is www.harrismandolins.com.

    Folks like me who are capable of repairing and re-selling these mandolins are going to be frugal about what we pay for them. This is because the market for them is flooded with instruments, and sales are slow.

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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    Ah, thank you very much for the detailed advice, and for the recommendation for Troy Harris. Hmm, I think I'm leaning toward returning the mandolin—if it ends up costing me $850 + $1000 in repairs instead of $850 (or even $850 + $500 in repairs), it's starting to get pretty pricey. It is a nice old mandolin, but I don't think I really have the budget for that much restoration work.

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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    $1850 for that mandolin in good playing condition would be a good price. Generally, teens A-4 at retail price, ready to play would be priced around $2200-2500. Of course, you would be taking a chance on the repairs topping at $1000. The top sinkage could be just a loose brace or it could be worse. You have Music Emporium in Lexington and they might be able to give you a good idea of whether it is worth it. Though I know Troy Harris and respect his work, Poughkeepsie is a bit of a trek from Boston to get a sense of whether it is worth it to keep it.
    Jim

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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    One of those great dilemmas -- it is a great bargain, unless you spend the money to fix it properly and then you have almost retail in it -- and what fun is that?!!!

    Here's how an ol' cheapskate like me thinks: your action seems to be the main problem keeping it from being easy to play. Fixing the top sinkage will only raise the top, making the action even higher. OK, basically you have a really great looking mandolin, at least from the front. Until you want to spend the bucks to fix it properly, I would do this to get it playable. As long as the neck is solid in its joint and not moving, I would leave it alone. The neck looks straight, but the action is too high. Take a dowel stick and cut it to jam under the bridge to keep the top from sinking further. This is easy to do through the sound hole and takes 5 minutes......yes, yes, I know that isn't the proper way to fix a mandolin -- that's not what we are doing, we are simply making it play great to get some use from it for the time being. Once you do that the action will still be too high, save the original bridge and store it for when you are able to fix it properly and order a cheap adjustable bridge to dial the action to a playable height. Cost is a few minutes of your time and $10-50 for the bridge. You may have to sand the bridge base to get the action right -- that's why you don't want to ruin the original. That's it. Play it and enjoy your bargain Gibson!

    Down the road, you can still spend the money and have it restored, if you want to.

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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    Please don't take a shade-tree fix-it approach to a mandolin as nice as this one. Doing so might only cause the damage to progress or cause new problems.

    For example:

    The dowel might cause a serious crack. And the mandolin will probably not sound good with a dowel in it.

    If the fingerboard joint is loose, it may cause the neck to warp more.

    Putting the instrument under tension with that back joint mis-aligned and probably loose will cause the body to distort more, and it will be more difficult to pull it back into shape.

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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    Thanks rcc56, I get lonely when I’m banished to my corner for too long!
    And I agree, do NOT do or, have mammy made repairs performed on this fine old instrument! Have repairs done properly by a qualified luthier or return it.
    The way I see it is:
    A-You got the instrument for a reasonable price.
    B- It needs some restoration.
    C- Do the restoration, and you have still gotten an instrument for less than full retail. Granted not necessarily a lot less but, still fair.
    D- You will have a very fine example of 100 year old design which you can be very proud of and feel good about saving it from some hack work which will pretty much ruin it.

    For me, the choice is obvious. For you, maybe not so much.
    You will have something which many modern builders only think they have recreated, this is an original, treatmit well it will last another 100 years.
    Now, I will go have more coffee!
    Timothy F. Lewis
    "If brains was lard, that boy couldn't grease a very big skillet" J.D. Clampett

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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    For me the Big Question would be: how does it sound? The tone is real variable on those old A’s – some are incredible, others not so much – and if it’s got the sound that speaks to you, I’d say it’s absolutely worth making necessary repairs and having them done well. (Especially if the mandolin’s got the sound that speaks to you beforerepairs, since correcting the top sag and loose braces and so forth will presumably only make it sound better.) With only an $850 initial investment, even if you have to put another $1000 into it to make it right, you’ve then got a fine mandolin for $1850 which is still a real good bargain.

    I’ve got five Gibson A’s ranging from 1909 to 1921, and on at least a couple of them I’ve spent as much on repairs as I paid for the mandolin and I’m glad I did. I wound up with killer instruments for what I consider veryreasonable investments (maybe $3000 at the most on any of them). I suspect I’d hard put to find new instruments for anywhere near that amount whose sound can match my old A’s.

    Comes with the territory with those old beasties. It’s probably best never to assume that the purchase price is the end of your investment. But with old Gibsons, if the sound’s there it’s generally worth it IMO.

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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    Since I am considering a Gibson Oval Hole myself I find this very interesting. You are very lucky to have found a great looking mandolin and have received some very good advice.
    If the ebay seller misrepresented the mandolin you may have another option. You may be able to get some of your purchase price back for the repairs rather than the seller having to invest more with return shipping.
    Understand if these costs exceed your expectations, just happened to me & now saving a few more bucks.

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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    Woof, yeah, I definitely wouldn't try to do any repairs on my own. I know my way around electric basses and guitars and can do frankenstein stuff to them (especially Fender-style "make the guitar a piece of hardware"), but an acoustic instrument is a whole 'nother ball game. I have tons of respect for luthiers, and I have tons of respect for old instruments. As they say, it's not like they're making any more Gibsons from the 1910s. I wouldn't want to do anything to damage this old thing.

    As far as sound, that's a great point. Honestly, I have't even tuned it up. I really don't know how the instrument would react to the force of strings at concert pitch… the top could sink even further, or the neck joint could pull up even more. And just from a purely financial standpoint, I could've swung an $850 mandolin, or even a $1000 mandolin, but an $1850 mandolin is pretty well outside my budget for now. I thought I was getting a very good bargain, but it turns out it wasn't as good as it appeared. I've gotten lucky with taking a chance on eBay, but this isn't one of those times. You win some, you lose some, I guess.

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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    I think your instrument came with a very good hard case- I think that may be worth about $200, so in terms of the purchase price, that is a consideration although I can understand that hefty repair costs are a big concern and you need to make a sensible judgment based on your own needs and situation.

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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    An in-hand inspection by a luthier could still be useful.

    If the fingerboard is not loose, the back joint and the brace could be repaired now, and the instrument will be structurally sound. Your immediate repair bill would then be significantly lower, probably half that of my original guess. The action might have to be left a bit high, but the instrument would be at least somewhat playable.

    Straightening the neck could be left for later.

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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    As NickR mentions, the case and parts are worth more than you paid for it, so a third option exists -- fix it, return it, or part it out. Case and Handel tuners are worth at least $200 each, tailpiece and pickguard $150 each, bridge $100.........that's $800 plus the "husk" should bring $500-600, maybe more....so you would come out way ahead and make some people happy by offering some rare vintage parts for their restoration.........tempting.......

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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    The thing is readily restorable. As for its tone, in this condition I would not pass judgement on what it really sounds like. It needs work to make it playable, THEN tone assessment can be honestly made. I don’t see anything that is not restorable, stop thinking abut the money spent vs. money for restoration until you have a real luthiers insight! The total investment is still a GOOD thing. Besides, it’s cool.
    Timothy F. Lewis
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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    I'd take it here, Music Emporium in Lexington, get a good solid repair estimate, before making a final decision. Great "bones" to this instrument, needs some serious TLC, would part it out only as a last resort if restoration went well above $1K.

    IMHO get in the hands of an experienced mandolin-specializing repair tech, for a firm restoration estimate. More info, better decision.
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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    Allen, I think we are in the same wavelength, unless there are some WAY more serious issues than are visible from the pictures, I’d do the restoration! You will end up with something special! If it goes to the doctor and he says it’s “terminal”, part it out, you will still realize some profit.
    I’m going to bed on this one, my opinions are pretty clear.
    Good night folks.
    Timothy F. Lewis
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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    Surely would be a bummer to make this wind up in the scrap heap! I hate to see historic items wasted for parts value and then they are GONE!

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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    Ditto.
    To me, it would show a complete lack of respect for an instrument with an unusually fine finish.
    The instrument can be repaired. Fix it, sell it as-is, or return to sender. Please don't part it out.
    Last edited by rcc56; Apr-22-2019 at 12:31am.

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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    Quote Originally Posted by prairieschooner View Post
    Surely would be a bummer to make this wind up in the scrap heap! I hate to see historic items wasted for parts value and then they are GONE!
    Actually, even if it is parted out, someone will restore the husk back to playing condition, they may have the needed parts sitting in a drawer or they may use modern repro parts. Nothing is gone. Someone will be playing it, again. They may use the husk to learn repair, or they may want to fix it themselves to save money. Either way, the mandolin will be restored by someone. As for the other parts, they will also be used to restore other vintage mandolins. So, the junk yard analogy is a good one -- one broken mandolin ends up restoring several mandolins. Not a bad thing, IMHO.

    The focus of the discussion seemed centered around the repair cost and I was merely suggesting a couple alternatives to spending $1000+ dollars in repair.

    FWIW, I work at a repair shop and my time is billed at $65 an hour to the customer, so you can see putting 20-25 hours into a repair can add up quickly. We often have instruments needing a neck set/fret job/some crack repair and the price can be $800-1300 depending on what it needed. Many customers are happy to have their old friend restored back to playing condition and have no problem with the price. Some will spend twice what an instrument is worth because they like the instrument. Others can't afford it and draw the line at just doing the most basic needed repair.
    Last edited by Jeff Mando; Apr-22-2019 at 2:19pm.

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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    And there's always George Youngblood in Guilford, Ct, at Acoustic Music. He repaired my 1923 A1.
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  34. #23

    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    Again it would be a Bummer to cannibalize a complete vintage Gibson mandolin simply for profit.
    Sorry just saying

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    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Garber View Post
    You have Music Emporium in Lexington and they might be able to give you a good idea of whether it is worth it. Though I know Troy Harris and respect his work, Poughkeepsie is a bit of a trek from Boston to get a sense of whether it is worth it to keep it.
    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post
    I'd take it here, Music Emporium in Lexington, get a good solid repair estimate, before making a final decision. Great "bones" to this instrument, needs some serious TLC, would part it out only as a last resort if restoration went well above $1K.

    IMHO get in the hands of an experienced mandolin-specializing repair tech, for a firm restoration estimate. More info, better decision.
    Great minds run in the same gutter, Allen.

    --------

    OTOH folks, I have a feeling that Nathan is sending it back for a refund. Unless someone here contacted him to buy it from him for what he paid for it. I have a feeling that there are a few folks who would take that chance.
    Jim

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  37. #25

    Default Re: Gibson A-4 (1915/1917)—Worth it to repair, or just return?

    It is one thing to buy something you know could cost you a thousand dollars to fix, quite another to think you are getting a bargain.

    Undoubtedly, at least to me, it is worth fixing, but it is in my nature to save old instruments, even if it makes no sense financially. At least get it looked at to make an informed decision. Having as much into it as the going rate they sell for is not to my mind a bad thing.
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