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Thread: Vintage Kay A-Style Mandolin

  1. #1

    Default Vintage Kay A-Style Mandolin

    I'm a hack guitar player who has wanted to learn to play the mandolin for many years. A recent trip to the Smokies coupled with the purchase of some good bluegrass albums got the best of me and I started shopping.

    I shopped all the stores in town, and all had the ubiquitous Johnson/Savannah models but then stepped up to mandolins way out of my price range. Nothing in the middle.

    I ended up picking up a vintage Kay off the 'bay. It looked fair, but I knew I had some work to put into it. When it arrived, I realized I'd probably bitten off more than I could chew. My amateur luthier experience was limited to making a new saddle for my acoustic guitar and building up some electric guitars.

    When she arrived on my doorstep, she came with a split center seam on the top, tuners that would not tune and a lot of other little ugly details.

    For the center seam, I made a clamp which pressed everything back into place and I used hide glue to reglue it. I figured I should use what it must have left the factory with. The neck looked like it was pulling too, so I elected to inject hide glue into it as well (I'm no skilled enough for a true re-set and the Kay is not worth enough IMO for a pro job). After gluing the split seam, I fed a cleat through the f-hole to the seam on a bent piece of wire and cleated the split. So far its holding together nicely.

    The tuners are Kluson Deluxe and by the marks and holes in the headstock, they're original. I dissassembled them, cleaned them and adjusted them so they'd hold the settings. So far they work great and look really good too.

    I was able to buff the pickguard out with some plastic polish meant for car headlight covers. I used modern brass screws in place of the rotten old ones, but I turned them down to the same top radius as the originals and buffed them to a shine. Similar buffing on the adjuster wheels for the bridge made them look great.

    I've now been playing it for a couple days now and it sounds pretty good. Better than the pac-rim cheapos, but not nearly as good as a high dollar instrument (but I did not pay for a high dollar instrument). Most importantly, it has character and I'm enjoying it.

    The Before Pictures

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  2. #2

    Default Re: Vintage Kay A-Style Mandolin

    And the After Pictures
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  3. #3
    I may be old but I'm ugly billhay4's Avatar
    Join Date
    Dec 2003
    University Place, WA (with no university and very little place)

    Default Re: Vintage Kay A-Style Mandolin

    Looks nice! Lots of ingenious solutions here.
    I'd worry about that neck a bit, but maybe by the time it moves again, you'll be confident enough to try the reset.
    Did you re-finish this instrument? If not, what did you use to clean it up. It looks great.

  4. #4
    acoustically inert F-2 Dave's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Halfway, MO

    Default Re: Vintage Kay A-Style Mandolin

    Nice looking Kay. I like the checkerboard binding. does it have any numbers stamped inside? Is that a Geib case?
    "Mongo only pawn in game of life." --- Mongo

  5. #5
    Registered User
    Join Date
    Jun 2004
    Gilbertsville. New York

    Default Re: Vintage Kay A-Style Mandolin

    Quite an interesting instrument.. and it appears you did a fine job of cleaning and fine tuning the surface.... interesting binding... nice job on the crack.

    I suspect you did the right thing in attempting to stabilize the neck set. I would hate to try to remove the back considering the binding on both front and back.

    You may be aware that the bend in your cloud tailpiece is not original. normally it should follow the plane of the tailpiece surface and not bend up. at least I've never seen one with that bend.
    Bart McNeil

  6. #6
    the little guy DerTiefster's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    S.E. Virginia

    Default Re: Vintage Kay A-Style Mandolin

    It's a real beauty, from the photos. You did well on the repairs. I hope it gives you long and happy service.
    You live and you learn (if you're awake)
    ... but some folks get by just making stuff up.

    Michael T.

  7. #7

    Default Re: Vintage Kay A-Style Mandolin

    The binding is nuts. kinda makes my eyes bug out.

  8. #8
    Moderator MikeEdgerton's Avatar
    Join Date
    Mar 2007
    40.191N -74.2W

    Default Re: Vintage Kay A-Style Mandolin

    The neck joints on Kays are notorious for being bad. If you open one up it looks like they tried to fill the void with glue.

  9. #9

    Default Re: Vintage Kay A-Style Mandolin

    Thanks ya'll.

    No refinishing at all. Only cleaning and polishing. I first cleaned everything but the fretboard with a warm damp rag with just a hing of soap. I polished the pickguard with 'Mcguiars Plast-X'. I used to build vintage cars and used that product to clean up the plastic windows in old Triumphs and MG's. For the body and headstock, I polished lightly with a very mild polish. There is some crazing in the finish, so I kept it away from any cracks.

    I used Simichrome polish on all of the metal.

    I'm not sure of the case. Its functional, but worn. No markings on it or the mandolin either.

    Thanks for the tip on the tailpiece BMac. That raised end bothers my arm a bit when playing. I may try to work it back down.

    Anyone have an idea of how old she is?

  10. #10
    Moderator MikeEdgerton's Avatar
    Join Date
    Mar 2007
    40.191N -74.2W

    Default Re: Vintage Kay A-Style Mandolin

    The tuners place it very late 40's to mid 60's. If the buttons are original and not shrinking then probably late 50's to the 60's.

  11. #11
    Registered User Tavy's Avatar
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    Jun 2007
    Tavistock UK

    Default Re: Vintage Kay A-Style Mandolin

    That's a lovely job on a very fine old lady,

    Nice one, John.

  12. #12

    Default Re: Vintage Kay A-Style Mandolin

    Thanks John.

    A further update on this lady....

    I went out last weekend to several different shops and played all the nicest mandolins they had. Played a mid-level Breedlove, Fender, and lower mid Epiphone. None of them really blew me away with their tone (I expected a lot more from the Breedlove). Frankly, I think I like the tone of my Kay a bit better than all but the F-Style Epiphone. Where they all won hands down was their action. They were much lighter to fret than mine.

    I made some 'observations' about the feel and pressure of fretting them at the 1st fret and several places further up the fretboard.

    With that info in hand, I went home and pulled the nut and the bridge. Before pulling them, I took some measurements with my digital caliper to get a 'before' measure.

    The nut was a mess, some of the pairs were not even (one string was 20thou higher than the other on two of the pairs) and that caused some significant discomfort while fretting. I was very pleased however, as the nut was a bone nut instead of plastic. After making all the slots even, I then worked to bring the first fret action down to a comfortable level without buzz. I finished by cutting the top of the nut down to the tops of the strings and rounding the headstock side of the nut to give a nice smooth transition, followed by polishing it.

    On the bridge, I first set it up to sit perfectly on the top. Then, I looked over its construction and decided to machine 1/32" from where the tuner wheels sit under the upper portion. This effectively dropped the bridge 1/32". That was more than I needed, but it allowed me to adjust it back up to a very nice height.

    Following all these adjustments, the Kay has an action better than most of the high-dollar mandolins I tried in the local shops. The tone is improved slightly compared to before the changes as well. Finally, the cleat I installed has done its job and the center seam is still together.

    One other interesting note, I believe I've found another identical mandolin on the 'bay. If their info is correct, then my Kay is a Model 68 'Concert' Mandolin. Does not change its sound, but its interesting to know more about the instrument.

  13. #13

    Default Re: Vintage Kay A-Style Mandolin

    Over the winter, I continued playing the little Kay, but eventually I found that the neck had a twist to it. There was some appropriate relief in the neck, but beyond that, there was an actual twist.

    The fretboard toward the bridge end was approx 5 degrees twisted. This made the G and D strings fret out on the end of the fretboard when played above the 4th fret. It affected the rest across the courses in the same way but progressively less up to the E course.

    The end result was that I had to set the bridge so high on the bass side that it made fretting chords pretty tough.

    I decided last weekend to attempt to pull the fretboard and then flatten the neck and fretboard, then finally reinstall it all perfectly flat.

    I used an iron to heat the board and amazingly it popped loose without much effort. Then I drew witness lines on the neck and sanded it flat with one of my flat sanding blocks from my model airplane building days.

    I spent a little time trying to remove the neck, so I could re-set it, but I could not get it loose, so I shimmed the back and left it as it is.

    Finally, I reglued the entire assembly and gave it time to dry while clamped.

    The result was/is very good. The instrument is now much more playable and the resulting bridge adjustment helped immensely as well.
    Attached Thumbnails Attached Thumbnails Click image for larger version. 

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    Chinn BluesBird Emando #1
    Aria M-300BG 2 Point
    Michael Kelly Legacy O
    Kay Model 68
    Stoneman Travel Mando

  14. #14
    Registered User MandoSquirrel's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2006
    southwest florida

    Default Re: Vintage Kay A-Style Mandolin

    I bought one just like this from a local shop in early February, after I decided to get a less expensive F hole mando, & replace my Breedlove Cascade(their midgrade) with a good oval hole mando. They had already done whatever work was needed. I love its sound, & it plays pretty good. The case looks, from what I can see, just like yours, & still has the "Geib" nameplate attached.
    The only difference, is mine is missing the pickguard, has a one piece nonadjustable bridge, & the fretboard is oriented the opposite way, as though for lefties.
    Last edited by MandoSquirrel; Apr-09-2011 at 2:17pm. Reason: Spelling, more info
    Gibson A2 1920(?)
    Breedlove Cascade
    Washburn 215(?) 1906-07(?)
    Victoria, B&J, New York(stolen 10/18/2011)
    Eastwood Airline Mandola

    Guild D-25NT
    Vega 200 archtop, 1957?

  15. #15
    Registered User Jailboogie300's Avatar
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    Aug 2016
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    Default Re: Vintage Kay A-Style Mandolin

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    It looks like this

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