Restyling an Ugly Epiphone Les Paul Junior / Special, Part 3: Installing Gotoh Tuners

In Part 2 we created a "hybrid" Telecaster + Gibson style pickguard for the Ugly Epiphone Les Paul Junior - Special. This time, let's see what we can do to improve the looks of the headstock, while also getting a set of high quality tuning machines, which this guitar so far hasn't yet had.

When I first got this Epi Paul in a trade, it not only had been badly "reliced", but also had all black, low end hardware installed. The first thing I did was to remove all the cheapo pieces and throw them in a dumpster give them back to the previous owner. The tuners were a bit hard to remove. Really crappy quality low rent GFS brand stuff, I didn't even bother taking any pictures.

The original tuner holes had been enlarged with an electric hand drill to a US size just a bit too small for the metric sized machines, and they had been force-fit into place by torqueing down with a ratchet wrench. Ouch. Luthieristic violence. After removing the top nuts, pushing down on the tuner shafts with a thumb while holding the machine bodies and twisting did the trick, but left some divots in my thumb.

Once the tuners had been removed, this is what the headstock looked like:

As you can see, using an electric drill to enlarge tuning machine holes leaves some scars. More violent luthiery. I was going to use 10mm to vintage sized conversion bushings, but they wouldn't quite cover the paint chipping at the edges of the holes. That meant having nice vintagey Kluson style tuners wasn't going to happen. Knowing that cast tuner washers would cover the blow outs, I got a set of really nice Gotoh tuning machines with Grover style "butter bean" knobs:

As with many things made in Japan, these can be described as "Jewel Like". Or as I sometimes say about our MIJ Isuzu Oasis car, "Totally F---ing Precision". However, even though 10 x the quality of the previous GFS tuners, they also wouldn't fit into the raggedly enlarged tuner holes. Next step, put some blue painter's masking tape on either side of the headstock and press down to make sure the tape adheres to the finish well, then slice out the tape around both sides of each hole:

The reason for putting the blue painter's top around each tuner hole is to ensure that no further wood and finish chips or flakes off, which the original owner should have done.

Here's what we're going to use to slightly enlarge each tuner hole, an ancient round rasp "rat tail" file, Yankee engineering, made in New England some time in the previous century. Note that unlike files made for use on metals (which have smaller teeth), this particular file was specifically made for woodworking:

Instead of using a round file, the preferred luthier's tool in this case would be a violin peg hole reamer, but this file was on hand, and with judicious and gentle handling, it should get the job done. File slowly and evenly, with periodic checking with a tuner, to make sure only enough material is removed in order for a not too loose and not too tight fit:

I'll mention again that the filing be done slowly and carefully, on the down stroke only on each side pf the headstock (never towards you), and always bearing down on the wood closest to the side you're working on. If possible avoid filing on the opposite side, to minimize wood and finish chipping on that side.

And it worked. Forgot to take a picture of the holes after the tape was removed, and immediately placed all the tuning machines on and barely tightened the nuts, just enough to hold them during the next step:

Let's talk about the placement of the machines. Usually, a factory install on Epiphone guitars has all the tuners with their shafts parallel to each other. Which is good for guitars that have straight sides on the headstock, such as Fender and Martin. On a curvaceous Epiphone headstock, this results in making it very hard, sometimes impossible, to use a string winder - the winder keeps banging into the headstock when winding the 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 6th strings. However, placing the tuners to follow the curve of the headstock makes that a non-issue. And looks cool, too.

Okay, let's attach these things. At the local True Value hardware store, I found some nice brass (real solid brass, not just plated) slot head screws:

Measured the shank with a precision German vernier caliper (no batteries required, ever!):

1/16", right in the middle of the threads. Grabbed a sharp, almost new 1/16" drill bit, marked off the drilling depth with some tape, and chucked it into the drill:

Made sure that each tuner was properly placed, and center punched guide marks under the mounting flange holes. Yes, that's a machine screw, which makes a good self-centering punch:

Next, gently and evenly drill out the mounting screw pilot holes in the headstock, as plumb (straight up and down) as possible:

Sharp eyed readers can see that the drill bit in the above photo isn't exactly plumb - I wasn't actually drilling when I held the drill in one hand and a camera with the other. Anyway, here's a nice new hole; notice also two older holes left over from the first two sets of tuners:

Next step, dip each screw into a bar of soap for lubrication, then run each screw down until it stops naturally, never over-tightening. That's one great reason to use slot head screws - not only do they look cool and vintagey, but it prevents the use of a power driver on a phillips head screw, and so no stripped out heads:

Also - always use a hand held screwdriver for total control. The previous set of tuners was installed using a power driver - three out of the six screw heads broke off when I removed them, which indicates a) the pilot holes were too small, b) the screws were tightened down with no lube and too much force, and c) the screws used were inferior quality.

Here's a shot of the top of the tuners at this point:

Next, do the final tightening of the top nuts. A good tool for that is a 10mm socket on a 1/4" drive handle:

Once again, go gently and slowly. No need for a great deal of tightening torque, just until the washer is fully seated against the headstock, and no more - usually until the handle of the hand driver slips between your fingers, holding it fairly lightly and loosely. Tightening too much creates divots in the finish, and really excessive force can result in stress riser points, which may eventually become a locus at which a crack can form. In any case, no need for gonzo tightening torque - we're not installing the heads on a car engine. I mean, what exactly do you do with that guitar anyway?

Okay, almost done, and here's that same picture that's at the top of this post:

Time to string the Ugly Epiphone Special II up.

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Next time, in Part 4, we'll get around to installing all the other bits and pieces, and finally have a working instrument.

As always, click or tap on any photo above to access larger, higher quality images.


Unknown said...

Enjoying this story and your tinkering

James Aoyama said...

Thanks for reading! And that's what we do around here - tinker, tinker tinker. Sometimes I feel like all 7 dwarfs rolled up into one.