Knutsen Harp Guitar    

hgs26.jpg (19029 bytes)    Updated 6/10/03    hgs26c.jpg (22937 bytes)

Another incredible discovery - a harp guitar "twelve-string!"
Meaning, the neck has 12 strings in 6 courses, like a common "12-string guitar." With the five bass strings, it boils down to a typical Knutsen 11-course harp guitar - but what an intriguing idea! 
It was the only known Knutsen guitar with fully doubled strings on the neck, until a picture of a second one made turned up (HGS39). There are now four "Double Points" known, and this is the only surviving example.
At left is the instrument as originally presented on Ebay in December, 2001. The non-original bridge and pick guard are noticeable, as is some amount of damage to the top (which was already a replacement).
The remaining pictures are of the same instrument after a complete restoration by Danl Terry. At the bottom of the page he explains the restoration process and the choices he made to resurrect it. As the wood on the top was previously-repaired/replaced, he created a second hole in the new one, as it is likely that it originally had one. The black finish, in keeping with the period, is a valid Knutsen "option," and is explained further below (and was further validated by the discovery of the photo of the second 12-string).
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to not only photograph, but play this bizarre instrument. Even with the heavy replacement top, the guitar sounds pretty darn good (after tuning to open G). With the original Knutsen nut and replacement Knutsen wire saddle, it, of course, intonates and plays with some difficulty (with the thickest Knutsen neck yet, besides!). However, with a fret job and compensated nut and saddle (absolute musts for 12-strings to play in tune), this instrument won't be too bad! Needless to say, adding low basses into the 12-string mix is a sonic first!

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Click on a picture to enlarge
(left image from ebay, all others copyright Gregg Miner)

Knutsen Archives Inventory Number

HGS26

                 Category

Seattle Harp Guitars

                 Body Style

"Double Point"

                 Current or last known owner

eBay > Danl Terry > Jonathan Kellerman

              Year (approx)

1913-1914

                 Label

none

                 Courses / Strings

11-course: 12 strings on neck, 5 bass

               Frets

straight
                 Scale length 25-1/2"
                 Neck Joint no heel, extra-long bracket

Woods

Top

redwood, painted black

Back & Sides

mahogany

Neck

Spanish Cedar with maple inlaid center stripe

Fingerboard

ebonized

Bridge

replacement
Headstock veneer none

Binding, trim

Top

alternating layers of maple and rosewood

Back

3-ply maple with center strip dyed red

Fingerboard

3-ply maple with center strip dyed red

Headstock(s)

none
Soundhole multi-colored wood marquetry

                 Inlay

fancy pearl fret markers

                 Pickguard

added and removed

                 Comments

 

"THE RESTORATION:

"When this instrument arrived it was a basket-case. One issue that one should note is that we do things with the objective and intent to honor the original design and sonic character in spite of personal opinions that it may not be the best or wisest choice of the original luthier.

"One of those issues with this instrument is the thickness of the soundboard. Knutsen made some incredibly thin soundboards. This one was .08" which for redwood is pretty thin. Another I have in house is a mere .03"on the sides!! Because I've been fortunate to have heard these things it was important to honor the original design because they sound wonderful. So we honored Knutsen's choice to make the soundboard thinner than contemporary luthier's would deem wise. We reconstructed it with the same bracing patterns and woods as close as possible using another Knutsen we have in house and additional reference materials provided by Gregg Miner and Most/Noe's book. Where we were unsure we referenced other Knutsens from the transitional period when this rare instrument was originally made around 1912. The interior bracing is original on the back but the top bracing has all been redone using the same design pattern that Knutsen originally used - based on both the bracing that was in place on the original replaced top and by comparison with the other Knutsen and Knutsen designed Dyer we have in shop.

"REPAIRS: 

"This, as many of Knutsen's instruments, has required significant restoration to become playable again. When I acquired it the three section redwood soundboard had already been replaced once, and the bass side had collapsed, shattered, patched with autobody bondo and was crumbling from dry rot. The bridge was not original and not remotely Knutsen like. Internally the soundboard braces in the most damaged areas were loose and later I discovered by comparison with other Knutsens that the braces were also not original, being way too thick and wide for even Knutsen's style. They were so heavy at 1" wide and almost 3/4" thick with little shaping, that the sound potential would have been poor at best. The original repair person made the assumption that heavier bracing would provide the additional necessary strength to support the stresses of 17 strings. It turned out to be not true.

"There was but one option if this instrument would ever be close to right again, and that was a top replacement. In order to retain as much of the original integrity of the binding that was clearly Knutsens it was decided to remove the top by routing it away from the existing binding leaving that intact and adding additional kerfing to support the new top.

"A fortunate find of some old growth redwood from a tree cut over 50 years ago in Washington state was selected for use in the top on the assumption that when the top was replaced many years ago the craftsman chose the same species as it originally had. Because we could date this instrument to within a few years by the transitional shape of the bass headstock we chose to paint the top black as the other instruments from the same time period as shown in the Tom Noe and Dan Most's book. That was a tough decision as the redwood happened to have beautiful flame. It was a good choice however not only because it honored the integrity of the original design but also due to the complexities of "inlaying" the top into the existing binding, a technique much more difficult than normal top replacement practice. It was important to retain the original binding because as I said before, Knutsen wasn't the best craftsman in the world and his workmanship is crude by modern standards. His sloppy splicing of binding where edges don't perfectly line up, with varying thicknesses of one layer or another is part of his trademark and uniqueness.

"I accept those imperfections as a historian as much as a restoration luthier because that's just the way he did things. He was an innovator and this instrument was clearly an experiment. It may have never been intended to be sold, but a test of how much stress he could put on an instrument. The bracing is proof of that. It's not ladder braced or X braced but a combination of both forms. And when we got it completed, it was clear that as an experiment it was not completely successful. Within hours of putting it under full tension with all the strings on, it became evident why the original top and the second top from the first repair failed. Within hours the stresses of the bass strings were already showing signs of some of the same warping that caused the failure of the earlier tops. This led to a decision.

"To insure that it would be playable again and not self destruct, I chose to build in additional structural reinforcement in the areas that historically had failed in the past. As the location of greatest stresses were not critical to the areas of the soundboard necessary for sound amplification, I chose to create a flat plate similar to the bridge plate that butts flush to the bracing of a thin slice of ebony in the upper bass bout area. This form of internal structure seems to have solved the issue with the least impact on the original design and sonic character. It's the type of compromise I do not take lightly but as Chris Knutsen was an experimenter himself, I feel it was a prudent and necessary step to preserve his grand experiment for others to play and study.

"Overall, we're very pleased with what has been done considering that several months ago (and probably years) this instrument was suitable primarily for firewood.

"FINISH:

 "Originally the finish would have been a shellac based hand applied, and hand rubbed varnish. And today that is again what is on it on the back and sides. The sides are mostly the original finish with only local application where the finish had worn away. The top wasn't original at all anyway and as the other instruments made by Knutsen at this period came with black tops we chose to match that. Nitrocellulous lacquer had hit the market at that time so we chose to use that mixed with black aniline dyes to reproduce the look and vintage character. As Knutsen instruments were all hand polished without the benefit of power buffers we chose to hand polish the top as well. The choice, although not as finely finished as our power tools can accomplish, honors the vintage character and originality with integrity.

"We did take one liberty with the finish, and that is after the traditional shellac/alcohol finish on the back only we have put a protective and very thin lacquer. We do this for several reasons. One it provides better protection against scratches. Two, an eighty year old shellac finish is significantly harder than a freshly applied one, and more brittle, stiffer and less flexible. And that is one of the reasons these ancient Martins sound so great. As the finish ages it gets brighter (with higher frequency harmonics) as a result of the stiffening, hardening finish. Our thin layer of overlacquer restores some degree of that aged tone due to finish aging. The wood itself provides most of the rest. .

"As I was finishing this instrument and rubbing in the shellac the wood itself started to sing. When I put the first strings on to test the neck bow and structural strength it came alive before it was even tuned. And the work was worth it, and the reason players love these became so clear in the first few chords. It sounds like only a vintage Knutsen can.

"FRETS & PLAYABILITY:

"Some minor tweaking is being done at this stage. The frets are in very good condition (probably because the original instrument probably started to warp as soon as it was finished). The first and second repair attempts to the top obviously didn't last much longer. So the fretboard is in surprisingly good condition even though it's clear that players obviously loved to play this beauty. As the fretboard like many of Knutsen's is attached with steel braces at the headstock and on the 'neck heel' area, slight adjustments were able to be made to set the angle for good playability. And it works! With pretty good action and playability all the way up the neck. (except the brace that holds the neck to the body gets in the way of accessing the highest frets). But the option was to install the type of internal bolt mechanism now used by Collings and others which of course didn't exist then. So that wasn't an option with our tradition of honoring the integrity of the original maker.

"So this instrument is again playable and to my ears and eyes is marvelous. Rich and full and toneful - in spite of all the things I've said about it's design flaws and careless original manufacture. It was an experiment that simply pushed the window beyond the ability of the materials and techniques of it's time. The original model T Ford is crude by today's standards too. But it's made possible the Thunderbirds that followed, and any car lover would recognize the sacriligiousness of replacing the engine with one from a modern automobile, even if it would make it run smoother and faster.

"This instrument is a piece of American guitar history and even if it's rarely played, it is preserved for the future and it's story may guide today's luthiers in moving to the next step. Chris Knutsen did that with this instrument about 90 years ago. He wasn't completely successful but that's how advancement happens. We preserved this very rare and special piece of history for tomorrow and for some lucky owner to enjoy and play today." - Danl Terry

 

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