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DIY Workshop: Höfner Violin Bass restoration
The action is sky high, it won’t play in tune and the neck is coming off. But don’t get your violins out just yet because this Höfner 500/1 is getting a second chance to twist and shout.
Guitarists and bassists may be breeds apart, but there is some degree of crossover and there are a handful of basses that most guitarists regard as cool. Topping that list are vintage Precision and Jazz Basses, the Rickenbacker 4001 and the Höfner 500/1. It’s probably no coincidence that Paul McCartney played two of them.
Of course, he’s most closely associated with the Höfner – commonly known as the Violin Bass due to its body shape. Paul bought his first one, his all time favourite, in the Steinway music shop in Hamburg shop in 1961. It’s the one he played during The Beatles’ residency at The Top Ten Club after he switched from guitar to bass, and all the Cavern Club gigs.
Höfner gave him another bass in 1963, but Paul is on record saying his first 500/1 remained his favourite. He was still using it during the filming of Let It Be, but the ‘Cavern Bass’ disappeared shortly afterwards and its whereabouts remain unknown. No wonder his ’63 Höfner is reportedly insured for £4 million.
The Höfner 500/1 we’re featuring here isn’t one of Paul’s. Its owner bought it many years ago while he was working in the USA. Examining the features is the best way to date it, and in 1965 Höfner introduced a wider control panel that was followed in 1967 by bar blade pickups and a flat transfer logo. The heel shape was changed in 1968 and since this Höfner ticks all those boxes, we’re calling it 1968 or later.
The bottom line
The main reason I’m working on this bass is a failing neck joint. Höfner bass necks were set into the bodies using hide glue and decades of fluctuating temperatures and string tension have conspired to weaken the construction. There are two telltale signs to look for – especially if you’re in the habit of buying vintage basses and guitars online.
When a set-neck instrument has its bridge set as low as it can possibly go but the action is noticeably high, there is cause for concern. Try running a straight edge along the top of the frets to the bridge. A long metal ruler will do fine and if the bottom edge hits the side of the bridge, things could get expensive. The ruler should end up being a fraction above the bridge. Also examine the heel of the neck closely. If you notice any gap between the heel and the body, it’s an indication that the neck joint may be failing. Even a very small gap at the heel can translate to big playability problems.
There’s no doubt this bass needs a neck reset because the straight edge running across the top of the frets actually touches the top of the bridge pickup and I’m able to slide a piece of paper into the gap between the heel and body quite easily. This neck has to come off, but some details need to be addressed first.
Looking under the fingerboard extension – the bit that floats above the body – there appears to be a lot of glue squeeze-out. It would risk the finish to blast that area with steam directly, so I decide to remove the glue in a different way. Masking tape is laid down each side of the neck to protect the body and I use a flush cut saw to break through the glue. The sound quickly changes from a crystalline crunch to the softer and more familiar tone of saw teeth on wood. The second that happens I stop sawing.
The strap button is secured through the heel. This can cause problems if a long screw has been used, so removing the strap button iis always a sensible precaution. The strings need to come off too, but Höfner basses have floating bridges and I mark the bridge position with low-tack masking tape before slackening off the strings. It’s likely the bridge will need repositioning once the neck has been reset, but at least the tape provides a starting point.
Since this is my first time resetting a Höfner bass neck, I conduct some research and discover a fabulous resource for Höfner bass owners on YouTube called Backbeat Vintage. I learn that the 17th fret has to be removed in order to drill holes through the empty fret slot into the neck joint. The holes are needed for a StewMac injection needle that connects to a pipe and a steam generator. Hide glue will release when subjected to water and heat, and this is the only way to get steam into the joint.
Before removing the fret, I mark the treble side using a black pen. The idea is to put the same fret back in once the reset is complete, so I need to know which way around it goes. I’ll often apply solder when heating a fret prior to removal, but that would render this fret unusable. I’m also aware that vintage Höfner frets tangs have tiny barbs, so I try extracting it with my fret removal tool without even heating it, and the fret lifts out easily without damaging the rosewood fretboard.
I measure in about 10mm from the edges of the fretboard to mark the locations for my needle holes. With a 2mm diameter bit in my electric drill, I start the holes with the drill operating in reverse to minimise chip out. Once I’m a few millimetres down, I switch the drill to its usual direction and continue drilling until the bit hits what feels like an air gap. When doing this, it’s a sensible precaution to mark the drill bit for the maximum depth you can safely go to. Drilling through the back of the body would be a disaster.
I use a small steam cleaner as a steam generator, with the needle connected via a length of hose that’s secured by jubilee clips at each end. The bass is placed on a soft towel and I make sure to have plenty of absorbent kitchen paper at the ready.
I have steamed off several necks previously, and I know it pays to be patient and mop up any standing water before it soaks into the finish and fretboard. I also stuff a towel inside the body adjacent to the neck block to prevent the body from filling up with steam and water. The needle is alternated between the two drilled holes and after several minutes, steam begins emerging from the bottom and sides of the neck joint.
Having watched the procedure online, I’m expecting the neck to lift upwards but it doesn’t appear to be ready to move. I’m beginning to feel concerned until it dawns on me to try sliding the neck out lengthways. Almost immediately it starts moving and the neck comes away from the body cleanly. I clamp the neck to a long radius block to keep it straight as it cools and dries, and take the opportunity to scrape all the residual hide glue off the bare wood.
Having never done a Höfner bass neck reset before, I should have done a bit more research. The neck wouldn’t lift out because it’s fixed with a mortise and tenon joint rather that the dovetail I was expecting. At some point during the 1960s, Höfner must have changed from one to the other – probably when the heel changed. If I’d been paying closer attention when sawing through the glue, I would have realised that the blade was nowhere near as deep as the 17th fret.
Höfner cut its mortise and tenons with extreme precision. When test-fitting the neck back into the body, it is extremely snug. I also notice that pressing the neck into the body from the top is quite challenging and it’s better to slide it in lengthways – basically the same way that it came out.
The tightness of the joint combined with the long tenon means there’s no side to side movement at all. The only thing I need to be concerned with is the neck’s back angle. Pressing the neck in tight and clamping it, I run a straight edge down to the bridge and it’s just about flush with the top.
Höfner’s woodworking in this area was excellent and very little adjustment is needed. I place some strips of 320-grit paper between the body and heel and draw them out to take a tiny bit of wood off the bottom of the heel and make sure the heel and body are in close contact all along the join line.
Once I’m happy everything is going to line up and close up, I brush Titebond Original glue onto all the mortise and tenon and clamp the body and neck together. After a final alignment check, they’re left overnight.
It’s time to put the missing fret back in. Needle holes are usually covered by the fret, and that would have been the case here, but the bass side hole went slightly off centre. Rather than leave an obvious hole on show, I’m doing a partial fill.
StewMac sells pieces of Teflon that can be used as a barrier to Super Glue. I snip off a small section with scissors and squeeze it into the fret slot. Next, I drop some rosewood dust into the hole, add some Super Glue using a whip tip and then follow up with more dust and Super Glue. Once the glue has set hard, the Teflon lifts out easily and I sand the repair flush with the fretboard.
On the treble side, the needle hole went in dead centre, so I’m not packing that. The edges of the hole will be visible if you look very closely, but I’m leaving it like this because the bass will almost certainly need another neck reset one day. Hopefully the luthier who does it will notice the neck has been reset previously and realise that there are already a couple of drilled holes for a steam needle.
To replace the fret, I use my fret press clamp with a 9.5-inch radius caul and it goes in tightly. The fretboard feels rough in texture and the frets are rather oxidised, so I give everything a once over with 0000-grade wire wool and apply lemon oil to the board. Within minutes, all the oil has soaked in, so I give it a second application because the rosewood is clearly very dry. After buffing up, it looks and feels a lot nicer.
Solder and strings
The wiring has previously been worked on and the pickups weren’t soldered directly onto the control panel. The ground connection also has an unnecessary join, so I set about tidying it all up before the strings finally go back on. A quick test demonstrates that both pickups are working but nothing on the control panel makes much sense. Checking online, however, I discover that it is working normally. It’s fair to say that the 500/1’s controls aren’t the most sensible design in the world.
The same can be said of the pickguard fixing mechanism, which relies on an unsecured L bracket and a couple of bent nails – one of which pokes into the bridge base. The positions where the bridge needs to be for intonation purposes and for the pickguard nail don’t quite coincide. This may be one of the reasons that Höfner 500/1 players often remove their pickguards. This bass has been going commando for decades but its owner wants it re-fitted.
Restringing and tuning to pitch, the action is far lower and I’m even obliged to adjust the bridge upwards. When the truss-rod is tightened to eliminate excess relief, the action drops even lower. Testing the Höfner through a Universal Audio Ampeg plugin, I’m enthralled by the instantly recognisable 1960s bass tone. It’s incredibly woody, deep and very clear. The Höfner is also very easy to play – even for occasional bassists – and I’m sure the owner is going to have a lot of fun with this 500/1.