This article was originally published on August 11, 2007There is a well known urban legend in which a man who buys an old faded painting at a garage sale for 10 dollars and upon removing the painting from the gorgeous wooden frame, discovers an original copy of the Declaration of Independence. The stuff of legends can still be had here in the twenty-first century. The thrill of the hunt, reinforced by occasional rewards, can lead to one’s passion. Although few and far between, the payoffs can be great.
Many years ago when my youngest child was about ten, we were at a flea market and out of the corner of my eye I saw a badly tarnished flute. Upon closer inspection, I read the maker’s label and whispered in a hushed tone to my son, “ Don’t say anything, but this flute is solid silver!” Whereupon my son shouts out, “Solid silver? Ouch, why did you hit me, Dad?” I, of course, responded quickly by smacking my son’s head and saying in a low voice, “Shut the *#@* up.” I recovered as quickly as I could, hoping the seller had not overheard my son’s excitable utterance and I approached the seller saying, “Hey, man, what do you want for this here fife?” He says, “Twenty five.” I say, “How about fifteen?” and I take home a Gemeinhardt flute worth $1,400. Needless to say, since that fateful day, I’ve been hooked and obsessed with a lifetime avocation of finding more holy grails at garage sales.
Last month, after thousands of goose chases and near misses, I happened upon my second such amazing find at a Sunday morning flea market. It happened like this, in real time: I spot a pick-up truck driving across the field with what looks like a bass headstock sticking up out of the truck bed. As everything depends upon being the earliest bird at the right spot at the right time, I tear-ass across the field like a cheetah on amphetamines and get there just as the driver is just parking his truck. I say, “What’s with the big-ass fiddle in the back?” and he says, “Make me an offer.” Seeing the name plate “Kay” on the tailpiece, but without really inspecting it, I say, “Thirty-five bucks.” He says, “#&@, I’ll use it for firewood before I sell it for thirty-five. …. I got to get at least fifty.” So I say, “OK, but only if you have the part that I see is missing (the fingerboard).” He says, “Oh, I left that home, but I’ll send my wife home for it. I’ll hold the bass fiddle for you till she gets back, and you can pay me then.” The Yard Sale Weasel says, “That’s OK, here’s the fifty. I’ll take it to my car and come back later for the missing piece.”
Now, there’s time to count your winnings, when the dealin’s done, so I quickly hustle the dark monster back to the car and hide it under a blanket in the hatchback. I briefly note that it is, indeed, a mid-fifties Kay, a few edge chips, no delamination of the wood, and a beautiful, dark, rich brown color under the dust. I stop back at the seller’s truck about a half-hour later, and, sure enough, his little lady had come back with the original rosewood fingerboard.
Closer inspection reveals that everything is there, and even the strings are still usable after a brief soaking in vinegar – that urban myth works. The only real problem was that the fingerboard had been pried off, with some of the rosewood still stuck to the neck. The glue joint was, indeed, stronger than the wood itself. But Kay built those boxes right, and with a little hot water and some careful scraping, the old hide glue dissolved and the rosewood fibers could be scraped off.
I ordered a new fingerboard, adjustable bridge, new nut, saddle, strings, and sound post. I carefully vacuumed out about a pound of dustballs from the inside, polished up the old machine heads, and, together with my grandson, we are in the process of gluing one or two seam separations together with hide glue. We will experiment with the hide glue on some scraps before we tackle the real work. All together, it will be about $300 in parts, including new Innovation Rockabilly nylon strings, and I will have us a good as new vintage Kay bass. If it looks like the gluing and fitting the fingerboard will be tricky, I’ll bring it in to have that work done by a pro.
BTW, a professional shop wanted $2,500 to “restore” it, including a new neck and ebony fingerboard. We agonized over whether we should use rosewood or ebony for the replacement fingerboard, but after seeing a few original Kays with the rosewood board, we decided to keep it original. With the nylon strings, the softer rosewood should last as long as ebony would with metal strings. Besides, you can play the nylon strings all day long without getting a single blister.
But wait, there’s more. I could tell you other true stories, like the time I got a 1965 Fender Bandmaster Amp for $35 bucks, a 1950 Gibson GA-40 amp for $10, a mess of guitars and electric bass guitars from $8 to $25, a concertina and an autoharp for $25, and so on, but its time to head out to another garage sale.
The Yard Sale Weasel (his secret identity can not be revealed)
P.S. I once brought home a bag of feathers that I got for a buck and my wife wouldn’t let me into the house with it. But that’s also another story for another time.