Weissenborn & Co. Ltd. (Texts by Tom Noe)

A small handful (three known) of mandolins were built between 1912 and 1914, during a period when Weissenborn was advertising violins and piano repair.  These mandolins have paper labels with the East 12th Street label.  Beginning in 1914, Weissenborn began building steel guitars almost exclusively for a number of years, although he continued to advertise violins.  No violins have ever been found to date.

Weissenborn steel guitars can be separated into four distinct eras as the steel guitars evolved.

(1) 1914-1915.  Weissenborn used his stock of violin tone woods, mainly maple and spruce, although some examples of koa and spruce have been found.  The bridges are “Knutsenesque” bow-tie shaped, with a concave edge along the top of the bridge.  Guitars were full sized in what was later to become a Style 2 configuration, but very thin, as little as one inch body depth, and used green cloth seam tape to join backplates at first, changing to wood strips as guitar bodies deepened.  The headstocks have sharp pointed “hips” and the fretboards feature a large trapezoidal fret marker at 12th fret and an inverted triangle next to the nut.  While wire saddles were used from the beginning, there is evidence that Weissenborn tried bone for saddles, and even bent the ends of wire saddles at 90-degree angles and pushed them down into the bridge.  These guitars appear to have been finished with violin varnish because the “checking” is very fine and not the coarse beading seen with shellac.

(2) 1915-1922.  Paper label era.    These steel guitars are predominantly constructed of koa wood with spruce tops, although some all-koa instruments exist.  Most of these guitars are Style 2 configuration, with a few Style 1s.  Maple strips were used to join the backplates instead of the green cloth tape,  The headstock shape loses the sharp points, and fretboad ornamentation features a parallelogram at the 12th fret along with an inverted triangle next to the nut.  Body depth slowly increased from two inches to three inches during this period. Bridge shapes range from ‘bow-tie” to what was to become the standard production “batwing” bridge.   Rope binding appears to have started with fancy solid-neck guitars with smaller overall dimensions in what was become Style 3 and 4 ornamentation, probably around 1916 or 1917.  Only nine of the little solid-neck gutars are known to exist, with three of those badly damaged and in unplayable condition.  They were very lightly built,and their body depths range from two inches to 3.5 inches, with the last of these exhibiting features found on post 1922 production instruments, but so far no solid-neck guitars have been found with a burned-in brand.  Generally, all of these instruments in this era were finished with shellac and have aged with an oranged-tinted patina.  Charles DeLano owned the Kona trademark, and the Kona instruments built during this period were mostly  Style 2s with white bindings rather than black, and a few Style 1s.  Other features mirrored the Weissenborn-branded instruments.

(3) 1923-1927.  These are the factory production Styles 1, 2, 3, 4 with a burned-in brand visible through the sound hole. Virtually all the instruments in this period were of all koa wood construction. The Style 1 has no binding; Style 2 has black binding and a curved fretboard end (carried over from the pre-poduction days); Style 3 has rope binding around the top and along the fretboard; and Style 4 has rope binding top and back, along the fretboard, and around the headstock. The guitars of this era have a 6.5-inch bridge measured point to point, and Styles 2-4 have a diamond inlay at the 12th fret.  They all have shellac varnish.  The size dimensions are standardized with a 37-inch length and three-inch body depth.  The bridge pins were in 1923 arranged in a pronounced  V shape that progressively became a shallow arc by 1925.  A few teardrop models bearing serial numbers were built circa 1926, but otherwise no serial numbers were applied.  These teardrops are nearly identical to teardrop guitars made by Chris Knutsen in Seattle in 1910.  Charles DeLano began using a new label in April 1925, but otherwise continued with four models and the instrument features continued to mirror the Weissenborn-branded instruments.   Henry Stadlmaier was the sole east coast distributor of production Weissenborn instruments until 1928, and often his burned-in brand can be seen near the Weissenborn brand.  Most of the steel guitars built during this era were Style 1 and Style 4.  Very few Style 2s were built in this period.  The generally light construction of these all-koa wood instruments produces a long sustained vibration, described by some as ethereal or “shimmering.”

(4) 1928-1936.  Things began to change in 1927 as competition from National and Dobro resonator Hawaiian steel guitars encroached on sales of wood-bodied steel guitars.  Factory production still continued with all four models, but beefed-up bracing and bridge plates were added in an attempt to increase volume.  Bridge thickness was reduced from one-half to three-eighths of inch, which in turn reduced the torque applied to the bridge by the pull of strings by 25%.  The ends of the batwings disappeared, reducing the bridge length from 6.25 inches to 5.5 inches.  Nitrocellulose lacquer, developed for the automobile industry, replaced shellac as the finish.  It isn’t clear whether the production of Kona-branded steel guitars continued into this era, and it isn’t clear when Kona production ceased.  Tonk Brothers took over national distribution of Weissenborn instruments.  The 1928 Tonk catalog listed the following prices:  Style 1 — $40.00; Style 2 – 55.00; Style 3 – 87.50; and Style 4 — $79.00.  Teardrop-shaped Style 1s re-appeared at least as early as 1929 with patent-pending Waverly tuners.  Only a couple of dozen teardrop models are known to exist, so it is not clear whether there was a hiatus in production between 1926 and 1929.  Most of the production models continuing into the 1930s were Style 1s and teardrops.  Development of electric steel guitars in 1931 further diminished the demand for wood-bodied acoustic steel guitars.  Unfortunately, no production records were kept, so the total number of instruments built is unknown.