Popsicle Braces

POPSICLE BRACES|Feature article

Popsicle brace photo
On the picture above, the popsicle brace is the flat brace just below the neckblock.

Popsicle braces- Cool or not?

You may have heard of folks boasting of a lack or removal of a popsicle brace in their guitar. The popsicle brace is oft discussed and argued over, but what exactly is a popsicle brace and what’s the big deal about it?

What’s a popsicle brace?

The ‘popsicle’ is a structural brace introduced by the Martin guitar company running clear across the upper bout above the number 1 brace with the grain of the brace perpendicular to the top grain. This brace first appeared on 14 fret dreadnought Martins in mid 1939, between serial numbers 72618 and 72702 in response to the common problem of top cracks along the fingerboard. Earlier 12fret guitars have actually always had the popsicle brace which raises the question of why they were left off these earlier 14fret guitars.

Popsicle brace photo. 1930 00018 martin guitar
A 1930 Martin OOO18 – sans popsicle bracing

Why add the brace?

On it’s own, the top is supported only by the strength of wood fibers and the soundhole #1 brace. A popsicle brace provides an additional 1″ x 2″ glue surface where wood fiber was the primary support.

Why does the top crack? There are a few hypotheses:

  1. The difference between the fingerboard and top spruce expand rates coupled with the fixation of the spruce through being glued to the fingerboard places that area under stress and hence it’s propensity to crack.
  2. Some, like repairman Bryan Kimsey feel it may be due to the neckblock leaning forward. This will cause the top under the fingerboard to move towards the soundhole and will allow the fingerboard to push down on the top. Both of these will result in the characteristic defect of top cracks beside the fingerboard with the soundboard ‘herniating’ into the soundhole.
  3. In a followup to this article, John Arnold wrote: “The missing popsical brace might cause follow up problems in the moment when the neck angle is getting weak and the upper bout and the sound hole area is sinking in. While the neck and neck block is pressing forward against the soundhole the top at the upper bout will be stretched. Both forces together might cause the fingerboard extension cracks and the shifting of neck and fretboard into the top and body.”

According to several experienced repairmen like John Arnold and Wayne Henderson, guitars lacking the popsicle brace have a bigger neck block- 5/16″ thicker in an attempt to strengthen that area.

Does it work?

Well we don’t have the exact rate of cracks pre and post popsicle bracing but it’s certainly not a sure fix. Repairmen like Frank Ford still encounter of top cracks next to the fingerboard in guitars with popsicle bracing.

In fact, some feel that the gluing of a spruce brace to the bottom of the top may even contribute to cracking as one size is fixed and the other flexible.

Popsicle brace photo. Martin D28 guitar
Two cracks at the edge of the neckblock despite the popsicle brace.

What’s all the fuss about?

As we dissect the prewars to determine the construction behind the tone of the golden era guitars, Certain aspects come under intense scrutiny and the popsicle brace is no exception. Many feel that the popsicle brace can dampen the vibrations of the upper bout soundboard and adversely affect the tone of the guitar.

However, there is a significant proportion of luthiers and players who feel that upper bout area is not significantly resonating but contributes more to the structural integrity of the guitar.

Maybe Bryan Kimsey has the right hypothesis. He feels the upper bout may well respond to vibrations from the neck not the bridge. Things work together, the neck, bracing, top, strings, setup, so when you have a poorly vibrating neck, the upper bout is deadspace but with the potential to contribute to tone.

How about other guitar makers?

Most of the smaller factories and builders omit the brace- from Collings to Bourgeois to John Greven and Lynn Dudenbostel. In fact, Martin produce the goldern era and authentic lines in which the popsicle brace is noticeably absent. John Arnold also added that “The limited edition 1995 D-18GE has no popsicle, as well as the Authentics. For some reason, Martin decided to backtrack on the production GE models, using bigger bridgeplates, tall back braces, and popsicles on them. Probably strictly a warranty issue.”

I’ve got a guitar with a popsicle brace, what can I do about it?

Well, some repairmen will remove the popsicle brace for you- Bryan Kimsey and Dan Lashbrook are well known for doing so, but you may need to realize a few things. Firstly Bryan will often replace the long brace with a small patch to help strengthen the area if you’re worried about cracks. More importantly, this will void the warranty on your instrument if you bought new. Consider the mod. Very carefully.

Research data:

1938 D-18 #71539 rear-shifted X-brace, no popsicle brace.
1939 D-28 #71968 rear-shifted X-brace, no popsicle brace.
1939 D-18 #72618 1 3/4″ neck width, no popsicle brace.
1939 D-18 #72702 1 3/4″ neck width, popsicle brace (stamp 23 May 1939).
1939 D-28 #72831 no popsicle brace.

Bryan Kimsey: http://www.bryankimsey.com/popsicle/
Frank Ford: http://www.frets.com/FRETSPAGES/General/faq.html#popsicle
Dan Lashbrook: http://www.danlashbrook.com/

Bryan Kimsey

©2008 Terence Tan.
Pictures courtesy of Bryan Kimsey- Used with permission.