Identify Your Vintage Martin – Caveat Emptor

I’ve been learning about vintage ukuleles made by the C.F. Martin Company for years, ever since I heard Brian Hefferan and Dave Passant playing their vintage Martins at various events.  The sound of these instruments is distinctively different than any other.  So I’ve been keeping my eyes open for a deal, checking out online auctions, For Sale listings and yard sales for several years.  And educating myself on identifying the different styles and how to determine the time frame during which it was made.  My primary source is the definitive reference, The Martin Ukulele: The Little Instrument That Helped Create a Guitar Giant by John King and Tom Walsh.  The archives of the C.F. Martin Company were used by the authors to create this volume.  This book has the history of the instrument within the Martin Company as well as pages of information about the differences between the Styles and the years certain changes were made.

When you see a listing, don’t trust the seller to know the difference between the Styles.  Large vintage retailers like Elderly Instruments will have the expertise and experience to properly identify them, but many smaller shops don’t have that knowledge.  I have seen many listings on eBay and Reverb where the seller has mis-identified the instrument they have for sale, usually it is an error determining between the Style 0 and the Style 1.  Considering that the vast majority of the Martins were one of these two Styles, differentiating is important.  One dealer even told me that Martin had told them it was a Style 1 when it clearly wasn’t.  In some cases this may work in favor of the buyer, but most of the time it doesn’t.  And just because they say it is worth several thousand dollars doesn’t mean that is an appropriate value.  Knowing the difference can allow you to find a good deal at a reasonable price.

Determining the Style

It is relatively simple to determine the Style.  Martin has had five Styles, or quality levels, of instruments that they produced.  They began with just four, Style 1, Style 2, Style 3 and Style 5.  There is no information about what happened to the Style 4.  The market indicated the need for a lower end model, so they created the Style 0.  There are two primary items to look at to determine the Style, the 7th fret marker and the bindings.

The fret marker at the 7th fret for the Style 0 is a single, small dot.  For the Style 1 and 2 it is two small dots.  On the Style 3 it will be either two diamonds or a ‘bowtie’ with a inlaid line down the middle of the fret board.  On the Style 5 it will be a stylized plus sign.  These basic parameters have not changed in the 100 years they have been in production.  Note that prior to 1919, Style 1, 2, and 3 did not have fret markers at all, but the Style 3 still had the double lines down the middle.

The bindings are also distinctive.  The Style 0 has no binding at all.  The Style 1 had a rosewood binding on the front of the instrument, starting in 1926 it would also have binding on the back.  On a vintage instrument, the binding can be difficult to see, the single thin white stripe hidden beneath an accumulation of dirt and age and the rose wood blending with the mahogany.  In 1926 they changed from rosewood to the plastic tortoise shell.  The binding on the Style 2 was an unmistakable white plastic celluloid with one black line in the middle.  Binding for the Style 3 was a white plastic celluloid with a total of 7 alternating white and black lines.  The Style 5 was similar to the Style 3, but had 9 bands with a mother-of-pearl inlay in one of the bands on the top.

 Style 0  Style 1  Style 2  Style 3  Style 5
7th Fret 1 small dot 2 small dots 2 small dots 2 diamonds or bowtie with
line down middle
Stylized Plus
Sign
Binding No Binding Rosewood
on Front
Back after 1926
Tortoise Shell
after 1935
Front and Back
White Celluloid
with three white
and black bands
Front and Back
White Celluloid
with seven white and
black bands
Front and Back
White Celluloid
with nine white and
black bands one white band is
mother of pearl.

 

Determining the Value

The value of the instrument is going to be dependent on the condition, the age, the type of wood and the size.

Condition is always a major factor when it comes to vintage instruments.  There are the obvious cracks, sometimes repaired, and finish wear, as well as being complete with all the tuners, fret bars and bridge. Dings, scuffs, scratches are common and are often cosmetic flaws that don’t have too much of an affect on sound, but just look bad.  Original tuners are a factor, particularly on the earlier models. A straight neck without any bowing is something to look for.

Age can be tricky to determine.  The Martin records indicate when certain changes were made in the manufacture.  These usually allow the time frame to be narrowed down to about a five year window.  If your Style 0 or 1 comes with peg tuners, it was made before 1927.  But just because it has tuners it doesn’t mean that is after 1927, as some retailers and special orders had geared tuners installed before that.  Decals can be added or removed, but impressed stamps are much more difficult.  Your best bet to narrowing down the time frame is to consult with an expert or reference the Martin history mentioned above.  You can see the factors I used to determine my Martin’s age in my blog post here.

The primary wood for the lower three models of the instruments was mahogany.  Martin did make Style 1,2 and 3 instruments in koa wood.   The Style 5 were made primarily in koa, but a few of them they were available in mahogany.  The koa wood instruments in the lower styles are much less common than the mahogany models and the opposite for the higher two styles.

All of the models were available in both a soprano and a concert size.  The tenor was available in all styles except the Style 0.  You can see from the production tables that finding a koa instrument is much more difficult than finding a mahogany one. And there were only 764 Style 5 instruments ever made.

Production numbers through 1994

   Style 0 Style 1  Style 2  Style 3 
Style 5
Soprano
Mahogany
87,791 36,668 16,715 8,065 24
Soprano
Koa
0 5,712 2,903 2,146 727
Concert
Mahogany
53 8,959 2 15 0
Concert
Koa
0 23 13 33 4
Tenor
Mahogany
0 15,986 1 9 0
Tenor
Koa
0 8 5 0 9

I wish you good luck in your quest to add a vintage Martin to your collection.  The sound is unique and there is a sense of pride in owning an older instrument.  If you wish to consult, please feel free to drop me a line at TheUkuleleDude@gmail.com.

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