Friday, January 30, 2009

Second Arrival

Friday, January 30, 2009

Yet another big day for the receiving department (me, at the front door). At about 5:00 pm, UPS dropped off the first of my two books and then at about 6:30, the Fed Ex guy delivered my order from LMI.

There’s that mandolin again, sneaking in for reference (camera hog!)

Inside the box from LMI were my 4 lengths of kerfed lining (taped nicely to a stiff backing board to prevent damage in shipment, 2 spruce end blocks, 1 ebony fretboard, and my hide glue. Though I failed to get it in the photo, the glue also came with a printed sheet of instructions telling me pretty much everything I should need to know for how to prepare, use and store it.

Here is a closer shot of the glue and blocks. The blocks nominally measure 3” x 5-1/4” x 1” thick.

And, finally, here is a close-up of the fretboard (with the Sharpie as a reference - had to shoo away the mandolin for this one).

On first inspection of the book, The Mandolin Manual - The Art, Craft and Science of the Mandolin and Mandola by John Troughton, it appears that it might be just a bit off the mark for me when building my F-style. I say this because within the first paragraph of the book is explains that “The ‘traditional’ Neapolitan instrument (the classification he earlier gave the archtop mandolin) is more difficult to construct that a flat-back and is beyond the scope of this book.” He then goes on to say that it is a good book for reference when building a bowl-back instrument. As I flip through it, though, it does seem to describe and detail a lot of how-to’s and things not to do. For an example of what not to do, on page 55, when describing how to prepare the edges of the book-matched top-wood for gluing, he writes “Do not feel tempted to use abrasive paper on a straight-edge to get the centre-join edges straight: sanding a true, straight edge is very difficult and in any event the abrasive rounds off the edges and tears up the grain...” and so on. Since it’s the hope of finding just this kind of information that prompted me to buy the book in the first place, I am still looking forward to reading it through. Once I do, I will post a more informed opinion here.

For now, though, I clearly need to do some more reading (especially after reading that about not sanding the joint) before I start butchering my material. So its off to the arm chair for me.

Until next time....

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Woohoooo! My first package arrived in the mail today!

It turned out to be my European Spruce Top Wood and my practice side wood (the mandolin in the picture is for size reference - I just couldn’t think of a better reference). This order came from Stewart-MacDonald and it arrived unbelievably quickly. I placed my order on Saturday, they got it out their door (according to their email) on Monday, and it was received at my doorstep on Wednesday. Pretty good service, in my book.

Here is what I got.

Each of the two items came in two pieces. The Top wood is a single wedge cut board split down the middle and the practice wood is two pieces taped together (mandolin for reference again).

It never occurred to me that the two pieces of the top wood would come still joined together, but it’s pretty obvious when I think about it that this makes it impossible for anyone to question whether they are a book-matched set when they arrive this way. This picture shows both ends and where they stopped sawing at the one end. Each of the two pieces is 6” wide by 17” long and measures 3/8” thick on the thin edge and 1” thick on the thick edge.

This just shows that the practice wood arrived as two pieces taped together. They are each 4” wide by 25” long and just a horse-hair under 1/8” thick.

There really isn’t a whole lot I can do with these right now, even if I wanted to. About the only things I could do are, of course, practice bending and separate the two top pieces. If the old axiom “use it or lose it” holds true here, seems like practicing bending before I’m ready to bend the real thing would be a bit risky. Likewise, since I don’t have the hide-glue yet with which to glue together my book-matched top pieces, there is not much value in cutting them apart right now, either.

Guess I’ll go do some more surfing...

Monday, January 26, 2009


Monday, January 26, 2009

As I wait now for my books and first pieces of material to arrive, I have decided to begin thinking about the artwork from which I can create my fretboard inlay and carving.

After a bit of pondering, I think I have a cool idea and plan for how this can look. Rather than opting for the traditional scroll on the body, I want to make this a solid “knob” and then hand-carve an image on it. I tossed around several ideas including a lion’s head, a snake’s head (my wife absolutely HATED the snake idea - oh well), a humming bird, and so on, until I finally settled on an English Ivy theme. I use the word theme here because not only will I carve a leafy vine “growing” out from the edge of the scroll, but I will also create an apparent continuation of the vine up the fretboard and onto the peghead with my inlay work.

Below is a sketch I came up with to show what I am talking about.

While I still have to work out the details, my plan is this; With the exception of the size and shape of the wooden block under the scroll, I will go ahead with the build, just like it was going to have a normal scroll, right up to the point where I glue the top on to the sides. At that point I will glue it up, just like normal everywhere else, but leave the scroll section without any glue. This will let me come back later and carefully cut the top wood of the scroll piece off so it can be replaced with the carved scroll. Before that, though, I will go ahead and complete everything I have to up to and including routing the sides for the binding. Once this routing is done, I am then ready to cut out the scroll piece. That should give me the exact size and shape into which to fit the carving. Like I say, there are clearly some details to work out yet, but that the plan right now.

Just in case you don’t know what I am talking about when I refer to the “wooden block under the scroll”, let me explain. If you were to look at the interiors of the boxes of both the typical A-style and F-style mandolins, you would notice that they are very similar and the sides continuous. The reason for this is the fact that the scroll and points on the F-style are simply cosmetic, offering nothing to the acoustics of the instrument. Furthermore, as if to guarantee this, the scroll and points are “filled” with solid wood (well, the point are, but the scroll is pretty close with typically just a wee bit of air space left). For my build, I will probably make the block under the scroll fill the entire cavity so that I have a firm base on which to glue my carving.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Sunday, January 25, 2009

I started thinking seriously about beginning this project about two weeks ago and began my research via the internet. My very first step was a visit to where I did a search for “mandolin building”. This search brought up a number of books, two of which I ultimately chose to buy but have not yet received. These are “The Ultimate Bluegrass Mandolin Construction Manual” by Roger H. Siminoff, ISBN-10: 0634062859, and “The Mandolin Manual: The Art, Craft and Science of the Mandolin and Mandola” by John Troughton, ISBN-10: 1861264968. The first book, The Ultimate Bluegrass Mandolin Construction Manual, had nine customer reviews where all but one were very complimentary. It appears to me that Mr. Siminoff is highly regarded in the mandolin community for his knowledge and expertise. The other book, on the other hand, does not have a whole lot of customer feedbacks, the two that it does have are vary favorable and led me to believe it was worth getting, too. Similar to Mr. Siminoff, John Troughton is apparently highly regarded, as well. I chose to purchase both, rather than just one, to improve the likelihood that I could bridge any gaps in one with information from the other as well as to have contrasting views on different steps and techniques. This is an approach I have used with other things and have been pleased with the results. As I go through them, I will be sharing my comments and opinions of each book.

My second step was to do a Google search for “luthier supplies”, which brought up, right there at the top, several sites that look like they will probably end up being key suppliers of both information and materials. Two of these are Luthiers Mercantile International, Inc (LMI), and Stewart-MacDonald (StewMac). Having developed an initial list earlier this week of both construction materials and shop tools I could foresee needing (more on this later), I placed some on-line orders with both of these companies yesterday for some initial components (more on that later, too). I found both sites easy to use and pretty hassle-free. Oh, and I also placed on-line orders for both of their catalogs about 12 days ago, but the StewMac catalog is the only one that arrived already. I will likely be placing a number of orders with both down the road.

My third step was to do some additional digging to see what other sources of information and materials might be out there that Google might not have shown me. For this, I started at one of my favorite sites, and probably the best overall site around for mandolinists, the Mandolin Cafe. Here, they talk about everything mandolin and mandolin related, have links to a large number of luthiers, forums to discuss anything and everything about the instrument and lots of great pictures. If you are at all interested in mandolins, this is a site you absolutely must visit. I have developed a great deal of respect for many of the regular members there and have found it to be well managed and controlled. This is a website run by true professionals and frequented by true professionals as well. Ok. Back to my research. Once at the Mandolin Cafe, I went straight to their “Builders” section to see what I could find. At the bottom of the Builders page, I found a list of country links under the header “Select International Queries”, where I chose, shockingly enough, United states. This selection generated a list of 466 companies and/or people, many of whom have web links where you can go to look at their offerings. After spending about an hour or so looking through the various web sites, I determined that this was probably not were I needed to be looking. While there are many beautiful instruments to be found, these are typically aimed toward folks who wish to buy finished guitars and mandolins rather than the piece-parts used to make them. The kind of information I was after was going to have to be found via some other route. I did get to see a number stylized mandolins, though, giving me a taste for some things I might want to try later myself.

I did run across one very valuable thing while looking through some posts at the Mandolin Cafe - a link to a series of by photos from 2001 where a luthier named Lynn Dudenbostel (one of the most respected luthiers out there today) built two mandolins, one for Chris Thile and one for Gary Hedricks. The preservation of this particular series of photos and descriptions is still available, thanks to the efforts of Mr. Buddy Ellis, a luthier himself and regular contributor to the Mandolin Cafe, and one I anticipate using regularly.

Next I went back to Google again, this time using the search words “luthier lumber”. This search brought up a site at the top of the page,, that held the list I was looking for. At the bottom of this page, under the heading “Suppliers”, is a list of folks, along with short descriptions of what they offer, that includes several who have prices that both complete with, and occasionally beat, those offered by LMI and StewMac. One of these, North Ridge Hardwoods, is where I ended up purchasing my back wood, side wood, and neck stock. Check it out.

Somewhere along the line, on a web site I can’t seem to find again, I came across a link to THIS video on youtube, one of several videos, by a luthier named Chris Paulick who demonstrates several techniques he uses when making guitars. I watch pretty much all his videos and found them to be very cool even though they are oriented toward guitars rather than mandolins. I look forward to seeing more from him.

All of this searching and research took me several days and by the time I was done (or at least tired of it and ready to do something else for a while) I decided it was time to work up an initial list of materials and tools I would need to build this baby. To start this, I headed back to MJD’s blog (the guy building the A-style) where I remembered he had a pretty good list of components that were supplied with his kit. From there I was able to generate a pretty decent starting list and then last Friday, when my StewMac catalog arrived and I thumbed through it, I was able to identify a few other items I would be needing. This is the list I have so far:

Mandolin Construction Materials

(1) Top Wood - European spruce, wedge cut
(1) Back Wood - Curly Maple
(1) Side Wood - Curly Maple
(1) Side Bending Practice Wood
(3) Body Blocks - Spruce
(2) Tone Bars - Spruce
(1) Fingerboard - Ebony
(4) Kerf Lining - Spruce - 7/32” x 5/16” x 32”
(1) End Block - Spruce
(1) Neck Stock - Curly Maple - 2-1/2" x 2-1/2" x 16"
(1) Peghead Overlay Veneer - Ebony, 4-3/16" x 8"
(1) Binding - White Plastic - .060" x .250"
(1) Mandolin Truss Rod
(1) String Nut - Bone - 2-3/16" x 7/16" x 3/16"
(1) Fret Wire - Narrow/low, 98 ft (1 lb)
(1) End Pin - Ebony
(1) Tuners - Golden Age - Black knobs, gold, set of 2
(1) Randy Wood Vintage-style Mandolin Bridge
(1) Gibson Style Mandolin Tailpiece - Gold
(1) Inlay - Figured white pearl, sheet
(1) Pre-cut Side Dots - white pearl, set of 10
(1) Point Protector Material
(1) Weld-On Cement
(1) Granular hide, 1 lb.=2pts - 192 gram strength

Shop Equipment

(1) Drill Press - Benchtop Model
(10) Mini Cam Clamp
(1) Soft mallet
(1) Blue Masking Tape, roll
(1) Waxed Paper, box
(2) Plumbers Flux Brush
(1) Glue Stick
(1) Small Vice
(1) Miter box and fret saw
(1) Scroll Saw
(1) Palm Plane
(1) Finger Plane - 25 mm convex
(1) Dremel Tool - 400XPR
(1) Electric Glue Pot
(1) Binding Router Guide
(1) Carbide Tipped Router Bit
(1) Precision Router Base
(1) Peghead Drill Jig - 29/32" spacing

I have included this list on the right side of this page, broken down between four categories, to keep track of those items I have and those that I need while separating shop tool costs from those of the actual mandolin. I intend to keep this up to date with each purchase and each time I identify something else I need or something I don’t.

While I probably should have waited until one or both of my “How-To” books had arrived, I’ve gone ahead and purchased most of my wood, the hide glue and, then last night at an auction, a small vice that I will need for shaping the nut. I’m betting from the research I have done so far that none of these purchases will be a mistake since it seems pretty clear that each of these are necessary components and are types that are commonly used when making mandolins.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Welcome to my blog.

Before I get started, I want to share something with you. I really have no idea what I am getting myself into here. I have never built a stringed musical instrument before, let alone been to a shop where they do. I do not (yet) have a shop full of lutherie tools (in fact, I don’t own ANY luthier-specific tools yet), nor have I had any training other than general woodworking things Dad showed me as a kid and one basic shop class in High School. All that aside, I’m going for it full-bore.

This project will be to build a highly detailed, customized F-style mandolin with white pearl inlays and a custom carved front. I will start with raw materials - no preformed or pre-shaped pieces (except, of course, for the tuners, tailpiece, end pin, and such) - and use typical instrument grade components like European spruce for the top, curly maple for the back, sides, and neck, and hide glue for my adhesive. I intend to use power tools to rough-out most of the waste materials (no CNC) and then hand carve and finish everything else including the top, back, and neck. I hope to do all this with only the help of some books I bought (see the next post for details) and whatever information I can find on the internet. I will be doing all this work at my house (with my wife’s blessing, of course) in either the basement/garage or in an upstairs bedroom where we currently store, and occasionally use, exercise equipment. As I go along, I intend to detail everything I buy, build, or modify including tools and materials. I also plan to share all the prices I find and, when it is not obvious, why I chose one selection over the others.

I have decided to start this project for three reasons: One, I am bored and have no real “hobby” I can get into here at the house. Sure there is yard-work, the honey-do list, etc., but when those are done (or being ignored - don’t tell my wife), I don’t have a project. Two, I have been teaching myself to play the mandolin for about 8 years, love the instrument, and now, with the price of quality instruments being what it is, I would love to have - but not spend all that money on one. Three, I love deeply involved, intricate projects, where the results are lasting, visually apparent, and impressive. This seems like a good way to satisfy all three.

So now that you know why I want to build a mandolin, you may be wondering why I have decided to build what promises to be about the most difficult level of mandolin build right out of the chute. Wouldn’t it be better to start with maybe an A-style mandolin, possibly a flat-top, or even a kit? Travel your learning curve on an instrument that is a little less costly? Sure it would. All those are much safer and probably far more intelligent approaches to learning the art and craft of lutherie. But that is not me. Traveling any of those paths would feel like a compromise and one that would likely end up causing me to lose interest, take short-cuts, or possibly even lower my standards as I build. I don’t want to do that. I want the extra challenge and the potential to finish with a result where people go “WOW...And this was his first one?”

Lets just hope I am up for the task.

I would also like to take the time to credit a couple of guys for some of the inspiration and information I have used to get started here. I anticipate checking back with both as I go along with my build.

If you haven’t found him yet, there is guy who has his own blog where has started building an A-style mandolin from a kit (clearly he is far more intelligent then I am). Check him out HERE.

There is guy in Japan, an amateur luthier, too, who has a blog detailing his build of a guitar. It’s quite impressive. Check his work out HERE.

I’m going to go ahead and end this first post here and get into details of what I have done so far in my next post.