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Jul 2011 23

Mandolin Luthiery -- Making and playing the Mandolin

Hobbies Luthiery, Mandolin, Wood working

Ibanez Mandolin
Ibanez Mandolin

I have always enjoyed wood working and have done a bit of wood turning in my time.   And as I have mentioned before (more than once), I have always wanted to play an instrument of some kind..   Recently it occurred to me that there was no reason I couldn't combine these two activities..

To that end, I decided to try my hand at becoming a hobby luthier (a maker of stringed instruments) and make myself something to play..    I went back and forth considering all the options and decided that for my first instrument I'd like to make a Mandolin.  ( Dulcimer was a close second and I'll likely make one of those in the future, as well as making a Viola if I can manage to do this with any proficiency.  )

So with that I purchased an inexpensive Ibanez Mandolin just to have an instrument to start learning on and use as a guide..  Since I have no experience what so ever, this instrument is what I will use to learn on and as a guide for what my instrument should sound like..  This wasn't a very expensive instrument, and it sounds fine to me.   I'm sure the really expensive / nice mandolins that are out there sound better but at this point I simply don't know the difference..   My end goal at this point is to make my home made mandolins sound as good as this one -- better would be nice, but I just am not sure what that means yet.

This will be a hobby activity for me and I'll very likely want to make more than one Mandolin, but first I need to attempt to make something that's reasonably close just as a learning exercise.   Not the "finished" product by any stretch but rather the first "rough draft" instrument that I can screw up on without fear of anything lost other than my time..

Bluegrass Mandolin Construction Manual
Bluegrass Mandolin Construction Manual

I fished around on the internet for reading / instructional material as well as any kits and came across a very good book put out by Roger Siminoff (a man with "a little bit of experience" on the issue having been doing this forever) on the construction of an f-type bluegrass mandolin.  An excellent manual that basically walks you through the entire process one page at a time, complete with plans!   It's a good purchase and I can highly recommend it..

Roger offers a really nice kit that seems to go with his book, but it costs over $500 and I just didn't think that would be a good beginners project.  So I settled on getting an inexpensive Saga AM10 Mandolin Kit to experiment on which I got off ebay for less than $90..

Mandolin in Fixture
Mandolin in Fixture

As kit's go, I'd say this one is extremely rough, to the point of being bad, as very few of the parts matched up, even a little..  The instructions that came with it were meager at best, and very poor in most cases..  The strings it came with are worthless (the e string broke trying to bring it up to tension, I didn't even get it close to tuned and it popped)..  The back didn't fit the body at all, being undersized compared to the top and required a heck of a lot of work.. The neck didn't fit the main body at all, again a lot of work..etc..

Bottomless Mandolin
Bottomless Mandolin

I think a beginner woodworker would have had a very difficult time with this kit to be honest.. I have a lot of tools, experience and time with wood so it wasn't too bad for me but even so I had to make a bunch of jigs and fixtures in order to get things to line up and work correctly.   But even with my best effort just due to how it was cut my neck isn't correctly centered on the soundboard which will make stringing it interesting..   The tail piece is half an inch off center unfortunately which means the bridge is off center..etc..  I have no idea how that is going to affect the sound of the instrument but in all likelihood it won't do it justice.

All things considered though, I'm actually happy with my results so far..  It's taken me just shy of 3 weeks to get it all worked up and to the point of getting strings on it.  (Mostly working on the weekends and an hour or two in the evenings during the week when I could..

One string Mandolin
One string Mandolin

Today I added the very first string to the instrument and tuned it up just to see what it sounded like..  Shockingly it sounded like a D!  The instrument didn't have any kind of odd barks or vibrations though it does sound slightly different than the Ibanez I purchased above.

I have added 4 other strings to it at this point and the difference in the sound is still there, but I simply am not articulate enough with sound and instrument theory to describe to you the difference.. it's just slightly different.. Not better, not worse.. different.

Even so, I'm pretty happy so far with how things are going.

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