Posts from the ‘mandolins’ Category


Padauk headstock veneer, I'm considering the name "Redhead Instruments "

Before I had even finished making my first mandola, I realized I would have to make a mandocello.   Especially after hearing one playing a Bach cello suite, here.  I recently finished this one,  which is in the old K style that I prefer, and have bought the wood to make another, which I’m looking forward to.

I’m happy with the looks of it, but I’m thrilled with the sound, rich and deep and full.  I only wish I could play it like Mike Marshall, but all things in due time.  But my plan is to sell this one, and probably the next one, too, so who knows.

I didn’t have a plan or blueprint for this, so I worked from as many pictures of vintage Gibsons as I could find, and used construction details from the mandolin plans.  It has a well arched top, and like the A mandolin, this eliminates the need for exessive bracing, using only a single cross grain brace right below the soundhole.  I  modified a trapeze tailpiece intended for a guitar, adding a piece of ebony at the front as a tensioner and guide for the strings.  I reslotted the tailpiece to accept both ball end and loopend strings, and in fact, I’ve used a combination of the two on this, as I preferred the sound of bass guitar  strings for the lower C set to the loop end ones that came with the D’Addario Mandocello set.

The back and sides are rosewood,  I’d like to do a carved maple back next.  I dressed the back up with a little bit of marquetry where it meets the neck, using some checkerboard trim I had made up for a banjo resonator, and that was too pretty to sit in my parts drawers.

Exotic Woods, Suburban Locale

Earlier this year, while researching sources for instrument woods, I stumbled upon a link to Exotic Hardwoods of Sicklerville, NJ, which is only about 10 miles from where I live.  I say stumbled upon, because I had been searching for “guitar woods” and “Luthier supplies,” but in desperation I finally searched for “Exotic woods,” and Bingo.  I remembered this place, I had been there a few years ago to get a fretboard and I think mahogany for a neck, but hadn’t remembered it until I saw the listing.

It’s on a typical outer  suburban road, an unassuming white house with a driveway that leads to two small warehouses in back.   The man and woman who work the yard and shop greeted me, asked what I was looking for, and then sent me in to get a sales slip from the owner so that we could start picking.

I started chatting with the owner, an older man of Indian heritage, and we ended up talking for about an hour.  He flies all over the world and hand picks each shipment of wood, so that he doesn’t end up with junk, and from the way he talks about the woods, it’s clear that this is a labor of love, as well as an enviable lifestyle for someone of a similar mind.  But in that hour, there were no other customers coming in, and when he started talking about being 72 and a little weary of it all,  I mentioned that if he increased his web presense, maybe adding some pertinent key words (as If I know how to increase web presense!)he could maybe increase business to make it more worthwhile. He smiled tolerantly, and when I was finished, he told me that 95% of his business is selling to makers like Gibson and Martin.  In fact, there was a pallet of mahogany outside, 16″X2″X 16 feet long and straight as the day is long that was being shipped out to be made into Les Pauls at the Gibson factory.

Having been totally schooled by the old guy, I headed out into the yard, where the two people I mentioned gave me their full attention for the duration.  I need a couple mahogany neck blanks, here they are, hundreds of them, pick the ones you want.  Same with the Rosewood back and side sets, all matched and numbered and in leaning stacks of 50 or so per stack, take your time, find the set you want I was told, so I did.  I needed flamed maple mandolin backs and sides, which sent them searching all over the warehouse, as it’s not something they sell a lot of.  What they came up with was violin backs and sides, which were beautiful, but at 1 7/8″ thick, twice as thick as I needed, which was not a problem, the guy just ripped it in half on his monster bandsaw, giving me two back sets for the price of one, and he threw an extra side set in to go with it.

I poked around for a while, got some other stuff, then as they were writing the slip, they asked me if I wanted any of the cutoffs that were stacked by the gang saw,  so I took 4 or 5 of the Les Paul mahogany pieces, 16X12X2, figuring I’d do something with them.  I’ve ended up making kalimbas from them, I can get 2 or 3 from each.

I think you can imagine that I didn’t want to leave, but I was out of money.  Another cordial conversation with the owner, who asked me to bring pictures next time, and I left.  Driving home, I was struck by my good fortune at living so close to a place that any instrument maker should visit, but probably won’t because there is no other reason to visit Sicklerville, NJ.  I felt like a surfer living next to Wakiki, or a skier who lives on Mt. Blanc.  But if you order from the website, I can pretty much guarantee you won’t be disappointed.  They have no junk to sell you.

I’ll be going back soon, bringing pictures.

In the style of Gibson A model pre 1925

I pretty much followed the blueprint for this, though Iused a round hole of the same area instead of the original oval.

The back is European flamed maple, intended for violin backs and purchased from Exotic Woods of Sicklerville, Nj.  I’ll have to write more about them later.  The top is Alaskan Englemann Spruce and the neck is a 3 piece laminatiom of maple and rosewood with a non adjustable truss rod.  The headstock is a rosewood veneer.

Who is Lex Luthier?

Of course we all remember Lex Luthor from the Superman comics, and if you as old as me, you may remember what he originally looked like,  completely bald and with a middle age paunch.  I bear more than a passing resemblance to that character.

But that’s not why I chose the name for the blog.

In the world of mandolin making , there is a Superman.

His secret identity is, or was, Lloyd Loar.  Working for Gibson in the early part of the 20th century, he designed the classic mandolin forms that endure as the standard for luthiery.  The F-5, made popular and famous by its most renowned player, Bill Monroe, is the most sought after, and most copied mandolin in the world.   Loar explored acoustics and harmonics with a passion, always trying to improve instrument performance, and never fearing to experiment with new ideas.

But as I  get deeper into instrument building myself, I find that the vast majority of my peers are involved in duplicating Loar’s instrument to  a pathetic degree. For example, Loar designed an elaborate peghead that, while elegant in its own peculiar way, is structurally unsound because there is a scroll that tends to snap off if you bump it against anything.  The reaction of the mandolin making community has been to invent a metal reinforcement to prevent the scroll from snapping off, rather than find a different, more practical, and possibly more attractive alternative, as I am sure Loar would have done had he continued working.  The scroll on the peghead is a visual reference to the scroll that is part of the body of the F-5, and this scroll also has become de rigeur for Loar’s followers  I see that scroll as Loar’s signature, and while there has been discussion among makers about the contribution of the scroll to the instrument’s acoustics, I’m not buying that on face value, and the arguments for that don’t make a lot of sense when you compare acoustic properties of other instruments.  If it does, then Stradivarius missed something, and I haven’t heard a lot of complaints about his instruments, which are, after all, a bowed version of the one we are talking about.

I even read one discussion about how the silly little breakable scroll on the head contributes to the sound.  This is the stuff of religious cults, not logic or acoustic research.  And these believers constitute an army of makers who, unlike Loar, don’t experiment with their instruments, going so far as to graduate the thickness of their tops to Loar’s specifications with a micrometer, in the ridiculous assumption that the wood they are using has the same properties as what Loar used.

My reaction to this is to feel like Lex Luthor did about Superman;  living in a world where any achievements are judged against an unnatural standard, and full of complacency because Superman has all the answers to all the problems.

I think they are forgetting an important part of the picture.  Loar was a superb craftsman and engineer, and acoustic genius, but also an industrialist; he was designing instruments for mass production by the largest maker in the world., in a factory setting.   I’m positive that if he were alive today, he  would continue to try to improve design, both acoustic and aesthetic, until they laid him in the grave.   Making exact copies of his instruments strikes me as being similar to recreating a Model A Ford from raw steel, and the techniques employed by most modern mandolin makers are similar to the machinist skills involved in that fruitless enterprise.

I became infatuated with antique woodworking tools some years ago, and came to appreciate the art of working with those tools to, as George Nakashima might say, convince the wood to become what it desires to be, rather than treat it  as something less organic, less alive, by using machinist techniques.  And whether my endeavors in this realm are fruitful or not, that’s going to be my approach.   In my limited, though somewhat successful efforts so far, I’ve found that as I work the wood to make a top, it begins to sing to me at some point, a song I could never hear over the drone and racket of power tools.  Every tree is as different from the next as every person is different from another, and if you ignore that principle, you may as well make your F-5 out of plastic.

This philosophy puts me at odds with the worshipers of Superman, who cannot appreciate my evil genius.   Lex Luthor’s genius became evil because, in the shadow of Superman’s achievements his were sub par.

Whether I ever make an instrument to compare with Loar’s or not, it will be Mine.

Regards, Lex Luthier