Designing a Custom Mandolin

Style / Model

I've built many models of mandolins -- oval hole, two points of different varieties -- but my bread-and butter mandolins are the F-5 style and more recently the A style, at the left. Both tickle my bluegrass ear and have timeless, classic lines.

Woods

The next important considerations are the woods for the top and back and sides. Red (Adirondack) spruce is my first choice for top wood. Also available are Lutz spruce, Sitka spruce, Engelmann spruce, and Carpathian spruce. Since most mandolin tops are finished in a sunburst, there's little difference in appearance; for a better look at the grain characteristics of these woods, you can visit the guitar design page. Here's my take on the sound and appearance of these different top woods:

  • Red spruce: this was the top wood used on the vintage "Loars" that bring hundreds of thousands of dollars today. The sound is big and bold with lots of headroom for the player with a heavy picking hand. The grain is wider than some other species as a rule, and there's a lot of distinction between early and late woods; the appearance is sometimes "streaky." The wood is hard and has the highest strength/weight ratio of all the spruces.

  • Lutz spruce: Lutz is a genetic cross between Sitka spruce and Engelmann spruce, found in a very limited altitude on the west coast of Canada. Though I've not yet built a mandolin with a Lutz top, I'm eager to. The guitars I've built with Lutz are exciting: they have the punch and headroom of Adirondack, but with a sizzle and complexity all its own. Lutz is both softer and more tightly and evenly grained than red spruce, with lots of "silking" in the higher grades and with occasional pinkish streaks.

  • Sitka spruce: the wood used on the majority of commercial mandolins for the last five decades of the 20th century. This is a good all-around top wood, with balanced sound and good overall tonal characteristics. Sitka is relatively hard, tight grained, evenly colored, and is often available in "bear claw" grain patterns. In color, it tends to be a darker and uniformly brown wood.

  • Engelmann spruce: Engelmann spruce is a very light-colored wood with tight, even grain and generous "silking" in higher grade tops. It's a soft wood, and not as stiff as the other spruces. In my experience, Engelmann delivers a mellow tone that while not as loud as some of the other tops, is quite evenly balanced. Unstained with a clear finish, it's a uniform cream color that goes well with dark accessories.

  • Carpathian spruce: This is an European tonewood more often found on violin-family instruments, but one well suited for mandolins. This wood is light brown, with even grain and good "silking." The sound is focused and clean, as in the best of violins.


For back and side wood, any species is fine with me as long as it's maple: curly, blistered, birds eye, or quiltied, maple is the only wood I currently use for back, sides, and neck. I find little difference in the tonal characterists of the different types of maple, nor between hard and soft maple. The choice here, I believe, is an aesthetic one.

Other Structural Considerations

Other important considerations concern the top bracing -- X-bracing or tone bars -- and neck reinforcement.Though the sound of an X-braced is different that that of a tone bar-braced top, I'm not enough of a wordsmith to define the difference other than that the tone bars deliver a more traditional sound, the X-bracing a more modern one. I've built a lot of both, and like both.

The scale length of my mandolins is 13.875"


My New Vintage instruments have as one feature carbon fiber reinforcing bars that
are attached to the fretboard and extend throughout the entire upper section of the fretboard. On the mandolin this is partiularly significant because the fretboard extension hangs from the fretboard, rather than being fastened to the top and supporting the fretboard. This both frees up the top for more open sound and eliminates that dratted
15-th fret hump that traditionally develops in even the finest of instruments. This also allows the fretboard and extender to be removed along with the pickguard.

Hardware

Although most of the hardware choices are detailed on other pages, the selection of a tailpiece is essential and specific to the building of the mandolin. I'll install any tailpiece that catches your fancy, but my preference is for a heavy, cast tailpiece like these shown. I especially like the James tailpiece, left, not only for its looks and utility, but also because it makes string changes a breeze. Visit my Links page for more choices from our vendors.

Many questions about a Skipper mandolin can be answered by watching the construction step by step. A wealth of this information is available in my Archives section, where all the instruments I've built in the last several years are presented in detail.

Other Choices

The following design choices are common to many instruments, and will be discussed in detail on other pages. Click on any of the links to navigate to the proper area.

To hear a Skipper mandolin being played, visit my Audio / Video page.

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