Custom F-5 Mandolin #36 151

Completed July 2015

(click any of the thumbnails for a higher-resolution photo)

This F-5 mandolin is your classic bluegrass instrument, with great sound provided by a red spruce top and great looks by the highly flamed maple back and sides. It has an amber-through-black sunburst that gives it the traditional look, yet the grain is visible all the way to the binding. Schaller gold tuners are matched with Loar-style bridge and tailpiece, and gold oversize Evo frets both complement the color scheme and assure years of play without refretting. A custom vine-and-wire headstock inlay of mother of pearl and abalone and brass-and-abalone position markers add some flash without becoming gaudy. Ebony headstock overlay, fretboard, finger rest, and bridge. 1-1/8" nut width. The neck is slim, with just a touch of vee that fits the hand well and doesn't cramp. An adjustable truss rod and a pair of full-length carbon-fiber reinforcing bars ensure that the action will always be flat and stable. Three-ply celluloid binding. Gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish. All hot hide glue construction. Hardshell case.

Even on its first day as an instrument rather than a tree, the tone is all you could expect from a quality F-model mandolin: big and woody, with a great chop and clear trebles. I recently returned from a great bluegrass festival at Coleman Station, where superb mandolinist Scott Pearson put down some sound clips.

Update on this instrument, July 2016: The purfling I used on this instrument came from a new manufacturer, and after a few months began to separate in a few places (I haven't used this material or this supplier since, or on any of my other instruments). It would have been possible to repair it, I suppose, but I didn't want one of my instruments out there with a potential problem. Over the last several months in my spare time I removed and replaced all the binding and purfling (except for the fretboard, which didn't have the defective purfling) and stripped the finish. Since this was such an outstanding instrument, I also invested the extra labor to apply a traditional, hand-rubbed varnish finish. The photos and sound clip below demonstrate that the instrument has lost nothing in either looks or sound -- in fact, quite the contrary: the extra effort has been rewarded on both fronts.

I've listed this instrument as "used," even though it's in perfectly new condition. It's priced at $4,950. 48-hour approval, PayPal accepted.

Construction Photos

Construction begins with the joining of the top and back plates with hot hide glue. These joints aren't clamped, but are rather perfectly fitted, then "wiped" to assure full glue contact and allowed to cure. As it cures, the glue penetrates the pores and draws the wood tight together. The inside surfaces of the plates are sanded level. Stock for the ribs is sanded to thickness and ripped to width. Perfectly quartersawn maple displays the most pleasing grain, but is both hard to bend and not very strong in thin applications. For this reason, I laminate a highly figured layer over a non-figured, structurally sound layer. The pieces are bent to shape over heated pipes of

different diameters. The plies are clamped in external forms and glued together with hide glue. The purpose of the rope is to distribute clamping pressure from the edges to the center. When removed from the form, the ribs are strong, perfectly shaped, lightweight, and exhibit beautiful grain.

The ribs are placed in an external form, and mahogany end and corner blocks are shaped and glued in place. The rib assembly is removed from the form and sanded level on a flat abrasive surface. Ivoroid point protectors are shaped and glued into place. Mahogany lining is kerfed on the bandsaw and glued onto the top edge with hot hide glue. The linings are leveled with the ribs.

The top plate is cut to shape. The plate's edge thickness is established on the router table. A shop-built duplicating router takes me to my basic rough profile. The shaping of the exterior of the top is accomplished

with a progression of planes, scrapers, chisels, and ultimately sandpaper. Referring to measurements from past mandolins and to intuition and experience, the graduations for the soundboard are laid out on the inside surface. Thicknessing holes are drilled with a post-and-stop arrangement on the drill press. The inside is shaped first with a plane,

then with scrapers and sandpaper. The thickness is constantly checked with a caliper. The finished graduation, weight, and resonant frequency are recorded for later reference. While I'm still working on a level plane, where I can utilize a Dremel tool in a routing base, I partially cut the binding recess around the scroll area.

The f-holes are marked, roughed out with a fine carbide bit on a router table, then dressed with sandpaper on a variety of forms. The tone bars are fitted to the top and glued in place with hot hide glue. Hot hide glue is applied to the top and to the ribs and allowed to dry, then the parts are clamped together and the glue is reactivated with a jet of steam. The body is removed from the external form.

The next step is to tune the tone bars by shaving them to the proper sizes. This rig compares the deflection of the bass and treble bars under 25 pounds of down pressure, a force that simulates that of the downward pressure of the bridge under the tension of the strings. I'm also checking the tap tones of the bars as well as that of the top. The neck block is extended with a piece of maple. The neck is cut to profile, and a slot is cut for the truss rod. The dovetail joint is cut with the table saw and bandsaw.

The final fitting is done by hand for a strong, tight fit. The "ears" are glued onto the peghead portion of the neck. The profile of the peghead is marked onto the ebony overlay, and the overlay is cut to shape. The binding lines are glued in place, starting from the inside out.

An outer binding of extra thickness is applied to allowed for cutting on the angle of the peghead. The inlay patterns are laid out on mother-of-pearl and abalone blanks, and the inlay is cut to size. The inlay is recessed into the ebony and set into epoxy.

The finished inlay has lots of flash and detail, but is still elegant and tasteful. A jig and the table saw are used to cut matching, tapered slots in neck and fretboard to receive carbon-fiber reinforcing bars. Fret slots are cut on a dedicated radial arm saw. A short piece of carbon-fiber bar is inlet into the peghead to serve as a scroll reinforcement. The truss rod is installed, the adjusting pocket is cut in the peghead overlay, and the overlay is glued to the peghead.

Short pieces are cut from a brass tube. Abalone dots are turned on a lathe to fill the interior of the tubing. The position markers are recessed into the fretboard. Celluloid binding is fitted to the fretboard. The full-length carbon-fiber fretboard stiffeners are glued into the slotted back.

Side position dots are installed. These gold-colored frets are very durable, but can still be worked with standard fretting tools. A tang nipper is used to make clearance for the bindings. The frets are set in a bit of hot hide glue, then seated with a fret press. The headstock is cut to shape with the bandsaw, then dressed up on the spindle sander. This project has gotten pretty big, so I'm going to start a second page in consideration of those with less-than-stellar connection speeds.

Go to page two of this project

All content and graphics © Skipper Custom Instruments