Custom F-5 Mandolin #41 174


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

This custom instrument goes to a Baltimore-area customer, and it is presentation grade from headstock to end pin. A red spruce top is mated with a blistered maple back and sides. Tortoise celluloid binding with a white purfling line highlights the whole, and intricate inlay provides further accents. The color -- chosen by the customer -- is unusual, and one that didn't originally appeal to me; now that it's finished, though, I think it's possibly the most striking mandolin I've ever seen. The gray-to-black sunburst is difficult to capture in photographs, and almost makes the photos seem black-and-white. Waverly satin silver tuning machines are matched by an engraved James satin silver tailpiece. The ebony finger rest is subtle but classy, and the white/black bound f-holes make the entire pattern visually complete. Paua abalone block position markers assure that no part of this mandolin are anything less than remarkable.

Did I mention sound? This thing roars, right off the bench. A big chop and woody bass are complemented by a bell-like upper range, and the mids are full and throaty -- and it will only get better. Though this wasn't my last instrument before retirement, it's the last one I finished. A strong and pleasing ending note.


Construction Photos

The build begins with the selection of wood -- in this case blistered maple and red spruce -- and the joining of the plates with hot hide glue. A neck blank is also glued up from the same billet of maple. Strips are ripped and sanded to form the ribs.

The ribs are bent over a hot pipe until they'll rest easliy within the external form without clamps or pressure to keep them in place. Mahogany neck, point, and end blocks are fitted and glued into place. The completed rib assembly is sent through the drum sander to trim the ribs to a consistent, level height. Mahogany lining is cut to shape and kerfed on the bandsaw, then glued to the ribs with hot hide glue.

Tapered scraps are affixed to the top with double-sided tape to provide a level, non-rocking platform while the plate is cut. The shape is marked onto the plates, and they're cut on the bandsaw. When the glue has dried on the kerfed lining, the ribs are again sent through the sander to trim the lining flush with the sides. The scroll is marked onto the rib assembly.

It's removed from the form for cutting. The plates' edge thickness is established on the router table. A power plane is utilized to hog off excess wood before carving begins. The plates are roughly carved on a shop-built duplicating router. A really nasty sap stain that appeared on the back plate when I removed excess wood disappears just as quickly on the carver. Sometimes--though not often--I'm lucky.

The process is repeated with the top plate. Thicknessing guide holes are drilled near the exterior of the top plate. Final carving begins with establishing the depth of the recurve. Then the center arching and the scroll are refined with scrapers and gouges.

When the outside is shaped to my satisfaction, I turn my attention inward. A "map" of the graduation is sketched on the inside of the top, and thicknessing holes are again drilled. Wood is removed first with a plane, then with scrapers, and finally with sandpaper.

As I approach my target, I begin checking thickness, tap tone, and weight. At this point I'm not tuning, but rather making sure that I'm within parameters that will allow proper tuning at a later point. The f-holes are marked and cut on the router table, then cleaned up with sandpaper. I'm not concerned here with perfection, because the holes will be enlarged later as part of the tuning process.

The red spruce tone bars are perfectly fitted to the top, then glued in place with hot hide glue. Celluloid point protectors are fabricated and fitted to the points, then shaped on the spindle sander. Hot hide glue is applied to the mating surfaces of top and ribs and allowed to dry. Then the parts are clamped together, and the glue is reactivated with a jet of steam.

The overhanging edges of the top are trimmed flush with the sides. The top is tuned by shaving the tone bars while checking the amount of deflection of each bar under a load, and by analyzing the tap tone of the bars on a program designed for that purpose. The back linings are kerfed and glued into place with hot hide glue.

A maple extension is glued to the neck block. The truss rod slot is cut into the neck blank. The dovetail joint is cut into the neck block on the table saw. The profile is marked onto the neck blank. The joint is roughly cut with the bandsaw, then finished by hand for a perfect fit.

The end of the truss rod slot is plugged with a scrap of maple. The headstock ears are glued onto the neck blank. The headstock overlay is cut from an ebony blank on the bandsaw, and the shape is refined by sanding. The two-ply celluloid binding is applied in layers, the white first followed by the tortoise.

When the binding is complete, it's wrapped in long rubber bands and allowed to cure overnight. The individual shapes of the inlay pattern are traced onto paper, and the paper is glued to mother-of-pearl and abalone blanks. The interior portions of the pieces are cut first, then the outer lines.

The individual pieces are placed on a piece of felt to await the cutting of the recesses. An ebony fretboard blank is slotted and cut to profile. The block inlay shapes are laid out on the surface. The rubber bands are removed from the headstock overlay, and the binding is scraped flush with the ebony. The inlay shapes are marked onto the overlay, and the recesses are carefully routed.

Each piece is checked for fit as the routing continues. The fine "wire" lines are set into the ebony. Then the whole of the inlay is set in epoxy mixed with ebony dust. The following day, the overlay is sanded level. The abalone block inlays are cut and marked onto the fretboard, then inset into the ebony.

These straight-line inlay pieces fit so tightly that rather than being set in epoxy and wood dust, the pieces are outlined with a black Sharpie, and then super-thin cyanocrylic glue is wicked into the edges. Then the fretboard is scraped level. The fretboard is cut to its final shape, and the binding is applied in layers, white followed by tortoise. The fretboard is wrapped in rubber bands while the glue cures. The neck is cut precisely to the shape of the fretboard.

Matching slots are cut in fretboard and neck to receive carbon fiber reinforcing bars. The fretboard is routed for the side purfling, and the purfling is glued in place. Mother of pearl dots are turned on the lathe and installed as side position markers. A few spots of caulking are applied to the truss rod before it's installed to assure there will be no rattles.

The truss rod is installed, and a filler strip is glued in over top. A flat-bottomed hole is drilled partially through the weakest spot on the peghead scroll, and a plug is turned and glued into the hole with the grain perpindicular to that of the peghead's. The peghead is thicknessed on the spindle sander. A pocket for the truss rod adjustment is cut in the peghead overlay, and the overlay is glued to the peghead with a thin layer of white between.

This project is getting pretty large for slower Internet connections, so I'm starting a second page.

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