View Full Version : Oliver Ditson Mandolin

Dec-18-2005, 11:15pm

I recently purchased an "Oliver Ditson" A-style flat-back mandolin. See attached photo.

It is solidly made and braced and has a suprisingly nice sound. I am pretty taken by it. I am looking for any information perhaps on the real maker. I understand Ditson was a large music-publishing house, and retail dealer of instruments.

I read that Martin made some mandolins for Ditson, but I doubt if this is such: the tuners, pickguard and other details suggest otherwise. But I don't know much.

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

I'm happy to be a new member of this great forum.

[IMG]http://img19.imagevenue.com/loc262....MG] (http://img19.imagevenue.com/img.php?loc=loc262&image=ab343_135_3596_IMG.JPG)

Dec-18-2005, 11:48pm
Certainly no Martin. Can you post images of the back too?

Dec-19-2005, 12:04am
Well, thanks for the quick response. I knew Martin was a no-go. It sounds like Ditson was kind of the Sam's of its day. Here are photos of the back and tuner plate. Not much to go on but I figure there are some sleuths out there...

[IMG]http://img40.imagevenue.com/loc257....MG] (http://img40.imagevenue.com/img.php?loc=loc257&image=6948e_135_3597_IMG.JPG)
[IMG]http://img16.imagevenue.com/loc186....MG] (http://img16.imagevenue.com/img.php?loc=loc186&image=90596_135_3599_IMG.JPG)

thanks again, I hope these are of some help in deciphering this.

Django Fret
Dec-19-2005, 8:48am
I have a Vega clyinderback that has an Oliver Ditson label in it. I know that Vega made instruments showed up under different names like Wurlitzer, so perhaps it was manufactured by Vega?

I believe that most would still have some identification inside them that lists Vega as the manufacturer, so check to see if you can find something that would help.

Lane Pryce
Dec-19-2005, 9:12am
I had a very nice Oliver Ditson Guanerius style fiddle. They purchased/comissioned instruments of mid to higher quality for distribution with their own lable,mostly in the early 1900's. That particular fiddle was one of the better ones. I found the majority of information re OD online. Lp

Dec-19-2005, 9:41am
My guess would be Vega? http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/rock.gif

Dec-19-2005, 10:28am
Maybe. I think it looks a little more Lyon & Healy-like, in a similar profile to their Leland line.

Jim Garber
Dec-19-2005, 2:41pm
Maybe. #I think it looks a little more Lyon & Healy-like, in a similar profile to their Leland line.
I agree with Professor Eugene. Ditson and Lyon & healy were the same Company tho I believe that Ditson (in Boston) predates the estb of L&H. My first thought was also Leland-like. Leland was theiur flatback line aimed toward orchestras. They even made a piccolo (10.5" scale) that i am provileged to own.


Dec-19-2005, 4:13pm
You guys are amazing. Thanks for all the help. The L+H Leland clue turned up this image from a site that spoke of their piccolo model as well.
Greg Miner describes it on the site.

[IMG]http://img14.imagevenue.com/loc277....MG] (http://img14.imagevenue.com/img.php?loc=loc277&image=93619_LelandMando.jpeg)

The Ditson I have, also has rosewood sides and back, mahogany neck. The finish is quite worn away. The sound is really quite lovely, bright with a terrific midtone and decent bass. I haven't been able to put it down. Okay, except to type.

There is a lot number on the inside of neck end. No reference to any maker. I'll double check it.

Jim Garber
Dec-19-2005, 5:20pm
Check out this Leland piccolo thread (http://www.mandolincafe.net/cgi-bin/ikonboard.cgi?act=ST;f=15;t=16161;hl=leland+piccol o). The first photo are my two Lelands: std and piccolo.


Dec-19-2005, 5:22pm
Gee Eugene, doesn't that look like a Vega headstock...LOL.

Dec-19-2005, 5:27pm
I have a late 20's Vega Mandolin-Banjo that has the same head stock design.

Paul Hostetter
Dec-19-2005, 7:24pm
The connection between Ditson and L&H was direct enough, but they weren't the same company. In 1864, L&H (the actual guys) went from their employ with Ditson in Boston to Chicago to open a store in that burgeoning metropolis to sell Ditson's sheet music. This is a fairly tenuous connection to Ditson already. In 1889, Patrick Healy bought out Lyon (but kept the name) and started to make string instruments.

Here's a decent quick bio (http://www.famousamericans.net/oliverditson/) of Oliver Ditson. It speaks of how he set up a couple of sons in NYC and Philadelphia. The Chicago arrangement with L&H was much less formal.


To the uninitiated, pretty much all flat headstocks look alike, because they're all fairly derivative of a few early ones. To Gibson's legal arm of course, a lot of them look like legal issues to pursue.

Dec-19-2005, 9:55pm
Man, this forum is great. Mando-wonks, for sure. And as if I need another excuse to multi-task at work. So the Leland/L+H connection to my "Ditson" seems the consensus, Vega similarities nothwithstanding?
Last clue: on neck end (inside body) is the number stamped 18508.

Any suggestions of what to do with the finish? It seemed like someone had tried to strip it off. I took off the remainder on the top (only a little beneath the strings) and lemon-oiled the spruce(?). The finish is there on about 3/4 of the Rosewood back. Nothing on the mahogany neck.

Thanks for all the help. Someday, I hope to think I might have been around the forum long enough to offer some advice in return.

Mick Kennedy

Dec-20-2005, 11:02pm
Do you do French polishing? That would probably be my suggestion.

Dec-20-2005, 11:10pm
I have not done any type of finish work on stringed instruments. I've done finishes on furniture, though mostly with penetrating stains, some with varnishes. There are some nice instruction step-by-step sites I have found on the web.

However, do you suggest I remove all of the old finish first? If so, what would be the best method? I have seen some references to 'scraping' off the finish. Is that feasible? I don't know if I have ever stripped an alcohol based finish off furniture before....

Thanks for your continuing help.

Ken Berner
Mar-05-2006, 6:21pm
If I am not mistaken, Ditson was in business from 1834 to about 1944, more (I think) of a disrtibutor than a maker. I do know that C.F. Martin built some guitars for Ditson and I am pretty sure that Vega built banjos, etc. for Ditson. I own a 1921 Vega Style K mandolin banjo with a headstock like your mandolin. I also own a '20s Ditson Victory mandolin banjo, but the headstock is slightly different.

Mar-05-2006, 10:22pm
A whole heap of builders built for Ditson's house brand: Martin, L&H, Vega, etc. I've seen as many Vega mandolins built for Ditson as any.

Mar-05-2006, 11:07pm
Well, just when I was feeling confident about the Ditson/Leland link for this mandolin. Could you post a picture of the banjo headstock for reference? This Ditson, whoever the maker, looks a little rough but has amazing wood mid and low range. In many ways I prefer it to my Gibson A. Strong words? I'd like to find another like it, or better yet a mandola out of the same series.



Martin Jonas
Mar-06-2006, 5:07am
I should also say that if the bridge position on those photos is correct, it's probably a Vega: as far as I know, Vega were the only maker who designed their mandolins so that the bridge sits behind the cant. However, some other instruments have warped to the extent that their owners had to push the bridge over the cant to achieve reasonable intonation/action (probably in vain).


Ken Berner
Mar-06-2006, 2:48pm
Mick, I do not have a digital camera so I cannot offer a photo, but the peghead of your mandolin is identical to that of my Vega mandolin banjo. I would feel comfortable, believing that the mandolin was built by Vega.

Jim Garber
Mar-06-2006, 5:27pm
How about a side-by-side comparison. Left, your Ditson; right my Leland. You can see the similarities and the differences. Headstock, fretboard end, pickguard, soundhole, similar in shape. The overall body shape is different and the Vega connection could be correct based on the position of the cant which would require the bridge to be positioned below it.


There is some connection here for sure, but what it is, I am not sure.


Jim Garber
Mar-06-2006, 5:37pm
Here's something else to add to the fire. This is a Vega flatback, different headstock but rounder body and similar inj other ways. It is difficult to tell from the angle exactly what the shape of the body is tho.


Mar-06-2006, 9:28pm
Well, it seems like the tide is turning. The neck is perfectly true and the intonation is just right with the bridge where it is.....so the Vega bridge position clues seem to offer something here. Jim, the Vega (and Leland) flatback definitely is rounder than my Ditson, the foreshortening in the photo would only suggest an even rounder shape when viewed frontally. Not that that changes anything.

The back had a pretty dark finish coat, but where is has come off it appears to be walnut from my guess, it could be rosewood given the extra figure in it but I don't think so. The sides, also heavily varnished seem like either walnut or rosewood as well. I couldn't see why someone would put such a dark stain on such nice woods-certainly not on rosewood. Maybe the finish has darkened on its own with age.

I have an old 'Concertone' flatback that has a pretty nice faux-finish rosewood grain painting on it. I've seen some Stellas recently on ebay with the same faux-finish. I have to admit I kinda like the way it looks, kind of cheesy but remininscent of a lot of furniture finishes from an earlier day. It actually plays and sounds pretty decent. Not that I am going to drag it out for a concert any time soon.

thanks for the ongoing help.


Bill Snyder
Mar-10-2006, 10:57pm
Why would you put lemon oil on an instrument?

Mar-10-2006, 11:46pm

I guess I'm dropping back a few posts to answer your question.

The finish on the Ditson had been semi-stripped/worn off, so most of it was back to raw wood. I was looking for something to put some moisture back in the wood without sealing it or finishing it until I figured out what was best to do. I do a lot of woodworking and furniture refinishing. I've used lemon oil as a fairly neutral wood treatment that has allowed me to use various other finishes later: penetrating oils and varnishes without complication. I guess I figured it might be appropriate for the unfinished or bared spruce on some of my mandolins. I have a couple of MOR Italian mandolins which have little or no finish on the tops. They arrived really really dry and the lemon oil has only helped the wood and the top vibration. So far, no identifiable problems.

Have you had problems with this oil on instrument woods? What am I missing here, or doing wrong from your experience?



Apr-24-2007, 8:04pm
Perhaps a long standing (at least for me) mystery has some new light shed on it. I found these images of a Brilliantone/Leland flatback which very closely resembles the Ditson-marketed model I queried the MC about over a year ago.

Similar features include: basic body profile, rosewood back and sides, similar fretboard extension and headstock shape. The scratchplate is shaped similarly and decaying similarly. Mine is looking pretty ratty but the top is still fine and it sounds great.

I think I've got it now, finally. I've learned a lot and met a lot of nice folks in the meantime. Thanks for all the help.