View Full Version : Very Old Family Mandolin

Dec-12-2005, 4:33pm
<img src="http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v25/Switzs7/mandolin1.jpg" alt="Image hosted by Photobucket.com">




This mandolin has been in my family forever! Will stay that way. But wondering about it - any info would be helpful! Also, the center butterfly inlay is cracking. How can I best protect it from getting worse? Thanks for your help in advance! Sue note: the links are for detail shots.

Dec-12-2005, 4:39pm
Sorry - here's the picture of the mandolin...Not quite sure how to work this board. New here! Sue

Dec-12-2005, 4:42pm
I am usually not much into antique instruments, but that is really beautiful. What do you know about it's history?

Dec-12-2005, 5:09pm
You might want to ask Scott to move this thread over to the classical forum. I can't speak for them, but I do know that there are a lot of people here that rarely go to 'other' forums on the site. The classical forum is were you'll get some answers on this roundback..Kerry

Dec-12-2005, 5:59pm
Shall I just email or? Sorry again...just new here! Thank you! Sue

Dec-12-2005, 6:25pm
Sue, why not just ask for the information in the Classical Forum. Kerry said it, there are people in that forum who knows everything about bowlback mandolins.
(Im getting my hands on a bowlback soon, and Im sure going to ask in the Classical Forum about it).


Dec-12-2005, 6:39pm
Thanks! I went over there and posted...I'm excited to hear what people have to say! So glad that someone on eBay discussions guided me here! Sue

Martin Jonas
Dec-12-2005, 6:51pm
I think the regulars from the classical forum are reading this forum as well, actually. This particular mandolin looks Italian to me. The asthetics are broadly Neapolitan, insprired by the Vinaccia style of building, but the actual instrument may also be from Catania in Sicily. Butterfly motifs like this were widely used in Catania as well as Naples in lower-range mandos for either tourist or folk music uses (but also in a few entry-level models from high-class builders!). Catania was a centre for massmarket instrument manufacture, similar to Mittenwald in Germany. Is there a label in the instrument? Some of these are decent instrument, others are unplayable and always have been. Difficult to tell the difference from the photos, although it does look to be well-made. There were literally hundreds of builders who built instruments of very similar visual aesthetics, but vastly different musical value. The proof of the pudding would be to set it up for playing and see whether it comes out nice.

As far a preservation is concerned, clearly it is missing its bridge, and both sets of tuners are damaged beyond repair (shame, because the ebony tuner buttons are really nice, but probably not so easy to take off the posts and reuse). So, you need to get replacements. If the post spacing is the same as on modern tuners, you can put modern replacements in, otherwise you may have to cannibalise a defunct old bowlback (there are plenty on Ebay). The same source may also yield you a replacement bridge, or else you can go for a modern bridge blank. Cafe member dave17120 makes nice reproductions at very reasonable prices.

On balance, though, unless there is a label from a recognised quality builder, restoring and making it playable is not likely to make economic sense -- sentimental value is of course a different matter. As far as preserving it in its current state is concerned, keeping it in a case in a place protected from extremes of temperature and humidity would be a good idea.

Good luck!


Dec-12-2005, 7:23pm
Martin! Wow! Thanks for all that great info. I do have most of the parts tucked away. I just thought someday my son (he's a bass player studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston) may want to actually play this mandolin. But, I worry about letting anyone work on it. Guess I just like to worry! It's a mom thing. There is a paper label inside...it might say Internation, but it is very faded so it's hard to say for sure. Does that help or ring any bells? Sue

Dec-12-2005, 7:36pm
I can only agree with Martin on all points. I would add that if it has any open cracks it is a good idea to have these repaired as soon as possible, in order to maintain the instrument in a stable condition - cracks have a nasty habit of spreading. You're right to be cautious about who to allow to work on your instrument - if your son is a player he should hopefully know a good luthier.
As Martin said, it is very important to avoid extremes of humidity. If winters are dry where you are keep it in it's case with an in-case humidifier (from any music shop) and check the humidifier regularly.
The label sounds like it may be an importer's label - hopefully another cafe member will be able to enlighten you further.
Good luck in identifying it, sorry I couldn't help more.


Dec-12-2005, 7:43pm
Son is in Boston - I'm in California! I do know one guy locally that has a shop, builds guitars as well. I should probably take it to him. I worry most about the butterfly inlay - it is cracking but the rest is quite sound and solid. It just seems fragile to me - the wood is relatively thin. Thanks to all!! Sue

Jim Garber
Dec-12-2005, 9:27pm
Another bowlhead responds...

I was going to answer on the other thread but prob best to keep all the comments together. I am not so sure of the Italian vintage tho it might have some Italian blood. I have a pretty large collection of bowlback jpegs and none match this one exactly.

Antonio Grauso an Italian maker living and working in NY City liked to use that same style of pearl inlay around the soundhole. I have a picture or two of similar checkered pearl around the perimeter. The peghead on sokme Grauso's is similar. However, Grauso usually contoured the end of his fretboard to match the curve of the soundhole. I haven't seen a Grauso with that shaped pickguard either.

The closest I have found was another no-name with a similarly, but not exactly-shaped pickguard. Besar in mind that many of these inlays could be purchased from a catalog and you can find similar inlays on differently branded instruments.

As Martin and Jon noted: the butterfly, for some reason is a very common motif on bowlback mandolins of this period. Nicely symmetrical they also approximate the shape of the symmmetrical pickguard.

So the final answer... who knows.

As to restoring it? A competent luthier will charge probabaly more than the instrinsic value of the instrument. As to sentimental value, that is up to you. It looks like a mid- to lower range instrument and might be nice and playable with pleasing tone. It looks, in general to be in relatively good shape, tho there looks to be a displaced crack on the treble side of the pickguard.

The butterfly and other pickguard inlays can probably be carefully removed and re-inlaid in a new piece of material. You can have a bridge made and find some vintage tuners that fit.

The worst that happens to these might be that they need a neck reset which is probably not worth doing for this level of no-name mandolin.

I lookd fwd to hearing what others will say.


Dec-12-2005, 11:19pm
Just speculation on vague impression from images, but this instrument doesn't strike me as Italian at all. #The butterfly looks more of the ilk of the typical abundant anon. ca. 1900 American mandolins that never seem to be labeled but are all over eBay and in 100-year-old newspaper ads than it looks like the also abundant, period Sicilian stuff with which I am familiar. #That very pattern of pearl in mastic rosette was also very common to American mandolins labeled Galiano, and the alternating black and white borders were really common to many of Oscar Schmidt's brands, Galiano and OS included. #If you could actually get a photo of a portion of the old faded label, it might ring some bells with somebody, Swit7.

It looks to me like the celluloid pickguard is in a more serious state of degradation than the pearl it holds. #As Jim says, if the pearl bits start to fall out, be sure to preserve them in case you ever decide to have new celluloid cut and inset to hold them. #Also as Jim alludes, it is likely that it would cost much more to make this instrument functional than the end result would be worth. #If it becomes a labor of love, I would argue it's still worth it; just don't expect to ever resell and reclaim much of your investment.

Dec-12-2005, 11:50pm
On the label - "International" is what I meant to write! I will try to take pics of it in the daylight tomorrow. Geez...you all sure know your stuff! I am so impressed and thankful for the info! I think I would only pay the big bucks to a luthier if I thought my son would play it. But that's a hard call. Even repaired- wouldn't it be very hard on it to use it too much? Primarily, I love to look at it sitting atop my piano. It really is art. The butterfly repair needs to be done. Thank you all!!! Sue

Bob A
Dec-13-2005, 12:51am
Repair on these instruments is a hard call. The necessary expertise is not common, and the expense can easily be far more than the worth of the instrument. However, sentiment does play a part.

If you do decide to make a player out of it, be aware that bowlback-appropriate strings are not common. You will need to special order them from someplace like juststrings. GHS makes a classical set; there are other, more expensive types available. Regular mandolin strings, made for Gibson-style mandos, will destroy a bowlback in short order.

That said, there are bowlbacks of quality available for reasonable prices, if you wish to go that route. Sometimes real bargains are available; I recently got an exceptional Italian instrument for about $250, which is what you might be spending for repairs. But if this is the one you want, go ahead and get it stabilised, at least. Your luthier may be able to advise you whether it's worth going all the way to playability.

Dec-13-2005, 4:56pm
by the shape of the headstock, I think this mandolin may be made by Vega, They made some for other names, such as Ditson, or it maybe that the Vega label did not survive. It would be 90 or so years old anyway.

Martin Jonas
Dec-13-2005, 5:23pm
by the shape of the headstock, I think this mandolin may be made by Vega, They made some for other names, such as Ditson, or it maybe that the Vega label did not survive. It would be 90 or so years old anyway.
I'm not so sure. From the mark of the bridge on the top, it clearly sat before the cant unlike Vega's placement. That headstock shape is pretty common in Italian instruments: my Vinaccia has virtually the same. It currently being in California points towards an American instrument, but many of those took their design cues directly from the Neapolitan ones anyway. It's all a bit murky -- a photo of the label (however faded) might help a lot.

Valuewise, you've probably gathered the overall tone of scepticism here. In its current condition, well under $100, I'd say. Possibly slightly more if it were indeed a Vega.

Date somewhere between 1900 and 1915, probably.


Dec-13-2005, 5:32pm
There is some similarity between this headstock and some of Vega's entry level pieces, Glen, but I think the similarity ends there. #Vega's more typical headstock features a scrolled hole patterned after Vinaccia and the like. #Butterflies were relatively rare to Vega decor (attached is an image of an exception I own where you can also see the typical Vega bridge position behind the cant), and I can't recall ever having seen a mandolin that could be attributed to Vega with ornamental points on the soundhole side of the scratchplate.

Dec-13-2005, 8:22pm
<img src="http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v25/Switzs7/mandolinin3.jpg" alt="Image hosted by Photobucket.com">


You guys are just phenominal in your knowledge...on 2nd look I think the label says National - I tried to tweek the pictures to make it more readable but just couldn't accomplish it! Thank you all so much for working this over! Sue

Dec-13-2005, 8:24pm

Sorry - forgot how that works! Sue

Dec-13-2005, 10:53pm

Dec-13-2005, 11:30pm
Thank you for posting my pic!!! Brain jam today! Sue

Martin Jonas
Dec-14-2005, 5:59am
Hmmm... You weren't joking when you said that label is faded. #I've never seen ink quite as non-permanent being used on an instrument label.

It does indeed look like "National", and that is rather intriguing. #I wonder whether there could be any connection to the Dopyera family's instruments here. #The "National" brand was used by them for banjos in the mid- 1920s, and shortly afterwards they invented the National Resophonic guitar (and eventually the Dobro, short for "Dopyera Brothers"). #However, this may be an entirely unrelated coincidence. #Your mandolin is clearly older than the mid-1920s, and I haven't been able to find any reference to National Guitars making conventional wooden bowlback mandolins (they did make metal-bodied resonator mandolins, though). #

The Dopyera family did emigrate to the US from Slovakia in 1908, and were said to have had a background in instrument making. #Does anybody know whether they might have introduced the National brand at some stage between 1908 and the mid-1920 banjos I mentioned above? #More likely it's a coincidence of names between entirely unrelated companies, but if it should indeed turn out that your mandolin was made by some pre-cursor of National Guitars, then it might after all have some collectors' value at least as a curiosity: early National Guitars are eminently collectable.

This is what I found on the early history of the Dopyera family:

Joseph Dopyera, whose sons John, Rudy, Emil, Robert and Louis became critical players in the history of American guitars, was a miller in the village of Dolna Krupa, Slovakia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) when he decided to emigrate to the United States in 1908. Like other millers in Slavic eastern Europe, Joseph was a violin maker in the off-season, and he taught his oldest son, John, the art of making violins.

The impetus for emigration was a falling out with the master of the estate on which Joseph was the miller. Ironically, part of the palace at Dolna Krupa now houses the music archives of the Slovak State Museum, and the Music Museum at Trnava (three miles away) houses a permanent exhibit devoted to the work of the Dopyera brothers. Trnava plays host to the annual Dobrofest, where performers from all over the United States and Europe convene with their resophonic instruments to play blues, bluegrass, and Hawaiian music.

The Dopyeras settled in Los Angeles in 1909, and within a few years Joseph opened a cabinet-making and repair shop which also offered instrument-repair services. His two eldest sons, John and Rudy, who both demonstrated a combination of inventiveness and business sense, began manufacturing banjos under the National trademark sometime in the mid 1920s.


Jim Garber
Dec-14-2005, 8:10am
I highly doubt that that is the same National as associated with the Dopyera Brothers. John Dopyera was 15 years aold whne he first came over to the US in 1908. I don;t think that the company that was called National Guitars was formed until 1925.

There was a National Music store even until maybe the 1920s in northern New Jersey and I have had a uke with a decal from there. This looks like it may have been just that: an instrument manufactured for the shop. The label looks like it may have been a piece of paper with a rubber stamp on it. Tho what is puzzling would be why there would not have been more on the label, like address, telephone etc.


Dec-14-2005, 10:14am
The proximity of the National Music Store to Oscar Shmidt, both in New Jersey, is intriguing.

Dec-14-2005, 3:21pm
I only suggested Vega because I had a mandolin banjo neck made by them with the same shape . I also have seen several Vega bowlbacks in my travel and noticed the similar shape on them.

Jim Garber
Dec-14-2005, 3:50pm
No need to apologize. I think many of us do agree that there is a similarity to the Vega headstock. Other aspects of this mandolin do not correspond to Vega. Vega also was fairly consistent in its styles of bowlbacks. Some of the larger Chicago companies, however, made large quantities of instruments under their own name or under others. Therefore, it is always a good bet to ascribe no-name instruments to Chicago companies: Lyon and Healy, Regal, Kay Harmony and the like.

I do like to do the detective work on this. The more I look at these mandolins the less they all look alike.


Dec-14-2005, 4:55pm
Indeed, Glen. I thought your noting the similarity in headstock shape to some Vega pieces was worthy of thorough reply, and I intended no slight in my reply. I appreciated your thoughtful input.

Dec-16-2005, 7:43am
I see NAT?ONL but I have not had my coffee yet http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif

Dec-16-2005, 11:33am
No offense taken and I wasn't apologizing. I learn a lot from these postings. It looks like Vega did some style copying as well. There is not a lot of instruments to look at in Nova Scotia, but I have seen a few old Vega Cylinder backs and Bowlbacks. Original Italian instruments, not common here.

Have a Great Christmas everyone.

Dec-16-2005, 9:30pm
So.....has everyone agreed that we don't know what it is really but it's not terribly valuable and it may be from the early
1900's? Sure has roused a bunch of discussion- I appreciate all your efforts! Sue

Dec-17-2005, 9:04am
Exactly, Sue. I believe it is almost certainly American and possibly by Jersey City's Oscar Schmidt Co., but this latter bit is speculation.

steve V. johnson
Dec-17-2005, 2:55pm
Just out of curiosity...

Do you folks know luthiers in Sue's part of CA who could close those cracks in her mandolin?

Fascinating thread, thanks!


Jim Garber
Dec-17-2005, 3:08pm
What is her part of CA, Steve? I am sure that there is someone competent to do the work. As always, it always depenfs on how much it would cost to do the work.


Dec-17-2005, 3:35pm
San Diego area...I know a guy named Chris Camp out here..think I mentioned earlier - he builds guitars. Don't know anything more than that re: his craftsmanship. It's just hard to part with a family thing, but it's on my New Year "get it done" list!! My Dad recalls that this mandolin may have come from an anitique store (would have been late 50's or very early 60's if that's true) in Virginia now. I thought it had come from my grandparents. Ugh!

Paul Hostetter
Dec-19-2005, 1:09pm
I buy Eugene's guess at Oscar Schmidt. The elongated bowl is part of my reasoning.

Sue - contact me offlist (via the website link below this post) and I'll try and help you with luthiers around San Diego.