I meant to copy this here to the CBOM forum, but have been out of town and neglected to do so until now. You all have my apology.
After seeing one of his 5-course mandocellos for sale in the classifieds, and after noticing he was near Charlottesville, which is only a couple of hours from me, I contacted Ralph Dammann to arrange a visit to his showroom. The idea of a 5-course instrument, with the bottom 4 courses being a mandocello & the top 4 being an octave mandolin (or all 5 being an octave mandolin with a kickin' bass string added) was really intriguing, and the other instruments shown on their website (www.mandocello.org) had me wanting to get my hands on them & test them out ASAP. Fortunately, the holiday week saw me on vacation with the available time to take a mid-week trip down Ralph's way.
The first thing that struck me about Ralph was how responsive he was to email; first impressions are important, and these days that's often via email. Ralph answered many questions before I even arrived. This immediately set me at ease and made my trip planning & arrival at the Dammann farm easy. Upon arrival, Ralph & his assistant/coworker Ray met us at their showroom, which doubles as a studio. If you have seen any of the videos on YouTube of Ralph playing his instruments, this is where they were recorded. As you can guess, it is also where the finished instruments are on display. Ralph & Ray went over the characteristics of many of the instruments they had on hand, from technical stuff like scale length & fret radius to the more aesthetic things like wood selection, possible inlays, varnishes and the like.
I played a number of the instruments in the showroom as Ralph & I chatted. At some point, my son asked Ray if he had ever made a baritone ukulele. Turned out, he had recently begun work on his very first one, so that prompted a trip to the shop. Now, at this point, I could already tell you about the absolute beauty, to both the eyes and ears, that Ralph's instruments embody, but the trip to the shop was truly incredible. It's one thing to see, hold and hear a beautiful finished item, but to see the care that goes into the intricate processes necessary to hand-craft these things one at a time was something else altogether.
While I am relatively new to the mandolin scene, I have long had an interest in two other hobbies that I think have some strong parallels when it comes to craftsmanship, quality and beauty. Namely motorcycles and watches. All three have product lines mass produced in Asia which will generally please the average or beginning user, and all three can also be found in hand-crafted small batches made by skilled craftsmen with a passion for their handiwork. And those who know can always tell you why it's worth it to buy the latter!
Here my sons & I check out an in-process guitar top while Ray explains the tonal qualities of different wood choices & how he shapes tops prior to bracing.
Here Buzz & I learn how Ray braces his tops, how he chooses woods for bracing, shapes & sizes the braces, and why not all species of spruce are created equal. Later we took a look at neck stock & lots of other lumber, but I didn't get a picture of that.
Here we visit the finishing shop where I learn about laying down varnish, more about woods, and get to wonder why Buzz is suddenly bored.
Ralph & Ray source all of their woods locally in the Appalachian foothills of central Virginia. The customization options seem almost endless between the top, sides, back, neck, head, inlays & all the other little pieces & parts. They have some cutters working for them, but sometimes get out there themselves in search of just the right tree, and they will work with each buyer to build exactly what he or she wants. I find the idea of having an instrument that was made by one guy, to my exact specification, from cutting down the tree to handing it to me to play, to be absolutely amazing. The love for what they are making came through in everything Ralph & Ray talked to us about that day. And while their prices are not low ($3-4k), I could immediately see exactly just how "worth it" their instruments are. I cannot wait to have my own, made exactly like I want it - one of a kind. If you're looking to go down register & pick up an octave mandolin or mandocello, I would strongly recommend you check these guys out.