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Thread: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

  1. #1
    Registered User 3rdegree's Avatar
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    Default Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    Hello fellow Cafe friends and Happy New Year.

    My wife and I travelled over the holidays to New Orleans and San Antonio before stopping in Austin for a few days. I had reached out to Ellis Mandolins to inquire about a tour a few weeks ago, which they were happy to oblige. I called Tom on Friday morning and he said to stop by any time.

    We arrived to a beautiful Craftsman house and yard filled with live oak trees. Tom came out from the shop in the back and greeted us, welcoming us into the shop. I didn't realize they were closed for the day and felt bad that Tom was spending precious time off showing us around. That didn't stop me from speed walking into the shop however!

    The first room was where they set up the inlays for cutting (Tom also owns Precision Pearl which does mother of pearl and abalone inlay work for most of the acoustic instrument manufacturer's in the country) and this room also had a wall full of extras from just about every name in the business.

    The next room he showed us was in a different building and housed all the CNC machines that did the cutting as well as rooms housing some newly acquired lathes, drills and machining equipment. He said this was just a new hobby but had been experimenting with creating tuners specifically for mandolin. Interesting! Another room held neck and body blanks among lots of other things he said used to be in the machine shop room. We also met a couple of the shop cats, curled up in their baskets and purring contently.

    Tom then took us back to the main building and once through the set up room we had already been in we were in the main shop area which was where the assembly and fine work was done. I was hoping to see Pava slaving over some new F models but she was also off for the day. I did get to see a few new Pava F's in production in a rack overhead however as well as several fronts and backs laid out on the bench. Tom informed me that he gets first crack at these for Ellis mando's and Pava the rest although he admitted sometimes he sees a beautiful finished Pava and wonders how that blank slipped past him!

    I also saw a new Pava oval A in production which Tom said they debuted at a folk event to rave reviews recently. We talked about the differences in their production, varnish vs. lacquer, tuners, tailpieces and all things mando. It was awesome and my wife's eyes only glazed over occasionally. We also had the pleasure of meeting Tom's son who was celebrating his 2 year anniversary of working at the shop.

    We talked for a bit about my desire to have a left handed F model made that was strung for a right handed player. (I play upside down) It didn't take long for him to assure me that he couldn't do it since all the jigs, forms, etc. were set up only for right handed instruments and recalled how long it took just to build a form for left handed neck extensions when they did some left handed Ellis A models. My wife seemed relived that we wouldn't be spending $10k on a mandolin only myself and Shin Akimoto could play!

    Tom then showed us the room where they mill custom necks, headstocks and the body blanks for themselves and others. Very interesting. He showed us how the mando top and backs are created, then sanded down to a specific micron across the blank. I found it very interesting how Tom described how these tops and backs begin to vibrate and "jump to life" in their hands while being sanded as they reach the correct thickness. Also in this room were the jigs for hand routing of the neck joints and the forms for making the sides.

    Last stop was where the necks had binding and frets added. A cool thing they do is use the CNC machine to cut the fret groove through part of the neck but not all the way to the edges. They bind it and then finish the cut so as to avoid having to dig glue out of the groove. Tom said doing it this way saves about an hour's labor on each neck. Pretty cool!

    This great insight into the building and assembly of mandolins was a real treat but then Tom mentioned something about his Loar and that's when things got REAL exciting! I said "you have a Loar?" and he said I have TWO, let me go get them from the house. Tom returned with his 1925 Loar which was the last of the line, built before the Christmas break and hanging on the line when Loar returned after the holidays and was fired. Thus this model does not bear his signature. It was in very fine shape and played well, definitely had that Loar sound, the Virzi was still on board. Tom described the work that had been done to it such as tuners and a fret job here and there.

    The second Loar belonged to a customer (I don't recall the name but he was a pro player) but it was a 1924 and completely original. While the sound was nice, it wasn't quite up to Tom's and it was very difficult to play. Kudos to him for being able to play this model professionally! The action was very high and difficult to fret. Tom said they were going to be working on all that and probably a fret job and fingerboard I think.

    While that was super fun, the real treat was getting to play Tom's personal Ellis F. I had only played two of them before, one at Carter and one at Nashville Mando camp. While those were very fine mandolins as I recall, I was a fairly new player and didn't know much about mandolins or even anything about the top builders. This was a great mando that was very similar in play and tone to the '25 Loar but with a deeper and richer tone. I said I felt like it hadn't even opened up yet and Tom admitted he hadn't had much time to play it but that he agreed.

    Tom then took my 1984 Flatiron A for a spin and gave me his thoughts on it. While he really liked it he admitted that there were some tones on it he didn't care for but which were highly sought after by lots of players. I didn't understand what he meant but then he explained that's just his ear and opinion and he wants his mandolin's to sound a certain way, a way that sounds pleasing to him and not necessarily what everyone else thinks is a great tone (although I think we'd all agree Ellis' have a great tone)

    As we woke the shop cats one last time to say goodbye, Tom walked us out. He described what Austin was like 40 years ago as well as the land we stood on. He explained the ball moss on the trees to my wife as we thanked him for spending his time off with us. Just as he had done several times during our visit, he mentioned he would have probably just gotten around to organizing his magazines, which would actually have meant spending the day reading magazines. As he had mentioned in each room, he had plenty of projects and things to get around to, but Tom seemed content doing one thing at a time in his own way, to his own standards and his own satisfaction.

    I think that is what stuck with me about my visit as we pulled out of the gate. While I learned a lot about how a mandolin is put together, I also learned why someone puts a mandolin together. I don't think you'd find many builders who do it for the fortune or fame and yet they continue to assemble these instruments we love. I certainly have a new level of respect of what goes into making a mandolin and can say for sure that the personality of the creator is just as important as the wood or parts.

    Thank you Mr. Ellis for opening your shop to us and for giving me a deeper understanding of the instrument I love to play. Also for your permission to post this on the Cafe. I hope you all enjoyed this post and that my dear friend, bandmate and fellow mandolinist Peter Fand of Cirque du Soleil who is currently touring in Australia will share his experiences when he visits Steve Gilchrist and his shop in a couple of weeks! I'd love to hear all about it. Cheers.

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    2017 Collings MT2
    July 1923 Gibson F2
    2015 Weber Yellowstone 2-Point Octave
    1984 Flatiron A5-2
    2008 Gibson Jam Master A "Skeeter"
    1952 Martin A Oval
    1912 Martin Bowlback
    1915 Washburn Bowlback
    1910's Lyon and Healy Bowlback
    2-1900's European Bowlback's

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  3. #2
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    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

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    2017 Collings MT2
    July 1923 Gibson F2
    2015 Weber Yellowstone 2-Point Octave
    1984 Flatiron A5-2
    2008 Gibson Jam Master A "Skeeter"
    1952 Martin A Oval
    1912 Martin Bowlback
    1915 Washburn Bowlback
    1910's Lyon and Healy Bowlback
    2-1900's European Bowlback's

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    2017 Collings MT2
    July 1923 Gibson F2
    2015 Weber Yellowstone 2-Point Octave
    1984 Flatiron A5-2
    2008 Gibson Jam Master A "Skeeter"
    1952 Martin A Oval
    1912 Martin Bowlback
    1915 Washburn Bowlback
    1910's Lyon and Healy Bowlback
    2-1900's European Bowlback's

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    Registered User George R. Lane's Avatar
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    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    A great way to spend the day.
    2010 Weber Yellowstone

    I maybe wrong, but it is highly doubtful.

  8. #5
    Loarcutus of MandoBorg DataNick's Avatar
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    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    AWESOME Review and pics Brian!

    First class and detailed all the way!

    I'm having some challenges but still plan to be at the Great48 next week...Best to Nancy!
    1994 Gibson F5L Fern


    "Mandolin brands are a guide, not gospel! I don't drink koolaid and that Emperor is naked!"
    "If you wanna get soul Baby, you gots to get the scroll..."
    "I would rather play music anyday for the beggar, the thief, and the fool!"
    "Perfection is not attainable; but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence" Vince Lombardi
    Playing Style: RockMonRoll Desperado Bluegrass Desperado YT Channel

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    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    Thanks Nick, I appreciate it! I sure hope you can make it to 48, the Monroe Doctrine won't be the same without you and I've been working hard to get ready this year!
    2017 Collings MT2
    July 1923 Gibson F2
    2015 Weber Yellowstone 2-Point Octave
    1984 Flatiron A5-2
    2008 Gibson Jam Master A "Skeeter"
    1952 Martin A Oval
    1912 Martin Bowlback
    1915 Washburn Bowlback
    1910's Lyon and Healy Bowlback
    2-1900's European Bowlback's

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    Registered User Charles E.'s Avatar
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    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    That was great, thanks!
    Charley

    A bunch of stuff with four strings

  12. #8

    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    Great pics and post. Thanks!
    the billyhawks http://www.thebillyhawks.com

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    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    Plenty of fun details, thanks.
    THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE JUST FOR YOUR SMILE!

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    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    Thanks for the great summary. That's a shop I'd love to visit, great folks there. And your summary has only heightened the interest I have in the Ellis A5 or one of the Pavas at Carter's Vintage (thanks a lot. . . ).
    Michigan Triple A's: Northfield, Nugget/Collings, Newson

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    Registered User J.Sloan's Avatar
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    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    Great story....thanks for sharing it!!
    "Long time listener, first time caller"....

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    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    Great thread ! I too have visited Tom at his shop and I am a proud owner of an Ellis A and F5. Tom is a fantastic person and his instruments are fabulous.
    My two favorite pastimes are drinking wine and playing the mandolin but most of my friends would rather hear me drink wine! Adapted from quote by Mark Twain

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    Henry Lawton hank's Avatar
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    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    I would like to raise a glass of respect to the fine individuals like Tom Ellis that have traveled the full length of this Rabbit hole and survived to come back and share the bliss with us unenlightened pick slingers. Thank you for showing us what a mortal man can do with a will like yours to make a better mandolin. I strive not to be envious but I have to admit I'm drooling at your adventure 3rd degree. Thank you both for entertaining us voyeurs of all things that reveal the magick of MANDOLINING.
    "A sudden clash of thunder, the mind doors burst open, and lo, there sits old man Buddha-nature in all his homeliness."
    CHAO-PIEN

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  19. #14

    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    I agree with everyone here. Great report on the shop of one of the finest makers in the business - and by this and all other reports, a lovely guy.

  20. #15
    Registered User John Soper's Avatar
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    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    Kudos: A great trip, great and informative post & great pictures.

  21. #16
    Troy Shellhamer 9lbShellhamer's Avatar
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    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    This was wonderfully written! Great write up! How cool...

  22. #17
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    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    I visited in October and while Tom installed a pickguard on my Pava Pro, Pava took me on a tour of the shop. A wonderful property, and every person in the shop was super friendly. I enjoyed my visit very much!
    Rich
    2016 Blonde Pava Pro #197

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    Registered User Ivan Kelsall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    Many thanks for one of the best 'workshop visit' posts ever on the Cafe (IMHO) & of course the photos. I'm a great admirer of Tom's work.
    For me,he's in the top 5 of the builders that we all aknowlege to be 'the best' (to use a phrase). There's one of Tom's ''darkburst'' F5 mandolins for sale in the classified ads.that's simply awesome !!!,
    Ivan
    Weber F-5 'Fern'.
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    Tokai - 'Tele-alike'.
    Ellis DeLuxe "A" style.

  24. #19
    Middle-Aged Old-Timer Tobin's Avatar
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    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    Great writeup and photos! I had a similar experience a couple of years ago when I visited Tom's shop, and I think anyone who has been there will agree. Tom's shop setup is pretty cool yet still very down-to-earth. It's basically a home shop operation, since he lives right there on the property, and it's nicely tucked away behind a quaint-looking gate that no one would ever guess is the gateway to a world-class operation. Tom and Pava are great people who love what they do and make you feel welcome. I love that they will share everything about how they build, as well as show the new stuff they're working on (when I was there, Tom was still developing his inlaid tuner buttons). Tom let me pick a little on his unsigned Loar when I was there too, although I was too shy to "go to town" on it.

  25. #20
    Registered User Reinhardt's Avatar
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    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    Fantastic thread and great photos. Thanks a million for that. I love seeing pics of workshops like that. I've had the privilege of being in Irish Luthier, Joe Foley's workshop a few times. You just cant beat the smell of wood, glue and varnish. Beats Chanel No 5 anytime!!

    John

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    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    Quote Originally Posted by 3rdegree View Post
    Hello fellow Cafe friends and Happy New Year.

    My wife and I travelled over the holidays to New Orleans and San Antonio before stopping in Austin for a few days. I had reached out to Ellis Mandolins to inquire about a tour a few weeks ago, which they were happy to oblige. I called Tom on Friday morning and he said to stop by any time.

    We arrived to a beautiful Craftsman house and yard filled with live oak trees. Tom came out from the shop in the back and greeted us, welcoming us into the shop. I didn't realize they were closed for the day and felt bad that Tom was spending precious time off showing us around. That didn't stop me from speed walking into the shop however!

    The first room was where they set up the inlays for cutting (Tom also owns Precision Pearl which does mother of pearl and abalone inlay work for most of the acoustic instrument manufacturer's in the country) and this room also had a wall full of extras from just about every name in the business.

    The next room he showed us was in a different building and housed all the CNC machines that did the cutting as well as rooms housing some newly acquired lathes, drills and machining equipment. He said this was just a new hobby but had been experimenting with creating tuners specifically for mandolin. Interesting! Another room held neck and body blanks among lots of other things he said used to be in the machine shop room. We also met a couple of the shop cats, curled up in their baskets and purring contently.

    Tom then took us back to the main building and once through the set up room we had already been in we were in the main shop area which was where the assembly and fine work was done. I was hoping to see Pava slaving over some new F models but she was also off for the day. I did get to see a few new Pava F's in production in a rack overhead however as well as several fronts and backs laid out on the bench. Tom informed me that he gets first crack at these for Ellis mando's and Pava the rest although he admitted sometimes he sees a beautiful finished Pava and wonders how that blank slipped past him!

    I also saw a new Pava oval A in production which Tom said they debuted at a folk event to rave reviews recently. We talked about the differences in their production, varnish vs. lacquer, tuners, tailpieces and all things mando. It was awesome and my wife's eyes only glazed over occasionally. We also had the pleasure of meeting Tom's son who was celebrating his 2 year anniversary of working at the shop.

    We talked for a bit about my desire to have a left handed F model made that was strung for a right handed player. (I play upside down) It didn't take long for him to assure me that he couldn't do it since all the jigs, forms, etc. were set up only for right handed instruments and recalled how long it took just to build a form for left handed neck extensions when they did some left handed Ellis A models. My wife seemed relived that we wouldn't be spending $10k on a mandolin only myself and Shin Akimoto could play!

    Tom then showed us the room where they mill custom necks, headstocks and the body blanks for themselves and others. Very interesting. He showed us how the mando top and backs are created, then sanded down to a specific micron across the blank. I found it very interesting how Tom described how these tops and backs begin to vibrate and "jump to life" in their hands while being sanded as they reach the correct thickness. Also in this room were the jigs for hand routing of the neck joints and the forms for making the sides.

    Last stop was where the necks had binding and frets added. A cool thing they do is use the CNC machine to cut the fret groove through part of the neck but not all the way to the edges. They bind it and then finish the cut so as to avoid having to dig glue out of the groove. Tom said doing it this way saves about an hour's labor on each neck. Pretty cool!

    This great insight into the building and assembly of mandolins was a real treat but then Tom mentioned something about his Loar and that's when things got REAL exciting! I said "you have a Loar?" and he said I have TWO, let me go get them from the house. Tom returned with his 1925 Loar which was the last of the line, built before the Christmas break and hanging on the line when Loar returned after the holidays and was fired. Thus this model does not bear his signature. It was in very fine shape and played well, definitely had that Loar sound, the Virzi was still on board. Tom described the work that had been done to it such as tuners and a fret job here and there.

    The second Loar belonged to a customer (I don't recall the name but he was a pro player) but it was a 1924 and completely original. While the sound was nice, it wasn't quite up to Tom's and it was very difficult to play. Kudos to him for being able to play this model professionally! The action was very high and difficult to fret. Tom said they were going to be working on all that and probably a fret job and fingerboard I think.

    While that was super fun, the real treat was getting to play Tom's personal Ellis F. I had only played two of them before, one at Carter and one at Nashville Mando camp. While those were very fine mandolins as I recall, I was a fairly new player and didn't know much about mandolins or even anything about the top builders. This was a great mando that was very similar in play and tone to the '25 Loar but with a deeper and richer tone. I said I felt like it hadn't even opened up yet and Tom admitted he hadn't had much time to play it but that he agreed.

    Tom then took my 1984 Flatiron A for a spin and gave me his thoughts on it. While he really liked it he admitted that there were some tones on it he didn't care for but which were highly sought after by lots of players. I didn't understand what he meant but then he explained that's just his ear and opinion and he wants his mandolin's to sound a certain way, a way that sounds pleasing to him and not necessarily what everyone else thinks is a great tone (although I think we'd all agree Ellis' have a great tone)

    As we woke the shop cats one last time to say goodbye, Tom walked us out. He described what Austin was like 40 years ago as well as the land we stood on. He explained the ball moss on the trees to my wife as we thanked him for spending his time off with us. Just as he had done several times during our visit, he mentioned he would have probably just gotten around to organizing his magazines, which would actually have meant spending the day reading magazines. As he had mentioned in each room, he had plenty of projects and things to get around to, but Tom seemed content doing one thing at a time in his own way, to his own standards and his own satisfaction.

    I think that is what stuck with me about my visit as we pulled out of the gate. While I learned a lot about how a mandolin is put together, I also learned why someone puts a mandolin together. I don't think you'd find many builders who do it for the fortune or fame and yet they continue to assemble these instruments we love. I certainly have a new level of respect of what goes into making a mandolin and can say for sure that the personality of the creator is just as important as the wood or parts.

    Thank you Mr. Ellis for opening your shop to us and for giving me a deeper understanding of the instrument I love to play. Also for your permission to post this on the Cafe. I hope you all enjoyed this post and that my dear friend, bandmate and fellow mandolinist Peter Fand of Cirque du Soleil who is currently touring in Australia will share his experiences when he visits Steve Gilchrist and his shop in a couple of weeks! I'd love to hear all about it. Cheers.

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    I noticed in your thread that you mentioned your band mate Peter Fand ! I love his playing especially his rendition of Bury Me beneath the Willows !
    My two favorite pastimes are drinking wine and playing the mandolin but most of my friends would rather hear me drink wine! Adapted from quote by Mark Twain

  27. #22

    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    I spent a few hours in Tom's shop too,but it was about 20 years ago. No mandolins being made at that time. I think he told me he had made a couple of mandolins but was concentrating on banjos(?) and cutting pearl.
    As I recall he had recruited some family members to help with that.

    When I was there I brought along a Gilchrist F5 that I owned for a while. I asked him if he planned on making any mandolins and as I recall he didn't seem interested in doing so. He did show some interest in the Gilchrist.
    Maybe that helped inspire him to start making mandos. ?

    Toward the end of my visit I recall Tom started getting the family ready to go catch a sunset. There's a man with priorities.

  28. #23
    Loarcutus of MandoBorg DataNick's Avatar
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    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    Quote Originally Posted by V70416 View Post
    ...When I was there I brought along a Gilchrist F5 that I owned for a while. I asked him if he planned on making any mandolins and as I recall he didn't seem interested in doing so. He did show some interest in the Gilchrist.
    Maybe that helped inspire him to start making mandos. ?

    It was Pava who primed the pump to get him making mandolins again.

    1994 Gibson F5L Fern


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  30. #24
    Registered User Ivan Kelsall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    I contacted Tom when i bought my 'used' Ellis "A" style. I just wanted a bit of info.,but in his reply,he did mention that he'd made 25 banjos which really surprised me.

    Thanks for posting the YouTube clip Nick. I was going to post it. In it,Tom does say that it was Pava who got him back building mandolins. Obviously,a lady of her talent would have known of Tom's reputation as a great mandolin builder & to see it not being used,i'm sure that it didn't seem right to her. So,there will be quite a few folks who owe Pava a debt for getting Tom back building his awesome mandolins - me for one !,
    Ivan
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  32. #25
    Middle-Aged Old-Timer Tobin's Avatar
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    Default Re: Inside the Ellis and Pava Workshop

    Quote Originally Posted by Ivan Kelsall View Post
    I contacted Tom when i bought my 'used' Ellis "A" style. I just wanted a bit of info.,but in his reply,he did mention that he'd made 25 banjos which really surprised me.
    You know, when I was at his shop in 2014, I do remember seeing a neck hanging on the wall next to a couple of others that were in the build process. I think it was a banjo neck, but my memory is a bit fuzzy on it at this point, since it was just something I noticed in passing. I do remember thinking it was a bit odd to see a non-mandolin Ellis instrument in the works, but I was so overwhelmed by everything there that I forgot to ask.

    Dang, that's all I need: a hankering for an Ellis banjo.

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