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Thread: Are There Any New Bowlbacks...

  1. #1
    Registered User Onesound's Avatar
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    I was wondering if there are any builders making new bowlbacks that are comparable in quality to the better insturments from the late 1800 and early 1900s? Who might they be? # Which begs another question: Do well constructed bowlbacks "age in" (ie. get better in tone over time and playing) like certain carved top and back mandolins?
    Cheers,

    Brian

    Angels don't play harps, they play mandolins

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    Let's see, there are a bunch of bowlbackers in the eye candy section, all of whom are active makers. Daniel Larson makes concert-class instruments akin to the best of the old Vegas, Pandini in Italy is certainly top-notch, though his instruments are perhaps a it more heavily-built than the early Italian bowlbacks. (This is a difficult and subjective area: I have some very delicately-constructed instruments from the 1890s, but I also have a Calace from 1922 that is certainly as stoutly-built as you will find. Which is better? Why, both, of course).

    The Calace firm is still in business, and makes a whole range of mandolins: Victor Kioulaphides, on vacation from the board, has one made a year or two ago that he finds worthy. Some feel the standards have not been maintained to the level of the original Raffaele Calace - I'm not in a position to judge.

    The instruments made by the Embergher shop were being produced under that label until 1962; Pasquale Pecoraro, who was perhaps the principal luthier of the shop at that time, went on to make very similar instruments until his death in the 1980s. By all accounts, those instruments were pretty similar to those of the earlier years. The Embergher tradition is being carried on today in Japan by a luthier who inherited Pecoraro's tools.

    The Greeks are active in bowled instruments: while the details of design and construction are not identical to the Italian school, the instruments are very good.

    The Germans make a different sort of bowlback: larger and heavier, made to be strung with Thomastik strings, and sounding rather more guitar-like than the Italians. Seiffert made excellent concert mandolins; Alfred Woll is a maker of some renown.

    When you get into the area of "better instruments" it can get tricky. Some of my favorite bowlbacks from the early years were never "better" instruments - they were lightly-constructed mandolins, remarkably lightweight in fact, and were definitely lower-end folk instruments. It is a tribute to their owners that they have survived, and they bring me great pleasure. I suspect they do not have the carrying power to function as concert-hall instruments, but they're perfect for what they were made for, playing in my living room. I also have a very ornate Ceccherini, which has a pleasant sound, but is too encrusted with silver, pearl, ivory etc to be a concert instrument. It was obviously made for a well-to-do player, not a concert performer. It is a Better instrument, but will never be replicated today; to say nothing of the forbidden materials, the labor involved would make it economically unfeasible to reproduce, although there exist luthiers who could perhaps copy it, on commission. But on the whole it would be easier and far cheaper to find another one of the period than to commission a copy.

    I believe there is a movement afoot in Europe to train luthiers to make Embergher-style instruments to the standards of that studio; I have not yet heard of any on the market.

    I think that the matter of ageing or breaking in is not quite so problematic as with the much heavier Gibson-style instruments. A bowlback will certainly need to age and be played as it comes into its own, but I think that it would not take nearly so long for an instrument to arrive at a mature condition. Off the top of my head, I'd venture a five-year "drying out and playing in" time, before the instrument reaches its maximum. But I may be erring on the pessimistic side here; all I have to go on is my own heavily-topped Greek bowlback.

    All this is not Gospel, you understand; there are lots more knowledgeable folk hereabouts who have more info than I do, and doubtless many more builders extant than I have mentioned.




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    About the aging of a mandolin, I agree with Bob. I don't think the mandolin is an instrument that ages well, particularly with the 19th/20th century ones, with the steel strings. I've saw many instruments bent like bows because of these strings. It's quite rare to see a good vintage mandolin.

    For the actual luthiers, I can speak of Calace, almost everybody in our orchestra and in Italy play on Calace's mandolin. The quality is not as good as it used to be a few years ago. This workshop is doing very well with dozen and dozen instruments made per month, many of them made for japanese players. The pieces are made in Sicily, the assembly in Naples. And I guess that this tremendous rate is not good for the finish of the instruments. I saw once the inside of a Classico A and it's not very clean...

    Anyway, if you know the flaws of their design, (for example on the Classico A, the ugly squared frets and the fretboard not parallel with the strings) and make a luthier correct them, you'll have one of the best, if not the best mandolins you could find in Europe. They are not as profound as the german ones and not as pleasant as the more lighted traditionnal italian mandolins, but they are for me a good compromise, even if I'm sure that there is some good luthiers who can do better.

    For the vintage Calace, early 70s seems to be a very good period, last 70s a very bad one. I know a few Classico A from the mid 80s, they haven't aged well and became bad tuned. In the mid 90s the instruments gets even more larger and sturdier, and are very good.
    By the way, beware of certains quality in the finish :
    If you look at the heads of these mandolins, That one is generally mounted on better instruments than this one.
    Note that the "mandolas" and "liuto cantabile" are, for the high-end, tremendous, apart for the early 70s mandolas.
    This is my personnal experience with this luthier. There is, of course, exceptions.




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    Registered User Onesound's Avatar
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    Wow, Bob, thanks for the in-depth survey. #One frequently hears "they don't make them like they used to", applied to almost everything, and wondered if that were true of Bowlbacks.

    While brousing the Web, I come across very few modern Bowlback builders. #I wondered if that is due to the limited demand, the difficulty in construction, or the continued availablty of modistly priced antiques compared to "bluegrass" style instruments. #Perhaps it is a combination of those factors. #There must be at least 30 or 40 independant craftsman out there carving out mandos for those interested in playing specifically Bluegrass, Celtic, Folk, whatever. Add to that the numerous "corporate" builders and we have a tremendous variety of quality, price, and styles available. In contrast, the number of contemporary BowlBack builders appears to be miniscule! #Perhaps the market view of available BowlBacks from the European perspective, where the demand for good "classical" instruments may be greater, does not appear so narrow.

    Guess we are still lucky that a number of very desirable original BowlBacks are still available and within the price of (at least) the dedicated classical player. #I gather that an Emnergher can be quite pricey, but probably not quite in the +100K league that many Loar's are in. (??)#Twenty five years (or so) some of these desirable carved top mandolins were not so rediculously priced. #However, in the last few years their prices have gone to the moon. One wonders if top end BowlBacks will follow the same trend. #Perhaps a Bowlback that sells today on Ebay for $500-$1000 will be $5K or $10K only a few years from now.

    I am in the fortuiotus position tht my wife keeps asking when I am going to get rid of my teeth grating bluegrass mando and get one of those sweet, melodious sounding Bowlbacks! In due time, my Dear. That choice must be carefully made!
    Cheers,

    Brian

    Angels don't play harps, they play mandolins

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    Hey, I've never met her, but I like your wife.

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    Well, the price of a world-class bowlback is still far from the price of a boutique bluegrass instrument. Most of the top instruments stay in Europe or go to Japan, where there is a very strong classical mando tradition, dating back to the early 20th century. (Raffaele Calace went there in 1921 or so, and was a great hit).

    The Emberghers seem to be the scarcest, and bring high prices, especially for the very ornate models, all covered in tortoise and ivory. (William Petit in France had one that he sold; it appeared later in a venue like Sotheby's or Christie's (I can't remember exactly) and went for something like 40K; but that's exceptionally high. The instruments most desireable from a player's standpoint is probably the 5bis. I'm not sure what they bring on the market, but I'd figure somewhere in the middle four figures.

    You can see these at embergher.com; William Petit has a website with pictures of the Embergher I mentioned - google embergher and you;ll find it.

    There are lots of good bowlbacks out there, also a lot of tourist trash. Sadly, many of the good ones have been ruined by heavy strings, so you need to be careful. The best bargains are high-end Americam bowlbacks like the Martins, high-end Vegas, and some of the Larson brothers instruments. Without trying too hard, you can get an excellent instrument for about 1500. (There was a very nice Calace in the cafe classifieds a little while ago for 2K: refinished but a good player's instrument). Lurking around ebay can get you a bargain now and then - someone here scored a very nice Vinaccia for a few huindred bucks, but there's risk involved: there are few luthiers in the US who can repair/restore these instruments properly, and it ain't necessarily cheap, nor quick. If you have money but lack time, you'd be best off dealing with a dealer who will give you an approval period and hopefully guarantee a decent setup.

    While there are mass-market outlets for bowlbacks in Europe, you'd be better off ordering from a luthier. I got a very playable Greek instrument for around 400 a few years ago. A new Calace will run about a grand for a lower-end model. I myself tend to be a vintage type guy, and prefer the older instruments, but that just means I have more relatively unplayable isntruments around the house, waiting to get on a luthier's waiting list. Still, they have their appeal.

    I wouldn't get into bowlbacks as an investment. There's no market in the US to speak of; the Japanese will pay a lot of money for some, but who knows how far that market is from being saturated; old players die off, and kids don't give a hoot. There are also some vast collections that may move toward the marketplace; Tsumura in Japan had hundreds of these instruments; he was a fretted instrument Hoover in his day, but now his collection is gradually getting sold off to pay debts and fines. So you'd be better off just getting something decent to play, and figure on hanging onto it.

    If and when you do, check back in for string recommendations; very lightweight is the way to go, since these were not meant to cope with Gibson-level tensions.

  7. #7

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    Just to add one maker not mentioned by Bob in a Roman tradition who is responsible for some more tasty eye candy, check out Ochiai mandolin. #...And for your linking-directly-to-a-domestic-luthier convenience, here's Dan Larson. #I personally have handled only one of Dan's modern mandolins (Richard Walz's), but with tweaking under Richard's suggestions and the addition of a light, aesthetic, and brilliantly engineered simple armrest, I think Dan is really onto something. #Volume is excellent and the tonal pallet is very full and complex.

    If you know how to shop the old stuff, of those which are semi-easily available in the US, my favorites (adding to Bob's fine roster) are Martin, Vega (the entry-level instruments are very affordable and seem to me to be of consistent quality of tone...if unwrecked), Larson Brothers (if you don't mind "quirky" aesthetic), Ricca (if you can find one), Washburn (the original by Lyon & Healy: sometimes they sound a little too "played out," but they're abundant and cheap and of quality materials), Brandt (another "hard to come by:" loud, but perhaps a little unrefined), Weymann, and a few others.




  8. #8
    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by (Onesound @ Aug. 02 2005, 20:24)
    While brousing the Web, I come across very few modern Bowlback builders.
    Almost no need to browse the Web since most of the known makers of bowlbacks are here.

    Yes, demand is part of it, esp in the US. In Europe, as you will note, there are quite a few makers. I have played a Knorr and from that one example can tell you that the workmanship is absolutely impeccable, tho the German aesthetic tonally is much different that what I look for in a mandolin, it is pleasing nonetheless.

    It it interesting to find out that Calace's instruments are started in Sicily (I wonder where and in what factory) but finished in Naples.

    Jim



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    One of these days, I've got to drop in on Bob and check out his collection.There is nothing as good as putting one's mits on an instrument; there can be subtle differences that make you love one and indifferent to another. # Thanks, Eugene, also, for your suggestions. #I'm leaning towards a new instrument simply because I don't have the experience to recognize a pearl amoung swine. :-) #If I go with a vintage instrument, your suggestion to buy from a dealer (or someone knowledgable, like yourselves) is a sound recomendation. I am resisting the temtation to bid on Ebay, cause I don't need to throw cash away on a poor choice born of inexperience.



    Cheers,

    Brian

    Angels don't play harps, they play mandolins

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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Brian:
    The best thing you can do is to play as many instruments as you can so you can see what you prefer in tone and playability. I wish we east coasters (US) at least could find the time and or location to have a bowl tasting. I am a good 4 hours or so from Bob A but we have not yet met in person. Of course, it would be amazing if we could have a classical board tasting with the all the instruments of everyone but that would have to be in the middle of the Atlantic to be geographically central.

    In any case, I don't have some of the true Italian treasures that Bob A has but I have a few good playable instruments, both American and Italian.

    BTW I still think that the bigger name vintage American instruments are reasonably priced and readily available in the US. Most of the the Italian ones seem to be in the UK or Germany.

    Much of it depends on how much you want to spend. As others have noted, a decent Calace is under $1000. I played Victor's and it is a nice one and certainly worth the money. Dan Larson's and Pandini's are considerably more, in the $3000s. I thinbk most of the other quality makers are in that range.

    A good simply ornamented Vega, Washburn or Martin in playable condition can usually be bought reasonably, even from reputable dealers. I am currently in the process of figuring out which ones of mine I want to part with, so PM me if you want to discuss.

    Jim



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    As I read this post, I am planning when to pick up my 2004 Calace (model Nº 26) from Tom Crandall, repairman extraordinaire; I left it with him during my vacation, as I had another baby to caress while abroad. (Incidentally, a sibling of Bob's Greek bowl)

    Yes, as Mathieu writes, there IS some sloppiness in what comes out of the Calace shop, especially in the set-up (which Tom is correcting) and the stringing, which of course I corrected myself as soon as I got the instrument.

    I also second Mathieu's dim view of how well —or rather how POORLY— mandolins age (notable exceptions excepted, of course). From a player's practical viewpoint, new has its value.

    Having said all that, Jim hit the nail on the head: it is worth the money I spent on it. I am happy to have it, as it is the perfect vehicle for my, ehm... more salient effort: improving my &#$)^#((#$^^ wretched mandolin-PLAYING!!!
    It is not man who lives, but his work. (Ioannis Kapodistrias)

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    Default Re: Are There Any New Bowlbacks...

    Would like to restate the topic

    Are there any new bowlbacks?

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    Default Re: Are There Any New Bowlbacks...

    Many. Especially of the German style.
    I particularly like the look of Alfred Woll's instruments. Love this entry on his site under 'Availability': "My waiting list is at this moment about 7 years, give or take a few months."
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    Default Re: Are There Any New Bowlbacks...

    You can see a few more here on the Eye Candy Bowlback page.
    Jim

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    Default Re: Are There Any New Bowlbacks...

    Quote Originally Posted by CHASAX View Post
    Would like to restate the topic

    Are there any new bowlbacks?
    Yes. Many. Many many.
    Indulge responsibly!

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    Default Re: Are There Any New Bowlbacks...

    Hi all

    Perhaps I should have started a new thread for this question, but speaking of Bowl backs, does anyone know anything about the Aria model? I suspect it qualifies as somewhat of a vintage model. Having an Ovation mandolin, and an a style mandolin, I am also looking to purchase a Bowl back. I happen to know the person selling it. Was just interested to hear if anyone on the Café playing classical music has found an Aria mandolin somewhere.

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  17. #17
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    Default Re: Are There Any New Bowlbacks...

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Garber View Post
    Brian:
    The best thing you can do is to play as many instruments as you can so you can see what you prefer in tone and playability. I wish we east coasters (US) at least could find the time and or location to have a bowl tasting. I am a good 4 hours or so from Bob A but we have not yet met in person. Of course, it would be amazing if we could have a classical board tasting with the all the instruments of everyone but that would have to be in the middle of the Atlantic to be geographically central.

    In any case, I don't have some of the true Italian treasures that Bob A has but I have a few good playable instruments, both American and Italian.

    BTW I still think that the bigger name vintage American instruments are reasonably priced and readily available in the US. Most of the the Italian ones seem to be in the UK or Germany.

    Much of it depends on how much you want to spend. As others have noted, a decent Calace is under $1000. I played Victor's and it is a nice one and certainly worth the money. Dan Larson's and Pandini's are considerably more, in the $3000s. I thinbk most of the other quality makers are in that range.

    A good simply ornamented Vega, Washburn or Martin in playable condition can usually be bought reasonably, even from reputable dealers. I am currently in the process of figuring out which ones of mine I want to part with, so PM me if you want to discuss.

    Jim

    Hey Jim, know anyone on the east coast who has the space to do something? I go to a bass guitar thing every other year where we all go to someone's large property and players and builders have a weekend of taste testing, there's a swap shop and some jams. Was thinking a mandolin one would be popular but I don't have the space. I don't want to hijack this thread so if you think you know someone, shoot me a PM maybe we can get something started?

    As to the OP the only 'new' bowl I have is from the Viet Nam inlay guy. It's not a $5000 mando, but those who play it are pleasantly surprised. Dunno if I found the diamond in the rough or if they are all under-rated?
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  18. #18
    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Are There Any New Bowlbacks...

    Hah! Strange to be quoted from over 8 years ago! A couple of possibilities would be Acoustic Music in Guilford, CT or RetroFret in Brooklyn. Acoustic Music isn't that large a space. Then again, I am not so sure that dealers would want a bunch of mandolinists in their place, but you never know until you ask.

    Some of those Viet Nam bowlbacks looks nice but I am never sure of the quality of the wood and I know from experience that the hardware is not all that great.

    BTW the one Eastman bowlback I played was a pretty decent instrument.
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    Mandolin tragic Graham McDonald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Are There Any New Bowlbacks...

    Aria doesn't ring any bells as a bowlback, but I suspect that there might well have been rebadged Suzukis or something else sold as Arias back in the 70s or 80s. I worked for the importer of Japanese made Washburn instruments and they came from a range of manufacturers and sometimes instruments with odd (non-Washburn) labeling would come out of the box.

    And for new instruments there is Lorenzo Lippi in Milan making Embergher style mandolins as well as a couple of other newer Italian builders who have appeared in the last couple of years

    cheers

    Quote Originally Posted by Vannillamandolin View Post
    Hi all

    Perhaps I should have started a new thread for this question, but speaking of Bowl backs, does anyone know anything about the Aria model? I suspect it qualifies as somewhat of a vintage model. Having an Ovation mandolin, and an a style mandolin, I am also looking to purchase a Bowl back. I happen to know the person selling it. Was just interested to hear if anyone on the Café playing classical music has found an Aria mandolin somewhere.

  20. #20
    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Are There Any New Bowlbacks...

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Garber View Post
    You can see a few more here on the Eye Candy Bowlback page.
    I don't know if anyone noticed this link I posted. There is a page with 39 contemporary bowlback makers including all that are being mentioned. Click on a mandolin pic and it will take you to the maker's site. Brian Dean BTW goes by his shop name Labraid. In any case, that page should keep you busy for some time.
    Jim

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    Default Re: Are There Any New Bowlbacks...

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Garber View Post
    I don't know if anyone noticed this link I posted. There is a page with 39 contemporary bowlback makers including all that are being mentioned. Click on a mandolin pic and it will take you to the maker's site. Brian Dean BTW goes by his shop name Labraid. In any case, that page should keep you busy for some time.
    Maybe the most bowlbacks today are built in Japan, like the famous Suzuki mandolins which are designed in the typical Italian / Calace style and of a good quality in general. Unfortunately those instruments are not easily available in Europe or the USA. If I am right all the Japanese luthiers of bowlbacks are missing in the mandolincafe list.

    This is a Japanese supplier of Suzuki mandolins:

    Suzuki instruments

    Suzuki mandolins have been sold very often in Germany in previous years.
    Homepage: www.mandoisland.de / Blog: www.mandoisland.com / Freiburg / Germany

  22. #22

    Default Re: Are There Any New Bowlbacks...

    [Lurking, as I dream of a new job that will in fact allow for some mando-time... ]

    Cheers to one and all,

    Victor
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