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Thread: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

  1. #26

    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    I think CNC has changed the game a bit. Old-school builders had to hand-carve the maple backs and sides - maple is a very hard wood making for a very hard job. These days the bulk of the heavy lifting is done via machine (for those shops who can afford it) making the build much less time intensive than before. As well there are a number of pressed top instruments that are "good enough" for many players.
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  2. #27

    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    The typical build time quoted for an F-5 by a small hand builder is around 200 hours.

    There might be a 80 to 250 dollars in wood, 60 to 400 dollars in tuners, 60 dollars in the bridge, 40 to 150 in the tailpiece, 10 to 50 dollars in the truss rod, 25 to 60 dollars in the fingerboard, frets and nut, 10 dollars or so in consumables, finish, glue, etc., 10 dollars or so in binding and cement. That totals 295 to 940 dollars in materials. Very few builders do enough volume to get wholesale prices on parts. They can cut their own wood if they have a source but that involves time and risk.

    The 200 hours is just build time, nothing for marketing, website maintenance, talking with the customer, purchasing materials doing books, etc.

    So if he charges 3000 dollars for a mandolin, take out the materials he is making between 10.30 and 13.52 per hour. That does not even pay the bills let alone cover shop utilities and overhead or the time spent marketing, selling, shipping, doing books and taxes, etc. So the builder has to charge more than that to survive unless he has a spouse supporting him or some free income and just does it for fun.

    You can cut the 200 hours with a bunch of investment in automation. That does not come for free and you have to have enough volume to support it or you go bankrupt on the loans you take out for the equipment. That is the decision companies like Collings and Taylor have made. You will notice they primarily produce guitars. The volume is not there in mandolins alone.

    These are the economics of building instruments. Unless you can charge Gilchrist or Dudenbostel prices you are probably not making enough to do more than just get by and probably going in the hole. And those guys are far from wealthy even at the top end prices. This is also not taking into account the retailers cut, which can be significant or the cost of a case, shipping and insurance.

    You can have a true belief in markets being the be all and end all of everything but if markets ignore these realities then everything fails and goes bankrupt. The reality of these costs are what drives the prices of mandolins, at least for first world built, high quality instruments. And cheaper instrument makers have made the decision to sacrifice some quality in materials or hours of labor and to pay third world wages to make their instruments more affordable.

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  4. #28
    Registered User Eric Platt's Avatar
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    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    Interesting. Never really thought of my Collings as a third world instrument. But, there you go. As I said earlier, many folks do not consider what I own good. (And yes, I do realize a good mandolin starts at the low to middle 5 digits and increases from there.)
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  5. #29

    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    Quote Originally Posted by Eric Platt View Post
    Interesting. Never really thought of my Collings as a third world instrument. But, there you go. As I said earlier, many folks do not consider what I own good. (And yes, I do realize a good mandolin starts at the low to middle 5 digits and increases from there.)
    Hence the price increase on Collings instruments. The one thing you can expect from Collings, aside from a great instrument made from quality materials, with an excellent fret job and fit and finish, is absolutely AMAZING customer service. I have seen them warranty work on instruments that were purchased used.

    But a good mandolin should not be judged on its cost. There are a lot of great instruments to be had well below $5k, and I have played plenty of $$$$ mandolins whose price was not equivalent to its fit, finish, and or sound.
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  7. #30
    Registered User archerscreek's Avatar
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    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    I don't think they are. I think the notion that mandolins cost more than guitars is a case where perception doesn't match reality.

    New Collings MF Gloss costs around $5500.
    New Collings MT-2 Torrified costs $4500.
    New Collings D2HT guitar with EIR and Sitka costs around $5800.
    New Collings OM1 AT guitar with mahogany and Adirondack costs around $6600.
    You can also bling a Collings guitar up with woods and inlays and a varnish finish to exceed the MF5 V price.

    New Eastman MD515 mandolin has a MAP around $1064.
    New Eastman E10D guitar has a MAP of $1191.

    Gibsons seem to be a bit higher with the
    F9 at $5300 vs J45 Vintage at $4750 or a standard J45 at $2750, but get into their "custom shop" and add inlays and thin finishes and such and you can price a guitar at the F5G or F5L level.

    And the same goes for all of the boutique mandolin builders in the $6000-$20000 level. There are plenty of boutique guitar luthiers selling their instruments at or above mandolin prices. Bourgeois has plenty of guitars in the $6000-$20000 and higher range, as does Santa Cruz, Froggy Bottom, Olson, Somogyi, and on and on.

  8. #31

    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    Quote Originally Posted by Eric Platt View Post
    Interesting. Never really thought of my Collings as a third world instrument. But, there you go. As I said earlier, many folks do not consider what I own good. (And yes, I do realize a good mandolin starts at the low to middle 5 digits and increases from there.)
    I realize some people consider Texas to be third world, sometimes for good reason, but I am not among them.

    Collings chose to go the route of automating production to the extent they can. This involves considerable risk as the equipment is costly and if you cannot sell enough volume you will go bankrupt. I would never suggest Collings has in any way compromised on quality. Their pricing reflects that.

    Third world production means companies that have chosen to locate generally in the Far East, many of which started production in Japan, moved to Korea then to China, possibly Vietnam chasing whatever places they can find to pay the lowest possible wages. These companies also use cheaper tuners, bridges, etc. to meet a price point. They use lots of filler and very thick finishes to hide any defects and keep costs low. That is what I mean by compromising on quality.

  9. #32

    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    For not owning one, Iíve played more Collings mandolins than any other brand, probably twenty or so. They have all been impeccable. They have all been toneful. They have played like butter. They have all had premium wood. They have all been worthy of stretching my budget if I fell in love. I just havenít.....yet.

    Half the time I like the Northfields better. If half the time I like one brand over the other, Iím not likely to buy either. That is why Iím interested in playing more brands. I admire fit and finish, but that is about forth or fifth down the importance list. Collings and Gibson lead the name brand premium pricing business model. They have earned it over time. And face facts, owners of those instruments like that aspect. Itís a feature that is sellable, and a great business model. I love the Gibson inlay on my A1. Would not buy a jr or an A. See, Iím as shallow as anyone.

    What I need is to be in the same room with ten or twelve mandolins, with examples from individual luthiers as well as small shops. As far as what contributes to final cost, a maker like Collings gains in productivity, then has significant marketing abound distribution cost to pass along. The individual does not, but needs to pocket more per unit to survive.This can be advantageous to those whoíve built reputations, brutal for those who havenít. But the labor that goes into a fully bound F style more than justifies the price. Not having enough money is each individualís problem.

    Then there are personal proclivities to consider. Some go for new and shiny, some go for old and worn. We are each drawn to that which fits our nature, and that has little to do with what we purport to be important. Complicated creachers we be.
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  10. #33
    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    Quote Originally Posted by CarlM View Post
    You can have a true belief in markets being the be all and end all of everything but if markets ignore these realities then everything fails and goes bankrupt. The reality of these costs are what drives the prices of mandolins, at least for first world built, high quality instruments. And cheaper instrument makers have made the decision to sacrifice some quality in materials or hours of labor and to pay third world wages to make their instruments more affordable.
    I am going to have to respectfully disagree. I think the market for better or worse sets the price ranges at which the mandolin will sell, based on rarity, quality, reputation of the brand and/or luthier etc., etc., and it is up to a mandolin maker to figure out how he/she can make a profit selling at the market prices. Some compete on price, and perhaps sacrifice some quality, some compete on quality, some ride a reputation, it all depends.

    But the actual cost of making the thing is a reaction to the market. The maker whose costs are too high to make a profit cannot just raise his price to compensate. (Though he/she can certainly dish out the yabba-dabba about cost of workmanship to justify what ever price he is trying to charge.)
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  11. #34

    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    Isn't it obvious? It's because mandolins are better than guitars.

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  13. #35

    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    Quote Originally Posted by JeffD View Post
    I am going to have to respectfully disagree. I think the market for better or worse sets the price ranges at which the mandolin will sell, based on rarity, quality, reputation of the brand and/or luthier etc., etc., and it is up to a mandolin maker to figure out how he/she can make a profit selling at the market prices. Some compete on price, and perhaps sacrifice some quality, some compete on quality, some ride a reputation, it all depends.

    But the actual cost of making the thing is a reaction to the market. The maker whose costs are too high to make a profit cannot just raise his price to compensate. (Though he/she can certainly dish out the yabba-dabba about cost of workmanship to justify what ever price he is trying to charge.)

    There are two ways to set price; based on costs, or based on market price. Luxury goods command higher market prices, generally. Many times, if a brand is strong enough, the price will be set where a manufacturer feels it should be, regardless of either costs or the market. Itís what drives pricing in many markets, including musical instruments. But again, it depends on how valued a brand is in the eye of the consumer.

    Overseas consumption will sometimes skew pricing. But it depends again on the brand recognition.
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  14. #36

    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    This is just basically the cause of demand and supply, if a thing is in demand but insufficient supply it will be more expensive, but if it has surplus supply then it will be cheaper.

  15. #37

    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    Here is another instance of market clout, and another reason Collings is so successful. There are a lot of new Collings mandolins out there. One would suppose there would be a dealer or two out there wanting to move inventory, but they don’t have that choice per their dealer agreement, and owners wanting to sell their mandolins hold out for higher prices because of that. Smart of Collings because buyer perception tends to follow price. Higher price, better product. Now this would certainly fall apart if the product for the most part didn’t deliver the goods. So given that many have to buy sight unseen, there are many compelling reasons to choose Collings. They make a fine product, you’ll be the envy of your peers, you will be able to sell your mandolin if you chose, albet not at what you might want to get. But still, how many good looking mandolins have you seen listed in the cafe over and over?

    Chances are you will love your Collings if it arrives at your doorstop and you are 600 miles from where you could comparison shop. So you pay more, expect to get great service, and get a high quality product to boot. I’d certainly be hard pressed not to do that. Little to no risk with a huge upside. Collings is in a position to maintain their margins, ensuring they’ll be around for a long time.
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  16. #38

    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    All the makers try to enforce MAP agreements including Fender and Gibson so Collings isn't a whole lot different. Just a smaller player meaning they have fewer products and resellers to police.

    I got a chance to play a Collings or two a few years back at a dealers. Wondering what all the commotion was about I took one off the wall and diddled a bit. It was a nice mandolin but nothing beyond many others I played. After satisfying myself with the instrument I checked the price tag and after seeing the $5,000 sticker price carefully put it back and left the shop thinking "are they mad?"

    OTOH I got a chance to play an Ovation Adamas mandolin at NAMM once. That thing was an absolute canon and had tone and feel for days. I wouldn't pay the $4,000 they were asking for it but it was 10 times the mandolin the Collings was yet Adamas doesn't get any respect.

    As for the OP's question - as a guitar player coming into the mandolin world there is a thinking adjustment that needs to take place. When I started into mandolin The Loar hadn't been released and Eastman was a bit player so there weren't many nice mid-priced mandolins about. Since then nice mandolins have hit the market for under $1K that are compatible with what you'll pay for a nice, equally spec'd guitar. At the bottom end of the spectrum there are even sub-$200 mandolins that are just as "nice" as many sub-$200 guitars. Then there are the mandolin-shaped-objects that are in line with the guitar-shaped-objects. The playing field has leveled between mandos and guitars over the past 5 or so years.

    If you know what you're looking for and shop you can find a nice mando for under $500. Look no further than that all solid $199 MK F5 that many here bought and are very happy with. There are deals if you look.
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  17. #39

    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    I am going to have to respectfully disagree. I think the market for better or worse sets the price ranges at which the mandolin will sell, based on rarity, quality, reputation of the brand and/or luthier etc., etc., and it is up to a mandolin maker to figure out how he/she can make a profit selling at the market prices.
    It is a matter of perspective. There is a school of thought that believes in something called "the Market" that is pure and true and never wrong. The belief is maintained no matter how badly that "Market" gets things wrong. It is a faith or True Belief. It is a case of if your only tool is a hammer then every problem becomes a nail.

    If you only consider market without considering costs, let alone values, it leads to such bad out comes as turtles being hunted to near extinction so we no longer have that resource and so much Brazilian Rosewood ground up to make expensive perfume that we do not have it for instruments any more. There are other, even worse debacles, caused by blind adherence to "markets" without some intelligence or consideration of costs and values but I want to keep it to mandolin related things.

    To be certain in the vintage instrument and collectible market price bears no relation to cost or even value. It is purely "market" driven and mostly quite irrational. But with new instruments, costs, including the opportunity to make a reasonable living, have to be a significant consideration in price. If not the companies or builders go out of business and you no longer have that resource.

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  19. #40

    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    On the plus side, for $15 I can get 8 fresh strings that make my Walmart Special sound great, while for $120 I can get 4 viola strings that only sound marginally better, but I eventually anyway because frayed winding is cutting the tip of my 1st finger.

  20. #41

    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    Quote Originally Posted by Verne Andru View Post
    I got a chance to play an Ovation Adamas mandolin at NAMM once..........it was 10 times the mandolin...........yet Adamas doesn't get any respect.
    You're right, nobody seems to be talking about the Adamas mandolins, but the Adamas guitars certainly have their fans. They have always been expensive, in fact, I can't ever remember seeing one cheap, even on the used market. Yep, they are cannons!

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  22. #42

    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    I'm not sure a listener can discern a difference betwixt a four-figure mandolin and one that costs five figures, though I'm certain a player can. I'd guess most of the price difference between mandolins and guitars is down to the difference between carved tops and backs, vs plywood and CNC, which seems obvious, but the tighter tolerances involved in the smaller scale length certainly contribute to the amount of hand work at the very end of the build process. I'm also pretty sure the size of the relative markets applies to the economies of scale.

  23. #43

    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    Quote Originally Posted by Mojo Bone View Post
    I'd guess most of the price difference between mandolins and guitars is down to the difference between carved tops and backs, vs plywood and CNC...
    I'll bet dollars-to-donuts places like Collings, Gibson, Eastman and The Loar are using CNC for 98% of the carving chores these days. It's the smaller boutique shops that are still doing it by hand yet their prices aren't much different from Collings or Gibson. I highly doubt many mortals are able to discern any difference between solid-carved-backs/sides and pressed ply, yet the difference in specs is reflected in the pricing.
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  24. #44

    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    I heard an interview with Tom Ellis a while back. He had seven CNC machines. Collings cuts their headstock binding from one piece of sheet plastic on one of what I would guess is one of many CNCs. My mandolin kit from Arches was CNC cut, and he was a one man part time shop.

    But it would help to know just how much work it takes to reach a useable piece. A CNC only gets you so far.
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  25. #45

    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    Collings roughs out their plates. Voicing is done by hand. Truth be told even Lou Stiver uses a CNC process.

  26. #46
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    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    Brick is right, a CNC only gets you so far. None of the high end shops are making a final product exclusively on CNC. For carving plates, it gets the rough hogging of wood done. They still need to be graduated by the hand of a skilled builder to produce the best sound for that particular piece of wood.

    Let's not forget that Gibson was using a pantograph carver to do what the CNC does now back in the 20's. The same concept, hog out the bulk of the wood and get the rough shape started. A human had to guide the router, but it saved a lot of time and labor. I do a forehead slap when some people talk as if using a CNC is equivalent to throwing raw pieces of wood in a magic machine that turns out a finished mandolin on the other side!

  27. #47
    Registered User mtucker's Avatar
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    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    Quote Originally Posted by sliebers View Post
    Let’s not forget that Gibson was using a pantograph carver to do what the CNC does now back in the 20’s....I do a forehead slap when some people talk as if using a CNC is equivalent to throwing raw pieces of wood in a magic machine that turns out a finished mandolin on the other side!
    Amen

  28. #48
    Registered User Bob Clark's Avatar
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    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    I am hard put to know why anyone wouldn't want their favorite luthiers to use CNC for the roughing-out work. That work is tough on the body. Finger and wrist joints wear out, limiting the working life of the luthier and causing them pain. Why would we want that?

    Instead, they can decease wear and tear on their body with CNC and still do the final voicing, that which really counts, by hand. We really are asking too much if we demand they avoid the use of CNC. If they choose not to, that's their call, but I would never criticize a luthier for using CNC if he/she chooses to do so.
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  29. #49

    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    The point about CNC is that a lot of the heavy lifting is done by machine leaving the final tuning to the craftsman. This is no different for guitars. Gibson has always considered themselves a premium brand and charges accordingly notwithstanding how their products are made. That's why the have Epiphone - it's their economy brand that sells more stringed instruments than any other brand.

    There's a lot of misconceptions around "carving" that leaves the uninformed to think someone is doing it all by hand. While this is the case for some small boutique builders, and was the case for the larger shops prior to tech advances, it's not the case for the larger companies today. Same goes for setup - those that can afford it use a pleck machine while the smaller shops are doing it by hand. I can understand paying a premium for a completely hand-made instrument, but large corporations pawning off their wares that are 90% machine made as hand-crafted is bogus at best.

    There's an industry joke that goes:

    Q: What's the difference between a Fender Stratocaster made by Mexicans in Mexico and a Fender Stratocaster made by Mexicans in California?
    A: About $1,000.

    A nice instrument is a nice instrument, but technology has leveled the playing field and brought costs down while prices have remained high in some sectors, like mandolins. I don't for a minute think a Chinese made Kentucky deserves the premium pricing it has over a Chinese made The Loar. The primary difference is the marketing which includes what the market will bear.

    10 years ago this would be a different conversation. Times have changed but the market is still being fed old stories that simply don't apply anymore.
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  30. #50

    Default Re: Why are good mandolins more expensive than good guitars?

    CNC is not a cure all. The cost is shifted with CNC.

    While they reduce labor there is significant initial investment. It is a minimum of ten thousand dollars for a small simple machine and realistically mid five to mid or upper six figures depending on the features, size and construction for an industrial machine. That is in addition to fixturing and programming, neither of which are minor expenses and efforts. You also have the real estate to house them and utilities. Once you have them you have to do enough volume to keep them running.

    Gibson, for instance, could not justify CNC equipment on mandolins alone. There is not enough volume. They would run one shift for a month or less to rough out all the plates and necks for a years production then sit idle for the rest of the year. That does not work when you have to pay back bankers.

    With top level instruments there is still significant hand work. With Collings level acoustic instruments, especially mandolins, I would doubt that CNC has cut the labor hours in half. It might be a 25 percent reduction, if that, and it reduces the number of premium skilled workers required. Especially when you consider the markup at retail, you would be paying Gilchrist prices if they were all hand built.

    Acoustic instruments are not Stratocasters, which can be almost totally automated and increase quality rather than reduce it. That is not a good comparison at all.

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