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Thread: Early 1900s mandolins

  1. #1
    Registered User Isaac Casas's Avatar
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    Default Early 1900s mandolins

    Hi everyone,

    For long I have wondered what's the state of intruments built in the early 1900s. Of course, every intrument has a different story and condition, but I'm thinking more about what a hundred years do to an instrument -wood condition, string tension effectos on the top or neck angle, etc. These many years must take a toll on the instrument, I guess?

    Recently I've been thinking about buying a Gibson K2 Mandocello (the mandocello it's the next one I'm looking for, after having already purchased a mando and an octave over the last years, and a K2 might be available near me), but I'm worried about the overall condition of an instrument more than a hundred years old, since -if I bought it- I would like to play it for many years to come.

    Those of you who own early 1900s instruments -or have played them-, what's your experience and take on this?

    Thanks a lot!

    Isaac

  2. #2
    Front Porch & Sweet Tea NursingDaBlues's Avatar
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    Default Re: Early 1900s mandolins

    As with any instrument of any era, the answer is always ďit depends.Ē

    While the majority of my instruments are modern era (e.g., post-1970), I also have several vintage instruments. For example, I have a 1919 Martin Style C mandolin, an 1897 Martin G-5 bowlback mandolin, a 1906 Martin Style 1 bowlback mandolin, a 1919 Gibson Style O Artist guitar, a circa 1910 Harwood parlor guitar, and several others including pre-war and wartime Martin and Epiphone guitars. All of the instruments in my collection continue to hold up exceeding well. But those that I purchased used were well cared for by their previous owners. Some are surprisingly pristine from an aesthetic point of view; most, though, show wear from extensive playing through the decades. Regardless, all are in structurally sound condition, which is usually a reflection of how well an owner cared for the instrument. These used instruments continue to play well and, with proper care, will last for many, many generations to come.

    That said, I have also seen instruments that were not cared for or had faults that have rendered them unplayable with a cost of repair that would be very difficult to recoup.

    When purchasing a vintage instrument, itís important to have a keen eye and a strong working knowledge of what the instrument has, is supposed to have, what is wrong, and what might be problematic. While I have a decent knowledge, I am far from being an expert. So I usually involve a trusted luthier who knows the brand, recognizes how the instrument is supposed to perform, and can identify the pros and cons of its purchase.

    The K2 is a wonderful instrument. I would truly enjoy having a good one. In the US, they are not common but they do become available with some regularity. In Spain, though, I imagine that they can be fairly scarce. It would be advantageous for you to source a trusted luthier in your area and pay them to examine the instrument prior to your purchasing it.

    Well-made instruments can provide enjoyment through the lifetimes of several owners. Whether they do depends on the care they receive through their life.

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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Early 1900s mandolins

    Generalizations on "state of intruments built in the early 1900's" are impossible. Some are piles of sawdust and fragments, others command six-figure prices. I own a raft of late-19th and early-20th-century instruments; probably the earliest is a "no name" parlor guitar with an estimated date of around 1860. I have Autoharps from the 1880's and 1890's, a Wheatstone concertina from 1887, Lyon & Healy-made bowl-back mandolin and mandola from just before or after 1900. There's a three-point Gibson F-2 from 1910, Gibson GB-3 Mastertone banjo, converted to five-string, from the early 1920's -- plus a bunch of banjo oddities from 1870's through maybe 1925 or so. There are weirdos, like a Merrill aluminum bowl-back from around 1897, a Waldo bowl-back mandocello from 1900-10 or so, a Pollman five-string "mandoline-banjo" from the 1890's, etc. Plus, two Stahl instruments, a mandola and a mando-bass, built by the Larson brothers (Mick B, please note) in the first two decades of the last century.

    All of them are in playable condition, and I play or have played all of them professionally. Some have extensive repairs, all show the marks of enthusiastic playing. I also, of course, have modern instruments that I play as well (though some of the "modern" ones are a half-century old now -- they and I were younger when I got them).

    I would say -- and I expect others to disagree -- that the average stringed instrument was better built a century ago, than the average run-of-the-mill stringed instrument is recently. For example, I've become a big fan of Regal, a big Chicago builder, mostly in the early 20th century, that built student-grade instruments, as well as some very nice ones. When I go gigging now (and there's no COVID-19), I play a Regal tenor banjo body with a recent five-string neck, and a Regal "taropatch" or eight-stringed ukulele. These instruments were all solid woods, sturdily constructed, and though lacking shiny finishes and ornamentation, have played for 80 years or more quite satisfactorily.

    I have a Gibson K-1 mandocello from the '20's, and it's in excellent playing condition; it's had a moisture-loosened back seam reglued, and it sounds probably as thunderous as when it left Kalamazoo. Remember, Stradivarius violins from the 18th century are the most valued of all stringed instruments. A well-maintained, or professionally restored, mandolin/mandola/mandocello from a century ago, is capable of another century's usage, if it's taken care of and played joyfully.
    Allen Hopkins
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    Sobell'dola Washburn b-back'dola
    Eastmn: 615'dola 805 m'cello
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    Full Grown and Cussin' brunello97's Avatar
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    Default Re: Early 1900s mandolins

    Great post, Allen.

    Have we seen your Waldo mandocello? I don't think I have. Would be awesome to see some photos!

    Mick
    Ever tried, ever failed? No matter. Try again, fail again. Fail better.--Samuel Beckett
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    Registered User William Smith's Avatar
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    Default Re: Early 1900s mandolins

    watch those GIBSON mandocellos=very notorious for loose braces and top sinkage but even of they need a bit of work they still are very neat-depending on upfront price!

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    Registered User Isaac Casas's Avatar
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    Default Re: Early 1900s mandolins

    Thanks everyone for your replies. Very helpful!

    I have started talking with the owner. He's not in Spain (I am), so I can't assess the instrument's condition myself. Hiring a luthier to do so doesn't seem a viable option either.

    The instrument has had extensive repairs many years ago and it seems to have been holding up since then (shrinkage in the back, new tuners, headstock repair with putty, refreted, new tailpiece and new binding). No top issues whatsoever as far as I know, which is great news. I guess all of this would highly devalue the instrument from a collector's perspective but, on the other hand it's a good thing as long as it makes it more playable and less susceptible to slowly collapse?

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    Lurkist dhergert's Avatar
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    Default Re: Early 1900s mandolins

    The headstock repair with putty is a little off-putting; at this time from the description it seems like it's a player, not a collector instrument. Keep in mind that your possible re-sale value may be very low, so it's just going to be a playing instrument for you. But it does sound like someone else has cared enough for the instrument to keep it playable...

    So if it seems stable and if your monetary investment is small enough that you can afford to get it fixed properly if it needs work in order to keep it playable, it sounds like a good deal.

    Just keep an eye on it, if it develops a rattle or if the action begins to quickly change either higher or lower, those are signs that something is going wrong; the first thing to do is loosen the string tension, and then look for a luthier to examine it.
    -- Don

    "It is a lot more fun to make music than it is to argue about it."

    2002 Gibson F-9
    2016 MK LFSTB
    1975 Suzuki taterbug
    (plus a large assortment of banjos, dobros, guitars, basses and other noisemakers)
    [About how I tune my mandolins]
    [7/29/2019 -- New Arrival!!!]

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    Timothy Tim Logan's Avatar
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    Default Re: Early 1900s mandolins

    I think the above responses are all spot on. I am fortunate enough to own an extremely well cared for L&H Model A. I have found no discernible difference in durability or structural integrity between the L&H and the recent manufacture mandolins I own or have owned. To me this means that these older instruments definitely have the capacity for tremendous longevity - as long as they have been well cared for.

    ďThere are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.Ē ― Albert Schweitzer

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    Front Porch & Sweet Tea NursingDaBlues's Avatar
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    Default Re: Early 1900s mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by NursingDaBlues View Post
    While the majority of my instruments are modern era (e.g., post-1970), I also have several vintage instruments. For example, I have a 1919 Martin Style C mandolin, an 1897 Martin G-5 bowlback mandolin, a 1906 Martin Style 1 bowlback mandolin, a 1919 Gibson Style O Artist guitar, a circa 1910 Harwood parlor guitar, and several others including pre-war and wartime Martin and Epiphone guitars. Click image for larger version. 

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    Just adding some quickly taken photos of my Gibson Style O and Martin G-5.

    Click image for larger version. 

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    Click image for larger version. 

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    Registered User Isaac Casas's Avatar
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    Default Re: Early 1900s mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by dhergert View Post
    The headstock repair with putty is a little off-putting; at this time from the description it seems like it's a player, not a collector instrument. Keep in mind that your possible re-sale value may be very low, so it's just going to be a playing instrument for you. But it does sound like someone else has cared enough for the instrument to keep it playable...

    So if it seems stable and if your monetary investment is small enough that you can afford to get it fixed properly if it needs work in order to keep it playable, it sounds like a good deal.

    Just keep an eye on it, if it develops a rattle or if the action begins to quickly change either higher or lower, those are signs that something is going wrong; the first thing to do is loosen the string tension, and then look for a luthier to examine it.
    I think you're totally right: Sounds like an instrument that's been cared for so it's very playable and sounds great, but too many repairs and new hardware for a collector. I think its best part is the top: No cracks at all, original varnish and binding.

    About the investment, he's asking 2.300Ä (about 2.500$). Would this sound right, providing it's playing condition and sound is as good as he says?

    Again, thank you so much! Your knowledge is invaluable!

  15. #11
    Registered User Isaac Casas's Avatar
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    Default Re: Early 1900s mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by NursingDaBlues View Post
    Just adding some quickly taken photos of my Gibson Style O and Martin G-5.

    Click image for larger version. 

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    Click image for larger version. 

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    Wow, your Gibson Style O is breathtaking!!

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  17. #12
    Front Porch & Sweet Tea NursingDaBlues's Avatar
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    Default Re: Early 1900s mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by Isaac Casas View Post
    I think you're totally right: Sounds like an instrument that's been cared for so it's very playable and sounds great, but too many repairs and new hardware for a collector. I think its best part is the top: No cracks at all, original varnish and binding.

    About the investment, he's asking 2.300Ä (about 2.500$). Would this sound right, providing it's playing condition and sound is as good as he says?

    Again, thank you so much! Your knowledge is invaluable!

    This is coming from my perspective only. And only mine. Others may have followed the market for Gibson mandocellos with much more diligence and have a differing point of view.

    "Right" is a relative term. Price is usually a function of supply and demand. I donít know the population of Gibson mandocellos in Europe. And I donít know how frequently they come up for sale there. If they are relatively scarce, then $2500US would appear to be a relatively reasonable price for a player-grade K-2.

    IF (and itís a big ďifĒ) I personally inspected the K-2 and it offered the voice and playability that I was expecting, I would probably purchase it at that price. My purchase of this instrument comes with the qualification that I purchase to play, not with thoughts of re-sale down the road. The vintage instrument market is much too volatile to consider ANY instrument purchase an investment. And at $2500US, I would be comfortable putting in additional money refurbishing the instrument if it needed it. But I would need to personally inspect it and play it for that to happen. Nice sounding instruments can always be repaired to restore structural integrity. However, you usually canít make poor sounding instruments sound good.

    I suppose the big questions is why this particular mandocello? If you truly enjoy and are pursuing the Gibson voice, thatís one thing. But Iím certain there are many highly-respected luthiers throughout Europe from whom you can purchase a new mandocello that has a voice and playability that you can appreciate.

    One additional thought: Have you ever played a Gibson mandocello? The neck size can be daunting for some folks.

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    Lurkist dhergert's Avatar
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    Default Re: Early 1900s mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by Isaac Casas View Post
    ... About the investment, he's asking 2.300€ (about 2.500$). Would this sound right, providing it's playing condition and sound is as good as he says? ...
    Given what you know about the condition, if the instrument is playable and stable at this time without additional work, 2.300€ is probably an acceptable price. It's still a lot of money, but if it's stable and playable, you can begin enjoying it right away.

    That said, it really bothers me that you cannot examine this K-2 in person before you buy it; given what you know about it at this point, there could be a lot wrong with this instrument, and some of those wrong things could prevent you from being able to play it right away.

    At this time in particular, there are going to be a lot of instruments on sale soon, and instrument market values tend to drop in bad economic times because people don't have as much in the way of discretionary money -- and even more so if so many musicians remain out of work. If you know you want a Gibson K-2 (or possibly a K-1) and have funds set aside for it, this might be a good time spread the word among your musical friends, and to watch to see what else might become available.
    -- Don

    "It is a lot more fun to make music than it is to argue about it."

    2002 Gibson F-9
    2016 MK LFSTB
    1975 Suzuki taterbug
    (plus a large assortment of banjos, dobros, guitars, basses and other noisemakers)
    [About how I tune my mandolins]
    [7/29/2019 -- New Arrival!!!]

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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Early 1900s mandolins

    It so much depends on how the mandolin has been taken care of in the last 120 years. What has been its exposure to high humidity, extremely low humidity, extreme temperatures and temperature changes. Has it been played and loved or has it been in its case in the attic?

    Differences in care over the last century makes so much difference, I would think, that differences in tone and playability due to anything else, like manufacturer, model, or year of manufacture, are tiny and hard to discern.
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    Default Re: Early 1900s mandolins

    Well-built instruments that have been properly maintained should be just fine. Wood being organic will be subject to stability issues due to environmental and aging issues. Glues and things like celluloid pickguards can deteriorate over time. That being said, proper and timely attention to any issues involved should ensure that an instrument can remain playable for centuries.

    If you're concerned about a particular example, have it inspected by a qualified luthier before purchase. Any issues found can be addressed by negotiation with the seller, or by a decision to forgo the purchase.

  22. #16
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    Default Re: Early 1900s mandolins

    A well repaired peghead crack devalues an instrument by 50%. One repaired with putty lowers the value more. Once you add the other repairs into the equation, I'm concerned that the price is too high . . .

    As far as old instruments go, they can last a long, long time when properly maintained and cared for, so long as they have not been over-strung. But you might want to see what else is available in Europe before you buy this one.
    Last edited by rcc56; May-04-2020 at 7:48pm.

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