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Thread: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

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    Default What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    True confessions time!
    I'd like to hear some stories from people who decided at some point in their life to take the plunge and try to build a mandolin.

    1. How did you prepare for the project (knowing it would be a challenge and likely to be more of a learning and hobby experience than result in a fine-sounding, good-playing instrument?)

    2. What pitfalls did you run into?

    3. In hindsight, what do you think you "coulda/shoulda" done differently?

    4. Did you keep going, or scrap that first mando and start over?

    5. If you made more than one attempt to build a good mando, how did those previous mistakes inform your subsequent efforts?

    6. What ultimately became of that first mando or first few build attempts? Where is it now?
    Last edited by Gina Willis; Sep-21-2021 at 12:36pm. Reason: new thought

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    Registered User briankwood's Avatar
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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    I am just finishing my first F-5. I have made several fiddles and since I play both decided to build my own mandolin too. My one regret was putting in a tension rod following the Siminoff plans. In my opinion now, those plans have the rod go too deep by about 3/16ths of an inch. I discovered this when the instrument was nearly finished and I went to take the neck down to final dimensions. I very quickly filed through to the rod in trying to bring it down to the dimensions of the other F-5 I have and am used to. Ouch!! That was a bad day. With very careful reconstruction I have repaired the area. I will alway be able to see it, but it hasn't been mentioned by anybody else. The neck will always be wider than I wished it to be. With luck it will will be a solid long-lasting repair.

    The irony is that I doubt the need for a truss rod in mandolins, and the neck I made was laminated, making it even stronger. I did it to have the experience of doing it. I got that. I appreciate Siminoff's plans but warn against this particular detail.

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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    Quote Originally Posted by Gina Willis View Post
    True confessions time!
    I'd like to hear some stories from people who decided at some point in their life to take the plunge and try to build a mandolin.

    1. How did you prepare for the project (knowing it would be a challenge and likely to be more of a learning and hobby experience than result in a fine-sounding, good-playing instrument?)
    I first decided to build myself a banjo. I studied anything I could find to read about stringed instrument building and repair, I looked at instruments, good and bad, cheap and expensive, and tried to learn what made one better than another. Tried to learn all I could about frets, action, set up and so forth. Did minor repairs on inexpensive instruments and some better instruments, etc. etc.
    After about 2 years of that (self education) I finally felt ready to start building my banjo. I had a friend who was teaching 'wood shop' at the local high school and I "borrowed" his wood working experience and used the power tools (high quality Powermatic tools) in the shop when I could. I finished the banjo and it turned out to be pretty good. One of my picking buddies was so surprised and impressed that he asked me if I would build him a mandolin.
    I knew less about mandolins than I did about banjos, but all of the general lutherie stuff I had been studying (frets, set up, neck geometry inlay, etc.) was of value, so I had that head start when I started researching mandolins, but I still spent quite a bit of time studying mandolins and studying about mandolins.


    Quote Originally Posted by Gina Willis View Post
    2. What pitfalls did you run into?
    I bought the Simminoff book and studied it intensely. There was a lot of good information there, but it is nearly impossible to convey every aspect of how to do each thing to every potential builder in one book, so there were things I had to figure out for myself. The worst feature of my first mandolin was the arch of the top. I didn't know to center the arch at the bridge location, so the arch of my first one is centered toward the tailpiece from the bridge. Considering that the plate thicknesses in the original Siminnoff book are... shall we say... generous, the top has held up well despite the off center arch. Also, considering that the well regarded and much discussed Loar A-5 has the bridge off center on the arch, it's not a terrible mistake.
    Also, I wish I could get back the time I spent agonizing over plate tuning and tone bar tuning thinking that it all had to be just so or the mandolin would be a failure.

    Quote Originally Posted by Gina Willis View Post
    3. In hindsight, what do you think you "coulda/shoulda" done differently?
    I can't really think of anything other than design things. I should have made it with a simpler peghead design and a simpler inlay design. I wasn't quite up to the task of executing the inlay design that I drew so it looks pretty amateurish. I didn't know any better at the time.
    There are plenty of things that I do differently now, but I had to learn most of that through experience, and there is only one way to get experience. I think I did about as well as I could at the time. Info was only available in print and in conversation, there was no internet to answer any possible question like there is now.

    Quote Originally Posted by Gina Willis View Post
    4. Did you keep going, or scrap that first mando and start over?
    I finished the mandolin and it was (and is) a good mandolin. Not a great mandolin but a good one. The original owner still has it and it is still in good shape.

    Quote Originally Posted by Gina Willis View Post
    5. If you made more than one attempt to build a good mando, how did those previous mistakes inform your subsequent efforts?
    I was a gradual thing. One thing that I learned that is very helpful:
    It is good to get feedback from other people on what we can improve. It is difficult to get good constructive criticism from players... they don't want to hurt your feelings. For constructive criticism, go to experienced builders. They've been there before and they understand the learning process (some more than others) and will give good advice. The best ones will not overwhelm you, but will point out one or two things and leave it at that.
    I had the chance to have John Monteleone look over my first mandolin. He pointed out the arch mistake that I mentioned earlier as well as the 'rising extender' that is common on mandolins, and was not covered in the Simminoff book. He played it for a while, nodded and said "you're on the right track, just keep building them". It was years before I knew what he meant. He meant that he (or anyone) could only "lead a horse to water" and that it was up to me to learn how to build a better mandolin.
    So that's a long way of saying that I only learned from some of my early mistakes after they were pointed out to me

    Quote Originally Posted by Gina Willis View Post
    6. What ultimately became of that first mando or first few build attempts? Where is it now?
    As I said earlier, the original owner still has it, but I haven't been in contact with him in years so I don't know if he still plays it. Somewhat oddly, most of my early mandolin attempts have someone else's name on the peghead because I was hired by a small shop, actually before I finished the first mandolin, so I don't really know where they have gone.
    Branding is a strange thing to learn about. When one builds under a well known name ones instruments meet with enthusiastic acceptance. It is tempting for the builder to think it is because of the quality of work, not the name, but when one then attempts to sell under one's own name the instruments meet with... "Who??"
    Many builders who have had that experience think it is very unfair, but it is branding at work. Quality is a good thing, but a name is what makes money.
    Last edited by sunburst; Sep-21-2021 at 2:05pm.

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    Registered User amowry's Avatar
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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    I would echo many of things John said-- I too, like many of us, built my first mandolin using the first edition of the Siminoff book, and I made the same mistake with the arching. You see it on many mandolins from that period, and many have collapsing tops . There was also a neck template in that book that included the fretboard in the neck thickness, but I thought it was just referring to the thickness of the neck shaft, so I ended up with a "baseball bat" neck. I was 13 and lived in an isolated place and had literally never held a mandolin before, so I had no idea how a neck would feel. I only played fiddle, and assumed it was correct for a mandolin neck to be a lot bigger .

    Like John, I showed that instrument to some other builders (Pete and Peter at Rigel, Stephen Owsley Smith, and others), and got gentle encouragement and a few minor points of criticism (baseball bat neck). I think it's a fine line as a builder being ask to criticize the work of others, because you don't want to discourage anyone. Also, we tend to be our own worst critic, so to me the work of most other builders looks great compared to my own!

    My brother has that first mandolin. The second is the beater we've always had around the house for the kids to play. When they were little they mostly liked dropping picks in the f holes and watching me struggle to retrieve them

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    Registered User j. condino's Avatar
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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    !!!
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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    There was also a neck template in that book that included the fretboard in the neck thickness, but I thought it was just referring to the thickness of the neck shaft, so I ended up with a "baseball bat" neck.
    That makes me feel a little better. I did the same thing. That drawing is still in current editions. It is a confusing print page.

    Also my neck angle was too low so I slipped the back and lowered the bridge some.

    The other thing I had issues sorting out till after my second one was that a couple the cross sections in the current edition Siminoff book do not match with the lengthwise center cross section. I was able to fudge it but it went a lot smoother when I redrew them so they matched.

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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    What did I goof up? Just about everything! It ended up like James', in the fire.
    Peter Coombe - mandolins, mandolas and guitars
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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    In a lot of ways the first 2 problems were mostly cosmetic but on #3 I got the recurve under the tailpiece too thin and it collapsed from string tension. The greatest luthier almost no one has heard of, D.W. Stevens installed a rod from the tailblock to the headblock that made it playable.
    But all of those had the Siminoff problems like too thick neck and too narrow fingerboard.

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    Registered User John Bertotti's Avatar
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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    Of all the things I could do it was a flat top ten string and the thing I messed up was the hole alignment for the tuners. I tried to use a drill press that wobbled! It was horrible. But they were individual tuners so I strung it up and did the setup in the white. It sounded great. Keep in mind I had no place to work so I was working in a bathtub filled with pillows and a bench across it. Well, I left it sitting in there and had to go on a business trip, and here is mess up #2. I left it in the tub with a toddler in the house. My son was maybe two. I came home with the top at the tail block separated because it was soaked. I never fixed it but I should actually make it a project because it would probably be a good learning experience.

    Perhaps cut the headstock off and scarf a new one on. And pull the top and back, press them back down and reinstall them. It really is a shame it isn't in playable condition because the tone was really good! I actually do not remember what tuning I used.
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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    I used the Siminoff book.

    *rimshot*

    OK, ok, sorry... and sincere thanks to Roger for putting out a complete guide in a time where there was no comprehensive source of information, and I didn't have a computer that could really surf what Web there was.

    All the mistakes I made were 100% my fault for being cocky and impatient.

    I found out that 7/8" is a little too narrow for a mandolin neck (works for a violin, why not a mandolin, right?). And I was too scared to really carve a recurve. And I used CA glue on a lot of the glue joints, because that's just what woodturners did. When it doubt, soak it in CA. It still plays, such as it is.

    Instrument 2 is where I really went off the rails of hubris. I spent the better part of a year building this thing instead of doing school work. I used curly redwood without knowing how to graduate for spruce, much less redwood. I used modified x-bracing with weight relieving holes, haha. I made a 1 1/4" tall bridge because I read somewhere that a higher break angle results in better tone, jack that bad boy up there.

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    When strung up to pitch, the top flattened right out. Never was playable.

    It was a great design experiment, and a great humbling experience. My next instrument was much more successful, just a simple flat top. With a fire-breathing dragon soundhole, haha. Geez, what a dork.

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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    A friend and I have just received the (2014 print) Siminoff plans for mandola and A1. I also have his 1981 'Constructing a Bluegrass Mandolin' which has never been used (life got in the way). I'm taking note of the required latest plan alterations before we start our builds. Are there any more anomalies in these plans?

    Thanks to all
    David

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    Registered User jim simpson's Avatar
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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    Mistakes I've made, not all on the same build: I cut the button off of the back plate that usually covers the heel. I had to put an ebony cap on it. I cut f-holes that were not symetric. I made a jig and cut out an f-5 headstock on the wrong side so the sides sloped the wrong way. I could go on but it's too painful to relive, lol!
    Cabin Fever String Band, Bill Gorby and the Musical Mercenaries

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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    Hi John, I have a hand made mandolin f-5 that I like a lot. The f- holes are cut a little to far forward. When properly intonated the bridge feet sit well behind the f-hole center points. Can anything be done to clean this up? Possibly and offset bridge saddle. Would like it to look more appealing and cover this mistake up a little. Probably. A stupid question. But I figured if any has run into a problem like this it would be you. Bugs the crap out of me. Thanks, text if you want to 859-481-546

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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    859-481-5450

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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    I, too, used the Siminoff book. And I'm grateful for it as there wasn't much else to learn from. I built a number of A models before tackling an F, and I was trying to emulate a carved top on the A models by inducing a curve in the top and back with braces. Unsatisfactory! The first F was playable but what I hadn't realized was the difficulty of envisioning the scroll and making that. My main mistake was thinking that the inner binding rose up to meet the outer binding at the button. Boy, what an ugly mess that can be. The finishing with nitro wasn't that much of a big deal, but I'd been spraying a lot of it on furniture for a number of years. I've been there where you get the area in front of the tailpiece too thin. Only a couple of times, but one was for a customer in England and that was an expensive learning experience. That was long ago, but I keep finding ways to mess something up, but now it's down to details that even if I point them out to someone, they look at me with a big question mark. I don't think any builder worth his salt is ever truly satisfied. Hopefully.

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    Registered User John Bertotti's Avatar
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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    Not a great idea to put your number on a public forum. People here seem good but there are a lot of lurkers and boys everywhere. You’re just asking to get a ton a junk texts and calls now. I would just PM him the number and get it off here quickly. Just saying.
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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    I'm not sure which John the f-hole question is addressed to, but my answer is; no, there is nothing practical do do about it. It is not a problem though, other than "bug[ing] the crap out of [you]".

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    Registered User j. condino's Avatar
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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    Quote Originally Posted by justrythym View Post
    Hi John, I have a hand made mandolin f-5 that I like a lot. The f- holes are cut a little to far forward. When properly intonated the bridge feet sit well behind the f-hole center points. Can anything be done to clean this up? Possibly and offset bridge saddle. Would like it to look more appealing and cover this mistake up a little. Probably. A stupid question. But I figured if any has run into a problem like this it would be you. Bugs the crap out of me. Thanks, text if you want to 859-481-546
    THIS ^^^^^^^ is part of why the F holes should be cut after the top is installed, not from a random pattern applied before the top ever meets the rib garland!!!!!! You'll also learn a lot about voicing by gradually opening the apertures with strings on so you can play it and hear the results.

    In the Italian violin building tradition, the whole instrument is strung up, setup and intonated properly first. After everything is in the correct place, then the F hole notches are cut to identify the correct bridge placement. Their function is location, not aesthetic.

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    Registered User John Bertotti's Avatar
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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    Aren’t you the only John here with a load of experience?
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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    Can't possibly be...

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    Registered User John Bertotti's Avatar
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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    You made me laugh, thankyou!
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    Registered User j. condino's Avatar
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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    [QUOTE=Marty Jacobson;1837753]......All the mistakes I made were 100% my fault for being cocky and impatient.

    Instrument 2 is where I really went off the rails of hubris. I spent the better part of a year building this thing instead of doing school work. I used curly redwood without knowing how to graduate for spruce, much less redwood. I used modified x-bracing with weight relieving holes, haha. I made a 1 1/4" tall bridge because I read somewhere that a higher break angle results in better tone, jack that bad boy up there.

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    When strung up to pitch, the top flattened right out. Never was playable......./QUOTE]


    If you used the same materials today, I'd bet that it would be a pretty successful mandolin.

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    Registered User Steve Sorensen's Avatar
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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    1. Builds 2 - 12 I spent a lot of time re-working the measurements from Roger's Book with Hogo's Loar drawings.
    2. Spent a lot of time at festivals handing mandos to players and watching what they did. That is the strongest slow-working truth serum in the world. Got a crappy Shark CNC that had play and wasn't consistent or precise
    3. After about build 25, reworked graduations and tonebar placement. Got a very precise CNC.
    4. Borrowed a Heiden and spent weeks figuring out why I liked the tone and what made it tick.
    5. Before build 50, reworked graduations and tonebar placement again. Started to understand why some of the ideas in Siminoff's book were tone-killers, and poured over details of Loar-era Gibson builds, Derrington tone, the thin-topped Danny Robert's signed Master Models, and Steve Gilchrist's tonebar shaping.
    6. After build 50, became obsessed with the clean precision of the join of the top to the sides. Reworked the sides construction and internal blocking.

    Although I didn't get it at the time, now that I am past build 100, I finally understand --
    1. The importance of taking the time to just watch players play. Realizing that almost all feedback is devoid of honest criticism -- the truth is in how long they play and how long they keep playing. If they pick a little while, then look at the back and talk about how beautiful the wood is, your instrument isn't working for them.
    Also, as my mentor told me early on, "Someone will confidently whisper, 'This is the best one,' and later you will hear the same feedback about a totally different instrument. Just watch them all play and over time you'll know what you need to do next."
    2. The life-changing aspect of James Condino's avatar photo -- if it doesn't work, burn it, build it better, and don't try to salvage mistakes.
    3. The critical need to re-work and understand all the measurements that I started with as I grew to understand what they caused.
    4. The essential need for well-made truss rods.
    5. Most glue babble is silly if you use Titebond I.
    6. Wood chips are always more rewarding than sawdust.
    7. Finishing is hard ... no harder that that ... no, really really hard.

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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    Many of us owe a debt of gratitude to Siminoff's books. That said, there are funny things in them. He leaves some things poorly explained, I think. But one of the oddest things he says to do, to me, is to carve the inside of the plates first. That doesn't make any sense. Does anybody here do that? Why?

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    Default Re: What did you goof up when building your first mandolin?

    His point in carving the inside first was so it would sit level while carving the outside. Seems better to make a cradle and do it the other way around. But that's just one of many examples. My favorite is to cut out and shape the neck, then cut in the truss rod slot.

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