Friday, September 30, 2011

Brendan’s Mandolin (& guitar update!)

I’m aware that my blog seems to have gained quite a few followers; so many thanks to all those who are interested in what goes on here. I’m also aware that I haven’t chronicled an instrument from start to finish, in detail, for awhile, so here goes!

Brendan’s Mandolin Part I

You saw the Alessi tuners for Brendan’s twin-pointer a few months back, they are F-style so, I’ve designed a new head shape to suit them. It’s not quite as straightforward as you might think; on F-style tuners, each button is on a different length shaft and you have to get the curve of the head just right so that it works aesthetically and on a practical level the buttons have got to rotate!

Rather then trying to draw the curve- I shaped a piece of hardboard with the tuners mounted on and gradually sanded the 'board away until the shape worked.

With the edges worked out, I started looking at the design for the top of the head. So after some time sketching, this is what I came up with and Brendan is happy with it. So let’s make it!
The neck is made from Cuban mahogany; this is the real thing, beautiful rich brown, recycled from the lid of a 19th century grand piano. It’s laminated from 3 sections with the grain of the middle section going in the opposite direction to the outer two; this aids stability.

The head is glued on with a scarf joint; I’m amazed that most mandolin necks are just cut from one piece giving short grain in the head.

The neck is stiffened with two carbon-fibre strips which I run through into the head for even more added strength! I guess what I like to do is build a very strong, but light instrument- the strength coming from design and attention to detail rather bulk.
You can see (below) that I cut out my pearl N logo by hand- yes I actually make them myself. The pearl is very brittle so it’s glued to some thin ply for support.

The N is then inlaid into the ebony head overlay. I do this before I glue the head overlay on, so that I can cut right through the overlay (with a piercing saw).

The head overlay is glued on- tiny wooden pins ensure that the inlay is in the centre of the head.

I use a StewMac jig to ensure that the holes are aligned, with 4 tuners on a plate, you can’t afford to be inaccurate. I’ve done this task successfully without a jig, but the measuring out is a pain as the tuners’ dimensions are imperial and trying to mark out 29/32” spacing when you’re used to metric.......
With the tuners fitting, the head is cut out and carefully shaped.

And eventually- the finished head! The ebony head overlay coupled with the ebony buttons is pure class, even if I say so myself.

And I haven’t forgotten the guitars! I’ve just made the bridge for Alan’s model 1 which should be glued on next week.
and Chris’s Hare has had a coat of sealer prior to grain filling. What’s really cool about Chris’s is that the rosewood sides have really dark stripes and in places the ebony bindings seem to blend in and disappear!

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Standard Mandolin II

Standard Mandolin II is now completed and very nice it is too!

Sitka spruce soundboard, koa back and sides bound with rosewood, maple neck with a koa head overlay, rosewood fingerboard, rosewood bridge and of course that tailpiece.

I love this back!!

One thing that I’ve changed on this mandolin is the finish. Most of you who follow my blog, know that I’m a great advocate of Tru-oil, however on this (and subsequent mandolins) I’ve used an open pour satin shellac finish. It still has the wonderful smooth feel and natural appearance of the oil, but being shellac based I think that it looks even better.

So what is this “open pour satin shellac finish” then? Well, I’ve started French polishing with a modified shellac polish- that’s a polish that contains Ethyl Cellulose. It’s still applied in the traditional way, but is a generally more resilient polish. Whilst I was French polishing with it, it became clear to me that if I could apply this material in a similar way to the Tru-oil I should get a similar finish.

What are the advantages? Well, I’ve always believed that shellac diffracts the light in a certain way which greatly enhances the appearance of the wood.

The Ethyl Cellulose gives a resilient finish.

I generally prefer spirit based rather than oil finishes as they are not absorbed into the wood.

Also I have found that Tru-oil can take a very long time to dry on resinous woods such as rosewood.

Once the finish has hardened the satin appearance is created with micro-mesh abrasive and 0000 steel wool and then a couple of coats of museum quality, microcrystalline wax polish are applied. Hey presto a very pretty mandolin!

It will soon be on its way to Kevin. I’ve never been one for customer endorsements, you know, “Mrs B of Cleethorpes loves our double glazing.” But Kevin’s Dad has one of my twin-point mandolins, so that’s endorsement enough for me!

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Thursday, September 22, 2011


I’ve just noticed that Phil Hare has uploaded a couple of new videos. As always, his playing is brilliant, but what I like from the “Nava” perspective is how the guitar sounds. What the videos demonstrate is how well my guitars are balanced across and up and down the fingerboard and also that there is still a decent sound even with the 6th string tuned down to C! Cheers Phil!

Talking of the Phil Hare guitar- I’ve finally got the neck and fingerboard on Chris’s Hare and have started to carve the neck. I’ve been a bit under the weather lately and haven’t been quite as productive as normal; I’m grateful that all of my client’s are patient with me.

Oh, and Alan’s Model 1- waiting for the French polish to fully harden before the bridge goes on.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Red Spruce (Adirondack?)

I’m quite excited, I’ve just received a batch of ten Red Spruce mandolin soundboards from the US. Buying tonewoods unseen is always a bit risky but who dares wins! They were described as “master grade” and they certainly are- some of the best I’ve seen for a long while.

Red spruce was used by Martin and Gibson on many of their best pre WWII guitars and mandolins. It seems to be re-gaining its popularity even though it’s quite pricey. The terms red spruce and Adirondack seem to be interchangeable, but as far as I can tell Adirondack is red spruce but from that particular area of the States.

These boards are very stiff and have a great resonant tap tone. The stiffness of red spruce makes it ideal for mandolins as the soundboard is subjected to downward forces.

Looking forward to using these! Brendan’s twin-pointer will be the first, watch this space.......

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Thursday, September 08, 2011

Mandolin Tailpiece

For quite awhile, I’ve wanted to design and make my own mandolin tailpieces. I won’t dwell on the merits of current designs; let’s cut to the chase!

I wanted a design that’s predominantly wood so that:

One, I can match it to the tonewoods used.

Two, I can vary the shape to complement the head design.

I feel that the tailpiece needs to be anchored to the mandolin firmly rather than use the violin style “gut” fastener that is sometimes used with wooden tailpieces.

So, I’ve gone for a design that has a brass base/fixing which is “housed” in hardwood.

Here's the base plate before bending-

Hopefully, the aesthetics speak for themselves; so here's the function part!

The brass pegs are made from machine screws, which means that they are threaded along their length. I decided to use these rather than plain brass rod, so that the thread grips the loop end of the strings and stops them from riding up the pins.

The strings pass through holes in the wooden body- this has the effect of dampening them, so that they don’t vibrate and buzz like they can on some metal designs.

The idea of the raised sides is simply to protect the player from the pegs, although I’ve left the end of the tailpiece open, this means that you slide the strings easily through the hole as you don’t have to bend them.

One unintended advantage is that the strings seem to stay in place before they are tensioned because they are held in alignment by the hole and griped by the thread. Jolly successful if I say so myself!

This tailpiece is going on to Standard II hence being made from rosewood and koa and the sloping end to match the headstock, however, this won’t be a regular component on the Standard as it’s a good days work to make. It will be used on the more expensive twin-point.

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