Mandolin repair and shop updates

It has been a while since I posted on here – don’t worry, I have not quit building – my time has just been eaten up by teaching for the past several weeks with Christmas concert preparations, report card writing, and at-home student recitals. I have had a few gigs as well – a concert in a noon hour recital series, the annual guitar society gala concert, and a few background music gigs for exercise classes. I should have been recording as well, but ended up having to cancel a few sessions due to nail breakage (somehow I have managed to break all 5 nails over the past 3 weeks). I’ll be finishing up the recording early in 2019 so long as my nails grow back!

Although I have started on the guitar builds, I do not have much to show for it yet. I’ll be putting in as many hours as I can over the next two weeks (when I’m not visiting family), so I am sure that I will have another blog post at the beginning of January with a progress update on the builds. In the meantime, I thought I’d do a quick post on a recent repair project that has occupied my bench for the past couple of weeks.

I neglected to take before pictures, but here is one early in the repair process:

I don’t know if it is going to become an annual thing, but yes, this is another mandolin repair in December – if you remember last year, I was working on another, albeit quite different mandolin. Last year it was a flat-backed Ukrainian mandolin for a friend. This time around, it is an old lute-backed Regent mandolin for one of my students. Most of the work that needed to be done was cosmetic – dents, flaking finish and the like. There was also a crack in the soundboard that needed some attention and a bit of structural repair work around the tailpiece.

The first repair was to replace a broken piece of binding wood. I happened to have a piece of cherry that matched the original almost exactly and that was already pretty much of the exact dimensions that I needed for this job. In the picture below, you can see the finished repair – can you tell which piece is original and which is new?

The replaced piece is the darker strip of wood at the top of the lute on the right side of the picture. The left side is original.

On the front of the instrument, I had to repair a crack in the soundboard. This repair is not invisible unfortunately – over time, the soundboard has darkened from UV exposure, so the area that I had to sand out for the repair is noticeably lighter in colour than the rest of the soundboard. Because it is under the strings it is somewhat disguised, so I am OK with the less than perfect appearance.

I also had to repair, refinish, and reattach the decorative tail piece. This was cracked in several places, and had been poorly repaired at another time (just imagine glue everywhere and wood out of alignment), so I had to undo the previous repair, realign the pieces, and then apply new glue. For all of this work I used hide glue to suit the age of the instrument, and also to make it easier for any future repairs. I have to say, I am becoming quite a fan of hide glue despite the smell. Once all of the pieces were glued back together, I had a bit of sanding and staining to do before I could apply a French polished shellac finish.

The finish on the fingerboard was flaking off, so I completely stripped it of whatever varnish had been used. This revealed that the fingerboard was not ebony and just some kind of stained light coloured wood (I am guessing maple). After doing a bit of reading, I decided to use Higgins black India ink as a stain for the fingerboard. I already had a bottle from when I used to do a bit of visual art, and it seemed to work quite well. I applied a couple of coats to the fingerboard and then rubbed a thin coat of wax over the top for protection and a bit of shine.

On the back of the instrument, I did not really have too much to do. Amazingly, the bowl of the instrument was in near perfect condition with just a few small scrapes and scratches. I did a little bit of clean up on this and rubbed on a bit of shellac to restore some of the shine, but otherwise I left it as is. The neck was a bit more badly damaged, so I sanded it clean, re-stained the wood with a mixture of cherry and mahogany colour, and then rubbed on a thin coat of French polish shellac for shine.

My student polished the metal bits – tail piece and tuning machines, so all I had to to was to reattach the original hardware and then string her up. She is quite a beautiful instrument with a nice sound. I can’t say that I am too much a fan of the bowl-back shape as it does make it quite difficult to hold, but it great for sound projection!

Hopefully this repair means that this mandolin will get another good few years of use. As frustrating as some repair jobs can be, restoring/repairing old instruments is extremely satisfying – there is nothing quite as rewarding as bringing back the voice of an instrument that hasn’t been played for years.


Workshop renovations part 2

I introduced this project in my last blog, and since that day, my workshop has changed to be almost unrecognizable. It is not quite complete – I have a few more weeks of organizing left, and there are a couple of larger projects left including a ceiling to figure out and a shelf to build.

I didn’t take too many pictures during the process, but here is one from the first day after framing out the first wall to enclose the utilities.

After a few days of work, this is what that corner has turned into:

We hung a door and drywall, and I put one coat of primer-paint  on the walls to brighten up the space. The white on the walls made a huge difference to how light the workspace feels. As you can see above, I put up a few shelves near the entrance of the workshop for wood storage. The shelves are about 9 inches deep and 28 inches long which fit the back, top, and side woods for guitars perfectly. I have a shelf for each of these guitar parts as well as a fourth shelf for necks, fingerboards, and other bits.

We also built a closet around my laundry machines, which gave me a lot more storage out of the way behind a couple of folding doors. This means that the entrance to the shop is a just under 4 foot wide hallway.

With the wood shelves to the left, I didn’t want to take up too much room with more stuff on the right side, so I just made a narrow book ledge and set of hooks for work clothes and other bits. With the narrow hallway, it was a bit tricky to get a photo, but here is an idea of the space:

I made the shelf quickly out of rough wood that I kept from my old bench.

On the other end of the closet near my bench, I started a wall of clamps, attaching a couple of simple wooden frames to hold my bar and C clamps, and hanging my larger clamps from a couple of nails. Most of the wood that I used was from the old bench, so they are a bit rough, but very sturdy and serviceable. I’ve left lots of room to expand my collection, and I do have more room at the bottom of the wall for more storage in case I need it.

I’ve hung my spring clamps above the left side of my bench from some dowels strung between 2×4 cut-offs. If I get too many more clamps, I will probably have to replace the dowels with metal rods to support the weight, but for now, these leftover dowel ends work very well.

While my dad and I worked on the walls, my brother built me a beautiful 6 foot long, 34 inch tall bench where my old bench used to be. Unlike the bench that came with my house, this one is attached securely to the wall and has a smooth top built of 3/4 inch G1S plywood. There is also a plywood shelf underneath (which desperately needs organizing).

Behind the bench, I hung 1/2 inch plywood to organize my most used tools. This was already partly up when I wrote my last blog, but I had a section at the end left to complete, and I decided to create a few narrow shelves for my planes there.

My bother also built me a second, smaller (4 foot long) bench along the new wall. This bench has a frame underneath it to store my off-season tires, and a piece of 1/4 inch pegboard behind to hang a few tools.

Finally, one of the last new additions to my shop is this new-to-me 1hp General dust collector. I haven’t attached the bag yet or put it to use, but I will definitely be using it in the next week as I start into the next guitar builds.

I couldn’t be happier with the direction that my workshop is taking! I am still amazed at how building walls and shrinking floor-space has given me more room. It doesn’t immediately seem logical, but by building walls, I have created more storage space which is clearing the clutter and making sense of the workshop. I have a few more bits and pieces to do over the next while (you probably noticed the chaotic areas in the edges of some of the photos), but the majority is complete, thanks to all of the time, tools, and expertise that my dad and brother so generously donated.

Workshop renovations part 1

I have been talking about this for several months and now the time is finally here! Over the next couple of weeks, my workshop will be undergoing all sorts of transformations to hopefully result in something more efficient and less dusty. The plan is to a) build a couple of partition walls to separate the workshop from the furnace/utility room, b) enclose the laundry machines in a closet, and c) create new benches and shelves to maximize storage efficiency. Hopefully this will keep some of the dust that I create out of my “clean” clothes and out of the rest of the house. Once I have these walls in place I will also have more spots to hang shelves and tools, so everything should, in theory, become more organized.

My father and brother have generously donated a week of their time to the cause, so this week I’ll be learning how to properly build a wall, hang drywall, install doors, and possibly do a bit of wiring, rather than fumbling around myself as I so often do. Most of the time fumbling around seems to work pretty well for me, but other times, like today, I slip with a hammer and punch myself in the face.

Before they arrive I wanted to get the demolition part done and start on a few of the smaller things so that we don’t waste too much time on things that I can do myself. I’ll also be moving a lot of the stuff temporarily out of the workshop, but I haven’t yet decided where to put everything, and I don’t want to make Craig climb through my workshop mess for too long!

On the topic of workshop mess, I started this reno project about 2 weeks ago with a bit of a clear out. Over the 2.5 years that I have been here, I have managed to amass an awful lot of junk, scrap parts, and cardboard boxes, so I made a few trips out to the dumpster with armloads of unnecessary clutter. I am sure that there is more to go, so I’ll spend a bit of time this week getting rid of things that I don’t need or use.

Here’s what my shop looked like in the middle of that first clear out day:

Yes, I had my computer down in the shop and was listening to a video while tidying up – not a great habit, but it did make cleaning more fun. At some point I’ll install some kind of CD player or speaker in my workshop so that I can listen to music, but that isn’t top of my priorities at the moment.

What I’m working with

My workshop is in a 14′ x 17′ rectangular basement room with no windows and a few significant obstacles. First off, there are a couple of low ceiling/unusable areas due to stairways. Secondly, I have my furnace and water heater in the same room as well as the washing machine, dryer, and laundry tub. It is great to have the water source right there for clean up, but I do worry about dust getting into everything. For the past couple of years I have been using old sheets to cover up the machines, but that is not always practical, and I can’t do a whole lot about the furnace due to things like fire.

Because of these obstacles, as I said before, the plan is to build a couple of partition walls. Once this is done, I’ll end up with a lopsided T-shaped workspace with about 140 square feet of space. I’ll sacrifice some floor area, but I will gain an awful lot of wall space, which is almost as valuable in a workshop.

I am going to keep my main bench in the same location that it has been, but I will shorten it from an 8 foot bench to a 6 foot. I wasn’t using the full 8 feet anyway due to the washing machine location, and this will give me a little bit more floor space (likely for bike storage in the winter). I am also going to add a second, slightly smaller bench on the other side of my shop, which I think will be incredibly handy. Both of these benches will have smooth plywood tops, which will be a significant upgrade from the uneven slatted bench I have been using.

The drill press and bandsaw aren’t going anywhere, but I am going to add another piece of equipment in the next couple of weeks – a proper dust collector. This will go in the low ceiling corner where I used to have piles of wood.


The first thing to go was the rough shelving unit on which I had been storing my wood. I moved the wood out of the workshop and gave the structure a couple of taps with a hammer, and the whole thing just about fell off of the wall! I think it was a good thing that I took it down – not sure how much longer it would have lasted!

I then used a bunch of scrap wood to create a scrap lumber bin to replace the old cardboard box. I created something out of all sorts of random offcuts, so it looks rather rough, but is quite serviceable. At some point I’ll add wheels – it is just about impossible to move around at the moment!

In the picture below you can see the corner where the shelf used to be and can catch a glimpse of my lumber cart beside the drill press:

After this was gone, the next thing to go was the bench, which was a physically demanding task due to the size and weight of the structure and how tightly it was tucked in between a post and the wall. I managed to get it apart for the most part, and also took down the shelf that was above the bench so that I would have a clean slate to work with. I don’t have a very good hammer or a pry-bar, so the bench top had to stay in almost one piece. I used a hand saw to cut it into 2 pieces so that I could lean it up against a wall to get it out of the way.

Getting rid of the bench meant that I had a lot of tools and junk to find temporary homes for…

It still looks almost like that – tomorrow’s task perhaps?

Construction part 1

I have not done much as I am waiting on a delivery from Home Depot, but I did manage to get a start on some basic tool storage. I decided to hang some plywood behind where my bench will be so that I have something solid to hang tools from. I started by strapping some scrap 2 foot long, 1 inch thick lumber to the studs in the wall, and then attached a piece of 2′ x 4′ plywood to the straps. This piece will be off-centre of my 6 foot long bench as I have a little shelving unit to fit on the left end. I used dowels and nails to create hooks for my favourite and most used tools on this board. I also hung another plywood board to the right side of the bench location where I can hang larger tools and things that I don’t need as frequently.

Finally I put a 4 inch piece of wood on top of the ledge above the plywood boards to create a narrow shelf for glue and finishes to have them easily accessible. I set up a temporary bench on a couple of saw horses so that I can do a bit of work this week.

And that is the current state of my shop. In about a week it will look completely different – I can’t wait!

Mysterious buzz repair

I don’t take on many repair jobs, but this one came in from one of Craig’s students, and I couldn’t say no. It is a beautiful, simple guitar made by a Swedish guitar builder, Bo Wretling in 1968. The guitar is really easy to play due to a 630mm scale length, low action, and a narrow and thin neck. The trouble was that it had an annoying buzz on the low open strings, and sometimes in the 1st and 2nd fret positions.

Of course, my immediate thought was that it would be a simple action or fret issue – the action at the first fret was quite a bit lower than I would normally have a guitar set up. Normally I set the first fret action on the 6th string to about 1mm so that I can really dig in when I am playing and not worry about buzzing. This guitar was just about 0.5mm at the 1st fret, 6th string, which is very low for a classical guitar.

With this in mind, I started by trying to raise the action at the nut, adding shims and hoping to get rid of the buzz. Nothing worked – even when the action was well over 1.5mm, the buzz rang out, maybe even worse than before.

So I removed the strings and reached inside the guitar, thinking that I might find a loose brace. And I did – there was a pad just under the bridge that was not glued down very well, so I thought “awesome, I’ve solved it. Simple fix.” I boiled up some glue and worked it into the crack, which took some doing – it is not easy to get glue into a place that you can’t see. It took two sessions of gluing to get the pad secured. I let it sit for a day and then restrung the guitar only to find that my repair had done absolutely nothing for the buzz.

Next I checked the tuning machines – they seemed to rattle a bit when tapped, and the buzz did sound faintly metallic, so perhaps it was just a sympathetic buzz from old tuning machines. But even when I removed the offending tuner, the guitar continued to buzz.

Fed up, perplexed, and frustrated, I decided to get some felt and mute all of the possible rattles from strings and tuning machines just to make sure that it wasn’t just a loose string end buzzing against a piece of wood or a back buzz from one of the strings where it touched the headstock. It wasn’t any of these things – the buzz continued.

Then I decided to take a closer look at the bridge, and noticed that the string holes in the tie block were extremely worn. I also noticed that when I touched the 6th string behind the saddle, the buzz stopped. At this point I was pretty sure that the buzz was coming from the saddle, so I just had to figure out how to stop it. I decided to try an absurdly high saddle to see if that would stop the buzz, and it did. Finally there was no buzz. Of course, it also made the guitar completely unplayable, but at least I knew what the problem was.

Because of how worn the tie-block holes were, there was almost no break angle over the saddle, so the bass strings were flapping against the saddle. This explained why the buzzes only happened with open strings or in the lower positions – playing a note a the 12th fret or in a higher position would put enough force down on the saddle to prevent the buzz, but there was not enough downward pressure with open strings or in the first and second frets.

All I had to do was figure out how to repair the holes and/or change the string-break angle. Luckily I was spending 24 hours by myself in a car last weekend (13 hours to and 11 hours back from Virginia for my concert in Charlottesville), so I had plenty of time to come up with ideas.

Solution number 1 would be to use a higher saddle. The trouble with that is that the action at the 12th fret was already about 4.5mm, which is about the highest that I would like it to be for playability. A higher saddle could also compromise the intonation of the instrument, so I decided against this.

Solution number 2 would be to somehow make tiny wedges to attach inside the worn tie block holes. I ruled this one out because it seemed way too finicky and liable to fail in the next couple of months or when the strings get changed.

Solution number 3 would be to remove the bridge and either make a new bridge or repair the existing one. I decided that this would potentially cause a lot of damage to the instrument, and would be very labour intensive, so I decided not to remove the bridge.

The final solution that I came up with was to just replace the tie block itself. This was by far the simplest, least invasive and most likely to last solution that I could come up with, so I got to work by cutting off the tie-block with my Japanese saw. I then cleaned up the cut with a small plane, chisel, and some sandpaper so that the tie block area was left perfectly flat and ready for a new block.

I used the saw to cut off the tie block because I wanted to save the mosaic inlay that was atop the block so that I could attach it to the new block to make the repair less noticeable.

I made a new block out of ebony – the original bridge is rosewood, but I decided to use ebony so that the holes don’t wear as badly. Once I had the block sized and drilled, I glued the original mosaic veneer to the top

and then glued the tie block to the bridge.

I fashioned a makeshift caul for the inside of the guitar out of cork and a scrap piece of wood, and clamped the tie block much like I would a bridge.

After a little bit of clean up and a quick coat of shellac, I think it looks pretty great:

The repair is not invisible – if you look closely, you can see that the tie block is now a sandwich of rosewood and ebony, but it is not noticeable at first glance.

Of course, the best part is that this repair worked. By increasing the string-break angle by a little bit (I should have measured the before and after), I managed to eliminate the buzz, and improve the tone of this guitar. This was a good exercise for me actually as it proved the importance of a good string-break angle in guitar construction. (This was not the fault of the original builder, just the wearing of time). I will be more aware of this in my own construction from this point on.

Completed guitar no. 021

The guitar is finally finished! I say finally because I went over my initial timeline for this guitar by about 2 months, largely due to taking on the Hamilton guitar project and all of the travelling that I squeezed into the summer. I think it looks pretty fantastic and I am equally happy with how it sounds and plays. For a traditionally built guitar, this one has a decent amount of volume with responsive basses and singing trebles. I find that the guitar responds without a lot of effort and my fretting hand feels pretty comfortable on the 640mm scale. Unfortunately I will be delivering the guitar very soon, so I don’t get much of a chance to play her!

Since the last building update, I have spent many hours applying (and removing) shellac. I started by brushing on a few coats and working some pore filler into the rosewood. That took me longer than it should have – I am not a big fan of the pore filler that I was using. Next time I’ll be using the traditional French polishing method of filling pores rather than mucking around with another product. Once the pores were mostly filled, I switched gears a bit and started padding on shellac (“French Polishing”). I am by no means an experienced polisher, so I ended up having to sand out many more imperfections than I care to admit, but in the end, it has turned out passably well. I will save a more in depth discussion of French Polishing until I am more confident in the process.

Once I was happy with the top, I made a bridge out of rosewood and fitted and glued it in position. Of course I then had to go back and fix a couple of scratches in the polish, so I got out my shellac again and polished a bit more.

Then I hammered in the frets in and set the guitar up to play so that a couple of friends and colleagues could try out the guitar, and of course, the finish was damaged slightly during the test runs with all of the rasgueados and tapping, so I had to pull out the shellac once more and polish away the scratches. Luckily shellac, although time consuming, is quite forgiving, so after all of this, it looks pretty decent.

I have to say, I am quite fond of the birdseye maple fingerboard. At first I was skeptical, but now that I see the finished guitar with the rosette and everything working together, I think that bright fingerboard is quite stunning. It was also easier to work with than ebony or rosewood because pencil lines showed up really easily on the light wood!

I think this light fingerboard works so well because I kept the overall palette of the guitar quite simple. Rather than cramming in every exciting bit of wood that I could find, I stuck to cedar, rosewood, birdseye maple, white purfling, and a little bit of ebony. The bright fingerboard is balanced between a rosewood headstock veneer and a rosewood bridge.

And can I gloat a little bit over the success of the rosette? This was requested by the client, so I cannot take ownership of the idea, but I am pretty happy with the execution:

I did consider (after comments from some readers, actually) adding a new moon on the fingerboard to complete the lunar cycle, but after looking at it, thought that it looked a bit odd, and the client and I decided that we preferred the simple, clean look of an uninterrupted fingerboard.

I did put a little bit of Lee Valley’s varnish oil on the fingerboard and the bridge to protect the wood from dirt and give it a bit of a glow.

Not much else to say on this guitar, but here are a few more pictures:

raised fingerboard detail
Headstock detail featuring a rosewood veneer and Gotoh tuning machines

And so that is it, another one done! I’ll be starting a new guitar soon, but first I have to get through a couple more projects, so you might not see the new build under way until late October.