Repairing a mandolin

I don’t do a lot of repair work by choice (I simply don’t have time!), but I do tend to enjoy the odd repair that I am asked to do. Repairing instruments teaches me a lot about building as I am able to scrutinize what another builder (or factory) has done. This project was particularly fun – a friend of mine asked me to repair her grandmother’s Ukrainian flat-top mandolin so that she would be able to learn to play just like her grandmother.

I neglected to take a ‘before’ picture, but the fingerboard of the mandolin had fallen off, and the back was coming off in places and missing a brace.

I started by removing the strings and then prying off the back. Because the glue was so old, the back came off quite easily with  little bit of heat and a narrow metal spatula. In the photo below, I am just repairing one ‘tooth’ of the kerfing that was slightly damaged.

I then cleaned up the back and removed the one brace that was still partially attached. 

And then re-braced the back with two new spruce braces shaped to match the original braces.

With that all cleaned up and the glue removed from the kerfing pieces, I reattached the back. I used tape alongside my newly homemade spool clamps to clamp the back in place.


With the back fixed, I proceeded to make a new fingerboard out of ebony. I had the original fingerboard, but it was very worn and split down the centre, so I decided that it would be better to make a new fingerboard. The scale length of this instrument was just slightly under 13 inches, and I put 17 frets into the fingerboard. I used narrow Nickel/Silver fretwire from Luthier’s Mercantile (FW68 which is intended for mandolins and other small instruments).

The last thing to do was to clean up the instrument with a new coat of stain and finish on the back, sides, neck, and headpiece. I did not touch the soundboard as it was ornamented, and although damaged, was probably the most sentimental part of the instrument. In removing and reattaching the back, I had slightly damaged the already peeling finish on the back and sides, so I decided that it would be good to give the mandolin a new protective layer. I also realized in the process of removing the original finish, that the old finish had faded in the sunlight considerably from a reddish hue to a rather unappealing dusty brown. Because of this, I decided to stain the back and sides a deep “Bombay Mahogany” colour, which I think looks quite good. I went for a satin finish, as this is an old instrument, and a shiny new finish would look quite out of place against the worn soundboard and old hardware.

The last thing to do was to make a new nut (the old one was quite broken), and do the final set up with light gauge strings. The instrument is quite playable now, and is a lot of fun! I kind of want to build myself a flat-top mandolin now so that I can do a bit of Chris Thile inspired bluegrass strumming. I taught myself 3 chords today before the mandolin was picked up in the afternoon, and had a lot of fun messing around with the one folk tune that I could think of and had time to figure out.

I have a few more repairs to do in the near future (I think that there are 3 guitars sitting waiting for a bit of TLC. Somehow, their owners are apparently quite OK with my sluggish pace of work!), so I will try to do a few more posts like this one in the new year. And, as I said, there might be another mandolin in the future of this blog…

In the meantime, I am finishing up the classical guitar that I am working on, and am making good progress on the finishing. The guitar is quite shiny at this point, and I have to say that I think that this might be some of my best work yet. I will have that guitar finished by the week’s end, and should have a blog post on the final stages of building before Christmas. If things go well, I might even have time for a festive video with the guitar before I have to deliver it!

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Emily

I play guitar. I build guitars when I can. I enjoy all sorts of music, but Baroque, 'classical' guitar music of the 19th and 20th centuries, and jazz music hold special places in my heart. I am using this blog to document some of my adventures in guitar building, performing, and teaching, and hope to give my readers a bit of a look at the world inside a guitar.

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