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.


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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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