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.


Updates, concerts, and next projects

Although fall doesn’t officially start until the end of September, to me September 1st feels like the start of the new season, so I decided that it was time for one of my semi-annual newsletter blog posts this week. Also, a lot of things have come up over the last couple of weeks, so I have a few things to share!

Upcoming concerts

As you know, over the next year I will be finishing up the recording of my first CD, so, in theory, I should have a good list of repertoire to draw on for concerts. I have set up a few in Ottawa – Dominion Chalmers in November, Glebe St. James in March, St Luke’s with Craig in April, and Trinity Anglican in July, and of course, I have my first concert in the States at the end of this month in Charlottesville. All of the details for these concerts can be found on my website here. It has been a few months since the last time that I performed, so I am looking forward to getting back on the stage. Of course this means that I need to get back into a better practising routine, so that will be my focus for the remainder of this month!

Once my CD is released (late spring/early summer 2019), I will put together some sort of a tour outside of Ottawa to visit some of my favourite recital spaces across Ontario and wherever I can find a willing audience! If you are interested in having me come visit your neck-of-the-woods, please let me know in the comments below, and I will do my best! I can’t promise anything outside of Canada at the moment due to Visa requirements, but I will do whatever I can to make it work 🙂

Next builds

As my current build is coming to an end (the final blog post should come out next week), I was starting to wonder what I would be building next, and all of a sudden I ended up with 2 more commissions! I am very excited to get started on these guitars – one a Padauk and Engelmann spruce guitar, the other made of Ziricote and European spruce, however, I will likely not get anything going until after my workshop is at least partially remodelled in October.

I have already ordered most of the wood for these guitars, and it is quite the colourful selection!

In the meantime, I have a couple of (hopefully easy) repairs waiting in the shop – classical guitars with buzzes, cracks, and holes, and a very interesting mandolin to spruce up and get back into a playable condition.

As I mentioned above, the main project for this fall will be the re-doing of my workshop with the help of my family. I am excited to learn how to frame a wall, hang drywall, and do all of that DIY home reno stuff. With this project, I’ll first be separating my work space from the furnace, utilities, and laundry machines so that I can control the dust in the house a little bit more. To that end I’ll also be purchasing and installing a proper dust collection system. If I have the time, I am also hoping to install a ceiling so that I don’t have quite as much of a problem with dust settling on the pipes and wires in the ceiling. Once that is sorted, I’ll be focussing on building a proper bench (or 2) with a solid, smooth work-surface that caters to my needs. I’ll also be installing shelves and every possible storage solution that I can think of to keep my workshop more tidy and functional.

New directions

Another new development in the past few weeks is that I have taken on a part-time elementary music teacher position at a private school here in Ottawa. I will be teaching ukulele and guitar to grades 4 through 8 two afternoons a week. This is something fairly new for me – I do have some group guitar instruction experience from work that I did in the summer between university years, but I have not really been traditionally employed since high school. I am looking forward to the new challenges that this will bring!

Of course, this means that I am having to work even more on my time management skills as I somehow have to fit in 8 hours of school work, 30 private students, practising, building, administration, lesson preparation, and whatever else that crops up into a reasonable work-week that allows for a little bit of “me time” as well… but that is seems to be the constant challenge of being self-employed. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do all of these things – it keeps life interesting!

On the blog here, I am planning to continue to write something for most Thursdays. I’ll be continuing the luthier interview series with another builder as soon as things calm down, and I hope to include a few more posts on books and music alongside my usual shop update posts.

As always, thanks for being a part of this tiny community. I’ll repeat myself from earlier in this post – I really do feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do everything that I have been able to do these past few years. I never intended this blog to be much more than personal blog to marry my love of guitars and woodworking with my love of spilling out words. It is hard to believe that this is blog post #161 and that I started this 5 years ago in August of 2013 when my sister said that I should write about the Baroque guitar that I was building at the time. Since then I have been in 4 different workshops, 6 different homes, and have turned my hobbies and university degrees into a career. I have built about 15 instruments since the start of this blog and have learned so much. I can’t wait to see what the next 5 years will bring. (Hopefully less moving, more instruments, many blog posts, and a few big goal achievements and life changes)

A few more photos of the Hamilton guitar

Last week, I posted about my most recently completed guitar, number 017, and today I thought I would indulge myself a little bit more and just share a few more photos of the guitar as I did a little bit of a photo shoot outside in my garden, and I am pretty happy with how they turned out 🙂

Flamed maple headstock veneer
Engelmann Spruce soundboard
Flamed and Spalted maple back
headstock back quilted maple veneer

Hamilton skyline rosette inlay in honour of the Hamilton International Guitar Festival and Competition
Headstock with red veneer lines visible. Gotoh tuning machines

Guitar building update (June 2017)

As I have been neglecting this blog over the last month, I have been at a loss of where to start back with posts. I don’t have any exciting discoveries to share in my building process at the moment, and I have already written about all of the mundane processes of side bending, fretboard slotting, and endless sanding, so I thought that I would just get back into it with an update style post. The other reason for this is that I have not been keeping up with my camera, so I really don’t have any process pictures to show! I think that I need to start keeping the camera in the shop!

I have decided to focus on three of the guitars that I am working on. I ordered a soundboard for the 4th guitar, and I am not entirely happy with the wood grade, plus the humidity has sky-rocketed, so I will not be doing much brace gluing for the next little while.

The three guitars that I am focusing on are the steel-string and the two Torres copies, and they are all nearing completion! I just have a lot of sanding to do, finishing, bridge building, and set up left. I am pretty happy with how everything has turned out so far.

The steel-string guitar is still in two pieces, but it will be like this until the guitar is finished. This guitar has a bolt-on neck, so I will wait to attach the two pieces together until after the varnish is dry. This will make my life much easier when it comes to applying the finish – fewer nooks and crannies means less trouble while polishing and fewer weird brush marks.

I am particularly happy with how the binding on this guitar is turning out. I just used cutoffs from the guitar sides and added white purfling lines to separate the bindings from the sides and top/back. A little more clean up left, but overall, it is looking pretty sharp (if I do say so myself).

I am also quite happy with how the butt-joint inlay worked out:

The commissioned Torres guitar is looking quite well also. This guitar just needs a bit of sanding and clean up, and then I will be ready to apply some varnish later this week.

With the back and sides being of maple, the finishing process should be fairly easy as I will only have to pore-fill the headstock and neck.

The third guitar is the almost identical twin of the guitar above, just with quilted maple back and sides, and with walnut headstock and bindings. This guitar will be for sale at some point, depending how attached I become.

I will be sanding all of these guitars this week and then moving them up to my spare bedroom to be finished. I am trying a new varnish this time, so I will definitely be reporting on how that goes! Lots of good reviews from friends, so I think it should be a positive experience!

If all goes well, I’ll be delivering these guitars at the beginning of July, and I will be showing the second Torres guitar at the Hamilton festival on Saturday, July 8th. Come out to the festival if you would like to try it out!

Mini concert tour of southern Ontario

It has been a while since I posted a blog! I disappeared off to England for a holiday at the beginning of October, and when I got back, I was completely overtaken by preparations for the concert tour that Craig and I were organizing for the end of October. Then we went and played those concerts, and I am finally getting back (slowly) into a regular routine now.

I will be write a building blog soon, however, I thought that today I would share a few thoughts from our run of concerts. These were the first concerts that Craig and I have given as a duo since graduating, so they were quite a learning experience! I have organized concerts before, both for myself (June 2015 concerts in Grey-Bruce), and for large groups of people (Music for Humanity), however, this was definitely a step up from these! This was also not the first “mini-tour” that I have been a part of – I played a series of concerts with three other guitarists in Nova Scotia last year, however, I was not the one organizing the concerts, which made my job a lot easier! Craig and I set up 8 concerts over a 10 day period, which is quite a lot to organize, especially when you are just starting to figure out how to go about these things.

We started our tour by driving from Ottawa back to Grey-Bruce where I grew up. It was a long and snowy drive, but we found a beautiful lake on the way in Denbigh. (I think that Craig should use this for an album cover.)


We played three concerts in Grey-Bruce in support of the local women’s shelters. Two of the venues (Kincardine and Hanover) were churches that I had used before for concerts, so the turn out was quite good. We had 60 people in Hanover and it felt amazing to play to such a full audience. They even gave us a standing ovation at the end! Owen Sound was a new venue, and caused us a bit of anxiety. We almost didn’t get into the church, and I had not put as much effort into marketing the concert, so the audience was a bit smaller. We will definitely return to Owen Sound, however, we are going to have to think of how to reach more people.

The church in Hanover before it was filled with people
The church in Hanover before it was filled with people

After these three concerts (as well as a performance at a retirement home and a workshop for youths), we made our way down to Woodstock, where we spent the rest of the week. We played concerts in Cambridge, London, Woodstock, and Stratford during the week. All of these venues were new to us, so, as expected, we had smaller audiences than in Hanover and Kincardine. The concerts went well, and we had great feedback from the audiences, so we will be returning.

Our favourite concert of the four Southwestern Ontario concerts had to be Stratford. We showed up at the church where we were going to play to find it locked and dark. As time went on, we became more anxious and tried calling every number that we could find to try to get into the church. The audience showed up as well, and when 7:30 pm came and went, it seemed like we weren’t going to be giving a concert that night. Then Terry McKenna, the guitarist and lute player from the Stratford festival and guitar teacher at Laurier University, offered up his studio as a venue for an intimate concert. The studio was set up as a mini-theatre and was perfect for our impromptu house concert. Terry directed us and the small audience of 6 to his home and made us feel incredibly welcomed and at ease. We changed our program to make it more casual, getting rid of the intermission and changing the order of the pieces. It was a wonderful experience, and a great ending to a night that didn’t seem to be heading in our favour.

Playing the makeshift concert in Stratford
Playing the makeshift concert in Stratford

We ended our tour in Kingston on November 6th, playing an afternoon concert in a beautiful hall at Chalmers United Church before returning home to Ottawa, exhausted, and ready for a few days of hibernation.

This tour proved to be an amazing learning experience for both of us as well as a great opportunity to share some music with friends, family, and music lovers around Southern Ontario. Here are a few of the things that I will be remembering for next time:

  • Don’t try to book venues over the summer. Everyone is on holiday or going on holiday or coming back from a holiday. Next time we will have the fall concerts booked in May
  • Be careful when programming difficult repertoire. Next time, I will include some less challenging, enjoyable pieces as well as music like the Chaconne and the Emilia Giuliani preludes. My hands were worn out after the first couple nights, so I found it hard to sustain the endurance for some of my repertoire through the week.
  • Bring a blazer or something else that is presentable and warm for cold halls! We had every temperature of hall, from uncomfortably humid to goose bump cold. I would have liked to be more prepared for the cold temperatures.
  • Although touring also involves visiting and meeting with friends and family, it is important to find some time to prepare and focus during concert day. It was easy to fall into the pattern of thinking that we were on holiday during the day, and then find ourselves struggling to focus during the performance.

Thank you again to everyone who came out to the concerts and to everyone who helped make this concert tour a success! We hope to be back to Grey-Bruce and Southern Ontario next year for another run of concerts. We will start organizing our spring tour through Nova Scotia in the next couple weeks. In the meantime, we will be performing in Ottawa this Sunday, November 13th at 3pm. Check out the details and all of our other concert dates here.