Saturday, November 3, 2007

Step one

About a year and a half ago, the top collapsed on my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, Chinese-made, 90-dollar-Ebay-special mandolin. This wasn't a big deal; I'd been planning to eventually knock a hole in it, fill it with potting soil, and plant herbs in it anyway. I was just hoping it would hold together long enough for me to upgrade to a better mandolin first.

Now, really good-quality carved-top mandolins are insanely expensive. Gibson's entry-level A9 model is around $2,000, and they go way, way up from there. To get a good instrument without selling my car, I figured I'd just have to make one myself.

Enter the International Violin Company Mandolin Kit. What could be better? All the grunt work is done. The sides are fitted to the top, the neck is put together and fretted, the top and back are roughed out. All that's left is the touchy-feely stuff (shaping and graduating the plates, installing and carving the tone bars, shaping the neck to my liking) and gluing it all together. And it ends up as a pretty nice instrument. Reviews of these kits on mandolin newsgroups I read have been pretty positive.

The one snag with the kit is that the back plate I got was about a quarter-inch too narrow to fit the sides. I exchanged a few emails with International Violins, whose attitude was, yeah, a lot of those kits are like that, I'll be glad to sell you another back, or maybe you could put binding on. By that point, my enthusiasm had waned, so I put the project on the back burner.

Last week, though, I was looking at the kit, and through some bizarre miracle of time, my back plate now fits just fine. Something shrank, or something else expanded, I don't know, but the upshot is I can work with what I have and build this thing. And just to keep myself on task, I'll tell you all about it here.

So. Step one. This morning I built the one specialized tool I'm going to need: a thickness caliper. All I had to do was saw some plywood and drive a few screws, but I'm still proud of it.

One of the keys to maximizing the tone of an arch-top stringed instrument (e.g. violins and mandolins and some guitars) is graduating the top and back to certain proportions. It's worth being very fussy about. Hence the caliper. I could have spent a hundred or so bucks at Stewart-MacDonald for a professional-grade one, but mine will do exactly the same thing, and it cost me about $12 in materials. Plus it's impressively crude.

My top plate is currently .235" in the bridge area and .175" at the edges; I'm going to take it down to about .180" and .110" respectively.


T said...

Cool! The low-tech caliper is fabulous...and I'm sure the cats are very interested....

Rob said...

So far they're nonplussed. I made so much noise sawing that they both hid in my closet.

T said...

Ha! And here, Maddie *sounds* like a saw herself!

Hey, join Facebook. It's fun in a way I think you'll appreciate. *And* it looks like, randomly, I'm able to get back in touch with Maurice O'Keeffe through it (via his nephew).

Mike said...

I believe it was the late-20th-century pundit Beavis, or perhaps Butthead, who said: "Heh. You said caliper."