We all love to play the mandolin, but a key to truly understanding anything involves a somewhat thorough understanding of the way that thing is built. Learning the construction of, for example, a car, apartment building or yes, a mandolin, will only serve to help us better grasp the overall picture and understand why events transpire as they do, and we can come to expect certain reactions from actions.
With this article we explain how the mandolin is constructed. The construction of a mandolin is very important to the overall quality of the instrument, because construction contributes directly to the sound given. Mandolins are favoured as a crossover instrument for anyone used to play fretted, stringed instruments. In particular, the mandolin is great for guitarists as both instruments are held in the same position, but they use a different tuning. In fact, they are tuned the same as violins with four pairs of strings tuned to G, D, A and E (the violin, of course, only has four strings), and for this reason they are also a favoured crossover instrument for violinists.
Over the centuries, the mandolin has evolved from the early lute with catgut strings to a bowl-back shape, with very round body that would allow for great tonal resonance. This is the image of a mandolin with which we are typically most familiar: whenever we see classical paintings with mandolin, it will feature this shape. It was only in the beginning of the 1900s that Orville Gibson invented the A and F style mandolins that have the flat backs with which we are familiar today.
There is a range of woods used to make these instruments. Typically spruce is used for the top. Makers will use maple or mahogany for the backs. Mandolins will either be made of solid blocks of wood or laminate wood. Laminate wood is created when separate layers of wood are grafted together in a solid piece. The price of the instrument look of the wood (i.e. colour and grain).
Mandolin bodies, the widest part, are usually made of maple. This hard wood is used for its ability to produce brilliant sound; other woods like mahogany or sycamore may be used for a softer sound.
Upon first look at a mandolin you will notice that it makes use of a very narrow fretboard. They typically measure 1 1/16” – 1 1/8” in width. Today we typically only see the A and F styles. The A style is a tear drop shape, very much like the old timey lute. The F style, so named for Florentine, features a top scroll and sharp cutaway. This style, due to its extra design features, tends to cost a bit more than the A style.
Mandolins are made by carpenters specializing in the construction of this instrument. In order to build one, the maker needs all the appropriate tools including: saws, drills, wood glue.
First, wood is selected according to feel, look and sound.
There are two different methods: the first being solid wood. The back and top are carved from solid pieces of wood, and then the sides are carved. These pieces may be raw and will be further shaved to perfection by a special saw. The back and sides are first affixed together with industrial-strength wood glue, while extra bracing is added to the inside. The top is then carved and set atop the rest of the body, and these pieces are held tight by a clamp until the glue is cured.
The neck and headstock will be carved from one solid piece as well, with holes drilled into the headstock to host the tuning pegs. The neck is then laid into the mandolin body and secured. The fretboard itself will be composed of rosewood or dyed to resemble ebony. It is set with the metal for fret delineation and then affixed to the neck. Once these pieces are put together, the mandolin is sanded down and painted with a wood finish.
The grommets and tuning pegs are then set into place and the final pieces, including bridge and strings, are added, and thus we have a solid wood mandolin.
Typically what drives the cost of a finished mandolin is more the labour that went into it. Mandolin tops are almost always solid pieces of wood in order to produce the best sound, however, the back and sides may be laminate.
The second method makes use of laminate wood. A curved laminate is steam pressed into shape, and the construction method follows much the same as the solid wood method. Some mandolin afficianados argue in favour of laminate, claiming that this wood would be far stronger than natural wood grain that may, over time, become weakened at certain points. However, there is no arguing that a solid wood mandolin produces the truest, cleanest sound.