Making a Mandolin
Story and photos all by Lizzy Scully
Last week, Planet Bluegrass hosted 400 professional and/or aspiring musicians from 33 different states and three countries. Classes included three levels of instruction for various stringed instruments, vocal coaching, songwriting, and a kids’ camp, among other things. When not in class, academy goers participated in band scrambles, barbecues and plenty of jamming at the onsite campgrounds after hours.
Of the classes offered, one of the most intense and unique was the instrument building class, in which I participated. Most students made either regular or octave mandolins, although a few created mandolas and one made a guitar. The first instrument building class, held in the mid-1990s at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, had a similar curriculum, but said assistant luthier (i.e. instrument builder) Gary Lundy, after nearly a decade of working out the bugs, this year’s class was the first to go without a hitch.
“In my nine years of doing this class, this was by far the least anxious group of people in general that we’ve worked with,” Lundy explained. All 17 students completely finished their instruments on Friday, the last day of class. According to Michael Hornick, the head luthier of the class, it was the first time this happened. “This class was just great,” he stated.
One of the participants, Dave Anderson, agreed, “the degree of organization was impressive. They knew the sequence, and they followed that. And they cleaned up as fast as they set up. I think Michael gets an enormous vote of thanks. I told him afterwards, ‘if it’s true the more you give away the more that comes back, you’d better watch out.’ And he said, ‘a lot of it had already come back.’”
We started the class at the workshop on the Planet Bluegrass Ranch Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m., and for the next four days we stood from morning until night, carving, sanding, gluing and shaping our instruments. Hornick created a variety of kits, which included: the sides, front and back of the mandolin, made from myrtle and spruce pine, which we sanded and glued together; the mahogany neck, which we carved and shaped; various braces for the inside of the instrument that we chiseled and glued in place; and all the hardware. Most steps in the process required two to three people assisting (and sometimes four when problems arose and instruction was required). Gluing the main body together stressed the students out more than most steps in the process because of the need to clamp the pieces together tightly and perfectly before the wood glue dried. Sanding and shaping the neck was, for me, the most difficult part of the job because of the need to create a smooth, comfortable fit for my left hand.
“The feel (or shape) of the neck is key to the playability of the instrument,” said instructor/luthier Bobby Wintringham. “If the neck isn’t comfortable in your hand, you’re not going to want to play it.”
Having never working with wood, the experience inspired me and changed my perspective on what I can actually do with my hands. According to luthier/instructor Dan Roberts, it’s not uncommon for people to express how the class changed their lives.
Instrument building, Roberts stated, is an “intimate kind of art,” and is the “ultimate expression of woodworking” because you work with tone, playability, craftsmanship and appearance. “People are amazed with the process,” he explained, adding that he has taught the class for more than a decade because, “helping people achieve their human potential is amazing. It’s a way that you can really get through to people about what is possible. Suddenly they don’t accept the limitations they had before.”
I had never considered building an instrument, but because I wanted my own mandolin and buying a decent one was out of the question, making one for the low price of $650 (the cost of the class) was my best option.
According to Wintringham, RockyGrass Academy mandolins typically sound and feel significantly better than the factory-made alternatives. “And you made it yourself,” he added, with a smile.
“Every year,” he continued, “there will be an afternoon or an hour where I’m like, 'why am I doing this?' It’s exhausting. But then the instruments start coming out. I see you guys just so proud and so happy, and that I’m able to help you achieve that feeling, that’s what makes it all worthwhile. It’s just a pleasure to work with other people who have never done it, and help them understand what goes into building instruments.”
1 year ago