1 Q: Do you have any advice on what steps to take when assembling the sides and block parts?
A: Yes, and thanks for asking about “steps” because assembling the rib (sides) in a methodical way makes the job rather easy. To answer your question, I’ve prepared a photo essay that should help with the process. Click on this link to learn 15 easy steps to rib assembly.
2 Q: I’m having trouble understanding how the parts go together at the headblock, especially around the neck joint. Can you explain it?
The F4 mandolin has its fretboard resting on the soundboard, but if this were an F5 kit, the soundboard would be a different shape and there would be a fretboard extender in place supporting the end of the fretboard. In either case, the fretboard plane of the neck, headblock, 15th fret crosspiece, and either the soundboard (F4) or fretboard extender (F5) will get sanded flush and square to each other.
A: Well, they say “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Here’s a partially assembled body from our #710 F4 kit. You can see the headblock cap in place and our Service #D dovetail joint. The rib is attached to the soundboard and headblock, and the 12th fret cross piece in place (the cross piece would be at the 15th fret if this were an F5). The rib piece that overlaps the dovetail joint is ready to be cut away from the dovetail opening in preparation for final fitting of the neck. Then, after the neck is attached, the fretboard plane of the soundboard, the top of the 12th fret crosspiece, and the headblock cap, will be sanded down to one smooth common plane to match and align to the plane of the neck. (Of course, the kit comes disassembled.)
3 Q: In photos of your parts, the gauze looks like it comes close to the edge of the soundboard. Does it get glued to the lining and ribs?
In this photo of a partially assembled body, it appears that the gauze goes under the lining and rib. However, the gauze is actually sanded flush to the gluing surface of the soundboard before the soundboard is attached to the lining and rib.A: The gauze is glued to the soundboard before the f-holes are cut. We do this for you in our Level 1 kits. Before attaching the soundboard to the rib and lining, you should sand the entire gluing surface of the soundboard – including any gauze that is in the gluing area – flat and smooth. And, you should sand the gluing surface of the backboard smooth, as well (of course, there is no gauze on the backboard). In the photo above, it appears that the gauze is glued under the rib and lining but in reality it ends up just short of the lining.
4 Q: I’m a lefty and it looks like the easiest way to build a left-handed mandolin is with an A-model kit. All I need to do is get a left-hand fretboard, right?
A: Basically, yes. We can prepare a left-handed fretboard, and then you’ll need a left-handed fretboard extender to go with it. And, you’ll need to have the bridge’s saddle cut for left-hand intonation or you can get one of our left-handed bridge saddles. (Write, call, or email us for a quote on these services.) Be sure to remember to flop the location of the tone bars when you glue them in place. Everything else should work out fine.
5 Q: How would you compare the quality of the wood in your kits to the woods that professional makers or major mandolin manufacturers use?
A: Great question. The short answer is: in my opinion, our woods are equal to or better than woods used by other makers. But there’s more to say on this. First, I personally pick through and select the woods we use, and I seek the very best material I can find for our parts and mandolin kits. After our first milling operation, where our woods are prepared for shaping, I discard about 5% because of checks, cracks, or other physical defects that I didn’t detect when the wood was rough-sawn. Then, after pattern carving and profiling, I typically reject about 10%-15% because of discolorations or other flaws that present themselves once the wood is “opened” (shaped). So, I’m pretty fussy about quality of materials and many top builders are buying precision shaped wood parts from us. (Our rejected parts go into our NTSO bin – Not To Spec or Overstock – and are not used in kits or regular parts. Instead, we use them for various acoustical tests or sell them as seconds at festivals, in our shop, etc.)
6 Q: Is there anything immoral or illegal about me buying one of your kits and selling it as an instrument I have built?
A: No, and thanks for this question. It would be wrong to say that you made the parts if you really didn’t, but as far as building the mandolin is concerned, it is really no different than a builder of a house who goes to Home Depot to buy doors, windows, bricks, nails, and wood. Buying pre-shaped parts doesn’t make you any less of a builder. And, you don’t need to have calouses, blisters, and cuts to prove you are a luthier. The art is in putting together, fitting, decorating, and finishing one of these instruments. We’re doing the same thing for you that the mill room and carving shop at Gibson did when they handed up shaped parts to the builders who put the pieces together. I think the problem is that we need to find a new word for “kit” – it sometimes carries a demeaning connotation. Our professional parts will provide you with what you need to build a professional mandolin.
7 Q: I have studied your ProSeries F5 Drawings and can clearly see the line of the body scroll peak. But I’m having trouble visualizing just how it is shaped. And, do your tops and backs come with the peak carved?
The peak of the volute is a beautiful and delicate element. The ridge starts at the intersection of the binding and then continues down the scroll until it vanishes onto the soundboard. The peak is not really a sharp corner, but is instead a small radiused edge. As you can see in the reflections in this photo, the curvature from the peak to the binding is slightly concave (lower in the center) on both sides of the peak.
A: The peak is difficult to visualize. In fact, the scroll is such a beautiful part of the instrument that it is often difficult to fully appreciate when you are holding one of these instruments. I think this photo of the scroll on Loar’s personal F5 does it justice and shows the delicate grace of the scroll’s peak. Our soundboards and backboards do have the volute (peak in the scroll) roughed out. However, our carver cannot manage the sharp, abrupt step from the scroll’s “button” down to the inside edge of the volute so you have to do a little wood removal there by hand, but the work is minor.
8 Q: If I install your Virzi Tone Producer, do I have to tune the top differently?
A: It has been my experience that F5 mandolins with Virzi Tone Producers were tuned to a Db rather than the D or D# of instruments without them. So, I suggest tuning the tone bars and backboard as suggested in the book (Ab for bass tone bar, A# for treble bar, and C for the backboard with the backboard held in a fixture). Assuming that the Tone Producer is first properly made (from a weight standpoint), and is added after the tone bars are tuned, it usually will result in the resonant frequency of the air chamber responding a half tone lower; to a Db.
9 Q: Can the F4 kit be modified to make a 3-point mandolin? Is it just simply adding another body point?
The 3-point mandolins were the predecessor to the later F-models and featured a rather interesting body scroll on both the soundboard and backboard.A: The 3-point mandolins were quite interesting and while they were similar to an F4, there were enough differences that would make it pretty hard to build one from a modified F4 kit. The peghead was a different shape (although the same basic double-scroll design) and had a slightly steeper peghead pitch than on F4s, and the soundboard and backboard scroll carvings were significantly different. The ribs of the 3-point mandolin was wider and the neck had a deeper, straighter heel. The outside shape of the body as well as the carving and arching of the soundboard and backboards was also significantly different. The early 3-point models were the Artist Model F, F2, F3, and F4.
10 Q: I’ve read that the original F5 mandolin pegheads were thinner at the end than near the nut. Are your necks like that?
A: Yes, the pegheads in our kits are taper cut so that the peghead wood is thinner near the very end than it is under the truss rod pocket. This is the way is was on the original F5s and that’s exactly the way we do it!
11 Q: Do your carved tops and backs include the recurve?
A: If you are referring to the low area where the outside shape dips before it comes back up to the rim, then the answer is “yes.” This is the “minimum area” and it is shown in detail in our drawings, as well. That dip is actually the area of minimum thickness that runs all around the soundboard, and most of the way around the backboard (except under the headblock on the backboard). And, as the minimum area nears the outer edge, it comes back up to the 3/16″ height needed for the binding. Aside from minimal final shaping of the “volute” (peak in the scroll area), no other carving or shaping is needed on our soundboards and backboards.
12 Q: Is the fingerboard shaped or square?
A: Our fretboards are profiled around the outside to the final F5 shape ready for you to install the frets and attach the binding. And, of course, the fret slots are cut. No further shaping is necessary.
13 Q: Does the bottom of the fretboard extender get shaped to match the soundboard, or does the soundboard get shaped flat to match the bottom of the extender?
To facilitate the proper location and fit of the fretboard extender, we rout a flat region to accept the extender. With the extender in place in this recess, it is easy to identify where the 15th fret crosspiece goes. However, the leading edge of the soundboard should only be cut to accept the crosspiece after the headblock (with headblock cap in place) is glued into the rim assembly and measurements are taken.A: The leading edge of the soundboard should be flat where the fretboard extender goes. So, to answer the question, the flat bottom of the extender is glued to the flat outside surface of the soundboard. To help you get the extender in the right location, and to help prepare the flat surface in this region of the soundboard, we rout out the space where the extender goes. Then, you simply sand the neighboring areas of the soundboard down the the same level. On our A5 soundboards, the entire forward edge of the soundboard is machined flat at accept the base of the extender.
14 Q: I’ve heard there is some kind of correction for page 71 of your new book [The Ultimate Bluegrass Mandolin Construction Manual]. How can I get this?
A: There was a printing omission in the first edition that we couldn’t catch before the book went to press. That gave us the idea to have a “virtual editorial” section of our web site so that corrections and future additions could always be made available to anyone who has our books. In this way, the content of the book could always be enriched and updated. You can print or download the corrected page 71 by going to our Virtual Editorial Page (and you will see several other additional editorial comments there, too). Or, you can just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to us at: Editorial Correction, Siminoff Banjo & Mandolin, PO Box 2992, Atascadero, CA 93423 and we’ll send you a new page in the mail with our compliments (whether you bought the book from us or not). However, the correction was made in later printings of the book that were printed after November 15, 2005. If you have both Fig 8.21 and Fig 8.22 on page 71, then you have the corrected page.)
15 Q: Are your tops and backs carved inside and out?
A: Yes, our soundboards and backboards are precisely carved inside and outside and basically need just sanding. They are also profiled to the precise outside-edge shape, so aside from sanding flush to the rim, and routing for the binding notch, little adjustment is needed there, either. The scroll volute (the peak in the center of the body scroll) is also rough carved. Soundboards and backboards are also pattern profiled around the outside to their final shape, and that includes the cut into the scroll (that some folks call the strap notch or strap slot).
16 Q: I plan to build a mandola from your H5 mandola plans. Any idea what gauge strings I should use?
A: The mandola is tuned A, D, G, C, and I recommend .015″, .024″w, .034″w, and .052″w (the “w” indicates wound strings). D’Addario manufacturers mandola strings and most music stores can get them for you. Or, some music stores have single-string selections so you can pick the specific gauges you want.
17 Q: Do the plans show where to drill the pegholes?
A: Yes, but they also point out that you should measure your machines to be sure of the center-to-center spacing. It also describes the correct method for sequential drilling (starting with a small-size drill). Most, but not ALL machines conform to the 29/32″ c/c spacing. If you are concerned about drilling these accurately, we can fixture-drill them for you. We’ll also ask that you send your machines to us so we can be absolutely sure of the spacing. Contact us for details.
18 Q: Are the top and back thicknesses in your book the exact final thicknesses?
A: The soundboard and backboard thicknesses provided on the book’s Drawings are the MAXIMUM starting thickness that the wood should be carved prior to tuning. The final dimensions will depend on how stiff the wood is and how much wood has to be removed to arrive at the correct tuning. Dense maple backboards and close-grained soundboards could result in post-tuning thicknesses that are .015″ to .025″ thinner than measurements shown in the book.
19 Q: I’ve heard that F5 plans can be enlarged 15% to build an H5 mandola. Is it true and will this work with your plans? And, can I use your new book to build an H5 mandola?
A: While an H5 mandola is about 15% larger than an F5 mandolin, the two instruments are very different and the H5 is not simply a 15% proportionally larger instrument than the F5. The Ultimate Bluegrass Mandolin Construction Manual doesn’t reference the H5, and it only includes full-size plans for the F5 mandolin. However, the building process and procedures for both instruments are identical. Click here to learn more about the differences between H5s and F5. (We also have plans available for the H5 mandola – see section 11, Plans, on our parts main page.)
20 Q: Is the gauze around the f-holes just there for when you rout the holes and should it come off before I attach the soundboard to the rim?
A: The gauze is not there just for routing the f-holes. The gauze around the f-holes is put on before we rout the holes for simplicity (i.e. so you won’t have to put it on later and then try to cut it to the exact shape of the f-holes). However, the gauze must stay there when the instrument is completed. It plays two important roles: 1) It adds strength to the edge grain of wood and to the extension points of the f-holes, and 2) it adds mass and rigidity to the free edges of the soundboard at the f-holes to inhibit vibrations from being wicked off or damped along the un-attached edge of the f-hole.
21 Q: I’ve seen Titebond® II in the stores. Is it better than the regular Titebond® you recommend in your book and should I use it instead?
A: Franklin’s Titebond II is a water-proof polyvinyl acetate glue which is intended primarily for outdoor in-the-weather use. The glued joints from this adhesive are highly resistant to water and provide an indestructible joint. However, while Titebond II is waterproof, and regular Titebond is not, Titebond II actually does not dry as hard and brittle as regular Titebond (an aliphatic glue). As minimal as this issue may seem, what we want in musical instrument joints and seams is a very hard connection of the parts as opposed to one that damps vibrations. Also, Titebond II dries quite a bit darker than regular Titebond — something you don’t want in soundboard and backboard center seams. Franklin recently announced Titebond III, a proprietary-compound polymer glue, which is waterproof, dries lighter in color, and is very hard. Some luthiers may argue that you want a joint you can take apart with water, but I like instruments that are designed to stay together and for luthiery, I still recommend regular Titebond.
22 Q: Can I order an Adirondack red spruce soundboard instead of the Sitka spruce soundboard that comes in the kit?
A: Yes, you can mix and match any of the parts as you like. It’s simple: Check our price list for the difference between the price of the part in the kit and the price of the part you would like to replace it with. Include the part number and description of the part you want, and the price difference when you order. If you’re in doubt of what to do, give us a call or send us an email. We also have German Silver Spruce, Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar, and California Redwood as options.
23 Q: From the information I read in your new book and in The Luthier’s Handbook, I’d like to try tap tuning using a strobetuner. However, I’m having trouble figuring out whether to use one of the Peterson VS-II or one of their more expensive tuners. What’s the difference?
A: Peterson makes excellent tuners and they all work well for tuning the strings or voices of musical instruments. Having said that, while I think the VS-II is a great compact unit, I have found that the spinning-wheel strobe-type tuner provides a better image and is more reliable for tap tuning the parts of musical instruments than the “virtual strobe” (i.e. VSII). The VSII is a digital system with digital display (as compared to a spinning wheel type) and I feel that the interpolation that takes place in displaying the information is not as instantaneous or readably visible as the spinning wheel type. Also, the spinning wheel type can display the intensity of the signal whereas the digital VS-II doesn’t. For tap-tuning purposes, the more advanced spinning wheel models are well worth the investment. To be on the safe side, I bounced this question off John Norris at Peterson, and he responded: “You’re right. It’s more to do with how a true mechanical strobe displays the notes, whether fundamental or overtone. Digital tuners (even the analog Virtual Tuners like the VS-II) cannot display percussive sounds as clearly or immediately as a strobe-type system; what we call a mechanical strobe. You will find that almost the entire percussion industry uses mechanical strobes for that reason. When digital tuners began to be manufactured, their main purpose was to tune stringed instruments, thats why you don’t see digital drum tuners, most use strobes for that purpose.” And, of course, tap tuning is a percussive process. So, the recommendation is pretty clear on using mechanical strobe tuners. (For more information about our tap tuning tools and books, please click here to go to our Tap Tuning Tools and Equipment page. For more information about Peterson’s line of tuners, see their web site at http://www.petersontuners.com/siminoffaff/.)
24 Q: Does the neck in the kit have a dovetail neck joint?
A: Since there are many preferences for methods of joining the neck to the headblock, the neck in the kit is provided with a plain heel, the headblock is un-notched (for the neck), and the headblock cap is not attached (which is a simple gluing job). We offer a dovetail neck joint option in our price list and it is service #D. Our dovetail joint option includes cutting the dovetail in the neck, attaching the maple cap to the headblock, cutting the dovetail joint in the headblock and cap, and hand-fitting the neck to the headblock. We also offer our own V-joint which we feel is an excellent joint. (Click here to learn more about the Anatomy of a Neck Joint.)
25 Q: Regarding your F4 kits, I couldn’t find any mention of the shorter string scale length for the F4 as compared to the F5. Is your F4 kit a hybrid, or does it use the shorter scale length of the F4?
A: The F4s and F5s used the identical 13-15/16″ string scale. The difference is that the neck on the F4 mandolin joins the body (i.e., ends at the binding “cross piece”) at the 12th fret whereas the F5 neck joins the body at the 15th fret. In essence, the F5 neck is longer than the F4 neck, but the string scale on both instruments is the same. This also means that the bridge is positioned nearer to the center of the “active” soundboard on F5s than it is on F4s (since the F5 neck is longer).
26 Q: Someone was telling me that you have done some work with changing the size of the tone bars depending on how much the soundboard caves in under string tension. What is that method and is that information in your book?
Deflection tuning is the technique of measuring how much a soundboard deflects under the strings’ load, and then replicating that deflection in a new soundboard under the same load. This F5’s soundboard was first measured at the bridge feet with the strings fully slack. Then the strings were brought up to pitch and the deflection of the soundboard (at the bridge feet) was recorded for future emulation.A: Yes, this is a technique I developed in the mid-70s and it is called “deflection tuning.” First, a fixture is used to measure the downwards load at the bridge of a given set of strings when tuned to pitch and set at the correct string break angle. Then (as shown above with this Loar-signed F5), another fixture is used to measure how much the soundboard deflects at the bridge when the strings are brought to pitch. Lastly, another fixture is used to apply the known load to a new soundboard and then allow for the tone bars to be thinned until the same deflection is reached. The development of deflection tuning grew out of the need to tune soundboards in a noisy production environment. Because of the measurements and fixturing necessary, deflection tuning is really intended for those folks who are producing a lot of instruments in a manufacturing environment and are seeking consistency and ease of measurement. Tap tuning is still the ideal method for luithiers who are building a few instruments in non-production settings. Deflection tuning is described briefly in The Ultimate Bluegrass Mandolin Construction Manual that comes with the kits, and I do go into it in great detail in my book The Luthier’s Handbook (Hal Leonard Publishing, Milwaukee, WI).
When carving soundboards and backboards for our kits we use a process called IMS (interdependence of mass and structure) in which we measure the weight and stiffness of boards at various points during the carving process and make adjustments along the way to achieve a first step of consistency.
27 Q: Can I order a kit without a truss rod?
A: Absolutely. However, please be sure to let us know if you would like us to cut the truss rod slot and bore the truss rod nut’s pocket or leave it plain. You can also order the kit with all of the truss rod parts, but without having us put the rod in (so that you can do it). If you plan to use carbon fiber or some other truss rod system, our truss rod slots are 1/4″ (6.35mm) wide and are cut at a slope from the nut down to the heel to keep the rod as low as possible in the neck.. [Please note that the #700, #705, and #710 kits come with the peghead veneer attached and the peghead cut to shape. This feature requires that the truss rod is installed by us before the peghead veneer is attached. So, if you don’t want the truss rod installed in these kits, we’ll also leave the peghead veneer unattached for you to attach after the truss rod is installed.]
28 Q: Your photos show three pieces for the [F5] rim set. Do you also supply the little piece needed below the bottom point?
A: Each piece in the rim set is longer than necessary and you will end up with several cut-offs from which to make the piece to go outside the bottom point.
29 Q: Can you make a cedar top [soundboard] for me?
A: Yes, and there are many wonderful selections for mandolin soundboards that we do not show in our price list because we can’t always be assured of supply. However, we often have some wonderful Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, tight-grained Sugar Pine, as well as some wide-grained Adirondack Red spruce. Also, we have tight-grained California Redwood in our price list. (A lot of builders are beginning to use redwood with great success as it provides all the warmth and depth of soundboards that are 50 years old. Of course, we don’t know what these redwood soundboarded instruments will sound like in 50 or 75 years, but it’s sure worth utilizing this material and getting the best sound out of these instruments now.) We’re happy to communicate with you on the particular sound you are looking for and to provide you with materials that will meet your personal playing preferences and building tastes.
30 Q: Is there as set of full-size plans in the kit?
A: Yes. Since The Ultimate Bluegrass Mandolin Construction Manual (which is included in the kit) features a full set of plans for the F5, there is no separate ProSeries Drawing set in the F5 kits. However, the A5 kit contains an A5 ProSeries Drawing and the F4 kit contains an F4 Pro Series Drawing. And, the A5 kit and F4 kit also come with the The Ultimate Bluegrass Mandolin Construction Manual. All of our plans use the same numbering scheme, so when the book references a drawing number, it refers to the right drawing for either the F5, A5, or F4.
31 Q: I’d like to try to inlay the peghead veneer with it off the neck. Can you provide the ebony peghead veneer cut to shape and not attached to the neck?
A: While this appears to be a great way to inlay the peghead veneer, it’s not really a great way for us to provide the ebony veneer for you to work on. Ebony is very brittle and there is a more-than-likely chance that the veneer wood will crack on either or both of the two scrolls, through the area below the truss rod pocket, or at one of the lower corners. However, we can laminate the peghead veneer to a piece of 1/16″ model maker’s plywood before we cut it to shape. This way, you can even bind it while it is off the neck (some luthiers prefer to bind the peghead this way). In addition, we’d suggest that you mount the inlaid and bound peghead veneer to the peghead before you cut the neck’s peghead shape to ensure a perfect fit. And, of course, we could provide the ebony peghead veneer in it’s full square shape for you to inlay first, mount it to the neck, and then cut to shape (as we do in our kits).
32 Q: Can I get a kit with a walnut rim [rib]?
A: Yes, we can prepare a kit in almost any wood combination and we have been able to bend just about every wood (with few exceptions) for ribs. Walnut works well and looks great. Rosewood is another great choice for ribs, as is Honduras Mahogany. And, you might want to consider a walnut backboard if you are seeking a richer bass response. Please email us or write us with your custom requests so we can quote you on your special needs.
33 Q: Does the kit include a nut and what is your recommendation for nut material; bone, Corean, or abalone?
A: The kits do not include the nut blank or body point blanks, but as you pointed out, there are several nut and body point materials in our price list; bone, Corean, and abalone. Corean is a bit denser than bone and abalone is a bit denser than Corean. Abalone also is a bit more decorative since it is multicolored. Denser material is typically better for a nut. The point bones are there to protect the edges of the body points and make no contribution to the acoustical properties of the instrument. Some luthiers like to laminate little blocks of the grained ivoroid binding to make up the corner points; it adds a nice touch.
34 Q: Is it okay to contact you if I have questions when building the mandolin?
A: Absolutely! The “customer service” component of our business is very important to us. While we can’t be at your workbench with you, we make a major effort to answer all questions and respond to our emails on a timely basis both before and after you buy a kit. I welcome your calls and emails. We’re in the shop every day, Monday through Friday, 8:30 to 5:00. Email is email@example.com or you can call us at 805.365.7111.
35 Q: How long does it take to build a kit?
A: Including gluing time, if you had nothing else to do but focus on assembling the body and attaching the neck, you could do it in four days. We’ve had makers put together the entire mandolin in as short as two weeks (finishing took a bit longer). And, of course, you can spread it out and take as long as you want. Typically, we hear from our makers that they are spending between 8 and 10 weeks of spare time from the moment the kit is opened to the moment they put on the strings, and I think this is a prudent pace. The goal here is to have fun building the instrument, and taking your time will help savor the flavor.
36 Q: Does the mandolin have to be “tap tuned” and if so, how can I learn how to do it?
A: You absolutely do not need to tap tune the instrument to have a good sounding mandolin. Our mandolins sound really great just put together by following our assembly instructions. However, to build an excellent sounding mandolin, it is really worth the effort to go through the “tap tuning” process, and tap tuning is explained in full detail in The Ultimate Bluegrass Mandolin Construction Manual (in fact, I devote a whole chapter to tap tuning along with an additional chapter on “Voicing.”). The tap tuning process is not mandatory, but it really makes a difference.
[Comment added 12/06]: My latest book, The Art of Tap Tuning has just been released by Hal Leonard Corporation. It includes a 50-minute DVD with live demonstrations, tests, and experiments that makes it easy to both see and hear the process! This book takes the voodoo out of tap tuning! Click here for more information on The Art of Tap Tuning.
37 Q: I’m not really gifted with woodworking skills. Do you think I can build a good mandolin?
A: Over the many decades that I’ve been making parts and kits, I’ve received photos of mandolins from folks who said they had “…absolutely no woodworking skills,” but the photos they sent me sure proved them wrong. There is no question that a builder with years of experience can apply that experience to build a really good instrument. But there’s a lot of experience that is shared in my book, and a little patience on your end will make all the difference. In more than 40 years of providing mandolin parts and kits to folks around the world, I’ve never had single person return a kit and say, “it’s just too hard!”
38 Q: What A-model mandolin is your kit patterned after?
A: Check out the pages of our web site that talk about Lloyd Loar. There is a photo of a special Gibson A5 that he signed. It is a pear-shaped instrument with a “snake” (tapered) peghead, f-holes, and an elevated fretboard that joins the body at the 15th fret. That’s the instrument that was the basis of our A5 ProSeries Drawings, and the kit was derived from those drawings.
39 Q: The soundboard section of your price list says “f-holes not tuned.” Can you explain what that means?
A: Yes. “Tuning of the f-holes” is that part of the final voicing of the instrument in which the size of the f-holes is adjusted to tune the air chamber to a specific note. As the f-holes are made larger, the resonant frequency of the air chamber is raised. And, as the f-holes are made smaller (assuming you could, or if you decide to bind them), the resonant frequency of the air chamber is lowered. Since the soundboard is off the instrument when we ship it, the f-holes can’t be tuned until the body is put together. So, we say they are “not tuned.” We provide them at a size which should properly tune the air chamber to a D# — the preferred tuning assuming the body is built to the size in the Drawings. We can also provide the f-holes that are either 1/32″ or 1/16″ smaller all around on request, so the maker can begin with a lower voicing and bring the instrument up to a D# by following the instructions in the book.
40 Q: Where do I find out what kind of finishes to use?
A: I devote an entire chapter to coloring, building grain contrast, and finishing in The Ultimate Bluegrass Mandolin Construction Manual. It includes a listing of the types of stains and finishes to use, along with instructions about wet sanding and polishing.
41 Q: I’d like to build a left-handed mandolin. Can I do that with one of your kits?
A: We can carve a left-handed soundboard and backboard and provide you with a left-handed fretboard and matching fretboard extender. We can also cut the peghead shape “flopped.” However, the plans in the book are all right-handed, so you’ll have to interpolate as you put the kit together. (There is a slight additional charge for left-handed kits. Please write for more information.)
42 Q: I’ve seen “building grain contrast” in the FAQ section of your web site and in some references to your book. Exactly what does that mean?
A: Building grain contrast is the process of adding and removing colored dyes (above, left) in such a manner that it brings out the very best grain figure from the wood. This method enhances the appearance of the wood in a superior way to what you might achieve by just wiping on a stain or spraying on a tinted lacquer. “Shading” is an additional process that is used to darken the outer edges of the neck and body (above, right). Shading can by done by hand or with the use of an air brush. Both steps are fully detailed in color photos, in the The Ultimate Bluegrass Mandolin Construction Manual that comes with the kit.
43 Q: This may seem like a funny question, but you say “fretboards” and some of the other parts suppliers say “fingerboards.” Is there a difference?
A: Well, it’s not a funny question at all and I’m delighted that you caught that. I’m very clear on the difference. When we started Frets Magazine, we had a “format book” which was basically a style guide that defined how the staff would use various words. I wanted the staff to be clear on the fact that a fretboard is used on a fretted instrument (banjos, mandolins, guitars, etc.) and a fingerboard is used on a fret-less instrument (violins, violas, basses, etc.). But, don’t worry; if you order a “mandolin fingerboard” from us, rest assured we’ll send you something with slots in it!
44 Q: I have some curly maple I would like to use. Will you carve my wood if I supply it?
A: Yes, we can carve your wood. Our price list (Soundboards page, Service #L) indicates the charge for carving your wood. Write to us with specifics and we will advise how to adjust the cost of the kit to use your wood instead of ours. Also, we will provide you with a drawing that shows the size and shape of the wood we need for our carving machine (if you want to prepare the wood or cut it to shape).
45 Q: What tools will I need?
A: There are three levels of kits. If you purchase the kit in which we do most of the work, then there is little machining for you to do. Typically, you will need: access to a drill press to drill the peg holes, some good quality carving tools to shape the tone bars and carve the scrolls, some screw clamps to attach the backboard in place (and we show how to make screw clamps in the book), a body fixture to hold the rim in shape (you can build one from the rim drawing in the book, or you can purchase one from us), some miscellaneous fixtures and templates (and I describe how to construct these in the book), sandpaper, small hammer (to set the frets, and some spray equipment to finish the instrument. There’s a complete list of “what you will need” in the book. (We do all of the heavy shaping, bending, and carving — you’re basically doing assembly.) Oh. You’ll also need some patience and a little elbow grease! We’ve received a few emails on this question, so we recently added this page on “What you’ll need.”
46 Q: In your rim kit, do you also provide the piece of rim that goes inside the scroll?
A: Actually, there is no rim wood inside the scroll. The large body piece starts inside the lower point block and wraps around the scroll and ends directly adjacent to the 15th fret where it mates to the headblock wood. From there into the scroll, it’s just headblock wood. And, from inside the corner of the scroll to the bass side of the neck, (i.e. from the neck joint into the scroll), is also just headblock wood.
47 Q: How can I use the A4 plans with your book if the book is about building F5s?
A: Each of our ProSeries Drawing sets use an identical numbering scheme so that the Drawing number called out in the book will reference the same part in the Drawings. For example, when the book says “see the fretboard in Drawing #2…”, the Drawing #2 in the F5 plans, the A5 plans, and the F4 plans each have the “fretboard” on Drawing #2, and so on with the other drawing numbers.
48 Q: Do I need to purchase your body fixture in order to build the mandolin?
A: No. You can use the body profile drawings in the book and build one yourself. The photos in the book clearly show how it works and how it goes together. However, if you don’t want to go through the hassle or don’t have the proper tools to build one, we have one for you in our price list.
49 Q: What’s the difference between the plans in your book and the ProSeries F5 Drawings in your price list?
A: The body shape, peghead shape, neck shape and profiles are identical because they are all drawings of the F5. However, the drawings for the book were completed and presented to the publisher more than three years ago, whereas the ProSeries Drawings are constantly updated with various supporting details and information. Also, the drawings in the book contain some details NOT in the ProSeries Drawings such as a V-style neck joint, a simplified headblock, a drawing for a neck-alignment fixture, and a page of peghead inlay designs by DiAnne Patrick. Likewise, the ProSeries Drawings contain some details NOT in the book such as a drawing of the original Gibson truss rod, a drawing of the unique peghead taper on early F5s, some inset photos of parts of Loar-signed F5s, an end view from peghead and an end view from tailpiece, advanced drawings of the dovetail head block assembly, a detailed drawing of the Virzi Tone Producer, the arched (rather than flat) shape of the outside face of the rib (rim), and other minor notes and details. Some builders by both so they can cut out the drawings in the ProSeries Drawings to make templates, and not damage those in their book. And, others will buy both to have the cross-referenced information (but you can build a great, accurate mandolin from the drawings in the book, alone).
50 Q: Are the drawings in your new book the same as the drawings in your original Constructing a Bluegrass Mandolin book?
A: No, the new drawings are far superior to what I did when I prepared the first book in 1972. The parts arae basically the same (they are, after all, an F5 mandolin), bu the first set has some “orthographic” errors that makes the instrument a bit longer, etc. The drawings in the new book are completely re-drawn and revised. The drawings in the original book were done by hand, using mechanical drafting techniques. Those in the new book were done by computer with incredible precision and detail. And, the drawings in the computer allowed us to assemble and disassemble various parts of the instrument to check the relative accuracy of each part. Among other things, setting the record straight and providing a correct set of drawings was one of the main motivating factors in the development of the new book, The Ultimate Bluegrass Mandolin Construction Manual.
51 Q: I’d like to build a mandolin with lower voicing. Can I do that with your kit?
A: Yes, as pointed out in a previous question, we can provide f-holes that are either 1/32″ or 1/16″ smaller all around, and assuming that you have crafted the size of the body properly (including soundboard and backboard thicknesses), the smaller f-holes should provide you with an air chamber tuned to C#. [We can also provide 1/16″ larger f-holes for higher voicing.]
52 Q: Do you know where I can get labels to put inside the mandolin?
A: This question got a chuckle from us. As a special surprise, The Ultimate Bluegrass Mandolin Construction Manual includes several sets of luthier’s signature labels (in two versions – oval and hexagonal) for you to use for this exact purpose!
53 Q: Your price list has maple and mahogany lining. Which one do you recommend, and what’s better the 3/16″ or 1/4″ lining?
A: Both maple and mahogany are really quite satisfactory but we prefer the maple as it is very strong and it tends to bend a bit more easily without breaking. As to size, the 3/16″ and 1/4″ refer to the distance between the kerf cuts (the physical outside dimensions of our linings are the same). The lining with cuts 1/4″ apart (1/4″c\c) is ideal and is similar to what was used in the early F5 mandolins and that’s what we include in the kits. And, it fits snugly and well into the scroll area. Some luthiers like the 3/16″c\c lining, so we make it, as well. By the way, we provide the maple lining with 1/4″ c\c spacing in our kits.
54 Q: Does the mandolin have to be broken in?
A: Every instrument, if it is well constructed and made of quality parts, will be “stiff” when it is first made and should get better over time. So, the general answer is “yes.” Typically, these instruments will change dramatically during the first 10 hours of playing. My friend Ron Saul, a well known ukulele maker in San Luis Obispo, California, has a special break-in cabinet he puts his new ukes in and mechanically strums them for a 24 hour period – it makes a big difference! I have put new mandolins in front of speaker cabinets turned to fairly high volume (when I’ve left the house for several hours) and it makes a major difference. Taking the lead from Ron, I built a break-in fixture that so far is delivering excellent results.
55 Q: What do the gauze patches do behind the f-holes and are you sure they were in the original F5s?
A: The gauze strips (which are glued to the inside of the soundboard) do two important tasks: 1) They add strength to the edges of the wood around the f-holes to inhibit cracking. 2) They add mass to the free edges of the soundboard to prevent damping (wicking off of energy). And yes, I am absolutely sure the gauzing was on the original F5 mandolins (and was on L5 guitars, H5 mandolas, etc.).
56 Q: Does the dovetail service [#D] include the headblock?
A: The #D service is for cutting the notch in the headblock but it does not include the cost of the headblock or block set. The #D service is a shop-time service only and includes no parts. The #D service also includes cutting the dovetail in the neck heel and basic hand fitting of the neck and headblock leaving only final sanding-fitting for you to do. (If you are ordering separate parts, and not ordering a kit, you will need to purchase the block set as a separate item in addition do the #D service.)
57 Q: Is there any way I can assemble the instrument to hear how the tuning worked out, and then take the back off to make changes without doing any damage?
A: Yes, I’ve done this quite a bit for testing and R&D purposes. You can glue a piece of thick paper (like “24 pound rag bond”) to the rim, lining, and headblock. Then, when the glue is dry, cut the paper flush to the rim, lining, and blocks so that basically, you have a paper gasket over the rim assembly. Next, glue the backboard in place (but don’t use the locating pins I describe in the book – precise fit is not necessary at this point). When the glue dries, you will have an assembled mandolin with a paper gasket between the backboard and rim. Now the mandolin can be strung, tested, and you can evaluate how the body is tuned and how the tone bars work. To remove the backboard, simply put a razor into the edge of the paper and the paper will easily split open. Work the razor all the way around the body, and use a thin spatula to split the paper at the point blocks and headblock. When you remove the backboard, you’ll have some residue of the paper glued to the backboard and some of the paper glued to the rim assembly. Then, when you are ready for final construction, simply sand away the paper, and glue the backboard on.
58 Q: I’m trying to understand the cognitive differences, pro and con, of radiused fingerboards for the 5 string banjo. Could you please direct me to a source that would provide an explanation?
A: I don’t think there’s one definitive source on this as much as a lot of history on why makers of banjos, mandolins, guitars, and stringed musical instruments in general have taken to radiused fretboards. The art started with the radiused fingerboards (note distinction here between “fingerboards” and “fretboards”) of the viol family and the fact that the fulcrum points of human hand and fingers facilitate the fingers contacting locations along an arc better than they do along a flat surface. Of course the use of a bow on viol family instruments dictated that the strings were positioned in a arc, but playing a violin with a flat-fingerboard would be both uncomfortable and difficult because of how the hands and fingers pivot back and forth. For whatever reason, the fretboards of the classic guitar and flamenco guitar have stayed flat, but I know of several makers who have tried arched fretboards on these instruments. While it works well, it is rejected because it is just not “traditional.” Various banjo companies tried it over the years and Gibson announced the arched fretboard with the introduction of the Top Tension models in the mid ’30s. Simply stated, it’s easier to play an arched fretboard instrument. From a manufacturing standpoint, however, it’s a lot harder to build and that’s why many makers shy away. And, it’s a lot harder to service from a re-fretting standpoint.
59 Q: What’s the difference between “active” and “passive” nickel, chrome, and gold plating, and does the type of plating on a banjo add anything to the sound quality?
A: All of these finishes are electroplate technologies. In this process, metal particles dissolved in an acid bath, are attracted to the surface of the piece being plated by an electrical charge. The piece being plated is given a positive charge and becomes the “anode.” As such, the anode is the piece towards which all electrons flow. The bath is given a negative charge and it becomes a “cathode” — the component from which all electrons flow. Nickel is actually a third plating step – copper is put down first, then chrome, Then nickel over chrome. So, nickel is actual an “electroplating over something that was electroplated.” A key to plating over other platings is that the process should be “active” and not “passive.” That is, the platings should be done in one continuous cycle, one after the other, to assure a clean solid bond.
These other cosmetic finishes you refer to are merely another electron attraction over some previous electron attraction and they are VERY durable. It is not at all like painting since the particles are physically bound to each other. Of course, you can burnish, file, sand, grind, or even eventually rub through them – but you can also do the same to the outer layer of any metal.
As to “strictly a cosmetic issue” – that is all plating is. There is no contribution to the acoustical properties of the instrument from various finishes.
Check this page frequently. We will add new and valuable questions as we receive them.
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