Some time ago I picked up building string instruments and have built ten or so instruments so far. People are always amazed by my builds but I certainly see them as being the work of a novice. In another 20 years I might even become half way decent at it.
I have collected string instruments for years but soon I discovered that I couldn’t afford to buy the vintage instruments I wanted for my collection.
At some point I became frustrated with my guitar playing and with my lack of progress. I pretty much quit playing guitar and took up the mandolin to kick my brain in it’s proverbial butt. I already had numerous mandolins so I decided to build the mandolin’s big brother…the mandola. Being a sculptor and having the tools, I thought to myself that I could just build them……. I mean, how hard could it be.
I have a friend who builds ukuleles and he suggested I start out with building a ukulele kit. After I got the kit and looked at the pieces, I figured, I can do that. So in blind ignorance I started buying tone wood and blueprints and jumped off into the deep end.
Most of the biggest names in string instrument builders in the early 1900’s built the entire Mandolin family to be used in mandolin orchestras. In old photographs of mandolin orchestras; besides seeing mandolins, mandolas, mandocellos and mandobasses you would often see harp-guitars, harp-mandolins, parlor guitars harps, zithers and cello and other strange string instruments.
So my first goal in building was to build the entire set of mandolin family instruments. I based my set on the mandolin family instruments Gibson produced in the early 1900’s.
Some of these instruments you can buy blueprints for but some of them you have to sort of make it up as you go along. Thankfully there is a wonderful community of instrument collectors out there who are willing to share info. Tim May out of Nashville was very generous in sending me measurements off his Gibson mandobass so that enabled me to make my mandobass. Other instruments like my mandocello, I took mandola blueprints and enlarged them on a copy machine until they were the correct size. That’s sort of a hair-brained way of doing it but it worked.
Here is a video I did playing one of my harp-mandolins
Along with learning about how these instruments were made I also became interested in the music that these mandolin orchestras played. I was so taken with the sound of the music I collected a binder full of mandolin orchestra scores. I had grand illusions of starting a mandolin orchestra. Of course the ability to read music fluently is a must when you have any type of orchestra score before you. Becoming fluent in reading music is on my list along with learning Italian.
Here is the wonderful Nashville Mandolin Ensemble playing the “Boston Ideal March” from their “All the Rage: Mandolin Ensemble Music From 1897-1924”
The instrument building lets me channel my grandfather. My mother’s father, Harry Lester Taylor was a wood worker who loved building furniture. My grandfather’s love of woodworking and craft was certainly influential to my being an artist but also informed my instrument making. I was fortunate to inherit my grandfathers tools. I cherish that I have the chisels my grandfather used, the mallet he swung and the planes he pushed against grain. I also inherited the anvil that my grandfather inherited from his father in-law.
I remember my grandfather telling me that he loved to plane wood. He told me that he loved how when he planed a piece of wood, a curl of wood would come out of the back of the plane and then fall to the floor.
I never really understood that until I started building myself. You soon discover as your building just how much of the wood ends up as dust or chips only to be swept up.
When I first get a piece of wood I hold it up to my ear and give it a good thumping so that I get a base line in how it will change as I carve it down. I continue to hold it up to my ear as I take away material, thumping, carving more, thumping …. listening for the resonance that’s revealed by the carving away of the wood.
The video below is me carving the inside of the mandobass.
One of the first things you learn when building string instruments is patience. Take carving for instance. When I have carved wood in the past it was always been very direct and I often left the chisel marks as a sign of the process itself. In instrument making the craft becomes very important not only to how it looks but also to how it sounds. So not only do you carve, but you also file and scrap away wood until the surface is smooth to the touch. If the soundboards of a mandolin is not carved in such a way it can mean the difference between a nice sounding instrument that rings and one that produces a dull sound with no resonance. There has been a big learning curve for me in learning about building musical instruments. At first I thought….how hard can it be, and after having done it more than a couple of times, I realize how idiotic that statement was. The experience is humbling as learning should be. The more I learn the more I realize how little I know and I like it that way. There is wonderment even in the frustration.
Making string instruments has given me some new skill sets, but it has also exposed me to things that I would ever had guessed would have been interesting to me, such as the physics of sound and how it travels through wood. Would you have ever guessed that sound travels better with the grain of a piece of wood as opposed to against the grain.
Building has given me great pleasure. As I said earlier, it allows me to channel my grandfather. I feel his presence when I use his tools and think about the craft that he employed in his making of furniture. The older I get, the more important that becomes.
It has also given me these beautiful instruments to play that I would have never been able to play if I hadn’t made them for myself and to explore music that I never would have thought to be interesting in the past. Learning…..such a beautiful thing.
Here below is a video of my friend, Max Thompson and me noodling around with some Bach.
Learning what I have about instrument building has greatly enriched my life. Knowing that I have so much to learn excites me to no end. I would suggest to everyone, to pick up something that they never have tried before or something that you have tried once and felt that you failed at, and to try your hand at it again. Research something you find mysterious and continue to learn new things. Do this and you will find everyday a bit of the wonderment that this world is so full of.
This is a commissioned Mandolin A style I completed 2013
You can find out more about my instrument builds at: http://www.foleystringinstruments.com/
One thought on “On building string instruments and learning new things”
I have loved mandolins for “decades”. Their music to be sure but the artful mastery as well. After seeing “NewGrass Revival” in Telluride @ 1985, I became a true fan of that music. I’d truly love to meet Martin & his workshop someday soon!😊