I've been working with wood for over 50 years. It started with my dad in his basement shop, where he taught me to work with tools at a very young age. He had me cutting on the jigsaw when I was just five years old. My initial attempts at making instruments were some tiny balsawood guitars I made in 3rd grade. The first "real" instrument was a bright yellow electric guitar I made in Junior High School. The pickups never worked very well, as I made them out out some old headphones! That guitar is hanging on my shop wall now. In High School, about 1972, I made a full-on 5 string Bluegrass banjo. It's still a pretty good instrument, but the neck is way too heavy because I put in a big, solid piece of steel as a reinforcement. It has never warped, that's for sure. I am grateful for my early education in the shop, and I enjoy sharing my knowledge and skills with young folks that show an interest.
I've always loved two-point mandolins. When I first started designing these instruments, I wanted them to be unique, but traditional enough to be welcoming and instantly comfortable to play. The neck joint structure came in one of those flashes of inspiration, after a breakfast conversation with Mike Doolin (guitar builder). It's strong, light, and easy to build. Each neck joint is made from the very same piece of wood I use for the neck blank, so it makes for an automatic, perfect fit. This design provides higher access to the upper reaches of the fretboard. Some players like a different finishes on the body and neck, and I can easily do that. If custom adjustments or repairs need to be made, the neck can be taken off and replaced in just a few short minutes. Inside the neck is a very light and stout, carbon fiber reinforcing rod to assure stability and straightness. If desired, an adjustable truss rod can be added by special order.
Most of my mandolins include a side port, which not only provides players with a built-in monitor, but also gives the instrument a fuller, more three-dimensional sound. Side ports aren't a radically new idea, my design simply builds on the work of others. They were found on mandolins built back in the 1800s, and many guitar and mandolin builders use them in their instruments today. In addition to better sound, the side port allows access to the inside if an internal pickup is needed. Because I design my "f" holes a bit smaller than the traditional size, I perform final tuning of the internal cavity with the side port. Projection out front doesn't seem to be affected at all, and you can really hear yourself much better as you play. Once you've played on a side port mandolin, it's hard to switch back to one without it.
I work with a variety of woods, and am always on the lookout for beautiful and musical pieces. For the mandolin tops and backs I always try to use locally sourced Northwest woods like Sitka Spruce, Engelmann Spruce, Redwood, Douglas Fir, and Bigleaf Maple.
Sitka spruce, picea sitchensis, is native to the west coast of North America. It grows up the river valleys within about 50 miles of the Pacific coast, from Alaska to northern California. Sitka's high strength-to-weight ratio make it perfect for the resonant sound boards of pianos, guitars, violins, cellos, and mandolins. The Sitka that I have been using has medium width growth rings (about 13 per inch). It's nice and strong and is an excellent conductor of sound—perfect for a great instrument soundboard. Sitka is a little warmer in color than Engelmann, although through the finishing process I can make it take on just about any hue desired; from a simple clear natural "French Polish" to a bright lacquer sunburst. It could even be the base for a baby blue metal flake. Used often to build guitars, Sitka spruce is a classic northwest wood found not too far from where I live. It is very strong and vibrant and was used to make sailing ship masts back in the day. Luthiers love it because it's easy to work, a joy to carve, and sounds great.
Engelmann spruce, picea engelmannii or Picea glauca, is native to western North America. Growing at higher altitude and further inland than Sitka Spruce, its range is from central British Columbia and Alberta all the way down to New Mexico. Because of its slower growth, it may have tighter growth rings than most Sitka. Engelmann reveals a smooth, creamy texture when you carve and work with it. As you do the final finishing, the medullary rays or "silk" becomes very clear. Similar in sound to Sitka spruce, Engelmann is whiter in color and more refined in its look.
I got this particular piece of Englemann from Bruce at Orcas Island Tonewoods. It's from Lo Lo Pass, Montana, and I hope to get three or four complete Mandolin tops out of this nice dry chunk of beautiful wood.
Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, is native to Northern coastal California and into Oregon. Since redwood is a vulnerable species, the wood I've used has been from very old salvaged boards. They are hard to come by, so instruments will be available only when I have the proper wood. Redwood is very warm and rich in looks, feel, and tone.
Douglas Fir, pseudotsuga menziesii, is native to Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. There are several species we call Doug Fir, and I'm not really sure what I've got. A few years ago I got a couple cords of firewood for my shop woodstove. The wood split so nice and straight that I waxed up the ends and put some splits up on a rack in the shop. This mandolin is out of that "firewood." Straight, tight growth rings, a stiff, strong feel, and a musical ring describe this wood. This mandolin has become a favorite among those who play it. Clean and clear without too many low frequencies in the notes, it's really starting to open up as we play it a bit more. I'm pulling down some more of that wood for the next round of instruments. If you want something unique, get a "firewood" mandolin.
Back & Sides
Big Leaf Maple, acer macrophyllum or Oregon Maple, is a large deciduous tree native to western North America from Alaska to California. It is used in furniture production and is the only commercially harvested maple in the Pacific Coast region. Its highly figured wood is used for veneers and musical instruments. I love Big Leaf because it's hard and strong, but not as heavy and dense as some of the other maples. It bends and shapes more easily, and has very beautiful rippling grain. There has been some issues in recent years with people poaching maple trees and cutting them up to sell for instruments. All of my wood comes from suppliers I know and trust. Bigleaf maple can have beautiful grain patterns, and with a little help from some judicious staining, it really comes alive.