Building an F Style Mandolin
By John Fisher
"Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish into air."--John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), 6th U.S. President.
Because I had left my mandolin in Brazil and it wasn't really such a great mandolin anyhow, this gave me the inspiration to want to build one. The mandolin in the past has proved very useful in different studio recordings I've done. When I started to research what kind of mandolin I would like to have, I thought that the F 5 mandolin was the coolest looking mandolin. I have seen several famous people using them such as the Eagles, Nickel Creek, Bill Monroe and many others so I thought it's probably a pretty good mandolin. The fact that it had a carved top and back was appealing to me and I always wanted to make something with a carved or arch top. Although the prospect seemed a little scary, I thought "why not give it a try?" the worst thing that could happen is that I will fail but at least I'll learn something. I also thought with such a small instrument it probably won't be such a big deal. Boy, was I wrong! This turned out to be probably the hardest instrument that I have ever built. This instrument has every imaginable task in stringed instrument making and more. There is the top and back carving, side bending, a rather complex neck to body issue, binding, inlays, bridge making and then the famous scroll. I was debating on whether I should do the scroll or not as it seemed like an unnecessary task and it is even a bit strange looking to me, but then I thought "well why not just go for it". The scroll was a detail that made the construction of the mandolin take longer and was somewhat tedious. There are many visual type details in this project that could have been avoided in which you can still make an excellent mandolin that works and and sounds good without all the unnecessary frills. But for what it's worth, I would like to share some of my adventures in building my mandolin with you.
There may be some details that are not totally explained as it would probably take writing a book on the matter to cover every detail. In fact, this is probably the most detailed and time consuming article I've written on my web site so far as this instrument is rather complex. There are also some details that are covered in other instrument building projects that I won't necessarily repeat here. This is not a complete "a" to "z" guide to build a mandolin but it is pretty close to it. If you have built other instruments before, then maybe there are some details not explained clearly that will be obvious to you but I wouldn't make this your first instrument to construct. I don't claim that my methods are the best but I am just learning like everyone else and because this is my first mandolin, I make quite a few mistakes but thankfully I was able to rectify most of them. I also in many cases just made due with what I had as far as tools and materials. Just to let you know, I used very simple tools to do the job. As of this writing, I don't have a large work area with thousands of dollars worth of machinery but most of the tools I used were simple hand tools like chisels scrapers, a coping saw and some home made things. There are many hand and power tools that would have been nice to have but I was surprised to find out that it is possible to make do with simple methods and tools but it sill takes a lot of work. If you have good tools it will certainly speed up your work and in many cases give you better results.
After researching on the Internet I saw that this kind of mandolin that is made from solid woods was very expensive to buy. This was another incentive for building one because I would hopefully build something that I couldn't afford to buy.
I also didn't use expensive materials to build it but I used readily available materials that in my opinion sounds and works just as good as expensive materials and still came out looking nice in my opinion. For example I used some hard maple floorboards that somebody gave me for the back and sides. It wasn't expensive book matched flamed maple but, so what!
One thing about building an instrument is that although it may be a lot of tedious work, you get a lot of visual rewards along the way as you make progress. This always encourages me to keep on going as you can actually see the progress in motion. If you were to try ripping a phone book in half all at once you will probably get discouraged and quit but if you do one page at a time you will at least make progress. Another thing that helps me is that I like to set little immediate goals (no matter how small) to make progress. I have to do this because I can be a very impatient person. I think that more then skill to do these kind of a projects is just having a lot of patience and putting in a lot of hard work. I also try to find ways not to get too bogged down with perfection or worry about situations that aren't the most ideal but try the best with what I have. It's one thing just to get it done. "Specialists are for insects."
I many times I chalk up even my mistakes as individuality. In other words even my mistakes can sometimes give my projects it's own character. It's called making a lemonade out of a lemon. Ha!
Just have fun.