A New Project – A Mandolin

Long. long ago, I tried my hand at building some musical instruments. Way back toward the first posts in this blog, I included some photos of a dulcimer and a banjo I built back in the 70’s. At the time, I also built a couple of prototype mandolins. That was for a school project, exploring different materials and shapes and how the sound would be affected. I built a mandolin with a gourd for the back, there was one with the body of a cigar box, and an unfinished one that was a teardrop shape.

The urge to build a mandolin has resurfaced in 2013. This time, I am using some plans and books, and the advice of fellow woodworkers to build what is knows as  an F5  mandolin, an instrument originally designed by Lloyd Loar in the 1920’s and built by Gibson.

There are a lot of steps and processes necessary to building a musical instrument. This is the first time I have attempted to carve a top and back, creating an arched shape. The wood bending for the sides is much more complex than required for a dulcimer, with tighter curves and close tolerances. Even the headstock is very detailed. And this will be my first attempt at binding the edges.

I used a process called “hot pipe bending” to bend the wood sides. I soaked the wood in water for several hours, then used a short piece of 2 inch diameter steel pipe with a propane torch flame as a heating element inside the pipe. Gradually, the heat softens the wood and allows it to bend. I used walnut for the sides, or “rim.” The soundboard is carved from a piece of spruce I bought several years ago and which I intended to experiment with as a material for building a kayak. The blocks in the rim design – the headblock, tailblock, and points – are made from mahogany, as is the back. The neck is maple, with a rosewood veneer on the headstock, and it will get a rosewood fretboard as well.

So, here are some photos of my progress so far.


The frame that holds the rim in place after bending.

The frame that holds the rim in place after bending.

mandolin rim

The mandolin sides, or “rim.”


The soundboard, partially carved and attached to the rim.


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