Wolf Kater :: Custom made musical instruments Wolf Kater :: Custom made musical instruments
Wolf Kater :: Custom made musical instruments
A New Mandola

"Well I'm leaving all my troubles over you
Cuz it don't matter what I say or do..."

My daughter Julia sat behind us in the van singing a bluegrass tune she had written. She was spending the summer up in Wakefield with her older sister Tamara, waitressing in a local restaurant and devoting her free time to writing songs in various styles. "I'm doing too much covering," she had told me. Both girls are avid bluegrass fans, having grown up with a long tradition of kitchen sessions in our home and playing guitars built by their luthier father. The two sisters complement each other—Tamara likes to go to the source, find the song and learn the chords. Get it right. Julia hears the tune and learns it all by ear, open tunings, melody lines. Don't ask her what chord she's playing...

"I knew, like a bandit boxcar
That the rolling winds are always true."

A New Mandola

Bandit boxcar??? OK... Julia was also playing a mandolin, instead of her usual guitar. Another result of the Wakefield woodshedding. The mandolin was a borrowed instrument, barely a year old and already so badly hogged it only worked up until the sixth fret. Obviously, she needed one. Obviously, Wolfie would have to build one. "DON'T BUY A MANDOLIN!!" I yelled at her from the front seat. Julia got the message.

After some thought I decided to build Julia a mandola. The longer strings should produce a better bass, and it could be "mandolin-ized" by capoing on the seventh fret. This would require a treble cutaway to access the higher frets in the mandolin mode. The mandola would have my standard two octave fingerboard. I also decided on using a sixteen inch scale, somehow it just seemed right. Unfortunately none of my suppliers listed a scale ruler for that length—just the standard short mandolin scale. I would have to find a mandola.

I started asking around.

The back of a new mandola

"Oh, I have one, I'll bring it over" my friend Gordie Furey replied in his calm firechief manner. He showed up several days later with what looked like a large black pumpernickel under his arm. I knew at a glance he had brought a vintage instrument. He snapped the case open and there it was... an H5 in full glory; scroll-work, arched top and back, ivoroid binding, deep red varnish and the ornate headstock with "The Gibson" and floral inlay in mother-of-pearl. And all in perfect condition. This was karmic indeed. We live within walking distance of Orville Gibson's birthplace in Churubusco, N.Y., just across on the Canadian side of the border. The ornate label revealed the date—1911. "WHERE did you get this?" I asked after a stunned pause. "Oh, it belongs in the family," he innocently replied. I started strumming. The tone was amazing—long silvery trebles and deep resonant basses. I measured the string length—sixteen inches. My intuition had served me right. I had my scale.

He left the treasure with me for several days. I drew it up. Julia played "The Gibson" and flipped. She loved everything about it, the sound, the V neck profile and wide fingerboard. The treble-side spike in the body had mystified me.

"Oh, it's to stop the instrument from sliding off your knee," she demonstrated. Of course...

A lot of design decisions fell into place upon opening that black bread-loaf case. The sixteen inch scale produced the sound I was looking for; bright trebles and rich basses, with long sustain. The overall size and proportions of the instrument was still in mandolin-land. A fresh sheet of paper covered the H5 drawing. I knew what I wanted to do—use the scale, fingerboard layout and body shape of "The Gibson", and mix in some concepts of my own. In essence, create "A New Mandola".

My design was uniform in body depth, the flat top and back domed some three-sixteenths of an inch in the centre with convex bracing. On the top I decided to use X bracing with the bridge feet barely sitting on the lower legs of the X. I wanted support for the string downbearing, the demise of so many mandolins, and suppleness as well. Plus the X bracing could be tuned.

The rim assembly presented different challenges—tight bends in the curly maple and very shallow-angled mitres on the points. The simplified horn in my design was hollow, part of the inner chamber and reinforced with solid wood at the tip only, similar to the points. The use of solid violin-style liners, standard in all my instruments, produced a very strong and light assembly. The neck block was dimensioned to accommodate the horizontal mortise my through-neck design required.

Detail: the new mandola

Once top and back had joined the rim, the body started resonating like a bongo drum. Tooling had to be reconfigured to cut the binding groove inside the horn. Solid ebony binding was de riguer for this little box of cosmic mischief, with plenty of scraping to make everything fair and smooth. Julia had personally supervised the contouring of the neck, with arched and fretted ebony fingerboard installed. The final shape was very close to the V profile of "The Gibson" mandola. We tinted the nitro-cellulose lacquer with dragonsblood, a natural pigment used in violin varnish. She added the wine-red liquid drop by drop. "There!" she proclaimed. "That's it." Eight coats of the dark amber lacquer turned the white curly maple and Englemann spruce a deep gold. Polishing set it all into motion. The Paua abalone inlay ring shimmers and glints turquoise and blue beneath a layer of translucent gold—the maple flames dance and sing, auburn cloud ripples in a spectacular tropical sunset, while the glistening ebony binding sinuously winds around all the curves and points.

"Well," I can hear you say. "That's all very nice—but how does it SOUND? Will Julia be pleased?"

Yes, Julia is pleased. The instrument is HER; earth-tone gold, silvery trebles and boomy bass, reminiscent of "The Gibson" but somewhat more punchy with the shallower body. It's a dream to play, the neck falls comfortably into the hand and notes simply hang in the air. In time the tone will mellow to the same deep translucent gold as the body. It is, after all, a new mandola.