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Mandolin Evaluation
Part 1
Evaluation involves consideration of four areas:

Part 1: Construction
While construction isn’t everything,
examination of a mandolin before playing it
can tell one a good deal about its quality, its
likely origins, the philosophy of its makers,
and its possible flaws and strengths.
Wood: Mandolins seem to come in a wide range of wood. Various spruces
for the top. Usually maple but also mahogany and sycamore for the backs.
Other similar woods likely substitute without much notice. No doubt an
adequate mandolin could be constructed from wood found on the street. The
more power and precision demanded, the more the wood counts. While tonal
characteristics can’t necessarily be seen, makers will generally choose better
looking wood for better instruments. Certainly a modern production mandolin
shouldn’t use pieces grafted on to lengthen a too-short back or obvious resin
pockets in a top.
Body Wood: While lots of different woods have been used, mandolin bodies
less the top are usually made of maple. Maple is typically fairly hard wood,
adding brilliance to the sound. Other woods (e.g., mahogany, poplar,
sycamore) generally give a softer sound that works well in some styles
requiring or using a less punchy response. Maple in mandolins typically has
pronounced "figure" of great beauty. Most use flamed maple, but quilted and
birdseye maple are spectacular as well. Flamed or curly maple exhibits tiger
stripes. Quilt patterns look like a patchwork or like intersecting sets of waves.
Birdseye figuring looks like lots of little eyes in the wood. A given piece of
wood may exhibit all of these figure types. Figure doesn't have anything to do
with tone.

For intense, powerful play, the moderately firm maples from North America
and Europe are generally best. Put Bosnian and Italian maple at the top. In
North America, put Northern Red Maple up there, and perhaps put hard
sugar maple at the top. A warmer, softer instrument is often made of poplar
or big leaf maple. Oriental maples are a bit of a mystery, but some are clearly
superior tonewoods.

Backs can be made of one piece of wood or two pieces bookmatched. It
doesn't make any difference. Neither does the cut of the wood make a great
deal of difference so long as the maker works to wood characteristics as well
as numbers. Perhaps at the highest levels, quartersawn wood with grain
reeds perpendicular to the back's plane may be better because it offers the
greatest stiffness for a given mass. But this is far from certain.
  Top Wood: Spruce is strong for its weight and vibrates easily, making it ideal
for the top. Good spruce gives the right balance of warmth and projection.
For intense, powerful play, good quality alpine spruce from Europe and red
spruce from North America seems preferred. Sitka and Engelmann also work
fine. For student instruments, I suspect that Home Depot pine might work fine
if selected really carefully. In very general terms, uniform 1 mm to 1.5 mm
spacing seems to consistently sound nice and respond well, but the
exceptions are legion.
Construction Types and Methods: Construction generally falls into the
traditional versus innovative. The traditional methods are well known. Hand
carving all parts. Hand fitting the neck into the body via a dovetail joint. Use
of acoustically transparent hide glue. Brushed on finish leveled with
abrasives and compounds. Many mandolins are still made this way, or have
minimal innovations applied.

Innovative methods include computer controlled machining, sprayed on
finishes, and simplified neck joints. For example, a computer controlled
carver can get a mandolin plate very close to finished in short order. Necks
may be bolted on with a simple tenon & mortise.

One has to wonder whether the emphasis on tradition matters much in
performance. Certainly a bolted on neck is easier to work with should
problems arise. But there’s great attraction to traditional techniques. While
the carved mandolin is a relatively new thing (at least compared to violins),
the methods used in the 1920s draw directly from those used for hundreds of
years. Given the troubles that sometimes arise with new approaches after a
few decades, sticking to proven methods isn’t unreasonable.
Construction Quality: A smooth glossy finish can cover a wide range of
glitches. A rough, hand laid varnish finish may highlight crisp smooth knife
work. Thus the first glance may not tell all. Examine the outline of the
instrument. Look for glitches in the smooth flow of lines. Examine wood to
wood joints. Binding. The details of inlay. Look inside with a mirror if you can.
Then consider whether the construction is the result of marginal quality
control on a production, the product of skilled hands working by eye, or a
result of machining processes. Sloppy construction generally suggests future
problems. Distinguish wood construction from finish. Usually different people
are applying the finishes. And different tastes govern finishes. But bad
construction is bad construction.

Consider, too, that many in the US have become accustomed to glossy
precision as a mark of quality. This isn’t really the way to look at hand work.
In the violin world, one expects to see a surface finish on the wood made with
a sharp scraper. Knife cuts often remain visible to a keen eye. These are
good things. Anyone can smooth a surface with sandpaper, but dust gets
jammed into the wood and hurts the translucency of the finish.
  Fittings: A good mandolin should have reasonably good quality fittings. The
tailpiece should function easily. If it has a cover, the cover should come on
and off without trauma. This is worth checking. The tuners should be strong
and well made, rather than cheaply stamped ones with lots of slop. The
bridge should be strong, well made, without lots of slop anywhere.
Finishes: Mandolin finishing systems seem to fall into either nitrocellulose
lacquer or the wide range of concoctions called “varnish.” Varnish seems to
be more highly regarded for tone, but is softer. Varnish is very nice, and the
inevitable wear generally looks good. Mandolin makers don’t seem to care
about wood treatment, sealers, ground coats, and the numerous other
aspects that violinmakers obsess over. In my experience, varnished
mandolins have a more sophisticated sound and slightly more supple
response.

Proceed to part 2: |
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 |
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