This blog documents the building of an F5 Mandolin, from a stew mac kit. I hope it’s useful for anyone else embarking on a similar project, and that my experiences might be helpful in helping others avoid the inevitable mistakes I’ll end up making. I’ve never done anything like this before, and my woodworking skills are non-existent as I begin this project: from where I’m sitting right now, Mandolin-building seems like some sort of witchcraft.
What is immedietely clear on opening the kit is that there is a lot to do. If you are also building a Stew Mac kit, the first thing to do is throw away the instructions that come with the kit: they are hopeless. If you bought the kit based on reading the intructions on the Stew Mac website, thinking ‘how hard can it be’, then be prepared to revise your expectations of what’s involved. I bought the Don MacRostie ‘Building a Carved Top Mandolin’ DVD from Stew Mac with the kit: the DVD is 3 hours long whereas the instructions with the kit are four paragraphs long: take a wild guess which is more useful.
I also bought the Roger Siminoff book ‘The Ultimate Bluegrass Mandolin Construction Manual’ which provides a detailed guide to constructing a mandolin, although the process described is different in places to MacRostie’s process, and some of the measurements in the drawings are quite different to the measurements on the Stew Mac blueprint.
Tools were the next concern. The Stew Mac site lists a heap of tools you will need, most of which I haven’t got, so I’ll need to buy quite a bit as I go along. I’m not going to rush out and buy everything, because right now, the chances of getting to the final stages are relatively slim. I spent some time in the garage and dug out anything that might be useful, and found a few things: an old chisel, a set square, a bradawl, some files, a very old tenon saw, a stanley knife and new blades and few G clamps.
The first step in the process is to glue the kerfed lining to the sides. The lining provides a surface that the top of the mandolin will be glued to. To hold the linings in place while the glue dries you will need to modify some clothes pegs: I made one side of the peg flat, to rest against the outside of the sides, and deepened the notch on the other side to fit around the jerfing: and then added a rubber band to make the clamp strong enough to hold the lining firmly in place.
I made 40 of these, which isn’t enough: if you want to glue all the kerfing in one go, you will need about 90. The kerfing is supplied in four strips, so I made enough pegs to do one strip at a time: gluing the lining would thus take 4 x 24 hours allowing the glue to dry before removing the pegs for the next section.
I also made some spool clamps to hold the top to the sides when gluing it on: I bought 20 bolts and wing nuts, a metre of one-inch dowel and some cork coasters. I cut the dowel into sections about three quarters of an inch long, drilled holes through the middle and then glued them to the coasters. When the glue was dry I removed the excess cork, drilled out the hole and threaded two onto each bolt, finishing each with the wing nut, I made 16 spool clamps in total. You can see the spools being stuck to the coasters here:
Finished spool clamps:
Gluing the sides was straightforward enough. The trick is to make sure that you leave about 1mm of kerfing protruding above the sides when you glue it in: then you can level the kerfing down to the sides with sandpaper, creating a level surface for gluing the top to. I manged to break one of the strips of kerfing whilst trying to fit it around the curve inside the waist of the mandolin, so had to glue two pieces along that side. On the side of the mandolin with the scroll, the kerfing isn’t long enough to reach all the way around the side, so you will need the section of kerfing that’s spare from the other side to complete the lining.
On the back, I was more careful to bend the kerfing gradually, using a number of slots to make the bend and it didn’t break: in this picture I’m gluing the final section of kerfing into place on the top.
With glue all dry around the kerfing, I made a cardboard form to hold the body of the mandolin tight against the cardboard form inside, and keep the hole assembly still. I took the rubber band that was holding the waist of the mandolin against the inner form off after gluing the kerfing, and I used the cardboard form from here on, rather than the ruber band.
I levelled the sides with sandpaper around a flat stick: this allows you to sand a level surface around the kerfing, which will be important when you come to glue on the top.
By running a pencil around the sides of the mandolin, marking the top of the sides, it is easy to sand the kerfing down until the pencil starts to disappear leaving a square, level surface all the way around the mandolin. Here you can see the finished sides in the cardboard form.