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Thread: The Australian Mandolin Quartet

  1. #1
    Mandolin tragic Graham McDonald's Avatar
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    Default The Australian Mandolin Quartet

    For the past couple of years I have been thinking about building a mandolin quartet, two mandolins, a mandola and a mandocello from (mostly) Australian timbers: King Billy pine for the soundboards, blackwood for the body and Queensland maple for the necks. The fingerboards will be ebony. I have posted a few photos of various prototype ideas and a couple of progress so far in the 'Whats on your bench' thread. But I thought it might be of interest to a few people to document the build process through a separate discussion.

    The design is based, albeit loosely, on the carved symmetrical two-point Lyon & Healy mandolins of the late 19-teens. The first step was making the side and block assemblies. Blackwood sides, laminated spruce tailblocks, mahogany neck blocks and laminated Pacific kauri linings with spruce blocks in the points.

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    The backs and sides were then sawn out of the glued blanks.

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    The contour lines for the outside shape were marked out and holes drilled to those depths.

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    The outside of the soundboards was carved and the process repeated on the inside. The sound holes were then cut and the three oval holes bound.

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    The next step is fitting the X bracing to the inside of each soundboard.

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  3. #2
    Registered User j. condino's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Australian Mandolin Quartet

    Very cool Graham.

    I & one of my apprentices received a very generous Folklife Grant from the North Carolina Arts Council this year to build a quartet from all North Carolina materials. I'll be posting the details later this year.

    Be glad you chose a mandolin quartet. Mine is a bit broader in spectrum, so I'll be building an F5 and a big double bass while my apprentice covers the middle two!

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  5. #3
    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Australian Mandolin Quartet

    I am fascinated by the Australian timbers. Can you speak of the choices you add tonally for choosing the woods you chose? How do they relate to the North American woods many of us are familiar with? Also, is there a native ebony or is there just not an Australian wood that could be used for the fretboards?
    Jim

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  6. #4
    Mandolin tragic Graham McDonald's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Australian Mandolin Quartet

    Australian blackwood is a close relative of Koa and makes excellent material for backs and sides. I think it is a little too heavy for necks and perhaps a little unstable when used for necks, so I have used Queensland maple for the necks, which is not like American or European maple except in its pale tan colour, more like a very pale heavy piece of mahogany. King Billy pine is a light but stiff softwood that grows only in Tasmania and now almost extinct. Related to Western Red Cedar and similar in the way it can be worked. I carve the arching a bit higher (17mm rather than 15mm for a mandolin) and leave the graduations a little thicker. I have wondered if there is a similar tree growing in Chile, as there a couple of Tasmanian hardwoods with similar trees in South America, such as Tasmanian myrtle beech.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Garber View Post
    I am fascinated by the Australian timbers. Can you speak of the choices you add tonally for choosing the woods you chose? How do they relate to the North American woods many of us are familiar with? Also, is there a native ebony or is there just not an Australian wood that could be used for the fretboards?

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  8. #5
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    Default Re: The Australian Mandolin Quartet

    If you want to learn more about native Australian woods I have some information on my web site. Here it is - http://petercoombe.com/publications/ant.htm

    In my experience, King Billy Pine is more like Redwood than Cedar, and I believe it is a relative of redwood botanically. As far as fingerboards are concerned, we have one species of Ebony, but that is a protected species and very rare. I have only seen small pieces of it. There are also a number of desert Acacia species that are suitable for fingerboards. Gidgee is commonly used by Australian Luthiers for fingerboards and guitar bridges. It is extremely hard, harder than Ebony, and often comes with fiddleback figuring. We don't have any true Maple species, but we do have some species in the Mahogany family, but they are not like true mahogany. As for softwoods there are not many, apart from King Billy Pine there is Buna Pine and Celery Top Pine, although Celery Top Pine is not really soft. There are quite literally hundreds of species of hardwoods (including approx 500 species of Eucalyptus), I have only just scratched the surface. Blackwood is commonly used here because it sounds good and sometimes has stunning figuring and natural colours. I have used it for back and sides and necks on mandolins and guitars. Our woods don't need to be stained, nearly all have beautiful natural colouring.
    Peter Coombe - mandolins, mandolas and guitars
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  10. #6
    Registered User j. condino's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Australian Mandolin Quartet

    You have unlimited possibilities for fingerboards and fittings that will be durable and satisfy traditional colors if you use commonly available hardwoods and torrify them. The process is basically open source and mandolin sizes are small enough that you can do successfully it in a home oven.

  11. #7
    Registered User j. condino's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Australian Mandolin Quartet

    You have unlimited possibilities for fingerboards and fittings that will be durable and satisfy traditional colors if you use commonly available hardwoods and torrefaction to darken & harden them. The process is basically open source and mandolin sizes are small enough that you can do successfully it in a home oven.

  12. #8
    Mandolin tragic Graham McDonald's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Australian Mandolin Quartet

    The X braces for the mandola and mandocello of the mandolin quartet have been shaped and glued, trimmed to size and the soundboards glued to the sides. The braces for all four instruments have been cut from one piece of Sitka, the cello braces a little under 7mm, the mandola 6mm and the mandolin braces will be 5mm wide. The fitting of the braces is quite intricate, as the gluing surface is a like a twisting 3-D ribbon. The are made over height and then trimmed down until the soundboard responds with the right sounds. They can then be glued to the side assemblies, using toothpicks to keep everything in line.

    Thank you, James, for the ideas about home torrification! I will investigate further. Australian blackwood was used by our largest and oldest guitar company Maton for fretboards on some of the cheaper guitars back in the 70s and 80s, so it will be worthwhile trying out some. I have tried gidgee and mulga, a couple of our dry country acacias for fretboards, as Peter suggests, but I think they are too hard and brittle, making getting frets in the slots too much like hard work. They do make great fiddle fingerboards though. (spelling auto-correct always tried to turn gidgee into Gidget, which for people of my age has a wonderful surfing resonance)

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  14. #9
    Oval holes are cool David Lewis's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Australian Mandolin Quartet

    Brilliant work. Cant wait to hear them.
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  15. #10
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    Default Re: The Australian Mandolin Quartet

    I have tried gidgee and mulga, a couple of our dry country acacias for fretboards, as Peter suggests, but I think they are too hard and brittle, making getting frets in the slots too much like hard work. They do make great fiddle fingerboards though.
    Yes Gidgee can be quite brittle, I have broken a couple of fingerboards after fretting, and the frets are a bit more difficult to get in. The figured stuff is very brittle and I will never use that again in a fingerboard. However, a Gidgee fingerboard is never likely to wear out. Personally I like Lancewood (Acacia shirley), or at least the Lancewood log I got from Gillian. It works very similar to Ebony.
    Peter Coombe - mandolins, mandolas and guitars
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