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Thread: Replating a vintage National mandolin

  1. #1
    Martin Stillion mrmando's Avatar
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    Default Replating a vintage National mandolin

    I picked up another vintage National Silvo e-mando that has already suffered from someone's attempt to customize it — they did a very poor job of adding some simple block inlays to the fretboard. Thinking about getting the inlay redone led to other thoughts about restoring and customizing it. The plating is worn through along the lower edge, and is also badly damaged where the pickguard started to outgas.

    So I thought about having it replated.

    Vintage Nationals like this one were plated with what was then called "German silver"—an alloy of 60% copper, 20% nickel and 20% zinc. There are plenty of other names for the compound—"nickel silver," etc. Of course the names are misleading because there's no real silver involved.

    I first took the mandolin to someone who repairs brass instruments—trumpets, etc.—and he proceeded to argue vociferously over the term "German silver"—so vociferously that I couldn't tell whether he just objected to the term or was actually disagreeing over what was used to plate the instrument. But he eventually agreed to refer the question to his "plating guys." Months passed and I haven't heard back.

    So I went directly to a plating shop, only to discover that the people there were likewise unfamiliar with the term "German silver." I did manage to get a quote from them for nickel plating, but I gather this would be pure nickel or something close to it.

    Anyone here ever sought to have an old National replated? Ever run into a problem like this one? What did you do? Are new Nationals still plated with this alloy or have they changed the recipe?
    Last edited by mrmando; Jun-10-2022 at 11:35am.
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  2. #2

    Default Re: Replating a vintage National mandolin

    You might have better luck talking to the plating shops with the term cupronickel. There are a number of such alloys. You might explain to them that it is a particular cupronickel alloy. German Silver is an antique term that is no longer used because there is no silver in it. Whether cupronickel alloys can be plated depends on the precise alloy and the skills and experience of the shop. If they cannot do it they may be able to refer you to someone who can. One friend of my father could but he is long ago deceased. The copper in the alloy tends to plate preferentially to the nickel.

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    Default Re: Replating a vintage National mandolin

    Are you sure that the part isn’t solid German silver, possibly plated with nickel or silver? German silver is usually a substrate, and an alloy. The part is then electroplated with something elemental, as in silverware. An alloy is very difficult to electroplate as a coating. I’m more familiar with other deposition processes, like vapor or sputtering, and these would not work either. Solid German silver is or was common in instruments.

    If the part is stamped sheet steel, which is also likely, it may have been copper and nickel plated, or then chrome - so-called triple plate. Wearing or corrosion then shows color change.

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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Replating a vintage National mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by mrmando View Post
    ...Vintage Nationals like this one were plated with what was then called "German silver"—an alloy of 60% copper, 20% nickel and 20% zinc. There are plenty of other names for the compound—"nickel silver," etc. Of course the names are misleading because there's no real silver involved...
    The topic sent me to the late Bob Brozman's The History & Artistry of National Resonator Instruments to try to research National's construction and plating practices. Unfortunately he doesn't cover the Silvo line of electrics, but it's clear from his narrative and summary of specs, that metal-body National instruments were constructed and finished using a variety of materials.

    The most expensive lines were constructed of the "German silver" alloy, then plated with nickel. according to Brozman. Less expensive lines were constructed of brass, and similarly nickel-plated. The later less expensive instruments were constructed of steel, and generally painted rather than plated.

    I think you may have an instrument that's nickel-plated, rather than plated with the "German silver" alloy.

    Again, Brozman doesn't cover National's Silvo line, so I can't offer any direct reference, but I found no reference to "German silver" being used as plating, just as the material for body construction.
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    Registered User John Soper's Avatar
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    Default Re: Replating a vintage National mandolin

    The guys at National Guitars work on vintage Nationals all the time; at least they might be able to give you some answers, or do the replating themselves. One of my friends has sent several vintage National guitars all the way from NC to California to have them repaired at the shop.

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    Martin Stillion mrmando's Avatar
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    Default Re: Replating a vintage National mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post
    The most expensive lines were constructed of the "German silver" alloy, then plated with nickel. according to Brozman. Less expensive lines were constructed of brass, and similarly nickel-plated. The later less expensive instruments were constructed of steel, and generally painted rather than plated.

    I think you may have an instrument that's nickel-plated, rather than plated with the "German silver" alloy.
    Ah ... well, then, I have my own copy of Brozman so I'll check it out.

    The Silvo mandolin is just a plain Style 1 mandolin body with a pickup plate. No reason to think it's constructed or plated any differently than a standard Style 1.
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    Martin Stillion mrmando's Avatar
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    Default Re: Replating a vintage National mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post
    The most expensive lines were constructed of the "German silver" alloy, then plated with nickel. according to Brozman.
    Allen, do you have a page number for that claim? Brozman's spec list for Style 1 just says "German silver body" without reference to whether that's plating or substrate.
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    Default Re: Replating a vintage National mandolin

    No suggestion as to how or where, but FWIW I own a late 20's, early 30's National Triolian guitar that was plated nickel in the 60's or early 70's. At first glance it looks like a poor man's Style O. Back when I got it I did a little research and found the Style O guitars were plated over brass, whereas the Duolian and Triolian were painted steel. So, a different sound but still good. I thought it was very unique when I got it, but since have seen others that were nickel-plated (after the fact), so that was a "thing" I guess back then. I was able to contact Marc Schoenberger at National Guitar Repair and he had lots of good info to share. He is in Grover Beach, California. NFI.

  10. #9

    Default Re: Replating a vintage National mandolin

    Thought I might mention a bit more. First, a plater will not plate over existing coating, so will etch or grind back to the substrate. If there’s any fine detail, like an engraving or etched pattern, it can be destroyed unless you and he are on the same page. Delicate pieces sometimes even get buffed right through. Second, German silver, like the coins in your pocket, is non-magnetic, so you can find out if the piece is steel. A nickel plating
    is magnetic, but a weak effect. Third, wet plating is a toxic and environmental bad thing, and has been for so long that small shops can’t afford to do it, at least properly.


    In fact-checking myself today, found out that the term German silver fell out of use in 1914. No need to wonder why!

  11. #10

    Default Re: Replating a vintage National mandolin

    Wouldnt an original untouched finish be more desirable than a replanting? Think vintage cars or furniture. I’d just polish it then go from there.

  12. #11

    Default Re: Replating a vintage National mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by Phil-D View Post
    Wouldnt an original untouched finish be more desirable than a replanting? Think vintage cars or furniture. I’d just polish it then go from there.
    Current fashion in the marketplace can shift with the winds. Even cleaning, let alone polishing, is a valuation reduction in many types of collectibles. Restoring something to original materials and appearance, once an accepted virtue, can now be a crime. Witness the recent thread about the nature of ‘60s auto paint on an electric mandolin here! Restore something to playability? Maybe good, maybe bad. Make the Bugatti drivable? Maybe, but it’s all in the winds of fashion and those who, one way or the other, define a market. The cynical among us might think that it could all be a manipulation.
    So should one seal a musical instrument in an argon-filled glass case, like the Constitution? That might be currently the only safe thing, but if one’s interest in something is function, rather then investment or scholarly study, then go ahead, fix those cracks, replace those strings, and possibly even wipe off the dirt.

  13. #12
    Registered User Sue Rieter's Avatar
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    Default Re: Replating a vintage National mandolin

    Function. Definitely function. And then appearance. But appearance doesn't necessarily mean pristine, like new (although it could).

    Some instruments are truly amazing works of art. (I've seen more than a few here.) But to put them in the proverbial argon-filled case mentioned above, I think that's sad. IMHO the total beauty is in the intersection of appearance and sound, and I would imagine the best appreciation of both would be in the playing/hearing the playing.

    I don't think I'd re-plate if it were mine.
    Last edited by Sue Rieter; Jun-11-2022 at 2:13pm. Reason: Not so definitive - I haven't seen it.
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    Default Re: Replating a vintage National mandolin

    [QUOTE=Richard500;1868509]Restoring something to original materials and appearance, once an accepted virtue, can now be a crime. Witness the recent thread about the nature of ‘60s auto paint on an electric mandolin here!

    The Fender electric mandolin "still" brought over $4000 at auction, even with an uncertain finish.....was that top money or would it have brought more $ with the finish confirmed by a vintage authority?

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    Martin Stillion mrmando's Avatar
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    Default Re: Replating a vintage National mandolin

    The Silvo in question has already had a shoddy attempt at customization performed on it ... someone inexpertly added block inlays to the fretboard, which I'll have to have redone. It also needs a refret. There's a lot of corrosion from the outgassed pickguard. I already have a Silvo that's closer to original, apart from a replacement pickguard.

    So the idea would be to sell the one I already have, spend the money to redo the fretboard and finish on the new one, and keep it for the rest of my playing days, however long that is.

    I'm looking at about $500 for nickel replating if I have it done locally, which includes a 7% environmental fee. I'm also in touch with National.
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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Replating a vintage National mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by mrmando View Post
    Allen, do you have a page number for that claim? Brozman's spec list for Style 1 just says "German silver body" without reference to whether that's plating or substrate.
    Page 52: "All styles were nickel-plated, except Triolians, Duolians, and wood body models." Expect that includes Style 1's.

    My 1930's Style 0 guitar is nickel-plated over brass, except for the resonator cover plate, which is nickel-plated over some other metal. My Triolian mandolin is faux walnut-painted steel. I have a (pretty rare) National Havana wood-body, which has a plated resonator cover plate, and an awkward body supposedly Kay-made (big ugly f-holes).

    I'm a bit sensitive to the environmental damage of plating -- ever tune into one of those Motor Trend Network car shows, and watch what's involved in chrome-plating auto parts? Looks like corrosive fuming hell, and mostly for appearance rather than function. But plating a mandolin body is pretty minor, and restoring/undoing prior lousy work seems worthwhile. Style 1's don't have engraving to worry about blurring, nickel-plating's a pretty common and well-understood technique, and it seems a reasonable thing to do.

    I hope Brozman's description of nickel plating over a "German silver" body is accurate; seems it would eliminate the difficulties of finding someone who could plate with "German silver."
    Last edited by allenhopkins; Jun-11-2022 at 3:02pm.
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    Martin Stillion mrmando's Avatar
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    Default Re: Replating a vintage National mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post
    Page 52: "All styles were nickel-plated, except Triolians, Duolians, and wood body models." Expect that includes Style 1's.
    Ah, there it is ...

    Well, I might owe an apology to the guy at the brass instrument shop then.

    Email from National suggests that some early instruments used German silver as a substrate, but they moved on to other materials. Judging from the color of the underlying metal that shows through where the plating is worn down, mine might be made of "bell brass" (which isn't brass, just as German silver isn't silver).

    Witness the recent thread about the nature of ‘60s auto paint on an electric mandolin here!
    To be fair, the thread is about 1960s colors from the Fender custom shop (which did in fact match some popular custom automobile colors of the period, but are not the same thing as auto paint). If that paint job was done in the factory, it adds greatly to the instrument's value.
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    Full Grown and Cussin' brunello97's Avatar
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    Default Re: Replating a vintage National mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post

    I'm a bit sensitive to the environmental damage of plating -- ever tune into one of those Motor Trend Network car shows, and watch what's involved in chrome-plating auto parts? Looks like corrosive fuming hell, and mostly for appearance rather than function. But plating a mandolin body is pretty minor, and restoring/undoing prior lousy work seems worthwhile.
    Allen, I worked in a plating plant for awhile in high school. Evenings and a summer.

    You're dead right. It was a corrosive fuming hell. No amount of Beat Poetry could offset that and I got out of there.

    We did mostly nickel and chrome plating, as at that place one followed the other.

    That is some gnarly stuff though.

    That plant is closed but likely a superfund site now.

    Chrome is more than decorative: super hard metal and obviously high end rust resistance.

    And it does look good.

    Just think: The ubiquity of reflective surfaces wasn't always as common as it is now.

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    Default Re: Replating a vintage National mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by brunello97 View Post
    Allen, I worked in a plating plant for awhile in high school. Evenings and a summer.

    You're dead right. It was a corrosive fuming hell. No amount of Beat Poetry could offset that and I got out of there.

    We did mostly nickel and chrome plating, as at that place one followed the other.

    That is some gnarly stuff though.

    That plant is closed but likely a superfund site now.

    Chrome is more than decorative: super hard metal and obviously high end rust resistance.

    And it does look good.

    Just think: The ubiquity of reflective surfaces wasn't always as common as it is now.

    Mick
    Second point first: Not really - at least automobiles have been shedding chrome since about 1970, and most today have very little. The ‘40s and ‘50s really drowned in chrome, inside and out. By the 60’s aluminum vapor plated plastics were adorning the interiors. I almost got into that business when I started restoring cars, being a thin films guy and all. More recently, I designed and built a very unusual ion plater for a startup that was going to break into vacuum coating aluminum wheels, which were still wet-plated. Interesting, but didn’t catch on. (Long discussion omitted here.)
    First point: Actually, electroless nickel plate is a really good anti-corrosion and high gloss process, because it contains some phosphorous. it is also considered more durable than nickel electroplate. Especially for technical rather than cosmetic applications. Lots of things like gears and pistons get plated for wear resistance, with various metallic and ceramic materials.
    (Medium story included here): A very long time ago, I was a scientist at what was the National Bureau of Standards, a misnomer if there ever was, and for the one day a year we had high-schoolers come in to get them revved up about science, the lab I was in would electroless plate acorns while they watched. Acorns! I distinctly remember some wiseass kid from a prep school asked my colleague if ‘he didn’t get tired of plating acorns, day after day, year after year!’
    And lastly: I would be pretty reticent about replating an instrument, mostly because it’s thin, soft, and has soldered seams. The prep could be hairy.

  20. #19
    Full Grown and Cussin' brunello97's Avatar
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    Default Re: Replating a vintage National mandolin

    Not sure what you're after, big fella.

    Your metallurgy dump seems pretty irrelevant to my reply to Allen.

    But I guess you felt the need to let us know.

    I'll roll with your "And lastly....".

    From my experience, I wouldn't risk replating, either.

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  21. #20

    Default Re: Replating a vintage National mandolin

    I am reluctant to post with the bickering going here, but I would
    like to point out a couple things.

    Brozman might be right about nickel plating over German silver.
    However, I don't see a benefit for the nickel plating. So, I wonder.

    You can order a German silver alloy guitar from National today.
    It is on the price list under "brass". That seems reasonable since
    German silver is a copper zinc alloy.
    Thanks,
    sounds_good

  22. #21
    Martin Stillion mrmando's Avatar
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    Default Re: Replating a vintage National mandolin

    I'm in touch with National and if I choose to pursue replating, I might send the instrument down to them. The one local shop I've spoken with directly doesn't seem to handle musical instruments much, and might not be the best choice.
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