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How to build a Mandolin

The following is some of the things I learned along the way of building and constructing my kitset Mandolin. The kitset is a SAGA Mandolin AM-10. I suspect other kits are similar in the pieces they include. Hopefully, you read this BEFORE constructing, and so you don’t make some of the same mistakes I did. The instructions that come with the kit should always be followed above and beyond what I have written here (mainly because there are some steps I’ve left out!). Enjoy!

1. Open the box, read the instructions

This is what I did, cover to cover, so I knew what I was in for. As I did, I made a quick note of all the different things I’d need that I didn’t have (such as glue, sandpaper, clamps etc…). This allowed me to go shopping and get everything, as well as process the procedure for putting together my first Mandolin.

2. The binding.

Using a small, flat file file down all the uneven bits and pieces in the edge where the binding fits. The glue they suggest is Duco Cement, which I didn’t have any of. I just used some regular UHU multi-purpose glue. Make sure you wipe up the glue if it spills out. My finish wasn’t very pristine because parts of this soaked into the wood and stopped the stain from being able to do it’s thing. I would probably use masking tape to clean up the whole thing.

Wrap the binding around, starting at half way and starting at the bottom of the mandolin top. As you go, stick down what you have glued down with masking tape, taking regular breaks to wipe up glue and catch your breath. Make sure the tape is nice and firm around the binding, as this is going to hold it in place as the glue dries. You can see from this I have taped a little infront to hold it in place whilst I glue down the other side of the binding.

After it dries, remove the tape, and then tidy the binding up, making it flush with the edges of the mandolin with a sharp knife.

3. The tone rods

First thing, sand the inside of the top face of the mandolin. It doesn’t need to be massively smooth, but not rough like it’s just been carved. Follow the instructions in the manual for the placement of these. I found Google quite helpful for converting the inch measurements given into metric measurements.

Once the positioning has been made, tape a couple of strips of sandpaper to the inside of the top. Use a pencil to shade the bottom side (curved side) of the tone rods, and then begin making short small rubbings against the sandpaper. This will slowly but surely shape the rods to fit the curve of the top exactly. Keep checking the pencil markings. As soon as the pencil markings have all gone, then you’ve got an exact fit. Make sure you label top and bottom on each rod, as well as left and right on the two rods.

These need to be glued on with Titebond glue. (Note: the instructions say to use “titebond” glue; with lowercase – which would suggest it is a type of glue. However, this is not a type of glue, but a BRAND of glue. You should be able to get it at specialist woodworking or model making hobby shops.) I used ADOS F2 Glue, which is strong, but permanent, which means if there’s any breaks or I need to reset the neck or anything, then I’m stuffed. Titebond glue allows woodworkers to add heat and steam to release the glue and reset it, whilst still providing a stronger than wood bond.

 

4. The headstock

Whilst the binding and tonebars dry (overnight, as you want those tone bars to be set and strong), you can begin looking at your design for the headstock. I got my idea from someone else, but made my own choice on it. They have packed an oversized headstock for this reason.
Once you’ve decided on a design, draw it in on the back and the front. I used a paper stencil to ensure it was the same on both sides. Use a coping saw or bandsaw to cut it out. It may also need a bit of work with a file, Dremel, or sandpaper to finish this off. You can finish it off at this point, as nothing else gets done to this area until the end. You can also add an inlay at this point if you want to. I chose not to.

5. Fixes

At this point, I had to make some fixes to the binding. Right at the end, up by the neck, I noticed that due to the pressures caused by the curves, that the binding hadn’t glued properly to the wood. I re-applied glue, and then using masking tape, levered and pulled the access, so that the binding was firm against the wood. Once this dried, I cut the binding following the angle of the neck cave and filed to make it nice and flat.

6. The kerfing

The next part is to glue on is the kerfing. This is the two strips of wood that surround the inside bottom, to provide more surface area for which to glue the base to the top. First, bend and cut to fit the inside. You’ll have to make account for the base board and the neck cave. Once you are set, begin using Titebond glue to glue the kerfing in place. It needs to be flat against the edge. Use strong spring clothes pegs to hold it in place as you go (a bit like the masking tape).

7. The neck

You don’t want to stuff this one up. This is the most important piece of the whole jigsaw puzzle. First, lightly push the heel of the neck into the neck cave. Take a pencil and draw around where the neck meets the face and the body of the mandolin. This will leave the areas which you have to glue.

Tape them off so any glue that does get squeezed out falls onto tape and not the wood. I also suggest you tape off the fretboard so there is no chance of any damages being made to it.

Apply glue to the correct areas, both on the neck, and in the neck cave. Allow a few minutes for it to start to set, and then push it firmly into the neck cave, so that it fits all around. Using a scrap piece of wood placed on the fretboard, tap the neck with a hammer so it fits tightly.

Shave the two dowels that came with the kit (there’s no way these will fit without shaving them down a bit!). Cover them with glue, and put a dab of glue in the holes, then knock them in with a hammer. BUT BE CAREFUL. I didn’t know how far to punch them in, and ended up splitting the base wood of the neck cave in the body. If your wood does split, you need to remove the dowels straight away, glue and clamp in strengthening pieces of wood to help with the split (see photo below). Knock the dowels back in carefully. Once you’ve done this, check that you haven’t displaced the neck back out. Once it’s all dry, you can cut down the dowels.

8. The base

The base was tricky. You need to sand it, as per the instructions. Once I did this, I also stained the inside. The reason for this is I wanted it to be quite dark inside the mandolin, as it’s quite a light wood, and I didn’t want that light wood coming back through the ‘f’ holes. I also decided to stick a label on the inside, just like a real guitar or mandolin maker would. Admittedly, I did end up putting it “upside down” and in the wrong ‘f’ hole, but it all works out in the end.

You also need to line up the centre line of the base with the centre line of the sides and neck. I used a couple of staples cut apart so they stuck into the wood to act as guides for getting it in place. Also, turn the mandolin over, so you can see that there is enough overlap around the edges for all of the base. It needs to fully cover the bottom.

Once that was done, I masked off the sides of the mandolin, and then glued around the kerfing. I also glues around the pencil marks of the base and pressed them together, using the guides I’d made before with the staples. Then clamp. Ideally, you want at least 6 clamps, though I only had 5 that would fit.

9. Fixes II

I found out, after I glued, that the base wasn’t going to match. There was about 2mm gap between the neck and the base. This was because the neck hadn’t been cut quite right and whilst was flush with the top of the mandolin, and couldn’t be pushed down any further into the neck cave, it was not flush at the bottom, causing the gap.

My solution to this was to cut off the bit of the base. There was enough space for the rest of the base to be significantly glued to the mandolin, and the rest was just for show. I’d cut it, re-glue it 2mm down, and then sand off the base so that it lead a gentle slope down to the glued on bit, hopefully making it so it looked like there was never a gap in the first place.

10. Sand, Sand, Sand

Using three separate grades of sandpaper (#120, #240, #320), sand down all surfaces (including binding) of the guitar. Do NOT sand the fretboard or the top of the headstock. I didn’t take any photos of this process, as I figured it’d be as interesting as a photo of paint drying. At this time, I also used a file to go around the binding to scrape off any glue that was stuck to it.

11. Stained

I decided that my mandolin needed a darker feel to it, rather than the very light wood. The instructions have outlined the various different finishes that you could produce for your mandolin.

I chose some wood gel stain to use to darken much of the wood. This was the same colour that I used for the inside of the mandolin (I also used the inside of the mandolin to test that it would work!)

Follow the instructions on the bottle for application and drying times.

After adding the dark on the base and the head, I added the honey oak as a lighter tone. To be honest, I could have kept this if I was going for a contrast feel to my mandolin, rather than the vintage feel I wanted. Use a little bit of masking tape to keep the neck that separate colour.

After this layer dried, I added a layer of the darker colour again, and then very quickly wiped it off. In places, I added a bit of spit and polish, and a paper towel to wipe through and give that old vintage feel to the mandolin.

12. Pilot Holes

From here, I marked out all the finishes, such as the tailpiece, the tuning pegs and trussrod cover with a pencil, and drilled the pilot holes for them. Once again, follow the given instructions for these – especially to line up the tailpiece with the neck, so that the strings line up straight.

13. Finishes

The next step was to decide on the protective finishes. The wood gel I used suggested using a particular product (from the same company, as you’d expect) to seal in the colour. I was a little bit undecided whether to go for a matte finish polyurethane, or a gloss shiny finish. I put a layer of matte on, and saw how it was when it was wet, and knew I wanted it to be glossy. Once the layer of matte had dried, I applied the second  layer as gloss, and was very happy with the result.

14. The Bits and Bobs

Once that dries, it’s time to start putting things together. The tuning heads with the rings (you may have to sand back the insides of the holes in the headstock so the rings fit. Truss rod cover, 3 screws. The tailpiece and strap nut, put carefully into the base of the guitar.

The nut needs to be glued onto the top of the neck. But before you do, check the height of it. If it is too high, then the action at the first and second frets will make the mandolin unplayable. You can adjust the height of the nut two ways. You can either use a needle file to make the grooves a bit deeper (but beware, too deep and the strings will buzz in the deep grooves), or you can sand the bottom using a flat surface and a sheet of sandpaper. There are some tips in the instructions as to how high the action needs to be. There are also numerous guides online. Once you are happy with the height of the nut, you are ready to glue. To glue, use a bit of the glue you used for the binding. It only needs a dab as the string tension should also hold it in place.

Now for the strings. This may require a helping hand. The loops at the end of the string don’t always play fair when you then have to tighten the strings at the other end. Having a friend hold the strings on the hooks in the tailpiece is invaluable.

As soon as they’ve picked up the tension, slide the bridge under, making sure it is between the middle of the ‘f” holes. This is a “floating” bridge, as it doesn’t get secured anywhere, but is held in place by the tension of the strings. It may be required for you to make several depressions into the bridge for the strings to rest in on the bridge. I made these grooves with a craft knife. Over time, the strings will do this naturally. The bridge also needs to be adjusted up or down so the action at the 12th fret isn’t too high either. I found I had to adjust the bridge quite a bit, as I needed to make the bridge shallower than it would go. So I cut out parts of the bridge to allow it to be adjusted much shorter.

Then it’s just a matter of tuning up your mandolin and you’re away laughing!

Enjoy!