Welcome to my blog! I thought that I would try my hand at writing about various aspects of mandolin making on a more or less monthly basis. I say 'more or less' because new submissions will largely be based on wether or not, I have the time and inspiration. New entries will be posted here with the latest one at the top so you can quickly see if there has been any activity since your last visit.
Wow! I can't beleive that I'm into my fourth year of blogging here! In order to keep things from becoming too unruly, I will begin seperating each year of blogs onto its own page. Just click on the links below in order to read my past postings.
May 2, 2019
This month I'd like to continue with some more of the refinements I have developed over the years to create the "Apitius Sound". Specifically this month, I will discuss my unique tone bar design as well as my approach to the f-holes.
Below is pictured the traditional placement and profiles of the tone bars. This arrangement is commonly known as "parallel" tone bars although they are not technically parallel. The term is used more to differentiate this placement from the next most popular design, the X-brace. The off center and asymmetrical placement is meant to control the fundamental mode of vibration of the top plate in order to promote a more balanced sound.
Traditional Tone Bar Placement and Profiles
The profiles that I developed take this idea one step further. Not only are the locations of Apitius tone bars asymmetrical but their profiles are as well. The bass side bar is shaped much like a violin bass bar as it is high in the middle tapering to almost nothing towards the perimeter of the soundboard. This is done with the intent to encourage the fundamental mode of the plate for a full deep bass response. The treble side bar on the other hand, is scalloped down to a very low height right under the bridge position. This is done to promote the higher modes of vibration for bell like highs. Together, these tone bars help to create the full spectrum richness that is the Apitius Sound.
The Unique Profile of Apitius Tone Bars
The f-holes on my mandolins are also unique to Apitius mandolins. Smaller in area and more elegant than the traditional shape, they are used to tune the main air resonance of the body for a beautifully balanced tone. F-holes act much like the single tone control knobs found on early hi-fi sets. On those sets, turning the knob one way will increase bass response while diminishing the trebles. Turning the knob the other direction will increase treble response at the expense of the bass. The key is finding the sweet spot. After much experimentation, I have found that for my mandolins, an air cavity resonance of about C#4 produces the best overall balance.
Next time, I will talk about my patent pending graduation pattern for the top plate.
As always, thanks for reading,
April 7, 2019
I'd like to talk about some of the things that differentiate the Apitius Sound from other mandolins. What is the Apitius Sound? Though it is difficult at best, to describe a sound, I think that a good analogy, that other high level musicians have agreed with, is that the traditional F-5 from the 1920s can be likened to a very good upright piano while the Apitius is like a Busendorfer grand piano. That is, the Apitius has more sustain and richness of tone while the 20s F-5 has a simpler yet well balanced tone. The Apitius Sound is no accident. Over the 40 plus years that I have been pursuing this craft, I have developed what I believe to be refinements in the carved top mandolin sound.
As most luthiers will tell you, good sound does not rely on one or two major elements. Rather, it is the sum of many little refinements and details that alone would not make a significant difference, but together produce a result larger than the sum of their parts. In today's blog I'd like to describe one of the refinements (actually several refinements to one element) that set my mandolins apart from others.
The neck of the instrument must have a strong and solid anchor point on the body of the mandolin. To this end, a block of genuine mahogany is glued to the inside of the rim with its main function being to provide a solid anchor point for the neck. On an F-style instrument, the block also acts as the inside part of the scroll and a gluing surface for the top. It is this last function that this blog will focus on.
In the first photo below, is a neck block similar to the blocks used on the original F5s. You can see how the maple side cleverly splices into the block to form the "button" area of the scroll. You may also notice that there is a significant gap in the area between the block and the maple side to the left. If you imagine the functional, vibrating area of the top as a being round or somewhat oval in shape, you can see that it is well supported all around its perimeter except in that area to the left of the neck block. This is potentially a hindrance to getting maximum power and efficiency from the top plate. An analogy would be the frame of a loudspeaker. A good rigid frame is essential in getting the most power and least distortion from the cone. (the top functions much like a speaker cone)
Traditional Neck Block
To remedy this situation, I have altered the design of the neck block to offer a more solid support for the top plate. Below you can see the design of an Apitius neck block. There is an extension added in the area marked as #1 to lesson the size of the unsupported area of the top. This gives the top a slightly more rigid attachment to the rim. The red line indicates the approximate shape of the traditional block.
In order to reduce the extra weight caused by this design change, the area is hollowed out as much as possible as indicated by the #2 and holes are drilled for even more weight reduction. I have weighed both the traditional shape and the Apitius design and have found the Apitius to be the same weight to a gram lighter than the old style which both weigh in at around 74 grams. The Apitius block, while no heavier, offers a more rigid attachment for the functioning part of the top plate.
Apitius Neck Block
This is just one of many innovative refinements that contribute to the Apitius Sound. I hope to describe some of the others in future blogs. Until then........
Thanks for reading,
March 7, 2019
This month, I'm going to let Forrest O'Connor do the talking by reposting this very recent video that he and partner Kate Lee, posted to their YouTube channel. Kate and Forrest post regularily, every week on Wednesdays as part of their ongoing series, "Born in Nashville".
In this episode, Forrest talks about his Apitius, Custom Grand Classic and ends with a dazzling version of "Whiskey Before Breakfast". The episode was recorded in Kate and Forrest's home studio in Nashville Tennessee.
February 3, 2019
It's been a long time since my last blog entry. I've been extra busy in the past few months with some exiting developements that I hope to be able to share with you in the not so distant future. In the meantime, I thought that it would be good to explain some of the many subtle details that I've been including in my mandolins of late.
As I state on my home page, my objective in building F-style mandolins is to recreate the outward aesthetics of the Loar period mandolins while incorporating the refinements to the graduations and tone bar profiles that I have developed over my 40 years in the business. Refinements that have resulted in "the Apitius sound". I believe that those original mandolins were true masterpieces of design and visual aesthetics. I have tried to verify who it was that was responsible for that design, which began with the redesigning of the F2, F3 and F4 in around 1910 when Orville's original "3 point" design was refined to the now familiar 2 point version, but none of the experts that I have spoken with can say with any certainty, who that was. Someone at Gibson, and it wasn't Lloyd Loar, had an extraordinary eye for aesthetic beauty. Some speculate that it was general manager, Guy Hart but there is no hard evidence for this. From the initial major redesign around 1910, the F models were tweaked continuously over the next decade with the culmination coming with the introduction of the F-5 "Master Model" in 1923. It just boggles the mind how they got so many things right. A feat like this is unlikely to occur in today's world where ease of production dictates design parameters instead of a more pure and free artistic expression. The F-5 was not designed with production efficiency as the driving concern rather, an instrument of the highest quality, to surpass all others seems to have been the aim. My aim is to capture these details and recreate the level of hand made quality that made these instruments come to be iconic.
Just to give the reader an idea of the details that I am talking about, let my give a partial list of these details that are often not present in other modern, F5 style mandolins;
Tapered Dovetail Neck Joint. Because of the compound curves and angles this joint requires on an F style instrument, many manufactures use alternate methods of neck attachment but nothing has surpassed the traditional tapered dovetail for strength, vibrational conduciveness and reversibility.
Off Center Neck Joint. If you examine an original F5 closely, (or F2s & F4s) you will notice that the neck is attached to the body a little to the left of center. While there is some disagreement among experts whether this was intentional, it is present on nearly all examples and in my opinion contributes to the overall aesthetic by 1.) tucking the scroll in closer to the fingerboard and 2.) creating the illusion that the inner line of the scroll transitions and blends smoothly with the line of the neck. It is interesting to note that in order to achieve this off center attachment, the neck must be angled in such a way as to have the centerline of the fingerboard intersect the centerline of the top precisely at the bridge position.
Off center neck joint. (note subtle curve of fingerboard extension)
Ebony Fingerboard Support. To my knowledge, early Loar signed F5s had fingerboard supports of maple. At some point this was changed to ebony and was probably done for structural reasons rather than aesthetics. None the less, I have also switched from using maple to using ebony. I have not had any problems with the maple supports but I have come to like the look of the ebony for this purpose.
Ebony fingerboard extension support.
Dovetailed Point Protectors. The original F5, when 'topbound', had its point protectors dovetailed into the binding. The fitting was done by hand and made for a more secure attachment of the points which by necessity are glued to the end grain of the sides. I have carried on this tradition which many modern makers omit.
Point protectors are dovetailed into the binding on 'topbound' models.
Tortoise Colored Side Dots. Another detail much overlooked is the use of tortoise colored side dots on the fingerboard. It's a small detail but it gives that extra bit of refinement befitting a high quality instrument.
Tortoise colored side dots.
5-Ply headstock veneer. Most modern makers use a headplate of solid wood, typically ebony. The original F5s actually had a head plate made of a special 5-ply sandwich of hardwood veneers with alternating grain direction for strength and stability. The outer visible layer was of black dyed pear wood. Using a solid veneer is actually easier in terms of production but does not offer the greater strength and stability. Using hot hide glue, I glue up my own sandwich of 4 maple veneers plus an outer veneer of dyed pearwood. The back of the peghead receives a single layer of dyed pear wood mostly as a decorative element, as was done on the Loar signed instruments.
Gluing up a 5-ply sandwich of maple and dyed pear wood.
The plies are visible in the truss rod pocket.
The back of the peghead gets one ply of dyed pear wood carved into a 'widow's peak'.
Black Varnish Applied to Headstock Face. In addition to using black dyed pear wood on the face of the peghead, the original F5s had their peghead faces painted with a black varnish. The pearl shell inlays would then be scraped clean. This extra procedure results in inlays that have maximum contrast to the background substrate. Since no one knows the exact formulation of this black varnish, I use a proprietary formula to 'paint it black' and then scrape it from the inlays once it has dried. Again, very few are including this extra detail in their mandolins.
A proprietary black varnish is applied to the peghead face.
When dry, the varnish is scraped from the inlays.
Angle-cut and Tapered Headstock. While we're focused on headstock details, let's not forget that the original F5 mandolins had pegheads that were both angle-cut and tapered from end to end. Angle-cut refers to the angle of the sides of the pehead relative to the face. Instead of the side edges being square to the face, as might be expected, the originals were cut square to the fingerboard plane and therefore 13° to the longitudinal plane of the peghead. This results in a peghead with gently twisting dimensions which is rather pleasing to the eye. In addition to being angl-cut, the pegheads were also tapered slightly in thickness from end to end. Again, rather pleasing to the eye and serving no other function. In fact, a tapered headstock creates complications when installing today's precision tuning machines but these are the kind of small details and extra effort that make for a truly great and inspirational instrument.
Angle-cut and tapered headstock.
Hand Applied Sunburst Stain. While the majority of modern makers use spray techniques to achieve the familiar shaded top of the arched top mandolin, the original F5s had their stain hand applied directly to the wood. While spraying very quickly produces an even coloration, and is therefore the method of choice for most production shops, it does not fully bring out the full character of the wood. Applying the stain by hand using a cloth applicator requires much more skill and time but when done well, results in a finish that brings out the individual character of the wood, helping to make each instrument truly unique. While spray methods produce a look that can be said to be technically more perfect, true art does not depend on technical perfection but rather aesthetic perfection that speaks to the human soul. After all, a photo of a woman sitting by a lake is technically more perfect than a painting of one yet the Mona Lisa still captivates us in profound ways.
Appying stain by hand.
Hand applied stain and French polished spirit varnish.
Well I think you get the idea. Apitius instruments are made with an attention to detail far exceding the majority. Striving to produce only the best is what motivates me and the wonderful feedback from my customers makes it all worthwhile.
Until next time. Thanks for reading and hold to the Golden Rule,
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