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7 May 2016

Pimping my Mandolin

It can only have been a month or so ago that I found a mandolin at the tip. Yes... FOUND! Wahay! What are the odds of that happening? I was chucking some wood into the skip and something shiny caught my eye. It looked like a small guitar nestled amid the rotting timber. I plucked it out, and after a 2 second inspection I was marching it off to my car. I've wanted a mandolin for the longest time... and now I finally have my hands on one!


Here it is... an Eros M1 Mandolin. There's wasn't much wrong with it when I got it home; It had a few minor scuffs here and there, a missing fret dot, and the strings needed changing. The biggest real problem was that the nut had broken. My final assessment was that it wasn't going to take much to get this playable again.


I did a little bit of Googling and discovered that the EROS is a budget mandolin probably made in Italy in the 70s and distributed in the UK by Rosetti. In the condition I'd found it, it was probably worth about £40.

I spent a lot of time admiring it and figuring out how it was made before I started to take it to bits. In many respects it has been manufactured like any other stringed instrument of this size. The top is spruce (faded by the sun). The back and sides are plywood. The headstock has been painted rather than vaneered and the logo is applied as a transfer. The nut was plastic and very fragile. The body had plastic binding top and bottom and the machine heads all seemed to be working.

Of a great deal of interest to me was the fact that the instrument is an archtop and I have what I think is the original bridge. I wondered if it would give me any insights into my own project to build an archtop guitar.

All-in-all it was in tidy shape.

Oh yes, probably the most interesting thing to call out from a luthier's perspective is the fact that the instrument has a zero fret. You see this design feature used with smaller instruments and for this instrument at least it renders the nut little more than a guide for the strings. From my brief research on zero frets in mandolins, it looks like it is quite a common feature.


I'm not going to bore you with the multitude of photos I took, but my first use of the mandolin was to test out some of the ideas I have for finishing my archtop guitar. It became a guinea pig. I went through round after round of sanding and polishing. I applied epoxy; I applied lacquer. I buffed, I scoured, I polished.

I had mixed success and learnt lots of valuable lessons.

First up I'll say that z-Poxy is a easy to work with, but Nitrocellulose Lacquer is by far a better end result. I found that z-Poxy is probably tougher, but it renders with a sort of cloudy, patchy appearance. Both buff up well.

I didn't want to spray the Nitrocellulose and experimented with brushing it on versus rubbing on with a cloth. Both worked well, but actually I think the brush came out with a thicker, more consistent coverage. The challenge with Nitrocellulose is to get it applied before it sets. You've literally got seconds to do it.

I tried a heap of specialist polishes of different grades and the learning here is that they are all pretty much the same. My recommendation is simply to go with a branded car polish - you're wasting your money on anything that purports to be specialized for musical instrument use. It's a con!


This is probably the best glossy look I managed to achieve. I was frustrated by still having some tiny little swirls, but I never managed to better this effort in many more attempts.

Eventually I got to the stage where I risked ruining the instrument forever and this was when I got the crazy idea to properly pimp it. As much as I liked the look of the EROS in its factory state, I much preferred the idea of an Appalachian-style look. Could I make this more rustic?

Of course I could! 


In the past when I've done things like this I've used paint stripper, but this time I chose to sand. The risk with sanding is that you take too much off in the process, which I did! You can't really tell in this picture here, but my intention was to stain the whole thing dark and anyone who has tried to stain plywood will tell you that it is an absolute sod to do if you've sanded through to the glue... Stain doesn't take to glue very well at all. 


Here's that same view of the back after staining. You can see the blemishes more easily and this will only grow more pronounced when I lacquer.


You'll see here that I chose to leave the EROS logo on, but I wanted to add my own little mark... the Dead Hand logo that I used on my Highwayman Banjo build. This time, rather than inlay, I painted it on. See how I simply made a template and then stuck masking tape around it to give me a hole in the middle to paint. It's nothing fancy, but in fitting with the overall look I was trying to achieve.


Next it was onto refinishing with round after round of lacquer. Doesn't my new workbench look peachy ;-) 


What do you reckon to the end result? I've put everything back, electing to leave that fret-dot missing to keep the rustic look.

Next up I needed to restring it... 


I bought a couple of packs of these cheapo strings. King Lion strings for King Uke. I like it!

Here's how little I knew about mandolins: I knew they had 8 strings but I didn't know that they were simply doubled up strings of the same gauge. How odd. And I didn't know that the standard tuning is the same as a violin GDAE. It didn't take much to get it strung up, but with them being new strings it was a sod to keep it all in tune. Thankfully this has all settled down now.


I bet you're wondering what it sounds like. So was I. Bear in mind that I've never played a mandolin before. Here's what I came up with to try it out... a haunting rendition of a classic!


One last photo, before I close off.

I bought a strap for my mandolin which is fantastic and worthy of a plug. The strap is made by Leathercraft of Liverpool. I bought mine from SuperMusic57 and it felt like it had arrived before I'd even finished paying for it! It's light and strong... I love it!



3 comments:

  1. I only just recently (couple of weeks ago) stumbled across this cute little critter that I bought for $12 at one of our Mill Markets. It turned out to be a Baglamas! Not sure if I'll ever be able to play it but if I can't then I might try re-tuning it to GCEA (some string tweaking required as it has 6 strings) and play it like a uke LOL. Your mando discovery reminded me of my happy find :)

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    1. BTW. got a real nasty cheap uke from a friend who passed on - am currently trying to transform it :)

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    2. Just checking out what a baglamas is... looks like a long-necked sort of mandolin. Very interested to see how your transformation goes. What are you transforming it into?

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