Drumroll Please…


Aha! F5 #001 is complete!

Aha! F5 #001 is complete!

They’re finished! In a mad rush, the last two weeks have included: lots of scraping, sanding, scraping, staining, sanding, brushing, spraying, more scraping, etc. After slugging (carefully) away at finish application, all of the setup was quickly accomplished. It was a mad dash, making nuts and saddles, getting bridge pins fit and installing tuners. Then, the glorious moment of stringing up the instrument and hearing it speak! Really, a truly, amazingly wonderful experience. I’m still glowing from it.

Some notes about the process:

We had some nifty gadgets to measure the finished top thicknesses after voicing, and to measure the film thickness of the lacquer before level sanding. The thickness guage is magnetic, whereas the film thickness guage is sonic. Very cool technology.

The mandolin was given a hand-applied “tobacco sunburst” a la Lloyd Loar-era mandolins. For colorant, I used Honey Amber and Dark Walnut Transtint dyes, using alcohol as the medium. After I was satisfied with the coloring, I brushed on several coats of 1 lb cut orange shellac, scuff-sanded, then proceeded with a handful of brushing sessions to build the body and color. In hindsight, I really should have mixed a 2 lb cut for the bodying, as the 1 lb took a long time to build. When I got closer to final thickness/color, I switched from brushing to a french padding technique until satisfied. I scraped the bindings, and have ordered some Super Blonde shellac flakes for a final topcoat next week. After that, I’ll go for french polishing technique to give it that beautiful luster. As is, it looks awesome, and should be alright to get a little break-in this weekend, as well as to be displayed at our end-of-year Guitar Show and Graduation today! I’m ecstatic to see all of our finished instruments, side by side.

I had some woes when the bone saddle of the guitar shattered after a few hours of string tension; it was very tall due to the not-yet-settled-in state of the guitar. It was worrisome to open the case and find shards of bone scattered across the guitar. I made a new one, which has held up so far.

Here is a photo recap of the last week:

Getting coats of nitrocellulose lacquer in our awesome spray booth

Getting coats of nitrocellulose lacquer in our awesome spray booth

I made some tortoise side markers for the mando

I made some tortoise side markers for the mando

initial amber stain

initial amber stain

The result of sunbursting

The result of sunbursting

Brushing Shellac wash coats

Brushing Shellac wash coats

The guitar's bridge gets glued on with nicely fit clamping cauls

The guitar’s bridge gets glued on with nicely fit clamping cauls


Instruments Hurry towards Completion


With one week left of my program, I’m making all haste to get both the guitar and mandolin finished. Boy! I cannot wait to play-in (put some pick scratches) these instruments. I’m afraid that I’ll be hauling the freshly lacquered guitar around too much; on the other hand, I believe the spirit varnish of the mandolin should be just fine.

This week went by in a flash as the mando got the neck glued in, fingerboard installed, side markers cut and installed, bridge fit and tailpiece mounting holes drilled, and a bone nut fit. I’m very tempted to string it up in the white, but I’m not certain there would be any benefit in more voicing work at this point, and I don’t want to delay the varnishing any longer than necessary,

It is amazing, the amount of fine detail work that goes into a well-made instrument. Just when you think you’re out of the woods, BAM, you start sanding out the scratches, going finer and finer. Then, all the imperfections rear their ugly heads. So you do the best you can, and sand, scrape, sand, inspect, sand, and so on.

Meanwhile, I’ve been making practice boards to dial in my sunburst colors and spirit varnish technique. It actually makes a nice way to break the monotany of sanding all of the nooks and crannies of the F5. So far, I’m pretty pleased with the results of a combination of orange dewaxed shellac as a sealer and glaze; with Tru oil as a topcoat.



first step of routing for inlay; white tempera paint, pencil outline, then rout with dremel tool.

first step of routing for inlay; white tempera paint, pencil outline, then rout with dremel tool.

Next, flood with tinted super glue, and get that inlay in there!

Next, flood with tinted super glue, and get that inlay in there!

F5 Mandolin Binding, Wowzers.



Awesome stuff has been happening in the C. Miller lutherie shack lately, with the Arches F5 kit approaching completion. While we have completed the Finishing and Repairs classes, I’ve been burning the midnight oil working nights and weekends getting the mandolin kit further along.

For those unfamiliar with the F5 mandolin, it is a design that came into being in 1922, being a new iteration of Gibson Florentine mandolin designed by the virtuosic musician and sound engineer Lloyd Loar and Guy Hart, another Gibson designer. Taking cues from violin construction, Loar sought to create the ultimate mandolin at a time when the great surge of mandolin popularity was waning. While not a huge success when they were new, they have been coveted, envied, and oft copied ever since. Lately, I’ve been loving playing fiddle tunes on the mandolin, and have been craving a fine instrument to play. Not having the funds to purchase a handmade mandolin, I decided to put my fledgling capabilities to the test by assembling a kit.

The Arches kit is pretty impressive. With CNC’d top, back, and neck, it presented a reasonable amount of assembly tasks. One of the great features is that the scroll binding channels are already routed. This is a huge timesaver. I am so impressed with the beautiful design of the F5. Exquisite from every angle. I feel like I cheated by having so much completed for me, but I’ll surely build from scratch from here on out.

For those of you considering building a mandolin, you must know that F5 present a couple of special difficulties in building. Most frequently mentioned is that F5s are an absolute beast to bind. While the scroll is beautiful, it presents a 3-D puzzle to get bound. Each piece of celluloid binding (there is 17 pieces) must be heated and bent to shape, then carefully mitered and shortened to fit. There is plenty of trial and error envolved, but I think this attempt turned out pretty well. I will say that I was greatly assisted in this by a timely article on F5 binding in the quarterly journal of the Guild of American Lutherie, authored by an Oregon Luthier named Andrew Mowry. You should check out his gorgeous work at:


I’ve just finished installing the binding, next will be to fill any gaps with a slurry of celluloid and acetone. Celluloid, while flammable, is a wonderful material to work with. I think I enjoy the smell of camphor and acetone a little too much for my own good.

To top it all off, I went wild and ordered a Bill James tailpiece with “The Miller” engraved into it. I was able to drive over to Bill’s shop in Maple Plain and watch the CNC do the engraving. I’m not ashamed to say that it is the coolest thing ever, and clearly the nicest mandolin tailpiece out there.

Next up will be to scape the binding down to level, clean up the body to ready for final sanding, glue in the neck, inlay the headstock with the lovely pearl flowerpot, install the fingerboard, tailpiece, endpin, fit the bridge and tuners, dress the frets, and string it up for final voicing before it gets a sunburst!





One of the space before mitering a piece of celluloid binding

One of the space before mitering a piece of celluloid binding






A Winter Night



Home for the holidays; Good marks in all classes, finished with assignments with time to spare.  After four fret jobs, I’m ready and excited to do some complex real-world refrets.  I’m on the lookout for promising apprenticeship opportunities; I’m visiting all of my favorite musical instrument shops in SF Bay Area, working on my 1956 Chevrolet Wagon, and eating great Mexican food.  Now, for a visual recap of the last month or so.


The polished fingerboard of Fret Assignment #3


My Crafters of Tennessee dobro gets a checkup, a shimmed saddle, and nice polish


Study Young Men!

New experiment: bacon/beet calzone/galette

New experiment: bacon/beet calzone/galette