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






2013 Building Begins!


Boy howdy!  While this week I’m missing out on my favorite possible thing, the Portland Old Time Music Gathering, I am back in the midwest kicking butt on lutherie projects!  In class, we’ve begun building our acoustic guitars. My hopes are high for a busy semester, where I will build a dreadnaught guitar in class (a la 1930’s Gibson “Roy Smeck Radio Grande”); continue at home the build of the O-18 Claro Walnut and Red Spruce guitar, and the Arches F5 mandolin kit.  Hopefully I can squeeze in some repairs, snoshoeing, square dancing, and finally, get this awesome honky tonk band rolling (we’re called The A-11s).

I’m feeling so excited about the week’s work, that I’m gonna go ahead and give the blow-by-blow:  By the end of the first day, my #1 Adirondack Spruce top was jointed with hot hide glue; templates cut for body and neck profile, and the layout work for a headstock template and workboard. Day two and three, I stayed the master-multitasker thickness sanding, profiling, and doing rosette layout for the top; jig up and shave down celluloid binding strips for the rosette (more on that in a moment), finished the workboard, finished templates, and managed to sneak the #2 Adirondack top in to get it jointed and glued; I’ll bring this one home to thickness with hand planes—the old fashioned way.  Each day this week, I’ve been excited to get home and work on the F5.  So far, I’ve got the top kerfing, levelled, and am waiting on fresh instructions from the maker of the kit.

I’m really excited about the rosette.  Wanting to stick with the ’30s Gibson aesthetic, I wanted a black-white-black rosette ring.   I had noticed a local supplier carries vertical-grained celluloid binding.  I struck on the idea of tortoise/ivoroid/tortoise binding in play of fancy herringbone or some such readymade rosette. I wanted somethin’ special. I went ahead and ordered the binding and hoped that it would look as nice in reality as my mental picture.  Literally the next day, I walked into a Minneapolis boutique guitar shop to find that my idea was far from groundbreaking—somebody else already does it!  But it looked great, so…

Celluloid is an early iteration of plastic; created in the mid-19th century, it was often used on musical instruments in place of ivory during the 1920s through the late ’40s; the first Golden Age of American Guitars.  A highly flammable combination of nitrocellulose and camphor, celluloid plastics today are rare; as far as I’ve heard, the entirety of celluloid production these days comes from Italy.  While a bit harder to come by, I think grained celluloid (ivoroid) and tortoise shell celluloid are lovely trim. 

A few words to explain the jointing of tops.  I had heard and read about the importance of a perfectly top joint, so it was great to finally do it! 

We had No. 7 jointer planes set up on shooting boards, set to remove very fine shavings from the spruce edge being jointed.  The tops are held together over a light table, and are checked for good fit.  If any light shows through, even the slightest line, then you must decide where the problem area is, and work the whole piece over once more on the shooting board.  Once the joint appears perfect, it is glued and clamped flat in a fixture—Voila!   The first major step towards building a guitar!Image