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WOMANDOLIN PROJECT

 

I ordered a mandolin kit from Grizzly Industrial. I've always wanted to try making a musical instrument, and their kit looked good for a novice. I thought I could figure it out on my own, but immediately became grateful for Kevin's woodworking knowledge. We're having fun putting this thing together, and I hope to learn to play it when we're finished. The name "Womandolin" came up when I was discussing this project with a friend, and we chuckled over the idea of making this instrument female. Thus was born the Womandolin Project which I will describe below with words and pictures.

It arrived in the mail in August, 2006, looking like this:

Looks simple, doesn't it? A little sanding, some varnish, some glue, put on the strings...done! Wrong.

It waited several weeks before we had time to start on it. Finally in November we started with Step 1: Sanding the Body

After several repeated steps of sanding, wiping with a damp rag, and sanding some more, we progressed to Step Two: Wood Filler

I brushed the wood filler on the back and sides, allowed it to dry, and then spent the next several evenings sanding off the filler residue. On to Step Three: Fitting the Neck to the Body

Because the correct alignment of the neck is crucial to the instrument, it has to be exactly right. Kevin and I weren't convinced that it was going to be that exact despite all the sanding and adjusting we did.

There are two little holes on top of the body and two little holes on the bottom of the neck. There are two small wooden dowels that fit into the holes and hold the neck to the body. Before gluing it all in place, we had to do a "dry fit" to see if there were gaps. Yes, there were. So...we put a piece of sandpaper over the end of the body and rubbed the end of the neck on it to help conform it to the shape of the body. It had to be done very, very carefully while paying attention to the angle of the neck from side to side, and from front to back. We did another dry fit, and another bout of sanding, and one last dry fit. We weren't completely happy with it, but what little variation there was, we hoped might be fixed when it was glued and clamped tight.

The next night we used wood glue to glue the neck to the body. We clamped it down tight with two nylon band clamps. They're straps that tighten with a ratchet wrench. We hoped the neck was in straight alignment with the body as the glue dried.

On to Step Four: Attaching the Fretboard.

I sanded the neck and the fretboard extender face down on a flat surface that had sandpaper laying on it grit side up, until they were level. Then I drilled two small holes in the neck. I nailed two brads into those holes, and then snipped off their heads so that only 1/8" was above the surface. These would serve as alignment pins to connect the fretboard to the neck. I positioned the fretboard above the nails exactly, and then Kevin tapped it gently with a rubber ended mallet to mark the underside of the fretboard with the exact position of the brads. Then I drilled 1/8" holes in the underside of the fretboard where the marks were.

I put the fretboard on to make sure the holes were deep enough for the alignment pins. It all fit snugly. I took the fretboard back off and spread a thin layer of glue on the surface of the neck and on the underside of the fretboard. I put the fretboard back on over the alignment pins.

We clamped it all along the fretboard and let it dry for 24 hours.

A night or two later, I filed down the neck to match the width of the fretboard. We were supposed to have a half round file because of the curves, but had to make do with a "flat bastard." That's the actual name of the tool. As a result of that, and my lack of experience, it wasn't done really well. There are some scratches, slight gouges, and uneven areas. Some we can smooth with sandpaper. Others...well...it'll give it character. *ahem*

I sanded down the neck with 150 grit sandpaper and then with 220. Most of those mistakes I made with the flat bastard were sanded out, except for the biggest one. It's much smaller and smoother, but it's still there. I wet down the neck to raise the grain. Sanded again. Rewet it again. Sanded again.

Kevin stepped in for the next few nights to do most of the work on the womandolin. I needed his careful hand and good eye to find the globs of glue, get rid of them, and use the wood chisel to fix the fretboard extender. I tried helping with chiseling the fretboard extender but I just couldn't get the hang of it. After I saw him gouge some of the same places that I gouged, I felt a little better. It was actually hard to do, not just that I was inept.

Next step was to sand the entire womandolin with fine 320 grit sandpaper.

Next I used blue masking tape to seal off the fretboard. Kevin bent a coat hanger and made it into a hook to hang the womandolin from the ceiling. He mixed varnish with water to thin it out, 50/50. I brushed this on as a sealer. We let it dry for two hours, brushed on a second coat of sealer, then a third coat.

I like how warm the grain looks already.

We put on several coats of varnish and let them dry, for weeks.

We sanded, varnished, sanded, sanded, sanded, and more varnish, and more sanding. There were drips and uneven areas that had to be "level sanded" to make it all even.

This is how they make womandolins in the old country.
Put on your babushka...sand, varnish, sand, varnish, sand, varnish, sand...

There are six different grades of sanding/polishing cloths that we used to give the Womandolin a shine. The roughest one was a 400 grit. The softest one was 8000. The pink one you see me using in the picture below is third up from the roughest one. We started with the roughest, and worked our way up. Sometimes scratches showed through so we had to go back to a rougher stage to get it out before working our way back up to the polishing cloths. It wasn't hard, but it was tedious.


Kevin used a buffing pad on his drill, with a buffing compound paste. This stuff got warm as he worked it on. I held on tight to keep the womandolin from flying off the workbench.

I waited until it cooled before I wiped off all the residue. You can see some of the white paste on the neck in the picture below.

I gave a final wipe-down with a soft rag.

Oooo shiny! Like glass!

If you look closely, you can see my face reflected. Or maybe that's Jesus...

Using the flash on the camera brought out the soft wood grain reflection.

I was SO happy that we finished the sanding/varnishing/buffing/polishing stage! We celebrated with margaritas that night.

I attached the tail piece by drilling three holes in the bottom of the mandolin and then screwing it on. Then I drilled another hole in the center to screw on the end pin (strap button).

We had to sand the bottom of the bridge so that it conformed to the shape of the mandolin surface. We did this by one of us laying a piece of sandpaper on top, holding it firm, and the other person rubbing the bottom of the bridge against the sandpaper. It was very difficult to sand evenly without pushing more on one side or the other, or rocking it. Kevin finally got it straight. The bridge will eventually be held on by string tension.

We cleaned out the nut slot at the top of the fret board, using a chisel to get out the extra glue and varnish. Kevin glued on the nut and then clamped it horizontally and vertically. So here lies the Womandolin, as her glue dries.

I forgot to mention that I also pounded in the peghole bushings.
(I think that white blotch near the one hole is just dust in the air)

The next night, I put on the tuning pegs and nailed them down, drilling holes first for the screws.

Then I drilled a hole near the neck to screw on the pick guard. Kevin positioned the side bracket, and then I drilled a hole for that screw too. There was a little round, white piece of thick felt that I jammed underneath the pick guard to cushion the side bracket from the surface of the instrument.

The strings needed to be put on loosely at first so that we could position the bridge correctly. (The bridge is not in the correct position in the picture below) The strings were more difficult than either of us thought they'd be. I'm not sure they're on there right but there were no clear instructions. Apparently we're supposed to know how to do this part already.

We're having trouble getting that beautiful end plate to fit over the tail piece to hide the ends of the strings. We may need to do some metal bending to get it to fit. We haven't cut then ends off of the strings yet because the bridge still needs to be adjusted a little. But I just couldn't wait any longer to see how the Womandolin sounds.

Kevin gave me an early Christmas present. It's a NexTune-12z Chromatic Tuner.

I pluck a string and this thing tells me what note it is, and whether it's flat, sharp, or where it should be. I was able to watch the screen and bring my Womandolin into perfect tune.

Click the link below to see a short video of me on YouTube, playing two chords on my brand new Womandolin!

YouTube Video

We worked on getting the bridge positioned just right. The instructions said to tune the mandolin, play the harmonic note on the 12th fret of the first string, then hold the string down at the 12th fret. If it is sharper than the harmonic note, move the bridge closer to the tail piece. If flat, then away from it. It said that very often the best sound comes from having the bridge at a slight angle. This turned out to be true for the Womandolin. It took us a good 20 minutes of tuning, trying, moving, trying, tuning, moving, trying, moving, etc.

The next step was to check the height of the strings from the fretboard. If they're too low, they'll buzz. The depth of a nickel is the closest the strings should be. They were closer than that, so Kevin turned the gears on the bridge to raise it up. Then I had to retune the instrument all over again.

Everything checked up perfectly. Whew! I cut the ends of the strings off.

Except for the decorative plate not fitting over the tail piece, she's officially finished. I hope we can fix that. I just placed it on top for the picture below.

Video of the Womandolyners (Makes me laugh every time I watch it)
I joined up with Lynda, who had just learned to play the mandolin that day, to play a "rousing" rendition of Boil 'Em Cabbage Down. (Jan. 2010)

Happy Birthday, Lynda! (May 2010)

 

 

Last updated November 30, 2007

Copyright Kevin and/or Cindy Hansen

 

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