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Lefty's Custom Mandolins

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The near magical sound, from ringing highs to throaty lows that can come forth from this tiny instrument is truly amazing. To achieve this level of performance requires the careful selection of materials; exact shaping of components, precision placement of the frets and careful attention to many tiny details of assembly and tuning learned from the construction of many instruments. The mandolin is generally tuned G3-D4-A4-E5 with A4 set to 440 Hz. Since the F5's introduction by Gibson in 1923, technology has advanced many fold, particularly with the advent of precise frequency spectrum analysis, digital graphics and computer controlled machine tools. I build both exact Loar replicas and a version developed personally that I call Classic who's construction is far more precise and repeatable than was possible 86 years ago. While visual appeal is important to all customers, great sound and excellent playability are essential for long term satisfaction.

The design of a Lefty mandolin starts by drawing up a very detailed specification with the customer to ascertain exactly what sound characteristics, woods, hardware, and finish are desired. Refer to the "Planning the Instrument" section for details. Once the specification is agreed upon, appropriate raw materials are selected and construction commences. All Lefty signature instruments are completely constructed, finished and tuned by Lefty. Complex custom inlays are the only feature not done in house.

 

Lefty's Classic F5

This is Lefty's Classic  F5. By using a combination of CNC and hand work, dimensions are held to very close tolerances that insure repeatability and precise tuning. This particular instrument has a 34 ring per inch Carpathian Spruce soundboard and a curly Red Maple back and neck. The finish is a subdued sunburst with hand rubbed lacquer. The peghead veneer is flawless Gabon Ebony with my Waving Grass inlay in pearl. The string nut is pearl and the Ebony bridge has a fossil ivory saddle. The edge binding is ivory Celluloid and the points are made from bison bone. The pickguard is tortoise celluloid. The tailpiece is a Nickel Custom Lefty with the customer's name engraved on a piece of figured pearl. The tuning machines are Nickel Waverly with pearl buttons. This instrument weighs 892 grams or just less than 2 pounds.

Note that the bridge is set slightly below the maximum opening of the F-holes. This is done when a fossil ivory saddle is used due to the tendancy of ivory to be a more efficient transmitter of high frequency vibration. This tends to move the vibratory center towards the tail, giving the instrument stronger G and D response, and thus balance acoustic output. This instrument was set-up for mellow tuning where the treble tone bar was adjusted to 228 Hz, the bass tone bar to 203 Hz, the back to 128 Hz and the air chamber to 152 Hz. Equipped with D'Addario J74 strings and a string break angle of 17 degrees, this instrument has intonation of +/- 5 cents, excellent sustain and very balanced acoustic output. This instrument is about as fine as possible to produce.

The Left Handed Classic F5

This Signature grade instrument body and neck are identical to the one above but left handed.

The Gibson-Style F5

The Classic F5 Gibson Style Mandolin The Classic F5 Gibson Style Mandolin

The Classic F5 Gibson Style Mandolin

This is a Gibson-style F5 mandolin built true to Lloyd Loar's specifications and dimensions taken from a 1920's instrument. It has an Adirondack Red Spruce top with a subdued sunburst, Curly Red Maple back, rim, and neck and Ebony fretboard. The top and bottom surfaces of the peghead are clad with Gabon Ebony veneers with a pearl inlay and string nut. The tailpiece is a replica Gibson nickel steel stamping and the tuners are Gotoh Loar replicas of the originals. The edge binding is vertical white/black/white celluloid. The pickguard on the instrument shown is Ebony rather than tortoise as in the original instruments but I also use celluloid tortoise when requested. Weight is 910 grams or just more than 2 pounds.

This mandolin was set up to Loar's Bluegrass tuning specification where note A4 is set at 430 Hz rather than the standard 440 Hz. The treble tone bar was set to 228 Hz, the bass tone bar to 203Hz, the backboard to 128Hz and the air chamber to 152 Hz. Equipped with a medium-light string set such as D'Addario J62 or J67s and a string break angle of 16 degrees, this instrument has exceptional "Bark" and adequate sustain, ideal for blending into a Bluegrass band. Though it seldom happens, this particular instrument has intonation +/- 1 cent on all 8 strings at every fret to number 12.

While the mandolin shown above is a top quality instrument, built to an exact set of specifications for a demanding customer, it is not generally best for the average picker, particularly if one is primarily a solo instrumentalist. In order to achieve the desired level of "Bark" one must give up a measure of sustain and the production of second and third harmonics or timbre. That said, this design is my most popular model.

The Lefty Version of the Gibson F5

 

 

This is a Signature grade Gibson left handed replica. The soundboard is master grade Carpathian Spruce and the rim and backboard are master grade curly Red Maple. The peghead is clad front and back with flawless Ebony. The fretboard is also flawless Ebony set with stainless steel frets. The point guards are fossil ivory and the string nut is pearl. The finish is the classic Cremona sunburst with acrylic lacquer. The Gibson-style tailpiece was custom machined out of heavy guage stainless steel for a lifetime of use. The unique Leaping Orca pearl inlay in the peghead and satin Nickel Waverly tuners are the only departures from the 1924 instrument that I use as a baseline. The tuning is for Bluegrass with a very sharp bark and near perfect frequency balance across the spectrum. At $6,000, this is the most expensive F5 mandolin that I have ever built.

A Classic F5 Beauty

Custom F5 Beauty Mandolin

This is a far different Signature grade F5 mandolin built, again to meet an exact, but very different, set of customer requirements. I have built several to this design since the original though they are very expensive.

Custom F5 Beauty Mandolin Custom F5 Beauty Mandolin

The soundboard is 24-ring per inch Alaskan Yellow Cedar and the backboard, neck and rim are made from Birdseye Red Maple that has a prominent figure. The neck was made extra stiff with a heavy graphite spline. This instrument has a Virzi, which enhances higher harmonics and improves sustain. The edge binding is black over white ABS. This mandolin was set up to current tuning specifications with a string break angle of 18 degrees where note A4 is set at 440 Hz. The treble tone bar was set to 233 Hz, the bass tone bar to 207Hz, the backboard to 136Hz and the air chamber to 155 Hz. This instrument has a 1/4 inch diameter brass rod through the peghead scroll to add upper mass and a rosewood tailblock and extra heavy Custom Lefty tailpiece to add lower mass. Equipped with Waverly tuners with Ebony knobs and medium-heavy D'Addario J74 strings, this instrument has exceptional sustain and nearly even acoustic output over the entire frequency spectrum from 196 Hz to 1362 Hz, ideal for solo instrumentals. This particular instrument has intonation +/- 3 cents on all 8 strings at every fret to number 12. Weight was 1180 grams or about 2.5 pounds.

Custom F5 Beauty Tailpiece Custom F5 Beauty Peghead

Inlay decoration of this mandolin includes, in addition to the pearl Lefty Logo, a Carera marble flowerpot with bloodstone vine and turquoise leaves twining through the tuning pegs. This level of peghead detail is only possible by using a graphite truss rod that does not require a nut cover. My trademarked leaping Orca disk in the tailpiece is but one of many standard options. This instrument sold for $5,000.

A brief word about the finish; through a bit of experimentation on Birdseye Maple, I found that by applying an initial dilute coat of lemon stain followed by vigorous rubbing of black stain with 0000 steel wool, what appears to be a green/gold hue could be achieved. I dubbed this finish "Jungle", since it looks exactly like jungle vegetation in diffused sunlight. The natural beauty of the Alaskan Yellow Cedar soundboard with just clear lacquer looks easy but it must be carefully protected from stains while the backboard is being finished and any ding or imperfection is visible. I have replicated this finish set a number of times with consistent results. Be aware that the spirit varnish I use has an orange hue that alters the pure white color of Yellow Cedar and Englemann Spruce so I do not recommend French polish for this soundboard finish scheme.

 

The Classic F5 Golden Family

This mandolin was built for a BIG sound where the bass is strong and vibrant. I have built a number of this design and now consider it a standard product.

Classic F5 Golden Mandolin Classic F5 Golden Mandolin

The unique properties to achieve the BIG sound include a slightly modified soundboard contour to accept the extra vertical load of heavy strings and an extra wide bridge to evenly distribute that load. The strings of choice are EXP77 or J75s.

Classic F5 Golden Mandolin

The soundboard is made from 18-ring Sitka Spruce and the backboard, rim and neck from flame Red Maple. The fretboard, peghead veneers and pickguard are Padauk. It has gold Grover tuners and tortoise celluloid binding.

Classic F5 Golden Tailpiece Classic F5 Golden Peghead

The plain bronze Lefty tailpiece has a pearl disk engraved with the customer’s name, shown with his permission. This mandolin style has an overall acoustic output nearly 2 Db greater than any instrument that I have tested and very heavy second and third harmonics.

 
Classic F5 Golden Inspiration

Inspiration for the above mandolin came from one I built earlier. It has a flawless Adirondack Red Spruce soundboard and very curly Red Maple back, rim and neck. Note that the F-holes are larger and a bit lower and it has a Padauk bridge, with an Ebony saddle skewed to obtain very precise intonation. This mandolin has an elegant Montalone tailpiece and Waverly gold tuners with pearl knobs, which ran the cost up, but in reality it sounds no better than the one above. One advantage of this type of shading and French polish finish is that it can be easily replicated. I spent nearly 4 times as long building and tuning this first mandolin compared to the one above.

 

 

 

The Classic F5 in Walnut and Alaskan Yellow Cedar

Photos don't do justice to this exquisite mandolin that has a Alaskan Yellow Cedar soundboard and East Texas Black Walnut back and neck. The finish is French polish; compare the soundboard hue to the blonde top two instruments above that was cut from the same board, note that this one has a more golden due to the shellac where the one above is done in clear lacquer. The points and binding are Ebony, the peghead top veneer and fretboard are flawless clear Red Maple and the nut is pearl. The bridge is a Maple Red Henry style with an Ebony cap with a 17 degree string break angle. The tuners are Gotoh Loar in Nickel plate with ivorid knobs. The fretboard dots are synthetic rubies and the side dots are crystal zerconia. The tailpiece is a custom Lefty done in Nickel with tiny rubies forming a star. This instrument is tuned to standard concert pitch where A is set to 440 Hz.

 

 

A Very Early Gibson Replica Mandolin

First Custom F5 Mandolin

Talk about ancient history, this old fellow was my first right-hand F5. The soundboard is an exquisite piece of Russian Spruce and the rim, back and neck are Claro Walnut. There is no truss rod but even after a long time under continuous string tension and lots of playing, that Walnut neck is perfectly straight. The fretboard and peghead are made from Bigleaf Maple that has been polished but has no finish.

First Custom F5 Mandolin First Custom F5 Mandolin

The frets, nut, and bridge are new but the tuning machines (with new pearl knobs) and tailpiece are original 1920s Gibson salvaged back then from a pawn shop. No telling how many coats of wax were on the instrument. Note the dark scratch in the lower left sunburst that we elected to ignore.

Not easy to see but the 3-piece point guards, made from PVC pipe and Ebony still look fabulous.

First Custom F5 Mandolin Peghead

My first Leaping Orca emblem was cut from a Walnut knot with a jeweler’s saw and set into the peghead veneer using a small chisel rather than router. The new nut is TUSQ.

This mandolin was built before I owned sophisticated electronic instrumentation for tuning. A calibrated ear was the only sensor used. Regrettably age has dulled my hearing and I must depend totally on accurate acoustic measurements made with state-of-the-art instrumentation. Intonation varies from 5 to 19 cents down the fretboard primarily due to oversized slots cut originally with a backsaw but is set dead on at the 12th for best possible tuning. This instrument is a perfect example of how durable a quality instrument is if given decent care regardless of how much it is played.

 

 An Inexpensive Mandolin

 

A great sounding F5 does not have to be expensive. The top of this Classic F5 was made from Sitka Spruce with rim and back from Sugar Maple Maple. The peghead and fretboard are solid Ebony.  With single color binding, PVC point guards, good but not extravagant tuners and an unadorned tailpiece, this little fellow is ready for a long life of good music at less than $3,000.

A & A+ Mandolins 

 

I build both standard A-style (above) and my unique A dubbed A+. The A+ version of the classic A-style mandolin is a bit different. It has a 14.762-inch fret scale, which places it between the standard A and F5 at 13.875 inches and the H5 at 15.650 inches. With a rim height of 1.50 inches, compared to the standard A at 1.375, the A+ has 25% more air chamber volume than the F5. The A+ is designed to be tuned two notes lower (F3-C4-G4-D5) than the A and F5 (G3-D4-A4-E5), think of the A+ as the tenor version with the A and F5 alto. Until you have heard an A+ with J75 strings, you have no true appreciation of the timbre or volume possible from such a small instrument. The A+ can be tuned the same as the A providing the E strings are made from high-strength steel wire. The construction process of A-style instruments is a bit less complex, hence a lower price, but that in no way implies a lower sound quality.

The Signature grade A shown above is truly a work of art and at $4,500 by far the most expensive A  model that I have built. It has a very elaborate set of Abalone inlays in the peghead and fretboard and the Leaping Orca in the tailpiece is composed of 6 carefully cut pieces of Abalone and Pearl. The 15th fret bar and string nut are fossil ivory. The tuning machines are nickel Gotoh with pearl knobs. The bridge is a Custom Lefty high response with nickel wheels. The sound quality is fantastic as demonstrated in this short sound clip.

 

a mandolin 001 a mandolin 008

Lefty's  A+ with an oval sound hole and red lacquer finish on a Western Red Cedar X-braced top and clear Maple back. The tone bars are tuned to 218 Hz. The peghead, fretboard and custom bridge are Ebony. The brideg has a bone-topped saddle. Nickel Grover tuners and Gibson-style tail.

An alternate peghead design with the pot and vine inlay in pearl.

Lefty's A+ with the classic sunburst finish on a flawless Russsian Spruce dual parallel tone bar braced top and Birdseye Red Maple back. The peghead, fretboard and bridge are made from Cocobolo. Note the custom F-holes. The extra wide bridge has a bone-topped saddle. Gold Grover tuners and bronze Custom Lefty tail. The tone bars are tuned to 220 Hz and the air chamber to 147 Hz.

The A+ looks good natural too. This one has a unique Maple/Ebony checkerboard binding.

 

 

Custom Mandolas 

I have built fewer mandolas than mandolins due to less demand. I use the Siminoff H5 or standard A body designs with the fret scale to customer desires ( 15.625 - 17.00) tuned C3-G3-D4-A4. Though the construction technique is similar to the mandolin, these instruments larger diameter and heavier string sets mean that their soundboards must carry a greater load and hence must be more robust. Other than that one factor, the instruments are essentially identical to mandolins. Mandola tone bars are generally tuned to 207 and 185 Hz, the back to 117 Hz and the air chamber to 131 Hz when to be used with the D'Addario J76 string set. On occasion, I have built 4-string versions with a 23 inch fret scale, which is identical to the tenor guitar.

Lefty's H5 Mandolas Lefty's H5 Mandolas Lefty's H5 Mandolas

The classic H5 mandola is the big brother to the mandolin. It has 4 string pairs tuned C-G-D-A.

 

Mandola on left, mandolin on right for size comparison. It has a 15.625-inch fret scale compared to 13.875 on the mandolin.

 

The mandola on the left is a good example of a unique finish. The instrument has a 22 ring per inch Russian Spruce soundboard finished with opaque black lacquer with a one-piece burl Red Maple back finished with what I call Bumble Bee. It has gold Grover tuners with pearl knobs and a custom pearl truss rod cover. The three strip binding is 0.090 celluloid. The tailpiece is a gold Montelone by Allen.

 

 

Lefty's H5 Mandola Peghead Mandolin Peghead

A mandola peghead is on the left and mandolin peghead on the right. The pegheads are similar, but not exactly identical in shape. Note that on the mandola, the top tuner pegs are lower relative to the scroll. The photos don’t do justice to the beautiful marble/bloodstone/turquoise pot & vine inlays. The mandolin peghead on the right has black over white binding that is not easily seen in the photo.

 

Mandolas can also be built in the A-style with either F-holes or an oval. I use the same body shape as the A but make the rim 2.00 inches rather than 1.375 inches. This results in a chamber volume nearly identical to that of the H5. As with the A-style mandolins, they are a bit less expensive to build than the H5-style but have equally good sound qualities.

 

 

Custom MC4 & MC5 Mandocellos 

The mandocello is in a league by itself. I build this instrument with two optional scale lengths (21.00 MC4 & 25.45 MC5) and three body shapes; one with the regular F5 style scroll and peghead, one in the Gold Standard format and the third (for the MC5 only) around the 000 guitar or archtop guitar body shapes, but braced entirely different. The 25.45 scale MC5 is tuned C2-G2-D3-A3; the 21.00 scale MC4, also referred to as an octive mandilin, is tuned G2-D3-A3-E4 . To put this in perspective, the MC4 is tuned an octave lower than the F5 and the MC5 is tuned an octave lower than the H5 Mandola. While built using the same construction processes as the mandolin and mandola for most mandocellos’, their greater size and longer scale lengths lend additional capability and consequently more challenges. While the smaller instruments have 13 to 15 playable frets, my MC4 & MC5 have up to 24, which enables the player to hit notes for the full mandola range plus the lower second octave register. This additional capability requires far more complex soundboard tuning, very precise upper neck fret placement and a special bridge design. Due to it's larger size, more neck profile options are possible. The tuning for mandocellos is somewhat dependent on the customer's requirements but in general the tone bars are set to 92 and 123 Hz, the back to 87 Hz and the air chamber 116 Hz when used with D'Addario J78 strings. Many prefer only one C and G string due to their large size and possibility of rattling against the other of a pair.

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