Mandolin Setup in Steve’s Shop
Players often ask me about “setup.” I am not really sure what to say. Certain things need to be right, and I do these things in a certain order. Here’s how the basic setup happens in my shop.
01 The Shop. A wooden bench, marble flat slab, various tools, and a mandolin to be set up. In the background is a snowy February scene looking west across the Tennessee River. The particular mandolin is an Eastman MD305, which is a very nice instrument.
02 The Nut 1. Note that I’ve already set the frets straight and level with the truss rod, and set the depth of the nut slots. Nuts are usually high with deep slots, so I lower them to a reasonable level with a file.
03 The Nut 2. Abrasive paper smooths and shapes.
04 The Nut 3. Buffing with compound brings up a nice shine.
05 The Frets 1. Frets are rarely perfect. Sometimes I end up doing real leveling, which is well described all over the place. This mandolin just needed a bit of fine work, which I did with the straight and unworn side of an Arkansas stone, leaving a nice polish.
06 The Frets 2. After a tiny bit of shaping, some polish brightens up both the frets and the board.
07 The Frets 3. Then a bit of treatment protects the board from excess penetration of gunk during playing and gives it a nice sheen.
08 The Frets 4. The board, frets, and nut all look very nice now.
09 The Bridge 1. As it comes, with a sanded fit under no pressure, adequate, but tending to let the inside portion of the contact area take way too much pressure.
10 The Bridge 2. Pencil marks showing the areas that dig in.
11 The Bridge 3. Scraping the contact patches to build in some relief. I take off a good deal of material. That’s Italian marble used as a surface plate and to mull pigments. Has 20 years of gunk embedded by now! And a vintage Gateway mouse pad.
12 The Bridge 4. Now I’m getting somewhere, starting to get some relief.
13 The Bridge 5. Then on to fitting under pressure with carbon paper.
14 The Bridge 6. The paper leaves clear marks, visible in reflection from the window light.
15 The Bridge 7. Very important to keep that inside edge with some relief - under pressure, this area starts to bear sharply on the top if fitted without pressure.
16 The Bridge 8. Now it is fit. I could go with more relief, but this is a reasonable compromise that avoids too much bending in the bridge material.
17 The Bridge 9. Here’s the near-final fit. Just a little detailing and polishing and the fit is good to go.
18 The Bridge 10. Some cleanup and beveling of the edges with a Grobet file.
19 Blueprinting 1. Ragged finish edges hanging down are not good for the sound because air pulses across. And possibly for other reasons. A fine file takes care of the issue.
20 Blueprinting 2. A little inside work gets the tone bars happy with themselves and the top and back working cleanly.
21 Tailpiece. This tailpiece had no padding for the strings, so a bit of felt handles that oversight.
22 Balancing the bridge. As I’ve described elsewhere, I balance out the bridge a bit on the 8 corners. This makes a surprising difference and isn’t hard at all. Does take some careful listening. There’s a bit of other detailing with scrapers on the bridge and inside that further cleans up the sound.
23 Done. And there it is, ready for shipping out, a very nice Eastman mandolin, all ready to go.