Dr. B’s Secret Mandolin Finish

     Wasn’t Itzhak Pearlman great at the Inauguration?  I am not a violin expert, but I am certain he played a genuine Stradivarius.  What a player.  What tone.

        No one knows the exact secret to the sound of those violins.  Foremost is the talent of the builder.  (And the musician of course)  Many people think the wood indigenous to the area at the time was a factor, and others are convinced it was the varnish finish they used.

        Mandolins have similar lore.  The most prized ones, the Gibson Loars from the twenties, are the mandolin Holy Grail.  They now trade in excess of 200 grand, which has put them out of range for most pickers.  Some of the top level players own them.  Sad to say, but many of them have been snatched up by collectors and speculators, and are out of circulation for now.  I wish they were all in the hands of the best players.  That is where they need to be.

        Dr. B built three mandolins along the way.  In reality, I mostly just sanded and learned that maple was a very hard wood, and did some design and staining.  I also drank a lot of coffee and told old bluegrass tales.  The real work was done by my luthier friend Dick Strum.

        I did come up with the base for the stain and finish though.  The archeoligists will discover this when they dig up Harvey Country hundreds of years from now, but I am going to go ahead and tell you the secret.

       The finish on mandolins is often called ‘Tobacco’ or ‘Tobacco Sunburst,’ so named for the area of lighter shade in the center of the soundboard and back.

        Our secret strain carries on that tradition.  I took an old cigar a patient gave me when their baby was born and ground it up, added a small bit of saliva, (gross, I know) and poured in a splash of Old Spice.  Then I dissolved it all in equal parts coffee and Indie’s Jim Beam, and let it cure a few days.  It was perfect ’cause it smelled somewhere in between a Doctor’s office and Indie’s cabin.

        After that we combined the mixture with luthier grade varnish and applied it with as close to a French polish as a man who grew up in Harvey County could do.  We only put on a very thin coat.  It does not hide the flaws, and allows the top to vibrate with more freedom, hence improved sound.

        It worked.  Several professionals have played it, and they say it is very good, though no one thought it was the next Loar.  If fact, no one recommended I give up my day job either.  I like to believe that was ’cause they wanted me to keep at the Doctor gig, and not any inherent lack of confidence in my future as a mandolin builder.

        I kept one to play in church, and gave the others to my children.  Maybe it ain’t a Strad or a Loar, but I still think the cigar, coffee and Jim Beam aroma gives it some bluegrass authenticity.

Dr. B

Explore posts in the same categories: favorite instruments, Writing


You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

8 Comments on “Dr. B’s Secret Mandolin Finish”

  1. Ted Lehmann Says:

    OTOH, maybe your concoction proves that what you put on a mandolin to stain it and to give it lustre hardly matters at all. That would be hard to accept, especially for those who think Stradivarius probably used sap from indigenous evergreen trees in Cremona, or whereever he was from, mixed liberally with the very sweat of his brow. Your thought about not restricting the ability of the wood’s vibration makes good sense. What do unfinished mandolins sound like? – Ted

  2. drtombibey Says:


    I hear they sound good at first, and ours did. I guess the problem is if they stay unfinished the wood absorbs moisture and dirt over time and that would change the tone.

    Some people swear the tone is partly from the aging of the finish, and the wood drying out over time. My ear is not good enough to be sure, but I think the secret in ours was a chemical interaction of the three major components to give it that grassy bark.

    Dr. B

  3. Dr. B,
    That is the most incredible thing I’ve heard in a long time – to build an instrument with your own two hands [or four, with your friend] and to have it actually play and tune and create sound! How wonderful that sounds. I love the special finish you put on it – the personal touch makes it much more valuable than any Loar!
    The music played at the inauguration was beautiful, I think. The musicians, especially Yo-yo Ma, seemed to be having so much fun, and the sound was beautiful, especially as it must have been a pain in the butt to tune their instruments in that intense cold.

  4. drtombibey Says:

    ms slightly,

    That little mandolin is special no doubt. If it were stolen, it might be one of the few mandolins in the world that could be recovered by DNA analysis. If I ever go out on a book tour I may have to take it with me.

    Yo-yo Ma rocks doesn’t he? You are right, playing in the cold very difficult.

    Dr. B

  5. Parson Bob Says:

    Interesting. Our daughter has a fiddle shop in Chapel Hill (www.chapelhillviolins.com), except up there they’re called “violins” (violins sing, fiddles dance). She’s got lots of stories about that apparently endless search for the Holy Grail of finish. You’re right: it really makes a big difference in tone that even a tin ear like mine can hear.

  6. drtombibey Says:


    My guess is she would not recommend my mandolin finish for her fine violins, but then again I’ve always been a bit rough around the edges.

    Dr. B

  7. pandemonic Says:

    I wondered about Perlman and YoYo Ma, playing in the cold. Me, I’ll skip a lesson if it’s too cold out. My violin would boink it’s way out of tune in no time. It turns out the inaugural thing was pre-recorded.

  8. drtombibey Says:

    Ms. Pande,

    It would be impossible for me in the cold. I don’t how all you guys from the frozen tundra cut your gig.

    Glad you are well again.

    Dr. B

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: