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.
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