The Wiens F5 mandolin

The Philosophy behind Wiens “Vintage Style”  Mandolins

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Acoustic Engineer Lloyd Loar

Wiens mandolins are all about recreating the feel and sound of the Loar-signed mandolins of the 1920’s.  If you’ve ever been lucky enough to play one of these legendary instruments, you know the feel and sound can be inspiring!  And if you play a really great one, you’ll understand why someone might take a second mortgage to acquire one..Or why someone like me would spend their time trying to make replicas of them.

The sound of these old instruments is enough to humble any modern instrument maker like myself. But there’s also the beauty of their design. It’s simply captivating. The arching of the plates with their violin F-holes. The rise and crest of the body’s scroll, and that big ornate peghead!  The eye-popping hand-stained sunburst and contrasting bindings.  These elements were the culmination of years of hard work and development by engineers and craftsmen who are largely forgotten, except for one man whose name is remembered.  Acoustic Engineer Lloyd Loar.

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Loar’s famous signature inside an F5 mandolin

Loar was a noted musical and engineering genius employed by the Gibson mandolin & guitar company in the 1920’s. During his tenure at Gibson, he was responsible for the final evolution of the American mandolin as we know it. The Gibson style F5 master model of 1922.  For two years, Lloyd Loar oversaw the production of over 250 of these instruments. They were each approved, then signed & dated by Loar himself, his signature eventually becoming an icon in the stringed instrument world.  Today they are known to collectors and enthusiasts simply as a Loar F5. For me, It’s this instrument, and these craftsmen that I pay tribute to when I build Wiens mandolins.

 

-Captivating Sound

It’s fine to make replicas of a classic mandolin, but the final product also has to sound great. And so chasing tone is an ongoing obsession for me.  Wiens mandolins are typically well-balanced and responsive with strong upper mids and piano-like highs. They are never woofy or bass-heavy. This Wiens sound is due in large part to the denser materials used in their construction. Starting with the soundboard, I only use the finest Adirondack spruce available. The top and tone-bars of every Wiens mandolin are painstakingly tuned as wood is slowly scraped away. By flexing the wood in my hands and by observing tap tones, I slowly arrive at the ultimate balance of tone and structure for that particular soundboard.  The weight of each plate is then observed and recorded.  The hard Sugar maple I use for the back, sides & neck is chosen not only for it’s beautiful figure. It’s density allows it to be carved more delicately than other maple species. With backs, the thinner structure results in a more lively mid-range response, and with necks it means they can be carved thinner without losing stiffness.  Subtle variations in tone bar placement and graduating treatments mean that every instrument has its own unique voice and character.

-Faithful Design

Many of the basic dimensions of Wiens mandolins like the body & peghead shape, rim depth, & soundhole size were taken directly from a particularly beautiful Fern F-5, signed by Lloyd Loar on March 31st 1924.  Other elements are based on different examples of Loar-signed instruments. For example, it may be a lighter sunburst of a 1922 Loar, or the side-bound body of a mid ’23 .  I also incorporate lesser-known details such as the off-center neck joint or the dyed pearwood peghead veneer. I like to think I capture a bit of Loar funk in every Wiens F5 I build.

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Traditional Construction

My approach to building instruments is about putting myself in the shoes of craftsmen that have gone before me, attempting to mimic the qualities only found on vintage instruments. That means using traditional tools and techniques all the way. It’s about laying hands on the wood, and using chisels, planes and scrapers to make components and then constructing the entire instrument using only hot hide glue. Fine tuning takes place by painstakingly scraping sanding and testing until the ideal tonal and structural balance is achieved. Finally the stains and finish are painstakingly rubbed on by hand over a period of weeks.  Modern CNC technology is NOT used in any part of my build process.

 

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Wiens mandolins feature many old-school throwbacks. These include….

 

-All Hot Hide Glue Construction. Difficult to use, but vastly superior to modern wood glues.

2005 mando neck making (23)

 

Hand-stained sunburst. If you’re like me, you can’t abide opaque “poofy” looking  sunbursts.

Adding my Dark brown and blending it until I'm satisfied

Adding my Dark brown and blending it until I’m satisfied

– French polished spirit varnish. Incredibly thin, it yields the least muting effect on the wood. It is also highly repairable. An ideal finish for musical instruments.

The process is repeated several times. Placing the Varnish by spraying, Scuffing it, followed by french polishing.

The process is repeated several times. Placing the Varnish by spraying, Scuffing it, followed by french polishing.

Hand cut inlays. Wiens ain’t about CNC machining

Silver-plated Waverly tuners with Mother of Pearl knobs

-The physical asymmetry of the Loar mandolins. There’s nothing straight or symmetrical about a Loar, and so it goes with Wiens mandolins.

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-Traditional Neck Reinforcement & Attachment  Wiens mandolins use a traditional single-action truss rod. Besides accurate replicas of the originals, they are effective and have the correct weight. The neck is then joined to the body using a very labor-intensive compound dovetail joint which is very important to the sound of a mandolin.

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Here, after a couple hours of fussing, I've fit the neck. This is what I call an excellent dovetail joint.

Authentic, full-sized binding material.  Loars had thicker celluloid binding than we see on contemporary mandolins. Wiens gets his custom made to vintage specs.

The second layer of binding is all lap joints, just like the Loars.Here I'm test-fitting a joint.

The second layer of binding is all lap joints, just like the Loars.Here I’m test-fitting a joint.

-Tortoise position markers on the side of the fingerboard. Black is whack.

Tortoise position markers

– Distinctive pearwood & Holly veneer headplate, blacked over and then painstakingly scraped to reveal just the inlay and binding beneath, exactly how the Loars were done.

Dovetailed bone body points. These are painstakingly let in After the instrument is bound

Bone points, dovetailed into the binding.

Bone points, dovetailed into the binding.

Tortoise Celluloid pickguard with replica patent stamp, inlaid steel rod in the reinforcement strip, celluloid mounting block, and authentic silver-plated mounting hardware

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Wiens F5 pickguard detail. Patent stamp and inlaid steel reinforcement rod are visible.

 

 

 

Beautifully translucent material. Here you can clearly see the steel rod embedded .

Beautifully translucent material. Here you can clearly see the steel rod embedded .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wiens reproduction bridge. blacked and polished with replica patent stamp. Stainless posts with silver thunbwheels.

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Old-style fretwork with the binding nibs intact at the fret ends

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-Handmade labels printed on an antique letterpress in the traditional way

#22 Jamie Wiens Label

……These are just a few of the things that impart that “Vintage Feel” to every Wiens instrument.

 

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Jamie Wiens

3 Comments

  1. Jason Sloan

    Hi Jamie,
    Just a quick word to say hello and that your new website looks great! I’ve always admired your work and painstaking attention to every detail. I’ve only built 7 mandolins so far, but I can fully respect and appreciate your craftmanship. Also, thank you for the helpful build page on your last website….it got me thru some “head scratching” times. Best to you and your work. Your mandolins are absolutely beautiful, and in my opinion, will be admired as the only true Loar replica’s out there for years to come. Bar none.
    Jason Sloan
    Tallahassee, FL

    Reply
  2. Michael Romkey

    Very impressive work. Lovely mandolins.

    Reply
  3. Torrey Levin-Russell

    I was lucky to have played a Frank Wakefield’s F5 as his student while at school in Saratoga Springs — I know exactly how you feel about Loars! Early in his career, Frank baked and stripped the original finish to make his Loar blonde — just to have it refurbished later! But I’ll never forget the sound of that thing as he played sitting across from me, or the experience of playing it myself whenever I worked up the nerve to ask.

    Funny thing is, a bluegrass monster like Frank has the same childlike enthusiasm and awe as we do! Bill Monroe was his God, and it felt like he used to brag about how closel in time his F5 was to Bill’s (I believe); how he could only listen to Monroe and himself. He even covered the Gibson headstock logo like Bill when they backed out of his signature series (this was almost 15yrs ago). In his teens, Frank had memorized every Monroe tune by feeding a local Emory Gap, TN jukebox! And he could sure shred and chop with on that ax with an encyclopedic knowledge of literally every Monroe number. I remember he would often pause, stare and say, in that heavy southern drawl, something to the effect of “man, that big nig sure could play couldn’t he?” (he is always trying to be funny). Still teaches all his beginners Soldiers Joy first because it’s the first song Bill learned…

    Anyway, ever since, I’ve always been amazed at how that mandolin sounded head and shoulders above 99% of other handmade premium instruments. I’ll never forget how the the sound just explodied out of the thing, resonating so dynamically all throughout the body, and with such a nuanced and powerful tone. I’m forever obsessed too! Just thinking about it makes me happy.

    My question is: with Loar’s production style, ability to craft that caliber an instrument so consistently there seems like there has to be some secret. I’ve never heard your mandolins, but with the specs out there and all, why can’t a Loar simply be recreated? Besides the age, It’s like they’re magic. One thing I do especially remember is that Frank’s F5 felt and looked like a beautiful beat up piece of 500 yr old teak driftwood — it’s one gnarly mandolin. It felt so light and fragile, but there it was 80yrs later sounding better than ever! I read above your tone woods are heavy. Do you know how the surviving Loars vary in weight? Just curious…

    Keep up the good work!

    Reply

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