The Philosophy behind Wiens “Vintage Style” Mandolins
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wiens mandolins feature many old-school throwbacks. These include….
-All Hot Hide Glue Construction. Difficult to use, but vastly superior to modern wood glues.
–Hand-stained sunburst. If you’re like me, you can’t abide opaque “poofy” looking sunbursts.
– 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.
–Hand cut inlays. Wiens ain’t about CNC machining
-The physical asymmetry of the Loar mandolins. There’s nothing straight or symmetrical about a Loar, and so it goes with Wiens mandolins.
-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.
–Authentic, full-sized binding material. Loars had thicker celluloid binding than we see on contemporary mandolins. Wiens gets his custom made to vintage specs.
-Tortoise position markers on the side of the fingerboard.
– 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
–Tortoise Celluloid pickguard with replica patent stamp, inlaid steel rod in the reinforcement strip, celluloid mounting block, and authentic silver-plated mounting hardware
–Wiens reproduction bridge. blacked and polished with replica patent stamp. Stainless posts with silver thunbwheels.
–Old-style fretwork with the binding nibs intact at the fret ends
-Handmade labels printed on an antique letterpress in the traditional way
……These are just a few of the things that impart that “Vintage Feel” to every Wiens instrument.