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A Closer Look at Mandolin Binding

By Michael Eck

Binding. It defines a premium musical instrument, tracing its sumptuous curves, adding a chosen grace note of tortoise, ivoroid or classic black-and-white to define its form.

But binding is there for more than beauty. Binding also protects, defending your Weber mandolin from the dings and chips and insults meted out onstage, at jams or even just while playing on the couch.

Binding is also one of the primary elements that add cost to high-end music machines—the process is laborious, the materials demanding and the artistry rare.

“That little bit of flair is a good bit of extra work,” says luthier Mike Fischer.

Virtually every builder on the Bend team can build an entire mandolin by hand, but as a new Weber makes its way through the shop it is tended to by many, each with a specialty in addition to his general knowledge of woodworking, sound production and joinery.

Fischer not only applies much of the binding at Weber. He also makes it, painstakingly crafting each piece before it finds its home on a Bitterroot or Yellowstone, much less on a Heritage model like a shimmeringly beautiful Vintage or much coveted traditional Fern.

The latter, like the Diamondback, are fully-bound masterpieces, with the front and back, the fingerboard and headstock all sporting the classiest finery Weber can offer.

“It takes close to an entire day to fully bind an F-style Heritage mandolin,” Fischer says. “When it comes to binding the scroll, for example, it's incredibly detailed with the fine miter joint at the ball, and all of the heating and bending of the binding to fit, and dealing with the ramping of the scroll.”

Think about your F style Weber—the scroll, the point, the wing, the swoop of the fretboard extension, the smaller scrolls and points on the headstock. There’s a lot of mileage when it comes to completing every twist and turn.

Before Fischer or a fellow luthier can begin binding a new instrument coming down the line, some serious woodworking needs to happen. Rabbets are carefully cut, creating a shelf for the binding to the lay in, each at a specific depth and height to carry the appropriate piece.

“Using a jig,” Fischer says, “I can create that ramp properly up and around the scroll and onto the ball, and of course, back down to the head block. I'll cut that rabbet up and around the scroll, and then I have to come back in and hand-detail the channel and sharpen those points. Of course, the bit has a radius, so I have to cut the scroll point in by hand with gouges.”

But when the wood is ready, where is that binding?

It’s right by Fischer’s side, because he’s made that as well, from a variety of proprietary plastics fashioned for each Weber model.

“The way that we work at Weber, all of our purflings are glued together as one solid binding piece first, because all of those need to be bent properly as one to go around that scroll. I prepare those bindings by gluing and shaping them beforehand.”

“It comes down to a very even layer of glue being applied, and then allowed to sit. I make sure that I press out all the extra glue, so it's a clean joint. After resting and curing, every piece of binding needs to be scraped clean on all surfaces. And each piece that I install gets a bevel on the bottom of the interior, so that it sits down on that shelf. I want to make sure that the binding sits real nice and tight in there, in that rabbet, so I break the inside edge so that it doesn't interact with that interior corner.”

To insure correct fit, the glued and completed pieces of binding are also bent to spec over a dedicated hot plate. Luthiery has always been alchemy, mixing the most modern ideas with the most ancient processes, and Fischer crashing art and math together over “fire” bears that out.

”There’s no actual open flame, but I do set things on high and I have to be real careful. You can't fall asleep at this job. You heat the binding piece just until it gets kind of wiggly and you can move it and twist it around. It's interesting, because binding is thermal plastic, I can heat it up and twist it all about, and then hold it over the hot plate again and it will reform itself to the original shape.”

Fischer binds fingerboards before they meet the neck. Each is flush-trimmed, then sanded and prepped before being glued on. He also binds all of the veneers before they are glued to Weber headstocks, a challenge that asks for patience, passion and precision.

“Without doubt, the most challenging binding that I do is the F–style headstock veneer. There are seven pieces, each of which has to be bent specifically to each instrument. There's no general template to it; each veneer has to be created individually for each instrument to match the nut-width. Those seven pieces are shaped, and then have to be individually mitered and fit together to match perfectly. Each one of them is a little bit different; each one has a character of its own. It's really hard to get it right, but we do. Hands-down, that is my favorite thing to do. It's very satisfying; I like the challenge.”