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An In-depth Look at The Dovetail Neck Joint

There’s more than one way to join wood. Just ask Marty Lewis.

Lewis, the luthier who puts the neck on your Weber mandolin, has a long history in woodworking (which we’ll cover here in depth, soon), and he knows what’s what when it comes to maple, mahogany and spruce.

When Weber owner Tom Bedell stood next to Lewis while holding a classic mandolin from the 1920s, Bedell immediately knew he wanted to add a traditional dovetail to the catalog, and he knew he had the man to do it in Lewis.

For the first twenty years, all Weber instruments featured necks with mortise and tenon joints, a remarkably basic, strong way to permanently bring two pieces of wood together. Lewis is a fan, and since 2013, he has honed a method of crafting the joints that is precise and consistent.

“It’s something I take pride in,” he says. “Every neck that has gone out of Bend in the past five years has been hand shaped and fitted by me.”

The mortise is, essentially, a cavity cut into the receiving piece of wood, in this case a mandolin headblock. The rectangular tenon, or tongue, fits it, filling the hole and creating a tight bond made lasting with glue.

The dovetail is more elegant, and certainly has historic appeal to luthiers, as well as great cachet for musicians. It offers incredible tensile strength, and a well-carved dovetail virtually makes the two pieces one.

“The dovetail changes everything,” Lewis remarks. “It’s a lot of sweat and hard work, but it’s worth it.”

In the current Weber line, Gallatins and Bitterroots feature mortise and tenon joints, while Yellowstone and Heritage models feature dovetails. Lewis and fellow luthier Ryan Fish stand by both methods and say they can’t tell a sonic difference.

Many players, perhaps you for example, feel they can.

The billet for the neck of your Weber mandolin is chosen by Scott Wegner, who, along with his other duties, cares for the company’s select supply of instrument-grade hardwoods.

All necks go through rough shaping on a CNC machine before landing on Lewis’ bench. And each goes through a process with many steps, involving a number of team members.

“Wings” are added to widen out the headstock before fine shaping. Various veneers with etched receptacles for beautiful inlay, particular to each model, are glued to the face of the head. Channels for truss rods are routed. Fingerboards, each with a 10-inch radius for absolute ease of playing, are matched to neck blanks. Each step takes time and care, and a neck will often pass from bench to bench before being attached.

Luthier Mike Fischer, for example, will meticulously add intricate binding to a Fern’s Florentine headstock before giving it back to Lewis, who will refine the shape until it’s perfect.

“That step alone takes a small band saw, a scroll saw, a drum sander and tons of handwork,” Lewis says.

The cosmetics are important—we all want a mandolin that looks as pretty as it sounds—but the joint is paramount.

The entire neck, sans nickel/silver frets and tuning machines, is complete when Lewis couples a mortise and tenon on a Bitteroot. With a Yellowstone, the fingerboard is just taped to the shaft for alignment purposes, and glued in place later.

It may surprise you, but necks are set even before the instrument’s body is fully assembled. When Fisher, following Lewis’ final sanding, attaches the back to the rim, the mandolin goes from mere pieces of wood to a rarified thing, the bones of a fine music-making machine.

Lewis cuts the trapezoidal pins and tails of the mandolin and mandola dovetails on a Delta bandsaw with a 1/8” blade, then refines it with “a sharp half-inch chisel.” His primary tool, actually, is a small stainless steel ruler, with adhesive-backed sandpaper. In Lewis’ hands the simple implement becomes an extension of the artist, deftly removing just enough wood to create a snug fit that will, in your hands, translate motion into sound.

The Yellowstone line embraces the entire mandolin family, from the standard eight-string to the rumbling, regal mandocello. These, too, take dovetails, each more intricate and advanced than the next. Lewis employs a 1/4” blade on a Jet saw for octaves and mandocellos, which, not surprisingly have bigger, deeper headblocks, which require longer, wider flared pins to fill.

Usually all of this work is applied to maple, but in the case of Bitterroot octaves, the necks are made of choice solid mahogany, which Lewis knows well from his decades in furniture and window construction and repair. It is, he says, softer, and requires a gentle hand, though once it is sealed and finished it is durable and beautiful, and a favorite of many players.

“Mahogany has always been a real interesting wood to me. In addition to musical instruments it’s used a lot in shipbuilding.”

Fish and Lewis agree that the Weber neck offers unique comfort and playability, with a soft V that fits right in the palm like an old friend. A 1 1/8” nut width is standard, but many models can be made slightly wider. That custom option bears little on the arc of the neck process, although it does add time on the bench.

Adding the dovetail to the Weber way of working for 2018 definitely raises the bar, making the best traditional mandolin available today even more traditional.

Mortise and tenon, or dovetail? It’s in your hands now.