In 2018, many musicians and retailers have complex feelings about guitar sales and their relevance in today’s market, while ukuleles continue to have an epic moment and are surging in popularity. So where do mandolins fit into the equation?
As it turns out, the answer is “perfectly.”
Weber Mandolins, now under the Two Old Hippies brand roof with Breedlove Guitars and Bedell Guitars, relocated from Logan, Montana to Bend, Oregon in 2013, and has been especially thriving ever since.
“We produce in a month what any individual builder would do in a whole year,” says Tom Bedell, owner of Two Old Hippies. “We’ve sold more than twice the number of mandolins in January and February than we did last year [in January and February].”
“We’ve got as much work as we can handle, basically,” says RA Beattie, marketing director of Weber Mandolins. “Order-wise, if you look at our sales numbers, we’re cranking production-wise, so it’s not like the guys are sitting around waiting for orders to come in.”
Made up of a team of seven luthiers, the company’s output of handcrafted mandolins, often with custom options, averages from 5 to ten per week. And while the mandolin is rooted in tradition – perhaps more so than guitars themselves – the market isn’t limited to a bunch of strict traditionalists. If anything, it’s expanding, and taking mandolas and mandocellos with it.
While mandolins conjure up a sense of traditionalism, their appeal has spread far beyond folk and country music, and their broadened horizons show in the range of artists on the Weber Mandolin roster.
From touring musicians with who work with George Strait, to Dropkick Murphys and The Decemberists, the mandolin now extends from country to punk and all the indie music in between.
“It’s a pretty versatile instrument,” says Beattie, and that versatility is what’s attracting a new generation of musicians to this niche instrument.
“It’s the same tuning as the violin, so I know folks who play violins who grew up playing classical [music] in high school, and as they mature, maybe the violin’s not something they’re going to play as much socially, so naturally, they jump over to the mandolin that way,” Beattie explains.
“There are a bunch of session players from Nashville – they basically said ‘I was a guitar player and I was really good, but I was trying to stand out’ - so being a mandolin player,’ you got a lot more gigs and a lot more opportunities.”
“I just think the demographics and the products are changing a little bit,” he adds. “There are collectors that are aging and essentially selling their collections, and maybe you’re seeing the market sweep with old, electric, vintage, used, high-end stuff – maybe that market is getting a little softer. There’s definitely a lot of young people coming into it in different genres. What people are looking for is changing.”
And while senior luthier Ryan Fish says that the Weber line has traditionally honed in on custom orders, the brand has recently fine-tuned their standard models
“You’re going to see different results and higher quality if you produce more standard offerings,” Fish says. “That’s where you can really start to dig in and get a better sound and tone and a higher quality instrument.”
The Complete Weber History
Like many MI companies, Weber has seen its share of transitions and title changes over the years. With roots in Flatiron Mandolin and Banjo Company in Bozeman, Montana, Flatiron was soon purchased by Gibson Guitars, quickly earning a reputation for high-quality traditional eight-stringed instruments.
When Gibson elected to move their mandolin production to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1996, Bruce Weber, the general manager and head luthier of the Gibson Mandolin Division at the time, chose to not relocate, and instead founded Sound to Earth, Ltd. With his new company, he would go on to continue making traditional instruments in Montana.
A year later, Weber, Joe Schneider, Bob McMurray, Steve Birch and Paula Lewis created the Sound to Earth shop in Weber’s barn, and were later joined by Helen Beausoleil and Vern Brekke.
As the orders poured in, Weber moved the shop to a larger facility in Belgrade, Montana in 1998, where the company would go on to create around 20 different models of mandolins, as well as mandolas, octave mandolins, and mandocellos, all of which covered the range of traditional eight-string instrument design.
The company moved again in 2004 to the old Logan school, located 25 miles west of Bozeman. Again, the new space allowed for more creativity, with Weber adding the Archtop and Shallow Carved Guitars introduced in 2005, and a line of resonator guitars in 2007.
Weber was introduced to Two Old Hippies owner Tom Bedell in 2011, and a year later, Weber officially joined the Two Old Hippies family, while Weber kept his role overseeing instrument development and the build processes like the “patriarch” of all Weber instruments.
The final move took place in 2013 when Weber moved from Logan, Montana to Bend, Oregon.
“Our ability to create amazing and unique instruments has expanded incredibly with the capabilities of Tom’s new facility and the resources that are now available to us,” Bruce Weber said at the time of the move. “I’m honored to be included in Tom’s dream and admire his dedication to assembling a great team in a great location to build awesome acoustic instruments.”
And while Bruce Weber retired in March 2016, the team at Weber hasn’t been lacking in the innovation department. Recently, deflection testing, new dovetail neck joints on premium models, and an enhanced finishing process have all been additions to the Weber standard of quality instrument making.
Advancing the Traditional
With the onset of 2018, Weber has seen a handful of advancements in their process of instrument-making, with deflection testing at the forefront. Deflection testing, a mechanical tuning process that measures the stiffness properties of every instrument top, ensures that the stiffness of the wood will allow for the proper sound quality and stability in the instrument going forward – something that’s especially important to test because wood from the same species or same tree can have different properties.
“Deflection tuning gives us the optimal relationship between the strings load and the top’s resistance to the load,” Weber Mandolins notes of the process.
For deflection testing, Weber tests each instrument in two stages, first measuring the stiffness when the instrument top has been glued to the rim structure, and again before the final 400 grit of sanding, the final step before the instrument is sent to finish.
For the test, luthiers align the instrument in the deflection jig with the bridge feet positioned at the location of final bridge placement.
Attaching two bridges to dial indicators to measure deflection independently on the bass and treble side, they then attach a scale to the lever to apply 25 pounds of pressure to the bridge feet, which simulates string tension on the top. Dial indicators then measure the thousandths of an inch a top deflects under the simulated string load, and the top is then sanded to achieve tight tolerances.
According to Weber, “executing precise measurements on the bass and treble sides to within a few thousandths of an inch can make a significant difference in achieving the proper stiffness of the top. This gives us consistent, repeatable results in the tone quality of every instrument.”
Along with this new process, Weber has also perfected a lighter finish for their instruments, which senior luthier Ryan Fish says will improve the general sound of their instruments.
“The thinner the finish, the more energy is going to transfer, and the instrument will be more alive and more responsive with less finish,” Fish says. “It just really improves the sound and the tone of the instrument overall.”
Also new to Weber are dovetail neck joints, which Weber describes as a “more traditional” neck joint, and three new colors, all variations of Weber’s classic amber bursts: gallation amber, bitterroot faded amber, and yellowstone burnt amber.
“They’re kind of building the new Weber, if you could call it that. When Ryan’s talking about this deflection testing, or modifications to the finish, the dovetail [neck joints], they’re really pushing the limits of building a traditional instrument,” says Beattie.
While Bedell and Two old Hippies acquired the company from Bruce in 2012, Bruce Weber remained the head honcho of Weber until his retirement in 2016. With that change, Weber Mandolins has ushered in a new era for the company, tweaking some features with the aforementioned changes.
“When [Bruce Weber] chose to retire, then I had the opportunity to step in and really get active with the Weber team,” adds Bedell. “What we like to think is we created ‘the new Weber.’ We’ve really made Weber our own, and that feels just terrific. And we’ve improved everything, so it’s not like we just made it different to be different, or we cut corners, we did just the opposite.”
“We want to make the best mandolins in the world – that’s our goal,” Bedell says. “We don’t want to look at ‘how do we build them less expensive?’, ‘how do we build them more gimmicky?’, we just want to build the very best mandolins we can.”