Your Weber mandolin starts in your heart. You’re inspired by the great sound of your favorite player; you’ve read rave reviews from fellow pickers on Mandolin Café; or, perhaps, you’ve stayed up late checking out specs and listening to samples on retailer websites like The Mandolin Store, Elderly Instruments and Carter Vintage Guitars.
When it’s time—and you know when it’s time—you speak with your Weber dealer.
Maybe you take something home on the spot; maybe your imagination is spurred to desire something unique. Many customizations are possible, and easy to discuss with your dealer.
What happens then? How does your dream become your Weber mandolin?
It’s a finely detailed process. To take you through the journey, we’ll follow my Weber mandolin, a Heritage Series Diamondback F14-F.
I was attracted by the Adirondack top, the scalloped fretboard and the speed neck, having been used to the latter two features on previous instruments of mine. I also chose to make two customizations—using a stylized version of one of my tattoos for the inlay on the headstock, and swapping the black/white/black binding of a Yellowstone for the ivoroid usually found on the Diamondback.
Once an order sheet arrives in Bend, it’s entered into the system and your mandolin starts to become a reality. A bill of materials is triggered and Miles Benefield creates a production order and the all-important build card containing customer specifications.
Scott Wegner was the first to receive the card for my Diamondback. You want a guy like Scott on your team. He knows wood.
Wegner chooses billets for each build—in this case, 3A Red Spruce for the top and Highly Flamed Maple for the back and sides. He then glues the wedge-shaped billets together, edge-to-edge, and sands them, readying the elements for an initial carve he’s programmed into the computer numerical control router, familiarly called a CNC machine.
Similarly, Wegner will bandsaw a neck billet (also maple for the Diamondback), preparing it for the initial barrel carve on the CNC.
While still embryonic, the disparate pieces of wood now start looking like a mandolin. My Diamondback top, for example, sports the familiar F-style body shape, with enough wood left to refine the scroll later in the process.
Bracing is next for the top, with a Diamondback taking a pair of traditional tone bars. Ryan Fish has also taken a look at the build card and is already working the thin strips of maple that will form the rim to join top and back.
It’s a delicate but industrial-looking process, which finds Fish soaking the wood to add flexibility before molding it into shape along a heated pipe. As Fish begins the body, a kerfed lining provides a gluing surface. The sides, along with hardwood tail, neck and scroll blocks are set and clamped in place inside a custom-tooled, tight-fitting form.
When assembling the body, Fish is also putting modern technology towards perfecting tradition.
He inspects the deflection of the top and carefully tunes it by means of exacting sanding and finger planes. This is the kind of handwork that turns lumber into art, a few pieces of wood into a musical instrument. This is the kind of handwork worthy of a Weber.
If it seems like this happens quickly, it doesn’t. On average, it takes at least three months for a mandolin to go through its changes, sometimes more. Each step is time-consuming and many are followed by rest, allowing glue to set and finishes to cure.
Once the Diamondback completes its initial round with Fish, Mike Fischer steps in. He, too, has looked in advance at the build card, noticing the change in binding. By the time it hits his station, he is ready, having already glued, bent, trimmed and prepared the various strips needed for the instrument.
Binding serves a function besides beauty. It blocks moisture loss from the wood’s end grain and it offers a protective perimeter around the edge of an instrument, where dings like to collect with hardy use.
This particular Diamondback is going to get some hardy use, I’ll tell you that.
First, Fischer cuts a rabbet around the assembled top. The back will come later and go through the same effort, but we’re not there yet.
Once he has that minute ledge complete, he has a shelf to lay the binding on to. It has its first round of scraping and cleaning and, looking more like a mandolin by the minute, it moves on to Marty Lewis.
Diamondbacks now receive, like all models from the Yellowstone up, a dovetail neck joint. Lewis didn’t invent the dovetail, it’s been around for years. But Lewis, with decades of woodcraft behind him, perfected it for Weber.
I sleep better knowing that my Diamondback sports a Marty Lewis dovetail.
While the body has been going through its paces, its partner has, too. As noted prior, Wegner roughed out the neck with help from the CNC machine. Lewis continues that task, refining the shape and feel through sanding. Like other elements, the neck passes from hand to hand, receiving an ebony headplate; required binding, if appropriate; and one of a number of distinctive inlays.
My Diamondback has that variation on my tattoo, a spiral mandala reconceived by Albany, N.Y. artist Richard Lovrich. It was created in house by Austin Cerney, and the nominal upcharge was reflected on the sales and production orders.
The build card—virtually your mandolin on paper—reminds the body where the neck is, so when the time arrived for Lewis to match the two, both were ready.
Creating the dovetail joint is downright intimate. Every surface has to match just right. Sound, playability, appearance … all are affected by this crucial work, which Lewis does by eye and hand, transmuting personality into the wood.
What the bandsaw starts, the hand finishes. Chips of maple fall to the floor, the chisel finds the pocket, the two parts become almost one.
But not yet.