A Craftsman's Journey: Part VI

by Midnight Freemasons Contributor
Michael Shirley

Mandolin outline

Top cut out
One of the problems with having an instrument built for you is waiting for it. I’ve never been very good at waiting. Procrastinating, yes, but waiting is different. It requires patience rather than laziness. But this mandolin building process has shown me something new. Joe has been posting pictures as he completes each new step, and they’ve made me eager for more. I’ve found myself hitting “refresh” several times every day in the hope that something new will appear. 

Building the sides
That impatience just demonstrates to me that I’m not an operative craftsman and why Joe is: he has the patience required to plan a job thoroughly and to do it right at each stage, and to do the extra little things required for a piece of work to be great. His brother Rick said to me the other day that Joe got all the patience in the family, and that’s why he’s so good at building instruments. Carving a mandolin is different than framing a house. Both require precision, intelligence, and attention to detail, as all good crafts do. Carving a mandolin also requires an appreciation for the musical and visual qualities of different kinds of wood, and, like all good music, a sense of when to stop; Joe says that when he’s carving he can feel the wood vibrate, and when it starts singing through his fingers he knows it’s where he wants it to be. 

Adding bars to top
That’s when he can start putting the pieces together. I understand how it works (I managed to pass physics in college by doing a term paper on the physics of tone production in an arch-top mandolin), but seeing it happen and talking about it with the maker has been a joyful and humbling experience. The craft of it is one thing; the art of it is something else entirely. When he told me he was satisfied with the tap tone of the top and bottom, had bent the sides, and was ready to start making it look like a mandolin, I was eager to see what it would look like. He already had the image in his mind. 


This is the sixth installment in Michael Shirley's Mandolin Series.

W.B. Michael H. Shirley is Past Master of Tuscola Lodge No. 332 and Leadership Development Chairman for the Grand Lodge of Illinois. He's also a member of the Illinois Lodge of Research, the Scottish Rite, the York Rite, Eastern Star, and the Tall Cedars of Lebanon. He's also a member of the newly-chartered, Illini High Twelve No. 768 in Urbana-Champaign. The author of several articles on British history, he teaches at Eastern Illinois University.

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