It was a little unnerving to see a headless mandolin on Renee's kitchen table. The strings were still attached at both ends, but the neck was broken in between the place where you finger it and where the strings wrap around the tuning keys. I couldn't help picking it up, but it dangled in a crazy, creepy way when I did. Renee, my sister-in-law, said her friend Jewel owned it before she died some years ago. She doesn't know who played it or how often, but it does look like it has had some hard years. Renee said, "You can have it, if you want it." And I thought, "Well, I don't know how to fix a mandolin, but maybe I can learn," so I took it home.
It sat in my studio for about a month while I looked up how-to articles and videos on the internet. I read about putting it together with clamps before gluing, just to be sure it would all fit. I watched people apply the glue with an artist's brush to be sure the glue made it into every crack. And I studied up on what kind of glue I should use. There are different opinions on everything, even glue. I built a gluing rig out of old boards, towels and clamps. Then I practiced the whole gluing set-up several times, painted glue on both broken pieces, clamped them together and left them alone for a day or two. After the glue dried I put the strings on and applied tension. This was the first test. If the head busted off right away, I might try again, but the prognosis wouldn't be good. Low and behold, the glue joint held! Step one to the mandolin revival was complete.
Jewel's mandolin was missing a few necessary parts, so I ordered the cheapest replacements I could find. No point in making a big investment until I knew the head would stay on. By the time they arrived it seemed likely the instrument wasn't going to lose it's head, but I found out right away that these parts didn't fit this mandolin. So I had to improvise. I recarved the base of the bridge, the structure that holds the strings at the bottom end of the instrument, using a piece from a walnut log that had been in my basement for about a decade. It took multiple fittings to make it work, but I eventually trimmed it to the right size.
Then I stole an old beef bone from our dog Misty, one she'd been ignoring in the living room for over a year. I knew it would be dry and still solid. I spent two or three hours cutting it down to make a bridge saddle, the light colored piece that holds the strings at the top of the fretboard. I made a couple of bad versions before I got it right, but I finally got one that fit.
After that I had to move the bridge around to get the intonation just right. You can't play an instrument that isn't in tune with itself, so this trial-and-error process had to be done just so. Jewel's mandolin is now playable, but it's not quite right yet. If I try to play very far up the neck the strings buzz on the frets. They have to be raised up a little. And after that, who knows? I'm not even sure this is a great sounding mandolin. I'm still using those old strings that held the head and neck together on Renee's table. Once I put new strings on, I'll have a better idea what I have. Either way, the thing can now be played. And that's what a mandolin is for.
Somewhere in the process I began to identify with Jewel's mandolin. I'm not the best instrument on the shelf, and I have made some awful sounds, metaphorically speaking. My hope is that my maker is restoring me to what I was meant to be. The process is not nearly as quick and painless as I wish, but I have hope. These thoughts became conscious during worship a few Sunday mornings ago, and I wrote down the line, "I will sing like Jewel's mandolin." After church I wrote the song. Here's a video for all of you who are being restored and those of you who were blessed to know Jewel. Her mandolin is coming alive again, and someday, she will too.
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