Lawrence Smart lives in McCall idaho, a beautiful mountain retreat on a
lake. This is a lifestyle choice, as Lawrence is quite an outdoorsman. He mostly uses the woods he finds locally. Special figured boards of big leaf maple, flamed, quilted, fiddleback, etc are common in a Smart instrument, as well as local Engleman spruce. He has been a luthier for 16 years, following a stint as a school teacher, and builds wonderful mandolin family instruments, as well as guitars. Lawrence plays fiddle, mando & guitar himself, and is a darn good player. I've had the pleasure of making several trips to McCall and own two wonderful mandolins. See: http://www.smithfowler.org/music/mandolin/smart/.
Lawrence is a great collaborator, if you have ideas about how your instrument should sound or look, he will help you realize those ideas. He has his own take on things like X bracing and the no truss rod approach to mandolin neck design. He can tailor the sound of an instrument, but is known for mandolins with a warm and complex tone, with incredible playability.
His client list includes Mike Marshall and John Reischmann who play his mandolas, Matt Flinner has a bouzouki, Nick Forster owns both a mandolin and a mandola, and Ben Winship plays a Smart mandolin. Fellow Comandos include Peter Mix, who has a mandolin, Paul Ebersman has both a recent mandolin and an octave mandolin pair, as well as one of Lawrence's unique Bear Claw mandolins, Koa backed with a single C shaped sound hole on the face and another on the top of the rim. Comando Tony Bolin is also the proud owner of a Smart F5, he was in the same batch as one of mine. I'm sure there are others.
So, Lawrence, my friend.........welcome to Comando.........
Q - I know you've been interested in building another mando quartet, and
wonder if you've made any plans to pursue that project. Possibly we could
round up four Comandos to each order one of the quartet. (Earlier in his career Lawrence got an arts grant to build a mando quartet, they are black faced beauties,
and can be seen on his web site, and if I'm not mistaken two of those are owned
by Nick Forster).
A - I've always been fascinated with the idea of building matched instruments that work together both sonically and in design. Violin makers have traditionally used matched quartets as a means to show their skill at blending the tone and performance of instruments that are to work together. Given the fact that musicians (and perhaps especially mandolin players) look for different things in the way instruments respond, sound and feel, this for me is a challenging and exciting way to improve my skills in addition to paying attention to a broader and more complete tonal palette. Although my earlier quartet was mostly sold separately, I had the chance of traveling some with it and playing it as an ensemble with local musicians. I was able to take it to an IBMA convention and was thrilled to hear it played by some of my favorite players. I do look forward to making more matched quartets and am always thinking of ways to make it happen. Last I knew Nick F still had the mandola and F style mandolin.
Q - Any plans to visit Calif? We enjoyed having you as a guest in the Bay
Area at one of our Comando Gatherings and you should get down here for a
Grass Valley BG Festival some year, they set up a nice indoor display for
A - Boy I sure would love to get there again and I had a blast at your studio the last time. Every year I try to get it together to get to Grass Valley fest. Just not enough time to get everything crammed into this short life.
Q - How are you coming on Michael Pensak's 2 point.....I see he is
cashing out on his Woodley A model in anticipation. I recently played Paul
Ebersman's new 2 point mandolin you recently built & it is great right out
of the gate!
A - I strung Michael's mandolin up last week and hope to get it to him this week. It's an asymmetric 2 point like yours but with F holes. It has a quilted maple back sides and neck and a beautiful bear-claw Engelman spruce top. Thanks to Arthur for his wonderful design eye for helping this model come into existence.
Q - What's your thoughts about bolt-on necks for acoustics? The idea
of easily being able to change to a different neck width or profile later
on is an attractive idea. But do bolt-ons suffer in the sonic dept. from
this way of construction?
A - I have no experience in bolted on mandolin necks but in order to change necks, one would need the bolt on style of Rigel or Fender. I know the Rigel folks have changed necks around to give players different feels and probably some different tone as well. As far as the acoustic properties of different neck joints, I can't claim any empirical knowledge, but a good fitting tapered dovetail intuitively feels right to me.
Q - Does a mando have to be relatively symetrical in body shape? Do the sides have to be rounded (pear shaped)? Could a rectangular instrument sound good?
A - I think a rectangulr mando could potentially sound good in its own right but would certainly sound different than a more rounded shape where the top can pump and vibrate within a perimeter. Arching a rectangular plate would be a little awkward too.
Q - What about one which had a portion of the treble side sliced off and flattened so that it could be attached to an instrument which had a flattened bass side? (For a clearer picture of what I'm getting at, think of the instrument in a vertical position, neck pointing straight up. Now vertically, crop the picture on the right so that about 1-3/4" or 2" of the instrument is sliced right off. ) Would this work if the missing cavity space was added back by adjusting the dimensions of the instrument?
A - I assume you're talking about some sort of double neck thingy. I think one of the limiting factors might be keeping the bridge centered on the center-line of the instrument. Again you could probably get away with it more easily on a flat topped rather than arch-top instrument. I think what you're talking about is probably possible, but you might have to settle for a different mandolin tone. I wish I could say more about this. It is an interesting thought.
Q - Incidentally, I've played one of your A-50s and liked it a lot. If I was in a BG situation, it would be one I'd probably want to play. Eddie Goldbetter had it, and of all his mandos, I personally liked that onethe most.
A - Thanks, Eddie has some nice mandolins, and I must say that I'm honored to be asked some "left field" questions from a famous "left field" player (Niles Hokkanen).
Q -Im not a luthier, so maybe the answer is there arent any.
Ill suggest a couple of possibilities then you can answer with.
What you have learned from experience.
a. Tone versus Volume (any trade-offs?)
b. For sale ads often say: deep woody bass, clear highs. Are these really trade-offs?
c. others you want to talk about.
A - a. In my expeience, some musicians seem to confuse tone and volume. A few of my very early mandolins which are here in town are very loud but the tone seems kind of uninteresting. I guess nowadays I try to think in terms of responsiveness. The trick is to make an instrument that is very responsive but will maintain clear tone when played hard, thereby providing the greatest dynamic range.
b. I would imagine that we all hear different things in different ways and the language of describing tone is vague at best. I will definately defer to the musicians (the folks on this list) to answer this one. All I can do is listen to how they describe what they hear and try to build the instrument they want.
It might be an interesting topic on this list to try to describe in more precise terms what words like "woody", "punchy", "tinny", etc. mean. On the other hand, these terms do provide color to our language and in some way contribute to the art of music.
c. There can be trade-offs in wood choice. A piece of wood that is fantastically figured may not be the best choice in terms of tone and performance. It's also important to look at things like density, strength, weight, grain orientation and so on to get the best performance.
Q - Number of Fs versus As versus 2-points
Over the 16 years you have been building Id guess the most requested is an F followed by A and then 2-point. Is this true?
A - Boy, I'd have to look back in my records to see for sure, but this sounds about right. I've built far fewer 2 points than either F or A models.
Q - What part of building the mandolin took the longest to master? Control of
tonal quality? Binding/varnish? Other?
A - This is a hard one but I guess that for me, I view the whole process as one big package. It is made up of smaller steps and some of them take more patience and practice than others. A few might be neck joints, brace fitting, binding, finishing, etc In reality, for me the hardest part is keeping up with the having a business part.
Q - Raw Resources, the Wood
What are your favorite combinations today? What influenced you in this most?
A - I'm using more and more Red maple these days. It carves beautifully and I like the tonal possibilities. I'm partial to Engelman spruce largely because I have a good amount to choose from. But again, I'm going to try to select wood that will help meet the goal.
Q - I've poured over the article you wrote for the GAL and taken many ideas
and much inspiration from the content. This remains one of the best
discussions I've found, in practical terms, on how all the various systems
in a mandolin (i.e. scale length, degree of arch in the top and back plates,
plate graduations, tone bar vs. X-bracing, etc.), work together to deliver
wondrous sounds----and how changes in these can steer the tone in a
particular direction. Since you've built considerably more mandolins since
you wrote that article, have your opinions changed or become more refined?
In particular, do you still vary the angle of your X-bracing to strive for a
certain tone and if so, what is the effect of opening or closing the angle?
A - The article was taken and refined from a lecture I gave at a Guild of American Lutherie convention in the mid '90s. I was asked to speak about mandolins when Charlie Darrington had to cancel as the scheduled speaker. A hard act to replace and I was indeed nervous.
I still do vary the angle of the X to steer toward various tone. It should be noted that in the bracing I generally use, the X crosses forward of the bridge so that a brace runs under each foot of the bridge. The brace angles are limited by the F hole placement and the need for them to support the bridge feet. I like this bracing because I believe it combines the attributes of both tone bar (quick attack and punch) and X bracing (complex overtone structure). Closing the X means that the crossing point is usually moved closer to the neck and this will help enhance the mids and trebles and quicken the attack, similar to tone bars. Opening up the X helps the bass response and the ability to generate overtones giving a more warm or dark tone.
With this said, I believe that a more important starting point in steering toward a certain tone is in wood selection. In short, harder stiffer woods will generate a harder stiffer tone than softer woods. The obvious example here is the difference between Red spruce and Engelman spruce. I should note here that there is a great degree of variation within species of woods. Engelman can be as stiff and hard as Red.
My skills and knowledge in mando construction have evolved quite a bit since the article so there probably are several places where I think differently now. A glaring one is where I discussed leaving the ridge that protrudes from the scroll to the body a little longer to stiffen up the neck/body join area. I still believe that this does strengthen this area, but I believe that if it's too long, it can affect the responsiveness of the instrument in a negative way.
Q - It was great to have you participate in our Mando Builders' Super Summit back in March. My question is, what subjects peaked your interest that came up during the exchange? Did you get any new ideas for experimentation? It seemed to me that all of the luthiers experimented in some way. Pete Langdell and John Monteleone experiment with design but not so much with materials. The more traditional luthiers seem more inclined to experiment with different woods, truss rod configuations, etc. What have you experimented with?
A - I loved hearing the interplay between the builders on things like truss rods. These guys all build incredible instruments and it goes to show that great results can come from different approaches. I always enjoy hearing about the finishing process. Its probably the biggest single step, time-wise in the whole building process. I'm always looking for ways to improve both the product and the efficiency of applying it.
As far as things I've experimented with, I have an interest in doing more with the single soundhole mandolin. It seems that a rich and lush tone can be embellished by using a larger uninterrupted surface area of the top. This probably wouldn't appeal to the average bluegrass player, but would work well in some applications. The first one I built had only one hole on the treble side of the top and although it worked fairly well, I thought the air cavity could use a little more venting. On the 2nd one hole model, I added a small hole on the bass side of the rim and I feel that this helped it pump air a little easier. It is also easier for the player to hear the instrument with a hole facing them. I look forward to doing some more of these mandolins with different materials and also evolving the look and feel.
Another perhaps less experimental goal for me as a luthier is to learn about "antiquing" new instruments. I love the look of a newly made violin that has been skillfully made to look ancient and I think there's quite an art in doing a good job. I had the extreme pleasure to have the A5 Loar in my shop for several months 2 years ago. I love this mandolin and I love look that it has taken on with age. Sometime, I look forward to building a few exact copies complete with the same wear marks. Just gotta find more time.
Q - How can you tell if your mandolin has a twisted neck?
A - If you sight down the face of the neck from the headstock toward the tailblock, you should be able to see some "propeller" action along its length. You'll probably notice some problems with the playability too, with higher or lower action in various places on the fingerboard. It's probably easier to see on a flat, rather than arched fingerboard but I would think that you should be able to see it when it gets bad enough to be a playability issue.
Q - Lawrence, could you describe for us, in step-by-step fashion, how you go
about finishing an instrument? Comments on products, e.g., types of dyes or
stains with solvent used, spirit varnish (with ingredients) vs. oil varnish
vs. lacquer, or combinations in succession (e.g., french polish spirit
varnish on top of oil varnish or lacquer, if you do this), would also be
appreciated. Do you sand (and if so, what is your final grit) or only
scrape? Do you use anything like potassium dichromate for grounding before
staining? (and so on)
A - The process goes something like this: The surfaces are prepared by scraping and sanding to 220 grit sandpaper. Then the whole instrument is wetted with water on a damp cloth. This raises the grain; little fibers in the wood and small dents that you couldn't see when sanding. After complete drying, the surfaces are lightly sanded with 220 or 320 grit. The grain may have to be raised and sanded again and some violin makers do it numerous times. If there is to be a sunburst, I use potassium dichromate (sp?) to oxidize the maple. This is applied in a wash, allowed to dry and sanded back with 220 then 320. Water based stains are hand rubbed and blended, then lightly air brushed to the final shading. After drying the bindings are cleaned of stain. I apply the first several coats of spirit varnish by spraying. The first coats are dissolved super blonde flakes with a tiny bit of other resins and a small ammount of seedlac which is a less refined shellac. After several coats are sprayed over a week's time or so, this is allowed to dry for a few days and then leveled back by rubbing with alcohol and sanding. The binding may need to be scraped one or more times during the whole process since seedlac is fairly dark. The final coats are applied by french polishing with a similar mixture with more seedlac mixed in. The final rub out is done with rotten stone lubricated with olive oil.
A lot more depth and explination could be done, but hopefully the folks who care about this subject will understand what I'm saying. There are as many techniques in the finishing process as there are finishers, and what works well for someone may not work as well for another person.
Q - Lawrence, questions from the point of view of a novice/hobby builder; For someone who does not have a duplicator/template, can you recommend a
"best choice" list of hand tools for carving and graduating top and back
plates, and cutting soundholes?
A - In a pinch, a drill press can do a lot of rough carving work on both the inside and outside of a plate. From there, a combination of fingerplanes, scrapers and sandpaper can get you the rest of the way in carving plates. Probably my most used tool for this is an oval shaped, heavy scraper that is usually just sharpened on the belt sander then burnished to a hook-edge. It can really hog off wood.
You can cut sound holes with a coping saw blade out of its frame, just using your fingers on each side of the top to hold the blade. Cut well inside your line and clean up with an Xacto knife and sandpaper.
Q - Do you think that the bracing wood should be of the same species as the
top plate, or can you select a brace wood for different desired tonal
qualities? Or am I mis-reading the function of the bracing?
A - I never use Engelman as a brace wood, but I use it for tops a lot. I'll generally select the strongest, stiffest and straightest brace wood I can, then position and carve to "tweak" the tone.
Q - How do you feel about non-adjustable necks, e.g., carbon fibre reinforced?
A - This was a fun topic at the luthiers summit in March. Since mandolin necks are so short, I really don't feel that adjustability is neccessary. The longer necked mando-cousins should probably have some adjustment. For these I use a single action downward curved rod.
On mandolins and most mandolas, I use a 1/8" X 1/2" titanium bar epoxied on edge into the neck. Something feels right about having a somewhat substantial piece of metal in there and titanium is light and strong.
Q - On radiused fretboards, what is your typical radius? Simple or compound?
Do you have a preferred fretwire size?
A - I use a compound radius that usually has a radius of around 6-7" at the nut and around 12" at the 12th fret. With the nut slot radius even with the first fret, and the bridge slot radius even with the 12th fret, I think playability is best.
I like banjo wire, but mostly because it wears longer.
Q - On oval-hole instruments, do you go thicker on the top? Assuming you do,
are the graduations proportionally similar to an f-hole instrument?
A - I don't have a lot of experience here but I think it mostly depends on the style of bracing and if it has a raised fingerboard extention or not.
Q - Can you describe the types of mandocellos you've done? Have you ever done a K-5 style body (L-5) before?
A - I've only done the K 4 style, and my experience is very limited since there is only one in existence. I should be doing at least one more in the fairly near future, so I look forward to that. I think the K5 style works very well too and I've seen some newer ones that were "killer".
Q - Can you into a bit more detail on the side port done for you one-hole? (It works great, by the way B^)
A - I've talked about this earlier, but the hole is a "football" shaped hole centered in bass side. Its about 1 1/4" long and 3/4" wide. Since it increases the vent size on the instrument, I think that it should help boost the treble responce just a bit.
I'd really like to hear what the folks who play these things think they sound like.
Q - I always admired the visual appeal of your Comet model (but unfortunately
have never heard it or seen it in person); I even have a postcard picture of
it hung above my workbench. (For those who do not recall it, it was an A
with a single "comma" or "bearclaw" soundhole on the treble side). I never
knew how you braced or graduated it, and have wondered if you would do it
again, and if so, with what changes? Or did you decide it was a relatively
Do you think the actual shape of soundholes makes much, if any, difference, or is it more a question of total area and placement?
A - The list's Peter Mix, I think, dubbed this model the Comet. I originally was calling it the Cyclops (less poetic) and I've heard it called the Bearclaw. I think it has been a successful experiment and I look forward to doing some more. My impressions of the tone, as I recall, are that they have a very complex and rich low-end, with an articulate, clean sounding treble, closer in sound to an oval-holed mando. These instruments Probably don't have the overall volume and push/punch that a regular F hole instrument does, but I've been told by a list member who sometimes plays one with a large mandolin ensemble, that his mandolin can be heard and identified within the mix. I haven't heard the mandolin in quite some time and would love to hear how it has developed.
These were graduated a little thinner than normal and the first one had asymmetric X bracing, with the treble-side brace being oriented more like a tone-bar. In the future, I think I'll make the top and bracing lighter still. The 2nd, has a hole cut into the bass-side rim at the widest point of the mando to provide more "venting" of the air cavity.
I put the "comma" hole on the treble side of the top mostly so it could hit a microphone more easily. I wonder what putting the hole on the bass side would do. I doubt that the shape of the hole matters that much, but the size affects the air resonance, and the placement affects the areas on the top plate that are functionally weakened from having holes cut into them.
I've yet to build one of these with maple back and sides, so comparing it with a maple instrument is hard to do objectively. Hope this helps.
Subject: Question for Lawrence
Date: Friday, June 20, 2003 10:18 AM
Q - A couple weeks ago, I think it was Charlie Derrington mentioned he had a neck go bad and said he would never use big leaf maple again for necks. Many builders, including yourself, still use it and I just wondered what your comments were.
A - I will occasionally still use Big Leaf maple for necks but only quarter sawn stuff. As I said earlier, I'm using more and more wood from the north eastern US and this is true with neck wood as well. I'm not aware of any twisted necks or other neck problems on mandolins I've built with Big Leaf.
Q - Lawrence, you made reference to the use of potassium dichromate to oxidize
the maple, and I know Lynn Dudenbostel has done the same. Over on the
Mandolin Cafe Builders Board, there has been a recent thread on the dangers
of potassium dichromate, and the suggestion that potassium permanganate may
be a safer oxidizer.
As an amateur/hobby builder, I have decided to stay away from it.
A - Yes am aware that potasium dichromate is hazardous and I take care to use gloves while applying it and sand it off over a dust collection bench while wearing a dust mask etc. The information that you provided above is important to share and it makes me want to learn a little more. I am suprised to read that a respirator is recommended since there is absolutely no odor. Thanks for bringing this up.