Feature Review by Robert Margo in The Mandolin Journal November 2021:
The Art of Mandolin Making is chock-full of priceless information for luthiers and, really, for anyone who loves the instrument, classical or otherwise
By any conceivable metric Alfred Woll is one of the leading mandolin builders in the world. The number of prominent classical mandolinists who perform on a Woll is legion (e.g. Caterina Lichtenberg) and the length of his waiting list (7 years, give or take) is legendary. In addition, Alfred is also one of the world’s leading restorers of historical instruments and somehow finds the time to do routine maintenance work for clients.
Over the past few years Alfred also found the time to write the extraordinary book here under review. Based on his experience as a luthier and a vast amount of research into primary and secondary sources, The Art of Mandolin Making is chock-full of priceless information for luthiers and, really, for anyone who loves the instrument, classical or otherwise. While there are other recent books about the history of the mandolin, such as Graham McDonald’s superb The Mandolin: A History (currently, and unfortunately, OOP), there are none that go into such detail on the historical development of mandolin construction – unlike, say, the case for the classical guitar or the renaissance lute.
Published as a large, hard-bound volume (a “coffee-table” book), The Art of Mandolin Making is divided into a Foreword (by Marga Wilden-Hüsgen), Introduction, Part One (chs. 1-5), Part Two (chs. 6-13), an Appendix (chs. 14-15), endnotes and a bibliography. Part One covers the historical development of the classical mandolin in Europe, beginning with the baroque era and early Neapolitan instrument (ch. 1) and continuing with a lengthy discussion of the three main Italian builders – Vinaccia, Embergher, and Calace. These chapters, like the rest of the book, are full of astonishing photographs and diagrams giving detailed specifications on the inner construction of the instruments. As wonderful as these chapters on the Italian instrument and its origins are, for my money the chapters on the German classical mandolin are the great advance and completely justify purchase on their own. Chapter 3 describes the historical development of the German mandolin industry in the early to mid-twentieth century, again with incredible photos and diagrams. I own two such instruments and have often wondered why they sound the way they do, and now know the answer. Chapter 4 is worth reading multiple times closely, as it describes for the first time in English, the origins of the modern German classical mandolin, as developed by Reinhold Seiffert. The Seiffert saga is of great relevance to the history of the CMSA – the CMSA’s founder, Norman Levine, was a friend of Seiffert’s and arranged to import his instruments into the US. As Alfred explains, Seiffert responded to a request from Marga Wilden-Hüsgen for a new type of bowl back mandolin, with very different sound characteristics from the Italian instrument. Seiffert responded with an instrument that was based on one of his lute models – except, as Alfred explains, Seiffert’s lutes were not historically accurate. If, instead, he had built a mandolin whose design was based on actual historical principles of lute construction, it would not have been a successful instrument. Because he did not, the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Part Two goes into great detail and specificity on building a mandolin in the Seiffert style, based on Woll’s personal working methods. The overall goal is to provide enough information so that a skilled luthier could build such an instrument from start to finish. I am not a luthier and therefore cannot evaluate personally if this is the case but, for what it is worth, the step-by-step discussion, numerous photographs and diagrams seem more than adequate to the task at hand. The first three chapters in Part Two discuss plans, use of forms and wood selection (chapter 6), construction of the soundboard (chapter 7) and the bowl (chapter 8). The process of attaching the soundboard to the bowl is covered in chapter 9, and the construction and shaping of the neck and the fingerboard in chapter 11. Finishing is described in chapter 12, and making the bridge, and attaching tuning machines, endpiece, and final setup in chapter 13. Chapter 14 discusses care and maintenance of the finished product (and, as such, is valuable to everyone, including a non-luthier like myself). Alfred presents his personal history in chapter 15 where we learn many fascinating details, including that Woll developed his skills and experience outside the apprentice system. His motivation to share his knowledge stems from the fact that he himself does not employ apprentices; by sharing he hopes to ensure that the knowledge is not lost and perhaps encourage young people to enter his profession.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough – it is that essential. In principle, the book is available from sources in North America, such as Elderly Instruments – however, in practice, while the pandemic continues, I strongly recommend ordering directly from Alfred’s website at the URL: https://en.edition-mando.de/mandolinenbau/ (single copies ship reliably from Germany).
This Feature Review by Professor Robert A. Margo (CMSA Board of Directors) was published in The Mandolin Journal, November 2021 (The official Newsletter of the Classical Mandolin Society of America)