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)


Book review by James Condino in American Lutherie, Winter 2022:
A great work for all of the mandolin community, as well as the entire community of luthiers.

Three centuries, multiple continents … all the way back to where it started in Italy. My family has had quite a history of mandolin players. My great-grandfather, a character from two generations ago, was my first mandolin teacher. He grew up playing, and shortly after arriving in the USA he was in one of the large Chicago mandolin orchestras. I can remember struggling to communicate with him verbally when I was a young boy and he was in his 80s. But as soon as I brought out my guitar and his mandolin, we crossed generations and lexicons. Of course, he played a traditional European round-back mandolin.
I’ve continued the tradition as both a daily player and a mandolin builder, currently on #134. Not surprisingly for an American, my focus has always been on the Gibson-style mandolin with carved top and back, shallow ribs, and a different voicing. I’ve always been curious about the European style of instrument, but had nowhere to go for information. Alfred Woll has created a great work for all of the mandolin community, as well as the entire community of luthiers. It’s a monumental accomplishment; a big book filled with excellent photographs and detailed insights. He bridges the historical traditions and origins of the European mandolin up to contemporary interpretations with lightness, tasteful style, and a beautiful sense of his own modernity. It is as if my great-grandfather went from Venice to Ventura. As a craftsman I celebrate the form; as a musician it makes me wonder about new sonic possibilities.
The book is divided into two primary sections. Part One covers the history and development of the mandolin, from its early-16th-century origins with the Baroque mandolin, into the Neapolitan instruments of the mid-18th century, the Romantic mandolin, and up to the 20th-century Italian masters. Builders like Luigi Salsedo, Fernando Del Perugia, the Vinaccia family, Luigi Embergher, and Raffael Calace are honored with beautiful photography and details, details, details. This part of the book alone is worth the price. We don’t have much access to these instruments here in the USA, so the details are very useful. Looking at images of these craftsmen’s work, I am humbled by my simple day-to-day production struggles; they showcase astounding beauty and attention to detail.
The next part of the book covers traditional mandolin making in Italy and Germany through the work of Reinhold Seiffert’s interpretation. Woll uses Seiffert as “a starting point,” and gladly encourages us that, “most really ambitious instrument makers will want to develop their own model.”
As an old tool-and-machinery nerd, I love the days spent with my 3,000-lb. antique bandsaw, but do I really need it to build a small mandolin? I cherish memories of making instruments decades ago with nothing but a shoe box of basic hand tools from thrift stores and pawn shops while living off the grid out in the desert with a carefree hippie woman, cutting local tops by hand and gathering shells for inlays off Pacific beaches.
Woll’s book does an elegant job of giving the reader everything needed to assemble the necessary minimum: simple hand tools and shop-made jigs. It makes the task accessible to the average person with a modest garage or basement shop. The bold photography needs no explanations, and the details matter. In a contemporary world where it seems like novice builders are bombarded with messages that say they will need $50,000 worth of machinery plus specialized tools and jigs, Woll’s book makes the reader feel just the opposite. They can do this; it is attainable to regular people. Surrounded by daily chaos and confusion, they can pick up simple tools to make craft and art, feeling the tactile satisfaction of passionate creating.
When I previously looked at traditional European mandolins, the level of ornament and complicated inlay was overwhelming. As a non-pearl-inlay builder, these instruments sometimes made me feel like I would go into pearl-induced anaphylactic shock. Alfred’s instruments have a certain familiarity to guitar builders. His rosettes look like smaller versions of contemporary guitar-builder’s work, with traditional tile combinations, modest use of shell, and binding that resembles the binding we produce. His candid photos even show the same Dremel router base that most of us have in the drawer of common tools.
The multisegment round-back style of mandolin building with twenty or more back sections would be a challenge for any of us. Woll’s detailed instructions on building a mold for this process out of scrap wood and MDF that he shapes by hand with a rasp echo familiar methods that ease any anxieties.
The insight that he gives about historic bracing patterns I found particularly valuable. Most books tend to give a modest assessment of their favorite bracing, but in a welcome and insightful change from dogmatism, Woll gives detailed examples of many different approaches and their nuances. This reveals quite a spectrum of possibilities along with some chronological secession in experimentation.
“Steps to Your Own Model” and “Bold Experiments” may be my favorite sections of the book. By beginning with the basic Seiffert platform, Alfred shows a detailed progression of his own instruments through time. I appreciate his openness. There is no great mystique or secret handshakes as he encourages all of us to grow beyond copying other makers and develop our own models based on form, function, and the needs of fine players.
Woll’s book was originally written in German; I read the English version. There is a part of me that wishes I could read it in the original language. Kudos to the translation team; they have done a fine job communicating the essence across languages in a manner that is captivating and informative and draws the reader in. That’s no simple task.
This book review by James Condino (renowned luthier) was published in American Lutherie, Number 147/Winter 2022 (The Journal of the Guild of American Luthiers)