September 24, 2014 Mitchell Derrey

Being a designer means seeing
as a designer, 24 hours a day. The mindset is always on.

So when I chose to dive
headfirst into a long standing dream to build a mandolin – that goal came with
a lot of critical expectations:

  • It has to be unique – a reflection of my design aesthetics
  • It is a sculpture, a story of possibilities with a unique voice of its own.

That made the onset at times
insurmountable, if not overwhelming.

The level of instrument I
envisioned was not an off-the-shelf factory model, but a custom, professional
quality that maybe one day would gain lutherie and music recognition.

Building an instrument from
wood is not comparable to graphic design or illustration, although it took
every practiced skill I had ever developed.

In illustration and painting,
you can physically demonstrate your passion into every stroke – mashing and
willfully manipulating the surface and medium. Wood is an entirely different

You ask.

You move with patience and

Wood talks. The process is

If you hurry, you pay the price
over and over and over until you begin to listen.

One type of mandolin I build is
the “F” style, prevalent in Bluegrass and Folk music. It’s typified by a
gracefully rounded body scroll and elegant, asymmetrical curved body lines,
creating balance and harmony in space and voice.

To build this type of mandolin,
you hand carve the top and bottom to create an arched profile – like a violin
or cello. You must chisel and scrape the outside, then mirror a modified
version of that profile on the inside, creating a surface that will ultimately
breathe life into the wood, vibrating like a speaker. Too thick and you will
have a dead and lifeless instrument. Too thin, it can crack and split or cave-in
under the pressure of the strings.

I have learned both of these
rules. 20-30 hours of carving, scraping GONE. Start again, and again, and again
until you listen.

The sides are bent. You must
steam the wood using a special searing hot iron which you wrap the wood around.
You are boiling the water in the wood to relax the fibers.

Again – you ask the wood to

If you try to tell it what you
want, you are reminded who’s in control with tearing and splitting. That
beautiful piece of curly maple is now firewood.

I have lots of pretty fire

Unlike the world of digital design
with its ease of reversing steps, crafting a musical instrument is the ultimate
in commitment of each slice and decisive move.

This tight-rope walk exists
from the very start until the end, where it can all be lost because you find
you have miscalculated the fit of parts, or that mirror finish that took hours,
is damaged by a wayward dent as you bump into your work bench.

Again – all of these I have
done, and will most likely do again.

Each mandolin is a new design
problem in aesthetics of style as well as the refinement of its voice and tone.
Each is a reminder to ask the wood to allow me to unlock its possibilities.

There is a transition point as
a designer and illustrator where your ability to work with the tools no longer
limits your vision of solution. The medium, whether digital or traditional,
simply becomes an extension and increases the possibilities to express ideas
and stories. My goal is to one day make that transition in my instrument building.

The wood’s personality will
always flavor the conversation, but hopefully that relationship will move from one
of asking to one of dancing.