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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Silvertone Mandolin Restoration

This is a restoration project that started about two years ago when my uncle Cecil told me he had a very old mandolin tucked away somewhere in his house.  His father in-law owned it and apparently played it very well, but passed away sometime in the 1990's.  Cecil's wife tucked his old mandolin away somewhere but passed away herself in 2005 and nobody knew exactly where it was.  He always told me that whenever he found that mandolin, he would give it to me because I play practically anything with strings and already owned two mandolins.  The two years passed by and I assumed he had forgotten about the instrument entirely, until he surprised me last week...

Tucked away in a back-bedroom closet and wrapped in an old bed sheet, he found this:
The picture above was taken less than an hour after he brought the mandolin over and gave it to me.  It was made by Silvertone and I cannot figure out a way to date it since it lacks a serial number, but from my research, it is from somewhere between the 1920's and 1950's.  The top is solid pine, the back, and sides are solid mahogany, and the neck is solid maple (painted) with a rosewood fret board.  This entire instrument was made by hand and the curves were steamed in a jig with raw cuts of wood.  You can tell by the way the frets are laid in the neck, the inconsistency of the binding, and the file marks in the hand-cut f-holes.  This is back when even the lower end mandolins and guitars were made by hand instead of on a machine in a factory.

All of the nitrocellulose (clear coat) is checked and cracked, there were a few small splits in the wood, but every joint and bit of binding is tight and true.  After spending decades in a hot closet, the entire mandolin was very dry, so before I did anything, I spent a few days humidifying it.  The color of the wood did change in some places on the top to a white, but this is all a part of the process and I decided to just leave it alone for the sake of character.  The frets in the above picture look awful and oxidized.  Every fret near the nut had flat spots from years of playing wear and none of them were level with each other.

After humidifying for two days, I started taking things apart.
(Sorry if some pictures are dark)
This is every piece of hardware and screw I removed.

You can see what I was talking about with the color change of the wood after humidifying.  It was a necessary evil because after a few days of moisture, the solid pine top went from brittle and cracking to strong and slightly pliable.  

The naked headstock with hand-rounded profiles.

D'addario mandolin strings are all I have ever used and until this same day, their EXP line was the only string set I would use on my Gibson Songwriter.  I am trying out Martin Silk and Steel strings on my Gibson at the moment and I will review them in a later blog.

The nut is made of actual bone, as they should be but often are not.  I had to remove it and modify the the grooves to get everything set up properly, but there really is not a good way to document that.  At this point I have already leveled and polished the frets to get everything lined up and get rid of the flat spots worn on 1-3.  My trick for stringing these is to position the string you are changing and then clamp it to the neck at the seventh fret with a capo to keep it from moving around on you.  I did have to remove the adjustments from the wooden bridge completely to get the string action low enough, and also shim the neck forward on the body, but there was not much to show as far as pictures are concerned, so I did not take any.  

Here is a close up of the bone nut I had to do some carving on.  Notice the shine on the first fret.  You can still see a tiny bit of a flat spot, but it does not buzz or catch the string.

Another shot showing the leveled and polished frets.  I conditioned the fret board with oil soap and will use bore oil on it from now forward to keep it moisturized.

A shot from the upper-register frets to the nut.  The string spacing is now spot on and the action is very low.  

I gave the headstock a good cleaning with oil soap and then gave it a good, long hand rubbing.  The painted logo came back nicely.  I think doing a full-cosmetic restoration on this would destroy it's character, so I wanted to do it the justice of being a great playing instrument, leaving the years of wear and scars intact.  I recently did a full cosmetic restoration on a mandolin, but it was not vintage, so doing such a thing did not ruin it.

I cleaned and lubricated the tuners, but left the patina on the steel body and brass gears.  The knobs themselves look like they spent their entire life in a bar full of cigarette smoke, so bleaching them never came to mind.  People pay big money to have new instrument plastics "relic-ed" but this is the real thing.

This is the back and I did not do a thing to it other than clean it.  The belt buckle scars are memories from anyone who owned it or played it over the years.  I can tell it was well-used and admired by someone or a few people just judging by the beauty marks, so I left it alone.

A finished look from the bottom-up.  I did do some very light sanding on the top to level out the rough bits of nitrocellulose so it would not chip when I applied the oil to it.  Again, the white parts are not from sanding, but simply what happened to the neglected finish after being exposed to a humid environment for a few days.

The end result is a solid, but beaten up and well-used mandolin that has character and a long history of unknown stories behind it.  I can honestly say that this mandolin plays much more smoothly than the other two I have owned and sounds incredible.  There is not a dead note/fret in any position and the only money invested in it was a set of new strings, the rest of my investment was dedication and time.  One day I will post up an audio clip of how this old Silvertone sounds.  It is a great instrument and I am happy to see it live on once again in my own hands.

Grace and Peace,

Facebook:  http://www.facebook.com/drew.silvers
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Email:  drewcoustic@gmail.com



  1. I have one of these it belonged to my dad I was wonder what they are worth

    1. A few hundred in play-able condition. I saw one go for $200 that was complete but needed a setup. Which is shocking to me because they are solid wood and hand-made. Once you get everything set up they play very, very nicely. Thanks for reading!