Thursday, May 28, 2009
Joe Stippich-Mandolin Maker
Let me introduce you to fellow Indian Valley resident Joe Stippich. Joe & his wife Sharon live on a ranch at the far southern end of Indian Valley—“across town” from us so to speak, tho most of the town consists of pastureland & rangeland. Indian Valley doesn’t have a very big population (it takes up the equivalent of one page in the phone book), but that population is dispersed over a lot of land.
Anyway: we know the Stippichs as fellow musicians & as students. Joe takes upright bass lessons with Eberle; Sharon takes guitar lessons with me, & she also plays fiddle & mandolin, & plays in a couple of local bands—the Jammers & Council Mountain Bluegrass. Joe also has played with the Jammers. Their daughters, Jenny & Missy are both very accomplished fiddle players; Jenny plays with a wonderful Twin Falls-based bluegrass band called Strings Attached.
Given that music is so much a part of the Stippich’s life, perhaps it’s not surprising that Joe would turn to instrument making; after all, he’s an accomplished woodworker whose workshop is located right above a music room filled with fiddles & guitars & mandolins & an upright bass & a cello. Yet, when I asked him about the decision to make mandolins last week during a thoroughly enjoyable but very freeform 90-minute interview, he couldn’t say exactly why he’d turned his hand in this direction. Why mandolins, & not fiddles or guitars, for instance?
“Haven’t yet figured out why I build mandolins instead of guitars—I think guitars would be easier because they’re bigger.” Joe told me, & then he discussed his old friend, local mandolin whiz, Hank Daniels who passed away a few years back. “Hank influenced me, & he did give me some wood. But he was the person who really gave my wife & my kids the support that they needed to keep going without giving up on music. He was a mandolin player, & he was good to me, absolutely, positively good to me, & my wife & my kids, so he influenced me, I guess.” Joe went on to point out that “If I didn’t have friends I wouldn’t have anything to make anything out of,” mentioning not only the wood Mr Daniels gave him, but also showing off some sycamore, black walnut, butternut, beautifully figured maple, & myrtle wood all of which he’ll use to make mandolin backs. He even dumped out a rather large potato sack full of cow bones, which are also earmarked for his mandolins.
Cow bone? Well, Joe admits he hasn’t used cow bone yet—in fact, his bridge inlays to date have been made either with moose bone or elk bone (my mandolin has an elk bone inlaid bridge). Joe told me, “the harder the bone the better,” because he believes the harder bone will be a better transmitter down to the soundboard. Joe also mentioned that he believes the type of adjustable bridges often found on mandolins & other archtop instruments impede the sound transmission—being neither a luthier nor a physicist myself, I’d have to say there is a lot of logic in Joe’s theory on this. In any case, Joe hasn’t used adjustable bridges & it doesn’t sound like he’s about to start any time soon.
During my talk with Joe I kept returning to the thought that here was a man who brought a lot of thought & common sense to bear in his fledgling mandolin luthiery. He’s also a keen listener & a keen student. Joe said, “I listen to people & talk to people all the time. I try to learn everything I can from everybody. I’ve talked to every fiddle maker I could find & every mandolin player I could find.” His goal is simple, but ambitious—to make good sounding & good playing instruments.
I can tell you Joe has succeeded admirably in this. I’ve been lucky enough to test-drive every one of the 10 mandolins he’s made so far, & I’ve enjoyed every one; Eberle has also played all or at least most of them, & she agrees. Eberle puts it very straightforwardly—“I love the bright but mellow tone, & they just feel good under your fingers; & they’re beautiful.” A while back, Joe entrusted me with what I believe was Stippich #8, an A-model (or “teardrop”) mandolin with a round sound hole (as opposed to f-holes). Joe was hoping I could interest some players in the McCall area in this instrument, & I was sure I could. On the other hand, every time I played it, I thought, “There’s no way I’ll ever get a mandolin this good for the amount of money Joe is charging” (the latter info won’t be made public here—in Joe’s interest, because I believe he undercharges), but I’d tell myself I had enough to do with the instruments I already owned. Of course, at a certain point, my will buckled & the rest is, so to speak, history.
Joe’s mandolins are all made with spruce soundboards & hardwood backs. His supply of spruce comes from the McCall, ID area, from about 8,000 feet in elevation. The soundboard on mine is Englemann spruce, & it has a lovely clear tone. The back on mine is maple that Joe came across in one of those lucky strikes for the inveterate wood salvager—he was given some felled maple logs that had been in a service station parking lot for some time. He was originally going to use the wood for a workbench, but decided it was “too pretty” for that; Joe said, “It’s about the prettiest wood I’ve ever seen,” & despite growing up with a cabinetmaker father who also had stashes of beautiful old hardwood, I’d have to agree. Joe also mentioned that he likes to use older wood whenever he can—he’s currently working with some Philippine mahogany salvaged from an 80 year old house; “I think age has a lot to do with the acoustics,” said Joe.
Some other specs: Joe only uses hide glue, & uses ironwood for the bridge. He’s used ironwood for the fretboards, but is currently working with an apple wood fretboard (his first attempt at a radiused, or slightly curved fretboard) & plans on experimenting with mesquite in the future. All of his instruments have binding—he went in to some detail about who he uses a Dremel tool to rout the sides to accept the binding); his wife Sharon helps with the binding process —& he also equips his instruments with Grover tuners (for those who don’t know—these are nice). His mandolins had come equipped with Martin truss rods for stabilizing the neck, but he’s currently experimenting with carbon fiber rods, which are much lighter but extremely strong—it passed the Hayes’ bending test, not that this proves as much as it would have some years ago. Joe also has had a personalized tailpiece made with both the name Stippich & the ranch brand; he’s put these on the last few he’s made, including the one I bought!
Joe’s workshop (despite his protests to the contrary) was shipshape & didn’t sport a whole lot of superfluous items: he has a good-sized Jet band saw, a Delta scroll saw (which he uses to cut the f-holes), a bench-top drill press, a belt sander, a grinder & a bending tool for shaping the sides (the table saw, a radial arm saw & a planer are located in the garage). There are some specialty tools, such as fret files, & there are a number of planes—Joe has a true woodworker’s love of the plane, & he showed me the two he uses for carving the tops & backs, a block plane & a convex-soled finger plane. The latter is really small, but Joe really swore by it. Needless to say, the carving involved is fine & meticulous: the tops are graduated from .0091 thick at the edge to .0170 in the middle. Joe says it takes him about two days to build a top.
There’s a good supply of vises & clamps—& clothespins to hold the kerfed strips inside the soundbox when they’re glued!—& jigs for determining carving depth & for cutting the kerfs. Joe said, “The better everything fits down the road, it’s going to fit better, sound better.” This is fit & finish, & it’s what most good woodworkers, especially ones who’ve been doing it for so long, know. Because tho Joe’s only been making mandolins for a few years, he estimates that he’s been woodworking for about 40 years, noting, “When I got married I started remodeling that old house I bought. That was quite a thing. I started with a handsaw & a hammer & a screwdriver I think.”
Fit & finish. The finish on Joe’s mandolin is a classic: “I use shellac for a finish, period. All the old people recommend it, & the more I read now, we’re gradually going back to shellac for a finish because it’s better for the acoustics. Shellac is pretty easy to use, & it’s pretty forgiving. I try not to put it on too thick—everything goes on in such thin layers—almost microscopic.” Joe has been experimenting with mixing in small amounts of seed lac, the raw form of shellac, to give a slightly darker cast. Those who aren’t familiar with the rather witchy material called shellac (completely organic—it comes from insects!) can find more info here.
Joe is the real deal as a woodworker—tho I was never much more than a duffer myself, my Dad also was a talented woodworker, & I recognize the same traits—the eye for detail, the kind of mind that can tackle material problems & find creative solutions, the eye for grains & surfaces. & of course, like any good woodworker, Joe stresses one point in particular: “I know one thing—you gotta keep your tools sharp.”
Finally, I wanted you to hear what one of Joe’s creations sounds like, & so I created the following slideshow with background music by my Stippich mandolin as played by me. I must caution you that, as a mandolin player, I’m a pretty good guitarist, so blame me, not the instrument, if anything sounds amiss! The audio is yours truly playing an old British Isles jig called “Bolt the Door” (AKA “Jack’s Health”)—I picked a faster number simply because my mandolin tremolo is a bit sketchy & you don’t need to tremolo on fast tunes! The slideshow itself has more photos of Joe & his workshop & his mandolins (especially the one I’m playing) for your enjoyment.