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. Jo
e 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 figu
red 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 kerf
ed 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.


  1. I love it that in a population so small it would only take one page in the phonebook, you have Eberle, you, Sharon, and Joe - AND a "local mandolin genius" too.

    Indian Valley is full of music. I love that!

  2. Hi Reya:

    Thanks-- Indian Valley is a pretty cool place!

  3. I have always found the whole business of musical instrument making as fascinating as music making itself, but you have raised them both a notch or two. Fine post, VERY fine!

  4. Dave:

    As a musician, I've also always been fascinated by instrument making, & especially the luthier craft-- which to me is an art form in itself. Thanks so much for your kind words.

  5. Great stuff John, another fascinating insight into Indian Valley life.i love 'specialists ' and joe Stippich ( Totally great name) is surely oine of those-as are you John.I loved the making of this post,the mandolin, the tools and terms, the dedication and the craft.The actul tune itself reminded me of a slowed-down version of an Irish tune called 'The Galway races performed here by the legendary Luke Kelly RIP of The Dubliners. '

  6. Hi TFE:

    Thanks! Joe is a great guy & a great craftsman. I love the tune "Galway Races," & you're right-- it's killer fast. As for "Bolt the Door"-- I was going as fast as my poor fingers could on those tiny mandolin frets! So much spatial difference between the mando & the gee-tar.

  7. Out here in Lotus Land, we think of the islands as havens for artists. It's very cool that there are inland islands of creativity, too. ;>)

  8. I admire anyone who can take a chunk of wood and turn it into such a beautiful thing. I didn't realize that bone was also used. Interesting.

    I loved the sound of the finished mandolin - clear and rich!

    It must be nice to be surrounded by artistry and fascinating people.


  9. Fascinating, this intricate trade. I thoroughly enjoyed this post!!! Thanks to you and Joe, as well.

  10. Hi Sandra, Kat & Willow:

    Sandra: While urban life can really spark creativity, I think there's something in these open spaces, too, whether it's rangeland or the sea!

    Kat: Ivory was traditionally used for this. I don't know how the acoustic properties would differ, but whatever Joe's doing, it sounds good, as you said!

    Willow: Thanks-- it is indeed an intricate trade & one that I find fascinating. Glad you enjoyed this.

  11. What a wonderful post. This guy is top notch. I love the use of bone in the mandolin making. and the collection of wood, which gives all that much more story to each piece. Thanks John for bringing this one.

  12. Fascinating. This is a post full of heart, and depth, and cow bones. I loved it.

  13. Thanks a lot Randy & Jacqueline! I was also very excited to post this one.

  14. What a beautiful instrument that is. such a fine thing to look at. I've always had a special admiration for woodworkers and looked forward to reading this post. A very nice tribute to this fine craftsman- and sweet music too. thanks!

  15. Hi René:

    Glad you liked it, & very glad you stopped by!

  16. Beautiful work he does. You might be interested to take a look at my poem "Right Angles". It's about woodworking. I like the quote about keeping tools sharp.

  17. Hi Karen:

    Thanks for directing me to the right angles poem, which I enjoyed a lot. As I mentioned in the post, my father also was a woodworker, & I have a very high regard for that craft. Glad you enjoyed this.

  18. Hey John, I mentioned I am learning to play the Banjo (which I am loving.) I also got a base electric guitar, which is a blast as well. I am, of course, obsessing now and think I want a semi-hollow electric. I am just learning some chords on my daughers acoustic guitar. Any thoughts r.e. the semi-hollow?

  19. Hi Randy:

    As far as electric guitars go, I really do favor the hollowbodies & semi-hollowbodies. I don't own one of the latter; I do have an Ibanez full hollowbody & have used it a lot. It was the guitar I used in both Five & Dime Jazz & the Bijou Orchestrette (our silent film score incarnation) as well as the last year of the Alice in Wonder Band. As you may know, true hollwbodies are very prone to feedback (I can attest that this is true!) & the semi-hollowbodies are designed to counteract that. If I had it all to do over again, I might go for a semi-hollowbody, but I'm not playing electric guitar type music at this point. The semi-hollowbody should be versatile for you, as it can play a lot of different types of music & sound good. Glad to hear about your bass ventures-- I recall you'd mentioned that & the banjo as well. I guess the only question would be about spreading yourself too thin. I know I'm not a good one to ask that! but I find to a great extent the skill on one instrument contributes to the skill on another, but I've been playing for awhile. It's hard to say if that's as true when you're starting out, but I wouldn't necessarily let that stop me if I were you. Both Epiphone & Ibanez make semi-hollowbodies that are solid guitars for the price.

  20. Thanks John. I do not have comment feed. I need to figure out how to do that. I appreciate your comments about the guitars. I am looking in the price range of the ones you mentioned. As far as spreading myself too thin... I am really just playing with new toys. I never thought I'd mess with guitars or banjos or a base. I discovered, by accident, that I really enjoying it: tho have no plans to do anything with it. Right now I pick up the banjo most, and the base when I feel like it.

    Thanks again, I do appreciate it.

  21. Hey John, got a music question for you. Do you have a thought on whether a beginning guitar player should learn to read Tab or regular sheet music. Also, I have noticed that if I tune my strings open with an electronic tuner, say the sixth string tuned to e. When I check that string electronically on the third fret ,G, it isn't quite in tune. Is this just because I have a cheep guitar, or am I doing something wrong?


  22. Hi Randy:

    Good questions; in teaching, I tend to focus a bit more on tab; there are advantages & disadvantages to both. Music notation tends to give a better picture of the timing (tho some tab systems are quite good at this--the system used in the software TablEdit is quite precise in terms of timing for instance), while tab is a bit easier; also, since you can play the same note in more than one position on a guitar (or other fretted instrument), tab is more precise in that way.

    As far as the tuning question goes: how far off is the G? I'm guessing it's sharp, right. One thing that varies on guitars is the so-called "intonation," & typically as you go higher up the neck, the intonation (especially on less expensive guitars) can tend to go off a bit, & it almost always goes sharp. Having said that, there are other things that can cause this that have to do with ways you may be fretting the note. Beginning guitar players (especially ones with strong hands) have a tendency to "bend" notes without meaning to-- i.e., the string is pulled inward as they fret it. This will make the note go sharp. Also, (tho this is less likely), if you're not fretting the string just behind the fret, it can sound a bit flat.

    Let me know if this helps; I'll be gone all day today, but will be back tomorrow.

  23. Hi again, Randy: One other thing--when you tune using an electronic tuner it's much better to pluck the strings with your thumb or a finger rather than a pick. The pick produces more overtones & this can confuse the poor electronic tuner!

  24. Thanks John, That is awesome info. I have been tuning with a pick. I will have to play around a bit with the tuning thing and see what I might be doing. Those are great sugestions.


  25. Hey John. got a question re upgrading my banjo. What is the deal with the tone ring? Piked up a banjo that weighed a ton and became aware of this thing. I have been to a bluegrass jam a couple times (observing). Seems like they all have the heavy banjo's. Is that really necessary. Also, any sugestioins about descent banjo brands, models, I can start looking for used? Hope you are well this fall.

  26. Hi Randy:

    Glad to hear you're thinking about maybe joining in some jam sessions. I believe what you mean isn't the tone ring, which is the metal hoop that all banjos have around the "drum," but rather a resonator, which is the large circular item that you see on the back of all banjos designed for bluegrass, as well as most plectrum & tenor banjos. It's true that there are different types of tone rings, but they don't vary significantly in size.

    Not all banjos have a resonator; a lot of older banjos didn't, which is why people who want to play old-time music, especially frailing or clawhammer, tend to have "open-back" banjos (like the one I'm holding in the pic) rather than banjos with a resonator. Bluegrass banjoists tend to almost always play a banjo that has a resonator, simply because they want the extra volume. If you're really interested in bluegrass, you might think about buying a banjo with a resonator.

    I don't know as much about resonator 5-strings as open-back 5-strings. I know you can get a pretty good open-back for $325 from Elderly Instruments--it's the Saga SS-10. I know they're solid instruments because I own one. For lower end resonators: I see Elderly sells both Fender & Rover brand banjos, & Elderly really doesn't sell instruments that just aren't worth anything, so I'd assume they might be ok. Since you live in an area with music stores, I'd check around. The Deering Good-time special (which comes either with or without a resonator) has a very good reputation. It's more than Fender or Rover, but still very inexpensive in banjo terms. I don't like the way they look because they have guitar tuners (tuners that go out to the side) not traditional banjo tuners (that go out to the back), but that's mostly a finicky aesthetic thing on my part.

    Good luck. If you have any other questions you're always welcome to email me direct at


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