The Folkmusician Mandolin Setup
First we check the adjustability of the bridge. More often than not, we need to modify the bridge to be able to lower it enough to get low action. Additionally, we want a little extra adjustment range should the player prefer it lower than average, or to allow for changes in the mandolin that may occur over time.
When we say modify the bridge, this means removing wood. This will be taken off the foot. While there are some cases where the saddle portion may be too tall, most of the time we do not want to thin the saddle and weaken it. To make matters worse, many mandolins come from the factory with thin saddles to begin with. We sure do not want to worsen the problem.
Once we have the necessary adjustment range, we want to check the posts. We find that a lot of mandolins do not have the posts threaded in far enough. Once under full tension, the posts can tear out of the foot. This will be checked and fixed as needed.
The bridge is one of the most critical parts to a mandolin's tone. String vibrations are transferred from the strings, through the bridge and to the top. If the bridge foot is not fit to the top correctly, some of the vibrations from the strings never make it to the top. We match the foot to the top for good solid contact.
From the factory, mandolins may not have the strings spaced evenly, or even close. We correct any string spacing issues.
Strings grooves need to be sized to the individual strings. Additionally, the grooves should be ramped to give a clean breaking point where the string leaves the bridge saddle. We file these to the correct diameter with special files, while making sure the ramp angle is correct.
The bridge is also the most important factor regarding a mandolins intonation, but this comes later in the setup...
This is the big one. The bridge work takes quite a bit of time, but nowhere near the amount of a fret job. Where do we start? How about straightening the fret ends?
When fret ends are cut at the factory, they have a tendency to bend. A good portion of the mandolins we sell come from the factory with bent fret ends. Since this is at the outer edge of the fingerboard, it is not so much a playability issue as a cosmetic one, though sometimes they are bad enough to cause intonation issues. Our first step is to go through and straighten the fret ends. Even if they are not causing a playability problem, bent frets look funky. :)
Most of the mandolins we sell will have frets that are loose to some degree. This can range from a few loose fret ends to every fret having obvious movement. Most are somewhere in between.
Since you can't accurately level loose frets, these must be seated. The other aspect of this is tone. The bridge transfers the majority of string vibrations to the mandolin. The other factor will be the nut or frets (if fretted). The better your frets are seated, the more vibrations go to the mandolin. Even if the frets are not obviously loose and causing playability issues, a good fret seating will improve the tone of your mandolin.
This is where things can get a bit complicated. Loose frets have a tendency to popup out of the fingerboard creating uneven frets. If the frets were to be seated like this, a whole lot of fret would have to be filed off to get them level. We do not want to remove any more fret material than necessary. Sometimes these can be hammered or pressed back into place and held long enough to get them seated. Other times, clamps are needed. The point here is to get the frets as level as possible before locking them into place.
Once we have a good solid (and as level as possible) base to work with, the frets are planed to make sure they are completely level. Since we leveled them first, we are not taking off immense amounts of fret material to do this.
With all the frets level, attention is turned to crowning (rounding the tops). Filing the frets ends (to remove sharp edges) and polishing them up. This is no small task based on the number of frets, each requiring individual attention.
Lastly, we will oil the fingerboard. Mandolins almost always need this as they come from the factory.
The hard work pays off with level frets that will allow us to adjust the action without having to compensate for uneven frets. The mandolin will also be transferring more string vibrations due to the fret seating. The fret ends will be smoother for improved playability. And lastly, it looks better than a factory fretboard.
At this point we will check the tuners and lube them if needed. This is the best stage to lube the tuners. As we start tuning, detuning, etc., the lubrication will be worked through the gears. If the tuner buttons are held on with screws, these are checked. The top bushings are checked (these like to work themselves out of the post holes). Aside from a quick inspection of the gears, we don't really need to check the functionality at this point. We will know soon enough when the mandolin gets brought up to pitch in the next stages.This next set of adjustments all go hand in hand
Bridge height and position (for intonation), nut height and neck relief (truss rod adjustment) go hand in hand.
This is another one of those tricky stages. Adjusting one aspect may requires changes in the other areas.
String spacing is checked and adjusted as needed. The good news here is that the nuts are almost always too high and we have the ability to move the string grooves as needed.
Once we have the strings spaced evenly, it is time to lower the strings. To simplify this, we basically want the string height at the nut as low as possible without buzzing on the first fret. It is not uncommon for factory mandolins to have a string height at the nut 2-3 times what it should be. OUCH! Another common problem with factory mandolins is a first fret that is too high, requiring the nut to be too high. Since we already addressed this with our fret job, this will not be an issue with our mandolins.
Like the bridge, the nut should have string grooves that match the individual strings and ramp correctly. The same files used on the bridge get put to work on the nut. String grooves that fit well give better tone, more stable tuning (the string does not bind in the slot), and longer string life.
Once the string height is all set and the grooves are correct, the excess material is taken off the nut. Deep string grooves can cause problems with binding/buzzing, and additionally, just look bad.
Playability at the nut is often overlooked with the focus on bridge height. For most players, the nut height is actually the more critical factor in attaining a great playing action. We make sure it is done correctly.
While a neck can be ran perfectly flat, the best playing instruments will have a very slight upward bow. This allows for more clearance in the center where strings tend to travel further when vibrating. We adjust this correctly.String height at the bridge
Once our fretwork is complete, the bridge height can be set based on a player's picking style rather that buzzing due to uneven frets. We find that most players will like the action set at 4/64th at the 12th fret under the G string (A little lower on the E). When set at 4/64ths a player can get reasonably aggressive without buzzing. If a player is a light picker, the action can go lower. Ultimately, the action can be determined by you, the player, not instrument limitations.Intonation
Setting the intonation consists of placing the bridge at the correct distance from the nut so the mandolin plays in tune all the way up and down the fingerboard. If this adjustment isn't correct, a mandolin that is tuned correctly with the strings open may be sharp or flat when it is fretted. There are a few things at work here. First is the distance between the nut and the bridge. Like most things, what seems simple enough quickly gets complicated. Each pair of strings requires a different "ideal" length. This is the reason why mandolin bridges are compensated (staggered on the top). Still, this alone is not always enough and the bridge may be slightly angled one way or the other to get the best compromise across all the strings. Our goal is to get the intonation as close as possible across all the strings in both the open and fretted positions. Once we are done, the mandolin will play in tune.Bringing it all together
We are in the testing stage here... Now comes some playing and tweaking. Once the instrument passes the playing test, everything is checked over one last time. The mandolin is then detuned (it is never a good idea to ship a fully tuned mandolin) and cleaned up.Not included in our mandolin setup (but available)
Now that we have said what we do, let's point out one step we do not include. We do not change the strings. In fact, the strings never even come off the mandolin. The strings are loosened and pulled out of the way for the fret and bridge work. Since many players have a favorite string set or don't mind changing the strings themselves, we can keep the costs down by utilizing the factory strings. If you would prefer that we install a new set of strings, we will be happy to restring the mandolin with any strings you choose for $10 plus the cost of strings.
I have left out many of the details and I am sure I have forgotten a few things here. We hope this helps explain the reason why Folkmusician mandolins play and sound significantly better than those purchased elsewhere. We look forward to getting you a mandolin that does not compromise on playability no matter what your budget.