Update 2016: I've owned this instrument since 2009 and over the last couple years I've ironed-out various issues with it and made it into a "real player." I was schooled when I originally posted about it as far as "what it is" and here's a primer on them. I've updated the post, photos, and description -- and will try to record a soundclip in the soon-time.
This instrument was made by John Bencic in Cleveland, Ohio and it probably dates to around 1920-1930. Since originally posting, I've worked on a number of Bencic builds and other tamburitza-family instruments, and have become much more familiar with the playing-style (very similar to Turkish saz and Greek 3-course bouzouki) and tunings.
This one originally had the uneven fret spacing (like a mountain dulcimer) that was the hallmark of the older, "Farkas" system of playing tamburitza-family instruments. I'd pulled the frets and refretted it a while back to "normal" spacing, but recently I planed the fretboard to remove warp and refretted it again to get it "perfect." I then cut a new nut, fit a parts-bin bridge, and strung it up in a traditional GG-DD tuning (the other main tuning being AA-DD) at the same pitch as a mandolin's lower two courses.
With all of the work done, this instrument gives a nice, sustained, jangly tone that sits well in a mix. When played higher-up the neck it gets a distinctly bowlback mandolin sound, too. The traditional style of playing is what suits it best -- droning and zipping around in the background of a tune and supporting both the backing-chords and the melody. Think of the rhythm bouzouki work on old Planxty albums and you'll get the idea.
The top is solid spruce and it's "domed" over the bracing (which I reglued at one point). The back is one piece and cut from some sort of hardwood. It's hard to tell with the dark finish.
Engraved, recessed tuners are par for the course with these instruments. This particular instrument happens to be quite high-grade in terms of appointments, so the tuner plate is fancy as well.
Note how I've slotted the nut for both 2x2 and 1x4. I've had this strung both ways but always return to the traditional 2x2 in the end.
I added side-dots as well. The board is ebony and the new frets are medium stock. This has a 24" scale and the strings are gauged 18/18 and 11/11 for GG-DD tuning.
Yes, the pearl inlay is intense and gorgeous!
Even now the colors are eye-catching, but when this was made all the trim must have been a bright, popping, feast for the eyes with highly-saturated greens, yellows, and oranges.
I removed a mandolin-style tailpiece some time ago and restring it with simple through-holes. This let the decorative touches bee seen and also simplified the whole mounting.
Nice, huh? The flattened back allows it to sit in the lap a little more comfortably than your average round-back Greek bouzouki or similar.
The neck is maple with a deep U-shape. This is necessary as the thin nut width would otherwise cramp my fingers like mad if the neck were super thin, too.