2/15/2013

c.1905 Ditson "Empire" Bowlback Mandolin


Update: Description updated.

While bearing a beautifully-engraved "Ditson Empire" coverplate on the back of the headstock, it's most close-looking to the Mayflower brand bowlbacks from the same time. I used to think that these were Vega (Boston) builds, but lately I've been thinking that these may have been Larson Brothers builds instead. The issue is compounded by both makers using a very, very similar set of dimensions, materials, and finish as well as both using "volutes" on the back of the neck/headstock area and bar-fret style ebony fretboards. The main difference, however, is that vetted Larson bowlbacks I've played tended to have a heavier feel to them, especially in the neck area, headstock sculpt and bracing, while the Vegas were more feather-light.

Work on this fella included reprofiling the fretboard extension, regluing the above-soundhole brace and installing some "strapping" between the neck block and that brace for more stability, a seam reglue to the treble-side top, fret level/dress, cleaning, tuner lube, and setup. It plays nicely with 1/16" action at the 12th fret and is all-original except for the ebony bridge which happens to be a bridge from my parts-bin that belonged to a c.1915 Vega bowlback.


Materials are nicely high-end -- a solid spruce top of close-grained wood, rosewood binding and wood purfling and rosette, mahogany neck with ebony fretboard and bridge, and a rosewood (Brazilian, of course) bowl.


Original bone nut, nice quality tuners. The headstock veneer has a couple tiny hairline cracks in it but that's just aesthetic (and hard to see, anyhow).


Pearl dots and bar frets that are (typically) low and fast.


I like that nice simple rosette. There's pickwear to the treble side of the soundhole and finish crackle/slight alligatoring throughout but otherwise the instrument is in pretty good shape.


This ebony bridge would have originally had a bone saddle after the string notches, but I like it this way just fine and the plain ebony imparts a nice balanced tone with better bass.


Thankfully, the Waverly "cloud" tailpiece cover is still there.



Beautifully-joined bowl is all good to go.





Isn't that tuner coverplate excellent? Beautiful engraving. The tuner buttons are ivoroid-style, too, and note that "volute" at the bottom of the headstock.


The black-finished neck is made from mahogany.




Yup, she's a beaut!

As far as tone goes: focused, balanced, but decidedly warmer and fuller than most American (or otherwise) bowlbacks.

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