1910s Vracas Bouzouki

A customer sent this in to me for repair and boy it sure was an interesting journey! He was under the impression that it was originally a mandocello. Personally... I don't think so. It has a 1 1/8" nut width (quite narrow to fit heavy gauges), a slender neck, 17th fret neck joint (most bowlback 'cellos are 12 or 10 fret joints to allow for a larger body), and a soundbox hardly larger than a bowlback mandola's. Not to mention... after testing out a pair of low C strings I decided this would simply not have a good response at that low a pitch... so I strung it Celtic bouzouki-style GDAE with very light gauges (32w-9) and even so the neck adds just a touch of relief tuned to pitch. This makes it unsuitable to the gauges required on a proper mandocello.

Aha... and a quick browsing turns up an Epiphone-made (well, pre-Epi) bouzouki from around the same time with a nice writeup at the Nat'l Music Museum. These two are very close in design style. Aha #2.. a bit more browsing turns up this page with plenty of period examples of 8-tuner instruments strung as 6-string (trichordo) bouzoukis... and as 8-stringers. Interesting.

The label in the soundhole declares ours shown here made in the Vracas workshop in New York which dates it somewhere between 1900 and 1920, more than likely. That's what all the hardware and general build style dates it to as well.

The top is solid spruce with standard bowlback-style bracing while the bowl is Brazilian rosewood and the neck is mahogany. The fretboard looks like some sort of cigar boxy type of wood. It's almost rosewood but not quite.

Work on this was a little nutty: the neck was built like a traditional Italian bowlback mandolin in that the neck was doweled (squared dowel) into a neck block rather than either dovetailed into it or made as a one-piece block/neck (which is the strongest joint). The dowel ending on the neck was actually split, slightly loose, and damaged which meant that a traditional reset (steam out the dowel and reglue it at a different angle) for this type was not possible. My solution was to cut the bad bit off, work out a bolted/doweled hybrid joint, and pray that I could get the tangled mess back together. It worked!

After that I reglued the fretboard extension at a better angle, gave it a fret level/dress, glued up some bad seams on the bowl and on the top edges of the soundboard, popped the broken bits of the elaborate rosette back in place, cleaned it up, and gave it a good setup with a new bone bridge (compensated) and nut. It plays spot-on with 1/16" action at the 12th fret though there's a tiny hair of relief (1/64") in the neck tuned to pitch.

The headstock has a rosewood veneer. Unfortunately the original rosewood nut was pretty mucked-up so I cut a new bone one. I also replaced one of the tuner shafts with a vintage part as one of them was past saving (stripped out).

The slim, fairly fast neck totes a 24 3/4" scale length. It's also got pearl dots and vintage-style narrow/shallow fretwire.

The rosette is gorgeous and while the owner was hoping to get it entirely patched up I decided I wasn't up to the task of doing a proper job on it. I'll leave that to someone who can do the work faster and more accurately. I simply reglued the bits that came with the instrument.

It sure is a pretty instrument! It's so rare to see something like this, so old, and American made. It was a pleasure to get it back working again as I was worried about the project when I saw the very messed-up neck joint.

Black buttons are all the rage, says I.

If you look carefully you'll see how the collar slightly mismatches the joint's sides. This was necessary to get a good fit for the neck after dismantling the messed up bits and resetting it at a good back-angle for the strings. I did manage to get the finish to match decently so it's not as obvious as it might be without telling someone.

In the morning I'll take the bridge off and polish it all up so it gleams. I like to use bone where I can because it adds volume and sustain to my ears.

The original rosewood nut has odd, modified slotting. I think that judging by the last name of the maker and the time period... that this may have originally been strung as a 3-course (trichordo) bouzouki rather than as an actual mandolin-family instrument when made. It was pretty common (and still is) to build them with 8 tuners and then not use 2 of the tuners when stringing up. We'll never know for sure, though, but the remaining 20s-30s string that was with the instrument's parts baggie was certainly too thin a gauge to have belonged to even the A of a mandocello.


Ron Neely II said...

Beautiful work, Jake! Thanks so much for bringing my bouzouki back to life!

tellymanga said...

Could it be a Grachis? Check out dimitrigrachis.com. It mentions a luthier of the same time period who made Greek bouzoukia here in the States and other lute instruments. It's definitely a Greek trichordo bouzouki

tellymanga said...

It's still pretty common to find Greek Trichorda (3 double strings tuned DAD) on old mandolin headstock which would imply 4 double strings. Anyway, nice instrument, rare, and legit!

tellymanga said...

Was this instrument on eBay recently? If not there was one that was quite similar...

Jake Wildwood said...

Telly: It wasn't on eBay recently... there was another one, though, that sold for around $1200 un-fixed-up. Label in the soundhole specifies it as a Vracas but it was very hard to photograph with the rosette in the way. I figure it was probably a 3-course zouk to begin with, too!

Ron Neely said...

Here's a pic of the label. I took this before Jake repaired it.