Mandolin Hospital Triage

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     I receive numerous emails from people who have recently purchased an old instrument, often on ebay, or occasionally in auction. The two most basic questions are always 'what needs to be done to make it playable?' and 'how serious/expensive/difficult will any of these remedial operations be?'

     I have prepared this page as a basic triage page, to help diagnose what needs to be done, with an assessment of how difficult/expensive this might be, and where to find help on the site. The more difficult, the more expensive it will be for a luthier to tackle, if you can find a luthier who will attempt it.  Please let me know if there is something you think is missing from this page.


When you start to think about mandolin restoration, there are one or two good places to start. It these are ignored, you can find yourself doing a lot of work, and still having an unplayable mandolin at the end. These are points 1 and 2 in red on the followingtriage chart. Most structural things can be sorted out, but if you have a bent neck (usually the neck/body join) OR no room for a bridge, these are most crucial to having a playable mandolin with a good action. 
  Problem Diagnosis Level Help Page
1 Bent neck (most common on bowlbacks) Decide if its a) the neck, or b) the neck-body join. It will usually be b). Can be serious making instrument unplayable. MUST be rectified. May require shimming the f/b, or a new f/b, at worst, a neck reset. Difficult Neck    Finger-board   Fretting
2 Bridge position/height Where to put the bridge is no problem, fine tuning is a little harder.

If you have no room to fit in a bridge with the strings about 2mm above the fret-tops at fret 12, then this can be a BIG problem. May require a shim under the f/b, top removal, or resetting the neck.

Easy-Hard Tuning    Bridge-Fitting

 Neck   Fingerboard

The solution to these two crucial problems above, are dependent upon the seriousness of the problem, and the thickness of the f/b.
3 Split top Shrinkage splits are easier to fix. Can be very serious if severe, and combined with 'warpage' from string tension.  Med to Hard Table
4 Warped top Usually from string tension. Often visible around sound-hole. Can be very serious if severe and combined with splitting. Medium to Hard Table
5 Split back seams Split seams can often be fixed fairly easily unless accompanied by warping. Split or missing back ribs or pieces is more serious. Much harder when combined with shrinkage. Easy to Hard Back
6 Broken/jammed tuners Can be cleaned, and sometimes repaired provided all pieces are present, and not too worn. Very difficult to replace except with modern equivalents. Easy to Medium Furniture
7 Missing inlay Can be relatively simple to replace, or extremely difficult, depending on location and shape of inlay pieces. Easy to Hard Inlay    Parts
8 Missing/broken bridge Bridges are easy to replace from this site, but setting them up well is harder, whilst essential for good performance. Easy to Medium New-Bridges
9 Broken neck Level of difficulty depends on location of break, whether it has been previously repaired, and if it has a veneer. Can be done. Medium to Hard Neck
10 Cracked/broken head Not too problematic if its merely a crack, more difficult with enclosed tuners and/or head veneers, and most difficult if part of the head is missing. Easy to Medium Head
11 Damaged finish Possible to renew, but can be very time consuming. Typically can be either varnish (German) or French Polish (Italian). Medium Finish
12 Loose/broken struts Often detected by a rattle, or flexing of the top. Complex, as this often has other causes which must be addressed as well. Can be done but usually necessitates top removal. Hard Structure   Struts
13 Missing/worn/uneven frets Re-levelling or re-fret is possible, but difficult for a non-expert to do well. Modern or period frets can be used. but i do have period replacements ir required. Medium to Hard Fretting   Parts
14 Missing/damaged nut Can be replaced easily, difficult to set up well for a non-expert. Easy to Medium F/board    Parts    NutFitting
15 Loose neck/body join Complex repair that can require top removal in Italian mandolins, but German mandolins generally have access to heel without top removal. Medium to Hard Table    Neck
16 Broken tail-piece Easily replaced from the site. Easy Furniture
17 Damaged edging Relatively easy to replace, but damage to finish is often involved and more difficult to repair. Medium Inlay
18 Rattles or buzzes Badly set up nut, bridge, or uneven frets. Sometimes hard to find the cause... Easy to medium F/board    NutFitting   BridgeFitting   Fretting
19 Very dirty Mandolins can be 'cleaned' with a damp cloth, or Meguiar's paint cleaner, but much of the 'dirt' will be absorbed in the varnish/french polish. Beware the tops of Italian bowls, which are normally NOT finished, but bare wood. For cleaning of tuners see furniture. Easy Cleaning
20 Shrunken pieces This can be a problem, and a complicated fix, depending what and where it is.  Medium to Hard Table   Back/Sides
21 Badly spaced frets Many old mandolins have badly spaced frets. Its hard to remedy this unless the problem is restricted to 1 or 2 frets, so it may mean a new fingerboard. Hard F/board   Fretting
22 Damaged veneer It may have been worn, torn, cracked, lifted, or ruined by an old repair. Can be fairly easily replaced on the head, the neck is more problematic. Medium to Hard Veneering
23 Broken/missing linings Without these the structure is very susceptible to damage. Many rapidly made Neapolitans don't have any!! They can be replaced or repaired, but top removal is involved. Hard Structure   Back/sides
24 Lifting top On Italian bowls, it is common to see the top separated and lifting at the sides. This can be difficult to fix, and depends on why it has happened. Often accompanied by warping, loose struts and over-stringing. Medium to Hard Structure  Struts
25 Scale length problems On some Italian mandolins, you will find scale length problems, the bridge on or behind the cant, or fret 1 cut short to allow the bridge to fit in before the cant. Will usually require moving the fingerboard if that is possible, or a new board. Hard F/board   Fretting
26 Insect damage Usually indicated by small holes in the wood. If limited, easy to repair, if extensive may require replacement pieces, and therefore much more problematic. Easy to hard (Page to follow)
27 Bridge repair Sometimes a mandolin has a bridge that has only minimal damage, like a missing divider between 2 strings, a broken wing, or it is just too low. Some of these faults CAN be rectified, thus keeping the instrument as original as possible. Medium (Page to follow)