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Becoming a Master

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Cocolalla’s Steve Weill crafts fine instruments out of, and in, the woods

    Steve Weill started his apprenticeship as a mandolin builder in 1980. Today, 22 years later, he says he is a journeyman...but not yet a master. Steve, of Cocolalla, started building mandolins under a master builder R.L. Givens. R.L. Givens built Givens Mandolins and Guitars. Givens was also a friend. Steve was building boats and R.L. (Bob), who knew and appreciated his woodworking skill, suggested he come to work for him.     Weill, who loves equally music and wood, found a new career that started with a five-year apprenticeship.

    I spent a couple of hours in Steve’s shop the other day. Anyone who thinks they know anything about wood would love this place. I like to think I know my way around a wood shop, but here there were hand tools I didn’t have a clue about.

    The Weill home shows the touch of a complete wood worker. It is a log house built by Steve out of trees he harvested. The place was started in 1974 when he arrived in this area. “I love the woods and woodworking and try to stay here in my shop or in the woods rather than go to town,” he explained. Steve built the house, cabinets and much of the furniture. He also opened a boat shop in Sandpoint.

    Steve, who adds logger to his list of job titles, finds all his own spruce for soundboards in the woods of North Idaho and Western Montana. The spruce can be harvested here in Idaho and Montana but all the rest of the wood he uses in constructing his fine instruments is brought in. The sides, back and neck of the mandolins are constructed of eastern maple and the fingerboards are African ebony.

    He takes the spruce from cut tree to lacquered soundboard, the front of the instrument, in his shop. Before he cuts a tree it must be cored to check for ring count per inch and it must be straight, without any twists or low branches; branches create knots that are undesirable for this work. The best trees grow from 3500 to 4700 feet above sea level. They need to be in a stand so the lower branches fall off, which prevents a lot of knots. Standing dead trees are the best if they meet all the other requirements of this builder. A good tree can yield over 100 soundboards, and sometimes as many as 200.

    The soundboard is cut out of the log in a wedge, then re-sawed on a band saw, glued, and then carved with a panagraph. As a final touch, it is hand carved to finish.

    Steve has had his shop, a new one at his home, since 1994, when he closed the boat shop in town and started building Givens Legacy Mandolins full time. After Bob’s death, Steve started building Givens Legacy instruments. “I used his name but I didn’t want anyone to think I was making imitations. That’s why I added Legacy to the name,” he explained. He uses exactly the same steps the master used, however, and there are over 2000 steps in the production of each instrument.

    There is no plywood or fasteners in a Givens Legacy. All the wood is held together with glue. “These are not low end mandolins” said Weill. “My mandolins start at about $1,500 retail and will run as high as $4,000, but most completely hand-made instruments built by others will run from $6,000 to $10,000.”

    The mandolin predates the violin but comes from the same area in western Italy. The Neapolitan mandolin has a flat top and a little sweeter sound than an American mandolin. Originally mandolins were made out of grounds cut in half with a soundboard and neck fitted to it. This led to bowl-shaped backs on the early wood mandolins. Now the back is flat, but the front (soundboard) is rounded a little on American mandolins. This makes for a louder instrument and allows it to compete acoustically with a stand-up bass and guitar.

    Each Givens Legacy takes from 70 to 150 hours to build over a six-week period. Steve works alone in his shop, so the whole mandolin is made with his hands. “You have to want to make mandolins” said Weill “because you can make more money doing other things with the wood.”

    His son Nathan also knows his way around the shop but isn’t interested in the mandolins at this time. Both Nathan and his dad have built some killer snowboards, however, with the same quality craftsmanship as there is in a Givens Legacy mandolin. Dad built his first snowboard in 1968 but that is yet another story of a guy who loves working with wood.

    Many of the 2000 steps that go into a mandolin are in the finish. First there is a 3-color stain process. Then the lacquer; there are seven layers of heated lacquer in the process. Heated lacquer allows for a better finish with fewer coats. But the heating process requires some sophisticated heat exchangers in order to be completed safely. Five of the coats will be flat dry sanded; the last two will be wet sanded and buffed. For many people the cosmetics, or finish and shape, are more important than the sound of the instrument. As the finish hardens the sound will improve over about a five-year period. Even after that the instrument’s “voice” will continue to grow for the rest of its life in many subtle ways.

    The strings are put on with about 200 pounds of tension. This will put over 100 pounds of pressure on the bridge, which must free-stand on the thin, hand-carved soundboard. At first the instrument will sound tight, but as the wood bends and starts to equalize the pressures from the strings, it’s true voice appears. Normally that takes about 30 days, with the biggest changes happening in the first week and a half.

    Steve does not want to get into computer controlled production tools to build. He could build more, faster but feels each instrument should be hand made. “I am a traditional wood worker,” he said. He also does not want to get involved with marketing campaigns; he just wants to make wonderful mandolins. There are stores who carry some of his instruments in Seattle and the rest he sells by word of mouth. “I don’t let myself get backed up with orders,” he said with his relaxed smile “I don’t want the stress.”

    Steve believes it will take a few more years of cutting, carving, finishing and loving the Given Legacies that he builds before he will meet his very high standard for becoming a Master. From the instruments I saw and heard, however, it’s hard to imagine how someone could improve over the work of Steve Weill.

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Ernie Hawks Ernie Hawks is a former theater director who has branched into the creative fields of writing and photography. He lives in a cabin in Athol with his lovely wife Linda, and feeds the birds in his spare time.

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