Written by Marty June 1, 1997
The Macica Mandolin
Amid the curls of wood shavings and the aroma of freshly scraped spruce, a craftsman is busy at work customizing the durability of a mandolin he has built for a musician whose instrument tends to take quite a beating during performances. He places reinforcements above and below the F-holes to strengthen the vulnerable top area.
Because of the playing style of this particular customer, the craftsman has given the neck a different type of arching – a rounded fingerboard with a three-inch radius. This player prefers a warmer, woodier tone, so the bridge on this mandolin has ebony spacers rather than metal adjusters. Finally, he adds guitar frets rather than mandolin frets because of the larger size and greater sustain achieved. This custom-designing craftsman's name is Martin Macica, owner of the Macica Violin/Mandolin Workshop in downtown Schuylerville, New York.
Situated just east of Saratoga Springs (a city known for its performing arts center), and with increasing numbers of bluegrass festivals being established in the northeast, Macica's turn in the direction of mandolin making appears to be a sound one.
His interest in making fine stringed instruments began 18-years-ago when he apprenticed in violin-making with luthiers in New York City. During these early years, he gained much insight in the delicate balance of weight, density, and mass in an arch-top instrument. As he began to experience and appreciate the 'American-ness' of the mandolin, Macica's focus turned to creating a mandolin of exceptional beauty, workmanship, and acoustic performance.
The physical feature which best distinguishes the Macica Mandolin from others on the market is the illusion of additional length. It is based on the Gibson Lloyd Loar F5 Model, the difference is its contemporary slant. The scroll and the F-holes have an elliptical design, giving the instrument the illusion of being longer without losing the dimension of the original Loar design.
Many factors contribute to making the instrument sound good - the type of block materials used, thickness of wood of the top and back, and softness or hardness of the varnish.
"There is a misconception," Macica states, "(people think) the thinner the plates, the louder it sounds. The key to making a good sounding instrument is keeping the wood where it needs to be and lessening it where it does not need to be." Knowing the relationship of weight, density, and mass constantly playing off each other has taken years to learn.
The wood Macica uses for the plate material is American curly maple and European spruce. To develop the character of the instrument, there has to be a variable to manipulate. The thickness of the wood in the plates is that variable. This makes the theory of a thin top questionable, which tends to result in an unhealthy instrument.
There is nothing 'flat' in a mandolin, so unlike guitar making, fancy machinery or power tools to repeat a process are less useful. Macica carves his instruments painstakingly by hand, using a thumb plane, a gouge, and a scraper. Macica allows 4-3.5 mm., of thickness in the top middle plate, tapering down to 2.8 mm., depending on the stiffness of wood. For the back plate, the center is from 6-4.5 mm., going down to 3-2.8 mm., at the sides. The sides themselves are 1.5 mm.
The thickness of the wood, as well as the type of wood one is working with, is important to the tone. To find the tone the plate best reacts with, Macica puts the plates on an oscillator. This tells him the frequency at which the plate vibrates. He sprinkles Christmas glitter on the plate (a trick he learned in violin making) and watches carefully for the pattern it makes. This provides evidence of the wood's potential tonal qualities.
The neck is one of the most personal features of the instrument to a musician. Features such as width of fingerboard, arched or flat, varnish or no varnish on neck, are designated by the preference of the customer. Every neck Macica has made has been different in the 'feel'. However, all of them are extremely solid, made with light but strong wood. The Macica head stocks are sandwiched between two pieces of ebony for stability, also giving the instrument a nicer aesthetic.
One important lesson Macica has gained from violin-building which he applies to constructing mandolins is making sure all the neck joints fit solidly and securely. The fit should be so tight that very little glue is needed. Too much glue will act as a buffer, thus affecting the sound quality. This is the main reason Macica does not use the traditional dovetail joint. It allows too much hollow space. Since two-thirds of the string vibration comes from the neck, it is vital that as much vibration as possible be transmitted into the body of the instrument. Like the Lloyd Loar models, all Macica's Mandolins have an adjustable truss rod. He enjoys experimenting with truss rods of different materials which are light and stiff. If he buys the truss rods ready-made, he removes the rubber coating and wraps it in aluminum so as not to 'dampen' the sound. He is careful the truss rod does not act as a 'mute'. Macica would like to experiment with graphite or titanium rods someday, in his search for the perfect truss rod.
To obtain the quality of sound he wants, Macica discovered an important key involving the 'finish' of the instrument. He only uses varnish on his mandolins. He feels that staining actually hinders the character and beauty of wood, and affects the sound. Macica believes "the whole concept of staining is to gain color without a lot of varnish, resulting in a loud instrument." One of the reasons the Macica Mandolin has such a distinct, resonant sound is because when the wood is sealed, no varnish is allowed to get into the pores.He rarely even uses sandpaper, insisting that it has a tendency to clog the pores of the wood. This puts the coloring varnish on top of the wood, creating a more transparent finish. There are certain frequencies that are attributed to the varnish, resulting in more character and beauty of tone. Ultimately, one of the signs of a great instrument maker is one who can apply very little varnish with a lot of color, creating a balance of sound and physical beauty - the best of both worlds.
Macica states that "not one thing contributes to the sound of the instrument, but every aspect from start to finish has to be taken into account." He wants complete control over each of those steps, and power tools decrease that control, consequently, the majority of the work is done by hand.
"In each step," he insists, "you are finishing the instrument before you even start it." In keeping with a classic/contemporary look, Macica uses ivoroid binding. He does use a router for binding, but has to do the scroll area by hand. With the pronounce elliptical look of the scroll, this is harder to achieve than if the scroll was simply round, or came to a point, as on some contemporary models.
Only abalone is used for the inlays. Macica works to maintain a certain consistency in his instruments. The biggest variation from instrument to instrument is probably the coloring of the sunburst pattern. There are, of course, variations in the fingerboards and inlay shapes, from simple to ornate. The one feature which Macica feels he can creatively 'veer' from tradition is in the material used for the truss rod cover. He has used assorted polished wood and stone, such as ebony, mother-of-pearl, ivory, rosewood, and even wooly mammoth tusk that a friend brought from Alaska.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of Macica's luthier trade was to come up with a symbol for the Macica head stock. He wanted an abalone inlay that was not only beautiful, but had deep personal meaning as well. He finally chose the symbol for his church, New Covenant Community, which is a mustard tree. Based on the parable in Matthew 13:31-32, the tree started out as the tiniest of seeds and grew into a life-giving object of beauty and rest; a place where the birds of the air could find refuge in its branches. This inspires him to imbue much of himself into each instrument and take the standard of excellence seriously. Macica believes a true luthier is someone who can not only achieve a functional instrument with a full sound, but an instrument that is a work of art as well.
By D.E. Wager
The Macica Workshop: Maker of Fine Stringed Instruments
166 County Route 338, Schuylerville, NY 12871 518.695.3029