There's no doubt that mandolin players have a wider variety of instruments to choose from than ever before, from bowlbacks to A's, two points', F's to watermelon shaped mandolins. Flat or radiused fingerboards, dovetail, mortise & tenon, or bolt on neck joints, adjustable truss rods, or not, stamped or cast tailpieces. The choices are almost endless; an amazing development for an instrument goes largely unrecognized by the general public. Price is the one item that limits those choices for a lot of people; you can find an almost endless variety of instruments and hardware above $1500.00, below that the pickings thin out quite quickly. In the U.S. when you get below $1000.00 the choices are limited to Pac-Rim instruments and very small handful of American makers. One of those makers is Howard Morris.
Howard's parents both played music, banjo & guitar, and he learned to appreciate and play music at a very young age. He played backup guitar in many local bands and eventually became interested in the mandolin. He's belonged to the Oregon and Washington Old Time Fiddle's Association for almost twenty five years.
Howard spent his "working" years building and repairing bean and grape harvesters, and other large equipment, in 1998 he retired to Irrigon, Oregon.
JM: What made you decide to try to build a mandolin? What made you believe you could? How long ago was this?
HM: I began building mandolins when I wanted to buy a new one and they were what I thought was too much money. I thought I would try to build one and see what happened.
JM: Did you have any woodworking experience?
HM: The only woodworking experience I had was in making a nut cracker which I had a patent on. It was constructed of steel and pine and sat on a kitchen counter.
JM: How did the first one turn out? What body Style was it?
HM: The first mandolin I made was an F style and amazingly enough, even to myself, it wasn't that bad and sounded pretty good.
JM: What did you use for reference in building the first one?
HM: I got plans from Stewart-McDonald and cut one out only to find the template wasn't exact so adjusted it to fit a pattern I used.
JM: What type of snags did you hit in the process of building the first one?
HM: As with anything, it was a learning curve and it was a "learn as you go" experience which evolved into my current mandolins.
JM: Did you plan to build more than one from the start?
HM: I really didn't have any set number in mind but once I built one, I was inspired to try to make a very good mandolin.
JM: How did your first sale come about?
HM: When I felt comfortable enough and confident enough, I sold one to a friend and eventually on eBay.
JM: What type of woods have you used in your mandolins, besides the standards, maple and spruce?
HM: I've used everything from Russian Olive to Walnut and various other woods.
JM: I've noticed that you use a non-adjustable truss rod, it that to keep costs down?
HM: Not using an adjustable rod is definitely not to keep costs down. I just don't think it's necessary and have never had a mandolin with an adjustable rod nor had any need to.
JM: How do you keep your prices so low? And why? Why not get every penny you can for your work?
HM: I find that the prices I now have on my mandolins fit a very important niche in the industry. If a person wants a Pacific Rim for $100, that's exactly what they get in the way of quality - very sub-standard in my opinion. If they have deep pockets, they can opt for a $3,000=$4,000 instrument. I feel my mandolins are an excellent bargain for the price and I build every piece from start to finish, nothing is machine made.
JM: Would you mind telling us a bit about your construction methods and the steps in your building process?
HM: The building process begins with the cutting out of the style I'm making, then the long sanding process, the clamping and gluing of the top and bottom and sides, all the spraying of the color, usually a sunburst, then the final part of the nitro finish and installing the hardware.
Has your method of building changed very much since you started?
My building method has changed and evolved since I began building and it has changed in the trial and error stages which I now feel I have pretty much perfected as far as my instruments are concerned.
JM: Are you still discovering new ways to keep the prices down?
HM: Unfortunately, I can't cut my prices these days. Everything has gone up considerably since I began 10 years ago. Wood prices are very high and all the hardware has almost doubled in cost so I still try to sell at a price people can afford.
JM: Do you take orders, or do you build them and then put them up for sale?
HM: I take orders if a buyer wants a specific wood in a specific style that I don't have in stock, but most of my selling is on eBay and Mandolin Cafe.
JM: Do you have standard models or is each one, one of a kind?
HM: Currently I make 6 models - F4 and F5; A4 and A5; and 2 point A4 and 2 point A5
JM: What is the most satisfying part of building mandolins, to you?
HM: The most satisfying part of building is not only my sense of accomplishment, but the fact that a lot of people are able to afford one of my mandolins that may not be able to buy a high-end one and I get many "thank you's" from those people.
JM: What do you find to be the most difficult part?
HM: The most difficult part is sometimes getting quality wood. I only use the very best grades of spruce, maple, Douglas fir, etc.
JM; How many mandolins have you built to date? Have you built instruments outside the mandolin family?
HM: I'm currently building #121 and #122. Other than building mandolins, I have built 15 violins, 12 hammered dulcimers and 5 parlor guitars.
JM: Have you built any other mandolin family instruments?
HM: No, I haven't built any other mandolin family instruments
JM: What type of finish and hardware do you generally use?
HM: I use nitrocellulose finish on all my instruments and Grover tuners and tailpieces.
JM: Are you currently taking orders? How long is the wait for one of your mandolins at this time?
HM: I am in the process of completing two orders, one for an A5 and the other for a 2 point. It normally takes 4-6 weeks from beginning to completion of one of my mandolins. Waiting time depends on what I'm working on at the time of the order.
JM: Thank you Howard for taking the time to be interviewed, it's always nice to look into the builder's workshop.
If you are interested in contacting Howard about one of his mandolins, he may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
You can visit Joe Mendel
at the following websites: