How old is this mandolin?
July 4, 2013 12:25 PM   Subscribe

My friend has inherited a Washburn mandolin originally belonging to her husband's grandfather. She describes it as: It has the old pear-shaped body they no longer make and its serial number is 159996. The 'tortiseshell' plastic scalloped soundboard has cracked into pieces, but the rest of the instrument is sound. The tuning pegs may not be plastic.

My friend is trying to find background (namely age) on an inherited mandolin, and she's all kinds of awesome, so I'd like to help her. The grandpa in question was old when R____ knew him, and R____ is 60 years old, but there's no telling when in his life Grandpa acquired the mandolin. She's not trying to sell it; she wants to play it. She is interested in stringing it, but I'm afraid if it's too old that it may not be strong enough to accept the tension of new strings. (Of course, my instrument experience is mostly in harps, which, if geriatric and in rough shape, can explode if brought suddenly up to tension. I don't know if mandolins carry the same risk.) If she can't play it, I'm sure it will remain a cherished piece of family history. I know the modern Washburns are kind of a better entry-level mandolin, but the older ones may have a rich, well-developed sound.

If I could find this book, I suppose we'd clue in (if it's prewar. It might be later). If we can't find an answer online, I may have to get the book for her for Christmas. But I'd rather not spend the money on a text we'd reference only once.

Any ideas? Thank you!
posted by theplotchickens to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (7 answers total)
From Washburn's website: Washburn has used many serial number formats over the years, ranging from 4-12 characters long. The year of manufacture can be deduced from the first few numerical characters in the serial number.

Either the first 2 digits, or the first digit, are typically used to identify the year of manufacture.

For example, 8901827 indicate the instrument was made in 1989, 1988, or 1998. You can confirm the year of manufacture by visiting our guitar archives reference pricelists/ catalogs.

Instruments with serial numbers that have 5 or more characters are from the late 1980's-2000's

Instruments with serial numbers that have 5 characters or less are typically from the 1980's.

Instruments with serial numbers that have 4 characters are from the 1970's and early 1980's.

For instruments produced after 2010, usually the first 4 digits can indicate the year of manufacture.

There is no serial number information or tracking capability for pre-1978 models.

If the instrument does not have a serial number, it is likely a factory prototype or sample, and it is impossible to gauge its exact age. We recommend visiting our Guitar Archives and viewing the annual catalogs to find the closest match.

Washburn maintains limited production records. Washburn can only identify instruments via email, and with a clear digital photograph and serial number. We cannot guarantee that we are able to date your instrument.
posted by blob at 12:33 PM on July 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, post your question on the Washburn mandolin forum and see what Washburn suggests.
posted by blob at 12:35 PM on July 4, 2013

I think blob's links generally pertain to modern carved top or flat top style mandolins. A lot of the old bowlback (sometimes called Neopolitan) style instruments popular in the late 19th and early 20th century were actually made in Italy, Hungary, and Germany, imported to the U.S., and sold under various names, and often, for not much money. It's perfectly possible that your "Washburn" brand instrument was private label branded after the name of the music store owner that sold it, the instrument wholesaler that imported it, or an "enterprising" middleman who just thought the Washburn name association would impress retail customers. If your instrument is of that era and vintage, the tortoise shell pick guard is quite likely, real tortoise shell, not plastic (don't get too excited, tortoise shell was cheap enough to be used for a lot of small consumer items, like combs, hand mirrors, toothbrushes, and hairbrushes of that era, too.)

If your friend is serious about learning to play the thing, I think it would be worth spending a few bucks to have a local luthier give it a once over. If she can't find someone in her area to go over it, I can highly recommend Randy Wood, who will take mail order (or motor freight) orders for evaluation/repair (but call ahead to arrange particulars). He could replace the pick guard (probably with a plastic one!), check the neck for true, dress any frets that need it, and replace the bridge and strings with new ones. It's likely that the instrument will be fine with light gauge modern strings, as even though there are eight of them, they don't require great tension to come to pitch, and most of the old bowlbacks had both a bent top, and fairly stout internal top braces, the better to resist string tension, and handling in playing. And if she's going to ship it or keep it, long term, have her spend a few bucks at the well respected Elderly Instruments (also a good source of advice and repairs) on a case for the thing.

I have an old bowlback, myself, inherited from grandfather, who bought and played it a lot, along with his fiddle, at Nebraska barn dances in the 1880's. The old Neopolitan style instruments are a little harder to stand and play than the modern style instruments, so he said it gave him a chance, between fiddle numbers, to sit down, and still keep the dance going. For my part, I like its more soulful mid-tones, and the power the bowl gives its lowest notes.
posted by paulsc at 1:32 PM on July 4, 2013

Here's an ebay Washburn bowlback estimated at 1900 with a later serial number. It seems like the seller is estimating by using the patent tailpiece. For pre-1900 banjos and guitars, I've found old catalogues and such are good for estimating model number and date. I'd ask on the forums on the Mandolin Cafe.
posted by LucretiusJones at 1:51 PM on July 4, 2013

Just a word of warning, if you replace any original hardware on an instrument you can severely dent it's value if it's worth anything to a collector. I don't know about mandolins in particular, but I've heard (possibly apocryphal) stories of people refusing to buy old electric guitars if their internal wiring has been replaced.

I don't know if your mandolin will be worth anything, or if your friend minds about its resale value, but it's worth bearing in mind.
posted by Ned G at 4:14 PM on July 4, 2013

The 'tortiseshell' plastic scalloped soundboard has cracked into pieces, but the rest of the instrument is sound.

I was going to say that the soundboard being cracked is a fatal flaw, but because you say plastic I'm guessing it's the pickguard that you mean, right? That's not a big deal to replace, but do go to a real luthier for the work.
posted by Miko at 7:31 PM on July 4, 2013

Washburn were really helpful when I asked about my beautiful guitar. They will probably have some information to help. In terms of getting the beast up and running you really need to find a good local luthier who will advise you of the practicality and price of restoration.
posted by BenPens at 8:06 PM on July 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

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