Friday, February 7, 2014

Army-Navy "Pancake" Style Mandolins

Instruments known as “Army-Navy”, “pancake”, or “flatiron” style mandolins were originally made by Gibson between 1918 and 1922 to be used by soldiers during World War I.  The term pancake refers to not only the round body shape but also the flat front and back.  These inexpensively made, no-frills instruments are not to be confused with the more figured and “blingy” archtop F style mandolins that would later become popular in bluegrass thanks to Bill Monroe.

Pancake mandolins are still around today and are often favored by Old-Time and Celtic musicians for their mellow presence and depth.  These types of mandolins are also a good choice for those who simply prefer a more old-timey, understated look.  I have found a handful of builders who currently make this style of mandolin in the $600 to $900 range.  These luthiers have each taken this classic design and upgraded it with their own individual touches, expertise and other improvements.
The Red Line Traveler
By Red Line Resophonics (Cumberland Acoustics).  Luthier Steve Smith and his assistant Jason make these finely crafted pancake mandolins in their shop just outside of Nashville, TN.  In addition to being the guy who makes the parts used by other instrument builders, a few years ago Steve set out to create his own Army-Navy style mandolin at an affordable price.  Each Redline Traveler features an adjustable truss rod, adjustable compensated Cumberland Acoustic ebony bridge and Grover tuners.  There are many custom wood options for the back and sides.  Steve usually has a mandolins at various stages of production, so the wait time for a new Traveler mandolin can be as little as 2-weeks.  Price $650 to $750 with gig bag.
Crystal Forest mandolin
Terry Majewski only makes 4 or 5 of these flat top mandolins each year, and they are beauties!  He uses Cumberland Acoustic bridges and his mandolins actually appeart to be very similar to the Red Line Traveler.  I’ve seen some great reviews of Terry’s mandolins online.  The Crystal Forest Facebook page states, “These mandolins have a mellow, yet still loud and powerful sound sought by Celtic players, as well as many Old-Time mandolin players.  They are equally at home in a bluegrass jam where they hold their own against loud guitars, banjos and fiddles.  A great mandolin for traveling, the office or pick'in around the campfire.”  One could be yours for around $695 plus an additional $40 for a hardshell case.
Alden Originals
I don’t know a whole lot about these mandolins, which are made by Clay Alden in Tennessee, although they have a very pure, traditional look.  His standard Army-Navy model mandolin comes with a Spanish cedar top and mahogany back and sides, with prices starting at $595.  Custom options are available.  Clay makes all the parts from scratch, and when I contacted him recently his current waiting period was 4 to 6 weeks.  Alden Originals also makes bouzoukis, dulcimers and solid body electric guitars!
Sawchyn Beaver Tail mandolin
These Beaver Tail mandolins look pretty cool.  They are made by Sawchyn Guitars in Regina, Saskatchewan Canada, to the same exacting standards of his higher priced guitars.  The basic price is $899.95 Canadian (approx. $815 US Dollars) and Peter Sawchyn offers several ways to spiff up your mandolin with upgrades. 
Don Rickert A-N
Don Rickert can make you a totally custom Army-Navy instrument similar to the one in the Stew-Mac campfire mandolin kit for a price of about $875.  These “copies” are true to the originals, which would have cost a soldier about $12 in the early 20th century.  Don says these instruments have an incredibly big sound.
Elloree Envoy mandolin
As far as I know Rick Felkel of Elloree Guitars in West Monroe, Louisiana is still making his sturdy flat-top mandolins in the $500 to $600 price range.  Rick’s mandolins are a little different.  The body is larger:  12" long and 11" wide.  Instead of having pieces of bracing in the top running from one end of the body to the other, the bracing on Elloree mandolins are like spokes in a wheel, starting at the bridge and branching out to all parts of the top leaving no dead spots. The neck is bolted on like that of an electric guitar.  The body depth is between 1 7/8 to 2". 
Big Muddy
Finally, there’s Big Muddy Mandolins from Rocheport, Missouri.  At one time this company was churning out nearly one thousand mandolins a year, but now production has been scaled back significantly, with just two employees and luthier Mike Dulak doing the majority of the critical work, giving each mandolin the attention it deserves.  If you’re looking for a handcrafted real wood mandolin, Big Muddy is a great choice, although their body shape is a little different than the traditional pancake style.  Priced from $645.

If you play one of these mandolins or know of other builders making Army-Navy mandolins for $900 or less, I’d love to hear from you!

1 comment:

  1. Add David Newton to the list.

    Pic of his New Navy: