Ne Plus Ultras

The Ne Plus Ultra project began a year and a half before completion with the purchase of an outrageously figured plank of 100+ year old maple, reported to have been in the estate of a New Hampshire luthier. Since the cost of the plank was also outrageous, the two mandolins the wood could produce would have to beyond special, beyond the Ultras, all the way to the Ne Plus Ultra — an all-wood, plastic-free unique art mandolin. It would prove the most challenging project of my forty-year career.

The figured maple deserved a natural finish, and since normal Phoenix construction precludes a natural finish — the willow neck block is exposed in the cutaways and is not pretty to look at — special procedures would have to be created. All the maple parts for the mandolins were cut from the plank. There was enough for a one-piece back and a two-piece back. To get the correct grain orientation and width for the neck, pieces would have to be stacked and glued with ebony center strips. Extra sides were cut to make pieces to cover the willow neck block, and other slices would become binding strips.

The sides were bent, and the pieces to cover the neck block were hand bent then fitted to neck blocks using a special press. Corner blocks had to be made to cover the seam where the sides joined the neck block.

A special feature of these mandolins with the natural finish would be red wooden purfling strips at almost every joint and seam.

The tops were chosen from premium European viola spruce and premium American red spruce. They were carved on the CNC, graduated, extended tone bars of the same wood fitted, McIntyre Feather pickups installed, the tops glued on the sides, and then routed for the maple bindings and multiple red purfling. Select pink abalone strips were to be part of the purfling on top and back.

The one-piece back and two-piece back were carved on the CNC, graduated, glued on, and routed for binding and purfling. Then the project went on the back shelf for several months when the shop got very busy in early 2007. But then Paul McCallum decided to order one of the mandolins with a projected delivery of December 2007. So it was off the shelf and back to work.

The complicated, fussy binding with wood purfling that didn’t want to conform seemed to take forever, and unfortunately a couple of breaks happened in the ancient maple binding strips. Once the binding was finally done, the abalone purfling was inlaid, and the bodies sanded out. Next step was to install the unique Ultra-style fingerboard support blocks made from the same old maple. Paul wanted a 20-fret fingerboard, so they were modified accordingly.

Since the wood covering the neck block is quite thin, the necks had to be carefully hand fitted after the body routed for the graphite-epoxy truss bar that extends from the neck into the body. Necks had been shaped several months before, and now they were glued on and leveled for the fingerboards. The fingerboards were bound, a special given the tight curves at the end, a red veneer glued on the underside, and installed and leveled. After fretting, the nut and headstock overlays were glued on.

The headstock inlays called for going into my dwindling precious stock of large figured red abalone, some of the last extra large pieces from the Duke of Pearl collection. The nut and bridge saddle, in keeping with the look of the natural finish, were to be moose bone. The bridge bases were more of the old maple both for sound and compatibility with the overall appearance.

I had planned regular ebony for the finger rest, but having gone this far with the light, natural appearance, I chose instead white slightly-curly ebony bound with red purfling and thin white maple. The finish is a new waterborne varnish which is very slick and very tough yet flexible for enhanced sound. A slight reddish shellac under the varnish added to the warm appearance. The natural look called for gold hardware: a James tailpiece and Waverly tuners with pearl buttons.

The finished mandolins are quite striking, real works of art, certainly the challenge of a lifetime.

From Ne Plus Ultra owner Paul McCallum:

Ne Plus Ultra by Phoenix MandolinsPhoto provided by Paul McCallum

Ne Plus Ultra owner Paul McCallum

Rolfe, these are two beautiful functioning works of art. They go way beyond anything I’ve experienced — just magnificent workmanship in conjunction with fun, lively playability and sparkling tone (which I know from my bluegrass master model will just keep improving). I’m very happy and honored to own this instrument.