1890s Eugene Howard Bowlback Mandola

Mandolas are rare as heck in the vintage market and bowlback mandolas are scarce. This one came in via consignment and it's branded Eugene Howard in the soundhole. Despite its restrained trim, it's quite a nicely-built instrument and it has a lovely tone. Compared to the Regal-made Ditson mandola I worked on last, this one's a bit more hi-fi in tone and more lightly-built. To my ears it has more in common with the Lyon & Healy mandola in the shop, though its tone isn't as high-brow dynamic and it's not as loud. Like the L&H, though, I've strung this instrument with a regular set of mandolin strings (34w-10) as the lightweight build wants them to remain stable.

Spec-wise, this has a 16 3/8" scale which is on the shorter side and comparable to a Gibson scale length. The 1 1/4" nut width over a slim, C-profile neck makes it a fast player, though. The widest part of the body is 9" across. The top is solid spruce and the bowl and neck are mahogany. Both the original fretboard and my replacement bridge are rosewood and it has a nice rosewood headstock veneer, too. The bracing is typical bowlback ladder-style with an unreinforced "bottom" past the cant in the top. There are three or four tight, old-repair, tiny hairline cracks around the soundhole but the instrument is otherwise crack-free. The top sags a hair just under the bridge due to a hundred-plus years of tension, but it's stable. I fit my new bridge to match this so there's no weird contact issues.

My work on this included a fret level/dress, new compensated bridge, and a good setup. The neck has only the tiniest hair of relief tuned to pitch and it has spot-on 1/16" action at the 12th fret. I have it strung with 34w, 24w, 14, 10 mandolin strings rather than mandola strings which would be way too heavy for the build. I think many period bowlback mandolas were actually meant for plain-D stringing, anyhow.

It plays in tune up the neck and easy-peasy. Old work on this instrument included those tiny hairline crack repairs mentioned above, a repair to a small split in the headstock (seen just below the tuner plates), replacement vintage tuners (the bass side of the tuners turns backwards, unfortunately, to tune up), and the jury is out on whether the finish on the bowl and back of the neck is 100% original or has been top-coated or touched-up. I'm not familiar with the maker and the finish feels period, but I think it may have been cleaned-up at some point. Regardless, the finish is thin and looks great.

The bone nut may be a replacement but it serves just fine.

The flat-profile rosewood board has pearl dots.

I love that multi-line binding around the top edge. It reminds me of Italian-style bowlbacks. It's also nice to see the celluloid, inlaid pickguard in such good shape.

My new rosewood bridge is fully-compensated and fitted to the top.

The tailpiece has some muting foam shoved under it to cut-down on overtones.

Nice bowl, huh?

The mismatched tuners at least look right from the front. I'm not happy with the bass-side tuners tuning-up backwards, but I don't have anything spare around the workshop that would be right for this.

The neck angle is good and the joint sturdy.

Someone added a strap button to the tailpiece at some point. Note also that the binding is rosewood -- a nice touch!

Here's the interloper from the shot a bit above -- the esteemed rascal-cat Tengu.


Unknown said…
Do you know of any other mandolas that were made in Cincinnati at this time?
I've just received word that a cousin is sending me my fathers Eugene Howard mandolin. Thank you for this wonderful post and information.