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Meet Ohio’s master mandolin maker

A man in a black t-shirt and jeans sits on a wooden stool in the middle of a workshop to play the mandolin.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Don MacRostie plays one of the Red Diamond mandolins he made last year. He hand crafted the instrument in his workshop in Athens County.

The walls in Don MacRostie’s studio in Athens County are covered in tools. Screwdrivers and scissors hang above tin cans full of markers and brushes. Piles of wood line tabletops and everything is covered in a light layer of sawdust.

This is where MacRostie has spent nearly half of a century honing his craft: mandolin making. His Red Diamond mandolins are played by some of the best players in the world, including Alan Bibey and Jesse Brock.

He holds up pieces for one of the instruments.

“What I'm modeling these after is 100-year-old Gibson mandolins,” he said. “Those were the mandolins used and played in early bluegrass. All the old-timers had those old instruments and our ears have become attuned to the sound they make.

“So I'm trying to produce that sound.”

The process of making a mandolin

The secret to that sound starts with wood, sourced from not-too-far away.

“My [mandolin] tops come from West Virginia red spruce,” MacRostie said.

The instrument’s back is made from curly maple sourced from places like West Virginia and Ohio.

To create the sides of the instrument, MacRostie bends wide strips of wood into a mold.

He carefully carves domes to form the mandolin tops, using a self-rigged contraption to measure their flexibility.

“Even one part, like the back, takes quite a while,” MacRostie said. “It's got a center seam. So you take rough wood and glue it together, and then you have to machine it down and then carve it, and then you're only halfway there. Once you glue it on, there's finishing and binding.”

When each piece is complete, MacRostie puzzles them together to create a finished instrument.

He stains it, applies varnish, polishes it and adds strings.

Finally, it’s ready to play.

MacRostie typically makes about seven or eight instruments a year. This year, he intends to build a dozen.

Mandolins Music.mp3
Don MacRostie playing one of his Red Diamond mandolins

MacRostie’s story

MacRostie wasn’t always a mandolin builder.

In fact, he started with a guitar he picked up in high school.

“It didn’t quite play in tune,” MacRostie remembered. “It was inexpensive, so I fiddled around with that, learned to play and dragged it around with me.”

It wasn’t until many years later that he discovered the mandolin.

“And I was also introduced to a fellow who was building dulcimers at the time,” MacRostie said. “I put two and two together and I thought, ‘I'm gonna build something.’ And the mandolin was smaller than the guitar. I didn't have a lot of space, so I thought, ‘I’ll try to build a mandolin,’ and I just stuck with it.”

He’s been building mandolins ever since. Every one is unique and each speaks to musicians in its own way.

“The instrument inspires the player,” MacRostie said. “It feeds them.”

“I've heard players are selling a good instrument, and I’m like, ‘Why are you selling that?’ They said, ‘Well, it doesn't feed me anymore. It’s not nourishing.’ So I've always tried to hold on to that thought of wanting to produce an instrument that feeds, that nourishes the player.”

MacRostie is currently preparing parts for about six dozen mandolins.

“I'm 79. I think I've got 75 mandolins left in me. I'm preparing for that. I hope I got more,” he said with a laugh.

He’s teaching his 15-year-old grandson the craft too, nourishing the next generation of mandolin makers, players and listeners.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.