Mandolin Maker Interview: Barry Kratzer
by Joe Mendel
Barry Kratzer grew up in a small community in eastern Pennsylvania, near the Pocono Mountains. He was exposed to a lot of music, especially old-time country and bluegrass. One of his uncles frequently took Barry to Sunset Park & other near-by music venues, where his interest in bluegrass music took root. He played around on borrowed instruments, but never very seriously. After graduating high school and enlisting in the Air Force he helped a friend build a house, but his friend had no money, so Barry received his pay in instruments, a Stradolin, an electric bass and a banjo. The Stradolin mandolin rekindled his interest in bluegrass and in playing, which he then began to pursue seriously. After a bad experience with a custom instrument that ended up under the bed after the top collapsed for the second time, Barry decided to attempt the repair himself .
Joe Mendel: Hi Barry, having an instrument collapse twice would certainly be an aggravating experience. Did you ever get around to repairing it yourself?
Barry Kratzer: Yes Joe, that mandolin received a new top probably around the K&G mandolin number 20 mark. Put on the new top and painted , and sold it to a mandolin picker in Pennsylvania.
JM: Where did you acquire the skills that made you believe that you could pull it off? How did you get into building mandolins?
BK: My father was a master carpenter, cabinet maker and stone mason. He had shown me as a little boy how to use tools and I worked for him in my summers off from school starting about age 8. He made sure that I would have a trade when I was ready, but I opted for the military when I was 17. I was an aircraft mechanic and also an aircraft maintenance supervisor for 36 years.
JM: Did Mark have any experience building mandolins when you met him?
BK: Mark had about 10 guitars built when we first met, the K&G number 1 was the first for both of us.
JM: How did your first mandolin turn out? The second one?
BK: The first mandolin was a disaster from a fit and finish point of view, but it sounded ok, it wasn’t a Loar for sure, but it sold to a gentleman in Greenville S.C.
JM: How did Don Rigsby end up with number two?
BK: I gone to the new years festival in Jekyll Island, Lonesome River Band was there, I approached Don with that mandolin and showed it to him. He liked it a lot and we worked out an endorsement deal. He played that mandolin a long time and I built him an A model also soon after that. Because of him our mandolins really took off. Shawn Lane, Alan Bibey, and Austin Clark of Clark Family fame and many other professionals soon after were playing our mandolins.
JM: How long were you and Mark partners & what caused the split? How many K&G mandolins had you built?
BK: We had built approximately 40 or so mandolins, we didn’t keep very good records back then. We were building together from 1993 thru 2000. Mark was a metals fabricator for 25 years, or so, and was tired of doing that, so he decided to do luthiery full time. I was still in the Air Force so we mutually decided that 1 full time and 1 part time partner would not work, so we split in business and are still good friends to this day. He is a independent contractor for Randy Wood Guitars as well as his own guitar business.
JM: Do you build mandolins exclusively?
BK: For a lot of years that’s all I had built, but had since completed several guitars, violins and even an upright bass.
JM: How many and what style mandolins do you build?
BK: We have The F, A and 2 point models all available with “F” or oval holes and lots and lots of bells and whistles are available. We had recently offered a less adorned model we call it Economy model.
JM: Have the economy models sold well for you?
BK: I guess they have done ok, players seem to like them. Things are slow right now, I don’t know if it is because of the slack economy or other reasons.
JM: I noticed on your website a “Kratzer” mandolin, is it that different from the Bulldog mandolins? Perhaps your “premium” model?
BK: Yes , it is my premium model. I have been at this mandolin building thing for almost 17 years and have kept my mandolins at a reasonable working mans price, but then here about in the last 4 years or so, I see rookie builders with 6-8 mandolins under their belt getting 5 thousand for a mandolin, I still cant figure that one out. So, therefore a price hike on the “Kratzer” mandolin, and I don’t care if they stack up like cord wood, I am tired of “giving away” my craft. The next step will be to close my shop like so many others have done, and work at something I can make a little money at, hopefully I won’t have to do that.
JM: Have you used any other woods in your mandolins, besides the tried and true maple, red spruce and ebony?
BK: I have used Sycamore with great success, some of the best fiddles were built with it. I had built a mesquite F5, it sounded great. Other woods have been Brazilian Rosewood, Satinwood, Koa and Mahogany. I have used Sitka, European and recently have been using a lot of Englemann spruce.
JM: How would you describe the differences in tone of these various woods?
BK: I have found that the harder the back and side woods are, they will be more of a treble heavy instrument, really cutting on the A and E strings. Mesquite, Satin Wood , and Rosewood are the hardest materials I have used. The sycamore mandolins are my favorite, the wood has the same properties as maple but for some reason sound more mellow to my ear than maple.
JM: Have you had good luck selling instruments that are not Maple & Adirondack, or are most folks open to different woods if the instrument sounds good?
BK: We have had good luck selling all our instruments, but since October of 2008 , sales has been up and down and unpredictable.
JM: Have you used any wood bindings?
BK: Not yet, but my next F5 will have wood bindings.
JM: Do you know what woods you will be using for the binding?
BK: I will use curly maple , and keep them natural colored.
JM: How will you finish that one? Natural bindings against stained wood really gives a nice effect, though it is a lot of extra work.
BK: The top will be black faced, sides and neck will be that 1920′s F4 red.
JM: What do you believe is the most important aspect of building a high quality mandolin?
BK: I like to work clean, I mean the shop in general, but more important, a clean mandolin. Wiping all excess glues, careful sanding practices and nice finish’s. Also initially the graduations for all the wood involved, tops and backs etc.
JM: What is your favorite part of building instruments?
BK: Probably the peaceful nature of gluing wood together, carving it, shaping it, sanding it. Lots of isolated time behind a workbench, which for me is great therapy, a good time to think. My previous career as an Air Force aircraft mechanic was hectic, always go, go, go.
JM: Do you build in batches?
BK: We build two mandolins at a time. It allows me to continue work on one while I wait for glue to dry or something like that on another. When it comes time for final sanding, I finish one and my wife works on the second one.
JM: How tooled up is your shop? Do you use a lot of power tools? Which tools are the most important to your building process?
BK: We have all the typical woodworking tools. Two band saws, belt sander, Joiner, Duplicator carving machine that I built. The power feed detail sander was my last big purchase, but I had one that I had built before that. Several table saws and a radial arm saw. Oh yea, and a router table. The power tools I wouldn’t want to go without are the band saws, and the belt sanders, very handy stuff there.
JM: Do you make all the wooden parts for your mandolins? Do you make any of the metal parts?
BK: Yes, I make all wooden parts with the exception of bridges, but I have made them too, it is just easier to buy them from Randy Wood. I do not make any metal parts.
JM: What type of finishes do you use and why?
BK: I use Nitro lacquer and for high end mandolins, if requested oil varnish. I am comfortable with both and feel that I give a good finish with either product. I have a separate air conditioned building for spraying, so it is fairly trouble free. The only complication, being from the deep south, is dealing with the humidity in the summer time, lacquer hates humidity. I offer a gloss or matte finish.
JM: There is a lot of talk about which finish is “the best”, several builders have told me they think that the thickness of the finish is more important what material you use. Do you have any thoughts on that?
BK: I always try to keep the finish as thin as possible. It definitely is a balancing act to get everything level and keep it thin. You always have to stay diligent when level sanding so you don’t cut through the finish. I also like oil varnish, that normally takes so long to cure. I use a ultraviolet light drying box to speed that up.
JM: Have you built any other members of the mandolin family?
BK: I have had requests to do some mandolas, but have never tooled up for that yet. I need to construct the molds and patterns and all. Maybe I will get to that soon. I don’t really have a passion for anything else, I suppose that there might be a market for them.
JM: Do you do any repair work?
BK: Yes we do some repair work, but I don’t advertise for it. I offer warranty work on all my instruments, but they do not come back all that often. One I had to re-neck because of a drop accident. Mostly fret work and setups. Randy Wood’s shop is only about 12 miles from my house, and he does most of the acoustic repair in the area, and I send a lot of potential repair customers there.
JM: Will you have instruments at any of the festivals this year?
BK: We have put a hiatus on most festivals for this summer, we are saving up for a trip to Germany for my wife’s parents 50th wedding anniversary. We will pick it back up next year, hopefully.
JM: What is the best way to get to sample your mandolins?
BK: We feature sound clips on the website, which my wife Sabine maintains, and also the option to come to the house , we welcome all that want to try them to come here. Also, on a purchase , there is a 48 hour approval period for the customer to become acquainted with the mandolin. When we go to festivals we usually have 2-3 mandolins with us, please approach us, we love to talk instruments.
JM: Is there anything else you would like to add?
BK: I wanted to mention that my wife does all of the inlay work on the mandolins, as well as maintaining the website and assisting on final sanding and level sanding. I couldn’t do it without her, and wouldn’t want to build without her, its like having an additional set of hands and eyes, plus she is great company and a fun person to be around.
JM: Thanks for your time Barry, I enjoyed speaking with you. I hope I get to play more of your mandolins soon.
I have had the pleasure to play 2 of Barry’s mandolins, they were very nice instruments, excellent craftsmanship, easy playing & great tone & volume.
Barry may be contacted through his website:
and by phone at:
912 – 728 – 8840
912 – 655 – 9613
Joe Mendel may be contacted @ http://jmendelfrets.com/