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Mandolins of the mountains

In a shed at the foot of the San Juans, Bobby Wintringham is crafting top-tier instruments
Bobby Wintringham, owner of San Juan Mandolins, inspects the craftsmanship on an octave mandolin he is building in his shop north of Cortez. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

LEWIS – Bobby Wintringham, the sole, steady and unassuming hand behind San Juan Mandolins, prefers to be in the background.

He’s putting the finishing touches on instrument No. 84, a guitar-shaped octave mandolin (tuned one octave below a mandolin), that he hopes to sell at an upcoming music festival later this month.

“I have felt, through the years, that I have gotten to points where I thought, ‘Oh man, now they're starting to get good.’ After 15 (years), and then in the 30s I thought it was a really big jump,” Wintringham reflected. “But I just really don't feel like I fully got it until the pandemic.”

He builds just four instruments per year, some on order, others to sell at festivals. He built his first mandolin in 1994, and the hobby became a full-time profession with the birth of San Juan Mandolins in 2002. Today, his standard mandolin sells for close to $8,000.

The luthier speaks with humility, not in that he feigns naiveté of his talent, but that he is hesitant to ruminate on it. So much so, one might forget, or not even suspect, that the mandolins that come out of his shed of a shop north of Cortez are played onstage by titans of the bluegrass world – names he would rather not air to protect their privacy over promoting his own fame.

Bobby Wintringham, owner of San Juan Mandolins, is patient and detailed in his concentration, although he says the work does not demand patience because he enjoys every step of the process. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

But Wintringham, a furniture maker turned self-taught luthier, has spent nearly 30 years working to make the best bluegrass mandolin he can. Most of his instruments are an F5 model, a scroll-adorned mandolin designed by a sound engineer who worked for Gibson in the 1920s by the name of Lloyd Loar.

To most bluegrass mandolinists, the very highest echelon of instrument comprises the F5s that Loar himself worked on and signed, produced between the model’s release in 1922 and Loar’s departure from Gibson in 1924. These instruments, known as “Loars,” sell for anywhere between $100,000 and $200,000.

“I love what a good mandolin sounds like, the Loars, and this is all I need – what's in here tells you what you need to know to build one that could sound as good as a Loar,” Wintringham says, pointing to the copy of Roger Siminoff’s “Constructing a bluegrass mandolin,” from which he first learned his trade. “I'm perfectly happy to see how far I can take what's already been done, of course making it my own, but within the traditional parameters. I've had a lot of people compare the sound of my mandolins to Loars.”

Bobby Wintringham, owner of San Juan Mandolins, looks over blueprints of an archtop guitar, the plans for which he is using to build an octave mandolin. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

He adds, “it feels pretty good,” with a modest smile.

Wintringham worked from the book to build his first few instruments, before he began to stray from the directions.

“Doing stuff like this, you’ve got to be self-taught,” he said. “It’s like playing an instrument – people can show you some stuff, show you how they do it, but you can't help it, you're gonna find ways to do it, and that's the way you're gonna do it.”

The F5 is not an instrument inclined to suffer a fool of a luthier. The parts are hand-carved of pricey and increasingly uncommon tone wood into the arched back and top; the instrument has an asymmetrical body shape, contrasting angular points with soft rolling scrolls figured in three dimensions.

Wood shavings of red maple on the table in the shop where Bobby Wintringham, owner of San Juan Mandolins, is building his 84th instrument. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The red maple, which is milled to create nearly identical slabs which sit together like the pages of an open book, costs $650 for just one instrument’s worth of wood. Wintringham is slow and methodical with his work, and prefers to be alone in his shop for certain high-consequence building steps.

But his gentle and unrushed hands serve him well.

Not once, he says, has he shaved a brace too thin. The slats of spruce glued underneath the top of the instrument must be strong enough to shore up the structural integrity of the instrument but not so thick that they muddy its tone.

He uses a jeweler’s saw to cut out each intricate piece of the shimmering inlay by hand – another process some might consider laborious and slow.

“For me, it's not a matter of patience,” Wintringham says. “I enjoy almost everything, every process here. And with this, I just want it to look good.”

Bobby Wintringham’s personal mandolin is No. 25-35, meaning it is the 25th F5 he built and the 36th instrument. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Bluegrass seeds in fertile ground

Although he built his first mandolin in Tuscon, Arizona, Wintringham’s career began, in a way, at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

Bobby Wintringham, left, in a photo with bluegrass mandolinist Sam Bush after Wintringham asked Bush to play the first mandolin Wintringham ever made. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

In 1985, he attended the festival for the first time, where he saw amateur pickers wail off bluegrass riffs in the campground and thought “I want to learn how to do that.”

It was also there he met Michael Hornick, a boutique guitar builder, who proved to Wintringham that it was possible to make his own instruments.

And it was in Telluride that Wintringham watched two bands jam by the river; they would soon unite to produce the polyethnic-cajun-slamgrass sound now known as Leftover Salmon. The band’s mandolinist, Drew Emmitt, became an early supporter of San Juan Mandolins.

“He's such a great guy, you know? Just really supportive of what I'm doing, he really believes in me,” Wintringham said of Emmitt.

It is in Telluride, among the peaks of their namesake, that Wintringham says his mandolins live up to their name. Despite the dry mountain air in which other instruments are liable to shrink and move, rendering them unplayable, San Juans don’t budge.

At this year’s 50th Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Wintringham showed up with one instrument for sale. By midday Saturday, it had sold. It was the best-sounding mandolin he has built, but Wintringham says he still prefers his own mandolin, No. 25-36 (meaning the 25th F5 he had built and the 36th instrument overall).

Bobby Wintringham, owner of San Juan Mandolins, says his own mandolin is not the best sounding instrument he’s every built, “but it’s my favorite.” (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Seated in a chair outside his kitchen, Wintringham picked out a quiet tune on the gig-worn instrument.

“It's my favorite, just because I've been playing it for so long,” he said. “It feels really good and I’ve developed a sound based on that instrument. So I'm never gonna sell this.”


The back of Bobby Wintringham’s F5 mandolins are hand-carved out of red maple. The style is among the hardest instruments to make. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

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