These days, you can buy a mandolin for less than $100.
But you get what you pay for, right?
How can a mandolin be so inexpensive?
Here’s how you go about making a cheap mandolin:
- Overseas production in places like China where workers are paid subsistence wages. No need for skilled workers, because they do the same task day in and day out with no change in their routine. Assembly-line mandolin making.
- Low-quality components: pressed-metal tuning machines (instead of machined parts), poorly-made frets, one-size-fits-all bridges and nut.
- Plywood tops that require less bracing than normal mandolin tops.
- No carving to shape the top. It’s simply pressed and bent under heat and moisture. No carving for the other parts either; they’re just routed.
- Lower-quality finish, very few coats of finish.
- Plastic components
- Dyed wood to simulate ebony and/or rosewood
- Most cheap mandolins are A-model mandolins rather than F-Style Mandolins, because there is less detail work needed to turn out the simpler model
If the mandolin is your main instrument, or one of your main instruments, you won’t be satisfied with a sub-$100 mandolin:
- Frets will be be uneven, causing intonation problems
- Edges of frets will be rough and uncomfortable
- Instrument won’t be “set up” very well, and the “action” will be less than ideal
- The tuning machines will be difficult to operate
- The dye used to make the fingerboard look like high-quality hardwood will come off on your fingernails. Eventually, you’ll have worn spots that are easy to see
- The sound…
But if you just want to have a mandolin to experiment with, why not try one out? You don’t have much to lose at those prices.