The sweetness of bluegrass sound is built with the soul of a mandolin, and the best mandolins in the world are built in the shop of Antrim’s Mike Kemnitzer.
Mike Kemnitzer sits quietly in his cramped shop in Central Lake, near Charlevoix, holding a nearly finished mandolin top to his ear with his left thumb and middle finger. He taps the dinner-plate-sized piece of spruce lightly with the pad of his right index finger. With both hands, he then flexes the amber-colored wood in different directions. Next, he picks up a flat, thin steel scraper, and with a low-angle light illuminating the top, makes gentle swipes across the spruce that remove minuscule amounts of wood from chosen areas. He repeats the tapping, then the flexing, and scrapes some more. The scent of spruce, maple and lemon oil float in the tool-strewn room, where the usual hum from air conditioner, dehumidifier and radio has been silenced for these crucial adjustments. Kemnitzer taps again, and listens. The wood rings, pure and clear. The pitch is well-defined. After days of sculpting, pondering and manipulating, he has reached that magical pins-and-needles moment when the tone and flexibility are right. When a mere piece of contoured spruce becomes the top for a Nugget mandolin, one of the most revered instruments among mandolin players around the world.