Don MacRostie is internationally known and respected as one of the top mandolin builders in the country. For nearly 50 years, MacRostie has lived and worked as a luthier in Athens County, Ohio. A pioneer and innovator in the field, he’s built nearly 350 instruments at his Red Diamond Mandolins shop. His instruments have made their way into the hands of the world’s top performers as well as aspiring musicians.

MacRostie’s path to becoming a luthier can be traced back to around 1960, when he started guitar in high school. He continued to play and work on his own instrument throughout his time in the United States Navy and, later, as a student at Ohio University. At college, he also picked up a banjo, converting it from a four-string to a five-string instrument.

A fellow student from Asheville, Ohio, who made dulcimers, jumpstarted his interest in making mandolins. “I looked at that [dulcimer], and I said, ‘by golly, you can make these things, huh?’” said MacRostie. “That’s when I took an interest in building mandolins.”

When MacRostie started making mandolins in the early 1970s, he said there weren’t many resources available to guide him. Most instruments were made in a factory, not by individual makers. He used the few books that existed about guitar building to inspire his mandolin making.  A mandolin from a friend also gave him another starting point. He’d take measurements and experiment, “essentially copying, or making my version of that, and then it’s evolved over the years,” he said.

Not long after he started making instruments, MacRostie said to a friend, “I think I could do this for the rest of my life.” And he has.

As an educator and mentor, MacRostie has passed on his knowledge and skills as a master luthier to the next generation of instrument builders. For many years, he was director of research and design for the Athens-based Stewart-MacDonald Manufacturing Company, developing many of the tools used in lutherie today. He’s also taught at the American School of Lutherie and has taken on apprentices in his Athens shop. For MacRostie, building mandolins and sharing his knowledge includes more than just the “mechanics of bending sides” but also “part of a philosophy of life.”

He credits two organizations with which he became involved in the 1980s, the Guild of American Luthiers and the Association of String Instrument Artisans, for helping to cultivate an environment where knowledge-sharing is encouraged. They offered opportunities to connect with fellow makers and performers and display work at trade shows and conventions. Not only did this help MacRostie as he learned the craft, but it also enabled him to pass on his knowledge and facilitated collaborations with makers and performers.

“We were all excited about doing it ourselves, so we could get together and share ideas,” said MacRostie. “There was a real openness and us sharing, and nobody thought a thing about telling anybody what they were doing.” MacRostie continues to be open about what he’s doing in his workshop today.

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