Sunday, January 15, 2017

Seafaring Ukes (IW #'s 87, 88, 89)

I have really fallen behind on posting about instruments I have made.  This trio was a real joy for a lot of reasons, not least the lumber involved.  A couple of good friends worked for a boatyard in Maine for a while, and while they were there they worked on a vessel called the "Spirit of Bermuda."  This 112 foot Bermuda Sloop was built of Bermudan Cedar (actually a juniper relative, I believe), so when they did the renovation they had to source Bermudan Cedar, and they had some off-cuts left over.  This wood is mostly extinct, I think, due to an insect blight introduced during or shortly after WWII, so it is a very rare wood.

The back of the baritone.  The grain is breathtaking
Off-cuts from a boatyard are pretty sizable to a guy making instruments, however, so my friends saved me a bunch of it and loaded me up with it a couple of years ago as I was passing through on my way back from Haystack Mountain School of Crafts.  What a gift.

Ukes have been a part of my life since early childhood when my mom played songs for us on an old Silvertone she had had with her in Guatemala when she was in the Peace Corps.  More recently, I formed a uke-based group here in Syracuse with a couple of good friends that has been going strong for several years now.  Because of that, I thought I would make a pair of sister ukes and a baritone.  I like bari ukes better than sopranos because my fat fingers struggle on the soprano fingerboards.

While working the wood, the shop smelled like a hamster cage.  It was QUITE lovely and that stuff is hard hard hard.  It did NOT like bending, and I shattered the first pair of sides.  I was able to prevail, though, and it is stunning lumber.  The tops are from a mast that my friends took off the 1913 schooner Adventress.  It was not the original mast, I think this one dates to the 1980's.  But it is the straightest grain Sitka spruce I have ever seen, and it sounds fantastic.  On the Baritone uke I purposely used the part of the mast that the sail track ran up, and the hardware holes really accent the top of the instrument.

On one of the soprano ukes I did not put a sound hole at all, I just let the hardware holes be the sound hole, and it sounds pretty great, actually.   On all three instruments I ran a strip of hard maple up the center of the neck for stiffness, and the fingerboards are pear wood. 

They really are quite an attractive family of instruments, I think, and their sound is super warm.  Here is what the baritone sounds like:

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Sister Tenor (IW#86)

When I make a thing, I often find it helpful to make it again to work out the kinks.  As it turns out, I only was able to work out a few of the kinks, but repeating the process is always instructive. 

After making the first tenor guitar, I set out to make a sister instrument that used the same dimensions and forms and materials, but that tightened up some of the details.  I made the neck slimmer, enlarged the sound hole, deepened the sound box.  I also strung it with mediums, not lights, and it really has quite a presence.  This has become my go-to guitar, and it has seen a lot of use in the last few months.

The sides and back are chestnut, and I love the bookmatch on the back, I call it "Devil eyes."  A Cuban friend was in my shop not to long ago and he agreed "ojos del Diablo!"

Monday, April 25, 2016

Left Hand Banjo (IW# 85)

A friend out in Colorado asked if I'd make him a banjo, and sent me these really nice bottle caps from the Left Hand Brewing Company.  I do love a good bottle cap, and these were those.  He is one of the best furniture makers htat I know, so I took out a piece of (slightly) flamed maple I had been hoarding for the neck, and used one of my best pie tins.  "Mrs. Robinson's" pies must have been quite thing in their day: you had to pay a deposit on the tin.

I do love these bluesmaster banjos.  They are fun to play, and nothing else sounds quite like them.  Here is this one:

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Exploration (IW#84, TG#01)

I suppose it was inevitable:  Eventually I would have to make a "real guitar."  Well, it happened.  Using the classic Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology by William Cumpliano and Jonathan Natelson (as well as leaning heavily on my friend Tom Fay and others for support) I built a guitar.  A real guitar with bent sides and X-braced top and dovetailed neck and the whole shebang.  I learned a lot, and am now smitten with the process.

All of the material in this instrument came form cast-off pianos, so it is chestnut and spruce, but except for a couple of screw holes on the back of the neck it does not read as being made form anything other than wood.  Which flies in the face of what the Instrument Works is meant to be about, but there it is.

So following are a lot of photos of this, the first of what is likely to be at least a few more of these.  It is a tenor guitar, of course, because I don't know how to play 6 strings anymore.  The body is tiny tiny, closer to a Bari uke than a guitar.  This was driven by the available material, though for upcoming instruments that will change.  True to form, I am going to build a second model exactly based on this one to work out the kinks, and then move to other bodies and necks.  Here are a couple of build photos, followed by a video of playing it at two days old. 

And here is how it sounds.  Pretty ok!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Sticking to the Union (IW #83)

In a couple of weeks I am going with my band the Malvinas to play at the Workers Arts and Heritage Center (actually, I suppose that is "Centre") in Hamilton, Ontario.  Part of what we will be doing there is playing a sing-along of workers songs, so I wanted to have an appropriate machine to do that on.

Apparently the Salvation Army used to beat a drum on the street to collect alms and people would throw pennies onto the drum head.  The only thing I know about this is from the good old Wobbly song "The Preacher and the Slave," which mentions it.  Anyway, it seemed to me it could be good to have a couple of instruments at your disposal if you were trying to drum up support for your fellow workers, so I used an old tambourine I got from somewhere and a pie tin to make this little banjo.

I put a bunch of IWW images and slogans on it, and then because it has to travel I made it a case, which I lined with the remnants of an antique quilt that I love.  The band lent a hand (literally) to decorate the case, covering the top with red hand prints, to remind us of all the blood shed in the ongoing fight of workers to change the conditions of their labor and the conditions of their lives.

Here is the video:

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

At the Museum

Photo courtesy of Erika Meiler

A good friend, who also happens to be a hell of a sailor and singer, was asked to sail on the Charles W. Morgan and took along a little uke I made for her.  At the end of the voyage the sailors were asked to donate objects for the collection of the Mystic Seaport Museum, and she donated her uke.  So the Instrument Works is now a part of the permanent collection of the Mystic Museum.  I could not be more proud to know her or to be a part of this museum that I love so much.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Historic Canjo Workshop

We have guests this weekend, and the boys wanted to make canjos.  Not only did we make canjos, we made history:  the first two-string canjos I have ever made!  Pretty successful, and always good to get kids in the shop making.  An eleven year old and a six year old, and they did great and came out with some pretty good instruments.  Two string canjos.  What'll they think of next?  The eleven year old, as we were working, said "One string canjos are the past!  Two string canjos are the now!"

Here they are using a dozuki saw.  I think we need to be introducing kids to this kind of work at much earlier ages.