Thursday, March 2, 2017

Shaw Piano (IW# 91)

This one is made from Shaw Piano number 13837, which was made in 1900 right before the factory moved from Erie, Pennsylvania to Baltimore, Maryland.  This piano was in Wilkes-Barre, and the story that I heard about it is that Wilkes-Barre used to flood relatively regularly.  So teams of young men would go door to door during the flood to carry the pianos up to the second story until the flood waters receded.  Having moved this piano only a few feet I can tell you that I sure would not want any part of moving it upstairs!  It's a beast.

This piano had the widest conglomeration of woods that I have yet encountered.  Mostly poplar, it also had walnut and red oak elements, which so far has been unusual, in my experience.  The poplar was a dream to work with, and it was clearly from an old, slow-growing tree.  It was super dense, and heavy.  If it did not have the requisite green color I would have questioned the species it was so heavy.

The person who will own this guitar is a guitar player and plays six string, so this is my first foray into making a six string instrument.  Interesting.  The neck is a little beefier than I would like, one thing I learned here is that a small amount of extra material makes a HUGE difference in how the instrument plays.

It's a parlor size guitar, taken from drawings of a 1900 parlor guitar.  I really like the tight waist and big lower bout, and it has a pretty good sound.  The hole in the front is a leftover from the piano, it reminds the player of the history of the material, and invites stories about the piano, the family it belonged to, and now the instrument itself.

The piano in situ.  It's BIG!

Lovely carving.

Interestingly, the pins do not go through the harp, but pass over it.
Here's how it sounds:

Monday, February 6, 2017

Wrest-Plank Tenor (IW#90)

Continuing in the deconstructing of pianos, this one was more an exploration than an attempt to really make an everyday player.  Four string, because that is what I have gotten used to.  I used drawings for a 1900 parlor guitar, so the body is wider and deeper than I am used to.

The strings in a piano go to tuning pins, of course, and those pins are held in a set of laminated maple boards with a bunch of holes drilled in them.  This is called the "wrest-plank," and it is usually behind the harp of the piano.  I had a wrest-plank from a piano that I did not know what to do with, and I remembered that a friend of mine that was in a workshop I did at Arrowmont School of Art and Craft this summer has used the wrest-plank of a different piano as the sides of an experimental instrument.  This got me to wondering what a guitar would sound like if I used the wrest-plank for the sides.

So this is all out of a piano made by the Shaw Company in Erie, Penna in 1905, according to the serial number.  Except for the top, which is made out of the sound board of the piano, the entirety of the rest of the instrument is made out of the wrest-plank.  That includes the fingerboard, the binding, the back and sides, the neck. 

I think the multiplicity of holes is really lovely, and the sound is really loud for the player, since ALL of the sound is shooting right up into your face.  I also really love the "blonde-on-blonde" look of this one.  It will mellow out of course to a honey yellow, but right now it is super light. 

It has a super bright sound, which might be more about the youth of the instrument than the construction, but for now it is really crisp and clear and pretty fun to play, actually.

I used a short-ish guitar scale length, which really underscored to me how used I am to a true tenor-length neck, as all of the frets feel so far apart to me.  So not a player just yet, but I might make another one out of my next wrest-plank and it might end up being a player yet...

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: