Sunday, September 10, 2017

Oak Parlor Guitar (IW#92)



Good friends of mine have a little early 20th century parlor guitar made out of oak.  It's a nice little number, and has that very deep "V" shaped neck you see on older instruments sometimes.  I had not seen a guitar made out of oak before, and I was intrigued.  Turns out is was a pretty common guitar tone wood for some time, I can only surmise that is because oak bends so easily, but also makes a nice strong neck.

The 1900 Shaw piano I took apart and wrote about here had some oak parts, so when a good friend asked if I would make him a little guitar that would be a good camping and traveling guitar, this seemed like the right fit.

The back and sides are American red oak, the top is Sitka spruce, from the same ship's mast that the tops of these are from.  The finger board is from a dogwood tree that was felled on the land that I grew up on, because dogwood is super hard and because my friend is from Virginia, which (like North Carolina) has dogwood as the state tree.

It is really throaty sounding, notwithstanding the small body, and is really easy to play.  One of the things I learned on this one is that I am NOT a good finisher, so I have a lot to learn in that department, but this is a really fun guitar that sounds better than any I have made so far.

Here is what it sounds like:




Thursday, July 13, 2017

Piano Workshops (1 of 2): Arrowmont



As is true with a lot of my recent posts, there is so much more that I want to say than there is time to say it.  So this is going to be too brief, but I'll hit the high points.

There are a number of craft schools around the country that are committed to maintaining and spreading craft traditions, as well as moving craft practice forward into the 20th century.  By "craft" I mean medium specific crafts like ceramics, blacksmithing, wood working, wood turning, fibers, jewelry making.  Interesting to think about craft in the 21st century, and I do keep wondering when coding will be added to the list at schools like these.

At any rate, there are two craft schools that are prominent in my life:  Arrowmont School of Art and Craft in Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Haystack Mountain School of Craft in Deer Isle, Maine.  I'll write in the next post about Haystack, this post is about Arrowmont.

I started going to Arrowmont in 1999 or 2000, I think.  I know my first workshop was with a sculptor named Jack Slentz.  It was my first introduction to the idea that art and craft could really be a viable path for anyone, and it was, to put it mildly, a seminal moment in my life.  Over the next few years, my wife and I (through the auspices of my mother) met my sister and mother at Arrowmont every summer for a week of making and art and music in a way that deeply affected my life.  It is not hyperbole to say that going to Arrowmont was the catalyst that made me decide to quit theater, apply to and attend RISD, and become a furniture designer and maker.

Because of this, I was honored and humbled to be asked to come lead a workshop at Arrowmont last summer (2016).  It was in many ways a sign that I am doing what I "should be doing," whatever that means.  What a joy it was.

Seven students, a TA (my old friend and inveterate weirdo Kevin Cwalina) and me.  Two pianos, six days.  It was a whirlwind, and it was hard for a lot of reasons.  Hard but good.  And several people walked away with something that made sound, though they were all pretty strange.

Integral to the experience, I think, was the dismantling of the pianos.  They are such wonder-full objects, in the sense that they are full of wonder, as am I every time I dismantle one.  I think I am at eleven pianos now, though I may be missing one.  What incredible machines.  I am so glad we can give them new life.  And the great thing about working with other people is that they think totally differently about them than I do.

I have tended to make guitar-y instruments, but they (as you will see) were much less confinced to that.  Here are some images:


Beginning the dismantling.
A good group of weirdos.

This did not get finished during the workshop, but it was big and strange, that's for sure.
A tenor guitar.  I really liked the way this student used the music rack as ornament.  I always just throw that thing away.

This was like a mini-koto.  It sounded great.

An almost-finished tenor guitar.

A really lovely bluetooth speaker gramophone.  It sounds pretty amazing when you play music through it.




Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Palying Piano (again, but differently)



As a part of the workshop at Haystack Mountain School of Craft last month, my good friend and Teaching Assistant Joee Patterson and I used the tackle from her boat to suspend the harp from one of the pianos on a small stage in the woods on Haystack's campus.  I composed a few pieces on it, and Haystack student and incredible photographer Lara Kastner videoed my playing one of them that was inspired by the tides on Deer Isle, Maine, where Haystack is located.  Edited by Daylight Blue Media, as always.


Monday, July 10, 2017

More Canjos



There have been so many canjo workshops at this point that I can't even count how many have gone out into the world.  I have done them with young people, old people, in workshops and at festivals. Here are a few photos from the past couple of years:



A mini workshop in my shop 2014

Brooklyn Folk Festival.  This was in 2016, but I also did a workshop at BFF in 2017.

Workers Arts and Heritage Center, Hamilton, Ontario 2016
Arrowmont School of Art and Craft, 2016
Syracuse University Students, 2017
Haystack Mountain School of Craft, 2016


A cross-studio workshop also at Haystack Mountain School of Craft 2017
There are other workshops but I either did not document them well or I can not find the photos.  Oh, well.  Suffice it to say that I have sent hundreds of these things into the world at this point.  Democratize Making!

I have also made a pdf handout.  Feel free to download, print, and disseminate widely!  Canjos bring so much joy for so many reasons:  They are easy to make, they are (relatively) easy to play, and they are, after all silly and delightful.


Friday, July 7, 2017

(rust) Echoes



It has been far too long since I have chronicled work here, so I am going to try to catch up a little.  For this post I am writing about a recent installation titled (rust)Echoes in 914Works, a multi-use space here in Syracuse.  Apologies in advance for the length of this post, there is a lot to cover.

This was my third spatial installation, and in many ways it was an opposite to the Rust O Phone in that it was in an interior space as opposed to a park.  The considerations are different, and the instruments inhabit the space in a very different way.  It is much more possible to have a direct influence on the viewer's experience of the instruments and the space, and to focus their attention.As a part of this I collaborated with a theatrical director, Katherine McGerr, who devised a piece with five Syracuse University Drama students that was also presented in the space.

This installation was comprised of five separate instruments that were visually and conceptually linked.  I'll address each of them individually below, but overall they addressed sounds that evoke to me the trains that once rolled through this part of Central New York.  The train system in this country was massive and powerful at one time, and the web of timber and steel wove this country together in a way that was very different from the Interstate Highway system we now have.  It was a real loss when that system was dismantled, and i wanted to both celebrate its time and mourn its passing.

Instrument 1:  The Spikelophone
The Spikelophone

This instrument is a xylophone made of railroad spikes.  It is related to the next instrument in that it celebrates the sound of a prosaic object that is an accidental percussion instrument.  Spikes are made to be struck, and the noise of a rail gang sinking these spikes is actually quite musical, if you have a group that can really do it.  In the course of using the installation, we also discovered that the wooden panels to the right of the Spikelophone have their own sounds and are a secondary instrument.

Instrument 2:  Nailing Stump

The Nailing Stump
This is the sister instrument to the Spikelophone.  Here instead of celebrating the spike we celebrate the maul, or hammer that is used to drive it.  This instrument is made up of a wooden "stump" built out of old beams, a bucket of twenty-penny nails, and a "spike maul" which is a specialized sledge hammer shaped so that the user can drive the spike very close to the rail.  One of the things that has always struck me (see what I did there?) about driving nails of any size is that the pitch rises as the nail is driven.  Each nails sings its own little song as it is driven, but unless you drive nails with a hammer you never hear that voicing.  And who uses a hammer to drive nails anymore?  This once-ubiquitous action is itself a thing of the past, and there are many people now who have driven very few if any nails in their lives.  It was interesting to see someone approach this piece who had driven a lot of nails, several people came up to me and said something along the lines of "I am so glad that you can really hear the nail go in!"

Instrument 3:  Intonatruss

The Intonatruss
This instrument came about after the Intonarumori project I was a part of a few years ago.  It is such an interesting sound machine, but all the good stuff is hidden inside the box, and I wanted to display and celebrate the workings.  This particular instrument seemed to me to be a perfect centerpiece for this installation, as it can make a sound like the moan of a train far off in the distance, or the screeching of the wheels on a piece of track that needs to be lined, or the sound of the engine itself barreling across the landscape.  This photo shows me with the Intonatruss just for scale.

Instrument 4:  Gong Rack

Gong Rack
Bells of various types have long been associated with trains and tracks, from the polished brass bell on the locomotives to the bells that warn of an approaching train.  These fire extinguishers all have distinct voices, though I did manage to tune them all so that they resonate sympathetically with each other.

Instrument 5:  Piano

Fireman's Post / Piano
The work that I have been doing with pianos  has left me with some still-strung harps from dismantled pianos.  I love these objects (I will post soon with a video of me playing one at Haystack Mountain School of Craft and wanted to put one in this installation.  This is a very simple presentation of what I think is a lovely found sculpture.  The original intention was to play it by using a coal shovel, so that the musician would mimic the movements of the Fireman on a steam train.  As it turns out there are so many ways to play this instrument that we used a variety of methods and got a huge number of sounds out of it.

Here is a video shot by Daylight Blue Media of a piece that was composed by one of may favorite collaborators:  Leo Crandall.


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: