Category Archives: Luthier

A Little Music for the New Year

The late, beloved Goku, inspiration for my tune, Spotted Cat.

The late, beloved Goku, inspiration for my tune, Spotted Cat.

I’ve spent the past few days reworking some of the music I’ve written over the past thirty years as a concertina and whistle player. Some tunes were also composed on the fiddle. The way the folk process works, some of these contain hints of melodies from other tunes. While I’ve copyrighted all of them, I’m putting the tunes out here for anyone to use, especially as they were written to be danced to.

To hear these tunes, you should download Easy ABC, a free music composition program available online. Copy my music, including the header, and paste it into the window labeled ABC Code. Then click on the play arrow to hear the tune. Print the music, play the music, mess with it. It’s for having fun with.

The first tune is one of the oldest, a jig written on the concertina in the early 1980s.  Because it’s a concertina tune, it presents a certain challenge on the fiddle. Continue reading

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Remember This

Weeping Willow and Loansome Hart left photographs of themselves inside a banjo ukulele, as a gentle "Remember Us."

Weeping Willow and Loansome Hart left photographs of themselves inside a banjo ukulele, as a gentle “Remember Us.”

My family has long had a close relationship to the making of music. If you go back far enough in my mother’s family, we were probably connected to the German composer of operas and organ music, Johann Georg Kühnhausen, whose Matthäus-Passion (Saint Matthew’s Passion) is still occasionally performed. But for the most part, we played much more informally.

My father and several of his buddies toured around Eastern Washington in the 1930s and 1940s, playing dances in little towns like Othello and White Bluffs as the Five Jives. Two of his brothers were members of a long-lasting semi-professional band that formed under Steve Laughery in Moses Lake and which continued to tour the west after Laughery died in a landslide. The memory of these bands survive in some of the artifacts we still possess, some sheet music inscribed with “Five Jives” and a couple of vinyl albums from the Many Sounds of Nine, my uncles’ band. I have written before about the old violin my father used to play, passed on to him from one of my mother’s uncles. I use it to play dance music in a couple of contra-dance bands in Northwestern Washington now.

There are no markings on the instrument to indicate how old it it. The name "Elton" is stamped on the metal resonator ring.

There are no markings on the instrument to indicate how old it it. The name “Elton” is stamped on the metal resonator ring.

Last month I found a very interesting instrument, seemingly meant for me. It had a peculiar back story and it fit a special niche in a musician’s repertoire. For there will always be a time when you want to create the most annoying sound you can musically make. In this case, with a banjo ukulele. Continue reading

An Untrodden Path

The surprise wasn’t quite total. I figured that my wife had some idea that I was building a violin in my shop, but it turns out she thought I was making a small-scale instrument for our daughter. When she held the new instrument in her hands she looked delighted.

First steps in building the electric fiddle. The tiny sketch was my concept thumbnail drawing. I used the x-ray of a Stradivarius to create the design on graph paper. Then I enlarged my design to full size to make the half pattern. Carefully cut out, I used the full size design to make the plywood template. I only cut the holes in one half because I can flip the template over to make the other half. On some of the instruments I may leave the holes out entirely.

First steps in building the electric fiddle. The tiny sketch was my concept thumbnail drawing. I used the x-ray of a Stradivarius to create the design on graph paper. Then I enlarged my design to full size to make the half pattern. Carefully cut out, I used the full size design to make the plywood template. I only cut the holes in one half because I can flip the template over to make the other half.

I decided to see what I could do with a plank of Big Leaf Maple from a tree that blew down a few years ago. It was warped and ugly, but in a short section it cleaned up nicely.

I decided to see what I could do with a plank of Big Leaf Maple from a tree that blew down a few years ago. It was warped and ugly, but in a short section it cleaned up nicely.

Run through the band saw and table saw, the board shows an attractive pattern. I traced the design onto it, using nails to permanently mark the center line.

Run through the band saw and table saw, the board shows an attractive pattern. I traced the design onto it, using nails to permanently mark the center line.

I roughed out the cut-outs with a drill press and chisels, but I wasn't pleased with the results. The shapes were too irregular and the chisel strokes tended to crush the grain

I roughed out the cut-outs with a drill press and chisels, but I wasn’t pleased with the results. The shapes were too irregular and the chisel strokes tended to crush the grain

Next time I'll go straight to the scroll saw, using a spiral blade. On this instrument I was able to clean up most of the bad cuts. The rest serve to testify to my learning curve.

Next time I’ll go straight to the scroll saw, using a spiral blade. On this instrument I was able to clean up most of the bad cuts. The rest serve to testify to my learning curve.

Before trimming the plank I roughed out the electronics chamber, with a drill press followed by the router. I used a plywood cutout to guide the router, but I ended up doing a fair amount of free-handing, too.

Before trimming the plank I roughed out the electronics chamber, with a drill press followed by the router. I used a plywood cutout to guide the router, but I ended up doing a fair amount of free-handing, too.

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I cut to within a couple of millimeters of the pencil lines defining the shape of the fiddle. The rest required sanding and filing.

The fingerboard and neck blanks were pre-shaped, but they still required a fair amount of carving.

The fingerboard and neck blanks were pre-shaped, but they still required carving on both the bottom and the top.

I used a hand plane and a custom-made file to smooth the top surface of the fingerboard. Flute maker Casey Burns gave me several tools he made years ago, and I'm finally putting them to use.

I used a hand plane and a custom-made file to smooth the top surface of the fingerboard. Flute maker Casey Burns gave me several luthier tools he made years ago, and I’m finally putting them to use.

I needed files and chisels to adjust the shape of the machine-made neck blank from a luthier supply house. One of the more challenging tasks was cutting the angle of the foot.

I needed files and chisels to adjust the shape of the machine-made neck blank from a luthier supply house. One of the more challenging tasks was cutting the angle of the foot.

Cutting the precise shape of the mortise into the body of the instrument was a task that surpassed my skills. Here I have glued in my first shim. I will trim it to size and continue adjusting the fit meticulously over the next few days. Eventually I'll do another shim on the other side. Tomorrow I will try to level the cheeks and bottom of the cut to keep the fingerboard true to the center line.

Cutting the precise shape of the mortise into the body of the instrument was a task that surpassed my skills. Here I have glued in my first shim. I will trim it to size and continue adjusting the fit meticulously over the next few days. Eventually I’ll do another shim on the other side. Tomorrow I will try to level the cheeks and bottom of the cut to keep the fingerboard true to the center line.

Truth to tell, the neck joint has been the most challenging part of the whole project. After revealing the gift to my wife, a dental lab technician, she spent a couple of hours attempting to level all the surfaces using a lathe with a burr. Unfortunately, her work exceeded the tolerances for the measurements at that joint, so I had to glue in another couple of shims. This time I opted for decorative work, using a scrap of exotic hardwood that will definitely stand out.

I built a jig to hold the neck square, then I tilted the band saw table to cut the angle of the foot. Then I used a fine-toothed saw to trim the sides, followed by carving with chisels.

I built a jig to hold the neck square, then I tilted the band saw table to cut the angle of the foot. The neck in this picture is reversed from the actual cut.Then I used a fine-toothed saw to trim the sides, followed by carving with chisels.

I dry-fit the neck in the hand-cut mortise countless times as I worked. I still don't have it quite right, but this morning I used hide glue for the first time, to permanently glue the fingerboard to the neck.

I dry-fit the neck in the hand-cut mortise countless times as I worked. I still don’t have it quite right, but this morning I used hide glue for the first time, to permanently glue the fingerboard to the neck.

There is still plenty to do to finish the instrument, but I’m now at the stage when I need to consult with the ultimate owner. Together we’re deciding on how to dye the wood and how to finish it. I’m explaining how the bridge will be set and I’m putting on more of the fixtures, like the saddle and the nut. Both of these and the bridge will require a few days of labor to make perfect. Then comes dying and varnishing. In the end, though, I expect success!

Making Music

First steps in building the electric fiddle. The tiny sketch was my concept thumbnail drawing. I used the x-ray of a Stradivarius to create the design on graph paper. Then I enlarged my design to full size to make the half pattern. Carefully cut out, I used the full size design to make the plywood template. I only cut the holes in one half because I can flip the template over to make the other half. On some of the instruments I may leave the holes out entirely.

A few months back my wife expressed an envy for a violin stand so that she didn’t have to unpack her instrument to practice. She thought she’d be more likely to play if the instrument was standing by, ready. It took only a couple of weeks for the stand to topple over, spilling the violin and bow on the floor. The fingerboard popped off. I later found a better-designed stand that grips the neck of the instrument automatically. If she wants another one, I’m ready with an idea.

As a rank amateur when it comes to fine instruments, I refused to try to set the fingerboard back in place. I suggested our old friend Dave Nerad might do a better job. The violin sat for a long time before she finally agreed to let me take it to Dave.

In the meantime I thought Patti deserved something less risky to play around on, and since we’d been talking about electric violins, it suddenly occurred to me that the first major project out of my new wood shop ought to be a gift for her.

A couple of years back I purchased an electronic book about designing and building an electric violin. With Christmas coming up, I decided to see what I could do about building an electric violin, my first attempt at building something from scratch.

The component search began simultaneously with the designing process. I went online with a list of items to buy: nut, fingerboard (being short on time I didn’t envision being able to carve a fingerboard or neck, so I intended to buy those parts), the end pin, tailpiece with its various related parts, the strings and so forth. The most important component would be the bridge, since it would include the pickup that would determine the quality of the sound.

I opted for a good Yamaha design, knowing that I would have a bit of re-wiring to do. The pickup was designed to be used on an acoustic violin rather than a purpose-built electric. I also wanted to figure out whether or not to use an on-board pre-amp to boost the signal from the weak piezo bridge pickup. I found an onboard pre-amp mounted in a jack, which would solve two mysteries at once. But the jack was bigger than I would have hoped, so it changed the design I had already  created, requiring me to abandon the left-hand cutout on the lower bout.

To design the body I first sought face-on images of fine violins. I selected an x-ray image of a Stradivarius to work with. I overlaid graph paper on a printout of the image and cut the fiddle back to its minimum requirements. I knew a violinist needs the sensory block of the body to help place their left hand on the high end of the scale, so that curve had to be maintained. Bridge distance was a constant, and so was body width where I would be mounting the chin rest and end pin. Continue reading