Tag Archives: Art

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

The Ram’s Head

An intricate ram's head butt cap tipped me off that this was not an ordinary knife.

An intricate ram’s head butt cap tipped me off that this was not an ordinary knife.

Our cabin on the Sauk River has a functioning firwood floor, a used wood stove in one corner, resting on a pad of ceramic tiles, gaps in the logs where the light shines through, and around twenty lights of glass shattered by gunfire in a vandal’s rampage. There’s a bit more work to do to restore it to a comfortable condition, but it’s come a long way from the way it looked at this time last year. Then it was supported by rotting logs on irregular concrete shards. It had been infested by rats and bats and mice for several years.

I have to admit that I was unsure that we would ever make it habitable again, but when my wife asked me where I wanted to go in our trailer that summer, I opined that we really ought to fix up the cabin and make it our own private campground. She jumped at the opportunity.

The cabin early in the restoration process slopes on its gaping supports, aging log sections that were rotting in place.

The cabin early in the restoration process slopes on its gaping supports, aging log sections that were rotting in place.

We tore down counters, cupboards and flimsy walls. We dragged out the old rusty stove, the metal cabinets, the metal barstools bolted to the old sagging floor. We hired help to drag the old Monarch cookstove outside where we dumped out the rat’s nests that packed its interior. We hired others to cart away a huge pile of metal debris someone had dumped in the ferns across the driveway. We figured out how to support the upright log walls while we removed the rotten old foundations, if you could call them that. Continue reading

Written in the Earth

A soldier of Custer's regiment uses his Springfield carbine as a club. Source of this painting is not known.

A soldier of Custer’s regiment uses his Springfield carbine as a club. Source of this painting is not known.

When you grow up in desert heat, at least when video games and television have yet to proliferate, one of the joys of childhood is playing with the garden hose. Personally, I enjoyed digging rivers and lakes into the earth of the wire enclosure where our chickens roamed. I remember the amazement of unearthing a living frog that had burrowed into the ground for hibernation, and that had narrowly avoided the blade of my shovel.

One of my maxims about the desert landscape around Saddle Mountain is that this earth is honest. When people pass through, the traces they make remain to be read by those who come after them. As I think back on the traces we’ve discovered on our farm alone, it amazes me that so much history is written in its sand and dust.

In the early 1960s my father hooked his tractor to a battered old machine he called the rototiller. He was in the process of rooting sagebrush out of a new field, and this machine would completely destroy the plants that grew there naturally. Continue reading

What We Later Learn

Oblivious to the true history of the site, my Whitworth College tour mates and I clambered through preserved battle lines at Babi Yar.

Oblivious to the true history of the site, my Whitworth College tour mates and I clambered through preserved battle lines at Babi Yar.

In the Spring of 1978 the Whitworth College study tour of the Soviet Union made the last major stop on our visit, at Kiev. As usual, our group was posted to a tourist hotel, provided with buses and a suave trained tour guide, and directed to all the major tourist sites in the area. Having spent the summer before reading some chronicles of ancient Russia in which the origins of the empire of the Rus were placed at Kiev, this was one of the places I most looked forward to seeing.

From the bluffs above the river outside the walls of the medieval Kiev Pechersk Lavra monastery I looked down on ragged forests that I was sure concealed the remains of the Viking camps that became Kiev’s first royal halls. But the tour guide had a schedule to keep and he herded us all inside the church hall. It was somewhat disconcerting to find Ukrainian peasants inside the church, gamely trying to worship while the guide led us from icon to icon, pointing out the hollow jars buried inside the heavy columns with their mouths exposed to provide reverberation. As I stood gape-mouthed and amazed at the intricate details of the church an old woman in a head scarf and a brown apron shifted past me, muttering the warning, “Ne smeyatsia!” She had mistaken my appreciation of the building for mockery of the worshipers. 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

Waiting for a Train

Taunton’s red brick substation from the middle of the abandoned Milwaukee Road main line, looking west in July, 2012.

In the 1940s the Milwaukee Road provided an important means of transportation in Central Washington. Gasoline rationing meant that much travel took place by train.Whether they were traveling out of military duty or seeking work on farms or at the burgeoning Manhattan Project south of Saddle Mountain, travelers might at some point be stranded in the middle of nowhere, waiting for a train.

I grew up near the red brick substation of Taunton, a minor stop on the line. It’s hard to imagine why strangers from Virginia or Ohio might find themselves waiting for a train at Taunton. Perhaps their train had to pull onto the siding to get out of the way of another, more important train. Nonetheless, in my intimate knowledge of the Taunton substation, I knew of several occasions when stranded travelers left evidence of their visit in the form of scrawled pencil lines on the red brick.

Travelers’ graffiti that remains of the walls of Taunton’s substation is usually found on bricks that would be in shaded areas in the heat of an afternoon. With no air conditioning, it would quickly become unbearably Continue reading