Sunday, December 11, 2011

Ashton Uke (IW#36)

Been a long time since I have posted.  This does not reflect a lack of work, just a lack of time to write about it.    Let's get back into it, shall we?

Here is a lovely little fretless uke made from an Ashton cigar box.  Funny to use a brand-new cigar box, I get all worried about scratching it on the bench.  The bridge is a piece of moulding that came off of those church pews I got my hands on, it happened to be shaped exactly right, and seems to work well.  Initially I scuffed the finish on the box and epoxied the bridge on there, which worked pretty well for about a month.  The >sproingggg< sound that it made as the epoxy gave up the ghost one day was pretty exciting, which is what drove the brass machine screws.  Didn't seem to affect the sound too much.

This is also my first experiment with a bolt-on neck.  I had been making through necks so this was an exploration for me.  Turns out the major problem is that with a cigar box the tension of the strings makes the side of the box bow out, which releases some tension, so you tighten the strings, which makes the side bow out more.  I ended up running a piece of threaded rod right through to the other side, but that didn't fix the problem quite, either.  Not sure what I am going to do about that, but for now I think I'll go back to the "stick through a box" method.

Here is what it sounds like:

Banjo Uke (IW#35)

I have been wanting a banjo uke ever since I was in a jug band in the early Naughts.  Our washboard player Short Stride Clyde had one he got off of ebay and I have wanted one ever since.  Even though a lot of the tins I have used have technically been banjos, I have been wanting a real skin banjo uke.  I happened across this little tambourine and realized my time had come.

I feel a little weird taking apart one instrument to make another for this.  I have been having this struggle lately, thinking that maybe it would be better to buy cheap ukes on amazon or ebay and pull off the necks and use those for my diabolical purposes, but it is hard to see my way clear to ending the useful life of an instrument that has already been made.  So I have until now eschewed that line of reasoning.

But stretching a skin seems daunting, so I decided this little tambourine would be sacrificed to make my banjo uke.  It ended up being quite a nice little instrument, the neck being some more of that red oak that came from the church pews from a local church built in 1906.  The tail piece is the handle of a lovely silver fork from the flea market, it has some beautiful ornament.  Just a little fanciness. 

I am still learning how to play uke the way I want, and I have to admit, it is harder without frets.  Maybe in the new year I will break down and get some fret wire and start to try my hand at that.  Eesh.  Here's how it sounds:

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tin Box Uke (IW#035)

I got this little tin at the flea market.  I think it is actually steel soldered together, to be honest.  It has a nice ring to it though, and it made a pretty good little uke.  I am learning things about all of the parts of an instrument, and one of the things I learned with this one is that if the neck is too skinny it is hard to play.  Eventually I reckon I might make a new neck for this one.  I really like the mismatched tuning pegs, too, they really enhance the overall weirdness of the piece.  And the floating bridge on the head of the body makes it basically a banjo, really.  Just a steel head instead of a skin one.  Operates about the same, though.

I ended up running a piece of threaded rod through the body to secure the neck, which has the added bonus of making the neck adjustable.  Pretty cool.  Sounds good too, though I am finding that the limitation of all of the open-backed models is that they are damped when you hold them against your body.  Not too bad, though.  And it sounds real good when you beat on it in the middle of a song.  Real jug band-y in a good way.  Here is how it sounds:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Canjos for kiddos (IW#012 - IW#34)

I got into a conversation with the nice folks from the Bernice M Wright Lab School that ended with a chance to come do a canjo workshop with 22 two- and three-year-olds.  There are so many things I love about small children, not least that they have not yet learned what they can't do, if you know what I mean.  They are so ready to make music or sing or build or draw, they have not had the creative instinct hammered out of them by schools or peers or societal assumption.  So of course I was excited.

Some of the parts require a fair amount of care, so a friend helped me get the necks ready and drilled and get the tuning pegs in.  Then I met with some parents to build the instruments, which was fun in itself.  I often forget how foreign the simple act of putting in a screw or drilling a hole is for most folk.  This is not intended as a pejorative statement, there are plenty of activities that I am not good at that others do constantly and consistently.  I find it useful, though, to be reminded about the assumptions I am making that I forget I am making.  We got 22 canjos ready for the children in very short order, many hands making light work.

That's a lot of canjos!

When the days came, I got to hang out with roomfuls of toddlers, who sprinkled dried flowers onto clear contact paper that we backed and wrapped around the cans.  When everyone was done we sat in a circle and everyone plinked away, some with more abandon than others but most of them engaged with the instrument at some level.  I have a feeling it would be harder to get adults to do the same.  The look of joy on the faces of some of the children when they realised that they could make a noise by plucking the string was worth the whole thing.  The understanding that they could directly influence something like that was so powerful, and watching them understand that was so affirming.

Though I can't show photos of the children here for confidentiality reasons (which I wholly support, believe me) here are some of the finished canjos.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Plink Plank (IW #011)

I have had this piece of chestnut flooring kicking around the shop for a while now.  It was an off-cut from a project quite a while ago, and although it is not big enough to do much with I can not throw out chestnut when it comes my way, I love it so much.  This past weekend I had one of those moments of serendipity when I also found the lid of a can of Prince Albert tobacco that was also kicking around, and the two just seemed right for each other.  So here they are.  Strung and tuned like a uke, and as long as you don't mind that it is awkward to hold and has no sound quality whatsoever, it is ok.  At least it looks cool.  The thing is, if you are behind the thing, it is actually kind of loud.  The lid does a good job of resonating.  But all of the sound gets thrown into your body as you hold it so the person in front of you can't hear a damn thing.  Here is what it sounds like:

Candee Manufacturing Ukulele (IW# 010)

I have had ukes on the brain lately, and when I ran across this little maple box at the flea market, it was obvious it needed to be one.  It held a "reliable" syringe (I know it is reliable because it says so right on the box) made by the now-defunct Candee Manufacturing company, about which I have not found much.  It is a little maple box, and makes for a really bright sounding uke.  This is one of those that is already spoken for but that I am sorry to see go, I like it so much.  Here is what is sounds like (ignore the lack of skill playing uke.  Just because I have had them on the brain does not, it turns out, mean that I know how to play them particularly well):

Friday, July 22, 2011

Maxwell House Canjo (IW#008)

This is a nice little coffee can that was just screaming to be a two-string.  The neck is lumber salvaged from a bathroom vanity I took apart last fall.  You know, I never seem to be able to throw out a piece of wood.  Anything can become something, and I just squirrel them away.  Now that I am making instruments, even very small scraps become bridges and nuts.  

This one is for someone we know that just moved.  A little music seemed like a good way to make a house a home, and she spent some time with the Union Leader canjo one evening, so I have been wanting to make her one for herself.  That is why there is an H carved into the neck.

I tuned it BE, which seems easier to get my head around, somehow.  It is fun to play, I strung it up with a couple of extra banjo strings I had lying around so they slide really easily.  And I am getting better at figuring out how to set the action so that it is nicer to play.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Fuente Resonator (IW#007)

My fellow hack luthier and I have been wondering about the possibility of making a resonator guitar using a pie tin as the resonator.  This is my first attempt, and I have to say I am underwhelmed.  Maybe because a pie tin is stamped instead of spun, it does not bounce the sound back out very well.  There are a couple of nice parts, though, I really dig the flea-market fork as the tail piece, and the bolt that is the nut is an actual piece of detritus that I found in the gutter, so that is good.  The scale is pretty short, and is strung with tenor banjo strings tuned DGBE.  All in all, I think I am going to find something else to do with the other pie tins I bought, this design is less than satisfying.  Here's how it sounds:

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tim's Saphire Banjo (IW#006)

I got a very nice message from a friend in Maine asking me if I would make him a banjo.  I was happy to say "yes," but as I got deeper into this project one thing above all  others became painfully apparent:  there is a reason that people study for years to become luthiers.  An old chunk of lumber nailed to a cigar box is one thing, an actual working five string banjo is quite another.

As can be imagined, the hardest thing here was carving the neck and keeping the proportions right.  I learned a lot, was humbled a lot, and in the end came out with a reasonably serviceable banjo.  It is a little muted, I realised, because the oil can is closed.  I am not sure where to put a sound hole, though.  And the action is a little high as well, which has to do with the placement of the neck vis-a-vis the oil can.

The neck is carved out of long-leaf pine that has for the last hundred years held up the roof of a warehouse here in town.  When the building was gutted last year I got my hands on some of the beams and have been using the wood for a lot of projects.  I love the smell of it, and the feel of it too.  It has a lovely warm tone, and the smell is a hot old attic, nostalgic and comforting.
I had to do some serious trickery to use the guitar tuner for the fifth string.

 In the end IW #006 is fun to play, mostly because you can feel the rust scale under your hands as you play so that there is a tactile reminder of the fact that you are playing an oil can.  Which is a good thing for a number of reasons, not least because I feel that we all could stand to be reminded more regularly about how silly we are as humans.  What a fun project.  Thanks Tim!  I hope you enjoy it and play it with a smile on your face.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A guitar for Zep (IW#005)

We had the privilege of caring for a wee kitten this past weekend, an orphan that was left in a shoe box in front of a local vet.  He is just darling.  Any orphan is going to have the blues, for sure.  And anyone with the blues needs a way to express that.  But Zephyr J. Boynton is too small to play a big guitar, so I made him a small one ot take home with him.

Obviously a rubber band does not make much sound, but I have an old banjo string that I want to try out on an Altoid tin and see if I can make a weensie little canjo.  My toddler son also picked this up and loved playing with it, it is a good size for small hands, and less dangerous than the IW#002 Canjo, which he also likes to play with an awful lot.  That canjo has a pretty long chunk of broom handle on it though and he is not too good at sensing where the end of it is yet.  So an Altoid canjo might be a good fit for people his size.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


I have been thinking about a logo for a while now, I find that I give more credence to things that have a name, whether it is verbal or visual.  So I made the logo in the masthead, deliberately patterning it after the some of the logos used by the Industrial Workers of the World.  The idea of accessible instruments for all seems in keeping with some of the ideals of the IWW, as does the fact that the IWW was known as the "singing union," which might need some instruments.

I made a stamp of the logo, which I will put on all SCFOIW instruments, along with a stamp of the number chronologically of each instrument.  Which is a lesson in itself:  If you want an identity, if you want to mark your place in the world, all it takes is making the decision to do it, to name yourself, to carve for yourself your place in the wilderness.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Union Leader Banjo (IW#004)

It has become a little bit of a sickness.  Now when I walk through the flea market I can not help but look for things that might make good instruments.  This week I found this lovely little Union Leader Tobacco tin.

How could I not make that into an instrument?  I have been wanting to make a canjo like this, and it is May, after all, so this can be my May Day contribution.  I had two tuners left over from another project, so this became a two-string instrument, which is nicely symmetrical, I have now made instruments with 1, 2, 3, and 4 strings.  After a 5 string banjo I think I am going to stop adding to the number of strings.

Since there are only two strings, I decided to use screws for the nut (again, good joke there, the nut is screws), and for the first time I tried coping out the head to get the placement of the tuners right, a practice I think I will continue, as it seemed to work well.

No frets on this one, and it has a pretty good tinny sound, and is pretty loud, I have to say.  The top of the can, which is the back of the banjo, is open and as long as I do not dampen it against my body as I play it really rings out.  Nice low action and easy to play. Not too sure what to tune it, so it is currently tuned to C and G, which is ok but I have been trying other tunings as well.  Here it what it sounds like:

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The first Canjo (IW#003)

I started to come across images and videos of these in my research, and thought I should probably make one.  This is at the forefront of what really resonates with me about found-object instruments:  accessibility.  Much of the exploration that has led to the founding of SCFOIW was driven by the cult of the expensive guitar.  I was in my local music shop (a great locally owned joint filled to bursting with new and vintage instruments and a couple of guys who really know their stuff.  None of this cooler-than-thou pimply-faced tattooed hipster crap you see at Guitar Center), and picked up a 1960's Gibson J-45.  Now, this is a beautiful guitar, and I coveted it at first sight.  I played it a little, and it has that mellow sound that old Gibsons have, and it was just a joy.

It was also several thousand dollars.  Too rich for my blood.

Which got me thinking about the inequities of price and about how we fetishize expensive things.  Which led to IW#001 that I wrote about a few days ago.  This canjo is the next step in that line, an attempt to make the cheapest and most accessible instrument possible, with a parts cost of about five bucks.  The most expensive thing is the string.  Also accessible to play, as it is one string only and it is pretty easy to pick out a melody on it.  Fun to rock out with as well, because when you squeeze the can it acts like a whammy bar.  Here is what it sounds like.

Now, a couple of people have called this kind of thing a diddley-bow, but that is built differently, and I think I might make one of those sometime soon.  This is a different instrument, though, as the bottom of the can creates the sound board and the string interacts directly with it, instead of being strung across it.  Although calling this a canjo is a little confusing as well, that name can apply to another instrument entirely as will be seen in my next post.

The Miss Syracuse Ukelele (IW#002)

Among the many things that Syracuse has is a pretty amazing flea market every Sunday.  This has become the provider of a lot of parts and pieces for the instruments that the Instrument Works has been turning out.  This little beauty is a case in point.

I did not even know that there was such a thing as a Miss Syracuse brand cigar, but when I saw the beauty on the lid of this box I knew she had to have a voice.  I have never owned a uke before, and the box is just exactly the right size, so it seemed fated to be.  The neck is red oak that was part of a church pew from a local church, which gives her a mildly sacred presence, I think.  The box was pretty fragile, and I ended up taking it apart and gluing it back together, which made a huge difference in the sound.  Here is what she sounds like:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Design Ranch Slide Guitar (IW#001)

This little number was the first instrument I made.  I wrote extensively about it here.  It remains my favorite so far, fun to play and full of memories.  It is tuned D A D, which is a little strange, but works well for that instrument.  Here is what it sounds like:

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What is SCFOIW?

Salt City Found-Object Instrument Works is a place for me to store descriptions and images of the cigar box guitars, banjos, canjos, diddley-bows, fiddles, and other noisemakers that fall together as I tinker around in my shop.  Most things are for sale, and I do take commissions, as long as you aren't in a hurry.  Hope this is enjoyable, or at least not too annoying.