Friday, July 13, 2018

Wrest Plank Octave Mandolin (IW#101)

Back to the weird:  Folks who read this blog regularly might remember Instrument # 90, which is a four string guitar made out of the "wrest plank" or pin block of the piano.  This is a piece of hard maple that is laminated into a beam that runs the width of the piano.  The tuning pins protrude through the cast-iron harp and into the maple, which holds them via friction in the position that the piano tuner places them.
The "wrest plank" or pin block planed down and ready to be made into parts.

The truss rod cover is ivory veneer.

This hard maple is usually a pretty nice chunk of lumber that would be great for just about anything except that it has tons of holes in it, rendering it almost useless.  So of course I want to continue to find uses for it.

I have been wanting to make an octave mandolin, not because I know how to play one but because I have been interested in what playing a set of courses (pairs of strings) would be like as opposed to single strings, and mandolins are strung that way.  One thing I noticed with instrument 90 was that because there is no sound hole, the sound only came out the sides.  For a listener the sound image is a little funky.  So with this iteration I did my best to limit the number of holes on the sides and back, and put them all on the front.  I book-matched the front so that the holes mirror each other, and the bridge is an ebony black key from a piano.

This thing has a lot of moments that I really dig:  There is a resin-filled screw hole (You know how I like those!), there is a gorgeous tail piece that Jaydann Moore made, there is walnut kerfing.  The truss rod cover is a piece of ivory veneer from a white piano key.  All of this almost balances out the fact that I don't know how to play the octave mandolin.
Resin-filled screw hole on the neck.

Tail Piece by Jaydann Moore

I gave it to my friend Tom and he made it sound pretty good, though.  Because it is all solid hard maple, it has an incredible amount of sustain.

Here is a video of me ham-handedly trying to chord something on this.  It is interesting enough to play that I am hopeful that I can learn to play it a little better.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Spalted Oak Tenor (IW#100)

And instrument # 100 has rolled around!  Momentous.  True, many of the numbered instruments are canjos and experimental things, and true, many were reassembled into something else or have wandered off to do other stuff, but here we are at # 100 anyway.  Pretty cool.  And I could not be happier that it is this little number.

I wrote about the oak back posts on the Shaw Piano here and here.  This is a third instrument made from those.  When I started slabbing up the parts, however, I found that the wood was spalted.  "Spalt" is a general term used by wood workers to describe what happens when fungi start to break down a fallen tree.  They tend to move vertically along the growth rings, and can leave a variety of differently colored lines along the grain when the wood is dried and turned into lumber.  Some of these lines can be very dramatic and quite beautiful, and wood workers will often use spalt as a pretty breath-taking visual element in their work.  More about spalting here, and a nice gallery of spalted wooden objects from the same web site here.  So the lumber for this guitar is spalted oak, and though not as dramatic as some spalting, it is still pretty cool (I think).  It shows up as black lines on the back and sides.

This instrument is for ceramist Nathan Willever, who is a big supporter of the Craft School Experience, which made it so perfect that I had just enough of the sound board from the piano that sat in the common room at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts for several decades.  Sorry for all of the links.  They are all great sites though, and worth investigating.  I was tickled that I had enough of the soundboard to be able to include it in this instrument for him.

It sounds great.  The oak is really punchy and it is a really easy player.  Here is the video:

Monday, July 9, 2018

Shaw Piano Baritone Ukulele (IW#99)

I wrote about Shaw Piano 13837 here.  I have been slowly working to make instruments for several members of the family that had owned it, and here is another.  All poplar, as much of the piano was.  This is for a seven year old who has an interest in playing guitar.  Small hands can struggle with steel strings, so mu suggestion was a baritone ukulele.  Same chord structures as a guitar, but lower tension and nylon strings (I REALLY like Aquila Nylgut strings.  They has a lovely feel, and really sound like gut instead of nylon) so easier to fret.  This is a lovely little uke, and has the extra sound hole that I like to leave just south west of the bridge, so it really is very like #91, linked above.  The owner of this little instrument is the first cousin twice removed the owner of #91, after all.

For the fingerboard, I used the maple from the wrest plank of that piano, which had a lot of "birds-eye" in it.  Bird's-eye is a rippling of the grain that creates gorgeous optical effects.  No one really knows why it happens, and a lot of people have tried to force it over the years to no avail (including shooting maple trees with shotguns, which did not have much effect, surprise surprise.)  Maybe I will write more about that in a future post.  It makes for a shimmery, very hard surface on the fingerboard that really stands out visually.

The bridge is a piece of the molding that was on the piano, an it (and the binding) are walnut.  So as far as wood species, this little instrument is kind of a mutt, but it is a lovable mutt.

At any rate I am excited to keep this instrument in the family that gave me the piano.  And I hope the little hands that play it now will continue to enjoy it when they are much much older.  Here's the video:

Oak Parlor Guitar (IW#98)

This is a really nice little parlor, made entirely out of a single oak beam from the Shaw piano.  This is the second one I have built from one of these beams.  The first one is here.  There were five of these beams on the piano, so theoretically there could be five guitars.  The beams are large enough (about 4" x 5" x 36") that I can get the back, sides, and neck out of one of them, and I like the idea of an instrument being made entirely out of one piece of wood.

You can see that there is a screw hole left over from the piano that I filled with resin, I like the way that speaks to a former life.  Oak as a material is really punchy and very bright, and this instrument came out pretty well I think. 

This one lives with an old friend of mine, and when I delivered it we got to sit for a minute and play music together.  I had not seen him in a long long time, and it was so nice to reconnect through music and through musical instruments.  What a gift.

Here's the demo video:

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Mahogany Tenor (IW#97)

An old friend (the friendship is old, not the friend) asked if I would make him a guitar.  He had been wanting a tenor, which is of course what I have made a lot of lately.  I was delighted to say "yes," and the talk turned to wood.  Although I have been almost exclusively using salvaged piano wood, I had a chunk of lumber left over from this table that I made a few years ago.  It is a slab of Honduran mahogany that is three inches thick and 42 inches wide, and it made a fine table and a couple of benches.

I have had the offcut sitting in the lumber rack for over ten years, wondering what I would do with it.  It seemed like this was it.  Not technically a "found object," but still scrap wood, in a way.  I used Sitka spruce for the top, which was salvaged form the mast of the 1924 schooner Adventuress.   It was not the 1924 mast, I should point out.  It was from a rebuild some time since then, but it is still beautiful straight-grained spruce.

The build was concurrent with #95, so I was building two instruments in tandem, both of them with a body lifted from drawings of a Lyon-Healy parlor guitar body from 1900 (Though Lyon-Healy does not make guitars any longer, they do still make harps, so if you have been to the orchestra lately it is likely you have heard one).  I updated the bracing, though, to a modified Martin-style X-brace pattern.  Here is a little video I made from the images that I took to document the process, with a soundtrack made on the instrument:

The real struggle on this one was with the finish.  I tried a lacquer finish twice, and both times it came out pretty poorly.  So I had to scrape it back to bare wood and start again.  After the second time it failed I decided that I would just use an oil finish.  Believe me when I say I have no stock in Tru-Oil, but I LOVE it as a finish.  It linseed oil with some other stuff in there (hardeners, maybe?  Other oils?  The MSDS is not clear on that) and it is easy to apply and makes a nice hard finish.  I really dig it.  And it just makes the wood grain sing.  Really nice stuff.

It came out well.  And since the new owner has been a Union Stagehand for his whole working life (and so has had to wear black while running shows), the head stock veneer, the heel cap, the tail graft, the bridge, and the saddle are all ebony.  Black details for a stagehand.  Seemed appropriate.  Also sprung for fancy-pants high end tuners, thinking to myself "how much better could they really be?"  The answer?  Very much better.  Wow, do Grovers make a difference.  Holy moly.  This is also my fist foray into inlaid fret dots on the fingerboard, which was fun.  I never need them, since I can't see them anyway, the side dots are so much more important to me when I am playing.  but the make it look more "guitar-y," don't they?

Here is the video for this one:

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Ferris Avenue Tenor (IW#96)

At the corner of Ferris Avenue and Genesee Street in Syracuse sits a blue-shingled farm house.  Two different friends told me on the same day that there was an old piano in front of it, so of course I went over and started harvesting.  It is, without question, the strangest piano that I have yet disassembled.  Obviously very old, and obviously assembled with hand tools primarily, it bore no manufacturer's mark and very few machine-made parts.  It did not even have a harp, simply a big piece of steel plate that holds the loop end of the strings.  The pins at the other end are driven right into the wrest plank. 

As I was harvesting, the owner of the house came out and we were chatting.  That house is the original Ferris Farm house, it was the house for the farm that is now neighborhoods.  The piano had been in the basement when he bought the house, and he is only the fourth owner since the house was built in the early 1800's.  That is, it was in the Ferris family for a long long time.  He had no provenance on the piano other than it was there when they moved in.

It has all the hallmarks of being a kit that one might order and then give to the local cabinet maker so that they can build you a piano, which makes sense if you think about how relatively recently we have become able to do things like transport pianos great distances with ease.

The veneer is all a lovely walnut burl, and the wood is almost all walnut.  I don't get to work with walnut very much these days, it is not a common salvage wood.  What a treat.  It has a very particular smell when it is worked, and it is lovely to bend and to carve.  The result is a beautiful, mellow sounding instrument that is a joy to play.  I ran some maple up the center of the neck, and reinforced it with a carbon-fiber rod.

The top is from the Shaw piano that I made #91 out of.  Since that guitar is in our family and this one is going to stay in our family I positioned a hole that was in the sound board in a similar place, so that they recall each other.

It is my current go-to player, and since I put a K & K pickup in it, I have been using it to record some of my own songs recently.  Here is the video:

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Deltrula (IW#95)

My eldest son, then age 7, and I were sitting in our guestroom one morning about a year and a half ago.  This is the room where a lot of the instruments live that I don't play regularly.  There is the big old jumbo-sized six string made by Seth Hedu, an acoustic baritone guitar made by Steve Wishnevskey, and a banjo that belonged to my wife's uncle.  There is a charango that my mother in law brought back from La Paz, Bolivia after a visit and a five string mountain dulcimer made by the great W. E. "Bill" Young, who was a North Carolina maker of some distinction before he passed.  I am still looking for more information on him, so if anyone has some, send it along.  I'd like to make him a memorial here.

There are also a bunch of things I have made over the years that are of varying levels of recognizable.  The only factory made instruments in the room are the banjo and my own personal most expensive instrument, which is a round-necked Dobro that I bought when I played with the Brooklyn Jugs fifteen years ago or so.

So my eldest and I are sitting there and he says "You should make a guitar with three humps instead of two humps.  "Hm," I say.  "What would that look like?  Could you draw it for me?"  One of the things I LOVE about kids is that there is little inhibition.  "Sure,"  he says, and pads off to find a pen and paper.  He draws what he is thinking of and I say "well, that's cool looking.  What is it called?"  With all of the confidence a (then) seven-year-old can muster he says "It's a Deltrula."

So of course I have to build it.

I had to back-burner it until this past June, when I was at Haystack Mountain School of Craft leading a workshop, and it was there that I filled some spare hours beginning the work of making a Deltrula.  It is...  Weird.

Weird to say the least.

Because I was at Haystack, and because I was surrounded by brilliant humans who make stunning things, and because I like working with people on projects, I appealed to the metalsmith Jaydan Moore (who was teaching the metals class that session) for a tailpiece.  It is a piece of an old serving tray and is just about right for this crazy thing.

Because he was born on the 13th, it has 13 strings and 13 frets.  I played with the drawing a little because I wanted it to have a ridiculously short neck to deal with all of those strings.  It is strung in four courses of three strings each, with one extra bass string.  That extra string is tuned to A, with the four courses tuned to DGBE, which is how I keep my tenor guitar tuned.  Pretty weird to play.

The whole thing is chestnut out of a Shoninger Piano that was built in 1913 I think.  So a combo of wormy and not, with a piece of the original mahogany veneer on the completely silly and massive head stock.  It is pretty loud, and my eldest says it sounds "like a robot," which seems about right.  Not sure it will come out on this video, but it sure is a weird thing.  Sort of like my eldest.

 Here is how it sounds.   It is, truth to tell, pretty hard to play.  But it sounds pretty good.  I could see it being a back-up instrument on something.  And it will certainly get hauled out to any workshop on experimentation. As far as I know, I am one of three Deltrulists in the nation.  Which means that I am one of the three best in these United States.  Here is a little video, as per usual: