Friday, September 28, 2012

Airey's Inlet Victoria

A cold and quite wet Winter here has shown signs of wearing itself out. I sometimes know how it feels. Time to go outside and stare across spaces again, and let air pass over the face.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

the harp gets some wings

 I couldn't finish the story of this harp without some close-ups of Betty Truitt's lovely levers. The ones standing out of order are the B and E levers because, of course these strings don't 'get sharp'- so they  start off as naturals and lever down to be flats.

I have to admit that this final fitting took me an unseemly amount of time, and I certainly have come to respect people who set these things up on a regular basis. There is an uncanny amount of detail and precision in the design, layout and placement of these fittings.

I must also reiterate how wonderful the design work in this harp is, and that is all down to Rick Kemper- who is, I suspect, much more of a 'details man' than I am, and has gone to enormous lengths to share the fruits of his considerable efforts. I would have made some pretty fundamental errors without his expertise as a spring-board.

I'm excited to have made this for a particular family too, and I just hope that it fulfills its mission elegantly and without any glitches. It was a great relief when the strings first went up to tension- I could feel every joint and surface that I had assembled being strained and tested, and the tension was unbearable as the pitch got higher and implosion seemed to my little brain to be inevitable, but it all just settled and coped.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

tradition and modernism in musical power tools

The Epiphone 339 Ultra, pictured here has an interesting place in our modern musical and industrial stories. This is the 'affordable' version of the modern Gibson 339, and that claim alone speaks loudly about one of our modern dilemmas.

The Epiphone brand began with the work of a Greek immigrant luthier- a violin and guitar maker of fine reputation. His instruments were such that his brand name has been perpetuated by the larger American company that bought his brand. But the Epi pictured above is hand-made in China, and it is a really beautiful instrument to play.

The hard work of one generation seems to create comfort and greater expectations in the next, so the things we make in our wealthier context become harder to afford, and we out-source to poorer emerging economies. It doesn't take much intelligence to see that this is one of the central problems facing us now, whether you are for example, Greek, American or  Japanese.

On one hand, the Chinese people who made this instrument are being brought into some level of comfort from our support of their products. On the other hand, by supporting them we make it harder for people to make things in our own country. I make instruments but it doesn't make sense for me to make one of these. I'd spend more on the components than the cost of the Epiphone- and in my mind, this is a musical power tool, a product. It is a beautiful appliance. And although it feels nice not to have to make everything I use,  as a maker, I couldn't justify purchasing the three or four times costlier  US made article (but if I was a good player, I probably could). So I become one of the consumers that contribute to the scenario wherein our societies become poorer (in several ways) because we can't make things, and consequently we must lose some of our value as markets for other people. That will probably become self-defeating even for those that can still produce. What good is an unemployed Italian or Australian to an aspirational Chinese worker if he can no longer finance his life?

I don't have the answers here, but I really believe in small scale enterprise and diversity, and I'm sure that it isn't healthy to have fewer, larger manufacturers chasing larger homogenous markets, and being able to apply downwards pressure on costs anywhere in the world. That's why, whenever possible, I invest my daily expenditures in people rather than price. But in this case, I'm as bad as anyone, except that I did buy from a local dealer, despite the lure of the net.

The Gibson and Epiphone brands have maintained a traditional look about them, even as guitars became more complex and flexible in use. The body shape pays homage to acoustic cousins, and it is born of lovely geometry intersecting with function. It still has an 'f'' hole, even if it doesn't do much anymore, being only partially hollow, and the edges are bound in this example, with a material that matches the peg heads and fingerboard.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

need some string

 All dressed up and nowhere to go. I had undertaken to have the instrument ready for this Friday (the client's birthday) and despite a slow patch back there, everything seemed to be coming together on time and on budget.
The tip from Rick to get beautiful sharping levers from Betty Truitt allowed me to 'meet' another passionate and energetic advocate for her craft. Betty markets harp gear in general, but her patent levers not only seem to be of exceptional design, they look great too. Her bundle of hardware, including bridge pins, eyelets, reamers, tuning pegs and levers arrived within four days of her order being sent from the good old US of A. All beautifully packed and labelled. Great service and wonderful attention to detail.

I felt it prudent to find a good supplier of strings within Australia, because the harp will need replacements from time to time, but my enquiry, order and payment from early last week has not born fruit yet. So the harp sits waiting. I should have ordered earlier, of course, but everything else just seemed to happen as if by magic, and I was  so focussed on finishing each little detail I didn't get my head around the niceties of which string at what thickness over what length, wrapped in whatever wrapping, by whichever manufacturer.

The problem is that the levers can't go on until the strings have settled in and the instrument has relaxed into a new, musical shape.

 Finishing the woodwork before fitting the hardware necessitated careful handling during the drilling process. Here the bench has been made into an extension table for the little drill press by clamping the press in the end vise, checking for square carefully. It worked a treat and was a comfortable process, if a little tedious!

 Fitting the pegs was more challenging than I had anticipated because unlike violin pegs, these are steel and cannot be adjusted like the hole can, so neat lengths were not easy.

The string holes along the soundboard are reinforced with brass eyelets.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

ready for hardware

 These pics cover the polishing and finally assembly in readiness for the fit-out. The bottom of the pillar has been bolted to the soundboard to test angles and fits. The neck and soundboard will still need to be drilled for the bridge pins, tuning pegs, sharping levers and string eyelets. These holes could have been done before oiling but since the hardware isn't here yet, I pushed on regardless.

The wooden peg shown above is not a functional thing- if anything it is a design affectation, and my attempt to make the joint between neck and soundbox look better by providing a point of emphasis where the strong taper and converging lines of the soundbox suddenly intersect with the round knob of the the neck base. I tried a few different shapes there and ultimately felt that a peg worked best to allow the neck curves to sprout happily from the box.

 Here the whole caboodle is propped in the shoulder vise to access the base for the spanner job on the lag bolt. You can see from these pics that the timber changes color a lot when light or angles are changed. This is because of the very strong grain, but it isn't as obvious in reality as it is in photos.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

a bit of good oil

 I chose to use boiled Linseed oil as a base, without using fillers to hide timber 'features' and small areas of tear-out. I can't explain why, but it is quite liberating to be free of the traditional restrictions that dictate how a violin should look. This instrument will allow the actual tree to have a bit of ego in the presence of the harp. These pics are of the process of oiling.

Friday, May 4, 2012

back to the harp

 This is a bit of a catch up post, having spent many hours in the 'zone', attending to surfaces more than shapes, but looking below at the oversized lump at the top of the soundbox, there has been a bit of sculpture going on.
 The bulb at the base of the neck was an intimidating project in itself- one of those little jobs that presents more problems in the mind before you actually tackle it, and then it simply becomes a satisfying flurry of woodchips and right-brain flow, sawdust and feeling the shape with very sharp tools, and with a bit of luck and/or experience, you know just when to stop.

The soundboard is glued onto the box, and then secured with covering strips which are themselves glued and screwed...and these are covered with thin strips of matching wood to cover the screws.

Creating the final surfaces for the fit of the neck and pillar to the soundbox is a job best crept up upon rather than attacked with bravado. Rick recommends leaving a small allowance for the movement of the neck wood after compression by the strings, and I have done that, but I needed to be very careful that the slight gap was even enough for the surfaces to bed down without any sideways twist. At this point the top joint is held in position by a pair of positioning dowels, and the bottom joint is just hanging there. When all is well-placed, the bottom end will be secured by a stout coach screw into the base.

It looks as though this instrument will be finished with oil in the timber, rather than coatings over the top. The surface will be less perfect in that wood flaws and surface variations won't be masked, but the timber itself has such authority and integrity I'm not sure I have the will to wrap it. The exception to this is the sound-board, which has had a couple of sealing coats of shellac. Softwoods can look gooey if oiled, and have been known to drink far too much.

Saturday, April 28, 2012


Lomby the horse didn't make it to see the Winter in his 26th year, but he did see the prettiest, greenest and most bountiful Autumn that we've had here during this young century. On Sunday he was prancing and following me excitedly  up the boundary fence line  as I did some quick repair work, to keep the bull from taking his 'love' to the heifers next door. Lomby loved the action and thrill of a fast-moving ATV with some hay on the back, and he stayed with me like a well-trained cattle dog as I attended to these things- Little did I know that this would be our last  adventure together.

The day before, he grazed our clover/lawn at his favorite places with a halter and lead rope. Putting on the halter transformed him into the most responsive of animals, with an acute awareness of every new detail around him,  I really enjoyed walking him past unfamiliar objects and places- and it defies logic, but he seemed to love having things explained to him, and he would step forward confidently as if  what I said to him made perfect sense. Not many people are so generous.

I often wondered what it was that enabled me to spend and enjoy so much 'hanging' time with him, and how just being there with him made me feel happy. I'm really grateful that the weather and his surroundings were just so perfect for his last months, and I'm really grateful for the times he spent with Nina in particular. They became great mates.

I'm not sure what caused his death, it happened on one of only two days when he was here without us this week, and if I'd been here  I doubt there is anything I could have done except perhaps to make sure it didn't take too long. He seems to have fallen quickly as there is no evidence around him of a struggle to get back up, and I like to believe that his heart gave up and he fell  without complications or suffering.

It's easy to sentimentalize the death of animals because they can be so innocent of the things that sometimes trouble us about people, and the directness and simplicity of our relationships with them intensify our experience of them. The end of life becomes the only certainty of birth, so we shouldn't be surprised when it happens- especially in  a  world that is so cruel for so many.

But I will certainly miss Lomby as much as I would miss a friend, because on some basic level we respected each other and came to an unspoken understanding that I can't begin to describe. On one level I know that his last months were very happy, stimulating, social and comfortable, but on another level I will always feel that my part of the bargain was to keep him safe and happy and because of the nature of life itself, I couldn't come through on the deal. But that is the thing about real joy- it always comes at a price.

His last weeks were spent with mornings camped in the shade with the cattle- him standing sentinel and them gratefully relaxed and secure in his protection. Even the bull was happy to curl up beneath him (his mind was always on more earthy things than safety). So the cows are at a loss, and so are we. This animal that never actually did anything somehow eased his way beneath our skins, and the lack of him feels peculiarly powerful.

We all just have to be careful to put full value on our few days in the sun.

Monday, April 23, 2012

clutter in my workshop

 Above, an early 1850's hand-made nail rescued from the floor of our building, resting on a tool rack. It has been in this country for about as long as my family. We've been here as long as a bent nail.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

a fat slippery joint

 The neck-pillar joint is a tricky, long-mitred, much-end-grained, hard-to-clamp, slippery and very important joint so I took a bit of time to have the two mating surfaces nicely flat and keen to get together. This meant that assembly wasn't about placement or avoiding twist or other distortions, but simply about holding things where they felt comfortable until the glue set. Once you dispose of the need to apply great force to bring things together clamping arrangements can seem less daunting.

Above, the mortices were cut with a router and the tenon is a loose piece of hardwood machined to be a comfortable sliding fit. Note the grain direction on the tenon. The cross grain will resist splitting across the joint.

It all went together well and is held by four blocks, which are clamped to the work while another clamp on each face provides compression between the blocks. This provided enough pressure to close the joint and squeeze out enough thickened glue to satisfy me that the joints were fully wet. I used epoxy for this one, applied thin- especially in plenty around all that end-grain, allowing it to soak in before applying thickened stuff liberally.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

a particular sort of thing

 It is a particular gift to have someone invest in you, and this little harp project has involved a lovely bit of that. Despite my urgings and my research, the clients for this harp- who could have so easily sourced a cheaply produced imported harp- chose instead to pay more for something built especially with them in mind. They trusted me with their story and have trusted me also with their money, to come up with a unique object that will add something to their lives in a way that a product simply couldn't. This is increasingly rare.

Most people have been fooled into believing that simply having stuff is the same as valuing it. That getting a new thing will be as satisfying as keeping one that is good in and of itself. Things don't cut it. We live to be connected to stories. We need to feel connected to our needs, not just indulged in them. This isn't necessarily a spiritual need, in my opinion it is a genetic truth that is ignored by those who wish simply to treat us as markets.

So to have someone ask you to make a beautiful thing, capable of nurturing more than just their physical needs is the most important of missions to undertake, and I do so gratefully.

The other side of this is what happened when I researched my mission, and got in touch with a person who seemed to have  complimentary values to mine. A bit like the first email I shared with 'Doryman', my contact with Rick at Sligo harps made me feel connected with a generous spirit whose enthusiasm was shared in up-sized lashings, and that mutual respect was the only currency required in the transactions that followed. This is worth bottling. It runs completely counter to current 'best-practice' in business. Rick has put so much technical experience out there for free, and he gave me even more simply on the strength of his enjoyment of this blog. How much money would we need to earn to gain the sort of satisfaction that comes from that? I wouldn't bother even trying.

Anyway, I haven't been very good at expressing these quite subtle things lately, and I thought I should see if I could squeeze out a few of the sentiments that used to come a bit more fluently than they have for the last few months.

The pics relate to my fabricating a Western Red Cedar soundboard- that has cross grain structure, and is 1/8 of an inch thick at the treble end and 1/4 of an inch at the bass end, and if you thought the sound-box back was vulnerable you should pick this little treasure up and see it wobble helplessly about.

The other pic shows my roughing out of a rebate to take four laminations of bent hardwood that will reinforce the most vulnerable part of the neck- it is most likely to break along the shortest grain, so the laminations will give plenty of long-grain strength where it is most needed. These harp strings do generate big stresses.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

resolving the back of a harmonic box

Finally, this harmonic cone has me by the hair. It's good to have a creative problem beckoning, and I'm just now entering the 'flow zone'- where an unfamiliar set of problems is unfolding, but enough is coming together to tickle the right-brain cells into imagining the next phase with some excitement.

Above, the cone has been cleaned up a little, and although it is amazingly tough, the shape is at it's most vulnerable stage.

Below, the unit sits in the cradle being set up for the angled base and cap. These angles are pretty important and the fit is complex so I ended up making a jig based on Rick Kemper's one, and I found it very handy to check symmetry, and angles in all directions while fitting the 'bulkheads', and then when gluing them.

In the pic below, one of the linings are being glued in after the central bracing 'bulkhead' has been fabricated to fit between the middle and lower sound holes- and these were just cut and left rough at this stage.

And here the sound box leans provocatively on the jointer inviting me to enjoy the angles, staves, facets and taper. Those holes are still rough, and will be faired with knives and birdsmouth files when I'm in a mood for finer, more focussed work. The off-cut from the base angle can be seen on the saw bwnch behind the jointer- one of the more enchanting of off-cuts...I wonder what I could do...

Monday, April 2, 2012

making a tall dalek

The acoustic box behind the soundboard of this harp will be made from 10 staves, each having two tapered, angled edges. Re-sawing the 4 inch square board was done on the bandsaw, taking the boards down to a generous 10mm thick, for thicknessing to about 7mm.

 The tool for ripping the tapers is a fairly simple jig that holds a board while cutting the line obliquely. Given that we are trying to make over 40 feet of joints from over 80 feet of tapered, angled edges, to specific dimensions, the jig needs to be fairly accurate.

The tape holds the edges together while they are being glued and the whole caboodle sits in a cradle to hold it to the correct dimensions while the glue sets. This is a carvel hulled harp box!