The Future is Handmade

“Masters don’t need to say they’re the masters—it’s obvious in the work.” 

Maikel Kuijpers studies craftsmanship.  This is my kind of thinking and one of the reasons I became so infatuated with material culture when I was a young anthropology student.  People who make for themselves, when that is the only option, don’t just create something that is “good enough,” or as a one-off when their livelihood depends on it.   Popular culture often equates primitive cultures as simple and easy whereas we know for a fact that our ancestors were highly-skilled crafters with expert knowledge in their given pursuits.

There are many highly skilled occupations, not just those involving hand crafting.  Many skills involve organization, thinking, or analysis and little hands-on, but that is something different.  What this is about is mind-body connection; learning and understanding deeply.

I know this isn’t just about primitive technology but has a real relevance to the things I’m interested in.  If you haven’t already, check out this short documentary (it’s 12 minutes well spent) and let me know what you think.  The film features interviews with several of the world’s leading experts on craftsmanship, and you get to look at the workmanship of a tailor, violin maker, ceramicist, winemaker, and even a barber.

There is an excellent article about Maikel Kuijpers on the Craftsmanship Quarterly blog liked below where I fist saw this film posted.

Enjoy, and do good things with purpose.

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More Cigar Box Guitar

Greg, over at Hillbilly Daiku is always posting great stuff.  There is too much good information out there and not enough time to take it all in while still leading a creative and fulfilling life so it takes me a while to catch up.  I was just reading this excellent post about something dear to my heart; handmade music and cigar box guitars (CBGs). I am still a newbie in the low-tech, no-holds-barred world of this iconic American instrument but I am studiously working on my second one now.

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My first CBG.  Image links to description of the construction.

Not only is Greg a great woodworker and occasional philosopher but is quite gifted as an illustrator and draftsman as well.  I suggest you get to his blog and peruse his fine work, starting with this post about how to build a cigar box guitar.

I don’t remember the first time I saw or heard a cigar box guitar. I’m sure it must have been on YouTube though. Like many of my projects, the seed was planted somewhere along the way and finally broke to the surface. So, what is a cigar box guitar? Well, it is exactly what it […]

via Homemade Music-Part 1 — HILLBILLY DAIKU

N.B. there is a follow-up post and a quick link to the second half of the project HERE.

Making a Spanish Guitar in the 21st Century

My friend Bob sent me a link to an excellent video documenting the construction of a Spanish (i.e. Classical) Guitar.  The man is obviously a real craftsman with a purpose-built shop and this is definitely not a one-off project.  If you are like me and like to see how things are made, this half hour video will more than fill the bill.  And there is a nice soundtrack to accompany the work.  Sit back and enjoy.

Have any of you made your own musical instrument?  Do you want to share the experience?

Raw and Gritty, Real Blues is Alive and Well

And this is just one facet of this all American genre.

“The blues used to be dangerous, then it got packaged into an adult contemporary box and organized into TAB charts. Luckily, nobody has passed any laws demanding pure traditionalism. I’d rather be a blues liar.

You are more than a guitarist. You are a musician, a creative force. You have the right to take several opposing styles or influences, feed them into the Veg-O-Matic of your mind and come up with something totally unique. If people accuse you of straying from the fold, be proud. Be bold. Create your own freak flag and wave it high.”

Shane Speal, Guitar World

And if that raw power isn’t enough, here’s Ben Rouse happily jamming out his own arrangement of Kashmir from Led Zeppelin on his Cigar Box Guitar.

Hooray for the open tuning handmade music revival.  I like where this is taking us.

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Banjo redo

Last winter I had an important epiphany about myself as a musician.  I am under nor delusion that I will ever be more than a closet or campfire player.  For me, for now, that’s going to have to be good enough.  Although I love the fiddle more than any other instrument, I went back to my roots and picked up a Deering Good Time five string banjo a couple years back to see if I couldn’t revive my banjo playing.  I hadn’t really played much in over a decade but discovered that not only did the brain still remember some old tunes, but my big, beat-up fingers were actually still suited to it.  Ham-hands I’ve heard them called!

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Deering “Good Time” open backed 5-string banjo.

After playing the “Good Time” for a couple years, I felt I outgrew it as a player.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great instrument for the price (ca. $650), American-made, and travels well but I just wanted a little more substance and a thumpier traditional sound.  Not being able to afford anything fancy, and my playing not really being up to any professional par, spending a load of money I don’t have was out of the question.  It became apparent to me that it was time to make something better myself.  This isn’t quite as outlandish as it may seem as in my woodworking days in my early twenties, I made a couple banjos, a handful of mountain dulcimers, and some mandolin parts that were fair to partly decent instruments.  Anybody who knows me knows I hoard parts and hardware so fortunately I had a set of tuners, some fret wire, a tension ring, and a bracket set for a banjo (obviously the universe conspired for this to happen). For the rest, a quick trip through the Stewart-MacDonald catalog located the missing elements (e.g., a White Lady Vega-style tone ring, brass arm rest, bridge, and tailpiece, as well as a maple neck blank and rosewood fingerboard, and a calf-skin for the head).

Banjo3Unfortunately, time and energy were against me when I made the initial build last summer.  I was traveling and teaching for the university while working on this so I didn’t document the process.  So, I essentially built this one twice.  Once, to have something to play while traveling over the summer, then a rebuild in the fall to tweak the set-up and put a better finish on it (tung oil).  The photos don’t really do it justice here but hopefully, it gets the idea across.  Making an instrument is a doable thing.

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Banjo back to show construction. Steamed hoop comprised of three core layers of shagbark hickory with an inner and outer laminate of american black walnut. Neck made from a “flamed” piece of curly maple.

I won’t even attempt to describe the process and there are many better instrument makers who have done this before me (see the Foxfire books, Irving Sloane, Earl Scruggs and plenty of others).

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This book, and others, made instrument making an approachable thing for me 25-30 years ago.

To make a banjo, you essentially need a few, more-or-less mechanical parts, then find a way to attach them together in a fairly precise and meaningful way; that is to say a neck, complete with a fretted fingerboard and tuners, and a drum-headed hoop of some type.  Having some experience with steam bending, this part was not as intimidating as it might seem the first time around.  My choice for the body was a hickory core with walnut laminates for the outside.

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Plain headstock. Rosewood head plate, fingerboard, and heel.

These pictures already show the six months of use and she already needs a good cleaning.  As can be seen though, there’s little ornamentation on the instrument; no inlay or bindings, just an octave marker on the side of the fingerboard.  I did steal the peghead design from Earl Scruggs’ book where he stole and printed the Mastertone design himself.  It was just too classic.

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Rim detail to show laminae. Core (3) are hickory, outer and inner are walnut.

I had intended to veneer over the back but after completion, I liked the raw look that shows the construction.  Maybe I’ll change my mind about this later but for now, this is it. The calfskin head can be a finicky when traveling as it is affected by humidity.  Some players remedy this with a thin layer of spray-on silicone.  I may try this in the future just to see how it works.

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This photo doesn’t do the maple justice. The Flame is very nice in the sunlight and has some real depth.

I rarely see a reason to hide a beautiful wood grain.

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Rosewood heel cap made from a scrap. No necessary, but gives it a finished look.

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Detail of “the pot” as the body of a banjo is called. The walnut is s little bleached out in this image.

The components that make up the pot of the banjo are illustrated above.  From right to left: brass tension hoop, edge of the rawhide over wire, nickel-plated tone ring, tension brackets, and wood hoop.  the armrest is just visible in the lower right.

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It’s remarkable how fast the weight adds up.  24 brackets, brass screws, tone ring, tension ring, tuners, and armrest make for some significant weight.  I think it’s a good idea for any artisan to sign their work, even if it’s never intended to sell.  This separates the hand-crafted from the mass-produced and show the care and the soul that goes into a hand-made work.

Now, time to practice.