Autoharps left and right

I’m finally returning after another absence. A close family member has passed away and my limited time in the workshop has been spent  finishing up older projects and repairs. I’m back at it, building autoharps and working through my waiting list for Cigar Box Autoharps.

 

DSC04022In some previous posts I have described my one piece autoharp frame/backs carved out of a single piece of laminated pinblock. I built a tool called a “Copy Carver” to help me safely and accurately rout the inside pockets. The “Copy Carver” has been a success but, like much of technology, the latest acquisition soon  becomes obsolete.  A friend and fellow woodworker from our dulcimer club has offered to rout my frames with his CNC machine. The program he has written can rout the blanks that I provide for both left, and right handed instruments. His machine performs this previously tedious task with a great deal of accuracy and at a very reasonable price.

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The “Lefty” is on the right, the “Righty” is on the left, and a back is in the front.

 

 

Inside out

    “…Yeah, don’t it make you wanna twist and shout when you’re inside out”

                                                                           — Nelson (Spike) Wilbury

images-2Maybe this has happened to you. It’s a humid summer evening and hundreds of friends and fans in lawn chairs and on blankets dot the hillside before you. They are singing along with your songs (your songs!!!) between swigs from their plastic water bottles and occasional checks for important text messages. You and your band are sharing a tight “single mike set-up” (and a lot of tic-tacs) when, at the moment you step up to the microphone for your instrumental break, all perception of time and space seems to twist and distort….

The humidity and your nervousness causes your pick to squirt from your fingers like a wet bar of soap. High above the stage, in the bright stage lighting, amid the circling moths and mozzys, the plectrum pauses periododically on the pinacle of its path before plummenting into your instrument’s soundhole. This starts a chaotic chain of events that can only be described as tragically unnecessary.

In your haste to continue without losing a beat, you lift your instrument to look inside and in doing so, knock the microphone from its stand. The loud boom and squeeling feedback sends babies crying, veterns ducking, and seniors clawing for their hearing aids. You begin violently shaking your upside down instrument to free the pick when you whack Larry in the head just as he reaches down to retrive the mike. He spralls into Curly, who along with his upright bass, tumbles backwards off the rear of the stage into the bed of his pickup truck. The old Ford, having been mostly neutral to these preceedings, begins rolling down the hill mowing down the hastily vacated lawn chairs of the folks who ironically, had been sitting back there so that they could leave early to beat the traffic.

80px-BH_LMCMaybe that didn’t happen to you. Maybe it didn’t happen to me. Maybe that was a lot of windup for a simple tip that isn’t even my idea. Many of us have lost picks to the blackholes that occupy soundboard space. There seems to be a magnetism accompanied by a “giant sucking sound” that bends a pick’s trajectory. It may be the same gravitational distortion that causes dropped toast to land buttered side down or that that draws little Timmy to the old well while Lassie is occupied repairing the tractor.

When a pick falls into the soundhole our first reaction is to turn the instrument upside down  to let it fall out. We tip it and shake it but the fugitive usually hides somewhere on the wrong side of a top brace. We resort to violent shaking hoping the pick will jump over the obstruction but by then Curly has fallen off the stage and everyone has gone home.

So, finally, here’s the tip.

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Press the pick against the back with a pencil eraser.

As soon as the pick falls in, resist the urge to turn the instrument upside down. Instead, hold it flat and look into the soundhole. There’s a good chance that the pick is still in the area and hasn’t bounced over any back braces. Being mindful of those around you (except Larry who didn’t come today), gently rock the instrument until the pick is under the soundhole.

Press the eraser end of a pencil against the pick to hold it firmly against the back directly under the soundhole. Then invert the whole works over your head so that the pick is now over the soundhole. Release the pencil so that the pick can fall out.

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Hold the pick against the back while inverting the instrument. Remove the pencil to allow the pick to drop straight down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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If you are still having trouble or are dealing with a small soundhole, roll a piece of masking tape backwards and stick it on the eraser to snag the pick.

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Perform the above procedure as often as needed.

 

Chopping chordwool

 

DSC03868The new “lefty” has fifteen, 1/4″ wide cherry chord bars with the buttons arranged in three rows. The chosen chords are a common setup for this type of chromatic autoharp and are ordered like this:

 

 

C7         G7         D7     A7       E7

F        C          G          D        A

Dm      Am       Em     Bm    F#m

The four major keys here are “C”, “G”, “D”, and “A” arranged in the middle row with their 7ths adjacent in the top row and their relative minors in the bottom row. By centering the middle finger on a  major chord button, the accompanying chords in that key can be easily reached with the index or ring finger. To change keys, that same pattern can be moved a position or two to the right or left and the same fingering can be used.

 

DSC03864Premium chord bar felt is densely packed (not woven) and comes with “peel and stick” adhesive on one side. It adheres well but to avoid problems down the road, I apply contact adhesive to the bar and let it dry a little before applying the strip. For this type of chord bar holder, I trim the felt about 1/32″ beyond the end of the bar to eliminate noisy clatter.

 

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Chord bar felt is cut to allow the notes of the chord to ring and to mute the rest. Each chord, of course is different and I don’t want to make any mistakes, so I work methodically by marking each bar on the inside end, applying the labels on the buttons, and returning each bar to its place in the holder. Sheets of labels for strings and chord buttons can be purchased from Pete Daigle.

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A strip of graph paper with the string notes helps me mark the string positions on the felt. After placing the chord bar in its actual slot, I press it down and mark the felt with a fine point “sharpie”. This “F” chord has three notes, “F”, “A”, and “C”.  Starting in the bass with the tonic note, in this case  “F”, I make a light mark on the felt where it meets each “F”, “A”, and “C”. The process is repeated with each chord bar and its relevant notes, checked, and rechecked, before the cutting.

DSC03866At each mark I cut a neat little “V” notch using a sharp utility knife. Back in the holder, I check again to be sure the notch allows the marked strings while leaving the rest muted.

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Oh, the carnage!

Left handed autoharp, a preview

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This configuration can be strummed in the “sweet spot” with the right hand and chorded with the left without having to cross arms.

I’m putting the finishing touches on my new left handed autoharp and I’m eager to share photos for the folks who have been asking what it will be like. As I said in a previous post, reverse autoharps are difficult and somewhat expensive to acquire without placing a custom order with an autoharp luthier. Left handed autoharps from my workbench will also be custom orders with a (hopefully) short wait, but by keeping the design rather basic while retaining quality features, I intend to make them more affordable.

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The fifteen wooden chord bars can be ordered in two rows or arranged in three rows like this one. After the chords are chosen and cut, labels will be applied to the fronts of the buttons.

The design is based on the old, traditional, black box Oscar Schmidt’s with quite a few improvements. It has the same scaling, loop end strings, and bridge style as the old “Model A “style autoharps but I reverse the pattern so that they may be played on a table or on the lap without having to cross the hands. Improvements include a deeper, one piece laminated frame and back, a solid wood soundboard, an improved string schedule, 15 custom chords with premium white felt, and some optional features. I’m aiming for all of this in a handmade instrument for just a bit more than the  price as an Asian factory made autoharp.

 

 

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Black plastic chord bar holders with glued in springs. Premium white chord bar felt (this one not yet cut).

To do this I’m cutting some corners, but in a good way. Instead of wooden chord bar holders that are time consuming to make, I am using OS plastic holders with the glued in springs. they are cheap and not particularly attractive but they are stable and entirely adequate for their purpose. I do make the wooden chord bars to a closer tolerance for a better fit and easier action. With the most basic autoharps,  I intend to merely stain and finish the exposed laminated sides. Again, cheaper and less attractive, but OK. This new one features an optional cherry veneer on the sides.

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Laminated backs are very stable and resistant to splitting. Small rubber feet will be installed on the back to elevate the autoharp when resting on a table.

The back is the bottom two or three plys (1/4″ thick) that remain after I hollow out the laminated frame. It’s maple that can be finished natural or stained. This instrument has an optional cherry veneer around the sides but the more basic ones will bear the exposed laminations. Veneer choices (at extra cost) will include cherry, walnut, and maple as well as more exotic woods when legal and available.

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The chord bars will be cut to the new owner’s needs. The three row button layout is useful for a “Bryan Bowers” type setup where (and this is not always the case) the major chords are arranged in the center row, the 7ths in the top row, and the minors in the bottom row. This creates a comfortable, consistant playing pattern that can be shifted sideways by a position or two to change key.

A “Steampunk” banjo

photoFor a few months I have been working off and on at a new 5-string banjo as a surprise for my older son. Several years ago he moved to Florida with a dream to “make it” as a musician by playing his guitar anywhere and everywhere he could. Now in his 30s, he is experiencing a great degree of success playing in clubs, bars, at festivals and fundraisers, with two bands and sometimes with a prominent blues musician. A couple of years ago he began playing banjo and has joined a successful band where he performs original music with the banjo and therimin. The band has a kind of carnival/sideshow style that seems (to me) quite a bit like “Steampunk“.

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Clear head, curved compensated bridge, raw brass tailpiece, armrest, brackets, tension ring, and tonering.

“Steampunk” (as I kinda understand it ) is a style nostalgic of the 19th century, Victorian, industrial era of technology and dress. Open backed banjos are, of course extant to that era, but I wanted to give his new instrument a sort of modern “steampunk” treatment without going overboard since he will be using it professionally. The result is a five string banjo with a curly maple neck and an internal resonator. The “steampunk” treatment means lots of raw brass hardware and trim. Band logos adorn the peghead and inlays and the clear head reveals green LED lighting for stage performance.

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Curly maple neck with two way truss rod. magnetically attached internal resonator.

 

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Brass peghead overlay with a top hat band logo.

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The banjo is amplified with a Goldtone SMP electromagnetic pickup.

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The internal resonator is attached with rare earth magnets. The internal LED lighting, controlled by a switch and powered by a 9v battery, is attached to the inside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The green LED lights were originally sold for some automotive application. They can be on for hours and hours without depleting a 9v battery.

 

 

 

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Raw brass Gotoh planetary tuners with amber buttons. The fifth string peg is positioned at the sixth fret for playing comfort and so that it may be tuned higher without a capo.

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The internal resonator and lighting can be removed as one unit.

 

A new left handed autoharp

The first project using my new Copy Carver is a left handed autoharp. Since posting about reverse autoharps, I have had so many inquiries that I have decided to make a few for sale.

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A reverse autoharp

Reverse autoharps are not only for left handed players. When playing them on the lap or on a tabletop, the strings can be picked in the “sweet spot” with the right hand and chorded with the left hand without having to cross the wrists. There are other advantages as well. With the autoharp on the lap or tabletop, it’s easier to hear, to see what you’re doing, and it’s much kinder to your shoulders and arms.

Left handed autoharps are hard, if not impossible to find. I have never seen a left handed Oscar Schmidt or Chromaharp (except those awful “Carolers”) new or used. Most autoharp luthiers will accept custom orders but the $1000 to $2000 prices discourage many newbies seeking an entry level instrument. My goal here is to build a few high quality, basic, left handed autoharps with some limited options at around two-thirds the price of other luthier built autoharps.

Dense, laminated pin block is the best material for holding tight tuning pins and because it is so stable, it’s often used for the entire autoharp frame. The frame can be a single unit or of several joined pieces and is sandwiched between the soundboard and back. Soundboards and backs can be of solid or laminated wood.

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The back is the bottom two plys, about 1/4″ thick.

No matter how carefully constructed with select, dry wood, there is always the risk of future cracks and joint failure. A one piece frame has no joints to fail and quality plywood is resistant to cracking. Instead of gluing a plywood back to a one piece laminated frame, I make the entire body as one unit by hollowing it out with my Copy Carver. This even eliminates the back to frame joint.

 

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The hollowed out body while fitting the top braces. The sides will be covered with 3/16″ cherry veneer.

There are a couple of tradeoffs to this construction method. It’s time consuming and a bit wasteful removing the whole interior as sawdust instead of constructing the frame and back with multiple pieces, but there are no joints to fail. Many players believe a laminated back doesn’t sound as good or is as attractive as one made of solid wood. In my thinking, a laminated back sounds and looks better than a cracked one.

 

The “Copy Carver”

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The Copy Carver is set up on two sawhorses. The carriage and table can be seperated and stored when not in use.

Today, I put my new Copy Carver into operation. The Copy Carver is the invention of Ed Walicki, a wood carver from Michigan, who developed it to easily duplicate three dimensional wood carvings and other sculptures. I made mine from his plans so that I can duplicate banjo necks, hollow out autoharp bodies, and custom manufacture large quantities of fine sawdust. To me, the Copy Carver represents an affordable, analog alternative to the CNC routers that are so popular nowadays. CNC, or Computer Numerical Controlled routers cost thousands of dollars and are just not right for a small shop such as mine. I like to think of my Copy Carver not as a CNC router but rather a P (pencil)NC router.

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The stylus is guided around the inside of the model/frame while the router begins to cut the autoharp body.

The Copy Carver has a work table upon which are clamped a model of the item to be duplicated and a rough blank to be carved. A rolling “swing box” holds a powered trim router and a stylus in precise alignment. The carriage rolling on the tracks guides one axis while the swing box can be guided up and down and back and forth on the other two axes. Carving involves guiding the stylus over the model while the router precisely cuts the blank.

I have been making very stable autoharp bodies by hollowing out 1-1/2″ laminated maple  such that the pinblocks, sides, and back are of one unit with no joints to fail. It’s a bit wasteful but I think much less so than a finished instrument that could fold, warp, or crack requiring future repair. To rout the bodies in the past I tried to control a router by hand and the process was positively frightening. Now, the Copy Carver allows me to safely complete the task with less effort.

DSC03760My initial (r)outing with this machine is a left-handed, or reverse, autoharp made to play on the lap without having to cross hands. I’m routing out the inside of 1-1/2″ laminated maple to a final depth of 1-1/4″. That will leave 1/4″ (or two plys) for the back. The model is just some scrapwood framed into the exact inside shape that I will cut into the autoharp body. Later, I can turn this same frame/model over to rout an autoharp body in the conventional, right-handed configuration. The work is as slow  as the old way but at least I’m confident that I will finish the task with all or most of my fingers and eyes.

DSC03759The Copy Carver’s swing box is counter balanced with 15 pounds of barbell plates and fine tuned with a few handy spring clamps so that guiding the stylus and router is almost effortless. A screen door handle grasped with the left hand makes it easier to roll the carriage on the tracks.DSC03757

Making a curved compensated banjo bridge, part two

 

images-1Compensated  bridges come in several forms but they all, as an integrated unit, vary the speaking length of the individual string courses to “compensate” for the effect of string mass on intonation. For years, until dedicated craftsmen developed alternatives, the “Grover” compensated bridges were all that seemed available.

 

DownloadedFileAt some point “Moon” style banjo bridges entered the scene offering arc shaped bridges of different sizes and weights. It’s this style of bridge that I’m going to make here.

 

Ordinarily, bridges like these are cut from a thicker piece of a hardwood such as maple and capped with ebony. Instead, I am going to laminate two strips of bubinga with a thin strip of ebony in the center. The grain of each strip will be arranged horizontally to resist the strings tendency to cut into the wood.

Each strip is around 1/10″ thick and 4″ long. In the final set-up, the bridge could be anywhere from 1/2″ to 5/8″ high so I make the strips 3/4″ high. Having that much extra material will allow me to reduce the height equally from the cap and the base to achieve the final height.

DSC03716I draw center lines both ways. The vertical line marks the position for the third string and the 5/16″ center hole. The horizontal line also centers the 5/16″ hole plus the two 3/8″ outside holes. I have marked the positions of the other four strings and located the two 3/8″ holes between the 1st and 2nd and the 4th and 5th strings. I won’t glue the pieces together yet. I’ll clamp them together to maintain alignment while I drill the three holes.

DSC03728In the past, I have used the “Grover” compensated bridges with some success. I have never liked the way they sound and couldn’t imagine the steps in making one like that, but the degree of compensation seems to work for me. Using one for reference, I found the arc of an 11″ diameter circle closely intersects each of the five points where the strings cross the Grover. I made a form for my laminated bridge by cutting that arc in a piece of scrapwood.

DSC03729The strips are springy enough that they won’t fracture when clamped into the gentle arc. I applied “gel” type CA glue to the strips, aligned the holes, and clamped them into the form. I chose to use CA over yellow wood glue because it is harder and denser for better sound transmission. I chose the “gel” because it allows a little longer “open time” for aligning everything.

 

DSC03730CA glue sets up fast when the “kicker” or accelerant is spritzed anywhere near the joint. When the clamps are removed, the bridge assumes the curve of the form without any spring back.

 

 

DSC03731From this point there are countless possibilities for shaping and thinning. I wish I had time to try them all. I bandsaw the rough shape and use my oscillating spindle sander for shaping and thinning. The holes can be enlarged and areas can be thinned to achieve a different , hopefully better tone.

This bridge will have a center foot to prevent sagging and keep the strings level. For the feet to have better contact with the head, the entire base will be sanded into a very subtle curve with the center foot being slightly lower than the outside feet.

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Making a curved compensated banjo bridge

A seemingly simple but very complex component of any banjo is the bridge. It transmits much of the vibrating string’s energy to the head, maintains precise string spacing and height, and determines each string’s vibrating length from the nut. All of these functions influence how well the banjo sounds and plays. Many factors determine how well the bridge functions. The species of wood (or inorganic material), grain and grain orientation, weight, shape and size, and geometry are only some of the details that make one bridge perform different from another.

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A “Grover” maple and ebony banjo bridge

Not long ago, the banjo player had few choices. Music stores would carry two or three footed “Grovers” that might or might not bear an ebony cap. The two standard heights, 1/2″ and maybe 5/8″, usually had to be sanded or filed for a good fit. To compensate for irregularities in intonaton these straight bridges were rotated a few degrees.

Nowdays, there is a whole industry of industrious industrialists crafting and testing hundreds of designs for sale to players pursuing that perfect tone. The player can buy and try (at $20 to $40 a go) bridges by the handful to swap back and forth, comparing volume, tone, and sustain. In forums, articles, and advertising, there is endless discussion about bridges made of exotic hardwoods, submerged logs, factory floors, and discarded pallets.  By searching  “banjo bridges” on Google images, one is presented with such an astonishing array of choices that it’s hard to know where to begin.

My most recent banjo build was an amplified five string with a 26-3/8″ scale that will be played bluegrass style, with picks. The customer does not capo for key changes but plays chords up into the high frets. I don’t have a lot of experience with this type of banjo nor did I have the opportunity to experiment since the instrument was shipped out of state. In setting out to make the bridge, my goal was to have something with a crisp tone, an adequate degree of compensation, and a hard cap that would resist string cutting. Additionally, I wanted a shape and style that could be easily thinned and tweaked for improved tone and sustain.

In the following post/s I will describe the steps in making this curved bridge of bubinga and ebony.DSC03731

 

Instrument building plans, some for free

Each time I begin a new project, I search the web for related information such as images, specifications, historical details, construction methods, and any ideas that I can  legally buy, borrow or steal to make my new favorite instrument a success. First to get “googled” are plans and blueprints. By purchasing blueprints or downloading free plans, I can have an informed starting point for my own unique designs which I then share with visitors to my site.

2014-06coverI have always found “Musicmakers” in Stillwater, Minnesota an excellent information resource for many of the instruments that interest me. They sell completed instruments, kits, parts, materials and blueprints for the beginning builder to the skillfull luthier. Their innovative designs produce good sounding instruments that are straightforward and easy to build.

Last week, I received their May 2014 catalog which offers free digital downloads of ten of their instrument plans. They also have for sale  hardware and string packages collated for each of their blueprints, both purchased and free.

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“Autochord”

Among the free plans are dulcimers, mandolins ,travel guitars, the “Autochord”( their version of an autoharp), and the “Suitcase Bass” (a unique upright bass that can be disassembled for travel). The plans that I have downloaded are in PDF format and include photographed construction procedures as well as blueprints. I haven’t tried these yet, but sometimes I can take downloaded files to “Staples” and have them printed on large paper at 100% scale for use as full size templates.

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“Suitcase Bass”

The free plans appear to be for instruments and kits that Musicmakers no longer make. Purchased plans are are available for most of the ones they still offer.