Two New Leftys

DSC05062I’ve recently completed two new left handed autoharps. Both are rather basic 36 string  chromatics, built with my one piece laminated pinblock frames, and featuring some available options. My goal here is to make basic left handed “A” style autoharps at a price only a bit more than new Asian manufactured autoharps (mine $600-$750). Extra options, accessories, and shipping can add to the cost, but I believe these are a good value for a hard to find, luthier built instrument.DSC05080


Just the basics in the keys of “A”, “D”, “G”, and “C”.


The optional magnetic chord bar covers lift off for easy bar removal.






First, a basic lefty with a mahogany soundboard and a twelve chord set. I made it for myself to try out a couple of options but sold it recently to a beginning left handed player in New York. The simple three row chord set up plays in four keys. With twelve chords, there is plenty of playing area at the high strings. I made extra chord bars so that when the present twelve chords seem limiting, different chords can be swapped in easily after lifting off the optional magnetic covers.






An additional option on this autoharp is a second back that serves as a resonator, for more tone and volume.





DSC05083Next, Is a lefty built on commission for another beginning player who experiences pain and discomfort when playing her other autoharp in the upright position. A left handed autoharp can be played on the lap or on a table to considerable advantage.

Options ordered for this 15 chord instrument include a spruce soundboard, walnut side veneer, maple and walnut chord bars, a soundhole rosette, and Daigle “Flat Line” fine tuners.















Lately, much of my workshop time has been spent building left handed autoharps and most of that has involved designs and techniques that I have already posted about. So finally, here is something new.

DSC04920Today I installed a laser cut rosette in my newest instrument’s 1/4″ thick spruce top. The soundhole was cut to match the outside diameter of the rosette. Under the hole I glued a “donut”, a thin circle of wood that created a little shelf for the rosette to rest on. I wanted the thinner rosette to sit more or less flush with the top so it was necessary to shim it above the donut. To do this, I applied little beads of “Bondic”, a unique sort of plastic adhesive that I’ve been playing with.

DSC04922“Bondic” is much like superglue but instead of waiting for it to set up or misting it with a liquid accelerator, it hardens almost instantly with exposure to ultraviolet light. It can then be sanded, shaped, and even painted. Apparently it is nearly the same as the product dentists use to fill and build up teeth. So far, I have used it to repair chips in guitar nuts and piano keys, cracks in my old garden sprayer, and now to shim a rosette.

DSC04925This was very “squeezy” and fun to do. First, I squeezed small beads of the adhesive onto the underside of the rosette where it will rest on the donut.  Then I squeezed the little UV LED light to shine it for a few seconds on each bead. It hardened instantly so I could go around again to build each bead to the thickness I wanted. Lightly sanding the beads on a flat surface flatened them to a uniform thickness for a flush fit in the soundhole.DSC04926







DSC04929To make future removal easier, I will glue the rosette in the soundhole with hide glue or possibly hot melt glue.


A Gem

In addition to luthierie and piano service, I repair stringed instruments for a local music store. One of the great “perks” of working with a small town store, besides that I get to play with other people’s toys, is working on some of the unusual (not always stringed) instruments that land on my workbench. I have repaired accordions and concertinas, restored goat skin drums and fireplace bellows, and even rewired cutters on a candy cutting machine. I have the best job in the world where every day holds a different challenge and learning experience.

DSC04363Presently, I’m restoring  “The Gem Roller Organ”, stamped inside: Sept 15, 1925, to playable condition. It’s a small mechanical reed instrument measuring 13.5″x11.5″x7.5″ high and made of wood, canvas, and steel. Turning a small crank on the front does two things, activates two bellows with a reservoir, and turns a roller called a “cob”. As the cob rotates, an array of small pins open and close twenty seperate valves allowing air to vibrate the reeds inside. Turning the crank faster increases the tempo as well as the volume.DSC04362

The cob supplied isn’t labeled and the song it plays is unfamiliar to me. The cob is gear driven. As it rotates, it travels slowly sideways for almost three revolutions and then resets itself. By pulling a spring tensioned center pin on the right side, the cob can be removed and another installed.

DSC04360Suction to drive the reeds is created by two rockin’ bellows that are pumped by a treadle rod attached to the crank above. They alternately inflate and deflate collapsing the larger reservoir bellow on the top. By replacing the two valves with new pneumatic cloth the instrument began working again. The cloth is loosely stretched across holes to seal its bellow on the suction stroke and open the holes on the exhaust stroke.




“The Gem” features reeds like an accordion, a roll like a player piano, a pump like a fireplace bellow, and a crank like a hurdy gurdy… strings attached.DSC04356


Annie Oakley’s musical brother

images-1Here in Darke County Ohio, folks are mighty proud of Annie Oakley. “Little Miss Sure Shot”, as she was later named by Chief Sitting Bull, was born and spent her early life just a few miles from here near North Star, Ohio. Her shooting skills and showmanship earned her worldwide fame as a performer in numerous exhibitions, contests, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.tumblr_nlz3184V6G1s7e5k5o1_500 Residing in Greenville’s Garst Museum are displays and artifacts of Annie’s life and every July the town hosts  the “Annie Oakley Days” festival with programs and a parade.

Often as not, it is difficult to travel the sidewalks, find parking, or even be seated in a local restaurant for all of the out-of-town biographers, historians, and photographers who search the county for new stories of our nineteenth century superstar. Yet, none have written about Annie’s locally famous older brother, well known in these parts for his novel musical shows.

220px-Cycling_goldminer_1895O.K. Oakley tirelessly traveled by bicycle throughout Darke and the surrounding counties to the churches, dance halls, and taverns that were always eager to host his popular musical “nights”. He carried an easel and an enormous portfolio of posters upon which he had meticulously painted the lyrics of hymns and popular songs of the day. With these, he would lead enthusiastic “sing-a-longs” where young and old alike would take the stage, ignore the butterflies in their tummies, and belt out their favorite songs for the entertainment (or embarassment) of their families and neighbors. These rowsing, racous sing-a-longs  often brought complaints from nearby “party poopers” and were nearly banned by local constables. A restraining order was actually issued to one, Orville K. Oakley to cease these “disturbances” but O.K. (who preferred to go by his middle name) refused to disappoint the hundreds of folks who came from far and wide whenever he posted his banner announcing…….

Tonight is

        Kerry Oakley Night!

Everyone Welcome







A simple autoharp resonator

DSC04287Anyone who has played an autoharp, mountain dulcimer, or other stringed instrument that is is is held by a strap or placed on the lap has experienced the pleasant vibrations coming from the instrument’s back. “I can feel it sing against my chest”, is a compliment often payed to a well designed autoharp. The experience can be like hugging a purring kitty. The entire instrument vibrates and the back has a big effect on volume and tone.

Sometimes it is a problem when you take your purring kitty to a jam or performance that is dominated by a bunch of slobbery, barking dogs. Your quiet instrument cannot be heard and playing harder removes much of the control and subtlety that you’ve practiced so much to achieve.

A lot of volume and tone is lost when contact with the lap or torso absorbs the backs vibrations. Guitars, mandolins, and (especially) fiddles can be held in such a way as to leave much of the back free but with autoharps and mountain dulcimers, the player actually presses the the instrument against the body.


Lois’ Galax dulcimer with a double back

A second back, fastened to the instrument with a small gap between, can make a noticeable improvement in volume and tone. Many mountain dulcimers feature double backs in their original construction. Some are merely placed on a temporary arrangement sometimes called a “possom board”. The double back allows the instrument to vibrate freely without the dampening effect.


McSpadden’s “possom board”





I have fashioned a very basic double back resonator for an autoharp that I’m building. It’s inexpensive and can be easily removed for bare back riding. I cut it to shape with my bandsaw from a 12″ x 24″ x 3/16″ x 5 ply birch “hobby panel” that I purchased from Menard’s. After sanding and sealing it with shellac, I sprayed it with three coats of lacquer.


The original bumper positions

I had already fastened four rubber bumpers to the back of the autoharp so I removed them to locate the 5/32″ screw holes on the resonator. The bumpers were reinstalled, this time on the outside of the new resonator and into the existing holes. To create a space between the autoharp’s back I used felt piano punchings as spacers but washers or small wooden blocks would work equally.


Green felt spacers create a gap.


The new resonator adds only 3/8″ to the height of the body so the autoharp will still fit in its case. This autoharp has exposed and finished ply sides so the hobby ply matches nicely.  The panel could be easily stained to match almost any instrument’s appointments.

A new Dulcijo

DSC04143Last December I posted about “Maplenut”, a three stringed diatonic banjo (aka dulcijo) that I made for a musician in California. “Maplenut” combines maple and walnut flavors with an 8″ rim and 24″ scale.



DSC03546When making rims for my dulcijos, I lathe turn two at once from a single blank by turning a 10″ rim first, cutting it away, and then turning the 8″ rim from the remainder. So, while making the 8″ Maplenut, I also produced a bigger 10″ brother which is finally finished.



DSC04225The big brother doesn’t have an ice cream name like “Maplenut” so all I can sing is,

“I’ve been through the dessert on a ‘jo with no name….”

(it felt good to get that outta my brain)





The new 10″ rim also features a 24″ scale with a diatonic fretboard and a third, thumb string, installed at the fourth fret. It is tuned and played the same as the 8″ with one slight difference. An extra “1-1/2 fret” is installed at that position adding a “C” note to the scale on the middle string. Initially, this intrusion on the diatonic scale is a distraction that requires getting used to but that “C” note is useful in more songs than would be thought.


DSC04212The peghead overlay and fretboard have also been given a different treatment. Instead of walnut, they are faced with bubinga that has been “ebonized” with Fiebing’s black shoe dye. Overall, the neck and rim have been dyed to a darker hue than Maplenut’s natural finish.DSC04214







DSC04231A nice upgrade to this instrument is the installation of raw brass Gotoh planetary tuners with amber buttons. I had used these on my son’s five string “Steampunk” banjo and really liked them for their smooth operation and rich colors.


DSC04219A 10″ amber colored “Renaissance” head has been installed with a 3/16″ steel tone ring, a 1/2″x1/8″ aluminium tension ring, and nickel plated hooks and shoes. The three .009″ steel strings are anchored with a “No-Knot” tailpiece and an ebony capped bridge.DSC04215

Tuning for stability

DSC04259The tuning of autoharps, hammered dulcimers, bowed psaltrys, zithers, kanteles, lap harps and many other zither family instruments is adjusted and maintained by square headed, finely threaded steel rods called zither pins. Their threaded sections are driven into the undersized holes of the wooden pinblocks inside the structure of the instrument. Depending on the integerity of the pinblock, the tuning pins can sometimes be very tight with a lot of holding power. This is a positive condition but it warrants some care and a slightly different tuning technique.


almost useful


soft brass with little leverage


poor quality pot metal with poor fit

To care for the tuning pins, it is necessary to use a quality tuning wrench that engages the square heads of the pins at a variety of positions without excessive wiggle. It must be made of quality materials and shaped so that there is adequate leverage and control for fine tuning. Unfortunately, most of the wrenches we acquire with our instruments are disappointing if not downright hazardous. Most smaller L-wrenches and “clock key” style wrenches with square tips are cast with inferior metals and do not fit solidly on the tuning pins. Since they lack leverage and grip, their tips become stripped and they chew up the tuning pins.


Tuning wrenches with star tips

Don’t be tempted to buy or use those types of wrenches. You will have disappointing results and can risk expensive damage to your instrument’s tuning pins. Instead, acquire a “star tipped” wrench. Two types are readily available in music stores and online. One is a “T” type wrench and the other is a longer “L” type that resembles a piano tuning wrench. Both feature hardened alloy metals with a star shaped tip that firmly engages the pins at a variety of angles. They have longer handles that make them easier to control even very tight pins.






                                 Tuning for better stability

Zithers are very much like pianos only smaller. With my experience as a piano technician I have learned that properly “setting” the pins and equalizing string tension results in a more stable, long lasting tuning. The following techniques that I employ tuning pianos also work with zithers.

When turning a pin righty-tighty, two things happen that affect stability. A section of the string is drawn over the bridges and, in a tight block, the tuning pin twists. These forces briefly become part of the string’s and pin’s short term memories. Tiny kinks where the string previously crossed the bridges are drawn ahead and the twist introduced to the pin lingers. As these forces equalize, the string un-kinks and the pin straightens. When they do, the string is no longer in tune.

As a tiny kink in a string slowly relaxes, the pitch goes slightly flat. While changing the pitch of a string by more than a few cents, stretch it by pressing down on the speaking length with a finger or a narrow piece of wood like a popsicle stick. Check the tuning, pluck the string rather hard, and then check the tuning again. This will help ease the kinks, seat the string on the bridge, and stabilize the string tension.

When a pin retains a twist it is called “flagpoling”. The torque of turning it in a tight block actually bends it into a spiral. It takes a little time to relax into its former shape. To minimize this effect I like to use a long handled L-wrench. With its extended handle and wide swing, I can “bump” the pin with a wigglely/jerk that turns the whole length of the pin at once with less twist . I tune the string a few cents sharp and then wiggle it back to the target pitch which helps the pin return to its straight shape.



My woodworking this winter hasn’t been limited to cutting chordwood. I have managed to build a couple of dulcijos, an autoharp, and some cigar box autoharps, some as “Top Secret” work for Santa.

DSC04143Some nice folks from Pennsylvania commissioned a dulcijo as a gift for their son who resides in California. They chose a combination of maple and walnut commenting that it sounded like an ice cream flavor.  We named it “Maplenut”


DSC04147“Maplenut” features an eight inch laminated pin block rim trimmed with walnut. The lathe turned rim is capped with a 3/16″ steel tone ring, a Renaissance head, and tensioned by a 1/2″ notched aluminium band and eight, nickel plated brackets. The walnut dowel stick conceals a 1/4″x20 threaded rod for neck attachment.





The neck is made of curly maple with walnut peghead overlay and “scooped” fingerboard.  Two economy guitar tuners are installed on the peghead with a banjo friction style tuner for the third string. A “No Knot” tailpiece anchors the three .009″ loop end steel strings.





DSC04233” Life intervenes”, as a recent commenter suggested, helping me to explain my recent absence. It’s been late October since my last post and her encouraging words have found me wanting to continue posting here on WHBIT, but not having a lot of new things to say.

The greater part of my woodworking activities this winter have been spent sawing, collecting, stacking, carrying, and burning cordwood. Heating with a woodstove has always been a joy to me. I seldom think of the work, the ashes, the smoke, and the mess when I warm my backside in its radiance.

Emily, the nursing assistant at my recent semi-annual medical, asked me if I exercise (implying do I jog, swim, or go to a gym?). “Not at all!…”, I answered, “…but I work”. These kids today (rant) don’t realize the difference. A chord of hardwood can weigh a ton or more and I typically handle each piece five or more times.

A mild winter in Ohio, as this one seems to be so far, only requires around three or four cord of hardwood to heat a well insulated home of a modest size such as ours. A woodburning stove, like a baby, requires a lot of attention especially in bitter cold weather when extra night time feedings are required. I set my alarm clock to 2AM or 4AM but often arise, feed the “baby” and return to bed without remembering having done so. The rewards are a warm home, at a low cost, and some healthy exercise.

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.


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