Friday, October 26, 2007

Paper Thin Shavings and a Raga Called Pat

This week has been rainy and unusually cold for this time of the year. With the dark, low lying clouds and the steady drizzle, it was perfect working in the shop, hot cup of coffee in hand. Luckily, I had one good day to work on the banjo, which is unusual lately. When I wasn't listening to the gentle patter of rain falling on the old tin roof, I was listening to John Fahey's Days Have Gone By on the stereo. Life could not have been more peaceful.

This week I used the spokeshave to even the pot, and I began shaping the neck. The spokeshave is the most rewarding tool in my toolbox. Before I began making banjos, I was interested in the handtools in my grandfather's shop. It seemed to me then, that handtools were difficult to use and required great force, but just the opposite is true. It is best to let the tool work for you, as any tool should. To glide the spokeshave across the wood and produce paper thin shavings is a mighty rewarding experience. The photograph to the left shows the completed pot.

I also began to shape the neck. To do this, I first cut out the shape on the bandsaw. This shape, while still very angular, is closer to the final shape of the neck. Here you can see the shape of the hump that is characteristic of a 5 string banjo.

The neck is then clamped onto a jig to hold it above the vice. I built this jig to give me more room above the vice, this keeps my hands free from hitting the vice as I shape the sides of the neck. I also cut some peghead overlay from the same ebony block that I cut the fingerboard, and glued the overlay in place.

I also took the opportunity to rough out a couple of neck blanks and glued up another pot.

Well, that's it for this week. A small step for mankind, but a big step for me. (I got that from somewhere, but I can't for the life of me remember where).

Friday, October 19, 2007

Just Call Me Jed (or, how I finally learned to clamp it)

Here is a photograph from our Sunday folk gathering, which will be called Second Sunday from here on out. I had a great time. Amy made a beautiful apple pie. The guests were: Ben, who brought the heart and soul, and played a mean washboard. Zane, who brought a truckload of knowledge, Heidi, who brought a beautiful accordion, which she will be playing very soon. Ian, who brought his new-to-him Harmony arch top, scales, and the Leadbelly songbook. Rachel, who brought a smile and more encouragement than is safe for any of us, and Elizabeth, Zane and Heidi's friend from New Orleans, who was nice enough to put up with our shenanigans. We're going to have to work on her a bit to convince her to drive all the way up for the next Second Sunday. Maybe if we promise to practice....

It has been a very hectic week, but I ended up getting more done on the banjo than I thought that I would. I redesigned the clamp that secures the pot during the gluing process. I feel much better about this clamp.

To the left is a photo of my old clamping system. The clamp was held together by eight bolts. When in use, the pressure was so great that it snapped the bolts in half after every few pots. Also, the pressure was slightly uneven, so it was easy for a pot to get slightly out of round.

To the left is a photo of my new clamping system. I built the new clamp from two 5.5" and two 6" T-bolt clamps around a metal strap, cut to length. The strap doesn't look strong enough to handle the pressure, but it feels strong, and there are four pressure points, which will help distribute pressure. So far the clamp has worked perfectly. So, as long as it can continue to handle the pressure, we're in business.

Here is a photo of the wood to be used for the pot. These three pieces have been steam bent, left on the form to dry, then removed. Next I cut the three pieces of 1/4 " maple to length using a tapered cut on the joints.

Next I glue the three pieces and place them into the clamp. I let the pot dry overnight.

And here is the finished pot.

I also cut the grooves into the fretboard (below). My last fretted banjo used modern sized banjo fret wire. After playing the fretless, I've been wanting to scale down a bit (sorry) and experiment with thinner mandolin fret wire, which may not even work. Never know until you try, right?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Buckdancer's Choice - part 2

Lo Gordon of Cedar Mountain Banjos had a booth at the Tennessee Valley Fiddlers Convention and I was fortunate to get a chance to talk with him for a bit. Lo is a nice guy and, I would say, one of the top three banjo makers. His banjos are beautiful and the craftsmanship is excellent. We had a nice talk in which we discussed the zen of sanding, the craftsmanship of the early, classic builders, the definition of "handmade," etc.

Lo feels that the early, classic, builders sacrificed detail and craftsmanship in favor of ornamentation. The amount of time that a true craftsman would put into, say, sanding or small details, many of the older builders put into inlay, then covered the wood with a thick varnish or lacquer.

I found the discussion of "what is handmade in today's technology" conversation very interesting. Lo uses a machine to replicate his necks. While some may not consider this to be "handmade," Lo pointed out that this method of building employs 200 year old technology from the beginning of the industrial revolution, thus an "authentic" method of production, unlike employing computer technology in the building process.

I do not disagree with this philosophy and, in fact, can see an advantage in using machines to replicate parts, especially a professional builder. How different is that, really, from using a band saw or a table saw to cut wood?

That said, I enjoy using a spokeshave to carve the neck. I do it by hand simply because I enjoy doing it that way. In fact, that may be my favorite part of the building process. I like the feel of the wood, the thin curly shavings that float to the floor. It's a quiet, meditative way to spend the day. Although, I must say that if I were building for a living, in a situation where I needed every neck to be consistent, I would certainly use a replicator.

I enjoyed talking to Lo, it was certainly one of the highlights of the weekend. Lo strikes me as a dedicated builder, and I greatly respect his work.

On our way back home we stopped by the Homestead Hollow Folk arts Festival in Springville, Alabama. Surprisingly, I met a banjo maker there. His name was Bob Taunton. He just started building banjos. He builds gourd banjos mostly. I enjoyed talking with him.

He got into building after he ordered a banjo from builder Mike Ramsey. Mike is so backlogged at the moment that there is a three year wait once you order your instrument. So, during Bob's wait, he decided to just build his own. Good for him.

This week I didn't have much time to work on the banjo. I glued and clamped the wood for the pot, only to have the clamp break. The pressure on the clamp is so great that it broke four of the bolts holding it together. this is the second time that this clamp has failed, both times in the same way. So, instead of putting more bolts on and using the clamp until it breaks again, I'm going to rethink the whole system.

Other than that, I put some ears on the peghead (photo left), made a few more fingerboards, and experimented with different ways of clamping the pot.

I assist a class at the University of Alabama. I help with the pottery portion of a seminar class taught by Dr. Galbraith through the New College program. This week we are going to pit-fire some of our pottery, plus we will have extra studio time. Also, next weekend is the Kentuck Festival of the Arts, where I will be working with the Alabama Folklife Association on Friday afternoon and Sunday, so I'm not going to be working on the banjo much, if at all, this week. But, if you're at the Kentuck Festival on Sunday, look for the Folklife Association booth and say "howdy."

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Buckdancer's Choice - part 1

October is a busy time of the year around this part of the country. October is when the temperature starts cooling down and we have some nice fall days to enjoy. Lots of outdoor events are scheduled in October and I, like most people around here, plan to take the time to enjoy the pleasant fall weather.

That being said, I didn't get much done on the banjo this week. Instead of working on the banjo I went to the 41st annual Tennessee Valley Fiddlers Convention, held on the campus of Athens State University. 15,000 people were expected to attend.

Joyce & Jim Cauthen performing with Flying Jenny.

Amy and I arrived on Friday afternoon. In every nook and cranny of the campus there were string bands playing or groups of people jamming. There were vendors, crafts, and a sea of people. Amy and I were completely overstimulated. It took at least half an hour to get acclimated to it all.

Eventually we made our way to the main stage. The stage was the large front porch of what I believe to be the president's mansion. There, performers competed in different categories, such as "old time banjo," "old time singing," "bluegrass band," etc. The convention lasts from 8:00 a.m. until at least midnight Friday and Saturday. To the left is Charlie Hunter.

Amy and I watched the bluegrass banjo competition for a bit, then decided to just wander around, since most of the energy seemed to be concentrated away from the stage.

While walking around watching impromptu jams and string bands, we happened upon the Kudzu String Band playing for a group of Buckdancers. Energy sizzled from each and every person playing and dancing in that little corner. Everyone around that area was bursting with excitement and ready to GO!!! Every type of person was there, in every age group, from 9 to 96. Everyone was welcome. It was a powerful and moving experience.

Eventually the Kudzu String Band wrapped it up, and everyone slowly dispersed. As the man in the photo dancing passed by, I patted him on the back and said, "that was great." He looked at me with wild eyes and a big grin on his face and said, "you can't buy this, it's free," and walked away.

And that was it. We left the buckdancers. We walked around, watched more great bands, heard more great music, had a wonderful time, enjoyed each and every second, but nothing quite hit me as hard as that experience, and the words "you can't buy this, it's free."

For me, it gets to the heart of it all. It's free. It's homemade. It's playing and singing and interacting with others. It's interacting with your community. It's being a part of something larger that yourself, and it's open to everyone.

That buckdancer reminded me of something else, also. He reminded me of something Mike Seeger said in the film HOMEMADE AMERICAN MUSIC. He said, "now, instead of fiddling, storytelling or unaccompanied singing around the home, most people's musical lives are dominated by big business through t.v. and radio."

Inspired by the words of Mike Seeger and our buckdancing friend, Amy and I have invited a few friends over to the house on Sunday to get together and play music, in hopes of creating our own little community. Amy plans on making an apple pie, and I think that I'll make some chili since the weather is cooling down. It's important to be a part of a community, and I hope that this will be something that we can all enjoy, share, and grow with over the years.

Sometimes you find the most powerful messages in the simplest places.

Mr. Dudley, 96 year old buckdancer.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

I'm a Rough Neck

This week I roughed out the neck of the banjo.

Below is a photograph of the block of wood that I am using.

I purchase my wood from a hardwood center about three hours from where I live. They have a nice selection, and I feel that it's important to inspect the wood for cracks or defects. I like to get enough wood to last awhile. I should be able to get about eight necks from this block.

To the left are the three blocks of wood that am using for this banjo. The darker piece to the left is a block of Ebony. next to that is a piece of African Rosewood. They are both resting on the piece of hard Maple. I use the Maple for the pot and neck. The Ebony is used for the peghead and fingerboard. The Rosewood will be used for a cap around the bottom of the pot. The Rosewood cap adds a finished look to the banjo, but has no effect on the sound or playability of the instrument.

Here I am cutting the neck from the block of Maple.

After the neck is free from the block if maple I smooth the top with my grandfather's old plane. This is the area where the fretboard will attach, so it is important for this area to be as smooth as possible.

Next I cut a groove through the middle of the neck. This groove will hold the truss rod. The truss rod adds strength to the neck, as well as making it possible to adjust the neck should it ever warp.

And Here's the neck, roughed out with a groove ready to accept the truss rod.

A hole is drilled to anchor the truss rod. The truss rod, by the way, is just a fancy way of saying "a piece of metal rod incorporated into the neck." It's easier to say, also. I use a piece of 3/16" rod.

Here I am carving out a section of the peghead where the end of the truss rod will be exposed.

In the photo to the left I am threading the truss rod. To the right is a close-up of the die I use to cut the grooves.

And now it is time to remove the fingerboard from the Ebony.

I built this jig to re-saw wood. I can adjust the jig to cut any thickness needed. The maple strips on the bottom create a platform for the wood being fed through the blade, and keeps the blade steady so it doesn't "wander."

Here is a better view of the re-saw jig attached to the band-saw

Here I am feeding the Ebony into the Band-saw. Contrary to popular belief, making small pieces of wood from larger pieces of wood is actually quite boring.

And here is the neck so far. Not quite ready for a night out on the town, but looking better.