Saturday, August 29, 2020

Fired Up

Over a week ago we had a very unusual, for our Santa Cruz coastal community, large lightning storm. According to the weather service, we had over 11,000 lightning strikes. This was the remnants of a Pacific hurricane off the Baja Mexican coast. Unfortunately, there was no rain involved, and the storm only produced dry lightningAsh-covered Jeep-better. Dry lightning on dry forests and fields. The resulting 7000 fires have now consumed over 1.4 million acres. More than 120,000 people were evacuated in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties. At last count, over 500 homes and structures were lost, just in our county. Ash has fallen all over. (Notice my ash-covered Jeep in the photo.) Fortunately, we are far enough away that we were not threatened by the fires. But, added to the fires, we’ve had over five months of Covid-19 sheltering and mask wearing. Back in early July, Santa Cruz partially opened up, but that was short lived. More people tested positive, and things shut down again. Only a few restaurants and wineries with spaced outdoor seating have been able to keep partially open. This 2020 is turning out to be one hell of a year. Now, if we can just get through the Fall election.

Sigh… Enough of that…

Through it all, I’ve been fortunate to have a lot to do. My woodworking craft is advancing, and I’ve actually had seven Etsy sales, six of them large instruments.

New Work 

A few weeks ago, I finished carving a new dulcimer head and tailpiece for a resonator dulcimer I’d been planning to make before the pandemic locked us down. I purchased a 5 1/2 inch “paint lid” resonator Reso-dulcimerand biscuit bridge from C.B. Gitty, and made a special dulcimer top the resonator would fit in. I just glued the top on, and I’m ready to sand it down and then add the fingerboard. This dulcimer has cocobolo top and back and figured maple sides. The head and tailpiece are walnut, and the fingerboard is maple laminated over pine. I still have binding to do then a lot of sanding.

Waiting in the wings is another teardrop dulcimer. This will be a regular dulcimer with no additional bells and whistles…

Symphony-three photos combined

Another instrument I finished recently is my third Symphony. Again, I based this on a 12th century Spanish illuminated manuscript known as “Cantigas de Santa Maria”. This one is cherry, with maple tuning pegs, tangents, and handle. The one thing different with this Symphony is the hand-carved tagua nut head with the wheel handle coming out of his mouth.

It’s another lovely sounding instrument that harkens to the early medieval period. Picture monks sitting around chanting their offices in Latin while accompanying themselves on one of these instruments.

Before the Symphony, which was first created around the 1100s, was the Organistrum, which took two people to play. This was the first “hurdy gurdy-type instrument” and had a crank that turned a wheel. It predates the pipe organ and was used for the same function: to play notes to help everyone sing their offices in the same key.

Lesson time:

If you have read (or watched) Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael, you might have read or that the Benedictine monks always chant (and pray) during the following offices:

  • Matins (during the night, at about 2 a.m.)
  • Lauds or Dawn Prayer (at dawn, about 5 a.m., but earlier in summer, later in winter)
  • Prime or Early Morning Prayer (First Hour, approximately 6 a.m.)
  • Terce or Mid-Morning Prayer (Third Hour, approximately 9 a.m.)
  • Sext or Midday Prayer (Sixth Hour, approximately 12 noon)
  • None or Mid-Afternoon Prayer (Ninth Hour, approximately 3 p.m.)
  • Vespers or Evening Prayer ("at the lighting of the lamps", about 6 p.m.)
  • Compline or Night Prayer (before retiring, about 7 p.m.)

If you noticed, there was not much time in those days to do other work around the abbey grounds, barely two hours at a time before the bell rings for the next office.

End of lesson.

New thumb pianoAnd now for something completely different. (Not Monty Python!)

I just started making a thumb piano, also known as a Mbira or Kalimba. I found a source for the flattened spring steel notes online and decided to order them. Many many years ago I purchased one of these at an arts festival I attended (long before I became a vendor at the same type of art festival), and have always loved the sound. Three years ago my wife went on a bus and cycling tour of Namibia. She brought back to me a primitive, but extremely lovely, hand-made Mbira, which also has a beautiful sound. Both of these inspired me to make one of my own. It is turning out to be quite a fun project.

I have the body made, and I’m making a top with a hand-carved quatrefoil sound hole similar to what I use on my psalteries and other instruments. The top and back are from a piece of redwood burl, and the frame is black walnut. All woods are salvaged.


Since I don’t have any current customer instrument restorations, I’ve lately been working on restoring several of my own antique and vintage autoharps and zithers. Sometime later in the year, I’ll be re-opening my Vintage Etsy shop and put these up for sale. So far, I’ve restored three antique Zimmerman autoharps, all from the 1883-1899 time period. All three autoharps were made by Charles F. Zimmermann in his Dolgeville, New York plant.

Z-model 2 34-1Z-model 73Z-model 2 34-2

The left and middle photos are both Zimmermann Model 2 3/4 autoharps. They have five chord bars. The left one is the earliest, from around 1885-86. It has a lovely stained natural wood (spruce) top. The middle autoharp is a few years newer (1887-88) and is all black. The top is also spruce, but painted black to match the sides and back. The right autoharp is the very familiar Model 73 with 12 chords. Even though Zimmermann’s Dolgeville Company closed when he died in 1889, the Oscar Schmidt Company restarted autoharp production with this same model. The Oscar Schmidt name is now owned by the Washburn Guitar Company, and Washburn is continuing the production of several Oscar Schmidt branded autoharp models, including the Model 73. This model has been around on and off for 140 years.

Chartola GrandI’m now working on what is known as a “gizmo” harp. The label says it is a Chartola Grand, distributed by the Chartola Grand Company, which is actually made by the Menzenhauer/Schmidt Company and has four chords that have spring-loaded “thumpers” that snap on the chords to play them. This is the before photo. I’ve just started removing the strings and tuning pins. It does have a full set of strings that seem to be in decent condition, so as I remove them I put a piece of tape on them denoting what note and number it is. That way I’ll know exactly where each string goes when I restring the instrument. Also, the zither’s body has no cracks or failed glue joints. Just a nice cleaning and waxing will suffice.

Coming Up

Because our area received so much ash fallout from the fires, I have to take off my work boots and put on slippers every time I come in the house, and vice versa when I go out so as to keep the house clean. Squatting down to put on and tie my boots is a pain for this aging body. So, I decided to make a low bench to go just outside the door into the garage and my shop.

Eight or ten years ago, I acquired quite a bit of wood that came out of a barn in Hollister, California. The woods, several planks of them, are actually lovely pieces of teak, cocobolo, black acacia, and others. Nearly all the wood came from Gavilan College, and some had been sanded and partially finished. I’ve used quite a bit of it on furniture and instruments. What’s left are a few odds and ends that are fine for stools or benches.

I’m just getting ready to rip and surface a few pieces for my low bench project.

Spoons etcOut back in my studio, there’s still a lot of work to be done. I have several spoon blanks cut out and started, but I need to take a day or two to just sit down and carve. Several hanging spoon racks are done and need to be filled.

And then there’s that dulcimer I mentioned earlier… The top and back are cut out and ready for some sanding. I still have to rip and surface wood for the sides. Eventually…

As you can see, I’ve kept busy every day working on one piece after another. I still have quite a large wood stash that’ll probably last the rest of my life.

That’s it for now. In a month or two, I’ll give another report from the land of sawdust…

Friday, July 3, 2020

Working in Place While Sheltering in Place

Santa Cruz County has partially (very partially) opened up. That could change at any time if more virus infections are reported. Santa Cruz County is the smallest county in California, but it is also a tourist destination because of the beaches and the Boardwalk Amusement area. Many “unmasked” tourists are here on weekends, spreading their germs on us unsuspecting locals.

Okay, off my soapbox. Even though we’re still sheltering in place, we are fortunate that we have plenty to do during this shutdown. My wife knits, weaves, and reads. I spend my days in either my studio out back or in my garage shop. I’ve sold four instruments through Etsy since March when this sheltering started. I had one very unusual zither to restore. I’m working on several new pieces and trying to finish up one older piece.

New Works

pa german dulcimer-72The first instrument I completed during the shutdown is the third of my Pennsylvanian German schietholt-style dulcimers. All that I’ve made are based on an 1845 original I restored many years ago. While restoring it, I drew up working drawings that I’ve used for my reproductions. One of my students made one from my drawings too.

This one is olive wood. There was a large olive tree across the street at one time. It was removed, oh, now 15 years ago, when a new beautiful Craftsman-style house was built. The builder asked if I wanted some of the wood, and, of course, I said yes. This instrument is made from some of that wood.

The head and tailpiece are salvaged black walnut, and the fingerboard and bridges are maple.

The dulcimer tapers slightly, but it’s around 3 inches square and nearly 40 inches long. The long string length give this instrument a loud crisp tone. One thing I did differently on this dulcimer was spacing the double fretted melody strings nearly a 1/4 inch apart, similar to many French epinette des Vosges instruments. This allows the player to actually make chords on the melody strings. It’s a striking sound!

Dulcimer Banjo with detailI showed this next instrument, a dulcimer banjo, in my last blog as it was nearing completion. It is now done, and does have a very banjo-like sound due to the drum head.

Other dulcimer banjos I’ve made in the past had wooden soundboards. This is the first that I’ve used an actual drum head.

The rim is oak and black walnut segments that I turned and polished on my lathe. The top and back are highly-figured maple (the back has a black walnut strip down the middle). The neck is hand-carved oak with a black walnut fingerboard. The head carving is tagua nut.

The string length is the same I use for most of my regular dulcimers, around 28 inches.

In Process

I have several instruments, furniture, and sculptures in process, but several are on the back burner for now. My main project now is another of my popular Symphonies. This is a box-style hurdy gurdy that predates those we are familiar with now. The Symphony is a medieval instrument that dates back to the 11th century.

As you can see from the photos, the box is complete and assembled using hand-cut dovetails. I turned the wheel on my lathe, which I also did for the tuning pegs. After turning the tuning pegs, I carved the heads then “sharpened” the tapers with a violin peg shaper to fit the tapered holes in the head piece.

Where the wheel rod comes out the back, I carved a tagua nut into an open-mouthed character so the rod would go through his mouth. The far right photo is the lid being prepared to be carved with my fret saw.

symphony 3 photos in process

This, as well as other Symphonies I’ve made, are based on a 13th century Spanish illuminated manuscript called Cantigas de Santa Maria. The many illustrations in this ancient manuscript show musicians playing the instruments of that time. Even though the characters look almost like cartoons, the instruments are fairly accurate. One image shows two characters playing Symphonies. One has a very lovely carved cover, which is the one I replicate with each of my Symphonies. I hope to complete this one in July.

New trestle stoolThe one piece of furniture I’m currently working on is another trestle stool. As with my others, this is based on a piece that is on exhibit at the Victorian & Albert Museum in London. I am in the very long process of carving all the pieces that make up the stool.

As with all the trestle stools I’ve made, it is white oak. I always use white oak because it is similar to fresh English oak. Of course, old English oak furniture is very dark due to the chemical process known as fuming. Old oak that has been sat on for hundreds of years gets darker and darker from human use, usually from unwashed bodies and sweat. Some artists who want the darker look of old oak will fume the oak in an enclosed bag with ammonia. I keep mine looking new.


Heath Completed1-72I just completed restoring a very unique zither from around 1894-1904. It is called a Harp Guitar, and it’s made by the Harp Guitar Mfg. Co. of Boston.

What’s unique about this instrument is that has two layers of strings. The top layer is 21 diatonically tuned melody strings. The bottom layer is 20 chord strings, five chords with four strings each. The bottom layer of strings run through holes at both ends of the zither.

Notice the wide bridge under the sound hole. That bridge has two rows of holes in it. This was for what the manufacturer called Fret Bars. These were actually sharping levers that turned against a string raising the voicing a 1/2 tone. Unfortunately, these were lost many years ago.

The rosette and chord note decals were in very bad shape. I replicated new decals on my computer and printed them on special decal paper. It was a long process, but the result turned out great.

Banjo Uke-mineAnother restoration I’m working on is a personal one. It is a banjo ukulele from the 1920s or 1930s (there is no date or makers mark on it). This was given to me nearly 35 years ago by my wife’s brother.

It was in bad shape, and the goatskin drumhead had deteriorated too much to be playable. I ordered a new drumhead, which I’ve still got to mount, and I’m about to start cleaning all the parts and do some refretting on the neck. There are no tuning pegs left, but I have a new set of banjo pegs I can use.

Something New

New spindle sanderMy studio, where I’ve always done most of my work, is in the back yard. My garage shop has my big tools, and I now do all my restoration work in there. One tool I use in my studio the most is my old Craftsman spindle sander. I kept needing to use it while in my garage shop and got tired of traipsing back and forth.

So… I did a little research and found this Wen spindle sander. I had good reviews, and I found out that a higher-end company called ShopFox offered the same sander, but for a much higher price. The Wen was a bargain, and arrived on my doorstep two days after ordering.

It’s already been getting a lot of use. Fortunately, it uses the same sanding sleeves as my old Craftsman spindle sander. I have a good stock of sanding sleeves.

Just One More Thing

Front Cover-72-better

My newest book just got published. On Guard in the General’s Chorus is a chronicle of my episodes in the Army and as an entertainer in Korea during the Vietnam era. It takes place from 1966 to the end of 1968. It’s currently available on, and soon to be available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Look for it!

Well, that’s about it for this Blog. I’m about to start on a couple more dulcimers, and I’ll report on them in my next Blog.

As I always say, “Onward Through the Fog”.