Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Happy 2011 From Ron Cook Studios

Here’s hoping that 2011 will be an exciting, eventful (in a good way), and healthy year for all of you reading this. As 2010 comes to a close, I’ve been thinking back on how things came and went and how so much has changed over the year. I reached that age the Beatles used to sing about (“When I’m 64!”, and with that magic number, I’m rethinking my artistic future as well as my arts festival and crafts show excursions.

The economy seems to be kind of improving. Internet sales and commissions were good this year, and I had the biggest year of zither restorations yet, with more coming in around January 2011. But, with money still tight most of 2010, I had a poor showing at the arts festival and crafts shows I went to. I cut back to only three events this year, and will probably do only two in 2011. (My show and gallery schedule is listed on my web site at

My artistic direction is changing. I’m planning and working on more unusual historic instruments, dating from early medieval to late 1800’s. In fact I just finished two yesterday and today. (See below!) My other plans are to make more medieval furniture and even some lighting fixtures. I’ll be taking an extension class at Cabrillo College on creating lighting by working with glass, metal, wood, etc. Should be a fun course.

In the Workshop

Around the beginning of December I got the idea to make two more autoharps. Earlier in the year I made an old style of the Model 73, which is still around today (made in China), but I wanted to make the older ones, that come from around 1880-1885, that only play in one key. The one I finished yesterday is the “Harmonette”, which is a higher pitched autoharp with only 17 strings. It is much smaller than other autoharps and was probably designed for children. The one I finished today is based on the original “Model 1”, the first autoharp developed by Zuckermann Autoharps in Philadelphia (later in Dolgeville, New York). The Model 1 has 21 strings.


The Harmonette is all maple with black walnut trim. The Model 1 has a cherry top and black walnut sides, back, and bridges. It has salvaged ebony binding.

On Exhibit (A Reminder)

The Baulines Craft Guild Master Show is currently on exhibit at the Marin Community Foundation, 5 Hamilton Landing, Novato, CA. It will be showing through March 17, 2011, and the reception is January 13th, from 4:30 to 7:30. The Marin Community Foundation is located just a little way off Highway 101 in what used to be one of the hangers at Hamilton Air Force Base. It’s an interesting place with all the hangers (10 of ‘em) rebuilt and remodeled for businesses. The old air field is being returned to Bay wetlands.

We’re getting ready to spend a few days in San Francisco over Christmas, visiting museums and doing a little last minute shopping around Union Square. It will be nice getting away for the Holidays.

So, to all, Happy Holidays, and have a wonderful 2011!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Happy Holidays from Ron Cook Studios

My favorite Christmas song, one that I hear in my head over and over, is the classic that used to appear on the newspaper comics page every December from the 1950’s to 1970s: “Deck Us All With Boston Charlie.” This humorous tune was sung by a group of swamp “critters” in the Walt Kelly comic strip, Pogo. For those not familiar with Pogo, it was an incredibly well-drawn, funny, and often topical and controversial strip. Like today’s Doonesbury, some newspapers refused to print the occasional daily strip that was deemed too critical or made fun of something or someone politically important. Walt Kelly’s artistic views of the Nixon administration (with Agnew as a Nazi-garbed hyena), was often omitted from some of the Republican-supporting newspapers of that time. But I digress…

To get into the Holiday spirit, check out the lyrics to “Deck Us All With Boston Charlie” at the Official Walt Kelly Pogo web site at

Welcome To My Workshop

Franz Schonfeld zitherEven though I’ve only done a couple of shows this year, it’s been a very busy year, and continues to be very busy. I’ve had more zithers to restore this year than I’ve ever had. As soon as I finished two in October, two more arrived and one more is scheduled to come in January. If you have an antique or vintage stringed instrument that is a family heirloom or part of your collection that needs repair, restoration, or conservation, send me an e-mail with photos so I can determine how much work needs done, method of work, and cost of work. For unusual instruments or instruments by little known or unknown makers, I try to find as much history on them as possible, which I include in my complimentary logs. To read my logs on recent and past restorations and repairs, go to my web site at

With a big Museum of Art and History (MAH) show on wood crafts by the Santa Cruz Woodworkers coming up next July, I’m preparing a medieval installation piece with not only my musical instruments, but furniture of the period. I’ve completed all but the largest piece. It will be an exciting show. My most recent accomplishment is a medieval trestle stool. It’s like a trestle table but on a small scale. I carve green men on both ends as well as Celtic knots and floral patterns. It’s all white oak with a little ebony accent on the tenons.

 Medieval Oak Stool-1           Medieval Oak Stool-3-Stretcher

Wooden LockThe last piece of furniture I’m making for the MAH show is a 14th-15th century box trestle table. It has a table top, with wooden hinges, that opens to reveal a shallow chest that, in olden times, was used for the silverware and platters, items considered very valuable to the household. The chest was always locked. I recently made an old-style padlock, completely out of wood, that will go on the hasp I’ve carved. As you can see in the photo on the left, the key slot is covered by a tagua nut carving that flips aside so the wooden key can unlock the padlock.


Other Works in Progress

Pipe organ progressIt’s been nearly a year now, but my Chapter House Portative Organ is still coming along slowly but surely. (Don’t call me Shirley!) I finally finished carving the top part of the bellows unit, and carved a pump handle to go with it. I’ve got the pipes seated in their mounting holes better, and I’m working on the decorative carvings on the front and back pipe holders. I’m hoping also to have this ready for the MAH wood craft show.

New Autoharp2Earlier this year I completed my first Dolgeville-style autoharp. It’s based on the Zimmermann company’s 1890 model 73, the first 12-chord autoharp that’s still being made today (in China) by the Oscar Schmidt Company. I’m now working on the earliest Zimmermann design, the model 1, a simple 3-chord autoharp (C, F, G7) with only 21 strings. It’s coming along quite well, and I hope to have it done before the end of the year.

For new works next year, I’ve got plans (lots of plans) for several new and unusual instruments, furniture, and sculptural pieces. Most will be based on historic sources, but some will be original. Stay tuned.

On Exhibit

The Baulines Craft Guild Master Show is currently on exhibit at the Marin Community Foundation, 5 Hamilton Landing, Novato, CA. It will be showing through March 17, 2011, and the reception is January 13th, from 4:30 to 7:30. The Marin Community Foundation is located just a little way off Highway 101 in what used to be one of the hangers at Hamilton Air Force Base. It’s an interesting place with all the hangers (10 of ‘em) rebuilt and remodeled for businesses. The old air field is being returned to Bay wetlands.

Well, that’s it for now. It’s a cold rainy day, but I’ve got my heater going in the studio to make it comfortable for more carving and woodwork. Until next time, have a very Happy Holiday season, and sing a verse or two of “Deck Us All With Boston Charlie”!

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Times (and The Seasons) They Are A’Changin’

Fall back. Another time change, and cooler, wetter days ahead. The warm, typical  October “Indian Summer” days in Santa Cruz, and much of California, are but a pleasant memory.

One of my favorite memories of October was going to Yosemite for four days. I headed to the Park two days after finishing Open Studios. I was dire need to relax a little and recharge my batteries. Open Studios took a lot out of me this year, what with all the set up, talking with hundreds of people over two Sentinel dome-me-72weekends, and tearing down. It was three weeks of very intense work. Yosemite was beautiful. The first few days I was there it was in the 70’s and 80’s. Very pleasant for long hikes, and for just sitting around reading and writing. I went by myself this time, and, as always, stayed at the Wawona Hotel at the south end of the Park. I hiked around 18-20 miles while I was there. My longest hike was a 9-mile round trip to Chilnualna Falls. It was warm and fabulous. Many trees had the red and yellow leaves of Fall. My second day’s hike was a four-mile loop in the Valley. Another warm day. My third day’s hike was up on the cliffs overlooking the Valley. It was a 5-mile round trip to Taft Point, then over to Sentinel Dome (see picture). The weather was starting to change, but the cooler, cloudier day was still spectacular on top of the dome with the panoramic view of the entire Valley and beyond.


Halloween was pretty quiet for us. Our neighborhood has few children in it, and we barely had 10 or 12 trick-or-treaters stop by. On Saturday night, we did go to a Halloween-themed reception at the Santa Cruz Art League and had a wonderful time. The juried show, “Go Figure!” National Figurative Exhibit, running from Oct. 23 to Nov. 21, 2010, is a very exciting exhibition with paintings and sculptures from around the country. At the reception, a good time was had by all. By the way, Saturday, October 30th, was my birthday. We were singing the Beatles song, “When I’m 64,” over and over again. (“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64.”)

In the Studio

It took me a couple of days after coming home from Yosemite to get back into the swing of things. But when I finally made it back into the Studio, I completed two zither restorations, a commission, and a new dulcimer. I’ve been doing a lot of carving and a lot of sanding.

I’ve mentioned the zither restorations in earlier blogs, but barely touched on my last commission. A Boxwood spoon set-72Maryland customer sent me a large box of cut pieces of English boxwood earlier this year. It all came from her 8-foot-tall 100+ year-old boxwood hedge that fell down during a big storm last winter. She had some of the best wood cut and sent me a bunch of it to carve into spoons and holders. I met her in Baltimore at the American Craft Council Show a couple of years ago. The boxwood she sent is good, dense wood that carves very well and sands to an incredibly smooth finish.

Dryad1-72The dulcimer I just finished is another instrument made from the white oak wood salvaged from an old, broken drop-leaf table that was given to me by a couple of our Art League friends. I previously made from the same wood two Cantigas de Santa Maria trapazoidal psalteries and a small epinette des Vosges. Originally, the table was not much to look at, but once I cut into the wood, a beautiful flamed pattern appeared. It really shows up nicely on my new dulcimer, “The Dryad”.

Ok. What’s a Dryad you ask? Here’s the Wikipedia definition:

Dryads are tree nymphs in Greek mythology. In Greek drys signifies 'oak,' from an Indo-European root *derew(o)- 'tree' or 'wood'. Thus dryads are specifically the nymphs of oak trees, though the term has come to be used for all tree nymphs in general.

Dryad head1-72My Dryad is, as I mentioned, white oak. She also has an ebony bridge and nut. The binding and sound holes are black walnut. The fingerboard is pine with a maple fretboard lamination. The hand-carved tuning pegs are black-stained (ebonized) maple. Scale length is 28 inches. The size is 36” long and 3” deep. The upper bout is 4.5”, waist is 3", and lower bout is 6”. The style of my hourglass dulcimers are based on the shape of J. Edward Thomas dulcimers from the late 1800s to around 1930 that are housed in the Smithsonian Museum and The Boston Museum of Fine Arts. J. Edward Thomas is considered to be the first person to make and sell dulcimers as a living. He wheeled his wheelbarrow around the Kentucky hills and hollers selling his work for around three dollars. It’s rumored he made 1500 instruments during his life.

New Work and Shop News

No sooner did I finish restoring two concert zithers, another one showed up on my door step. Then, another! Well, the second one isn’t a concert zither, it’s actually an old chord zither. It has six chords, four strings each (24 chord strings), and another 22 chromatically tuned harp strings. Not much to do on it, just a change of strings and a polishing. The concert zither, with 31 strings, is from around the turn of the 20th century and needs a little TLC to get it working again.

I’m back to working on some medieval furniture I’m making for the Museum of Art and History exhibit next July. I’m working on the box part of the box trestle Greenman-carving-72table now. The stand, with carved trestles, is done. Now I need to finish the hinged lid, prepare to attach the sides to the base, and then do a lot of carving on the sides. I’ll also be making a wooden padlock to lock the lid closed. Box trestle tables were fairly common in Germany during the late Medieval and early Renaissance periods. They obviously contained the family silverware and platters, so they could be locked and kept away from the “help” and curious visitors. Also in the works, and back on the carving bench, is a trestle stool. I’ve started carving several floral and geometric patterns, and I’m now working on two green man figures, one on the outside of each leg. Both the box trestle table and trestle stool are made of white oak.

New Sander-72I’ve got a new toy. I bought a small stationary belt and disk sander for my studio. I already have a very large belt and disk sander in my garage shop, but I needed a small one for sanding small parts that are too dangerous to work with on the big sander. It’s lighter and movable, so I can put it out of the way when not in use, or if I need more room while working or carving on a larger piece.

Well, it’s November, and the holidays will be upon us, and gone, before we know it. During this time, November 29th through March 17th, I’ll be exhibiting six pieces in the Baulines Craft Guild Master Annual Show, at the Marin Community Foundation Offices, 5 Hamilton Landing, Novato, California. I’m proud to say that my student will also have two pieces in the show. The reception will be Thursday, January 13th, from 4:30 to 7:30.

That’s it for now. Onward… 

Friday, October 15, 2010

Fog and Art

There is an old Doors album called Strange Days. I thought about it today while walking along the coast in the fog. It’s mid October and it’s supposed to be clear and mild (usually), and the fog is supposed to be long gone. Well, we’ve had clear, warm days, then warm mornings and chilly, foggy afternoons, and now cold foggy mornings, just like it was most of the summer. Strange days.


Coming up is the last weekend, the Encore weekend, for the Santa Cruz County Open Studios Art Tour. I’ll be open Saturday and Sunday, October 16-17, from 10am to 5pm. Last weekend was pretty  busy, and it seemed a few more people visited than last year. Once again I set up a gallery in my wife’s studio, which is also our guest room. Outside, under my show canopy, is a more informal gallery with lyres and folk art, which is right next to my studio. For those who couldn’t stop by this year, here’s some photos of my Open Studio spaces.


Inside gallery showcasing new work and fine crafts.


Outside gallery of medieval lyres and folk art.

Shop-OS 2010-72

A very clean studio/workshop!

In the Workshop

Clare-zither completed-72In the week days between my two weekends of Open Studios, I’ve been working on restorations of two antique concert zithers. I completed one and very close to finishing the second. The completed one has a photo in it, but no label or any internal makers marks, but from its style and shape, it appears to be a  German made instrument. As with many zithers this age (1880-1900), the top had cracked from exposure and/or stress. I’m finishing up a repair log, which will soon be on my Ron Cook Studios web site. The photo is an old pre-1900 studio shot of a young woman in a gypsy costume holding a Neapolitan mandolin. Quite interesting.

Oak lady dulcimer-72In previous blogs, I’ve shown much of the work that’s still in process. One instrument that will be finished soon is a new mountain dulcimer made from some of that wonderful salvaged flamed white oak. This wood came from an old broken drop-leaf table that did not show any of the beautiful flaming under its thick varnish until I started resawing it. It was quite a surprise to see such gorgeous wood hiding just under the surface. This is my third instrument with this wood. The picture shows the partially assembled dulcimer hanging on display in my workshop for Open Studios. Later this month, after I return from Yosemite, I’ll sand it, install the fingerboard, then finish it with tung oil. I’m pleased with the results so far.

Coming Up

In July, 2011, the woodworking group I’m with, the Santa Cruz Woodworkers, will be exhibiting at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH). After my Yosemite trip, I’ll be working on several new pieces for the exhibit. Some I’ve mentioned before in my blogs, and some are going to be surprises.

I’m again cutting down on the number of craft shows and arts festivals next year, at least until the economy improves. (It will some day!) I’ll still do the San Francisco American Craft Council Show next August, and, of course, Open Studios in October. I have quite a bit of restoration work to do, plus the new works for the MAH exhibit, so I’ll be keeping very busy. Which reminds me…

It’s time to get to work. Onward, again, through the fog…

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

It’s Open Studios Time Again…

The fog has lifted—finally—and a mini-heat wave is in full swing. It seems as if Summer finally arrived, but only after the Autumnal equinox passed us by. Temperatures reached 103 degrees in Santa Cruz, which, I believe, is the first triple digit day of the year for us. That made for a hot, sweaty day in the studio.


Julia with dulcimer-72My student finished up last week and was able to complete her second instrument on her last day here. It was a very rewarding experience for me, and from what she told me, her time with me “far exceeded [her] expectations.” I’m pretty proud of how much she accomplished in such a short (15 day) period. She learned how to research early instruments and got a better sense about the  evolution of them. She drew up working drawings for the two pieces she completed, chose woods, and she used the power tools with careful assurance. The two instruments she made are a 13th century Spanish trapezoidal psaltery, and a Mountain dulcimer (19th & 20th centuries) of her own design. Both instruments sounded beautiful when she strung them up.

Yes, it’s Open Studios time again. The Preview Exhibit opened at the Santa Cruz Art League Saturday, and on Sunday the big “party” (reception) happened there. The weather was warm (almost Ron at OS receptionhot), the music lively (Kuzanga played), the food good (but not enough of it), and the art work great, but overwhelming. There seemed to be more art on display this year than in years past, especially more that stretched the size limits around the walls. It was pretty packed in, and I did notice a few 3-D pieces that were hidden from view (you had to stoop to see them) and small 2-D pieces that got lost next to the larger ones. Also, the label  groupings in several areas were way too congested, making it hard to read and tell what went with what. All that said, I admit that the Cultural Council volunteers and crew who set up the exhibit really did a pretty good job working in the large gallery space and with the number of pieces they had to arrange.

As for my Open Studio, I will be open the second and third weekends in October, (9-10, 16-17), from 10am to 5pm. I’m located in the North County section of Open Studios only three blocks from Natural Bridges State Beach. (Follow the green Open Studios signs.) The first weekend is for South County, from the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor to Watsonville. If you are interested in woodworking, be sure to visit me, of course, but don’t forget my Santa Cruz Woodworkers compadres who are also in Open Studios, Ron Day and Mike Shuler (1st weekend, South County), and Mathew Werner and Michael Singer (2nd weekend, North County). We all do completely different styles of woodworking, and it’s fun to compare/contrast the techniques and finished pieces.

One more thing in the news: My YouTube channel, the Ron Cook Studios Channel, is up and running at There’s four videos available, all edited from my From Sawdust To Sound, Welcome to My Workshop performance lecture that I gave a few years ago. My third performance was filmed at the Santa Cruz Community TV studio and appeared on Community Television for several months. I talked about the history and construction of the Mountain dulcimer, mountain banjo, and guitar. The Mountain dulcimer section, because of its length, is divided into two parts. There’s original music by friends playing my instruments at the end of each segment. Enjoy!

In The Workshop

Once my student left, I didn’t take any time to catch my breath. I jumped right back into the myriad of projects I’ve been working on since the beginning of the year, and started some new ones.

Pipe holder going in placeOne of my long-running projects has been my last Chapter House-based instrument, the portative organ. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve made all the stringed instruments depicted in the 14th century  wall paintings in the Westminster Abbey Chapter House in London. A portative organ is also shown in the paintings, and I’ve always wanted to make a pipe organ. A portative organ is small enough for me to make in my small studio, and it is coming along quite well. I’m now working on the bellows and pipe holders (shown in photo).

Clamping top kerf My student made a very nice dulcimer during her lessons, and it got me going on a new one of my own. I even got my student to steam bend one of the sides. (She did a fine job.) This new one is primarily salvaged white oak, some more of the beautiful figured wood that came from a broken drop-leaf table. I finished the head carving last week and just started assembling the parts over the weekend. I think today I’ll put on the top.

Trestle stool with carving One of my ongoing projects for the Santa Cruz Woodworkers Museum of Art and History show next year (July, 2011) is another medieval-style stool. This is a trestle stool, like a mini trestle table. I’ve started carving the top, legs, and cross member using my new Foredom chisel handpiece. It’s pretty cool (but gets hot if the motor’s running too fast). I’m still getting used to the reciprocating chisel action, and I like what it can do. I’ll still have to use my regular flex-shaft carving burrs and some traditional hand tools to finish up the carved areas, but it should be done in a month or so.

Symphony 2 in process Something new from the Old World. It’s been several years since I made my last hurdy gurdy type of instrument, one of the symphonies depicted in the Spanish 13th century Cantigas de Santa Maria illuminated manuscripts, and I’ve long wanted to do another. It’s happening. This design is based on the second symphony in the manuscript and is made from cherry and maple. This time, for the box, I joined the sides with box joints. I made a jig for my table saw so I could cut accurate joints. This is the first time I’ve used this method and it worked pretty well.

And lastly, my zither restorations are coming along quite well. I have two on the bench, one completed but still awaiting strings, and the other that needs some judicious faux wood grain to cover up a poorly done old repair. (Screws through the top!!! Ouch!) Another zither arrived on my doorstep last week, and another is due after Open Studios. I’m now booked up until next Spring. I can help with research, valuation, and, of course, the repair or restoration of unique stringed instruments. If you have an interesting instrument that’s been in your family or that you purchased, and it needs fixing up, contact me at

Coming Up

As I mentioned above, the Open Studios Art Tour is the first three weekends in October. That will pretty much take up most of my time during that period. After cleaning up my studio, I don’t want to make a lot of sawdust to have to clean up again for the Encore Weekend, so I’ll spend more time working on the zither restorations in my garage shop (my other studio).

I will take a breath after Open Studios. The Tuesday following Encore weekend, I’m heading to Yosemite for a much needed break and to recharge my batteries. Late October in Yosemite is beautiful, and uncrowded. The weather can be mild, but early snows do happen. Time for a little hiking, a little reading, a little writing, and a lot of relaxation. Sigh.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Welcome to My Workshop: 2010

The weather’s been blowing hot and cold these last few weeks. We got a couple of “heat waves” that pushed the thermometer up into the 90’s, but that only lasted two days each, followed by many more days of chilly fog. I’ve mentioned in previous blogs how many, many days we’ve had without sun this summer, and as we start the second week of September, that’s still the case. (OK, the sun does come out in the afternoon, but the morning’s are still damp and cool.)


Ron and Julia-Day3Meanwhile, there’s a lot going on this month, and more coming in October. For the first three weeks in September, I have, for the first time, an independent study student. She’s a college senior who  seems to have a real thirst for knowledge, especially in the Arts. I’m teaching her about the history of stringed instruments, and she’s building both a medieval psaltery and a Mountain dulcimer. I had her research and draw up working drawings for both pieces. I’m very pleased with her progress.

Last Friday, a film crew arrived early in the morning to video tape me for a new woodworking show on our local community television station. I was interviewed by John Hall and gave a tour of my office/gallery and my workshop. It was a fun morning and we covered a lot of ground. It will be interesting to see how they edit the footage. It should be on TV (and the web) probably by the end of this month. To see the first two shows, they can be watched on the web at Both feature fellow Santa Cruz Woodworkers Mathew Werner (episode 1), and Michael Singer (episode 2).

In The Workshop

Ron Carving again I’m still carving like crazy. I’m putting the final touches on the last three chess men for my long-running-process chessboard and pieces. I started carving these 32 medieval-looking characters back in January, and I’m anxious to get these last ones done. I’m also continuing little-by-little on my Chapter House Portative Organ. Like I mentioned before, this is my final piece from those depicted on one of the 14th century wall paintings at the Westminster Abbey Chapter House in London. I’ve completed all the other instruments and look forward to finishing this one. For thirty years I’ve though about building a pipe organ, and the small portative is a perfect way to start.

It seems like there’s been a lot of inquiries about repairing/restoring zithers lately. I currently have Unstringing Unknown Concert Zither-72one on the bench that I’m restoring, and another arrive last week. And, another is to arrive right  after the Open Studios Art Tour. The one I’m working on now is in fair shape, but had a large open shrinkage crack on the top. Because it was from wood shrinkage under the lovely walnut veneer, it couldn’t be closed by clamping pressure. I added tiny strips of walnut in the cracks, and applied some stains to make them appear as part of the wood grain. I cleaned all the corrosion from the tuning pins and the pretty gear plate, and I’ll soon put it back together and put new strings on it. (As soon as they arrive from Germany.)

Coming Up

The Open Studios Art Tour is coming up the first three weekends in October. This is the Silver Anniversary for the Art Tour, and the 10th year I’ve been in it. My studio will be open from 10 to 5 October 9-10, and 16-17. When you purchase a calendar/artist guide you’ll get maps showing how to get to each of the more than 300 artist studios. You can plan your trip and see as many or as few as you want. The first weekend, October 2-3, is South Santa Cruz County (Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor to Watsonville, and the second weekend (9-10) is North Santa Cruz County (Yacht Harbor to Santa Cruz, Mountain communities, north to Davenport). October is usually nice and sunny in Santa Cruz, and hopefully, all the Summer fog will have disappeared by then. Calendars can be purchased through the Santa Cruz Cultural Council’s web site, at the Santa Cruz Art League (where the preview exhibit is at), and at art stores, galleries, and other venues around Santa Cruz County. Come and enjoy!

For now, as I look out the window, onward through the fog…

Friday, July 30, 2010

The fog comes on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

- Carl Sandburg

Well, the cat’s been here nearly every morning for the month of July, sometimes moving on for an hour in the afternoon, but often not. Analogies aside, it’s been a darn foggy month.

On the Workbench…

New Autoharp-nearly done-72Last month one day I was gazing through some of my older plans and drawings and came across the very first plan offered by the Guild of American Luthiers, and one that I purchased from them  more than twenty years ago. The plan is of an early 20th century Oscar Schmidt 12-chord autoharp that was based on the 1895-1899 Model 73 by Zimmermann Autoharps of Dolgeville, New York. I always intended to build one, but was intimidated at the time by the complexity of the piece. Several years ago I built an autoharp kit and got to know the instrument inside and out, but then put the idea of making one from scratch out of my mind… until now. I spent hours researching the history and construction of the autoharp and located suppliers for all the various parts. Today it will be done. It’s all strung up and tuned. All that’s left is to trim the thick felt on the chord bars so they can actually play chords. When it’s finished, I’ll record a sound clip for my web site (

Recently I found an original 1895-1899 Zimmermann Autoharp on an auction web site that was listed Zimmermann-autoharp-72as “in bad shape, good for parts”. Well, no one was bidding on it, and I thought I could use it  as for not only parts, but to study. I bid $8.00 and got it. I was extremely surprised when it came and found it to be in pretty good shape. There were no cracks, all the seams were intact, and all the decals and labels were in place. In fact, the decorative decal on the soundboard is the first one used—an ornate picture of a gryphon. It can be easily restored. The only things missing were a few strings and nine of the buttons on the chord bars. Needless to say, I’m excited about getting this historical instrument, the very first manufactured 12-chord Model 73 autoharp. It is virtually identical to the Oscar Schmidt Model 73 still being made today.

There’s a lot more work going on at my work bench, and it mostly involves carving. As you can see Carvings at 72in the photo, my chess pieces are coming along fine. The bishops are nearly done and the knights are roughed out. After over a year of hard work, the chess board and pieces are almost done. Also on my bench are a lot of spoons. After the number of sales last year, my stock got pretty depleted. Just a few weeks ago, I realized I had very few “smaller” items for the American Craft Council Show in San Francisco. I’ve finished 12, and I have around 12 more to complete in the next two weeks. For the spoons, I also needed spoon racks. I had a few in stock already, but I made four more for all the new spoons.

Other items still in process: Portative organ (finally got good bellows leather and ready to finish the bellows), box trestle table (ready to carve), trestle stool (carving in process), and I recently started on another Mountain dulcimer, made almost entirely from salvaged white oak. Stay tuned!

Upcoming Shows

Ron setting up 2009-72The American Craft Council Show in San Francisco, at Fort Mason in the Festival and Herbst Pavilions, is only two weeks away. I’ll   be in the Festival Pavilion in b0oth 812. Show dates and times are Friday, August 13 (10-8--new extended hours), Saturday, August 14 (10-6), and Sunday, August 15 (10-5). Hope to see you there! (The photo is from last year’s show.)


The Santa Cruz Open Studios Art Tour is, as always, the first three weekends in October. This is my 10th year as an exhibiting artist, and it’s the 25th year (ta-da) for the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County Open Studios Art Tour.  Go the the above link for more information on the event. The Open Studios preview exhibit opens at the Santa Cruz Art League on September 25th with a “meet the artists” reception Sunday, September 26th, from 3 to 6pm.

And Finally…

The Davenport Gallery show, “Wood is Good”, ends August 1st. If you missed the show, you can still see my work in San Francisco at the American Craft Council Show. The Santa Cruz Woodworkers exhibit in the Rittenhouse Building is still going on. I’ll be removing a couple of my pieces to take to the SF show, but I’ll replace them with something else. (Don’t know what yet.) If you’re in downtown Santa Cruz, either at the movies, bookstores, or restaurants, take a look in the Rittenhouse Building windows and enjoy the work of the Santa Cruz Woodworkers.

Onward through the… cat feet?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Onward Through the Fog…

It’s that time of year again. California’s valleys are getting hot, and our beach town on the Monterey Bay gets all the natural air conditioning known as fog. It’s like this every year, and we can’t wait for late Summer and early fall when the sun comes out and warms us up again.

Fog Chaser

For me, working in my studio helps to chase the fog away… at least in my head. (An evening glass of wine helps too.) The carving continues, and I’m down to the last eight pieces for my Bishops in process custom medieval chess board. The Bishops are starting to look pretty “Bishopy”, and each one has acquired a personality. The knights are roughed out and are not yet to that point. I’m hoping to have the whole set finished by the Open Studios Art Tour in October. Be sure to stop by to see me and all my new work. The dates my studio’s open are October 9, 10, 16, 17.

Other carvings happening right now:

  1. I’ve laid out and started on several relief carvings on a medieval trestle stool. Several of the carvings are traditional English/Irish green men, and others are Celtic-style geometric figures.
  2. Spoons, spoons, spoons. I’ve got a commission to carve five spoons and holders out of boxwood given to me by my customer, and I’ve got around 20 more roughed out that I need to carve for upcoming shows. At the last few shows I’ve exhibited at, I’ve nearly sold out all the 20-30 spoons I made in the last year or so. Got to replenish my stock.
  3. In my quest to do something different, I carved a couple of medieval-looking candle holders. I had some black walnut Candlesticksleft  over from other projects that had a few flaws in them, so I couldn’t use them for instruments. As I always save nearly every little scrap of wood (I hate to throw any away), it’s not often I can make something this size. I turned, sanded, and polished the bases and columns on my mini-lathe, then carved the king and queen heads. There’s brass inserts in their heads for the candles. They do need creamy-colored beeswax (or tallow-looking) candles to look more medieval.
  4. I’ve been working on my Chapter House portative organ again. One of my biggest stumbling blocks to complete it is creating the Organ bellows in processbellows. I’m sure once I learn how to make them, future bellows  will be much easier. Now, after much research and head-scratching, I’ve started on them. The top section will need Gothic-style decorative carving to match the case, and I just completed the design today. I need to purchase some bellows leather yet and hope to find it locally.

New Work

I purchased working drawings of a 1930s Oscar Schmidt Model 73 12-chord autoharp many years ago planning to someday build it. This particular Model 73 is the same design and size as the original Zimmermann instrument created around 1895 in Autoharp in process Dolgeville, New York. (Oscar Schmidt took over production several years after Zimmermann closed down in 1899.) Recently, I finally started on it. I’m calling it the Dolgeville Model 73, after the original. To help in my research, I found on ebay one of the Zimmermann originals. It was being sold as an “autoharp for parts” and sounded like it was in very bad shape. However, when it arrived (I got it for a song), it was in decent shape with all the labels and decals intact. I will restore it to its former glory. My new autoharp is nearly complete. I just need to get springs for the chord bars delivered. (I ordered them the other day.)

Well, time to venture out into the fog again. Stay tuned…

Monday, June 14, 2010

The chalice with the palace has the brew that is true…

“Say what,” you ask? No, it’s not Dr. Seuss, it’s a quote from one of my favorite “fake” medieval-themed movies, “The Court Jester”, with Danny Kaye, Glynis Johns, Angela Lansbury, and Basil Rathbone. And… it just happens I’ve been turning a few wooden chalices, goblets, and tankards to go with a medieval setting of furniture and musical instruments I’m putting together.

In the Workshop…

The world of Ron Cook Studios is evolving. Making instruments is still my primary concern, but lately I’ve also Goblet3-72delved into the study and  construction of medieval-style tables, stools, games, and accessories for ye olde Inn or ye lordes castle. I love to read the medieval mysteries of Susanna Gregory, Michael Jecks,  Bernard Knight, et al, and picture quite vividly, through these authors excellent and Tankard2-72researched descriptions, the settings of English countryside, cities, homes, inns, and taverns. Through my own research, I’ve been replicating furniture pieces and drinking vessels. It’s a lot of fun, keeps me busy and off the street.


As for musical instruments, I’m very pleased that I completed my Mountain dulcimer commission. It’s a lovely cherry and redwood instrument with a hand-carved head of my customer’s son. I really don’t want to show a picture of it yet until the owner receives it.

In my “second” workshop (the garage), I have a workbench where I do antique and vintage instrument restorations. Yesterday and Finished3-72today I finished stringing up and tuning a beautiful 1909 Franz  Schwartzer concert zither. This wasn’t a “major” restoration, but there were a few tricky problems that needed solving, which I did. I’ll write up a short repair log for it and post it on my website. To read about other restorations and repairs I’ve worked on, go to my website’s Repair page.

Show News…

I’m now all paid up, got my lodging, and listed as an exhibitor once more at the American Craft Council Show in San Francisco. (Click Here for info.) It’s held at Fort Mason in the Festival and Herbst Pavilions. I’ll be in the Festival Pavilion in b0oth 812. Show dates and times are Friday, August 13 (10-8), Saturday, August 14 (10-6), and Sunday, August 15 (10-5). Hope to see you there!

Late Breaking Show News…

It’s official! I got my notice in the mail that I’m once again in the Santa Cruz Open Studios Art Tour. This is my 10th year as an exhibiting artist, and it’s the 25th year (ta-da) for the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County Open Studios Art Tour. The Art Tour is the first three weekends in October. Go the the above link for more information on the event. The Open Studios preview exhibit opens at the Santa Cruz Art League on September 25th with a “meet the artists” reception Sunday, September 26th, from 3 to 6pm.

And speaking of the Santa Cruz Art League…

My wife and I had a real nice weekend volunteering at the Art  League for its annual Art Faire. The weather was very warm (for coastal Santa Cruz), SCAL-ArtFair Overview-72and every one seemed to have a good time. My wife sat at the gallery’s front desk greeting and helping people, and I sold wine and tickets for the hourly prize drawings. It was fun and got me out of the studio for a while.

Well, time to make dinner and relax for the evening. Fog’s returning after several very warm days. Onweird…

Monday, May 24, 2010

Tour of California… Wood

It’s been an interesting and busy week for me and Ron Cook Studios. The big news for our seaside community of Santa Cruz was the return of the Amgen Tour of California bike race. For theTour-of-Cal-SC second year, Santa Cruz hosted the finish of the third stage. The  race route came down one of the streets a few blocks from me as it turned on West Cliff Drive heading to the Beach Boardwalk finish line. I took a little time off from work to watch Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, et al speed past us on a sharp turn by the ocean. Exciting race on a beautiful day.


My Mountain dulcimer commission, “Avery”, is in its final stage. I put on the last coat of tung oil Saturday and letting it cure a few days before applying the polish. It will be done this week before my wife and I head to the Sierras for a Memorial Day (and my wife’s birthday) weekend.

Another commission I’m getting started on is a series of five hand-carved boxwood spoons for a lady I met a couple of years ago at the Baltimore American Craft Council Show. She purchased a set of spoons for herself then, and after her 100+ year old 8-foot high  boxwood hedge fell during a fierce storm last winter, contacted me to ask  if boxwood would make good spoons. Boxwood, being a very dense wood that, in England, was used for woodwind instruments, is, of course, very good for strong spoons—and good for detailed carving. I’ve roughed out the spoons, but I need to let the wood dry a month or so before carving, since it’s still a little “green” (damp).

A couple of months ago I found a company back East that, among other things, manufactures acrylic covers for exhibits. They’ll make them as big or small as you need. I decided to try them out New-acrylic-cover for chess to make a cover for the chessboard and chess pieces I’m working on. It arrived finally and looks great. It will protect the board and pieces from dust, and it will deter people from moving the pieces (or pocketing them) when on display at shows or galleries. By the way, I’m finishing up carving the queens and have the bishops and knights all roughed out and ready for fine carving. It’ll be a few more months before they’re done, but they’re looking good.

Another “aside” from musical instruments: I’ve been working on some medieval furniture to display with the chess set and some of my medieval instruments, and just finished all the hand-cut Box-trestle-table-72mortise and tenon joints for a box trestle table. For the first time, for me, I also hand cut dovetails for the box portion of the table. The picture shows the base and a portion of the top set up in a dry-fit test. White oak is a little hard to work with on my first dovetail attempt, since it splinters easily, but I was able to cut some nice tight-fitting joints.

On the antique/collectable instrument repair front, I’m just about ready to start restringing a 1909 Schwarzer concert zither I’ve been restoring this past month. It’s coming along nicely, and will be playable again when I’m done. Another customer should be sending her 1960-1970 family Mountain dulcimer to me soon for a fret re-fitting and “tune-up.”

I love working on old instruments (besides making new ones) and getting them to make music again. If you have an antique or vintage stringed instrument, whether a family heirloom or a newly purchased item, that’s in need of restoration or repair, contact me for a free estimate. (When contacting me, please include photo images of the instrument with close-ups of areas needing work.)

Well, May is starting to wind down, and my wife and I look forward to a little time off in the Sierras this next 3-day weekend.

Onward through the fog…

Monday, May 10, 2010

May Started Off With A Crash!

May Day, May 1st, has been celebrated around the world many different ways. Ancient Romans had their Flora, celebrating the goddess of flowers; pre-Christian Germanic countries had their Walpurgis Night; Scotland had the Beltane Fire Festival, and Ireland had their similar Feast of Bealtaine. (Both countries burned huge bonfires in the evening of May 1st.) All these festivals celebrated the ending of winter and fertility and rebirth of spring. Several of these ancient versions of May Day also involved the traditional fertility rite of the May Pole dance. Similar, tamer versions are still around even in the United States.

Since the labor and Communist movements of the 20th century, May Day has become more and more a celebration known as International Workers Day or Labour Day. In Russia, during the Cold War, May Day celebrations included a huge parade in Red Square showing off their military might. Even the nature-based Bealtaine celebration in Ireland became a day of protest, often violent. And… that brings me to our Santa Cruz May Day riot.

Our little beach/college town had its own small gathering for workers’  rights and fair labor practices. However, a young militant group used the gathering as a rallying Louis-and-Rock-72point for their “fight against the money-hungry, greedy businessmen”… etc., and began marching down our main street. A few began painting graffiti slogans on walls, then threw and broke bottles of paint on walls and windows, then threw rocks through the windows. A few more joined in, and when it was over, 15-20 buildings were damaged. Most businesses hit were local-family-owned stores, a couple that can barely afford to stay open. Some of the windows broken were  in the new and vacant Rittenhouse Building where the Santa Cruz Woodworkers (of which I’m a member) had our exhibits in the windows. Several of our wood pieces were damaged.  The picture is of the Rittenhouse building’s owner gazing at the rock that came through one of the windows and hit some of our art work.

Oh… enough of the downer news.

Meanwhile, back in the Studio…

Avery-5-10-10For a few months now I’ve been working on a dulcimer commission. I’m happy to say that the carving is done and I’ve  been assembling the pieces. I’m at a point now where I’ll be doing several days of sanding before I can put the last pieces on and finish it up. It has cherry sides and a book-matched cherry back and a salvaged redwood top. “Avery” is looking good.

Last week I got another commission. It’s a smaller one, but it will be as fun to carve as “Avery” was. This commission is for five spoons made from boxwood my client sent from Maryland. Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) , known also as common box or European box, is a shrub that has very dense white-to-yellow wood. It can grow like a tree up to around 25 feet high and have a trunk 8-10 inches in diameter. Old box hedges in England grew quite large Spoonsover 100+ years, but are becoming scarce as they’ve  been cut for development or for their wood. Box Hill, Surrey, in England is known for it’s stand of natural, wild box “trees”.  Box was brought to the United States  and can still be seen used as short hedges lining yards and walkways.

I’ve started roughing out the spoons and letting the wood dry a little (it’s still fairly green). The boxwood spoons are the upper left group in the photo. I’ve also roughed out quite a few regular spoons and spurtles. After last year’s shows, I nearly sold out all my spoon stock. Time to replenish.

Chessmen-5-10-10Another big carving project going on is my chess set. I just finished the rooks and the kings, and I’m now working on the queens. Only eight more to go after that.


Progress on the furniture pieces and portative organ has slowed down, at least until I finish my commissions. And in my front workshop, I’m still working on a zither restoration. It’s a small job, and I’m getting it done little by little. With everything I have to work on, I’m finding there’s just not enough hours in the day to do it all. My hands get sore and my eyes get hazy. (Age???)

Anyway… onward through the fog.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Lot of Carving, A Lot of Wood

Rain, sun, rain, sun, and now more rain. The first “official” month of Spring has been rather odd this year for the Monterey Bay area. We’ve had several very cold rain storms that left a little snow in the mountains here and in the Sierras, and some very nice warm weather that brought everyone out to the beaches. Last night, the rains started again. The big problem with rain is that the dampness can rust my power tools that have cast-iron tops, like my table saw. Usually, once a year in the Spring, I clean the tops and apply a couple of coats of paste wax. The wax not only protects the tops for the next year, but makes any sliding accessories (and wood) glide effortlessly through the blades or sanders.

But the rains don’t stop me from working, and a lot is going on in my studio and elsewhere.

First, elsewhere…

This week a gallery show opened up in the Atrium Gallery at 600 Townsend, San Francisco. It’s the Baulines Craft Guild Spring Showcase, called On The Make. It was juried by Julie Muniz, Assistant Curator at the Oakland Museum of California. I was fortunate to have two pieces accepted, Pianoforte “London Bridge”, and Courting Dulcimer “The Tie That Binds”. One is on the 600 Townsend web site at . The show runs from April 19th to June 10th. A reception is Thursday, April 22, from 5:30 to 7:30.

And… I still have a piece on exhibit at the Rittenhouse Building in downtown Santa Cruz.

In the Studio…

Yes, I am doing a lot of carving right now. The next sixteen chess Chessmenpieces are all roughed out and ready for the more tedious detail  carving. All the pawns are done and waiting for their leaders on my custom chess board. I’m really pleased how they’re turning out.

I have two stools in process right now. There’s another medieval 3-legged stool and a medieval trestle stool. Both of them will have carvings on them.

Spoons and spurtles have been so popular this last 6 to 8 months  that I sold out all I made last summer. A few weeks ago I roughed out twenty more. Pipe Organ

I’ve also revisited my Chapter House Portative Organ. I still need  to carve the pipe braces and a couple of decorative heads here  and there.

My big project right now is a commissioned Mountain dulcimer. The head carving is a highly detailed figure of the future owner’s son. I’m still working on the features, and it is getting to look more and more like the photos I use as a reference. I only work on it an hour or two at a time so I don’t over carve any of it. I strive to be as accurate as possible on a carved “portrait”. I keep checking the areas needing work and only work on that portion the next time I sit down to carve. When I carve heads that are from my imagination and not from photos, I’ll carve for hours until a character emerges from the wood. Those usually take around four or five hours to complete. Accurate portraits can take around eight to twelve hours, one or two hours at a time. At least the Mountain dulcimer body is all ready for assembly as soon as I finish carving the “portrait”.

More Wood…

A recent friend, who also works with my wife occasionally, lives on property in South Dakota. He had a black walnut tree that died and was cut down. He sent me two logs, around 24 inches long, that I ripped into boards last week. The wood has some beautiful figuring in it. I now have to let it dry for a year or two before being able to use it.  WoodsEarlier this year I went to my local lumber yard during their annual inventory reduction sale and picked up some nice white oak for the medieval furniture I’m working on. Beside working on the trestle stool, I’m getting ready to cut more oak for what’s known as a box trestle table. It’s a late Medieval or early Renaissance table (1400-1600) that has a storage box under the lid. It’s not a big table, but the box probably held plates and/or utensils for dining. Mine will be set up as more of a “pub” game table of that period.


Another commission is heading my way. Soon I should be receiving some boxwood from a customer I met when I exhibited at the American Craft Council Show in Baltimore a few years ago. I’ll be carving five spoons from her boxwood. Boxwood is a very hard, dense, yellow-to-cream-colored wood often used in the past for wind instruments, goblets, plates, and for decoration. The old box hedges in England had large trunks are not that plentiful anymore, and I understand some are even considered historical and can’t be cut for its wood. Most that are cut for their wood nowadays are newer hedges and relatively small, but large enough for spoon carvings. Boxwood purchased at lumberyards is usually from Turkey and other eastern Mediterranean countries. It’s not the same variety of boxwood as that in England and is much whiter in color.

Also, in for restoration is another Schwarzer zither. This one has Schwarzer-Jamesa  serial number, 9667, which shows it was made in 1909. It shows evidence that it was played a lot, and has a name scratched in the back that might be the first owner: Anna (or Ann A.) Eringer. It’s in pretty good shape, and really only need some cleaning, polishing, and new strings.

For now, I thinks that’s enough. Enough work, and enough rambling on…

Onward, through the fog… uh, rain.