Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Happy Holidays!

It’s been a while since my last blog. The year is rapidly coming to an end, so I thought it was time for an update.

After an extended “Indian Summer”, Winter finally arrived. However, the rains haven’t arrived yet, but the temperature, even here right next to the Monterey Bay, has been in the 20s and 30s at night. Yes, no rain. So far, 2013 has been California’s driest year on record. But, with the heater going in my studio, I’ve kept very busy with all my projects and teaching.


Ron at Stephanie StudioSince November I’ve been exhibiting at the Tannery in Stephanie Schriver’s Gallery and Studio. I’ll be there until December 20th. The Tannery is a complex of studios, plus live/work apartments, in the former Salz Tannery complex just a short distance from downtown Santa Cruz. Many of the historic old buildings have been renovated and divided into large and small studio spaces, offices, and a restaurant, and another historic building will soon be a new performing arts center. Stephanie’s Gallery and Studio is #122 and located at the Tannery Arts Center, 1050 River Street, Santa Cruz, CA. 95060. Come on by.

Last October was the annual juried Santa Cruz County Open Studios Art Tour. I was open one weekend this year, and it was successful for me. Art aficionados were out in force to visit me and the 250+ artists on the tour. For information on the recent Open Studios Art Tour, as well as other on other events, on arts education, and on grant information, go to the Arts Council Santa Cruz website.

At the Santa Cruz Art League a new show called “Small Wonders” will be opening December 14th and running until January 5th, 2014. Artwork on display is all 14 inches and smaller. Prices are usually smaller too. This is a great place to find an artistic craft piece, painting or photograph to give to that special someone this Christmas. The opening reception is on December 14th, 3-5pm. The Santa Cruz Art League is located 526 Broadway, Santa Cruz, CA 95060.

New Work

Mini Saxon Rotes 5 and 6The two “mini” Saxon Rotes (lyres) that I created early this year (mentioned in the last Blog post) were both recently sold through my Etsy shop. Last month, I created two more. Both are carved out of beautiful flamed maple. The top of one is a lovely figured salvaged black walnut, and the top of the other is an equally lovely piece of spalted maple. The hand-carved medallions, bridges, tailpieces, and tailpiece holders are maple. These are now available through my Etsy shop.

Since Open Studios I also completed two more “mini” items. I made one more mini hog-nose psaltery and a small trapezoidal psaltery. Both have 15 steel strings, tuned to a 2-octave C-major scale. The hog-nose psaltery’s top and back are nicely figured pieces of black walnut. The frame is maple. The trapezoidal psaltery’s top and back are salvaged flamed white oak. The frame is also maple. This white oak is some more resawn from the top of a broken drop-leaf table I was given a few years ago. Both of these psalteries are available through my Etsy shop.

Folding Stool-72dpiAround July I came across plans for a medieval-style folding chair. The design for this chair actually goes back to ancient Egypt. Folding chairs were easy to carry along for travels and on campaigns. My design is based on examples dating from the late medieval to early renaissance periods. As usual, I added some of my facial carvings on the arms as well as floral carvings on the legs and frame. This was a challenge to get all the pieces positioned right, but I’m happy with the results. It folds up quite nicely. The perfect accessory for a Renaissance Fair or SCA gathering.

Still in Process

3-legged chair in progress-72dpiI’m finally gluing up the black walnut medieval 3-legged chair I’ve been working on for over a year. I recently had to re-turn one of the back pieces, because the one I did earlier this year had too many faults in the wood. I was dissatisfied with it, so I did another. Today the main part of the chair frame is all glued up. Now I have to turn 10 more spindles for the arm rests and diagonal back pieces.

Just to give you an update, the 3-legged chair is based on one that’s housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Symphony 2-in progress-72dpiOnce more I’ve started working on my next Symphony. No, I’m not composing a new concert piece. A Symphony is a small hurdy gurdy that was used, primarily by European monks, back in the 12th and 13th centuries. I’ve mentioned this instrument before, but to recap, I started maybe two years ago, on this, my second symphony based on one in the illustrations in the 13th Century Cantigas de Santa Maria illuminated manuscript. I’ve actually done more work in the last week than I’ve done in the last year. (Distracted by too many commissions, restorations, and shows.) I’m determined to finish this by the end of January.


Schwarzers-2013_edited-1I’ve been extremely busy with my antique stringed instrument restoration business this year. Since July, I completed the restoration of not one, but two Franz Schwarzer zithers. One was an incredible 1889 harp-like concert zither, one of Schwarzer’s finest, with a lot of mother-of-pearl inlays and a fancy scrolled head, and the other was one of Schwarzer’s standard models, from 1908, also very beautiful with mother-of-pearl inlays around the sound hole.

On my workbench now are two very old ukuleles. The first is another Kumalae ukulele, Ukes-2013_edited-1one of the older ones and with the original wooden friction tuning pegs. I believe this one is from around 1920-25 or so. This is the third Kumalae I’ve worked on. The second one is a Cox Koxolele. Where most ukuleles are all koa and made like tiny guitars, the Koxolele has a koa top, but the body is two joined cocoanut halves. From my research, it seems to be from the 1930s. Pretty unique.

Do you have a unique stringed instrument, one that’s been in your family, or one you picked up somewhere, that needs a little TLC and needs to be repaired or restored, contact me for a quote. I specialize in antique zithers (concert and chord), ukuleles, and some guitars and other stringed instruments. My e-mail is ron@roncookstudios.com.



As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I taught a two day extension course on woodcarving at Cabrillo College for the Spring Arts program.Since then I taught another for the Fall Arts program. I was happy to find out that both classes filled up. For last Spring and Fall I taught both hand and power carving. NEWS FLASH! I will be teaching at Cabrillo again for the next Spring Arts program, April 6 and 13, 2014. When the Spring Cabrillo College Extensions Catalog becomes available, you can check it out at http://www.cabrillo.edu/services/extension/. You can sign up for my class online.

That’s about it for now. Have a very Happy Holiday Season!


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Welcome to My Workshop—Season 6

It’s hard to believe that nearly six years have gone by since I first started this blog. Here I am back again with all new episodes of “Welcome to My Workshop”. Stay tuned for exciting comedy, drama, adventure, and explosions of sawdust.

A few years ago, when the economy took a nosedive, I stopped traveling to and exhibiting at all the craft shows and art festivals that made up my yearly itinerary. I still go to the San Francisco American Craft Council Show (August 2-4 this year), mainly because it’s close, and I still take part in the Santa Cruz County Open Studios Art Tour the first three weekends in October. I thought dropping so many shows would leave me with too much time on my hands, but it’s just the reverse. I’m busier now with creating new pieces for shows, galleries, and Etsy, as well as restoring antique stringed instruments.

New Work

Around a month ago I decided to create some new versions of older instrument designs I developed over five years ago.

I started out with a wing psaltery, a medieval stringed instrument based on examples in illuminated manuscripts, Wing Psaltery ok for Blogartwork, and sculptures dating back to the 1200s. It has a sycamore top, maple frame, black walnut back, bindings, and tail pin cover, and a hand-carved tagua nut figure. All woods except the maple frame are salvaged. There are 15 nylon strings tuned to a two-octave C-major scale. They produce a beautiful harp-like tone. It is 26 inched tall, 7 inches wide, and 2.5 inches deep. This psaltery is perfect for medieval and renaissance reenactments, playing early music, meditation, as artwork, or just for fun.

It is now available on my Etsy shop.

Even before the wing psaltery was half completed, I decided to take some of my wood scraps and create two more mini Saxon rotes (lyres). After 40 years of being a woodworker and luthier, I’ve accumulated bins of scrap woods, ranging in size from small 1 or 2 inch blocks to 3 foot long thin pieces left over from the tops and backs of instruments I’ve built.

The first rote is made from kwila and redwood. Kwila is a reddish-brown hard wood that grows in Australia, New Zealand, and Indonesia. It was given to me by a friend several years ago. The redwood is salvaged first-growth wood that came out of a Santa Cruz Victorian home that was being remodeled. The wood was about to go to the dump when a lady called me to ask if I wanted some of it. I rescued it from the construction site’s trash pile. It’s beautiful wood with wonderfully straight grain and was likely local grown, right here in Santa Cruz. The bridge and tailpiece are maple, and the two figures on the yoke are hand carved tagua nuts. (Tagua nuts come from a palm in Central and South America.) The tailpiece holder on the bottom is hand-carved black walnut.

Mini-rotes-paired for blogMini-Saxon-Rote-Kwila head for blog

The second rote has a top made from two pieces of lovely, figured tiger (or flamed) maple. The back, bridge, tailpiece, and medallions are from scrap maple I had sitting around. The tailpiece holder on the bottom is hand-carved maple.

Mini-Saxon-Rote-Kwila-tail for blog

Each rote is 22 inches long, 6 inches wide, with a body 1 inch deep. They are hollow, and the six nylon strings produce a bright harp-like tone. As I’ve mentioned before, this style is based on 7th and 8th century examples found in burial mounds along the east coast of England. The tuning has been lost to history, so you can tune them any way you want. Very light and portable, they are perfect for renaissance fairs and reenactment gatherings, as artwork, or to just play and enjoy.

Both are available on my Etsy shop.

Cantigas Psaltery for blogThe third instrument I finished was another Cantigas de Santa Maria trapezoidal psaltery. I still have a couple left that I made several years ago, but I decided to start two more, one for me and one for my young student to carve and complete on his own (under my instruction). Like the wing psaltery, this one has 15 nylon strings tuned to a major scale that produce a harp-like tone. It is 13 inches wide, 11 inches tall, and 2.5 inches deep. Another very portable instrument, great for ren fairs, reenactments, early music, meditation, or to just play and enjoy. This one also comes with a canvas carrying bag.

It’s also available on my Etsy shop.

On the Workbench

With so much going on, I had to put a couple of long-term projects on hold. Now that I’ve completed several projects, it’s time to work on them again.

3-legged chair carvingsBack before Christmas last year I started working on a new, larger medieval 3-legged chair. I thought at the time it would only take a few months to complete. Well, 7 months later, I’m finally doing the head carvings that will be on top of the two front legs. Once these are done, I can dry fit the chair again and measure for the 10 back and side pieces I still have to turn.

Another project I started well over a year ago (maybe two years ago now) is my second symphony based on one in the illustrations in the 13th Century Cantigas de Santa Maria illuminated manuscript. This last week I began the laborious process of fret sawing the open design on the lid. I kept putting this off, because I knew it would take around 4 to 6 straight hours of delicate sawing. The image below shows around 3 hours worth of work, and I’m about half way done.

Symphony fret sawing for blog  Symphony for blog


As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I taught a two day course on woodcarving at Cabrillo College. I might have another class for the Fall extension courses. (More news on that as it happens!) One student who attended my class wanted to learn more and is now attending one-on-one classes here at my studio. My younger student, who has now been coming for a year, has progressed nicely learning different styles of carving. His latest projects are a mallet carved relief of a green man, and making a musical instrument. The green man is around 80% done, and the instrument is in the beginning stages.

Elias carving  Elias-psaltery

Restoration Work

Terry ZitherOn my other workbench is a lovely 1901 Franz Schwarzer zither that I’m about to finish restoring. It had several cracks in the top and back that were caused by dry conditions that shrunk the wood. I’ve stabilized them and repaired other broken areas, like on the pin bridge. This is a beautiful instrument made in Washington, Missouri, around 1900.

If you have a stringed instrument that has been in your family, or one you purchased for your collection and needs some TLC to get it playable again, or to display, be sure to contact me at ron@roncookstudios.com.


That’s about it for now. To see more of my work, check out my web site at www.roncookstudios.com or my Etsy shop at https://www.etsy.com/shop/roncook.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Who Knows Where the Time Goes…

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over three months since my last blog. Time goes fast when you’re… quite busy. So, here at the end of the first quarter of 2013, this is what’s been going on:


The most recent big and exciting event was that I taught a two day course on the fundamentals of wood carving at Cabrillo College during the Cabrillo Extension Spring Arts sessions.


I’ve been teaching one-on-one for over a year now at my studio, but this was my first time teaching a group in a classroom. I prepared by writing a couple of presentations and cutting several types of woods for carving. I was nervous, not about teaching, but if anyone would actually sign up for the class and if I could make the class worthwhile for them. The class filled, and there was even a wait-list. Anyway, after weeks of preparation, the time came and I had a great time, and so did my students!

Ron teaching 1

Back in December, several weeks before Christmas, the Baulines Craft Guild, of which I’m a member, was able to open a “pop-up” gallery at the Corte Madera Town Center, in Marin County, Ron-Cook1_edited-1north of San Francisco, for their 40th anniversary show. It was to last until January 2nd, but the Town Center enjoyed having us there and asked if we’d like to stay another month. Of course we said yes, and were able to extend our exhibit. I spent several days “booth sitting” and had a great time talking to customers—and other Baulines members.

Less than a month after exhibiting in Corte Madera, the Baulines Craft Guild displayed in a large booth space close to the entrance of the Contemporary Crafts Market, which was in the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason, San Francisco. I’ve done this with the Baulines for several years, and this turned out to be one of the most successful for several of us exhibiting. Below is a photo of my section of the booth, and the other is a photo of some of my happy customers.


CCM-My exhibit   CCM-Ron with happy customers

Repairs and Restorations

This is where I’ve really been busy. For over a year now my restoration and repair services have been going gung-ho. Even though it’s slowed down my own instrument and furniture carving and building, the chance to make antique instruments play again and furniture useful again is incredibly rewarding. It’s a “feel-good” job, and I gotta do it!

Hall-Mandolin-72Last year it was mostly antique zithers on my workbench. So far this year, it’s been not only zithers, but a mandolin and two chairs. The mandolin, made around 1890, is a lute-style instrument, often called a Neopolitan mandolin. This one was made in Napoli, and the label reads Fabricante di Instrumenti Armonici, Napoli, Anno 1890. Its owners called this their “exploding mandolin” because they heard it “pop” when the top cracked one hot day. The crack, running the length of the top from the neck to tail piece, also made the inlayed pickguard come loose, and a piece of the decorative soundhole binding came out when it popped. Not hard to fix, but because of the thin woods, I had to be careful how I handled it on my workbench.

New this year to me is weaving rush seats on old chairs. A couple of years ago I learned how to weave rush for my medieval stools and chairs. An Open Studios customer visited a friend and asked him if he knew of anyone who could weave new seats for Weaving rushher “carriage” chair, which is a shaker-style ladder-back chair (bottom right photo). He directed her to me, and I ended up doing two chairs. The second was a small children’s ladder-back chair (bottom left photo). On the larger one, I wove the seat with natural rush (made from cattails). On the children’s one I used smaller-diameter fiber rush, which is a paper product, but very strong. When done, I finished the natural rush with boiled linseed oil and the fiber rush with amber shellac. These finishes help strengthen the rush and help them last much longer than uncoated rush. If you have any rush bottom seats that you need recovered, please contact me.

Joan Dunn Largechair1Joan-Dunn-small chair2



Of course, zithers abound. I seem to get inquiries about old zithers more and more all the time, and several more customers recently decided to have me restore their instruments. Last year was mainly concert (fretted) zithers. So far this year, it’s chord and plucked zithers.

One I just completed and shipped last week was a lovely Menzenhauer and Schmidt “guitar” zither. Many of this style of American-made zithers were called Guitar zithers, which is a misnomer because they are not fretted like a guitar (or concert zither). A lot of these instruments were sold by door-to-door Menzenhauer-Schmidt Zithersalesmen who could demonstrate how easy they were to play. However, most were sold through Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs from the late 1800s through the 1920s. A few still remained in their catalogs into the 1960s.

Two instruments recently came to me from Pennsylvania: a small 17-string psaltery-style plucked zither and a much larger “Columbia” zither, model 3 1/2. Both were made by the Phonoharp Company. Phonoharp started in Berwick and Portland, Maine, around 1892. By 1897 they had moved to a larger manufacturing facility in Boston. Of the two zithers, the smaller one, called a Harp Celest (bottom left photo), is probably the older and made in Maine. The Model 3 1/2 Columbia Special (bottom right photo) was made later, 1897-1900, in Boston.

The Harp Celest needs the most work. The top and back are both cracked and several glue joints are failing. I already took the back off to repair the frame and cracks and noticed it had been in water or stored in a damp area. Water stains were evident inside at the tail end. The large crackNaomi Two Zithers under the soundhole is from shrinking by getting damp and then quickly drying out. The larger Columbia zither has one back crack, and glue joints at the tail piece are a little loose. The top is in good shape, but the finish is crackled in what is often called alligator skin. I’ve taken care of most of the crackle by rubbing it with denatured alcohol, which reactivated the shellac-type varnish so it spread out filling the crackle voids.


My Etsy shop continues to grow. The most popular items have been the dulcimer noters. I’ve sold several and decided I’d better stock up a little and recently made five more. Other new items I’ve added to my shop is the Purpleheart Ukulele, and two rebecs (Quasimodo and The Golem),

To see more of my work, check out my Etsy shop at www.etsy.com/shop/roncook.

New NotersPurpleheart UkeRebecs

Well, that’s about it for now. I’ve been kept busy with teaching and restorations, and I’m still working on a couple of new pieces, such as another medieval-style three-legged chair and a hurdy gurdy. For our home, I’m getting ready to build another bookcase and another bedside stand. So, I should stop right here and get back to making sawdust.