Monday, April 20, 2020

Hunkering Down!

What a long strange trip...

It's "shelter in place" time. For us, we self-quarantined early because by the time the order came down, we were in San Diego for the Left Coast Crime Mystery Book Conference along with over 300 people from all over the country crowded in hallways and conference rooms. The conference was shut down at the end of the first day. So, we sped back, making record time through L.A. because of no traffic and hunkered down on a 14-day wait-and-see. No symptoms, thank goodness. We are doing fine, and I am spending a lot of time in my studio and shop. I have quite a stash of wood, enough for several instruments and furniture. My wife has a huge stash of yarn, so she also keeps busy knitting and weaving.

In the News
My main project , just before we were ordered to shelter in place, was to complete the restoration of a customer's zither. This wasn't a typical chord zither. It was a Celestaphone from around 1915-1920. 

The Celestaphone was an early version of the Marxophone. However, the hammer mechanism that a player would push to strike the strings is missing. The early 20th century Sears catalog advertisement for the Celestaphone, below right, shows what it should look like.

       Celestaphone                 Sears Celestaphone Ad
I keep hoping to find another Celestaphone on Ebay or other auction web sites. One did show up on Ebay earlier this year, but the auction price went too high. The restoration is done, but I can't ship it yet due to the shelter in place order. In the meantime, I'll keep looking out for another Celestaphone I can use for parts.

During the last four months I've been busy creating several new instruments. I made two new mini Saxon lyres back in December. The first has a lovely applewood top fastened to a black walnut body. The second one has a beautiful cocobolo top and back. Both have carved maple bridges and tailpieces. To read more about these lyres (and purchase using credit card or PayPal), check out my Etsy shop.
Applewood Mini Saxon Lyre    Cocobolo Mini Saxon Lyre
Earlier this year I completed another full-sized hog-nose psaltery. I've made several of these over the years, and they all sold. One even went to a monastery in Switzerland.
My new one has a top and back of camphor. The frame is white oak, and the rosettes are black walnut and maple. It is steel strung and has three octaves. The tone is very bright and beautiful. It is also available on my Etsy shop.
Camphor Hog-nose Psaltery
Not long after completing the hog-nose psaltery, I also finished my newest mountain dulcimer. The body is all salvaged purpleheart. The carved head, tailpiece, sound holes and binding are maple, and the fingerboard is pine with an oak fretboard.

Purpleheart Dulcimer
The thin hourglass shape is in the style of the 1925 J. Edward Thomas dulcimer I saw in the Smithsonian Museum. J. Edward Thomas made dulcimers in Kentucky from the late 1800s up to his death in 1933. He made over 1500 dulcimers. When he first started selling his instruments in the hills and hollers of Kentucky, he delivered them in a wheelbarrow, selling them for three dollars each. Surviving instruments are in the Smithsonian, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and in museums and homes around Berea, Kentucky.

These four instruments were all completed before we all had to shelter in place. Now that we're stuck at home, I've been continuing work on other projects.

One project that has been going on for, oh, around 40+ years, is my Ottavina. An Ottavina is also called an Octave Spinet. It is a small harpsichord that is based on one in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. When I first started working on this I used wood that wasn't that good, and I was still learning cabinet building skills. 
When I pulled it out of my storage last year, I decided to scrap it and start over. I used nicely figured black walnut for the case and joined the sides with dovetails. I made a new, weighted, keyboard and a new soundboard. It's looking beautiful. I'm now about ready to lay out for the strings and harpsichord jacks. Hopefully, I can finally finish it this year.

Now, my next instrument is another experiment in dulcimer construction. I am making a "banjo-dulcimer". The body is segmented oak and black walnut, with a maple and black walnut back and top. The top is hollowed to fit a six inch banjo-style drum head. The long hand-carved neck is set up for a 28.5 inch scale length. It will have six doubled strings, with the low bass drone doubled with a thinner string tuned an octave higher, similar to a 12 string guitar.
Banjo Dulcimer
This instrument is now in the finishing stages. The tung oil varnish I use is drying, and soon I'll be polishing it up, make the bridge, and string it up. 

roncook Etsy shop
My Etsy shop is popular all over the world! I have been "favorited" by people as far away as Latvia and China. Sales have gone to Canada, Switzerland, and Italy, as well as all over the U.S. Here's how to reach my shop: You may set up a free account on Etsy to preview and purchase any other items offered for sale.

New Students
If you are interested in learning how to carve, learning general woodworking skills, or learning about the history and construction of early European (medieval) or early American (19th century) stringed instruments, please contact me at  During the instrument course, the student will learn about the evolution of stringed instruments, research a particular instrument, create working drawings, and build it. Open to all, especially interested high school and college students. All students choose wood from my wood stash!   E-mail me for more information

(Because of the Covid-19 shelter in place rules, current classes are on hold.)

Hot off the Press
Back in February I gave two wood carving classes at Cabrillo College. I was originally scheduled for only one Extension class, but was told I had over a dozen people on the wait list. Cabrillo asked if I would be interested in adding a second weekend workshop, and I agreed to it. I had two full classes (10 people in each), two weekends in a row, that went quite well. I had students of all ages, and several were very talented even though they had never carved before.
Student Work In February Wood Carving Class
Unfortunately, my May wood carving class has been cancelled due to the Covid-19 closure of schools. I'm hoping new classes will be available later in the year. Information, when available will be available through the Cabrillo College Extension.

In the second half of last year, I was asked to display a few of my pieces in the Bottle Jack Winery tasting room. Their new tasting room is housed in what used to be a photography studio and one wall was set up with lights for the photographer to display his photos. 
My Exhibit at the Bottle Jack Tasting Room
Now that wall is my exhibit space. I got some very nice comments from winery customers, and I did sell one small piece. I was supposed to take it down in March, but the shelter-in-place happened and the tasting room is closed. I'm hoping to arrange with the winery owner soon to let me in to remove my pieces.

Not knowing how long we'll be hunkered down makes it hard to plan ahead for events, like the Santa Cruz County Open Studios, which happens in October. However, it is now time to apply,and I hope things are up and running by October. I'll keep you all posted through my blog and newsletter.

Well, it's about time to head out to my shop and studio. I want to finish up my current projects and start on some new ones. I have plans for some medieval and early American furniture as well as a few more instruments. I want to keep busy during these weeks of sheltering. As I always say, "Onward Through The Fog"!
                                                         Lady with a Checkered Past