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”.