Wednesday, November 5, 2014

New website and blog

After five years here on blogger I have moved. Please visit my new site and blog at, and thanks for your interest!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Closing in

Carving the bridge comes near the end of the build, and is a pleasure--careful work with super sharp tools, but not as stressful as some of the other steps, and an opportunity to leave "fingerprints"...traces of the hand-building process. 

I will leave the subtle facets created by the carving gouge here on the back of the tie block:

while the other surfaces will be comparatively sleek.

Tunes in the Dunes

It's not just anyplace that you can experience this--Cascade Head on the Oregon coast...

And real hula...

But at the wonderful Tunes in the Dunes, a uke event created by Melanie Berry, it all comes together beautifully. We also enjoyed classes with a lot of wonderful teachers and performers, including James Hill, Anne Janelle, Craig Chee, and Sarah Maisel,

Steve Einhorn and Kate Power (here with Sarah),

Andy Andrews, founder of the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz, with with his wife Pam (one of the hula dancers above),  

Corvallis' own irrepressible Wallop Sisters, whom I not-so-secretly aspire to play with, 

the super versatile Diggers, and uke ambassador Bryan Holley (no pics, sorry guys. And thanks to Craig Chee for some photos, seems like he is everywhere with a camera). 

A weekend full of aloha spirit and music, and as a bonus some great information on what makes a really good uke, as there were more than a few at the weekend. Thanks to everyone involved, hope to see you on down the road. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Up to my neck

With the English walnut uke having gotten its first coat of finish...

it's time to get busy shaping the neck. The black lines in English walnut are called "marblecake", in case you want to work that into your conversations. 

The key to good shaping for me is raking light, as the following photos show. Good or bad, the shape jumps out, and even a single stroke of a fine file makes a clear change.  

It makes for cool textures too:

For complex locations like the heel, I often hold the light in one hand and the tool in the other, moving the light back and forth to examine every bit of the surface.

In this photo I've just cut in the facet on the right with a carving chisel--which takes two hands, so the light is on a stand nearby.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The wide net of J. R. R. Tolkien

I've been thinking about this wood for a long time:

One thing keeps coming to mind--Mordor. Anyone else feel it? The volcano palisander in previous posts does too. 

Yes? Mt Doom perhaps? 

And this: 

Orcs painted for battle ( with me here).

Admittedly, I re-read the Lord of the Rings this year, but I don't see Sauron's eye in the clouds or orcs in the grills of cars (think Target commercials). Nonetheless, these bring to mind Mt. Doom, Barad-Dur, the Misty Mountains, Cirith Ungol, Frodo's troubled dreams. Orthanc too, so I guess it's not just Mordor. 

It's an odd association for ukuleles, but one that's been calling. Running with the idea, though at the risk of trauma to LOTR fans, I freely adapt Tolkien's ring inscription to my own sensibilities about life and music: 

One love to rule them all,
One love to find them,
One love to bring them all,
and in the music bind them. 

I feel that love is the core "energy" of life in all its fantastic diversity. Music (also amazingly diverse) springs out of love as a powerful force to join (bind) us; to catalyze connections, community, gratitude, and, in a great circle--or ring, if I may--love.

No doubt this is ripe for psychoanalysis, as well as accusations of extreme sappiness and fuzzy-headed thinking; but sappiness seems quite fitting for a woodworker, while fuzzy-headed is merely accurate;-).

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Eugene UKEtoberfest - the auction

I will be bringing an ukulele stand to the UKEtoberfest auction; it's time to start thinking about it. My design process usually starts with the wood, and while winding through the thickets of planks around the shop these jumped out as candidates:

(Those who compulsively check the backgrounds of photos will notice that the humidity was 43% in the shop today--just right.)

From the left: curly and colorful Oregon black walnut; a tall plank of extra curly bigleaf maple with a few burl patches and unusually fine texture; a narrow plank of curly eastern black walnut, and finally a chunk of Cuban mahogany on the bench top. 

Cuban gets the nod for rarity and historical lineage--it was the glory wood of the Chippendale furniture era, and has been commercially "extinct" for over 200 years. This piece is from Florida, where folks with special permits can harvest trees that have blown down in storms. It carves like a dream, and the orange-brown tones and deep luster are yummy. 

Walnuts are rich--for many, walnut is the color wood ought to be. The Oregon walnut is so...Eugene;-) - colorful, expressive, free-spirited next to the eastern walnut, which seems by comparison reserved, even thoughtful. Here's some western walnut: 

Finally, the bigleaf maple. Another highly lustrous wood, the curl on this tree looks positively 3-D once it has finish on it. The back side has some burled texture, which could be interesting, though I'm not sure how to work it in. "Reserved" is not a term that leaps to mind for figured maple like this, here combined with koa in jewelry box: 

Decisions, decisions. If you have opinions feel free to drop me a note. 

UKEtoberfest - under the hood

A few behind the scenes images as UKEtoberfest draws closer.

Record keeping. These notes satisfy the curious, but also help a luthier in the future should the instrument be damaged. 

The silking on this Carpathian spruce top is lovely. "Silking" refers to the hazy gently waving lines that are roughly right angles to the growth rings, going up/down in this pic. They are the trees ray cells, and their prominence indicates nice quartersawn wood.

Next, a shout out to the good friend who ordered me back to lutherie. I resisted, but Tom was right. 

Those small holes will index on pin in the neck block to align the top perfectly, and will be covered by the fingerboard. The centerline is marked in pencil because the joint is virtually invisible, a combination of preparation with an ultra sharp hand plane and the use of hide glue, which shrinks and pulls together as it dries. 

This view shows how the end block is beveled to provide a bit more free vibrating surface on the all important top plate. The block itself is baltic birch plywood, a very high quality material that will prevent splitting if someone bangs the end of the instrument on the strap pin or pickup jack. 

The red clamps below are mashing together (laminating) pau ferro and curly european maple, which will become bindings after I slice them with my sushi knife. Or bandsaw. It took an inordinate amount of time to find a plank that would yield bindings to compliment the English walnut and Scottish beech that establish the dominant colors of this uke. You can see in the foreground where I spot-applied finish to the plank in order to preview the color. 

Coming together nicely. I love this spalted beech! Spalting (the black lines and mottled colors) comes from fungi setting up shop in the wood; as competing colonies grow and meet each other they secrete melanin "battle lines" (zone lines--see Dr. Sara Robinson's for lots on the subject). Don't worry, the fungi are gone. 

The first of the volcano ukes!

And what is this potato chip? A test bend (the tightest bend on the sides) to see whether one of the "Holy Grail" woods of the classical guitar world will scale to the more compactly curved uke. 

I'm interested in this species partly because of its remarkable sustain and resonance (even this little scrap!), and partly to scratch a Lord of the Rings itch. It will be difficult to finish it by UKEtoberfest, but we shall see. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Composition, with volcanoes

Long ago I got a a few small planks of Palisander (Dalbergia barroni most likely), including one with volcanoes. Having seasoned them for a good many years, I cut some recently, with a good deal of trepidation to start. This is the volcano plank:

The worry was misplaced, it sawed like butter and stayed perfectly flat and tame. And what colors and graphics! 

It's too narrow for 2 piece tenor ukulele backs, which is perfect!--I've been wanting to do three piece backs for ages, inspired by my beautiful Don Musser steel string. 

Here are a few of the combinations I tried, starting with bookmatched volcanoes and quilted maple between: 

Opposite approach, ebony instead of maple, with chalk to simulate pale stripes between the different woods:

What about a single volcano surrounded by darker palisander from a different tree?

And tie-dye! Amazing "tiger" myrtle from the same tree as the end graft in the previous post, with the darker (volcano-free) palisander:

A different pair of volcanoes--though more like Belknap crater to the previous North Sister--and how about blackwood with a simulated sapwood stripe? You can see actual sapwood at lower left center.

 From my lethal wood collection, wenge, savage with burrowing splinters.

Wouldn't you know it, the cruelest wood looks great. It turns the rosewood color scheme inside-out; the rosewood is mostly warm brown with picturesque black lines, the wenge is dense with black lines interleaved with subtle browns. 

Back to the wood shelves--maybe some Morado, or a bit of Macassar ebony, both of which are far kinder. 


Composing--figuring out which pieces of wood, cut which way, combined and arranged this way or that, will fulfill all the functional needs, celebrate the materials, and bring delight to an instrument or piece of furniture--is one of the best parts (and most crucial) of my work.

The wedge shaped end graft in the picture is some super-amazing myrtle from the southern Oregon coast, combined with oak from the historic Hackleman grove via the Lumber to Legacy project spearheaded by Mark Azevedo and Albany Parks and Recreation; see the story here: Lumber to Legacy.'s an oak-ulele, to be auctioned later this fall along with contributions from many other regional craftspersons and students to raise money for oak habitat restoration.

I love the way these look together, with a bit of black/white/black purfling to draw the eye to the transition. The oak has strong straight grain with squiggly pale lines called "ray fleck" (from the ray cells, which help make oak split easily for firewood); the myrtle varies the theme with squiggly dark lines, and adds a soft undulation to the dominant straight grain of the oak.

It often takes a shockingly long time to arrive at a satisfying combination, at least shocking when I'm fretting that progress only happens when cutting, joining, gluing, and shaping wood. But the time spent imagining the insides of planks or burrowing in wood supplies for yet another candidate pays back a thousandfold, not just in the finished project, but unleashing the energy and perseverance I need for the seemingly infinite number of operations, detours, false starts, and train wrecks that inevitably go with building things well.

All in all a pretty good return for a 3" slip of myrtle, a fragment from an orphan ukulele side. It makes it darned hard to get rid of scraps though.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Christening

7:30pm, day three, Guild of American Luthiers convention, Tacoma, Washington. Where seemingly well adjusted folks who make musical instruments poke their phones inside of other maker's guitars to see how they're put together...

...ah, Kasha bracing, and a very thin top at right center.

Early evening light bathes the clock tower courtyard at Pacific Lutheran University.

Kimo Hussey, a master of the ukulele from Hawaii, is jamming with Jay Lichty, who makes beautiful ukes and guitars from (as he puts it) "that hotbed of ukulele music, Asheville, North Carolina". Kimo is playing one of Jay's ukes, and the night before had given a concert with it.

I'm carrying the first ukulele I built, having just come from the exhibit hall where I have a display table alongside many real luthiers.

[I am so insecure at the exhibition that my table was mostly covered with woodworking tools; I taught folks how to quickly sharpen their planes and scrapers to a high standard, something I do daily in the shop and teach almost non-stop when I work Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Events. My uke was wedged over to the side, constantly at risk of being splattered by swarf (a muck of water, iron filings and abrasive particles generated during sharpening on waterstones).]

Kimo and Jay are making great music--swing tunes, pop, rock, you name it. I'd like Kimo to play my uke, but no way I'm interrupting. There's a lull, my heart rate doubles...but I keep my mouth shut. They play some more. 7:50, time to pack up soon for the evening concert.

If not now, when? There's a tiny lull, and my voice cracks as I ask Kimo if he'll play my first uke. He says "you mean you want me to help christen your first ukulele?". I manage to blurt out yes, that's it exactly. He says "I'd be honored to help christen your uke". I try not to let my jaw bounce off the ground, pull it out of the case, and he looks it over closely before starting this:

Wow! I was walking on air the rest of the evening.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The dog ate it...

No blog entries for nearly two years, and it's tempting to craft an excuse. To be clear, it was my daughter's dog, Loki--with a name like that he's obviously guilty. You can see it in his body language:

Alright, it's not Loki. It's been an intense period, with a painful injury in the shop (no missing fingers thankfully) and a difficult recovery, a marriage in the family, an untimely death, and the crux of a long metamorphosis--actually, more than one. 

One involves lutherie: making and working on stringed instruments. I started nearly 40 years ago, but made some horrible choices on a beat up but innocent Gibson Melody Maker (electric guitar)--even now I feel shame. 

Instrument making has been stalking me ever since, though I evaded it by channeling the impulse into other design areas. It cropped up nonetheless, with instrument references and materials sneaking into my furniture designs, such as this 2005 piece: 

Again and again woodworking mentors and friends told me to quit fighting, that my instincts and abilities pointed obviously toward lutherie, but fear dominated year after year. No matter that I designed and built pieces that were at least as difficult as a guitar--by this time I had convinced myself that one needed a "Stradivarius gene" in order to build a beautiful sounding instrument. 

Life, however, continued to lay groundwork. 

My good friend Tom Dufresne, physical therapist and trainer extraordinaire for the Nebraska women's gymnastics team, and my most influential guitar teacher, visited my shop and concluded that I should build instruments. This was...appalling, because historically when Tom said something like this it was essentially impossible to avoid even if it appeared impossible to accomplish. 

Then I became friends with Lynn Dudenbostel, who makes mandolins and guitars that shake the earth. His mandolin no. 5 (!) was Chris Thile's primary instrument (!!) for many years and recordings, though it now shares space with Dude no. 15 and a Loar. Lynn looked at my woodwork and put it to me simply one day at the Mandolin Symposium--"you can do this!".  No Strad gene excuses. 

I went to the handmade instrument show at Maryhurst (in Portland) each year, and the Guild of American Luthiers convention, where I discovered repeatedly that delightful instruments were made by a wide variety of people, not one of whom appeared to rely on supernatural assistance. They too were generous and encouraging. I bought good wood. Then some more. 

But I didn't build. Some stubborn part of me still didn't believe. Instead I built even more challenging furniture, with gentle curves everywhere (like an instrument), touchable surfaces and modeled details (like an instrument), and re-purposed instrument wood (alright already). 

The shop injury finally pushed me into it. My shoulders were almost useless, so I couldn't handle the large timbers needed to work on my furniture commissions. Staring dejectedly one day at the wall of huge planks that line my bench room, someone/thing quietly said "musical instruments don't weigh much". Fate, guardian angel, subconscious?--I don't know, but it was as if it was said to me. Another (less sanguine) suggestion took shape later; "take the hint--there are worse injuries if necessary". 

Now that sounds ridiculous, and it's true that the shoulder injury was wreaking havoc with my sleep, but that's how it came across to me. So I took the hint and built an ukulele, because Tom said he preferred it to a mandolin when I gave him the choice. I fought it all the way, but completed it out of desperation when I realized there was nothing else to enter in the annual show of the local woodworking guild.

Here it is catching morning sun in the shop: 

It sounded terrible to me, though others argued otherwise. Then I heard someone else play it, and--wait a minute!--it sounded good, nicer (to me) than the instrument he had just given the concert on. It wasn't the worst ukulele ever! This was confirmed at the Langley workshop, a Canadian ukulele orgy (if you can imagine) where gurus like James Hill, Peter Luongo, Chalmers Doane, and Gordon Myer of Mya-Moe put no. 1 under the microscope and offered congratulations, advice, and encouragement. 

So naturally, I began to doubt that I could do it again. The 2nd instrument slowed, then stopped. 

Rescue came from Hawaii, in the form of uke and classical guitar maker Woodley White, and performing legend Kimo Hussey, both of whom attended this year's Guild of American Luthiers convention in Tacoma--the subject of a forthcoming post. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Every Hand Plane Needs a Tuneup - a Reply

I did not intend to go into video, in fact I fought it...but in the end it was no use.

The problem is, I know smart, careful woodworkers who read Fine Woodworking (FWW) closely, and when they see an article from an apparently gold-plated authority--Tommy MacDonald has his own woodworking how-to show on PBS called Rough Cut, does it get any more legit?--they are liable to follow it diligently.

In this case, though, the magazine and author are the ones that ought to be liable. Exhibit A:

No disrespect intended, as both the author and FWW have inspired and taught many, but in this case some really bad advice slipped through, advice that could easily ruin a $400 handplane while attempting to improve it.

Here is my response, with very amateur production values and as one friend said, narrated by a homeless person--ouch! Another said the shop looks too clean--can't win.