Saturday, 29 June 2019

What I've learned about Grass Tree resin

Above is what I collected this morning.  I found a patch of bushland near my home which featured a few mature Grass Trees (by my estimation the species Xanthorrhoea drummondii).  Grass Trees are very familiar to anyone living in the Perth metropolitan area surrounds.  They are commonly found in suburban parks and are a common garden tree.  For those who don't know about Grass Trees go here:

The resin balls vary in size from that of a pea to that of a small tennis ball.  If you want to collect Grass Tree resin the balls protrude from the exposed trunk and should break off easily.  If they don't snap of easily leave them as I'd hate to be encouraging people to damage the trees.  Snapping them off won't harm the tree.  Indeed Aboriginals have been collecting the resin in this way for thousands of years.  The resin had many uses such as melting and reducing it into a powerful adhesive.  However my intention is to use the resin for making varnish.  The stuff dissolves well in alcohol and is both a lovely natural red stain as well as a substitute for shellac.  However I will include shellac in my recipe.  This is the recipe that I currently use:

50g shellac (I like garnet shellac)
200ml alcohol
5g gum sandarac
50g Grass Tree resin
7ml eucalyptus oil

Violin makers would recognize this as a variation on the famous 1704 spirit varnish recipe.  I used eucalyptus oil instead of lavender spike oil to give it an Australian flavor.  The recipe flows out quite nicely with a good quality artist's brush.  It's definitely not as easy to brush as store-bought varnish, though.  It requires practice. 

Tomorrow I'll post some pics of guitar number 26 with the current progress on varnishing. 

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Number 39 as at 16th June 2019

I've been neglecting number 39.  This is a new design for me, taken from Graham MacDonald's book "The Mandolin Project".  The soundboard bracing is designed to resist any distortion of the soundboard than can occur over time to flat-top instruments.  The soundboard is Sitka Spruce, the back and sides are Western Australian She-oak, the neck is Phillipine Mahogany and the fingerboard is Jarrah.  The clothes pegs are for clamping on the linings while the glue dries.  More work to be done!

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Further adventure in varnish making

So today I walked down to my local park in suburban Perth to look for some mature Grass Trees.  Found a few and even, to my amazement, found three balls of resin at the base of one large tree.  I didn't expect to find this so easily as I expected that someone else would have been there before.  Grass Tree resin is an ingredient in incense and is used in aromatherapy I believe.  So I took my discoveries home and dissolved them in methylated spirits in a jar, added a little sandarac and tomorrow I will add some orange shellac to the mixture.  The orange should go well with the red/brown color of the Grass Tree resin.  Above is a short video of where I was at with it before dissolving the resin.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

The last post before the onset of Winter

I've decided that number 37 is finished.  I'm not totally happy with it as there is still a slight buzz on the lower frets on the lower strings.  Oh well, better luck next time.  I've decided not to sell this guitar but to keep it as a personal instrument as I love the pyrography on the soundboard and can't bring myself to part with it.  The pyrography was done by a friend named Rhonda Schipper.  Very talented lady.  I finished it with not French Polish strictly speaking, but with a shellac/wax mixture I concocted myself.  The emulsion I came up with contains beeswax, carnauba wax, garnet shellac, grass tree resin, lemon oil and methylated spirits.  I wiped and buffed several layers of the mixture and it came out a nice semi-gloss after a cut and polish with fine abrasive.  Much easier than French Polish.  I collected the grass tree resin locally and plan to seek out some bushland and find some more resin.  Here's a couple of vids on collecting grass tree resin:

I bought a bottle of dissolved grass tree resin from Gilly Stepehnson many years ago and only used it recently.  It gave a nice color and it caused me to investigate the subject further.  I liked the idea of making a wood finish from locally collected ingredients.  I also began to investigate the subject of home-made varnish generally and began reading about traditional violin varnish.  From this I thought of making my own varnish from grass tree resin, gum sandarac, shellac, methylated spirits and maybe some other colorants such as cochineal.  This is still in the process of realization.  More on this soon.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Here is the current state of number 37, a nylon strung terz guitar.  I wasn't happy with the finish so I decided to redo it, this time with garnet shellac, french polished.  That refers to the application of shellac to the sanded timber using a special method. 

Friday, 12 April 2019

Number 38, an octave mandolin

My Building Philosophy

My aim is not to produce “perfect” instruments with flawless varnishes and CNC-perfect joints.  Indeed, go into any high street music store and there will be plenty of those types of instruments, mass-produced and, in my opinion, bland and characterless.  Of course, they have the “name” and all that goes with that and if you want to buy an instrument like that, that’s fine.  I aim to offer something different.  I like my instruments to show the hand of the maker.   I find that, in my experience, perfection is elusive and a pretty exhausting goal to try and aim for.  You could say, I aim for my instruments to have soul.  I aim to for my instruments to have the feeling of an antique where patination can give the owner a sense their item has had a long, rich life.  I want my instruments to have a sound of times long passed, of those crackly old vinyl records we loved when we were young.  You may wonder “is this just an excuse for sloppy workmanship?”  I should point out that the surface of Stradavari violins, if observed closely, show tool marks.  Clearly, he wasn’t a mediocre craftsperson.  It’s just that he only had access to hand tools: hand planes, chisels, hand saws and knives.  Back then there were no computers or modern conveniences like sandpaper.  Indeed, I find that I prefer to do as much as I can with only hand tools, of which I have a large collection gathered from many sources over decades.  Of course some jobs are more easily done with machine tools, and I have some of those too.  I like the best of both worlds. 

So I hope that goes some way to explaining why I do what I do, and how I prefer to my work process to be.  I rarely deliver an instrument on time.  I believe, please indulge me, that the more time I spend on an instrument the better it will be.  I’d like to point out, though, that I could be making a lot more money in another profession, given the hours I work and the time it has taken to develop my craft.  I’m not expecting to get rich doing this and that fact doesn’t really bother me.  I do try to keep my prices as low as I can, but the reality is that my instruments are only going to get more expensive if I am to maintain this in the long term.  I do, however, get a great feeling when a player tells me how much they love playing one of my instruments and I believe that this result cannot come from cutting costs or keeping to strict deadlines.

I want my instruments to send out good vibes into this sometimes bleak world.

Number 39

This is a mandolin I'm currently working on for a customer in the USA.  It has a flat top and back but is braced differently to my previous flat-top mandos.  I got the idea from well-known builder Graham McDonald, but I made some detail changes to make it my own.  The soundboard is Sitka Spruce and the back and sides are Western Australian She-oak.  The first two pics show the top and back and the second two were taken during a pause when bending the sides.  The She-oak will look spectacular after I apply the finish.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Number 38

Pictured above is number 38, a just-completed octave mandolin.  An octave mandolin is tuned an octave lower than a "normal" mandolin and is the size of a small guitar.  This one has a 530mm scale length and the sides meet the neck at the 14th fret.  There is no re-curve where the sides meet the neck, unlike many other instruments of this type.  I wanted to keep it simple and affordable.  As you can imagine, with it's longer scale and lower tuning, this mandolin's voice is much more bassy than other mandos I have made.  However, the body is not as deep as some other octave mandolins so it sounds brighter than others.  The Bunya Pine soundboard works great in this application giving a powerful tone and is also much more resistant to abrasion than Spruce or Cedar, meaning that players who use a pick won't have to worry about marking the soundboard when strumming.  Some pics:

Sunday, 24 March 2019

What to do?

I want to talk about this pickup I have had amoung my collection of guitar electronic bits and pieces for a very long time. It's a Fender humbucker measuring 10.65k ohms that, as best as I can work out, was made sometime in the 1970s. I've been told by musicians that some pickups of the same model are better than others. This is entirely possible given the conditions under which these things were manufactured (possibly variable quality control, pressures of mass production and so on). Anyway, this pickup is a lovely one. I had it in my first solid-body electric made from a Jarrah slab and a 2 by 4. Not a great looking guitar and it ended up as firewood, but it sounded great, with sparkling trebles and a deep, tight bass. So I was thinking today I need to put his in a guitar. I have no idea what type of guitar yet, but I'm open to suggestions.
Not a great pic, but you get the idea

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Past Achievements

Hello.  I thought I would begin by talking about instruments I have built in the past.  Later on I'll talk about what I am currently working on, but for now I'll focus on past achievements.  First I'll talk about one of the first mandolins I built:

This mandolin won me a prize at the 2005 Darlington Arts Festival, Highly Commended in the 3-d design category of the Open Art Exhibition.  It's a fairly simple design, flat top and back, with ladder bracing.  The neck fits to the body with a dovetail joint, the first time I'd tried a dovetail joint and it came out really well; the fit was like a glove and there were no visible gaps (not an easy thing to achieve with a hand-cut dovetail joint; I did it all with a small dovetail saw, files and chisels).  The soundboard is made of King Billy Pine, a Tasmanian timber that is no longer commercially harvested.  King Billy Pine has been highly regarded by Australian violin makers for over a century.  It imparts a sweet singing tone, is stable and easy to work.

King Billy Pine is becoming increasingly difficult to source and I have little in stock, but there are other soundboard woods that work just as well.  From memory, I sold this mandolin for $AU600.  If I was to make another of these I would use X-bracing for the top and back which I think would be better structurally, standing up better over time to the tension of the strings which, on a mandolin, can be considerable.  I'd also lose the slotted head-stock design which makes changing strings a pain.  Now I'd use a flat head-stock, which is what you see on the majority of Mandos.

More later...