Friday, January 28, 2011

The Pickin' Stick

I've always thought it would be neat to make instruments.  Now, I know absolutely nothing about music.  I can whistle a tune, and if I get a few beers in me, I can sing a bit.  Notes and time signatures and what a "key" is are all total gobbledygook.  We had a semi-derelict piano for a little while when I was a young kid, until some mice got in it and made a stinky nest, and that was that.  So I've had no experience with instruments until my wife, who is much more musically inclined, got a banjo a few months ago, and that got me thinking.

I was wandering around in Powell's Books, and took a look in the luthier section.  The "real" guitar books were totally overwhelming, but there was this:  "Pickin' Stick: Building a Stringed Instrument" by John Ressler.  I flipped through it and looked at the little guitar-looking things on the cover and bought it.  (Amazon Link)  The book seems perfectly suited to a high-school woodshop class project.  There is plenty of detail in terms of building the instrument, although I quibble a bit with some of the parts suggested.  There are plenty of tuning machines that come in sets of three, for example, but he tells you to get a four-machine set and cut one off.  Weird.  There is also almost no discussion of theory, in terms of construction or of playing, so if you're ignorant like me, you'll be looking elsewhere for that information.  Fortunately there's a ton of it on the web.

I picked up the necessary wood when I was in Crosscut getting some oak for my TV stand project, and built the little "pickin' stick" in between other things.  It took me maybe three or four hours, and I think it turned out pretty well, although I did lose control while climb-cutting the back on the router table, so there's a minor defect there.  Cost-wise, it couldn't have been much cheaper.  I bought enough rough-cut walnut (body), maple (sound box back), and spruce (sound box front) stock to make at least four of them for $15, and enough hardware (from Stewart-Macdonald) to build two for another $20.  By the way, here's what I ordered from Stew-Mac, with prices as of January 2011:

0148       Medium Fretwire - 2ft piece    $3.17
0765       Stewart-MacDonald Mandolin Strings      $5.98
0934       Economy 3-on-plate Tuner Nickel  $9.28

There are several names for this instrument out there.  It looks like some of them have maybe been trademarked, but "stick dulcimer" seems to be in the public domain, and makes the most sense to me anyway after researching a bit.  It's got three strings and a fret layout like a mountain dulcimer, but built with a tiny little sound box.  It's tuned the same, has the same physical layout, and can use all the same sheet music and cheat sheets.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

TV Stand 1: The Plan

I tend to be a pragmatic designer.  The piece has to start with some constraints.  How large a space does it need to fit in?  How much storage does it need?  What is it supposed to DO?

In this case, the height was set roughly by the viewing height of the TV, the width by the wall it's going against (~5'-5") and it must hold the various electronics we need to serve our media needs.  It also needs to have at least one drawer for the remotes and other little accessories.  It would be nice to have as much storage as possible for music CD's, games, DVD's whatever.  Electronics seem to be intended to fit in a 18" wide space.  At least none of the things I have now is any bigger than that.  And some of them need good ventilation.

I like Sketchup for visualizing designs in 3D.  It's good for figuring out how the joinery might go together, as well.

A Sketchup rendering of the nearly-final design

It's basically three 18" wide segments.  Open cubbies above and concealed storage below.  Drawers on the outer sections, and a cupboard in the center.  Since I wanted to use mechanical sliders on the storage drawers to take the weight, I wound up building a sort of plywood carcase inside of a traditional frame and panel construction.  Or maybe I'm just decorating a plywood box with a lot of quarter-sawn white oak.

I've been burned by a few things that looked good on the computer, and then just didn't translate into reality, so I've started making full-size drawings.  For something this big, I did it on a piece of brown construction paper.  Go buy a roll.  It's cheap, and you can use it for all sorts of stuff, from a painter's drop cloth to floor protection to art media.  Anyway, here's what the full size drawing looked like, once it hung it up on the existing tv stand so we could see what it would look like in the actual space.  The pencil lines are a bit tough to see in the photo.  I cut a leg blank (on the left) at this stage, to see how the mass worked with the design.