Craftsman / Artist
A lazy week drifting betwixt jingling bells and confetti’d ballrooms. What came to mind? Taking a Mulligan, to borrow from the venerable game of confidence, we would post a catchy photo-montage from the NYTimes. Start off tracing the “Mulligan” phrase to the seventeenth century. Distract our readers from blatant thievery and possible copyright violation. Knock a smooth three-iron over the dogleg, coming up nicely short of the green. Chip and putt, an easy birdie.
Upon the hallowed fairways of the Old Course At St Andrews such a phrase did not originate. No noble and dusty lineage to Messer Mulligan. An act of Parliament such as created their Links Trust cannot change that.
We still have the photos to introduce. Christopher is a photo-essayist of vision and intuition. Here he captures the esteemed General Pencil Company of Jersey City, NJ. Practically next to Manhattan, its location again reminds our Mid-Atlantic staff state boundaries know no logic. As if they were drawn by the king’s whim.
With thanks to Christopher Payne, Sam Anderson, The New York Times Magazine, and the entire population of the eastern seaboard, we bring you the General Pencil Company!
Such radical simplicity is surprisingly complicated to produce. Since 1889, the General Pencil Company has been converting huge quantities of raw materials (wax, paint, cedar planks, graphite) into products you can find, neatly boxed and labeled, in art and office-supply stores across the nation: watercolor pencils, editing pencils, sticks of charcoal, pastel chalks. Even as other factories have chased higher profit margins overseas, General Pencil has stayed put, cranking out thousands upon thousands of writing instruments in the middle of Jersey City. – Sam Anderson for The New York Times Magazine
George Herbert Walker Bush 1924 – 2018
“You don’t see anybody trashing this president … Whether they agreed with him on certain policy positions or not, people respected him and liked him.” – James A. Baker III
He was that rare figure in Washington: a man without enemies — or with very few, at any rate. – Adam Nagourney
We love this photo of the former president skydiving on his 80th birthday. Particularly the way the Army parachute team is looking after their former Commander-In-Chief. – ed/pub
Not too long ago we spent half our hours in smoking darkness. Candles, oil lamps, then kerosene lamps followed. Just in time for indoor plumbing to make its appearance. After the glory of a home with a pump in the kitchen came water delivered via pipe into the residence. Next, the most amazing of inventions, hot water showers!
With us just about the whole way, from 1865 at least, Bridgeport Brass Company supplied the tools, devices, and materials to make it happen.
This company was organized in 1865 to make brass clock movements, and later made hoop-skirt frames, kerosene parlor lamps and the first successful kerosene bicycle lamp, exhibited at the World’s Fair in Chicago, in 1893 . . . Forgotten Landmarks
A few years after The Great War local farmland was consumed by developers. The new crop of housing sprouted faster than summer corn. About the same time our pile of bricks was hurriedly stacked, a more ambitious heap was raised up the hill. Three stories of cells, each to have both cold AND hot water. The water pipe? Brass pipe manufactured by Bridgeport Brass Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Shaft-mounted roller dies had stamped a repeating trade name along the length of the pipe. Plumrite.
Decades later discovered disconnected within wall cavities, a usefulness lost to cracked threads after its three-generation life expectancy, a few feet of Plumrite are saved from the scrap yard.
Here we have a piece of c.1928 Plumrite brass pipe in use as a pipe clamp. Certainly lends a touch of patrician elegance to the old chap, what? Genteel, experienced, ready to fasten together the most fractious of violin tops with good manners and charm.
Behind many ten minute successes lie hours of preparation. According to my dentist during a little buffing after a $200 smear of white Bondo. Lately, at the secretive Luthier Laboratories, pushing boundaries past conventional instrument repair, we’ve found those preparation-to-execution numbers to be a bit skewed.
In this case, hours and hours were spent converting this “Sold For Parts” French violin into a viable instrument. As we near the final cavelletti, hands and clamps in piaffe and pirouette, this early 19th century Mirecourt nears a milestone. Sound post and tone tap, the first in 120+ years we surmise (the repairs of 1886 were never completed).
At every step, to poke, prod, shave, raise, lower, scrape, and in general convince the parts to obey, our Lie-Nielsen ⅜” chisel is there to assist. An extension of my fingers but with enhanced fingernails. A2 Tool Steel, hardened to Rockwell 60-62, cryogenically treated and double tempered.
Our mortised end block holds us up no longer. After this Mirecourt skipped the entire last century, we’ll soon be having a conversation. Talk about dropping out! Welcome back!
Waiting for the “right job” to come up was taking forever. I’d been wanting this compact manganese bronze hand plane upon first sight online, and began rationalizing the purchase as a ‘deserved’ luxury item after handling one at a Lie-Lielsen Hand Tool Event® a year ago.
Opportunity came in the form of a mid-19th century French-made Sébastien Kloz violin. She wanted a little nip and tuck fitting back into her old clothes. With chisel and file, it could have been done. But for precision, and in a far more civilized manner, she wants the Lie-Nielsen Violin Maker’s Plane. Perfect results, as anticipated! Depth of cut adjustment was exact and did not ‘creep’ after tightening. You spend more for quality, but you get more satisfaction. Long after the price tag is forgotten.
At about the same time, a Depression-era Antonio Stradivari copy – probably a copy, but one never knows – came knocking for a bit of fingerboard thinning. The Stanley Handyman again, at 9-1/4″, or the Lie-Nielsen 101, at 3-7/16″? The USA-made vintage Stanley performs admirably but is a bit top-heavy and too big. The Lie-Nielsen 101 finished the job with perfect control, but is a bit too small for shaping a 4/4 violin ebony fingerboard. Maybe a Goldilocks Plane exists, juuuuust right. The Lie-Nielsen 102?
Where the Lie-Nielsen came through with presidential prowess? Cutting a tiny bevel along the edges of the fingerboard. I forgot to put them in when the nut and strings were off, but the 101 is perfectly suited for close, delicate work. Since the nut was already glued, a gentle swipe with my Lie-Nielsen scraper seamlessly finished up the last bit of bevel.
Summers come and summers go. The Rockdale Boys made it to our local county park. Debbie Durant never sounded finer. The Zona saw continues trimming violin bushing pegs closer than a dime. A pile of late 19th century built-in drawers junked near Penn campus? We grabbed a stack of drawer bottoms.
John-Anthony dropped off his 1935 Bacon & Day Silver Bell plectrum banjo for peg fitting and an ebony buff. John is a true trade musician, performing swing music of 1920s and 1930s on a period instrument. Solo.
More USA-made Juzek tools are en route. A cello peg hole reamer and peg shaver. We’ll be ready for the next onslaught of performing arts high school cellos. Five sound posts, eight bridges, and all two dozen of the instruments seem to have something wrong with the pegs.
Fresh hide glue, alignment and clamping, a bit of planing and scraping, the occasional epoxy wood filler, listening to the Beach Boys wind up my summer with their summer hits. Written when Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro were dancing their can-can across the northern Caribbean.
After the failed U.S. attempt to overthrow the Castro regime in Cuba with the Bay of Pigs invasion, and while the Kennedy administration planned Operation Mongoose, in July 1962 Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev reached a secret agreement with Cuban premier Fidel Castro to place Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba to deter any future invasion attempt. – Office of the Historian
Two years ago we visited garden-themed mosaics displayed in this same hall. Today, the spotlight falls back to pottery. Americans love their crafts. So important in colonial America, the tradition of turning clay and glaze into objects of beauty and utility remains vibrant.
Katrina Piechnik is a local instructor, practicing a centuries-old skill of saggar pottery. Packing materials against pottery as it is fired to produce color and texture. From her creativity another generation of artisans are born, thrive, and continue. She opens our imagination.
Borrowed from UpInSmokePottery.com, a partial list of colorants:
Copper Carbonate – greens, blues, maroons, reds
Copper Sulfate – greens, blues, maroons, reds
Cobalt Carbonate – blues
Ferric Chloride – reds, yellows, oranges
Steel wool – blues, grays, pinks
Banana peels – greens, grays
Copper wire – can be red, black, blue, green, whites, depending on wire, thickness, and temperature of the fire
Sawdust – black, gray, blue-gray,
Cow pies – depends on what it ate; blacks, yellows, greens, grays, browns
Bacon Grease – brown/greens
Sodium Chloride – Orange, yellows, salmon, peach, gold
Coffee Grounds – browns, greens, blues
Nails – Neat blue/gray dots with halos
Leaves – brown/greens
Grass clippings – brown/greens
Red Iron Oxide – browns, maroons, rust
With a bridge firmly grasped in my hand and a small rectangle of 220 grit scratch cloth carefully laid on the supine violin, I move a delicate piece of carved maple upon the paper, sanding the feet into the curved shape of the violin top. Sometimes one foot wants a little more off than the other. I compensate. Tradition says the rear is to be 90˚ to the top. The front appears pitched, as it is cut to 87˚. Christmas Day we worked upon a beautiful mid-1960s German violin set up by a Reading shop. Their luthier’s trademark? He set up the right angled side forward. A second bridge in the case from the same shop was identically cut. Further reading indicates bridge orientation has no bearing on sound though tradition (and superstition) reign.
We work in fractions of a millimeter. Fairly precise work. Five seconds, about one distracted thought away from disaster. No speakerphone calls, please. Cello bridges, there is more room for error. But getting the bridge shaped to sit plumb on the cello top? A bit more work.
After doing a few by eye, I lust for an edge. A third hand. A bridge jig. When the right job came in, we turned, naturally, to Juzek, the American manufacturer of fine luthier tools. Off to the Performing Arts high school for summer session with a dozen cellos. Juzek again turns out a valedictorian performance. Our cello bridge feet come out square and plumb. Quite the time saver!
That other tool? A leg spreader. Not used with violin bridges but for the cello bridge, quite necessary. The leg spreader simulates what happens to the cello bridge when the pressure of the strings are upon it.
SINCE 1932, if you can visualize it, they can make it. When the Frank Lloyd Wright organization wanted to reproduce their Waterlilies Art Glass as a tapestry throw, they turned to MWW, Inc. You’d think custom woven would be expensive? This is what MWW does, they do it efficiently, beautifully, and the product ends up priced to be bought, not languish on bookstore shelves. From Hendersonville, North Carolina, MWW brings textile, home decor, and gift solutions throughout America and across the globe!
There are no pictures on the walls. A smile from our guide. Yes, Mr. Wright thought the architecture, the wall itself, was art enough. Expansion, contraction. Counterpoint. Music in geometry. 6th Century poet. Welsh ancestors. So much information, flowing like water.
Frank Lloyd Wright practiced his trade up until his last year (d.1959), leaving several projects to his apprentices. Five of those apprentices still live onsite in dorms built when Taliesin West (pronounced “Tally-essen”) was the western hub of Mr. Wright’s practice. This is where he worked six months a year. Where everyone lived. If you take a 2-week or 2-month course of study at the School of Architecture at Taliesin, this is where you will live. Heck, go full boat. The comprehensive program towards a professional Master of Architecture (M.Arch). Have a family? No problem. Onsite apartments for the husband (or wife) and kids are available.
I took the basic Insights Tour. The first tour of their new 8:45am time slot on a Friday. A perfect May day in the desert. Bees enjoying the spray from tumbling water. A heck of an informed, passionate tour guide. The eastern horizon dropping below the sun, just as Mr. Wright saw it. The surrounding few hundred acres looks just as it did in FLW’s time. Beyond, much new construction. Viewing the Papago Mountains and Camelback, power lines obstruct our view. What would Frank have said? He did say, actually.
Of the nearby power lines, which so disturbed Wright that he wrote to President Truman requesting that they be placed underground. When Truman refused, saying it would create a precedent, Wright replied: “I have been creating precedents all my life.” – from an article by Thomas Swick, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Returning to Jim Sudal‘s pottery gallery in Old Town Scottsdale, we find a fresh line of creation. Pine trees in his signature style, his mastery of line and movement, across bowls. And vases. Candle holders and more! We immediately recall parking the RV beneath towering pines of The Arboretum at Flagstaff. The sight and sound of these towering creatures. As Jim intended. (See The American Road Trip) Thanks for bringing it back, Jim!
His new design was created to adorn a wedding gift to friends marrying in Flagstaff. So, the very pines I imagined were the inspiration for the new motif? Yes! Naturally, everyone wanted a copy. The agaves are not gone, nor pushed aside. Complemented? Naturally!
Micro Woodcarving Tools
Since 1937 U.J. Ramelson of Newark, New Jersey, has been satisfying a niche unassaulted by cheap copies. They make perfectly engineered micro-chisels at a reasonable price. Good steel, reliable handles. East to sharpen, easy to customize.
The prize-winning carved mallard decoy? That amazing dollhouse display in the church basement? Lifelike figurines for your nieces and nephews? Ramelson likely had a hand ~ in giving you a hand.
While most instrument makers may consider a ½” or possibly a ⅜” chisel as small as they’d require, these Ramelsons are made far smaller. My 2.0mm and 3.0mm sets have proven themselves, scraping and shaving me out of a jam, adding just the bit of grace for which customers look.
Romance, Arkansas From the beginning Man has used animal hides to improve his life. The Art of Tanning is developed. Jerkins, leggings, boots, gloves, satchels, and iPhone cases quickly follow. The best of crafters are elusive. These crafters bridge income disparities, turn trade to hobby and back again, set down needle and thread when returning to a previous career or duty. Full-time production shops? Not the same as a one- or two- person operation. When you find a stand-out product, stock up for a lifetime of gift-giving!
A year back we covered the work of Michael Hicks Design, when they created the perfect minimalist wallet. A business card case which accommodates my DL & CC, CIA ident’, and all-hours White House Pass. Very handy bit of stitching, thin as a whisker. Now a year old, hardly broken in at all!
With growing nephews sprouting like summer corn, I figure to start them out right in their early teens, and present another favorite after college. Stack’o’leather, please, Mike!
Ro-Ark Leather obliged and made me eleven different bifold card cases. I chose seven. The fun is just beginning. I’ll get the two boys to choose their favorites in turn. Years down the roads, these adolescent decisions will come back to them as milestone gifts.
More information please. From cross country, a clear polite request. Her gentle Oklahoma accent could not mask underlying confusion. Even Aunt Flo knew I was using my chisel the wrong way. Time to change the conversation!
For several years violins have been coming across the table. In common with many? A misfitted fingerboard. Askew, misshapen, wrongly sized, they were permitted a challenged existence because I lacked tools and knowledge. One day I scraped away a blemish upon the ebony and discovered . . .
Ebony shaves nicely. It scrapes even better. With some lost cause violins on hand, I experimented with the sharpest edge I had, the side of my freshly honed Buck Bros. chisel. After a month of chisel abuse, the tool-sharpening guy was incredulous, cursing in his native manner. I knew it was bad from his furrowed brow, disrespect for his sharpened edges. Enough of my luthiery antics! Doing the unthinkable, I consult an expert. And found the right scraping tool was only a few dollars away.
Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event folks were in town, had the scrapers, allowed me hands-on examination, and provided sacrificial hardwoods – which I reduced to scrapings. They demonstrated sharpening and honing. For less than a Jackson, a pair of Lie-Nielsen scrapers in two gauges, delivered to my door.
We now achieve Top Hat performances, thinning new fingerboards by plane and scraping a smooth correct radius. The fun part? A final scraping of the neck / fingerboard seam. Two woods meeting so closely together, they feel like one. After a bit of love and caressing. From Lie-Nielsen.
When it was time to shave boxwood bushings whisker-close on an 1880s pegbox, advice was sought. Spending other people’s money has never been a problem for my circle of advisors. All manner of chisel manufacturers were recommended. I settled for a couple of used Buck Bros. chisels brought back to lovely health by a pro.
Months later, I learn craftsperson Jayne Henderson had visited a Maine manufacturer recommended by my acquaintances. Even better, a hand tool demonstration at Independence Seaport Museum, Penn’s Landing, will feature these Lie-Nielsen tools. Perfect timing, as we want additional guidance on wood planes and sharpening techniques.
Lie-Nielsen sent their crack team of cabinet makers / salesmen to Philadelphia. Examples, answers, explanations, it flowed with an easy pace. Two items of immediate interest: use of a scraper, and sharpening a hand plane blade.
A scraper is a thin flat piece of steel with a sharply squared edge. One can scrape the thinnest shavings of wood with such a tool. The answer to my use question moved to sharpening the scraper, truing its edge. A crowd quickly gathered as the representative covered the simple technique of producing the correct scraper edge. Guess it was not only me wanting help!
In covering planes I might purchase for general use repairing instruments, it also came back to care of the blade. The Lie-Nielsen honing guide is the nicest piece of sharpening equipment in the business. After the demonstration plane had its blade sharpened, staff was removing hair-thin wisps of ribbon from a block of maple. The wood was left mirror-smooth. Amazing!
Their chisels? $55 buys you the nicest wood chisel in the world. The feel is heavenly, the machining impeccable, and the quality of the metal, unbeatable.
Luxury items or wood shop essentials? Maybe both, but it’s a tool you’ll have the rest of your life. I bought the scrapers. Next big job, a Lie-Nielsen hand plane, a chisel, and sharpening tools are joining the bench!
The ideal violin neck is subjective. It changes as you grow, develop, and mature. Perfect today is old hat tomorrow. The neck itself moves, as does the fingerboard. Not as quickly as our tastes but more like a painting of a slow tortoise.
The fingerboard is shaped with a radius across it’s width. The other direction, parallel with the strings, looks flat. But it is actually curved. String height is so low on a violin that without longitudinal concavity – the fingerboard’s scoop – vibrating strings would buzz against the fingerboard.
When a favored fiddler’s favorite fingerboard appeared beyond flat, clearly convex along its length, it was time to learn the art of the scoop. After chipping up a few natty practice fingerboards, I tried a good one. It was easier. Quality wood shaves more cleanly. “Scraping” of the fingerboard was performed. Seemingly random, together the strokes produced a concave surface to the fingerboard. Nearly flat along the high E edge. Visually pronounced along the low G. Gradations in between. Finally, comparison of the newly scooped violin fingerboard with my Products Engineering Corporation straight edge. Convex no more. Just the right amount of concavity.
After the scraping comes the sanding. Dusty thirsty work with multiple grits of scratch cloth. 220, 320, 400, 600, 800, 1,000. The glossy finish I want? The easy way is to dump sealer over it, a thick polymer coating. But tradition prefers bare wood. We scraped and sanded the old sealer off the fingerboard during the scooping. The reshaped wood now prefers special attention. The musician wants skin-smooth wood under their fingertips. A natural shine is wanted.
Micro Mesh makes it easy. With products developed for fine art restoration, our slat of century-old ebony is no challenge. Working up through the colored grits, the wood begins gleaming at about 6,000 grit. But do we stop? No! All the way to 12,000 grit, buffing like the best Park Avenue manicurist. The wood shines!
We started using Micro Mesh Buffing Sticks a few years back, touching up a bit of mandolin here and there. Then discovered an ebony violin nut can be made to shine. After a few more fingerboard refurbishments, we’re sold on Micro Mesh. Fingerboard sealers we’ll save for fretted instruments. All of our fine stringed instrument fingerboards are going out the door bare wood shining. Sparkling like Eve’s smile ≈≈≈
When it’s time to booze up, we have many choices. Clyde stocks gallons of generic hooch. With adult-proof lid, can rust, and drippy spout, we may buy in desperation or ignorance but regret our choice. Acquire in haste, repent in leisure.
We’re dabbling into the arcane world of spirit varnishes and stains. After the tool sharpening guy from Southern Italy insulted me, it’s likely I’ve transcended the hobbyist. Genuine need for solvent worthy of a professional spurs investigation.
Internet research brings to mind Fido chasing his tail. More opinions than the autumn leaves we crunch across during an evening stroll. To filter flow & clarify consumption, we contact National Finishes Expert Phillip Pritchard and confirm what we suspect. Hunches are backed with facts. Myths dispelled. When it is time to get our Varnish On, there is only one choice. The professional choice. Behkol.
We ask Phillip the advantages of Behlen spirit solvent over 190 proof hooch or hardware store quality denatured alcohol, when working with spirit varnishes. We cannot possibly paraphrase Phillip’s wisdom; an excellent quote you will have! – ATB
190 PROOF HOOCH IS 95% ethanol and 5% water. It is designed for drinking purposes, best enjoyed after applying your finish. Off the shelf denatured alcohol, sold primarily as a cleaning solvent, is a high concentration of ethanol and enough denaturant to prevent human consumption. Alcohol is hydroscopic and naturally draws water from the environment; in a general purpose cleaning solvent it should pose no harm but there’s no telling how much water it contains.
Behlen Behkol Solvent also contains a high concentration of ethanol, but it’s carefully sourced and controlled for minimal water content. The denaturant used is less toxic than other common choices. We add a stabilizing solvent to provide a greater shelf life for your dissolved shellac. All solvents used in Behkol are alcohols and are carefully selected for better shellac compatibility. This does add cost to Behkol Solvent, but it is purposely formulated for use as a shellac solvent, eliminates solvent related issues and provides higher performance when finishing with shellac. – Phillip Pritchard
The 1860s violin had a rough life. Through celebration and funeral, joy and woe, work and pleasure, countless songs found voice. Probably a trade instrument, sold to one of the trade musicians who supplied background, accompaniment, and main attractions before radio.
First to a right-handed player and later to a southpaw, a well-penciled calendar kept this fiddle busy for decades. At some point, perhaps in the 1920s, the peg box could take no more abuse. Donated to a church, and into a closet it rested, used as backup to the backup.
Neighborhoods change. The church moved. At their giant rummage sale this gem made its way onto a long folding table covered with relics. Purchased and sold yet again, changing hands from New England into the Keystone was a welcome destiny. This time not to play second fiddle. She is getting the full spa treatment!
Everything looks wrong for this wandering minstrel, but she has backbone and spunk. Incense wafts from the f-holes, Alma Pané informs me. Hmmmmm! Mystery solved? As I ream the peg holes to round, the intriguing smell released from its wood finally explained ~ ~
She’s getting peg hole bushings. I ream the peg holes back to round, insert and glue fitted boxwood peg hole bushings into the holes, and cut them flush with the peg box. Then the bushings get drilled and reamed for new pegs. A lovely experience for any fiddle, the excitement of momentarily returning to life as a violin! But those protrusions of extra bushing are not going to surrender placement without a fight.
Just in time, I discover Zona and their lovely razor saws. With this precision blade I’m able to safely cut within a couple hundredths of the peg box. Far less wood to slice away with my chisel. Papa always said, “Stick with what you’re good at”. I’m better at cutting wood than shaving wood, so there you go!
1860 nears completion. With D’Addario 4/4 Helicore Low Tension strings, 1860 will again be kicking up the hootenanny and serenading lovers, young and old.
LITTLE DEER ISLE, MAINE Generational downsizing had Jeff moving fiddles. In the right place, I acquired a Johann Baptist Schweitzer Copy of 1813 in rare good condition. Down the Eastern Seaboard the Baptist (bap•TEEST) was shipped. To Pennsylvania for mild refurbishment, strings, set-up, then further south to William in Georgia. Its stop-over proved to be more than a quick pat on the back. The pegbox was wonky.
While this instrument may have been made for 1:20 taper pegs, someone had later used modern 1:30 taper pegs. The new standard has provided superior tuning performance and pegbox health since its inception about 1900. This narrower peg, however, will not fit simply by “shoving it in as hard as you can”.
In a fog, flummoxed by ratios and angles, we turn to two of the best luthiers and mathematicians in the world for answers. The question, “What’s the difference?”
From Ontario: Basic trigonometry gives tan(angle)=rise/run. The angle is then inverse tan(rise/run), which gives an angle of 87.14 degrees. The compliment is 2.86 degrees. Thus, your 1:20 reamer is 2.86 degrees. – Charles Tauber
Not to be outdone, we’re gifted the link to a “Taper & Angle Calculation” program from a reader in Tatamagouche, the village in Nova Scotia. A 1:30 taper is scarcely larger, 3.33%
Closer examination reveals it is no big deal. With existing peg hole damage, it’s not even six-of-one, half-a-dozen of the other. We’re saved the expense, for now, of an imported Old World specialty reamer. Bill is still waiting in Georgia; lead time leaps forward. My domestic Juzek 1:30 tapered reamer with three straight cutting flutes works perfectly. The Juzek peg shaver (USA production with some imported parts) produces both blisters and perfect pegs. A little pool cue chalk on the peg surfaces, along with D’Addario Kaplan Amo strings, completes the job.
Steve Fields played the finished restoration at Woodside Creamery Farm yesterday. He pronounces the effort, “Perfect!” Another All-Smiles-Day!
It all started in March while visiting Wintergrass, the Wilmington Delaware Bluegrass Festival. A fella had a mandolin of pure line. Shapely neck and smooth body. Her voice! Golden, well articulated, clear, and rich. Sharp when required. Clearly an effort from one of the best finishing schools!
Off we went to see where she was born, meet her parents. The York Pennsylvania studio of Bluett Brothers Violins. Chris Bluett (blu•ETTE) proudly shows me around his latest, a clean F-body mandolin with intricate headstock, the violin in progress, a few guitars from earlier years there for a visit.
Chris has been making instruments his entire adult life. It takes more than skill and an understanding supportive wife. It takes dedication and respect for the craft. Born into every instrument. A tradition he proudly supports through an active apprentice program. Chris Bluett, carrying the torch.
His world is clay. But to us, he is rock. Rock Star of the pottery world Jim Sudal continues to amaze. While other artists rest at their benches, content to watch understudies handle production and reproduction, Jim continues to design and produce.
Careless for my own safety, I venture another visit. Pushing into hordes ten deep, from screaming jumping teenagers to powdered octogenarians, I secure two tables for local friends. Perfect for the patio, outside or in.
A few wall tiles completes my purchasing experience. There is something for everyone. It is always a pleasure giving my hard-earned money to Jim. Because he earns it!
Jim Sudal Ceramic Design 7037 E 1st Ave Scottsdale
There is always a story behind the story. Smells of clean sweat and grass at twilight on the ball field. Echoes of Widow Baxter next door reciting her daily Rosary. Seeing the bent man uptown most days as he stops to gaze wistfully at an old mansion just off Main Street.
Every guitar tells a story. One glance at an old guitar speaks volumes. Years later, a few strums can recall times past. Adolescence. High school. Slow afternoons at the feed depot. Waiting for an infant’s birth, dropping your guitar by the fence to run inside at the newborn’s first cry.
Even before high school, I knew my cousin’s Gibson was special. It sounded better than guitars on the records he played. Jeff claimed he bought his guitar from Keith Richards; Aunt Joan said it was her father’s guitar.
The clocks’ century hand has now completed a quick four decade sweep. I find myself before a WALL of Gibsons! At the finest music store this side of Planet Earth, Acoustic Vibes Music. Some of these sound exactly like Jeff’s guitar. But that was years and years ago …. How did Gibson make a new guitar sound like an old guitar? Investigation time!
Repeated visits to AVM, I enter Room Gibson and sample each of twenty-two on display. A plush Cadillac with the sleeper screaming motor, the soft cowboy crooner, a punchy piece that looks 80 years old … and sounds it! The Vintage series Gibsons receive a proprietary Thermo Cured top – well worth 25% more. No doubt, Gibson has made an amazing return to top-flight build quality from near bankruptcy in the 1980s.
After playing all these guitars, to which do I return? An unlikely mating for a man convinced a smaller-bodied short scale acoustic would be his one and only guitar love. The Super Jumbo body of the SJ-200 is a perfect fit, with curves in all the right places. The SJ-200 Vintage has the tone I can grow old with.
The SJ-200, like all my favorite artists played from the ’40s to now. Now with a premium Vintage top. The Adirondack red spruce top is Thermally Aged giving the look and sound of a seasoned SJ-200. The SJ-200 Vintage is my pick!
Tight body, no doubt. In the silent Gibson Room, I can feel the guitar coming to tune via harmonics between adjacent strings. As tones oscillate closer toward unison, Gibson build quality becomes unmistakable. Solid guitar, solid tone. With sound so clear, so crisp and exact, you’ll think you’re in a studio atop two million in equipment, recording your next Platinum Record. The one that should have been.
Ray Whitley went to Gibson in 1937. He asked Gibson to create their biggest acoustic guitar. It was given the name Super Jumbo or J-200.
Wartrace, Tennessee Stephen Gallagher’s 2002 GMC Duramax ignored the horse trailer behind it. 368,000 miles, and just getting started. Another customer delivery for Mr Gallagher. Grandson of J.W. Gallagher and heir to a guitar-making dynasty, Stephen splits his time between family, horses, pushing livestock with Waylon, and building some of this country’s finest guitars.
J.W. Gallagher, with only a 7th grade education, was the smartest man in the country. When the Army gave him an intelligence test in the 1930s his result was so high the Army gave it to him again. J.W. scored perfect the second time. He went on to spend his military hitch learning everything he could about everything. Engines, construction, woodworking, machinery, everything.
Slingerland, the percussion company, asked J.W. to set up a guitar production line in 1963. J.W. had a history of reproducing any bit of woodwork necessary; he promptly cut a dreadnought in half to figure it out. J.W. soon applied a second element, that of physics – sound and vibration. He went on to build his own line of acoustic guitars.
J.W. Gallagher never intended to own a large guitar-making concern. Family lore has it that 1,000 units was his goal; he had so many other interests, he once plainly told a customer a special order guitar was not done because there was a river full of fish nearby just waiting to get caught.
But continue and prosper it did! The famous Doc Watson received a Gallagher early on; in 1974, Doc made a request for a different shaped neck. The result is a guitar named after him, and a Gallagher best seller.
What brought on my new fascination with Gallagher guitars? After spying an image of James King on the D’Addario twitter feed, I ask the bluegrass circle of his attractive guitar. Turns out, Gallagher guitars have been nearby all my life, as close as my turntable and stack of Doc Watson records! I had to find one of these guitars …
We visit the finest music store west of our Atlantic seaboard, the inimitable Acoustic Vibes Music. Jeff Looker has two Gallagher guitars in stock, including a Doc Watson model. Over several visits I become acquainted. First impressions? Very solid. Durable. Not a dainty boutique guitar; rather, built for tone, year after year. Decades of on-the-road touring? This is the guitar you want. Reminded me of an old Gibson I played years ago …
A guitar of persuasive warmth, the Gallagher is a picker’s delight. A clear, mellow bass, uncluttered of unpure tone, accompanying a punchy upper end. As J.W. Gallagher’s website puts it, you get a deep bottom end perfect for playing those hard G runs. Which I love ❤ to do! From Tyler Grant, flat picker extraordinaire, the Gallagher is a perfect country guitar … not pop country, but an old country blues.
I begin with a typical bluegrass rhythm, an alternating bass in front of a strum. With clear full tone, the room disappears, I’m on stage, the Gallagher is doing all the talking.
“Gallagher is a builder in the great tradition of independent luthiers, that were way ahead of their time. Before Taylor and Collings and Santa Cruz hit the map, Gallagher was building guitars that rivaled the mainstays of Gibson and Martin. Notables such as Doc Watson were early adopters of the Gallagher “mojo” that still provides an appealing choice for guitarists around the world.” – Jeff Looker
With little keeping me from a custom Gallagher order, I email 3rd generation Stephen Gallagher to enquire, “Can you make a 000 short scale Doc Watson model?” I’m surprised to get a call back so quickly, not about the order, but with additional information for this article. Thanks, Stephen!
A few tidbits: On the headstock is a stylized “G” for Gallagher? That Olde English G came from the Shelby Times Gazette newspaper … pre-internet. The Gallagher headstock design is called a French Curve. J.W. was looking for something original. This simple design spied on an obituary spawned another weekly installment of American Toolbox!
At the time, it was unneeded by me. In a drawer it sat until my decades-old wallet was deconstructing. Out of the drawer, loaded with a thin stack of plastic and business cards, with cash folded between, this Bosca became the perfect minimalist wallet. Fine leather, super thin. Easily a $90 bifold card case.
But when this “wallet” can no longer take daily abuse, I find it is no longer manufactured! Bosca now does all their assembly in Asia. Thank you, no. My American cash is more comfortable in an American wallet.
Michael Hicks Design
Within the orbit of American Toolbox the right craftsperson enters. Michael Hicks Design, starting up his leather craft business in ernest, listens to my needs. Offers multiple combinations of the finest ¾ oz Horween Chromexcel horse leather. Sends a couple sample card cases for comment. In no time, the finished product. How timely!
The USA-made Bosca, no longer available, gave a final rip along the seams mid-week. Without hesitation, my gear slipped into the Hicks. A perfect fit. This card case / wallet will work forever. Plus, it is completely recraftable. Like my Aldens.
Ah, Memphis . . . Barbecue & Blues. Birthplace of Rock’n’Roll. Home of the world leader of premium components for HVAC, plumbing and industrial solutions. – mueller
When the weekend call echoed through our cavernous studio workshop, we dropped our tools of invention and focused. An ice bin drain had to be installed right away! I turned to the leaders in copper fittings, Mueller. A quick trip to the BigBox home improvement center later, I was in direct ownership of a small expensive box of precision copper parts. Exactly what we need to look again like the pros we profess to be.
An hour later, Joanna’s brand new ice bin sports a brand new melt-water drain. The copper tubing is L-grade, far heavier than we need for this application. The fittings? Pressure-grade. All for a gravity drain of 18″ developed length. The entire assembly we will give a 1,000 year warranty.
Aug 11, 2015 – Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump
AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
Thousands of years ago Neanderthals used animal glues in their paints to guard their works from moisture. ◊ As pyramids rose from northern Africa, craftsmen used animal glue in casket assembly for their Egyptian Pharaohs. Since the 16th century, hide glue has been used in construction of violins.
Why so popular? Can’t speak for all. For luthiers, exceptional sheer vs. tensile vs. brittle strength make hide glue perfect for exacting requirements. Modern technology has not synthesized an improvement. Baring government mandate, what is not broken will hopefully not be fixed.
Shortly after instruments appeared on my front stoop, it became apparent the small jar of hide glue gifted by a violin technician would soon empty. Every instrument, nearly, had some top separation. Were they all faulty? No. A violin top is glued as close to failure as possible. Humidity and temperature alter the shape of a violin. You want a top to detach from ribs (sides) rather than remain firmly glued, which would lead to a cracked top.
Behlen has a proven track record with ATB with their stringed instrument lacquer. Research shows Behlen hide glue the most popular and trusted. We ordered the gold standard of granular hide glues. Following directions on the can, failure became familiarity. Success followed. Advice from David brought it all together. The Goldilocks Principle. Not too thick, not too thin. Just right. Temperature has a lot to do with it. A digital thermometer is most helpful, in lieu of an actual “glue pot”.
Special thanks to David Michie Violins, 1714 Locust St, Philadelphia, for their donation of older-style cello clamps pictured below.
OVER ONE YEAR HAS PASSED since our seminal article on Acoustic Vibes Music of Tempe AZ. What has Jeff Looker been up to? “I need to order more mandolins”, says he, standing in front of the largest selection of high-end mandolins in North American. Right next to the new Gibson display. His agenda, to the layman, seems to be Buy Buy! BUY!
Direct from manufacturers, Jeff Looker continues to purchase the finest acoustic instruments made in America. Supporting smaller shops by giving their product exposure. A steady turnover of production from the larger players. First name basis with all the owners. Familiarity with his competition, which they are not. Not competitors, but friends, mentors, peers, proteges, fellow enthusiasts in the tradition and innovation of American guitarmaking.
Where else could one find three custom Collings MT2 mandolins? SIX Martin 000 guitars may be uncommon to stock. Except FIVE of these are from the Martin Custom Shop, special-ordered by Jeff himself. Everything is ordered by Jeff. He’s running the train. It keeps pulling into the station with more and more inventory from American manufacturers.
A goal without a plan is a dream. Jeff’s goal is to have the finest acoustic instrument shop in America. What started as an order for six Santa Cruz guitars almost a decade ago has become the best-stocked high-end acoustic guitar shop in the Western Hemisphere. Add in mandolins ∆ and banjos, and you’ve got the premier Destination Music Shop of The Americas.
ANOTHER CENTENARIAN VIOLIN slipped through my door unannounced. Laying its problems before me, 50 years of neglect somehow became acute urgency for repair. Various needs, however, are becoming easier to remedy. Our first order of business? Removing old glue somewhat improperly applied here and there.
Taking a queue from my favorite dental hygienist, I’ve secured the same tools she uses to clean my teeth. It began with a damaged curette, no longer suitable for gentle subgingival cleansing. Within a few years, I had a handful of different shapes and sizes. One thing I noticed? All were stamped Made In U.S.A. on the handles.
Why the local dental group practices exclusively with USA-made dental curettes? Word never filtered back before press time, but it is gratifying to know America is competitive in small precision surgical tools. Perhaps our fixation with a nice smile keeps the USA at the forefront of dental hygiene?
There are two main curette types. 1] A universal Columbia curette. 2] The c. 1940s Gracey curette, invented by Dr Clayton Gracey with the help of Hugo Friedman. A Gracey curette has a lower cutting edge and an upper non-cutting edge. I find the Gracey ideal for cutting glue off delicate wood surfaces.
~ Both ~
FROM AN ARTIST WHO’S MOST prominent exposure to art may have been Philadelphia Zoo sculptures Coiled Snake (Ahron Ben-Shmuel), or perhaps the Black Coopersburg granite Bear and Her Cub (Joseph J. Greenberg), comes this carved wood item. A favorite of the kids, this piece has been located near the children’s area of Pat Graham’s book store for the last 15 years. Absent for a time, Both is now back, having completed an exhibition in Scottsdale.
A history of Martin Guitars could occupy a book. It already has, actually. Several. A great Wikipedia article as well. Colonial Lehigh Valley, religion, 19th century European trade unions, and freedom all combine into a tasty story. Truly exceptional guitars was the result.
Our bluegrass circle in Hockessin can sometimes boast 90% Martins. Fantastic flat picking guitars; everyone wants one. Plenty of bass, always a clear tone. One of the most consistently good instruments on the market. Anything you play sounds better on a Martin. The mind is a stage, and all the world an audience – Cicero
Whenever within 200 miles of Acoustic Vibes Music, I make a point to revisit the best crop coming out of a mostly agrarian area in Pennsylvania, three walls of Martin Guitars. My wallet has thus far stayed in the pocket, but I’m only three or four thousand dollars from a guitar of my dreams.
Here is one of my favorites: OM28. Sitka Top, Solid East Indian Rosewood Back & Sides. 25.4″ Scale, 14-Fret. Grover Vintage Nickel Button Tuners. Thanks, Kathryn, for great pictures!
EVERY FEBRUARY, PETE CLOSES his tailor shop and heads to Greece. Every year he says, “I’ve got to get you my bouzouki, Jim. It needs your attention.” The strings buzz at its 8th fret and up from worn frets. But he never actually gives me his instrument. Until this year.
He opens the case and again explains what he wants, repeating those three magic words every luthier wants to hear, “Whatever you think is best.” Doesn’t he know my favorite Oscar Wilde quote? Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.
“Pete, what about this big crack on top?” Pete had never noticed a clean 6″ crack through its white spruce top. It gets worse. A second top rack. The 12″ separation among its sfendamos side ribs plus a 6″ opening further toward the back. A casualty of a major συμπόσιον; someone must have gotten pretty well knocked on their head with Pete’s bouzouki!
Big jobs are nothing but a collection of small jobs. But after all that gluing and sanding, it’s clear Pete’s bouzouki will want its top refinished. Lacking a spray booth and years of experience, I turn to a name luthiers have trusted for decades. Behlen. I ordered their spray lacquer, prepared the top, and before you know it, I have Pete’s bouzouki on its way to looking like it came out of the Borgada Spa!
A few holes in my knowledge base are quickly plugged. Phillip Pritchard, Mohawk Finishing Products Technical Service Representative, has just returned my call. With his gentle North Carolina accent, he seems respectful even of the nitrocellulose lacquer of which we speak. Phillip’s insights into scuffing, sanding, buffing, polishing, the “Cut & Rub”, are so comprehensive, we link to his reply email.
American Toolbox has restored several instrument, notably Hugh’s Collings mandolin & Santa Cruz guitar, several Guild guitars, a few others. Pete’s bouzouki has been more complicated. Not as hard as Steve Field’s Joh. Bapt. Schweitzer 1813 violin, but major enough. Thanks, Behlen! You made me look like a pro!
Special thanks to Jayne Henderson for her advice and guidance.
Scottsdale Arizona is one of my favorite towns in America. Residents take care of their properties, the streets are clean, and there is plenty of shopping. Old Town Scottsdale is their “downtown”, where one could lose themselves for a day. Some stay a lifetime.
One of my favorite areas is First Avenue west of Scottsdale Blvd. Grimaldi’s Coal Fired Pizzeria. Arcadia Farms Cafe. The studio & gallery of world-renowned potter, Jim Sudal.
Jim’s life has had its bumps and turns. Several albums worth, as a blues musician would say. But with redemption comes discovery; Jim’s work is now at the forefront of artistic creation.
Jim Sudal is well-known throughout the Southwest for his desert inspired ceramics and pottery which is exceptionally unique in the world of ceramics. His work reflects the beauty of the desert landscape through vibrant, garden-inspired colors and well-known imagery such as prickly pears, blooming aloes, and his signature design – the agave. – Jim Sudal Ceramic Design
Playing the SCGC True Acoustic Bass is the most fun I’ve had in ages. This instrument has been made specifically for me. Like a bespoke suit. Did Carolyn visit in my sleep to get measurements, or was I dreaming? Literally, a perfect fit.
Absolutely superb craftsmanship. Supreme balance. Most right-hand guitars work best on my left knee. But this 46″ beauty sits naturally on my right. Even with a massive scale length, it does not feel like its headstock is sticking out in the next room. Large guitar, yes. But not a box on your lap. Rather, a carefully crafted piece of acoustic art. Intimate. Sexy. Persuasive. She puuuuurrrs seductively one minute. Then makes a compelling case to follow her example. Follow her lead. It is a bass player’s world, after all.
Santa Cruz Guitar Company makes one bass. One model only. There is no variation when creating your very best. As Richard puts it, “Years of field testing have refined the specifications to a 32 inch scale on a dense vintage Mahogany body with a master quality Sitka Spruce top meeting strict and specific tonal criteria”.
The bass projecting into my room, through my core, has me hooked. Can’t put her down until my fingers quit. Yep, it helps our relationship that she’s a real looker. But her character, the way she talks and acts, you can’t fake that.
Awesome photography by Ron Jones!
First, with a partner, came Big Jar Books on North 2nd Street, Philadelphia. Big Jar eventually was sold; Pat then opened Brickbat Books on South 4th, a solo-owned boutique collection.
And the story on the Benches of Brickbat? By invitation of Pat, of course.
We speak of a collection of wooden benches, platforms, and tables, all carved from lengths of 12″ x 12″ solid oak and poplar. The story, not independently verified, is that a local plumber found a pile of giant landscape ties discarded by a century-old insurance firm in West Philadelphia. Inspired hours with chainsaw, belt sander, and angle-grinder transformed some of the wood into the pictured objets d’art.
We recently handled a gorgeous custom Santa Cruz OM/PW guitar with an Alpine Moon Spruce top, Indian Rosewood back and sides, hide glue, Adirondack braces, and herringbone trim. 1 3/4″ nut width and short scale, perfect for my stubby fingers.
This guitar is easily the most well-made I’ve ever held and heard. Incredible volume, unmatched sustain, infinitely expressive. Not a hint of an out-of-place overtone.
Every millimeter of its surface is as finely crafted as humanly possible. A tiny bevel along the fingerboard edge. Fret ends triple-beveled. The inside smells like an exotic craftsman’s shop where only finest materials are used. The guitar glows.
Acquiring a Santa Cruz is like finding a perfect mate. Both are beautiful, have great personality, return unbiased love, give total commitment, and get better with age. For twice the price of a really nice diamond engagement ring, you can have both. Finding the guitar may prove easier. Santa Cruz, the investment of a lifetime.
Shout Out to Carolyn Sills, SCGC Head of Marketing, for help researching this particular special order guitar shipped to Acoustic Vibes Music. Her boss Richard Hoover, for sending us a little binding we used in refurbishing Hugh Mason’s 1991 Santa Cruz Dreadnought. As always, Jeff Looker for stocking such amazing acoustic instruments in his shop. Finally, Kathryn Butler, providing excellent photography of this fine Santa Cruz OM/PW.
An amazing gal! Outside chemistry and chemical engineering fields, how well known is she? Everyone working to make our country a safer place probably knows someone saved from grievous bodily injury through the protection of Kelvar®. But do they know its inventor?
The inventor is Stephanie L. Kwolek. She was a DuPont chemist. In the 1960s an experiment of hers came out wrong but the result was surprisingly interesting. She further examined the discovery – her team was looking for a steel replacement in radial tires – then told management. Dupont jumped all over the new material, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Kevlar®, a virtually bulletproof fiber that has saved thousands of lives, owes it’s existence to Kwolek. Kevlar® is probably best known for use in body armor, particularly bulletproof vests.
While researching the Djembe article, I learned that REMO is using Kevlar® in some of their high tension drum heads! And sure enough, like lots of Dupont inventions, this discovery has found it’s way into numerous products, from boots, gloves, and clothing, to armored vehicles, bridges, and sporting goods.
Photo Credit: The News Journal/Jennifer Corbet, via Associated Press
After all the work I put into Hugh’s MT2, I thought his problems were over. An Instrument Rescue, an intervention of sorts, had brought new hope into the floundering life of his beloved but demoralized mandolin.
Then a call comes in. “Jim, I have another project for you”. Lights and sirens, we drive over miles of dusty road, deep into county forest, to Hugh’s Shangri-La under the pines. His “new” 2001 SCGC D-Model has arrived, and is in rotation. His 1991 could now get a rest, and a little refurbishment. What was wrong?
Its top is getting a little wonky. There is a crack that stops under the bridge. Dry fingerboard, grooved frets, missing headstock binding, dirt, oils, burns, high action . . . Hugh has led yet another instrument astray. The 1991 has come to me for redemption; I shall guide it to the light.
Strings off, tuners off, deep cleaning. Level, crown, & polish the frets (Hugh’s fourth set in a dozen years, and this time, they were stainless). Pick out some glue on a top crack, reglue, sand, buff, and seal. Oil its fingerboard, install some naturally aged binding, and the tuners went back on.
With a possibly weakened top, we went with a lighter string. D’Addario EJ19 Bluegrass with the light tops and medium bottoms were perfect! The high action was no longer; we did not have to shave the bridge saddle; two strings with one pick, is the saying?
Over two decades old, D619 has amazing depth of tone, clarity, and volume. With fixed frets and settled action, Hugh again has a second Santa Cruz dreadnought on which to practice his interminable bluegrass flat picking. The ’91 definitely has a different sound than his 2001. Deeper, richer, louder. Age has its privileges; the ’91 is always senior spokesman within the bluegrass circle.
Speaking of shoes, did we mention how cheap I am regarding footwear? We discussed Alden Cordovan Loafers when my favorite $120 dress shoes fell apart after only a year. Long conversations with Kenny over leather, insoles, lining, vamps, and welts produced one firm conviction. The cheapest shoe is the best shoe. He then opened Sherman Brother’s inventory to my perusal.
Wow, what nice material! Hey, these are absolutely the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn. But Kenny, did you notice the price? $400? $600?
Who doesn’t love a great salesman! Kenny Sherman brought it all down to my level. You buy a shoe that is designed and manufactured to last years after it becomes your “favorite”. Instead of falling apart, it is just getting started. After three-to-five years, your cost is identical to an average shoe. Another year or so, and you’re MAKING MONEY! And when something fails, this shoe can be recrafted. SOLD!
After Kenny hooked me with superior dress shoes, he appealed to my vanity. “Jim, you seem the type of guy who likes wearing loafers without socks”. Yup, quietly wealthy. Tennis camp, dinner at the Club. That’s me. Who doesn’t like the feel of leather against skin? I invested in my first pair of Alden Unlined Flexwelt Loafers.
These are, literally, the closest thing to going barefoot. Your foot will sing the praises of superior American craftsmanship. New England at it’s finest! Easily surpasses their chowder! Skin soft suede. It is no wonder a Special Order of these takes months to get. Asia’s appetite for quality American shoes is voracious.
If you want a three season (four, in some locations) shoe comfortable as a fine leather glove, visit Kenny. Or someone with his passion. Get your feet accurately measured. Slip into a pair of America’s finest summer shoe. Alden’s Suede Unlined Flexwelt Loafers!
Socks? We don’t need no stinkin’ socks!
SATURDAY AFTERNOONS IN SUMMER we meet within the Arc Of Delaware at The Creamery. High octane triple-digit milk fat ice cream, fresh from their cows. A huge oak tree, where generations of bluegrass musicians have come to flat-pick their favorite guitars. When lucky, there might be a bass, Dobro, fiddle, & mandolin. If Doc is there, leave your music stand in your vehicle; a sight of one in a “Bluegrass Circle” can drive him to sputtering apoplexy.
Hugh had been dissatisfied with mandolin pickers in attendance. Unaccountably, he preferred my scratching noises on an occasionally borrowed mandolin. For the last couple of years, he has suggested I buy a mandolin and make it my preferred instrument.
Whether through generosity or impatience, this summer on a Sunday afternoon he invited me over to pick a few tunes. His home? A 1920s farmhouse deep in woods, filled with cats, surrounded by semi-tame woodland creatures who ate from Hugh’s bounty. His mandolin? A Collings MT2. His offer? Hugh would loan me his mandolin for six months; give me a chance to know a high end – $3800 – instrument.
It looked like his MT-2 had sat in a corner for years. Layers of dirt, dust, cat hair carefully impacted between its double strings. Nitrocellulose finish, originally gloss, now a hazy matte. I was surprised the District Attorney had not yet preferred criminal charges. It was, at minimum, reckless endangerment of an acoustic instrument. Hugh got lucky. This would have gone Federal, with EPA in hazmat suits. Ugg! The deluxe hardshell case by TKL may have been manger and nursery for kittens.
Decontamination began almost immediately. Strings, bridge, truss rod cover, and tailpiece were all removed. Warm soapy water prepared, a soft cloth, dipped then thoroughly wrung, was gently applied to all surfaces. The fingerboard was grimiest; my cleaning solution was replaced twice. Next, deep cleaning of its nitrocellulose finish. Acetone? TOO STRONG! Naphtha (lighter fluid)? Humm . . . to a point. But hazing and fine scratches remained.
An email to Collings customer service was promptly answered! “We use Novus 2 to remove years of dulling and build-up on our nitro finishes.” A quick hobby store purchase, and in no time, that milky haze buffed right out! Wow, the red maple sides and back shine like new! Next time the strings are off, I’ll do its select Adirondack spruce top and ebony peghead overlay. Can’t wait!
Vacation comes both to the worthy and contemptible. While ability to produce this week’s article exists, deeply rooted summer lethargy blooms upon my imagination. But all is not lost. An opportunity for a roundup of recent posts presents itself. A perfect time to spotlight American-made acoustic instruments!
A FEW WORDS ABOUT my favorite luthiers (more later this year!)
Reviews of instruments from Jeff Looker’s Acoustic Vibes Music:
Just thought I’d mention these . . .
Definitely wanted is another trip to Acoustic Vibes Music to stock up on stories & photographs. For now, we savor memories from their fantastic collection of American made acoustic instruments. And our last folder of Kathryn Butler photographs. We saved the best for last.
The Collings OM3 may have been the finest guitar I played on recent visits. Maybe it was the best value, as a barely used 2014 model. Regardless, this guitar certainly delivered the goods.
Never have I thought of a guitar as being cocky, but this Collings certainly was a rooster among Jeff’s offerings. Loud and punchy, I wouldn’t have the nerve to play a ballad upon it. A perfect neck which had a particularly solid feel turned me from novice to confident flatpicker. More accurately, the guitar is the extrovert, very sure of it’s ability to deliver confidence with every note.
Yes, I do play better on a short scale, and this OM3 SS suited my imagination perfectly. But this is no “little guitar”. Comparing the OM3 to two higher-priced acoustics, the Collings was louder and with better tone than the others. Collings. It’s not a name, it’s a sound.
We return to our series on the American-made instrument inventory of Acoustic Vibes Music. Today, a look at a dandy bit of craftsmanship from Deering. This is The Banjo I would choose if buying one for all uses, be it stage, studio, and where a banjo gets most of it’s use, outdoor bluegrass circles during the summer. Priced under two thousand dollars (2015 list $2188), the Senator does not break the wallet considering the quantity of quality oozing from every aspect.
What do I like about this Deering?
No resonator to take off (or resonator flange digging into your leg if you do remove the resonator). A banjo is usually overpoweringly loud; you’d do fine against a couple guitars, fiddle, upright bass, and mandolin without the resonator. Volume is never compensation for quality of tone, dexterity, or originality. Buy a good banjo and practice. Be confident in your playing and the authentic sound of the Deering.
Tone. This banjo sounds fantastic even to some “players” with their $4,000-$6,000 banjos. It all starts with great material, and Deering hit it right with the spun brass tone ring and violin grade 3-ply maple rim (see Deering’s Anatomy of a Banjo link if we’re talking gibberish).
Feel. The neck feels right. Slim and sexy. Real ebony fingerboard. Nickel silver frets. Deering Planetary Tuners. This banjo is screaming QUALITY QUALITY QUALITY!
Looks. Deep warm brown stained maple neck with the slim Vega shape. Nickel plated hardware. Satin Finish. Something about the metal, stained maple, and ebony fingerboard. Works great together! Heck, it triggered a strong BUYING impulse in me, before I even played a note!
Feel. Yes, we already wrote about feel. But until you sit down with the Senator, run your hands along the neck, and have a listen, these are only words. Words such as, “Wow, this feels really nice. Sounds like a banjo should, and look, Deering took the time to do a really nice finish job on the instrument”. This is one of three instruments I want when I’m ready to spend eight thousand. The other two? The Weber Bitterroot and a Bourgeois Country Boy, naturally.
◊◊◊ please, don’t forget to stretch and warm up before marathon picking engagements!
Angels’ share: The amount of alcohol which evaporates from the casks during maturation.
My thoughts came back to this phrase over and over. Angel’s share. An Angel’s share of music coming from my chosen mandolin. An Angel’s share which would go unnoticed but for the resonant room lined with dozens and dozens of high-end mandolins, guitars, banjos.
Continuing our series on the American-made instrument inventory of Acoustic Vibes Music, this week we turn our ears to WEBER FINE INSTRUMENTS of Bend, Oregon. Fortunate was I to want a truss rod adjustment on my Guild D-4 a few months back. Bernie welcomed me into the cool interior of Jeff Looker’s shop. Eventually I discover the mandolin room.
Most stores would call one or maybe two mandolins in the $800 range a high-end inventory. Jeff has a few like this; that is just the start. I had a unique opportunity to play mandolins of increasing quality (and cost) undisturbed. A dozen visits over a year sharpened my appreciation of the better instruments.
Eventually I came back to one mandolin only, a mid-priced offering (list price $3600) that fit like your favorite jeans. A spritely tone, almost etherial sometimes. Giving me happiness to play, the mandolin had energy left over to play with the instruments around me. In time, dozens of instruments were gently resonating along with the mandolin’s song. When I stop, they continue for a time. It is, I think, what heaven sounds like.
When I’m ready for an heirloom-quality instrument, increasingly it looks like I will choose the Weber F-Style Bitterroot mandolin. For looks, sound, playability, resale value, workmanship, materials, you name it. An average musician, which I am, will play better, sound better, and feel better. Well worth the investment. What cost a smile for life?
Jeff Looker had turned his retirement plan into a destination instrument shop. Hundreds of high-end acoustic guitars. Santa Cruz! Collings! Half a dozen Martin Custom Shop 000’s. A chance visit with this rare grouping kept me repeatedly occupied.
Humbly I ask Dana Bourgeois to forgive my inattention to his guitars. Not until the seventh or eighth visit did I try a Bourgeois. A simple mahogany OM short scale with Sitka spruce top. The package of options Bourgeois calls their Country Boy*. I was holding a Bourgeois Country Boy OM Short Scale.
Wow! Where have you been my whole life, darlin’?
Giddy with anticipation, the OM begins playing as soon as my hand rests upon the fingerboard. My reaction, with no hyperbole nor financial compensation: This is the finest mahogany guitar I have ever played!
“That isn’t me. What kind of trick is this?” Looking down, I’m astonished to see the guitar nearly playing itself, my fingers immediately at home on this newly met field of frets. I lean back, enjoy the music, and listen to a perfect guitar.
Country Boy sports a complete sound. Absolute balance across the spectrum. Not cocky, but confident. The tone mature, captivating. Clearly not a production-line product but a construction lovingly born of faith and imagination.
More description? OK, try this: Punchy midsection. Perfect intonation. Powerful resonance. No mud, conspicuously lacking in the usual trouble area, midrange chords up the neck. The guitar is full & open. Again, it makes me play far better than usual. My fingers move across fretboard as thought listening to someone else.
Even light groups of notes up the neck on the lower strings resonate perfectly with nary a misplaced overtone. Country Boy has soul, a perfect transcendental musical experience.
After two visits with Country Boy, I am a believer. Jeff also stocks the Adirondack top Country Boy OM, but the Sitka is the one which talks to me with gracious warmth, forever my friend.
* When Ricky Skaggs suggested the name “Country Boy” for our mahogany dreadnought, we all fell on the floor. We still wonder where he got such a great idea for a name! Admittedly, depending on which Body Style is used with this traditional combination of spruce and mahogany, you can get pretty far removed from anything remotely “country” in look and sound. Over the years we have considered changing the name but we can’t, it was a gift! – bourgeoisguitars.net
AFTER HEARING ABOUT BEDELL guitars for a few years, occasionally hearing the guitar itself, always played proudly by it’s lucky owner, I finally got myself into one of the rare handful of dealers scattered across several continents. A little stonework brought me within a mile of “Arizona’s Premier Acoustic Music Shop”. Of course we speak of Acoustic Vibes Music.
Favoring a smaller guitar, perhaps a 000 with attractive wood, my eye and hand choose the Bedell Coffee House Parlor- Natural top. PLENTY of volume from this artistic meld of wood and metal. PERFECT fretboard under my fingers. Better balance than I would have guessed, perhaps the result of a 12-fret neck? The sound was deep and full. As melodies flowed from the lower strings, clear frequency response and rich sustain greeted me with every note. Higher tones punched through with life and vigor. With a Bedell like this, I’d be ready for quiet couch time, outdoor picking with the bluegrass circle, or the stage!
Adirondack Spruce with East Indian Rosewood. Ebony fretboard. Koa binding. Everything I want in an artisan-built guitar. Recently added to my short list.
Visiting one of my favorite buildings was a treat made extra special by an exhibit of mosaics. Juried and selected by The Mosaic Society of Philadelphia, their show made the library’s hallway entrance a long, considered walk, stopping for each piece. While every work is a winner, selected for this week’s ATB Art Exposé is From The Garden, by MichelleMosaics.
A collector among collectors, Michelle repeats a mantra I’ve heard among the best of the best – if something looks interesting, keep it. A use will find it’s way to you in time. “I love working with many different materials that have caught my interest, many collected long before I began mosaicing. I may have an idea about incorporating a piece immediately, or it may take months for its use to be apparent.”
From The Garden is included in the exhibit, “Fragments, Shards and Pieces: Images in Mosaic” at Bryn Mawr’s Ludington Library in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
photos link to larger images
images taken from michelle’s website & facebook
Remember Pat Graham? Brickbat Book’s Benches? Showing Pat, decades ago, a small sculpture made from bits of castoff brass culled from discarded plumbing fixtures, he immediately named the piece Little Chap. Pat went further to suggest a whole series of Little Chap figures, made progressively larger. A project still in developmental stage.
The discarded plumbing fixtures were not sinks and toilets from the alley. These 19th century parts came from The Newport in Philadelphia. When indoor plumbing was a new thing, pieces that made up plumbing fixtures were designed to last generations. Sand-cast brass components, finished by a skilled hand. Engineering to allow decades of function with no maintenance.
The Newport was once the tallest building in Philadelphia. At five stories, the most luxurious residence available with indoor plumbing. Five story buildings remain common in older neighborhoods. Water will not flow higher without pumps. Height is limited by elevation of a reservoir. After pumps became widespread, The Newport went to nine stories. A century later, I was replacing someone’s tub drain.
Maintenance plumbing in older buildings gave me an appreciation for quality components of the late 1800s. Parts too nice to scrap were collected, shared, and occasionally refashioned into something new. Little Chap was assembled and shaped in a c.1905 garret apartment, on a door serving as a workbench. Year later a mold was made, wax copy produced, and Little Chap was cast in sterling silver. – jim s.
To celebrate a milestone event my brother wanted to give me something special. He tossed out a few suggestions. Everything seemed “here today, gone tomorrow”. I had been eying a pair of American-made hiking boots. Perfect for the asphalt jungle; better for the Appalachian Trail.
Selected among the best boot available to the committed hiker. Born from the ideals of Charles Danner in the shock of the Depression, a commitment to superior craftsmanship that lives to this day. How sturdy are they? Friends gloat over their Danners, decades old, reminiscing over their trials and trails together. “Buy once, cry once”, they chant. Boots are available for half the price, but you get what you pay for.
The trouble with really comfortable shoes and boots is that they fall apart by the time they become your favorites. Several years ago I turned to recraftable loafers by Alden. When the shoe becomes worn, back to the factory they go, where they take it apart. Alden replaces worn components, puts it together, and ship it back, feeling “like your old shoes” but looking almost new.
Danner does the same thing. Just look for the word “recraftable”. This means you are buying a product designed to be repaired, not discarded. In a business climate of planned obsolescence, you’re seeing a product the manufacturer wants you to keep forever.