The Pi day label adventure

 

2015 had a very special Pi day. In a normal year, Pi day is March 14, or 3.14; pi accurate to two digits after the decimal point. This year, it was 3.1415 (March 14, 2015), good for four digits after the decimal.

However, if you append the time 9:27 you’ve got 7 digits, and if you are willing to venture into the sub-second realm you can have pi to as many digits as you like–though you’ll have to celebrate fast.

It seemed obvious that this special event called not only for a distinctive instrument, but for a special instrument label as well, which of course required research, which involved making and eating pie–excellent!

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Berry pies gave good contrast, that decision was easy, but it wasn’t easy getting the right size of pi symbol along with a nice ripple to the edge, attractive browning, and not too much overflow of filling.

This next pie yielded the photo for the label, but just a couple minutes later the pi symbols were overflowing and the pie was good only for…eating. How sad.

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Graphic designer Julie Weiss and I blended the photo with a trigonometry “unit circle” and my logo to create the label. It took many iterations to balance the photo, unit circle, and logo just right, and a few trips to the printer to get it onto a suitable paper.

Finally we had the right label. After signing and dating it, applying glue, gingerly slipping it through the soundhole and pressing it into place, I leaned back to admire the work only to notice a little problem–the wrong year. Sinking feeling, possibly some choice commentary. If only I’d had the label back on Pi day just before I closed up the body, when labels are commonly (though not always) installed. At least I’ve got the labels for future years.

Fortunately I used a reversible glue to install the label, and with a little persuasion it came back out:

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The final result, in Richard Parker, the 2015 Pi day special edition ukulele:

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Mmmmm….Pi.

A Uke named Richard Parker

 

Richard Parker?

Indeed. Richard Parker is the curiously named tiger who floats across the Pacific on a makeshift raft with Pi in the Life of Pi. The back and sides for this instrument are commonly called tiger myrtle, and this tree made one heck of a tiger!

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But there’s more. When I started building instruments, my physicist sister Colleen lobbied me to name my vast enterprise “Pi Ukuleles” or “Pi Stringed Instruments”, and put the Greek symbol for pi on the headstock. After all, it is the Greek rendering of the first letter of my name, I was a math major in college and remain something of a geek, and it’s just cool.

AND I like pie, seeking out pie places up and down the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, which by the way has remarkable pie in some highly scenic places; pear-cheddar at 10,000 feet at the Rock Creek Lake lodge, anyone? Yum!

It all seemed obvious and settled to Colleen, but I decided to use my own name and the crescent moon for even more compelling reasons, if that can be imagined. However, the idea of building a special instrument each year to celebrate Pi day–March 14 (i.e. 3.14)–was too good to pass up.

These factors converged in Richard Parker. The specs:

  • Top: bearclaw Swiss alpine spruce, with Paua abalone rosette.
  • Bracing: 3 fans and bridge patch of euro spruce, tranverses of Sitka, hide glue
  • Bridge: Palisander, with compensated bone saddle
  • Back and Sides: curly tiger myrtle
  • Binding: East Indian rosewood
  • Neck: Port Orford cedar. Ziricote headstock overlay with MOP moon logo
  • Fingerboard: ebony, with bone nut and MOP side dots
  • Finish: Nitro lacquer on top, finishing resin on body
  • tuners: Gotoh UPTL
  • tuning: currently strung with low G Worths, easily converted to re-entrant.

I love this Swiss spruce–light and stiff, it rustles at the slightest touch, rings like a bell when tapped, and is a joy to work with. The bearclaw requires extra-high sharpness for hand-planing the top, but the result is so delightful! Here’s a closer look, though it’s still better in person:

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RP has some serious go power, and will travel with us to Uke U-4 in a few weeks–Exciting!! Come and say hello if you can.

Watson

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For many years I wasn’t much for naming instruments; they were “the Les Paul”, “the mandolin”, and so forth. Then in my 40s Cecilia came about as a way to describe the desired voice of a mandolin that Steve Gilchrist was building for me; Cecilia Bartoli is a golden-voiced mezzo soprano who sings with gorgeous warmth, verve, and line. I later heard that Steve listens exclusively to bluegrass and probably didn’t know Bartoli from Madonna, but he built a spectacular instrument so it all worked out.

Now, with multiple instruments in process at once, I often name them as an amiable way to think about and discuss them with others. Watson got his name by having English walnut back and sides and a big heart.

The specs:

  • Top: Carpathian spruce. Lynn Dudenbostel describes it this way: like great Adirondack without a decades long break-in time!
  • Bracing: 3 fans and bridge patch of euro spruce, tranverses of Sitka, hide glue
  • Bridge: Macassar ebony with compensated bone saddle
  • Back and Sides: curly English walnut
  • Binding: Bolivian rosewood
  • Neck: Honduras mahogany. Ziricote headstock overlay with gold MOP moon logo
  • Fingerboard: radiused ebony, with bone nut and MOP side dots
  • Finish: oil varnish, with light shellac top coat on soundboard
  • tuners: Gotoh UPTL

This walnut is almost good enough to eat:

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It’s hard to capture in a photo, but the Carpathian top has striking silking, a term used to describe the lustrous appearance of the ray cells that cross the growth rings. Their prominence is an indication of well quarter-sawn wood.

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Watson has lived in a loving home, but his owner dreams of an orculele, so he is available on consignment and will be available to audition at Uke U-4 in Bend, or by contacting me to arrange a visit.

Uke U-4–The 4th Annual Ukulele University!

It will soon be all things ukulele in Bend, Oregon when Uke U-4 raises the roof from July 17 through 19–just a few weeks away. They have a great lineup of performers and instructors, including Sarah Maisel and Craig Chee (who just completed a new recording), Aaron and Nicole Keim (The Quiet American), Ben Bonham and Ronnie Ontiveros, Pipa Piñon, Jeff Stevens, Rhan Wilson, Rick Zeek, Cinda Johnson, and hula/uke/Hawaiian culture instructor Kumu Iwalani.

I’ll be there (with daughter and new ukulele convert Meghan) with two instruments–Richard Parker, and Watson. Further introductions in following posts. Aloha to friends of yore and those about-to-be, see you soon!

Spring 2015 preview.

Can’t resist–all of these will get posts as I catch up, but I’m so tickled I want to share them now.

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Woohoo! “Volcano” palisander on the left, with it’s bearclaw Swiss spruce top above. 2nd is the wild tiger myrtle of Richard Parker, my 2015 Pi Day instrument. It has another bearclaw Swiss spruce top (above), with a pattern that echoes the myrtle figure. 3rd is beautiful old perfectly quartersawn East Indian Rosewood with an Engelmann top (later changed to Swiss, discussed below), and finally Reynard, an amazing bit of curly mahogany, and one more Swiss top. It’s all Swiss spruce in this round, mostly moonspruce (moon-what? I need to post on that if I haven’t already).

One more (shown in a previous post, before joining the halves), African blackwood with an “orc-paint” bearclaw top:

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This blackwood works about as easily as steel, but what a tap tone.

Stretching the preview past the spring builds are these fine pieces of “firewood”:

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This is more Engelmann spruce from the early 90’s forest fire area above McCall Idaho that violin maker Kevin Prestwich is gradually harvesting and testing. I used an earlier piece on the oakulele and it was quivery good!

These trees have been standing on mountain sides drying for over 20 years. With the bark gone and the outer layers cracked from drying shrinkage, Kevin can see at a glance which trees have the straight fiber line that is ideal for an instrument top. He doesn’t stop there though; the wood is measured for responsiveness, sound transmission speed, and so forth, compared with known excellent samples, and sorted for various applications…including some actual firewood. I often like wood that some say is imperfect–“perfect” wood is not highly correlated with great tone and performance–but it’s a false economy to build instruments with every piece of wood. And it’s an old saying among woodworkers that nothing burns like nice dry furniture (or instrument) wood!

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I sawed these billets into tops back in January, and they are currently relaxing with their cousins from the southern Oregon coast, British Columbia, Switzerland, Romania, and elsewhere. It was hard to resist building one into the spring instruments, but I ultimately decided to go all Swiss in the current group to highlight the differences among the back and side woods. Maybe fall.

An instrument of dining.

Hmm…last post early November…already blamed the dog for a previous hiatus–there really isn’t anyplace to hide for the lack of posts. So what’s been happening?

My furniture making past re-appeared after I completed the oakulele last fall, in the form of a very large dining table that had been in the wings for a few years as the wood dried. The adventure started here, with local sawyer Doug Pollock walking the plank–a beautiful Oregon ash that fell across a creek in the next valley west of us.

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With a blend of calculation, artful rigging, and brute force he managed to get the log onto dry ground and cut it into pieces that could make the trip to his mill.

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Bill Storch (who built the table with me) and I oversaw the milling, mulling over how each plank might be used in the table, guessing what would appear with the next cut, and what might happen during drying and subsequent operations. The best slabs were cut 3″ thick for the top, a few were over 4″ thick for leg parts, the center rail and smaller leg parts were 2 1/2″, and wherever possible we cut spares just in case. As each cut was made we flipped the plank over to read the underside, then stacked it to the side. They were reeeaaaalllly heavy.

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Skipping over a couple years of drying, Bill and I got down to work as fall waned. Here is the final selection for the top, and you can see that even with our best guessing two years earlier, we ended up choosing a slightly thinner plank for one of the top boards. We flipped and move these porkers many times searching for the best composition, and they were still darned heavy even though they were now dry.

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There was quite a bit of carving on the base. As with instrument necks, I did this at night with a single desk lamp illuminating the work; the raking light makes even small variations in the shape jump out.

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Bill made hammer-textured steel straps for the stretcher, and we hired a couple of very strong movers to bring the top safely into the owner’s house. Everyone agreed that this table will hold up the pizza.

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Whew! What a relief that instruments are nice and light. Still, it’s fun to design and build a piece that operates at an architectural scale, where the sweat is about shear exertion rather than whether my next move will blow up a 2 millimeter thick piece of precious and irreplaceable wood!

There’s a whole lot of this tree left–anyone looking for a uke in Oregon ash?

Kidding, really…

Oak-ulele: a fashion shoot

Ed Hodney, Director of Albany Parks and Rec, came by last week to shoot pictures of the oakulele for the Lumber to Legacy auction program. It brought to mind Tina Fey’s description of photo shoots in her book Bossypants; the apparent glamour is compromised by the feeling of your extremely tight clothing popping apart in back, straining at pins and duct tape while you try to appear hip, natural, sexy, or whatever the shots call for.

The uke wasn’t 100% complete–I was freaking out–but to my great relief it doesn’t show:

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Not a safety pin in sight!

The oakulele is complete now, and the strings are settling in. After playing it and hearing a uke teacher play for me–it’s important to hear from in front as well as from the players perspective–we concluded that it sounds…juicy. The Oak/Engelmann combination (along with the zillion other choices of a build) have provided lots of resonance and sustain, a warm and legato line that would suit campanella and claw hammer playing beautifully, but with the articulation needed for sing-alongs, pop and jazzy tunes.

The auction is approaching, and we’re ready with…holy smokes, more than two days to spare! I’d better be careful, I’ll jinx it and a string will break right on the auction podium.

Heartaches and decisions

A little heartache while carving the bridge for the oakulele:

Is that a crack?
Oh, no, is that…?
Grrrr, (gnashing of teeth).  Yes, it's a crack
Grrrr, (gnashing of teeth). It’s a crack

I could stabilize that crack by filling it with CA glue or epoxy, and make it invisible–for a while at least. Over the long haul wood moves and glue ages, and the bridge is a high stress part.

Do-it-again time.

But this one is quite satisfying!
Ooh…this one is quite satisfying!

I used to get very angry over this sort of setback–how dare the wood have a crack lurking inside! However, after years of making myself calm down and re-do flawed pieces it has sunk in that the outcome richly rewards the effort, and I rarely throw the offending item across the shop any more. Building until it’s as good as I can possibly make it begets peace of mind, and provides stories of trial and tribulation to share over drinks with fellow builders! “Peace of mind”–Ha!–this deserves a post of its own; it can be very elusive when you care deeply.

And this doesn’t take away from a certain pleasure in burning the offending piece in the woodstove…after reducing it to kindling with an axe…

From Historic Oak to Uke

ca. 1791: Mozart completes The Magic Flute, Beethoven is a teenage piano virtuoso, and the final Stradivarius violin is 64 years old. The ukulele won’t exist for over 100 years, but its Portuguese ancestors are making folk music. Nearly half a world away (geographically, and worlds away culturally) an oak tree sprouts near the confluence of two rivers in a valley where the Kalapuya tribes have lived for thousands of years.

2013: that oak–over two hundred years old and witness to the entire history of Albany, Oregon–is felled to make way for a Lowe’s Home Improvement Center. Mark Azevedo of the Albany Tree Commission obtains the trees and carefully saws them into quartersawn lumber, the most stable and beautiful form for oak. Albany Parks and Recreation launches the Lumber to Legacy program to have craftspeople and artists turn this oak (and several others from the same grove) into fine work which will be auctioned to raise money for white oak habitat projects and local high school woodworking programs.

Spring 2014: Not coming up with any furniture ideas, I casually mentioned the idea of an “oak-ulele” to Mark.

Beware what you say around Mark.

And so the Hackleman Oakulele began. I travel home from the Kenagy farm–where the logs were milled and stored–with two rough long planks sticking out the window of my sedan at a crazy angle, holding them with one arm. Cars pass and drivers stare.

A few weeks later I plane the boards smooth to get a better look and start hunting for portions that will be sound, stable, and beautiful. This old tree is long on beauty but short on clean wood–only a few short sections appear suitable, and I cut them into smaller blanks to see how they respond. Some of those go wonky, but a couple nice sections remain:

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I carefully saw these into thin bookmatched pairs, then choose the nicest to become the back and sides.

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Then I let them sit around for several weeks again to see what they would do. They behaved well (thank goodness, or we’d have to start over with planks), and need only a little more refinement to prepare them for use:

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They bent like a dream.

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The sides are joined, lined, and a pretty end graft of super cool myrtle is inlaid:

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The back joins the sides in a flurry of clamps:

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The top is braced. It is made of Engelmann spruce that was killed in a fire above McCall Idaho in 1992 and seasoned on the mountainside as a standing dead tree for over 20 years. It was harvested by Kevin Prestwich, a violin maker who felt it was some of the finest wood he’d ever handled. Braced with Carpathian spruce for tonal and structural reasons, glued with hide glue for tone and repairability.

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Carving the neck using raking light to highlight the form, employing an assortment of carving chisels, planes, rasps, and files to refine the shape. While there are a few key measurements, most of the guidance comes from how it feels when held in playing position.

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Inlaying the new moon into the ziricote headstock overlay, a summer moon for this instrument. Done with a jeweler’s saw and scalpel, very low tech.

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First coat of finish on the back–really pops the figure on the oak. I use an old school finish from the golden era of Martin and Gibson – varnish, with a soft glow and great tone. While not exactly the same as a violin varnish, it is similar in being acoustically excellent, nice to the touch, and not automobile-glossy in appearance.

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Carving the bridge from ebony. Like the neck, after a few guiding saw cuts it’s all chisels and files.

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Not long now before this wood sings again!