Lately I’ve been thinking about consistency in the shop. Not just making a nice thing, but making a nice thing everyday, with repeatability and increased efficiency. I’ve noticed over the last few years that when I gain some time due to efficiency or greater skill, I just end up re-investing the time back into the instrument. I pretty much make a banjo uke in the same amount of time as I did 8 years ago, but the complexity and quality is much greater now. The tricky part is knowing when to start over or give up on a piece of wood. In this case, I admit that I threw away the first neck I made for this banjo and I don’t regret it. As we used to say when I worked as a stage hand: “admit it, fix it and move on.” The maple for this neck comes from Henry’s dance floor stash, the rim is made from the neck cutoffs saved from several other banjos, segmented together in a random mosaic of maple and pistachio. The pistachio fretboard, headplate and trim are from California orchards.
I was inspired to make this banjo by an old Vega style F tenor banjo that I used to play. A simple design, a comfortable size, sweet tone and loud volume. I chose the 11” rim from my five string banjos and 20” scale from my Baritone ukuleles so everything would feel familiar, although combined in a new way. This one is strung dgbe with baritone uke strings, but it would be suitable for other tunings and steel strings as well. Curly Oregon maple from Goby in Portland and the pistachio is from woodfromthewest.com. To see the specs or order, hit the models page.
This baritone sounds just as good as the last one with pistachio back and sides. It might have a little less raw power of sound, but it feels a little more elegant in the lap. It also has a more subtle color palette, featuring the more muted tones of the Wabi-sabi ideal. Old growth Port Orford Cedar, striped Myrtle and Pistachio from woodfromthewest.com and a hemlock neck salvaged from a barn in The Dalles, OR.
I love to be surprised. I picked out the wood for this one months ago, but I never took the time to really appreciate it till today. What looked like a plain spruce top ended up having multiple tiny bear claw marks that added an interesting texture to the straight grain dulcimer spruce top. I knew the pistachio back and sides were nice, but now I see how awesome they are. The multi color grafted wood is just stunning. Also, it’s dense and hard nature is perfect for reflecting the sounds from the softer spruce top. So choice. Of course, the pistachio fretboard is a winner too. The pistachio all comes from California orchards, the old growth fir neck is from a floor joist and the Sitka spruce top is salvaged from a 1960’s dulcimer maker’s stash.
It is very interesting to make a second instrument for someone because it not only has to stand on its own, but also make sense as a unit in someone’s collection. In this case, a low g was needed, so the soft wood top and hardwood back and sides was an easy choice. The amazing curly Port Orford Cedar, the Mastergrade walnut and the pistachio are all from Oregon and California, provided by woodfromthewest.com. The fir comes from an old floor joist, complete with one nail hole in the headstock. It sounds snappy but with good sustain and rich overtones, I’m quite happy with it.
There is a furniture maker/artist from Washington named Bruno Hervieux. (Normandie Woodworks) I met him because of our shared interest in old woodworking machines. I’ve recently been interested in and inspired by his furniture because of his unique use of mixed materials. These include wood, parchment, brass, straw and others. While looking at his work I realized that a banjo is also a piece of mixed media folk art, in this case brass, walnut and goat skin. A side table holds your coffee cup and a banjo makes music. It’s up to us to make them beautiful as well as functional. This banjo has curly walnut from Goby in Portland, pistachio from California orchards and a stained goat skin head.
By now, I shouldn’t be surprised by the tone of any ukulele, I’ve pretty much heard it all. I won’t say this one surprised me, I think delighted/tickled/fascinated are all better words. The maple back and sides make sure it is loud, but also offer clarity. The fir warms and rounds it up just enough. Sigh. It’s great. The fir and maple are from the Carpenter Ant stash in Portland. The spruce neck is from Camp Westwind in the Oregon coast and the pistachio is from California orchards.
These mini five string banjos have become more popular than I expected and I am still enjoying playing them, whether in open c or open g tuning. This one has a dark and growling tone, with a sweet edge to it. It comes from the combination of the low tuning, the natural skin head and the tonal quality of walnut. I also stained the skin head for the first time, using Tea and some amber dye. The walnut is from the carpenter ant stash in Portland and the pistachio is from California Orchards.
For this banjo rim, I made the block rim segments from the cutoffs leftover from making neck blanks. I purposely saw them so that each looks a little different. I also lay them out randomly so that each one is unique. It’s a nice excercise in letting go and appreciating what develops as I turn it on the lathe. For the fretboard, the customer wanted a piece of pistachio with lots of movement and color variation. They also asked for a frailing scoop, which is a cutout at the end of the fretboard to make Clawhammer technique a little easier. The walnut is from the Carpenter Ant stash in Portland and the pistachio is from California orchards. I liked this banjo so much that I made an extra video with it. See below.
For this ukulele, I was interested in exploring a muted, earth tone color palette. This was inspired by looking at both the natural world and the muted color palette associated with Wabi-Sabi inspired art/culture. The bonus is the amazing spider and web that I found in the Myrtle board, it truly is an unique musical instrument. The neck is made from old Douglas Fir floorboards while the rest of the wood came from the Oregon coast via woodfromthewest.com.
The first time I played a good, old, National resophonic guitar, I realized that it wasn’t just loud, it had a wide dynamic range. Yes, it could bark, but it could also purr. This sort of versatility is what I’m after, even with the humble banjo uke, and this one has it. The block rim pieces for the banjo rim are made from off cuts from previous banjos, hence the more random mosaic layout. Oregon walnut from the Carpenter Ant stash in Portland and Pistachio from California Orchards.
I’ve been interested lately in some of the earliest ukuleles made in Hawaii. These often included lots of inlay and marquetry, the most popular of which was the so called “rope” binding. In this case, I use alternating blocks of maple and walnut. As an homage to the old mainland version of these designs, I used some salvaged mahogany for the body and the neck. In tribute to our Oregon location, I chose walnut for the headplate, fretboard and bridge. An updated version of a classic design with my own twist in it.
Every day in the shop is a learning experience and every instrument has something to teach me. I am not perfect in my thoughts or deeds, but I try harder every day to listen to the wood, the tools and the music. Some instruments are born with no fuss, others need to make their presence known by offering more of a challenge to me. My job is to make sure that they all look and sound good at the end and all the lessons are remembered for the next uke. This tenor with a low g has great power and subtlety, is easy to play and looks beautiful. I hope it also has lessons to teach its owner. Curly walnut from Goby in Portland, salvaged hemlock neck from Portland Salvage Works and Port Orford Cedar and Pistachio from woodfromthewest.com.
This is instrument is for a friend and colleague, Ryan Kolberg, who I have played music with for several years. He mainly plays bass and guitar, so he decided on a baritone. He runs a recording studio and I think all good studios should have one of my ukes hanging around, ready to spark an idea. Curly walnut from Goby in Portland, Bearclaw Sitka spruce from Alaska, pistachio from California orchards and a salvaged Douglas fir neck from the barn at Level beer in Portland. I’m proud of the sound and look of this instrument, I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with.
This instrument is for another long time customer and student from Vancouver, WA. We hit upon the challenge of making everything on the ukulele from spruce or walnut. The wide grain Oregon spruce is from Camp Westwind, where we teach music every fall. It behaves much differently than the cold growing Alaskan spruce, but I like it on ukuleles. All the walnut is urban salvage from Goby walnut in Portland, with lots of reds, purples and browns. Overall it is a loud but warm ukulele made from local wood for a good musician. Win.
Made from pieces of wood too that are too small for my other ukes, these Scout ukuleles are a way for me to occasionally produce a more “democratic” instrument. It is portable, easy to play, invites conversation, encourages musical community and is affordable for a hand made instrument. I make them whenever I get a few spare hours in the shop. The Koa for this one is from Lizann’s grandfather, who imported it to make grandfather clocks. The Port Orford Cedar and fir are from the Oregon coast.
This curly maple from Zena Forest Products is just so awesome. The curl is great, the reddish natural color is better than any stain and it is quite hard, which produces a strong tone. I paired it with some unique pistachio from California orchards to complete the look. With materials this nice, it really pushes the boundaries of my folk art. This inspires me to work better and more accurately but also grounds me to the wood’s and my own limitations. It is off to Hawaii to live it’s own best life as a beautiful and functional object.
Just because you can play loudly, doesn’t mean you should. (Well, sometimes, maybe…). Either way, Ed will be well equipped with this one. Hard Maple from Henry’s dance floor stash and some awesome pistachio from California Orchards. Ready for music.
This one can do it all, deep and rich, bright and vibrant, loud and soft. It has so much sound it practically leaps off my lap! It is a whole different animal compared to the muddy and quiet import baritone ukuleles. The Mastergrade Myrtle back and sides really are a special piece that I have found myself staring at for long stretches of time. (Get back to work, Aaron.). The Port Orford Cedar top has blue streaks in it that I like as a subtle texture. The fir neck came from the barn at Level Beer in Portland. Everything else is from the Oregon Coast and California Central Valley via woodfromthewest.com.
It is a strange feeling to spend many years collecting “perfect” wood but watch my wabi-sabi/asymmetrical/twisted grain designs gain so much attention. I’m not complaining, but it’s a little funny to dig through the wood stash, pushing aside the “good” pieces to find something like this. This set does stand a cut above, I believe, because of the beautiful flame and curl AND the asymmetrical stance it takes. This Myrtle is from a board given to me by a customer that was left over from a furniture project. I wrapped it all up with straight grain pistachio from California Orchards and set it with a fir floorboard and walnut neck. It plays easy and sounds great. Proceed.