Douglas Fir is an important wood for folks from the Pacific North West. It towers over our parks, builds our homes and is exported all over for Christmas trees. The modern, fast grown, plantation boards are wide grained and un-remarkable. The old growth has a suppressed grain, making it very strong for a soft wood and quite beautiful, in my opinion. I buy Fir salvaged from old buildings as often as I can. The Fir for this build comes from a barn in The Dalles, OR, purchased from Salvage Works in Portland. I just read on Wikipedia that Douglas Fir trees were also prized as material for Hawaiian canoes, as the logs washed up as drift wood. This bit of synchronicity gave me a chill, as I contemplate the meaning of my my career building ukuleles from this tree in Oregon. I am building from my prized local wood, just as the Hawaiians built from Koa. Yet, I prize the Koa I can manage to import from the islands, just as they prize these Fir logs. All of this is just a reminder of our local/global historical connections. This tenor uke is finished off with beautiful pistachio from California orchards and maple/walnut rope binding. A classic design I hope to keep making for folks.
When it comes to what I do, “custom” isn’t quite the correct description. I offer a few models and options and take customer input and requests, but I really make the majority of decisions. This one had a few requests that I was happy to honor and I’m glad I did. It made for a great instrument that is a little different than normal but still fits inside my values. Specifically, the customer wanted a different brand of banjo head and a brass armrest. With the K&K pickup, it is certainly stage ready. The pistachio fretboard and headplate are first class with the grain matchup and I love the big knot in the Oregon walnut neck. Pistachio is from California orchards, the walnut is from the Carpenter Ant stash in Portland.
It has been fun this past couple of years to experiment with the interaction of a basic form (a banjo uke) and the variable aesthetic qualities of the materials (walnut, pistachio, brass). Each one is a unique item that is also related by form to it’s brothers and sisters. It feels like a long term art project with each instrument another entry in the catalogue. In this case, the Oregon walnut is from the Carpenter Ant stash and includes some curl and some sap wood. The California pistachio looks plain from far away but shows beautiful detail up close. It is just like the others but is an individual as well, #359 is ready for service.
Another example of how Mastergrade Myrtle is “our” koa. It is beautiful, local and sounds great. The grain and curl on this one is one of a kind, so I wrapped it up in rope binding and paired it with straight grain pistachio and a simple spruce neck. Destined for our friend Tony, I’m sure it will be quickly put to service leading songs and jams. The Myrtle and pistachio comes from woodfromthewest.com. The spruce is from Camp Westwind on the Oregon coast.
The last instrument I made for Nicole was for our 10th wedding anniversary. It was a Mya-Moe Myrtle tenor cutaway with custom inlay. It has been all over the world since then and Nicole’s main uke. She recently asked for her own Beansprout and picked out two sets of Myrtle. I started on her uke but made a mistake and had to scrap the top. She asked to start over with the other, plainer set and it was a good thing.
This uke, like Nicole, feels strong, wise, calm and focused. Her last uke was whimsical and fun, but this better suits her and our current business/marital relationship. She is the foundation on which all of my work rests and she deserves all the love and praise in the world. This one is for her.
The striped Myrtle and pistachio comes from woodfromthewest.com. The neck is made from salvaged fir floor boards.
Making a thing is easy. Making it over and over again pushes you to not just tweak the design, but to tweak the process as well. In this case, I wanted to spend some time this winter working on the production design for my five string banjos. I had a few jigs to modify, some new templates to make, a new dedicated router setup and I needed some practice on the lathe. I was going to make a curly walnut banjo anyway, so when an order came in we all won out.
The lightly curly walnut for this one comes from urban salvage from Goby Walnut in Portland. The pistachio is from California orchards. It is lightweight but solid, sweet and rich with nice volume, suitable for many old time banjo jobs. The brass hardware comes from Brooks Masten in Portland.
For folks wondering about walnut vs maple in banjos, check out the second video below.
One of the best parts of making stock instruments to my own specs is that I get to choose woods that might be over looked by customers. These cherry back and sides are a great example of a figured hardwood that is readily available, looks beautiful and sounds great. Also, I could pick some “orphaned” slices of spruce for the top and a fretboard that needed a bit of extra work because of a natural bark inclusion. This one looks unique, sounds fantastic and fits within my ecological/economic values for wood use. Win. The spruce is old growth Sitka that my friend Steve got me from a dulcimer builder. The neck is Hemlock from a salvaged floor joist, the cherry back and sides are from Char from Mya-Moe and the pistachio is from California Orchards.
This is a special board of myrtle that came from another customer. It came to me as partial trade for her instrument and I was happy to be able to get another instrument or two from it. She bought it for a furniture project that never happened, now it gets to be an ukulele! When the top is this interesting, picking the other parts can be pretty challenging. In this case, I played it safe and left everything else straight grain and stripey. The fir neck comes from my friend’s property on Vashon Island, complete with bug holes. The pistachio comes from California Orchards.
This one really illuminates what I want Beansprout to be/do:
-Woods: All North American wood, from people I trust or salvaged from local sources. The curly Port Orford Cedar, pistachio and figured walnut come from the Oregon and California, provided by woodfromthewest.com. The fir is salvaged from factory floorboards in The Dalles, OR. The walnut and maple rope binding is made by Gurian in Seattle.
-Design: The alto size and shape is my attempt to provide an all purpose small size uke. Cute and traditional like a soprano, but a little bigger for adults to play comfortably. This simple template interacts with some asymmetrical and sculptural wood choices to make a unique but classic look
-Sound and playability: Loud but rich, with the charm of a vintage small ukulele. Easy to play all the way up the neck. Easy to keep in tune with geared tuners and ready to plug in onstage.
-Art vs Craft- Handmade with rustic details and unique wood “flaws/inclusions” but with careful craftsmanship and attention to detail. A beautiful thing that is also a useful tool.
Sorry for the mini manifesto, back to the shop.
I often wonder what our business would look like if we didn’t have the internet to supply us with customers. In this case, James is a local, so his experience might give a little insight. To begin with, this instrument was bartered for, which is hard to do long distance. Also, he came over to the shop and picked out wood, which can’t happen with every customer. Lastly, if it ever needs repair or adjustment, he can just drop by instead of having to ship it. But, if I only built banjo ukes for locals, I have a feeling I wouldn’t get to build as many!
A banjo uke made from Koa? Why not. The koa is from the Carpenter Ant Stash, from a pile of boards that Lizann’s grandfather made clocks from. The pistachio is from California Orchards. It’s going to Stephen, who has a wonderful connection with the date this uke was finished!
Sometimes, it is easy to get distracted by the many paths (and woods) we have before us. When that happens, I feel good about falling back on the tried and true, the classic designs. My four year old son Henry defines classic as “old but good” and I think he is right. In this case, a koa tenor ukulele with a mahogany neck. Super classic. I added the pistachio fretboard, headplate and trim to make it my own, but it falls squarely in line with the long tradition of Hawaiian craftsman that I sit at the feet of. Go play it, Doug, you are a true classic who deserves a classic uke.
The koa come from the Carpenter Ant stash, from the boards that Lizann’s grandfather made clocks from. The Pistachio is from California Orchards. The mahogany is salvaged from a fireplace mantle.
Lately I have been drawn to the muted tones and matching colors/textures of the Wabi-Sabi aesthetic, but for this design I was interested in exploring more visual contrasts. The old growth bear claw spruce top from Alaska Specialty Woods has a vibrant look and sound. The dynamic pistachio fretboard introduces red and green elements. The master grade myrtle back and sides from the Oregon coast (provided by woodfromthewest.com) brings a vibrant sound and whimsical texture that interacts with the green from the fretboard. The Douglas Fir neck is salvaged from floor boards and includes one nail hole to remind us of our flaws. A bit of this and a bit of that, but I love it just the same, wrapped up in rope binding.
Today we found out that poet Mary Oliver passed away, so I leave you with her words:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
I love this uke and I love the people I made it for.
About 3 years ago, I went to a cabinet maker’s estate sale one town over. His shop was a one car garage and he had no dust collector! The entire place had 12” of wood shavings and scraps on the ground. In one corner, I found a pallet of maple strips cut to 1”x3”x24” and bought them all. I should have bought the oak pallet too! When I got them home, my son Henry had fun laying them out as a dance floor in the shop. He would put a bunch out while I worked and then we would put them away when we were done. Anything to keep a little one busy, right! Having these strips already milled lets me see the grain and figure easily and quickly process them into banjo parts. A real blessing. This tenor model with a low G is all Henry’s dance floor maple and pistachio from California orchards.
I’ve been working lately to try and unify the materials for these instruments a bit more. What I mean is, the rim, neck, fretboard, headplate, etc…all get processed at different times up to three months apart. That means I have to keep track of what is what for several months of instruments at a time. Not a big deal, but it takes time, space and lots of extra wood inventory to make sure everything matches well. In this month’s case, I also am trying to make the fretboards and headplates flow together in an organic way, which also takes extra work. I think its worth it, even if no one else notices it! Walnut from the Carpenter Ant stash, pistachio from California Orchards.
This banjo is a great example of our little global business and musical culture. To begin with, it is for a customer who lives a few hours away from us but we met in Alabama at a music camp. She used to live in Hawaii and we considered grabbing some Koa from her property for the instrument before choosing Oregon walnut and California pistachio instead. The banjo is an American instrument with clear origins in West Africa. This mini version is scaled down to ukulele size, an instrument that started in Portugal and flourished in Hawaii. It was made by a guy from Wisconsin who lives in Oregon and plays Appalachian music on Hawaiian and African instruments. That is one good thing about music and musicians, we like jumping over walls better than building them.
It’s the end of 2018 and this is the last instrument to ship. Even after 10 years doing this, I still need to re-learn the lessons of my past over and over again as I progress. In education, we call this a spiral curriculum; revisiting a concept repeatedly but addressing it with new wisdom each time. In this case, the customer picked out his pistachio and cedar from woodfromthewest.com. I had a catastrophic accident when routing for binding that destroyed the back. You would think by now that this wouldn’t happen to me, but sometimes wood has a mind of its own and it doesn’t get along with rhe router. I had to scramble to pick a new back for the customer and get back on track. I heard Gordon in my head with a common lesson from my early days: “it’s better to do it right first than have to back up and do it twice.” Regardless, it was time to double down and deliver my best work, no matter what happened along the way.
In the end, I am pleased to deliver a tenor uke with good volume, rich tonality and a unique look. Made from materials I believe in with a minimum of environmental impact. Produced in my own space with hand tools and machines I have carefully collected. Destined for a musical life that I can never imagine. What a great way to spend a year.
As a maker, I am in a constant dialogue with my customer, my present self, my ambitions for the future and my past decisions. This is most clear when building a second instrument for someone. In this case, Steve Varney, who plays as Kid Reverie and with Gregory Alan Isakov, needed a second banjo. I built the first in 2011 and it reflected my skill set and capabilities at the time. Since then, I have had it back for updates and repairs as Steve has traveled the world with Gregory. His input on what he needs and what works on the road has influenced this build, as well as my current values, knowledge and capabilities.
For the numbers people:
-11 3/4 walnut block rim with rolled brass tone ring. This was the first big rim I ever turned on my new lathe.
-Walnut neck with 25.5” scale, 20 frets on a pistachio fretboard.
-24 hooks with and nuts, with special SS Stewart style shoes from Brooks Masten. (He made the custom tension hoop and tone ring too.)
-Hawktail tailpiece from Balsam Banjo Works for extra downward pressure.
-Mini humbucker pickup, contained in a custom wooden block behind the dowel stick.
-Fiberskyn head, GHS strings, Gotoh tuners.
-Walnut from Goby and Pistachio from California orchards.
Many of these design decisions were outside my norm, but led me to new places. What feels special about this is Steve’s place on the stage in front of thousands of music fans. He connects me to this energy and I put more into it, realizing the stakes are higher. Of course, I want my couch strummers and weekend warriors to get my full attention when their instrument is on the bench, but this symbiosis with a touring pro radiates our to their build as well. The extra effort is worth it. If Steve feels better playing the banjo, Gregory feels better singing the song, the crowd has a better experience and some person’s heart is healed from the beautiful music. We road dogs and dust devils just keep trying every day, maybe tomorrow will be better because of it.
Since I started building banjos I have always tried to buy and stockpile the nicest maple I could afford. Maple is the most traditional banjo wood, so I figured I would always need it. Since I restarted Beansprout, folks have been picking walnut over maple 4 to 1! Luckily, there is plenty of walnut available in Oregon. This summer I went back to visit Ken and Lizann at the Carpenter Ant stash to grab some more walnut, but I had already cleaned all the walnut out of the shed! We went down to the basement shop and I found a shelf in the corner with cutoffs from years of Ken’s furniture projects. There were three boxes of chunks of Oregon walnut, too small for furniture but perfect for the little banjos I build. Each cutoff was from a different board and project, so every color and grain pattern was represented. This makes this current batch of banjo rims more interesting to look as well as ecologically and economically sound. Wrap it all up in Pistachio from California orchards and this one is ready for service.
Sometimes I think of myself as a toolmaker more than a luthier. What I build is designed to do a job, a musical one of course. That musical work can be private or public, skilled or clumsy, for pay or not, but it serves to build up a community like any useful tool. Certain tools have reputations as well made, beautiful and useful, with those in the know coveting them and passing them down. The Delta Unisaw, the Willy’s Jeep, Stanley No 5 jack plane, Fender Telecaster, Zippo lighter, etc...
All of these have been updated and copied, but the basic design is classic and solid with a well earned reputation.
It seems the walnut tenor scale banjo uke is currently my most popular tool, sent all over the world to be useful and beautiful for any style of music by any sort of player. This one, like all it’s comrades, uses the same materials: Oregon walnut, California Pistachio and brass from North Carolina. If you look closer, it is unique of course, with its own special details, but still contained with in its (hopefully someday) classic form.