Offcuts: Luthier Adventures By: Don Heisz

Quite a few years ago, I decided I was going to try to make a musical instrument. The father of one of my friends had made a few and I was impressed. Also, I was an aspiring guitar-player and thought that perhaps making a stringed instrument would improve my playing.

Of course, I had no clue how to start, what to make, or what to use. I had no tools, no materials, no books. And there was no internet to tell me what I should do. So, I decided to make a dulcimer. And I decided to make it from memory. Well, I had no sample or plans or even a very good idea what it was like inside.

What followed was essentially a total embarrassment.

I used thin plywood and cobbled the thing together. It looked roughly the shape of a dulcimer. I had no idea where to go from there and stopped. Probably lucky for me, since it would have sounded more like duck than a dulcimer.

Fast forward a dozen years or so and I revisited the idea of making a musical instrument. This time, I thought I would make a ukulele, which I deemed to be fairly easy to make. I chose cedar and set to work making pieces for the top and back in my garage.

It was at that time that I discovered I am really very allergic to cedar sawdust. I’d always had sinus problems when cutting cedar for fences, outside, in the wind, under the big blue sky. In the small, cramped, airless garage, the tablesaw sprayed fine cedar sawdust straight back into my face. And was I wearing a dust mask? Well, no.

So, I was coughing up nasty stuff for two months and swore off ukuleles and cedar.

Fast forward another 5 years, and I have moved into my own house, with my new workshop set up in the basement.

I decided to once again make a ukulele or perhaps a lute. You know, because a lute is cooler than a ukulele…

I already had the thin cedar. I also got some thin mahogany from John (he actually found the wood somewhere). So, I was set. I also had a better idea what I needed to do. I was very familiar with the construction techniques. I had studied numerous sources to find out all I need to know.

I had all my material lined up. I was planning on using either the cedar or mahogany for the front and back and was going to make the sides out of maple. I had experimented with bending some thin maple using hot water and a form. That experiment is still down in my workshop, still bent just as it was when I removed it from the form.

Above: All of the remaining materials I can still find..

I was going to reinforce the joints between the top and bottom and the sides with a kerf strip. For those who don’t know, a kerf strip is a narrow strip of wood with many regular part-way crosscuts (or kerfs) through it so it bends easily. It was during cutting that strip to width that a piece broke off and wedged between the blade and the remaining wood. That caused everything to bind for an infinitesimal moment, during which enough potential energy built up to cause the entire strip to explode into splinters (there was not a single solid piece of it to be found anywhere) and also shoot the small push-stick I was using straight at my abdomen.

After I picked myself up off the floor and slapped the stop on the saw, I examined myself for holes and found none. The stick had hit me in the hip-bone. There was blood coming from somewhere, though. Then I noticed that my finger was messed up.

It was hard to explain to the staff at the hospital that the damage was not caused by the saw blade but by the stick smashing through my fingertip (which was pulverized).

Why did this happen? Two reasons: One, I was using a straight push stick which can’t hold anything down (even though I had a saw-handle-type push stick right beside me). Secondly, I was attempting to rip something I’d already crosscut in kerfs. Similar to cutting a board with a loose knot, but with a few dozen potentially loose knots.

But I actually fully believed the real reason was: Ukuleles are cursed.

Thus ended my aspiration to make a musical instrument. Maybe someday, I would make a xylophone but never anything that took any strings.

So, jump ahead to a few weeks ago when I was in one of my favourite thrift stores. Sitting on a table was a black violin case. I could see it was made of wood and quite old. I opened it up and saw what remained of a violin and bow.

I hemmed and hawed about what I should do.

One of the people who works there told me it was fine when it was donated. They’d opened the case and everything was fine but, a day later, the neck snapped off and the whole thing flew apart. Obviously, the strings had been taught while it was stored. Whatever magic the case was exerting on the violin dispelled once it had been open for a while and the neck joint failed.

Above: This violin case is around 100 years old and made of wood. This, along with the violin inside, needs some work.

Needless to say, I bought it. I thought, unlike a ukulele made from scratch, fixing a violin should be fairly safe.

So, I now have a violin to fix. Unfortunately, I know even less about violins than I do about dulcimers. At least I’ve touched a dulcimer before.

Stay tuned for the continuing adventures.