You can view our archived newsletters
2011/12 Luthierie Camps...
Oct. 9-14, 2011
April 22-27, 2012
July 15-20, 2012 Oct. 14-19, 2012
Nov. 12-13, 2011
Nov. 3-4, 2012
Tools & Fixtures
Mar. 24-25, 2012
Please visit our website or email Kali for more information about these programs.
No, you didn't miss our last email newsletter; we just didn't have the opportunity to get one out in August. After we completed our July Luthierie Camp, we went into high gear to catch up on work in progress and then headed to Yellowstone National Park for a much needed vacation. Yellowstone and the surrounding area is a splendid place filled with Mother Nature's wonders including trees (my favorite), water falls, geysers, bison, bear, and moose like this one who decided to have breakfast just outside our trailer.
While in Yellowstone, we found this tree limb growing around itself. I have a reverence for wood - and the trees that bring us this great resource - and it is treats like this that make me stop and smile - and wonder a bit, too. While on the subject of wood, I continue to be amazed by the unique growth of Honduras mahogany and will share some interesting aspects of this wood in the section below.
Back in May I mentioned that we had Frank Solivan and his Dirty Kitchen band at our home for an in-house concert, and I shared with you that Frank prepared dinner for our guests (all 50 of them). Not only is Frank an amazing vocalist and mandolinist, but he's an equally amazing chef. Several weeks back, we got a note from Frank's agent, Martha Stracener Dantzic, telling us about an experience with Frank at the Grey Fox festival. Apparently, Frank and Linzay Young (of the Red Stick Ramblers) had a friendly cookoff with both of their wives and bands backing them up. Photographer Joe Shymanski caught this picture of Frank flipping a whole pan of potatoes in the air (and we hear that none of them missed the pan on the way down!) and most fun for us was that Frank was wearing his Siminoff tee-shirt. Way to go Frank!
Photo Courtesy of Joe Shymanski
I'll be giving three workshops at the Bluegrassin' In The Foothills bluegrass festival in Plymouth, California during the weekend of September 16-18, 2011. I am giving a workshop on "Setting Up the Best Sounding Banjo" on Friday, September 16th at 5:00 pm, and then on Saturday, September 17th, I will be giving two workshops on "Building Mandolins from a Kit;" one at 1:15 pm and another (which is basically a continuation) at 6:00 pm. This is a truly great music event in California's scenic gold country. If you make it there, please come by and say "hello." For more information, please visit their website.
Our upcoming Luthierie Camp is a two-day Tap Tuning Camp (Nov. 12-13, 2011), and our building Camps for 2012 are April 22-27, July 17-22, and October 14-19. These will be a "pick your own" Camp in which you can build an F5 or F4 mandolin or an H5 or H4 mandola. We have a maximum of six Campers per session, and the April Camp is half full. If you would like to sign up or would like more information, please email Kali.
Hope your summer is going well...
Thanks for building with us...
The magic of Honduras mahogany
Of the many species of wood, one would wonder how and why any particular species found its way to wood-bodied string musical instruments. Aside from very special considerations for various components of the instrument (such as the durability of rosewood or ebony for fretboards), there are a wide variety of choices that will work well. For example, cherry can become a nice mandolin or mandola backboard and can be tuned in a similar fashion to maple; it just doesn't have the beautiful appearance of curly-figured maple. A good piece of tight-grained old-growth Ponderosa pine makes a great soundboard; it is just harder to get consistent knot-free and pitch-free pieces that we find in the spruce families.
A friend of ours, Dennis Anderson, built a mandolin with Juniper (Juniperus californica) ribs and backboard, Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii) soundboard, and Dennis used Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) for the fretboard, bridge, and peghead overlay. The mandolin looks pretty and sounds really fine. Here's a photo taken at the Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival of Dennis at the mic, Ken on the bass, Chris Rogers (a Luthierie Camp graduate) on the guitar, and me on the banjo.
Mahogany and walnut are also good choices for backboards, and you may recall a mandolin I showed you several months back that Kali (marketing director for our Luthierie Camps and on-line sales) built using Claro walnut (Juglans hindsii - also known as Hinds walnut) - a species of walnut that grows in California. I now own this instrument, and it has become my favorite sidekick because of its warmth, richness, and powerful driving tone. Claro often boasts rich figure and color, and every piece is different.
So, it's really okay to step out of the norm and experiment.
Typically, we pick strong, light wood with tight straight grain for soundboards, and this leads us to the spruce family. Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) has the interesting trait of having the highest weight-to-strength ratio of commercially available woods. Red spruce (Picea rubens) - what some folks refer to as Adirondack Red spruce - is also very strong for its weight but is a bit lighter than Sitka. While you could use any of several hardwoods for backboards, the maple family is the most common of the hardwoods because of its figured grain, which occurs in three common images: curly, quilted, and bird's eye. We particularly like western big leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) for backboards because it is less dense than sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and yields a warmer tone.
However, among all the species of wood we use in musical instrument construction, Honduras mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) stands out because of its unique structure. While there are several species of mahogany, none have the physical characteristics of Honduras mahogany and these characteristics have made it the favorite choice of instrument manufacturers for the last century.
Honduras mahogany machines well and is very kind to tools. Cutters and bits used solely for mahogany go a long way before needing to be re-sharpened. While the wood is very strong, it is also reasonably soft so sawing, cutting, shaping, and drilling are comparatively simple tasks.
Honduras mahogany has considerably small pores (cells) and requires minimal filler before finishing, and it glues well. Lacquers and commercial finishes bond very well to mahogany (better than they do to ebony or rosewood, for example) and chipping and flaking are minimal.
But, most importantly, Honduras mahogany is incredibly stable; it does not warp or twist, rarely checks, and it maintains its shape - a trait that the industry refers to as "dimensional stability." The stability of Honduras mahogany comes from its unique growth. As a tree grows, a new layer of cells is added to the trunk each year. This layer of cells grows beneath a membrane under the bark is known as the cambium layer. As each layer of cells is added, it becomes what we know as an "annular ring" (some folks call them "annual rings"). So, each ring marks a year in the tree's life.
However, as each layer is added to a Honduras mahogany tree, its cells are aligned at an angle to the trunk, growing in one direction for about eight to ten years and then wandering back in the other direction for about eight to ten years. So, over an eight to ten year period, the grain of the wood is overlapped in what becomes a very strong interwoven structure that is much like the construction of a fiberglass boat hull. You can see the overlapping cell structure by holding a piece of finished Honduras mahogany and moving it in the light; the shimmering effect is the result of interwoven grain. And, this overlapping makes this wood incredibly strong and very dimensionally stable.
A few weeks ago, Ken was re-sawing some Honduras mahogany in preparation for making some headblocks. As he laid one board down, he noticed the very systematic grain dictated by its annular rings (shown in photo above). A count of the annular rings revealed a change in growth direction of the rings on this piece about every nine or ten years.
Yet, another wonder of Mother Nature.
· Mandola Cases - We are excited to announce our new mandola cases. These oblong hardshell cases will fit either an H5 or H4 mandola and feature ample room for strings, straps, tuners, etc. The case measures 32.5˝ x 14˝ x 6˝ and weighs 12.5 pounds. These mandola cases are not yet listed in our on-line store so you'll have to call in your order. Our new mandola case is part #2200 and is $289.50 plus P&H.
· Peghole Drilling Template - These are exceptionally handy tools. Siminoff Peghole Drilling Templates are precision CNC machined from ¼" mild steel. To ensure perfect alignment, the templates are the full length of the peghead and are shaped to the width of the nut at one end and the point of the peghead's tip at the other end. The eight ¼˝ diameter pegholes are 29/32˝ spacing and are the correct distance apart, the correct angle from the centerline, and perfect lateral alignment for accurate machine spacing. There are three versions: F5, A5, and F4. The F5 template is part #1100 and is $37.50; the A5 template is part #1102 and is $37.50; and the F4 template is part #1101 and is $37.50 (each plus P&H).
· Loar-Style Machines - These machines are the most accurate replica of the machines that were used on the original Loar-signed F5 mandolins. They come in nickel or gold plating, feature 16:1 gears, black slotted-head gear screws, slotted round-head buttons screws with washers, slotted round-head mounting (wood) screws, 13.5mm mother-of-pearl buttons, eyelet-sized bushings that are machined (not stamped), and properly sized shafts. These machines are only available from Siminoff and use the beautifully-machined back strips, gears, and posts from Gotoh. These machines also feature spring-loaded Delrin post bushings for smooth turning operation. The nickel machine set is part #301-LN and the gold machine set is part #301-LG. Either set is $249.00 plus P&H.
|Luthier's Tip: Polishing Lacquer|
A key element to building instruments is to master the art of finishing. Whether you are looking for a matte finish or a bright, high-gloss finish, the objective is to get the surface smooth and free of specks, bumps, and potholes.
Of course the first important step is to do a diligent sanding job, working up to as fine as 400-grit sandpaper (some folks even go to 600-grit). Always use a pad of some kind behind the sandpaper; leather works great for a backing pad. If there are bumps or ridges in the wood and you just use your fingers behind the sandpaper, your fingers (and paper) will just follow the ridges and sand into them rather than sanding them flat. Using a pad behind the paper will lower the entire surface to one even plane.
There are many finishing mediums on the market ranging from slow-setting varnish to fast-setting lacquer - and several finishing mediums in between, like Tru-Oil. Varnish can be applied several ways and can be brought to a shiny finish by using a French polish technique (note that "French polish" is not a compound - it is a method), or by other means. Varnish can't be machine polished because it is too soft and a buffing or polishing wheel will easily "burn" through it (next month, I'll show you a trick for polishing varnish).
A large percentage of builders use lacquer because it goes on quickly and can be polished to a high gloss. The trick is managing the instrument and the polishing tool: do you secure the instrument and hold onto the polishing tool (as you do on cars) or do you secure the polishing tool and hold the instrument? The latter is the better choice.
It is always better to hold the instrument and work it against a secured polishing system. We have several polishing wheels set up in the shop - some rotate vertically and others horizontally, and we select which one to use according to the task at hand.
You can set up a simple polishing system in your drill press as shown in this photo. Notice the piece of cardboard in front of the drill press post to help prevent spatter from getting on everything behind the drill press. (Of course, you'll want to wear eye protection and an apron.) I like to apply the finishing compound to the surface of the instrument as well as to the wheel. A moistened buffing wheel is very important so that the surface keeps cool and you don't burn through the finish. Exert medium pressure and keep the instrument moving under the wheel.
Work from medium to fine grits as you proceed. Meguiar's makes several grits of professional polishing compounds that are available at most automotive stores.