Welcome to the virtual incarnation of my workshop where you can find out about the different aspects of my work - without disturbing me. My website http://www.basscare.se/ is being kept as simple as possible. Here is where you'll find the stuff I chat to my customers about, or stuff that I would chat to my customers about if there was more time and I was more chatty. Feel free to browse around and if you'd like to get updates in your facebook newsfeed click on 'like' at my facebook page: Elinore Morris - instrument maker www.facebook.com/Basscare. The colours of this blog attempt to match the colours of the inside of the workshop, which has been renovated with historically accurate linseed oil based paint, and you can see a snippet of the newly sanded wooden floor.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

A Case for the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency

Apologies to Mr MacCall Smith. This story has actually got nothing at all to do with the no.1 Ladies Detective agency, I just liked the sound of the title. It is however set in Botswana, it is about a case - a large wooden, home made, black painted double bass case christened "the Sarcophogus" and well, who knows, there may even be the odd corpse lurking about somewhere too.

I'd been learning the bass for about a year or so when Corrado the conductor of the Sinfonietta, the youth orchestra in Harare, announced that he'd been invited to be a guest conductor at a music camp in Gaberone and wondered if any of us might like to tag along for company especially since there weren't many string players in Botswana. Not being one to let such an adventure pass me by I volunteered and set about organising how to transport my grandfather's bass on the train to Gaberone. Since it would have to go in the luggage wagon this involved borrowing the "Sarcophogus" from Mr Baldock, my dear old bass teacher.

This went more or less smoothly and soon Corrado, myself and another adventurer called Philip were relaxing at Phil the cello player's mother's house in Bulawayo, waiting for the train to Gaberone which was due to leave at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. We were told that there was no hurry, and it was probably a good idea to ring the station before leaving the house, which we did several times and each time were told to stay put as the train was by no means ready to leave yet. After the umpteenth round of afternoon tea, our stomachs going glug glug, the sun low in the sky, we called the station one last time and the man at the other end said exasperatedly but good naturedly "Don't worry, it's not a problem, if the train leaves today it will be on time, and yes, you can come and wait at the station now if you like!"

Eventually we had ourselves and instruments installed on the train. I remember that I was wearing a white denim skirt with thin black pinstripes. It was an 80s relic, picked out by mum from the factory reject shop in Msasa, but I was quite fond of it. It went nicely together with my growing out perm. Later on I would buy my own clothes from the Danish Aid charity shop on South Avenue or Mapedzanhamo clothes market at Mbare, or I'd buy material from one of the 3 adjacent haberdasheries at Stortford Parade and have clothes made up by the tailors in town. But at this stage I was still relying on my mum and the factory rejects from Msasa. This is etched in my memory because when I got on the train the skirt was white and when we got out in Gabarone it was dark grey. Ever since then I have regarded with deep suspicion people who wax lyrical about the romanticism of travelling by steam train. It took several hours of scrubbing in Mr Slater's bath tub that morning to rid our pores and orifices of quantities of black soot and my skirt was never quite the same after that.

The camp was fun. The highlight was singing this west African song about Sango, the Yoruba god of lightning, taught to us by the visiting African American conductor. Sango quickly became everyone's prefered greeting word. There didn't end up being a great amoungt of string playing but Corrado had a wonderful sense of humour and we seemed to spend most of the week collapsed in fits of hysterics, at least to my memory. One is only 15 once, after all. We also did some compulsary shopping because the shops in Botswana were full of luxurious imported South African products and at that stage Zimbabwe was still on the road to socialism and had a very limited choice available. After hours of goggling and indecision I bought a tray of tinned tuna for my mother and a very advanced gadget that you could put at the end of a hose pipe to regulate the water flow for my dad, who was an avid gardener and had only ever used the thumb method of water regulation. It was soon time to pack the bass back into the sarcophogus and the tinned tuna and garden gadget and make our way to the station.

At this point a digresion is necessary. Sometime during this era my mum's car, a new, second hand yellow Datsun Bluebird was stolen, not an unusual event in itself, but it had been parked right outside the High Court, "can you *** believe it?!" she regailed endlessly to all and sundry. You remember what that was like being 15 and having to hear your mother say anything more than once? Anyway, after some time she got a phone call from a jocular police sergeant who was most pleased to tell her that not only had they found her car but they'd caught 2 notorious car thieves too. What he meant by this was that the car had driven through a police road block on the Mutare road and as it refused to stop, the police had emptied several rounds of bullets into it, killing one of the thieves and injuring the driver. A hectic but ultimately short and fruitless car chase ensued in second gear. The car was left in quite a state as you can imagine, with blood and broken glass and a burnt out gear box. And no one would have anything to do with it. They wouldn't touch it. We couldn't even get it towed. This being due to what is surely one of Sekuru Mujuru's hundred golden rules: "Avoid having anything to do with anything that may have had a dead body inside it." Perfectly sane advice one would think but white people for some reason just don't always get it.

Anyhow, before long the people at the towing company and the garage had succumbed to my mum's superior persuasive abilities and the car was back on the road, my mum happily zooting around the streets of Harare again, proudly showing off the bullet holes in the dashboard to anyone who had the stomach to look. Which takes us back to the platform at Gaberone station. A problem. The station manager refused point blank to even let us take the Sarcophogus through the gate. No amount of arguing that all that was inside was a big guitar had any effect. It looked like a coffin and it could have at one point had a dead body inside therefore under no circumstances would it be allowed onto the train. End of discussion.

Oh well, luckily Mr Slater was planning to drive to Bulawayo in a couple of weeks and he kindly agreed to take it in the back of his truck and I was eventually reunited with my bass and we lived more or less happily every after. And so now, 20 years later, at bass nerd gatherings, when the conversation inevitably turns to the difficulties of travelling with a bass, I listen and smile to myself and remember my African Adventures with the Sarcophogus and the big guitar.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Nice work if you can get it

Retouching varnish is sometimes one of my favorite jobs. On good days it can be very satisfying and I might be listening to something like this:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Vem1ZKnStU On bad days it is just frustrating and I'll be saying "oh please, won't you tell me how?"
My palette has amber, red, green and black colours which are mixed into a bit of spirit varnish - it's the closest I'll ever come to being an artist. I test the colour on my thumbnail and add more alcohol regularly with a pipette. Two things that I keep in mind are to aim for a slightly lighter colour than the surrounds and not to underestimate the amount of green necessary. A darker patch immediately draws the eye for some reason and a lot of bad retouch work has way too much red in it. I suppose because the idea of a red brown varnish is nicer than the idea of green brown, but maybe it's just because of colourblindness. Some people use blue but green is better because it is one of the primary colours of light and varnish has a lot to do with light. That's what makes it difficult. You're dealing not only with colour but refraction and reflection. Sometimes the retouched area will be the right colour if you look at it from one angle and completely wrong from another. Sometimes it ends up too shining. Sometimes it just disappears, like magic.

What is satisfying about retouching work is the variety of different approaches you can take, from how you prepare the wood underneath to how you mix the varnish, to aging the new varnish, blending it with the old. And you can get it, if you try.There are so many different colours and textures and depths and each instrument is unique. It's not about perfection either because the signs of age and weathering, the patina, the imperfections just enhance the character and beauty of an instrument. Being able to spend hours concentrating on little tiny details, your mind free to wander, and then when it's all done being able to step back and suddenly all those little eye catching wounds have become invisible and the underlying beauty of the instrument comes to the fore - that is nice work.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Changing strings

This is something that players usually do themselves, which is good, because it's not one of my favourite jobs. Unfortunately I'm often confronted with some odd spaghetti tangles and end up having to redo it anyway. So here's a quick tutorial:

There are several different methods, but this one is easy. It may look a bit odd with the long tails, but these can be trimmed with a pair of wire cutters if desired. They are however useful as when you want to remove the string, all you need to do is loosen the tension and then thread the tail back through the hole and you've saved yourself an awful lot of winding. To put on a new string thread it through the hole leaving a longer tail for a shorter mensure (vibrating string length) and a thinner cone. Wind once around the inside and then aim for 2 to 4 windings on the outside, depending on the thickness of the string and the distance of the hole to the peg box wall - as you can see in the picture. Hold the string taut with one hand while winding with the other. This makes the windings much neater and gives you a better idea of how much tail to leave. It's good when there are enough windings for the string to lie snugly against the wall of the peg box.
  • Avoid letting the windings cross over each other.
  • Avoid taking off all the strings at once as the bridge and maybe also sound post will come loose.
  • Change the outer 2 strings first followed by the inner strings, it's easier that way and the tension is more even on the instrument.
  • Keep an eye at all times on the bridge. It has a tendency to lean up towards the fingerboard as the strings are being tightened. Just press it back into place if this happens.
  • It can also be a good idea to lubricate the string grooves at the bridge and saddle with an ordinary graphite pencil.
If you have a string that you can see is a bit short just thread the string through the hole, wind once and then thread the end of the string over the winding, back through the hole and carry on tuning up.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Work space

The Strad magazine did a series of articles about different luthiers' workshops, with pictures and descriptions. Here's mine: tools on the left wall; stove for glue; ebony files on the left; wood files on the right, a couple of violins I made at school hanging up there; two pieces of paper that I decided to frame; a cupboard we made during our first year.
In the window: some pottery from Marge Wallace, ceramic artist in Harare; an old violin top that I replaced on an instrument and then put in the window for display; a special candle holder from my artist friend Helen Molin; a 1/2 size violin I started years ago and just recently finished the scroll to; a special pottery container made by Emil; bits and bobs basket from the side on the road in Zim; a double bass bridge of mine (made of maple - hence the leaf); the shelves and drawers I made very simply to keep things tidy, they are of full of varnish stuff mostly; old baby food jars full of brushes and pencils and things to the left.

Although sometimes it looks more like this. Five of seven basses in at the time!!
A beautiful autumn wreath that someone recently made for the front door.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Inventing a new instrument

25 November:
Developments on this project
So we added a marimba key and a bridge to see what would happen. The string here is tuned to an E an octave higher on the shorter side than the longer side and the marimba key is tuned to the same pitch (the higher E). The result - a warmer tone, definitely, compared to when the note is played while the marimba key is dampened, but the difference isn't big enough to get me doing flick flacks across the ceiling or anything like that. Next step is to see what happens with a good microphone. There is also another idea of making a movable bridge that zooms up and down the string changing the pitch. This project is on pause at the moment while Tormod concentrates on more pressing work. 

14 october:
This is what happens when you have a composer and an instrument maker working in the same house.
It is the first prototype of a new kind of string instrument for an upcoming composition. It's very simply the longest, deepest double bass string strung up to explore the deeper vibrations, frequencies which Tormod, my violin playing composer colleague feels have been missing from his life. Quite understandable, that. We started it yesterday afternoon and strung it up today, in time for a grant application that should be in tomorrow.

It has no resonance body as such at the moment. The idea, inspired by the architecture of the wooden buildings here at Nääs, is to eventually use something very big, like floors and walls to amplify the sound. Until then it'll be electrical. What is interesting for me is that this design allows considerable freedom to explore the accoustical properties of bass strings. One experiment I want to try is to replace the traditional resonating body of a double bass with a resonating bar - a marimba key tuned to the same pitch as the forcing frequecy of the string. The string will pass its vibrations to the marimba key via a sound post/ bridge hybrid. Marimba keys are struck, strings can be struck, plucked or bowed but I'm not aware of the two ever having been combined, so I'm very curious. I'm also interested in placing a bridge at different points along the string, something that traditional instruments just don't allow for. And we'll have to see what Tormod has got up his sleeve - so watch (and listen to) this space.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Telephone Catalogues - do we really need them?

Some time ago they rang me up to renew my subscription to the telephone catalogue. After much deliberation I'd decided that I wouldn't do that this year. The salesperson sounded a bit shocked and tried all the usual tricks of persuasion, but I wouldn't be moved. So, obviously missing their annual injection of thousands of my Swedish kroner to their business they sent a representative to the workshop to meet with me the other day.
It was good. I could explain to her that for several years I've paid them ever increasing amounts of money and in exchange got telephone calls from 1. people asking me about my opening hours 2. people asking if I can look at their guitar 3. people trying to sell me things. In other words, no real jobs. I know this because my real customers all use my mobile number which isn't in the catalogue, and they are great, they come in with their instruments to be fixed and pay me for it.
It's a funny thing about this branch, but if you want your bass fixed, you don't go to the telephone catalogue, you ask your colleagues to recommend someone. This has worked very well for me so far. In fact up until now I haven't done any marketing at all really, apart from being in the telephone catalogue, and I always seem to get in just about as much work as I can handle.
But I'm changing my approach now and will have a website, blog and face book page instead of a directory entry, an extension of the word of mouth method so to speak, to keep in better touch with my esteemed customers who have been so faithful in recommending me to other players. In the end it's up to my customers. I hope that I will now be easier to find and to contact even though I understand that not everyone is into the social media. I suspect those that aren't probably have my number written up somewhere close at hand anyway. Comments and suggestions are always welcome.
And, sorry lady from Eniro, I'll review the situation in a year's time.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

How I really started instrument making

The info I put on the 'about me' section is a bit boring so here's the real story. It's mostly about building a drum under the tutelage of a man who lived in a tree back in '98 but actually the first instrument I made when I was 17, a little violin. I was in Cape Town at the time for bass lessons. Travelling 3 days there and 3 days back on the train between Harare and Cape Town for bass lessons is another story. But since I really didn't have the stamina at that stage to practise for 7 hours a day, I needed something else to do to pass the time and that's when I found a model of a little build-it-yourself violin in a hobby shop. So I followed the instructions and managed to put it together, fun, fun ,fun. When I look at it now it's pretty crude. I had no idea about cutting a bridge blank so the strings are way too high, I didn't even know to shape the button at the back. But the funny thing is that now after years of training in real violinmaking and in a workshop full of sophistocated, properly made instruments, it's often this very clumsy first attempt that really catches people's attention and gets them talking. Not sure what to make of that, really.

Anyway, back to the drum. I learnt to make my djembe from a guy called Anthony, who had a large rambling property on the outskirts of Harare. It had a wild permaculture garden, rampant with banana groves and paw-paw trees. The main house was rented out to a family and he lived up a tree at the top of the garden.  Actually that's not quite true. He had a maid who lived up a tree. He lived in a self-built house on a large granite rock that was designed in such a way that a large tree growing out from the side of the rock was an integral part of the house. It was really beautiful and technically speaking still a tree house. Now in a country like Sweden where everyone does everything for themselves I feel a bit self-conscious talking about how many people we employ in Zimbabwe to do all sorts of things. But that's just the way things work there. Even a guy who abandoned his house to live in a tree employed 2 people. Tich helped with the drum building and well, lets call her Patience as I can't remember her real name - very nice, quite game and long suffering - lived up a tree. I was secretly a bit envious of Patience as she had a very nice tree house to live in. She would sweep the ground and make us boiled eggs on toast made over the fire and cups of hot sweet milky tea.

Mmm, morning tea - thick slabs of fresh Lobels bread all black and smokey from the fire and the special taste of african tea made properly over the fire by boiling up the milk and water and sugar and loose tea leaves and then drunk out of an enamel mug. Making a drum outside in the fresh air does give you an appetite. We also ate bowlfuls of bananas from the garden with my grandmother's homemade yoghurt (she was also a permaculture fan and therefore approved of this little adventure of mine and kept us well supplied). Supper usually consisted of sadza and vegetables in some form, eaten under the stars, after which I'd collapse into my tent.

Also part of the set up there were about 3 dogs which lounged contentedly around in the shade, snapping at the odd fly, and 2 cats called Jane and Roger which Anthony had inherited from two different people. The funny thing about the cats was that Jane, elegant if burr-ridden, with long white fur was really a boy cat and the tough short-haired Roger was really a girl.

So, how do you make a drum? Take a large straight section of trunk, at least 40 cm in diameter and 63cm high in my case from a Jacaranda tree, and bore a hole down the middle with a special kind of large hand drill called an awl. This means you have to screw in the awl a short way and then take it out, and turn the log upside down to get the shavings out, again and again and again. No small task considering that the log weighed about as much me. Then you hollow out the middle wth a chisel and shape the outside with an axe and a spoke shave and then skin a goat. Actually, I didn't have to skin a goat, just soaked and shaved a dried and salted goatskin. Then you fix the skin to the drum with a special method using metal hoops and rope. There you have a drum and a lot of nice new muscles that you didn't know existed. Actually truth be told, I did get Tich to help me out with some of the worst work. When it was all finished we had a big jam session with drums, digeridoo and double bass.

Around that time a friend of mine gave me an application for a scholarship that the Norwegian aid organisation was offering to Zimbabwean students to learn instrument making in Norway. Sounded like fun, so just for a lark I sent it in. Some time later we were called to do a test at the Harare Polytechnic. We watched a video, had to plane 2 sides of a block of wood to perpendicular to each other and wrote a maths test. Sometimes you wonder how people think, the way they'd set this maths test with numbers that didn't compute. Do they really expect people in Africa to go around with scientific calculators in their pockets? Of course no one had a calculater and they didn't provide us with logorhythmic tables either, not that I can remember how to use them, so we ended up handing in pages and pages of complicated long division and long multiplication scribbles. Just hope they had lots of fun marking it, that's all.

Anyway many months later, to my surprise as I'd forgotten all about it, they told me that I had got one of the scholarships. And that is the real story of how a white girl from Zimbabwe ended up learning violinmaking in the chilly climes of northern Europe. And now I have my own business and a lovely workshop in Sweden, customers knocking at the door, but always, always, lurking somewhere at the back of my mind is this secret yearning to abandon everything here in this strange modern land where everything works and go back to Africa, to live up a tree and make drums.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

The Way to Work

The view of Nääs from the ourskirts of the little village where I live...
Along the road...

through the trees...

I cycle to work most days, except when it's snowy - then I take the bus or walk. Never have been much of a cyclist really. I go very slowly, walk the uphill bits, admire the scenary, pick a few berries along the way... it was absolutely lovely today, but not such fun when it's raining and blowing or -10 degrees but at least this way I don't have to go to the gym.