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.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Spirit Varnish for Violins

Today I mixed some new varnish, Apothecary style on a real old balance scale, with the traditional resins and gums. On the left scale you can see benzoe and mastix and on the right, sandarac. I'd already measured the shellac into the large glass jar which is flanked by gum elemi on the left and venetian turpentine. Behind is a 5l container of spirits, 99.7% ethanol to be exact.

Benzoe: is a balsamic resin which comes from one of several species of Styrax trees. It has the most wonderful smell, which is why I like to use it. So not surprsingly it is also used to make incense, and as a fixative in perfumery.

Mastix: comes from the sap of the tree pistacia lentiscus. As well as being one of the finer resins to use for violin varnish it is used as a culinary spice in Greece and Turkey, especially for sweets and desserts and is also a kind of natural chewing gum. Probably the best thing is to pick the resin drops straight off the tree, if you're going to use it as chewing gum, because I find that it tends to crumble in the mouth and then stick stickily on the teeth, but it has a lovely flavour and apparently soothes the stomach, absorbs cholesterol and reduces bacterial plaque (by 41,5% according to one study).

Sandarac: is a resin from North African tetraclinis articulata. It is one of the most important ingredients in varnish but also used as incense, a remedy for diarrhea, and calligraphers like to grind it up and sprinkle it on their parchments.

Shellac: is a resin which doesn't come directly from a tree, but via the alimentary canal of the female lac bug kerria lacca. The rather pale shellac that I use (there are many different colours) probably comes from the tree schleichera trijuga. It's fairly common knowledge that shellac is used as a varnish and as an ingredient in a french polish, but it is also known as food additive number E904 and used to replace the natural wax removed from apples during the cleaning process! It is also a low temperature fuel which allows for the creation of pures greens and blues in fireworks.

Gum elemi: This is a fragrant sticky mess which comes from the tree canarium luzonicum. It can been used to treat coughs and brochitis and in Arabic it means "as above, so below" suggesting that it works on the emotional and spiritual planes as well.

Venetian turpentine: is a variety of turpentine that comes from the Western Larch or larix occidentalis. Ordinary modern turpentine is a horrid stinky liquid used for cleaning brushes and things, but it has traditionally been used in medicine to treat wounds, lice and intestinal parasites and is still used as an ingredient in Vicks chest rub.

Very pretty when the jar is filled with alcohol and put in the window, though not for long as they all start to mix and dissolve and murkify. I'll stir it now and then and when I'm happy, filter it through an unbleached coffee filter to remove the insoluble bits.

So you want to know the secret of my varnish? The secret is that there is no secret. It's my own concoction based largely on what we used at school and I'm quite happy with the way it works. Here is the recipe:

  4 parts sandarac
  2 parts shellac
  1 part benzoe
  1 part mastix
  1 blob gum elemi
  1 blob venetian turpentine

Monday, 22 August 2011

Raising the saddle on a double bass to lessen the string angle.

A problem that you sometimes get with basses is that the angle of the strings at the bridge is too acute. This is idiosyncratic to the way the instrument, in particular the neck setting, has been constructed. The steeper the angle of the strings at the bridge, the more downwards pressure is exerted on the table. This can affect the tone and may result in a bigger, brighter sound which could be desirable, but it can also cause problems if the table is old, thin and/or pressure sensitive. One may also be looking for a warmer, more open response for orchestra playing.

The solution to this problem, if it is a problem, is to raise the height of the bottom saddle. There are a variety of ways to do this and many players are now looking for an adjustable saddle raiser which allows them flexibilty, for them to have more control over the instrument's sound. I have just had a bass in for that job and came up with the solution pictured above. I am quite pleased with the result: a simple, what they might call here in Sweden "funkis", design. It is made from an old piece of fingerboard, fitted exactly to the existing saddle, which has two invisible screws holding it in place. It sits loosely and may easily be removed should the player wish to return to the original setting. The pressure from the string tension here is quite enormous which means careful attention to the fitting and form of the saddle is essential. The laws of physics and mechanics (vectors) must be taken into consideration. The tailwire is made of a very strong, non-elastic cord, tied with a simple knot which can also be easily adjusted. This will be necessary when switching between the different saddles. 

Here you can see the adjusted string angles which sit nicely and evenly over the bridge.

Monday, 16 May 2011

The "Nääs Effect"

I have just been to a lecture by a lady called Anna Alm who is doing her doctoral thesis on the effect Nääs had on the lives of those who took the Slöjd teachers' courses between 1880 and 1940. It was very interesting. The school (building which houses my workshop) was started by Otto Salomon, who was nephew of the guy who owned the manor house. It was revolutionary in that he introduced pedagogique into woodwork teaching in schools, whereas before woodwork classes were given to keep children occupied with hands busy by the local carpenter. He developed a step by step system of teaching which aimed to encourage independence and creativity. Form, function and aesthetic were important as well as being able to plan and make the object without help, using good posture.

The 6 week courses were co-ed, which was also new and very international. They had participants from up to 20 different countries. The Nääs method was especially popular in Britain and USA before WW1. There was a special atmosphere that make a lasting impression on the lives of those who came and they would always look back to the time with great nostalgia. It was especially empowering for women.

The interesting little coincidence that I learnt was that Otto Salomon's wife was called Ellen which is nearly my name and they named their son Axel which is also my son's name! There was a picture of him as a boy, carving away at some project.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Wood and sound: using marimbas in a "slöjd" club.

On Tuesday I gave a talk to a group of "slöjd" consultants who are amongst other things responsible for setting up "slöjd" clubs for children all around the country. "Slöjd" is Swedish style craft, a special way of working with material. The building where I have my workshop was where they developed a teaching method for this a century ago. This method became well known in other parts of the world and people travelled long distances to attend the summer courses. They still hold lots of different courses here but they are more general interest, not aimed at teachers as such. 

One of the 5 principals of the modern "slöjd" clubs is that they should aim to be multi-cultural. In other words one can find inspiration from unexpected sources (e.g. from the african violin-maker down the corridor), from other countries and other disciplines of the arts (e.g. music, story-telling) and incorperate them into the children's creativity. 

So that is the background to the little workshop I did. Contact me if you'd like a copy of the notes that I made. They include a bit of theory, a long list of questions that a instrument maker might ask themselves when choosing suitable wood, a few pictures and some links to relevant video clips on you-tube. Below is the little resonance box that I used as an example, made out of a birch tree that we felled in the early spring.

Visit to the Buskaid music school in Soweto

I recently made a quick visit to Johannesburg to meet up with the people who run Buskaid music school in Diepkloof, Soweto. http://www.buskaid.org.za/ They are looking at the possibility of developing an existing project that they have by setting up an instrument repair workshop on sight which will maintain the impressive collection of good instruments that they have accumulated over the years. The teaching project which has been in progress since 1994 has certainly produced phenomenal results. It was a very exciting and inspiring visit and I look forward to following them and seeing how this new project develops.
There were at least 4 class and individual lessons going on when I visited the school.  Rosemary Nalden, the founder of the school, was busy with one student while the other classes were taken by the Buskaid teachers who have grown up in the system. There were also a number of observers, like this cutie in the cello class, learning by watching.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Open House 7-8 May 10.00-17.00

This weekend is the annual spring handcraft fair at Nääs and the workshop will be open. Alf-Inge will be there with his birds and to answer questions about violin-making.

Progress on the Quarter Size Violin

Friday, 4 March 2011

Kiddie violins, the German "free-method" vs. Cremonese inner form

For once I don't have seven or eight basses in the workshop so I'm taking advantage of the lull to brush up my violin-making skills. Axel will soon need a 1/4 size violin, so that's what I'm busy with. The last violin I made took 5 years, but this one is going a lot quicker.

I'm using the German method of fixing the ribs, that we were taught at school - did my exam in Markneukirchen - as opposed to the conventional Cremonese method using an inner form, not because it's better but because I didn't want to spend time making a form for a one-off instrument. In this method the form of the back is finished and then the ribs are bent to fit. The corner blocks are fitted last. It's quite a lot harder to get the same even result as when form is used, but it useful when experimenting with different shaped/sized instruments.

Here is an inner form that I've made for a double bass. It is after a John Lott bass that belongs to the Gothenburg Symphony, which I've had the privilege of having in the workshop.

I've got this far today. Axel told me that he would like a black violin with a heart shaped scroll. Why not? I'd already rough cut the scroll, but was inspired by a heart shaped "cheerio" that we found in Axel's breakfast cereal on Valentine's day to make a hole that you can peep through. It's still just roughly formed now. I'll do a close-up when it's finished.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Double basses and winter humidity issues

We are experiencing an unusually long and cold winter this year, and in my workshop there is a queue of cracks and buzzes to be attented to. Humidity levels in winter and how they relate to instrument care is something I spend a lot of time discussing with customers. My own opinion is not necessarily gospel truth and I'm still collecting data - when it comes to basses it's an inexact science - but this is what I have to say.

Relative humidity: Cold air cannot hold nearly as much moisture in it as warm air. What happens in winter is that cold air from outside, which contains low but relatively speaking quite acceptable moisture levels, comes into our living spaces and is warmed up by our heating systems. While the actual amount of moisture in the air remains constant the warm air is now relatively speaking very dry and this can cause problems with musical instruments.

What dry air does to your instrument:

Wood: When wood dries out it shrinks, mostly between the grain lines. This means that when you look at the table of your instrument, with the grain lines running down the length of the instrument, the width will decrease slightly over time. If it shrinks too fast a crack could pop open running along the length of a grain line. What compounds the problem is that the instrument is constructed in such a way that the grain lines in the ribs, table and back run in different directions, so that when shrinkage occurs it creates tension in the instrument. What can then happen is that the ribs, which shrink along their width much more than their length, become too long for the shape of the table and pop out of line. Added to this is the fact that a many basses are made from wood that is at least partially slab cut (you can see this in the pretty circular grain patterns in the upper and lower bouts). This can create a tension which pushes the two edges of a crack out of alignment, making a straight forward gluing job impossible. Wood that has been well seasoned will present with fewer problems.

Glue: Dry air also affects the hide glue used in instrument making. This is less serious. The glue shrinks as it dries, bringing the two sides of a joint tightly together. Moist glue is quite elastic, but it become more brittle as it dries. This means that in dry conditions seams of glue can become so brittle that they open up, usually between the ribs and table or ribs and back. This is easily rectified.

String height: On some instruments the string height changes with the season, so that the strings end up lying too far or too close to the fingerboard, affecting playability. An adjustable bridge or summer/winter bridges is usually the answer to this. Some instruments need a higher bridge in the winter, some need a lower bridge, and many are quite stable and don't need adjustment at all. I have not yet found rhyme or reason why this is so. There are just too many varying factors involved. Wood is a very complex material and behaves in a unique manner in each instrument. On instruments that do change a lot seasonally it is a good idea to keep an eye on the tightness of the sound post. Some instruments need different length sound posts for different seasons both sound wise and as insurance against possible sound post cracks.

Humidity control for bass owners

We have several hygrometers (humidity gauges) in the workshop and they all show different measurements. There are ways to callibrate them, but it's important to realise that they can be unreliable. Luckily we humans, like our basses are also sensitive to humidity levels. If you feel the dryness in your nose and your lips, you know that you need to need to do something about the humidity for your own sake as well as your bass's.

Room humidifiers: This was one of the first thíngs I invested in, but it made so little difference to the humidty in the workshop that I just returned it. There are simpler methods which I use e.g keeping water containers by every radiator. When the temperature drops below minus ten outside I start boiling water in the kettle with the lid off 10 mintues at a time and I'll have a steaming pot of water on the stove all day (which I use anyway for glue). The cheaper humidifiers available may be sufficient for a small room, and I'm sure that there are sophisticated expensive ones available too which would be effective. I'd be interested to hear of other people's experiences.

"Dampits": I'm not a "dampit" fan. The danger with them is that they drip water inside the bass which leaves stains in the wood and mixes with the dust inside to form a kind of cement which is a nuisance to clean. The drops of water can also dissolve glue and seams can open. As general rule when it comes to drying or moistening wood, the slower the better. The structure of the wood can be damaged both when the cells collapse suddenly due to harsh drying and when the cells expand suddenly when water is dropped on them. So if you use "dampits" make sure that you wipe off the drips. Otherwise just keep your bass inside its cloth cover when you're not playing.

What to do about cracks and buzzes:

Open seams and some cracks are easily fixed with a bit of warm hide glue and a clamp. For others it may be necessary to open the bass so that they can be properly glued and reinforced. Sometimes I'll choose to leave a crack open until a later time when the instrument can be opened. Some cracks can be glued provisionally and then reinforced from the inside at a later date. Some cracks will create a buzz, some won't affect the sound at all. Some are really obviously, others are quite secretive. Buzzes are a whole mystery in themselves and can have many different causes. If you find a crack or open seam on your instrument that does not affect its playability, it can be left until a convenient time to fix, say within a few months or so, depending. But if it is left too long there is a danger that it can get worse if it has been caused by tension and it can also collect dirt and be more difficult to fix invisibly. 

So my advice to players is check your instrument reguarly and bring it in if you have questions, to me or another repair person whom you trust. What I have written here is as much as I can say without actually looking at your instrument together with you.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

On Kora Making and Violin Making

So I finished stringing up my kora over the Christmas break. It was maybe the hardest part and involved some several spectacular explosions and entanglements as tailwires snapped and the bridge collapsed, but after experimenting with stronger materials and about a week of constant retuning it's now playable and the tone is developing nicely. I thought I'd try and do a little recording but neither the mike I have nor my playing does anything approaching justice to the sound.

But I'm very pleased. Two months ago my awareness of the kora as an instrument was of a vague west african bewilderment of strings. Then on 2 november I discovered the music and was hooked. I listened and listened and researched and found that there was a place in England which sold kora kits and I thought rather sensibly that that would be the way to start, with something semi-fabricated in west Africa. So I wrote off to them, right away regretting it slightly, because I really wanted to make one that was really my own, from scratch, truth be told. As it turned out they were busy with Senegal-trips so I was free to do my thing, in fact I felt that I now had the liscence. On 2 december I visited a little shop in Gothenburg and bought the calabash and hide. And now on 2 january the instrument is finished and tuned, quite amazingly as it was along side other work I was busy with. My first violin took me a whole year to make. So what's the deal with violin making vs kora making? Is the kora just simple and "primitive" in comparison with the more sophisticated violin? Ooo that grates me. I may have developed an allergy toward the negative associations of the word primitive.

The kora originated according to oral history about 700 years ago amongst the Mandé people in the Empire of Mali. It's older than the violin. It is built of 4 elements: the gourd representing earth; wood representing plants; skin representing animals and iron representing magic. Some instruments are inscribed with magical qu'ranic symbols on the inside. How exciting is that! Traditionally played by members of Jali (griot) families it's common that the musicians make their instruments themselves. In some families the kids start by making their own kora, then they learn how to play and only when they are quite proficient is an instrument made for them by reputed maker. In the violin world, making and playing have been two quite separate things, which is rather sad in a way.

So if I'm to learn to play the kora, making my own instrument first is really the ideal beginning. I wasn't born into the right family, but all the necessary knowledge was there in my education and experience and on the internet. Cool.

What impresses me about the kora is the simplicity yet perfection of the design, the perfect suitablity of the materials (gourd and hide), the natural ease of contruction. There is another kind of perfection in a violin, the culmination of rennaissance sophistication that become a classic form, which despite the advances of technology remains largely unchanged today. One could argue that the violin is a representation of man's triumph over the forces of nature. Think of the extravagent environments in which it was first played.The form is a sophisticated geometric construction, not found in nature but in the mind of man. The materials submit to the will of the maker and are formed through his tools into the preordained result. Unfortunately it this becomes a kind of tyranny when you consider the way violins are mass produced today. The trees are mowed down and the barely seasoned wood is machined to the exact same measurements used by Stradivari, unaware that in the process something vital is lost. Nature is violated, the instruments just don't sound the way they should and it all ends up becoming some sorry sacrifice to the gods of consumerism.

The kora comes from what today is one of the poorest places in the world, once the centre of the slave trade, though it too was played in the courts of kings. But the kora's form comes not from the cerebral heights of man's conquest over nature, but from thousands of years of interplay between man and nature: from the cultivation of the calabashes; the domestication of livestock; the rending of iron from stone. A dialogue  between man and nature rather than a dominion. It is nature that determines the form of the sound body, not Euclidian geometry. (The geometry behind the violin form is by the way really interesting, although it is a part that is often skipped) The round gourd is simple yet amazingly strong and thicker at the points it needs to be. We would have trouble building anything like it out of wood, a fibreglass mould maybe, but then the dialogue would be silenced. Hide also has inimitable qualities. The natural materials tell a unique story of the life they once contained, a life nutured in the balanced interplay between mankind and nature.

I do not mean to say that either kora making or violinmaking is superior. As with violinmaking, there is also a risk that tourism creates an unhealthy demand for cheap replicas of koras, which will provide money in the pockets of some people but an imbalance in nature. My point is that instrument making is based on traditions, whether they be of cerebrally dominated rational learning from the courts of enlightened europe or of the undocumented mystical interplay of man and his surroundings from the courts darkest africa, but it is also a dynamic and living craft. If one dismisses kora making as something primitive, one loses an important lesson: that good instrument making involves communication, a balance, a dance between the maker, his tools, the materials and nature itself. Of course this is something that the great violin makers of the past and today do instintively.That kora making is "simpler" than violin making to my mind is just a bonus as it allows more accessiblity. I believe that music should not be elitist and the making of an instrument needs not be a mystery to the player.