Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Not a Japanese Hand Tool experience

So I was starting some detail carving on the solid-body uke and I dropped by the hardware store to look for a spokeshave. They didn't have one, but I picked up a new chisel and a small plane, and a woodcarving blade for my Xacto knife.

And then, while getting some substitute brótchen at Acme, I realized I was in the neighborhood of Hida Tools. And, yes...I should have stopped there first. I should have remembered. Picked up a carving knife for under twenty bucks, and haven't touched the new chisel or plane since (the latter didn't work very well anyhow).

My first Japanese Tool experience must have been encountering a draw saw. And realizing instantly that cutting on the pull made so much more sense...ever since, ordinary wood saws have struck me as odd and backwards. Plus the thing was thin enough to trim off a dowel flush without cutting into the surface. And of course was gorgeous.

My next Japanese Hand Tools were hammer and niwatori. Nothing unusual about the hammer -- not a traditional Japanese style hammer, but just a mass produced steel framing hammer with a cushioned grip. Except for this; when I picked it up, it fell in line with my arm and as I gave it an experimental swing, the head was perfectly aligned. No need to twist the wrist and eyeball the head and compensate during the swing; it just fell into line with that perfect balance of a well-made weapon.

The big Japanese Hand Tool experience was actually with a new cooking knife. My old knife had finally died. I went to Hida and spent almost an hour trying to find one that was as close as possible to the same shape. Until the epiphany hit; trust the tools. So I stopped looking for what I thought a cooking knife should look like, and picked up what THEY thought a cooking knife should look like. And it, again, fell into my hand and I've been cooking with it since.

Of course the other side of Japanese Hand Tools is they are very fine, hand-made pieces of craftsmanship. You need to take care of them -- you don't just throw them into the tool box. The raw wood and metal need to be carefully oiled and treated lest they crack and rust. And they are also expensive. Hoo boy are they expensive!

And there's the side effect of getting sucked into a whole philosophy of woodworking, and traditional ways, and fine woodworking and theater props making are not exactly bed-fellows.

But you don't have to buy a set of finishing planes. You don't have to start learning how to hang shoji. You can select, generally towards the more mass-market (such as my hammer, which was not all that much more than a hammer from Sears), and towards those tools that are general-purpose and robust.

My new wood carving knife definitely falls into that category. I think I may be reaching for it as often as I reach for the venerable Xacto knife.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Rotating Outrage

Turns out that Stew-Mac has a Dremel router attachment.

Why is this significant? Because Dremel makes a plunge router attachment, a drill press attachment, a router table attachment......and all of them are absolute shit.

Apparently Dremel -- the most popular rotary tool out there, so much it is almost the "Xerox" (aka generic noun) for low-end rotary tools -- has decided that where their customer base is, is people who want to spend as little as possible for the illusion of having an all-purpose hand tool. This is a particularly strange attitude, particularly in that Dremel is the MacIntosh of low-end rotary tools; there are tons of cheaper ones available.

So, actually, what you are purchasing is the brand name. The sizzle, not the steak. The Dremels are cute, and you can find bits for them everywhere. They are also underpowered and overpriced. And they resemble not in the slightest a professional-grade tool with electronic speed control, or even a proper treadle.

Now, the tool itself, although overpriced, is functional. Within the design range; lots of people pick up one and expect to be able to cut lumber or do auto repairs or whatever. Forget it. Buy a full-sized, dedicated tool with a 1 3/4 horsepower motor if you are trying to hog through 1" hardwood or quarter-inch steel, or drive drywall screws all day, or otherwise intend some kind of actual construction task. Buy the Dremel for small projects and repairs and for models, guitar-making, and other crafts tasks that call for a smaller, more controllable tool than a thirty-five pound Porta-Cable.

But, still, why the shit accessories? The accessories are totally made of inappropriate cost-cutting. Spend ten bucks more on manufacture, and you could have metal instead of plastic, actual screws instead of friction stops, actual bearings instead of bearing surfaces.

What you get is the thing that makes me angry and sad every time I am in a modern hardware store. And that is; tools that offer the budget craftsman performance and return only wrecked work-pieces, more money to replace damaged tools and bits that wear out far too soon, and, oh yes, INJURIES.

Someone should walk up and slap the marketing asshole who so thinks so poorly of his customers he asks the design team only for bright and shiny, and who the hell cares about the poor person who ends up with the actual tool. And a second, harder slap for the engineer who permitted that design to pass, rather than resign and go to work for a company that didn't put the customer's sanity and fingers at risk.

What makes me saddest is to think of the people who are just starting out; young people, students, beginning DIY'er, retirees finally getting a chance to get into doing that inlay work they've always wanted time to learn. And not knowing that the fault isn't theirs. Not knowing that the reason their work sucks isn't because it is too hard to learn, or because they simply haven't the skill. But because they've been betrayed by the tool itself.

Sure, someone who has been around for a while can tell the tool is shit, and can compensate some. Right off the bat, one thing people do with these shit tools is throw away some of the plastic parts and build their own out of metal. It is also well worth, whenever you buy a cheap tool, to take it apart, file and emery-paper down the burrs the manufacturer never bothered to clean off, clean the paint overspill, properly lube it, and re-assemble to the proper torque.

And the ultimate case of this is people like Stewart-Mac. Who understand that the amateur or small luthier has a use for a Dremel-like tool -- that the 6" base Bosch is over-kill for slotting a bridge -- and have taken it upon themselves to build a router attachment the way that Dremel should have built it in the first place. Out of metal. With tolerances. With actual stop screws.

And they charge not all that much more than Dremel does for their sorry corporate-bottom-line driven insult-to-the-customer crap piece of plastic.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Uke Out!

Six-show weekend just ended and maybe I can get back to projects before the next shows (or the next performances on the schedule) interfere again.

I'm still pretty enthused about my solid-body uke, although I am more realistic about how much it would cost and how long it would take, and more willing to put it on the back-burner while I work on paying work. I did figure out a couple new things, though:

The hardwood store in town has materials that will work. They even have some scrap wood that might be an even cheaper option. I'm tempted to grab five bucks of scrap (they price by the pound) just to get a feeling of how hardwoods like zebrawood and cordova or whatnot are like to work.

I will make a visit to TechShop SF to see what it looks like.

There actually IS a use for Ponoko in projects like this. Depending on how fine a cut you get, use a ShopBot or similar to CNC a 1/4" MDF template and use that to rout the body of your guitar. A router and template is the recommended shaping method anyhow, and it can be difficult to get a clean enough template with bandsaw and similar tools.

I've considered building a solid-body nylon string as well. An under-bridge pickup can be had for as little as $60. If nothing else, the lower string tension means I could purchase a pre-made traditional neck, and if it turned out to be too difficult to reinforce it, I could still use it to make a nylon string. This is in all ways a simpler construction process; traditional bridge instead of the more expensive metal bridge, etc., etc. Which might make it a better project to start out with!

Anyhow...here's the design I came up with for the steel string:

The first step will be building a mock-up to test the ergonomics. It may need to be extensively re-thought in order to be fully playable. The design actually came out of a process of abstracting and cartooning the shape of a traditional ukulele. On one of my sketches, the "pinch" of the hourglass had completely fallen away, and the resulting teardrop had an intriguing look to it.

I'm hoping the end result looks like an instrument coming out of a long but unfamiliar tradition; as if it was an electric version of some string instrument played in some remote culture for hundreds of years.

The treatment intended is chrome hardware (I'd go gold, but the bridge I have my eye on is chrome), sea-green solid-color body (probably not dyed wood, but an opaque lacquer.) The body might also have some detail painting -- foam/bubbles -- on it. The neck in this design might be built around a traditional neck, with a replacement headstock, but the best look would be a pale wood which requires, basically, hand-carving the entire thing out of ash or alder or maybe spruce.

At least the body, being solid-color, can be carved out of joined, non-appearance, and non-matching hardwoods. Meaning I can make use of what is affordable and in town, instead of spending $70 plus on a body blank plus shipment.

How Much Wood Would a Woodworker Work, if a Woodworker Would Work Wood

I'd love to have a shop. Even a garage.

I've been working my way back into building things. I have every intention of following the Pulp Adventure hand cannon, plus the medal clasps, space pilot badge, retro style headphone amp and so forth with new props. I invested in basic casting supplies and re-learned some of the technologies. I taught myself how to leverage AVRs to control servos, lighting, and other effects. I started a basic collection of home tools. It is time to start in on some projects!

I'm particularly interested in trying out the quick-fabrication technique of laminating and shaping MDF and sintra over a simple steel core, to make prop guns and swords. This is a natural task for a scrollsaw, which I have been thinking may be my next power tool acquisition.

I've already been asked to consider a stunt version of the Fury Gun, plus a display stand for the one I already made, and to finish a Lewis Gun kit for that matter (and I have a handful of smoke grenades waiting on the final part).

But I'm also very intrigued at making a musical instrument or two. A solid-body electric guitar (or uke) is about the simplest luthier project possible, outside perhaps of a nearly-finished Saga kit. Trouble is, the mechanical demands (strength, weight, tone projection) pretty much require hardwood. And that means that hand tools and a Dremel would take a very, very long time.

And there's two good reasons not to expand my home power tool collection in that direction. One is cost. The other is that an apartment is simply inadequate for sturdy benches, space to lay out, and even basic dust and noise control.

Small tools (aka, a tool that is undersized for the job) suffer from the same flaw as cheap tools; they take longer and, in the end, cost more.

(A cheap tool may get you through one project before it breaks. Try to do more than one, and by the time you finish replacing blades, handles, and finally the whole thing (with another tool of equivalent cheapness) you could have gone ahead and gotten a decent one. And the decent one would have made the cuts faster, neater, taken less clean-up, had less risk of ruining a workpiece requiring you to start from scratch, and, oh yes, less chance of ruining YOU causing you to at the very least spend a lot of money in the local Emergency Room.)

(It's the "Vime's Law of Boots" all over again, and places like Harbor Freight make a great business selling cardboard soles to those who haven't the capitol to invest in better.)

If I were to stick with smaller hand props and softer materials (aka plastics and softwoods, not hardwoods and stainless steel), I could get by with the kinds of smaller tools I already own. It still isn't as FAST, however, as having a full shop. With a full shop you have space to multi-task; paint is drying in one corner, glue setting up in another, and power tools operating in a third.

With a full shop you also have the ability to work fractally. That takes a word of explanation! If all you have is file, you can cut a shape. You just keep filing until you've removed all the wood that doesn't look like the final shape. If you have some tools but limited space, you can get out and set up a jigsaw to rough in the shape, then finish with the file. That is working fractally. But in that limited space, it isn't always worth the time to set up that other tool, and the other tool may not be capable of hogging that rough cut anyhow. So you still end up doing a lot of tasks start to finish with the same tool.

In a full shop, you can stop in the middle of filing, slap the shape on a table saw to cut off most of the excess in one swoop, carry it to the bandsaw and rough in the cut, carry it to the belt sander to do a quick round-over, chuck it back in the bench vise to finish up with a collection of rasps and files, then plug in a hand sander to clean up.

At each point in the ongoing tasks, you can divide it into zones where one tool is more appropriate, do that sub-task, and immediately shift over to the tool most appropriate for the next sub-task. This makes the work much, much faster.

With jigsaw, scrollsaw, dremel and hand files I would have three fractal levels (overlapping quite a bit) to swiftly shape wood and softer metals of smaller thicknesses. The tools would bog down on the largest cuts necessary to build a rifle-sized prop, but for the sizes under I'd be within the zone of efficiency.

These tools, however, are completely out of their weight class in dealing with the 1 3/4" thick hardwood slabs of a solid-body electric!

Right now my best options seem to be an external shop. I could try to sneak a little time in the scene shop at a place I do a regular gig at. It would be semi under-the-table, however, as their insurance doesn't cover outside workers. A better option just might be TechShop. They have the tools. To get access to them, you need both membership dues, and a safety-and-basic-operations class for each tool/class of tools. Those classes can add up quick, at $60-80 per class. And there is no test-out option.

However. The woodshop SBU at the local tech shop includes not just the band saw, table saw, and radical harm///radial arm saw (which I am very, very familiar with after some twenty years in theater scene shops), but panel saw, scrollsaw, and a couple of other things I wouldn't mind so much paying $65 to get up to speed on.

Of course, the wood lathe is another $65, and the planer-joiner and the router table are another $65, and the former is a great tool for prop-making and the later group are both assets to the luthier.

At least the check-out classes last forever; you can think of them as up-front costs. After that, you can just pay for a one-month membership when you've got a project coming up that needs it. Not as convenient for the kind of crazy schedule theater imposes, or the "work on it for a weekend, put it aside for a bit while you work on something else" style most of us are accustomed to. But if you can't afford the money or space for a 4 x 8 foot shopbot at home...

At the moment my plan seems to be to drop in at TechShop SF and see what it really looks like -- how crowded, how well set-up, how conducive to working on a project I could schedule in there. I'm also going to attempt a task breakdown for the solid-body uke to see if I can sneak the larger hogging into the scene shop on a visit or two, and complete the rest with the tools at home. And while I'm out, refresh my memory of power tools available at the local hardware stores, and check out the stock of hardwoods at McBeath.

And if it works out, get some kinds of tools that will allow me to continue on prop making that will also handle carving up a mock-up to see if my ideas look realistic for a playable instrument that would be worth the cost of building.

The cheapest I can get this thing to happen is still over $200. The fish-tail design I came up with requires custom headstock and with that, and quality hardware, the price increases to at least $300 parts and materials. One way or another, I think I need to add another $200 for tools -- whether that is TechShop membership and class dues, new power tools, or (most likely) a combination of the both.

And seems very much sensible that into that matrix of options I need to throw those combinations of tools and plans that have me building a couple of items I KNOW I'm getting paid for.

I'm (Still) Dreaming of a Uk-U-Le-Le...

So there are a couple of other options for building my own solid-body uke. Like, start with a Grizzly Soprano, ditch the fingerboard, have a new one slotted up at LMI in 14.7" scale length, carve a body from MDF (the purists howl, but listening tests show many people can't hear the difference), and set the bridge back to make the scale length come out. I'd still have a narrow Soprano neck, though. Oh, yes...and carve a shallow slot in the pre-made Grizzly neck for a carbon-fiber reinforcement rod, and otherwise trust my woodworking skills to achieve a proper setup.

Add to this, cheap guitar tuners, a re-purposed guitar bridge of the most basic kind, and either a guitar pickup or a hand-wound one. And, yes, I do find it mildly intriguing to hand-wind a pick-up.

But even though the Grizzly kit is a mere $22, you can get a mahogany neck (with rosewood fingerboard) in CONCERT scale length and width from Mainland Ukuleles for a mere $35. There's not enough space in a traditional uke neck for a full truss rod, but you could still slot it for a carbon-fiber reinforcement rod. Of course it would still be a glue neck, not a bolt-on, (unless you got real clever about the butt.)

But on the gripping hand, Uke Builder's Workshop has a Honduran Mahogany neck blank for $16 (who knows what shipping will come out to with all these things, though!) That could be carved to a custom headstock shape, and set up for bolt-on neck, and of course be set for any style or reinforcement all the way up to double-action truss rod. Or just carved thick enough to take the stress. I'd still need power tools for some of the steps, though -- and I'd really rather not carve a neck without a spoke-shave, too.

Unfortunately, neither Shapeways nor CNC (via Ponoko, Big Blue Saw, or even TechShop) are going to be much help here. Either the parts are large thick hardwood with compound curves, or they can be found cheaper already manufactured by people who get economies of scale in their machine-shop endeavors. Except for perhaps something like a complex shape for a fingerboard, or scroll-work, or laser engraving. Or an acrylic body -- I'd rather not cut that out myself.

Which segues into design. The basic design parameters are that it plays well and feels comfortable. Ergonomics trump all other considerations. Following that is general aesthetics; it should look nice, with clean workmanship and attention to detail. The lowest-ranking element is stylistic. For that there are several directions one could go:

Ukulele-like: an all-wood construction, stained and sealed, with as much as possible ukulele body and headstock shape and even details such as bridge and nut style, headstock angle, fret length, etc.

Minitele: a miniature Telecaster; body shape, headstock (changed enough to avoid attention from the lawyers, of course!) and Fender-style pick guard, pick-up ring, bridge, knobs, jack, and so forth. Done in something typical like candy-apple red gloss.

-Ish: designed towards a striking "look" in some style or other; Steampunk, Futuristic (aka acrylics and built-in lights), Diesel-punk (metal, rivets, toggle switches and tubes), Lantean, organo-tech, etc. These are probably the options that most leverage my existing experience in prop building, metal working, casting, and electronics.

Stylized: the shape of a traditional or pineapple uke, but abstracted and cartooned; a Cubist uke, with sharply slanting headstock, emphasized contours, and so forth.

Like No Instrument We've Encountered Before: done with the kinds of materials and attention to detail of a traditional instrument (acoustic or otherwise) but with contours and details that are unique; like Spock's Vulcan Lyre.

I'm leaning more towards the latter two at the moment. In all cases, of course, the first test would be to carve a mock-up body from cheaper material (like blue foam) and even temporarily mount a neck and nylon bridge on it so I can test the ergonomics thoroughly before committing to the actual build.

As far as all that goes, however, I have a couple other musical instrument projects for a rainy day. A cheap "garklein" style recorder with horrible intonation that needs to be cleaned out and tuned. A fipple-flute based MIDI breath controller -- I have the pressure transducer already and just need to find time to bench test the concept.

And other, more useful semi-musical gadgets. I am looking at possible wacky instruments showing up in the pit for Pirates, and I think Willy Wonka should be a total immersive sound design. And I really have to, one of these days, finish wiring up my dedicated Qlab controller surface, with or without the MIDI-over-USB I finally have the software tools to achieve.

And then there's more ordinary props. Compared to the steps, tool work, cost of materials and hardware, and necessary precision of work for musical instrument (even a solid-body ukulele), something like a laser pistol with "sound and lights" electronics inside is SIMPLE.


I took a little time to look deeper at the idea of making a ukulele. Okay, sure, I have a uke already. A cheap Rogue with friction pegs, veneer top, and horrid intonation. I've been meaning to upgrade to a concert scale anyhow (slightly larger fret and string spacing but the same tuning). But I've also had a certain desire to try an electric instrument.

You can buy an electric uke. Most of them are electric-acoustic which is NOT the same thing. Of the steel strings, there are only a few options and most of the decent ones are expensive. What I want is something with the curves and shiny paint of a Strat or Tele, that plays like a uke, and when someone asks where I got it, I can tell them I made it. Or at least assembled the kit.

So I did some research. I could build a cigar-box uke without too much trouble. One downside to that is would probably be less playable than my Rogue; cheap materials and simple construction often leads to less-than-lovely tolerances, and for musical instruments tolerances matter. The other downside is that there's no point in having a second cheap uke. I want an upgrade.

Once you go steel-string, though, even with a solid-body, the mechanics become much more difficult. It is the same problem I had with the "Fury Gun" I built last year; in that case, it was five pounds of good Krups steel on 30" long barrels and I needed proper machined parts to keep it from falling apart under it's own weight.

And then add the problem of it being, well, a ukulele. I'm not going to be happy with string or fret spacing from an electric guitar (even if the tuning worked out, which it doesn't), or even an electric mandolin (for which you can find fairly inexpensive kits.) This was going to be a uke, dammit. Re-entrant tuning and all (unlike a guitar, the lowest pitched string is in the middle, not on the bottom).

So this means I need bridge, nut, and tuners that can handle steel strings. That's a bit of cost already. There's a company that makes a good bridge for a steel-string uke for about fifty bucks. A set of tuning machines will of course cost 20-40 dollars themselves. And you still need ferrules and so forth.

The tension of those steel strings is too much to trust a glued wood neck to. It needs reinforcement, preferably a double-action truss bar (so it can be adjusted to flatten the curve of the neck to within the close tolerances needed to make a properly set-up instrument). And no-one, of course, makes a uke neck with a truss bar. So that's either hand-carve one from twenty bucks of hardwood, or slot a pre-made neck -- as little as another twenty bucks for the pine neck of a cheap Grizzly kit, or a decent mahogany one for 35 to fifty dollars. Plus the truss rod of course!

And that doesn't necessarily cover the frets, which might require some time with fret wire. I am not a masochist, though; if I have to make my own fingerboard, I'll buy one pre-slotted (and pre-cambered).

A guitar pick-up has the wrong spacing and too many strings. You could hand-wind your own. Or you could get a decent four-string pick-up from Almuse for about fifty bucks. And add another twenty-thirty bucks for the basic electronics, and the cheapest set of parts that makes a decent electric uke comes out to at least two hundred bucks.

A temptation appears at this point; to go the other way and accept the challenge of making the cheapest possible electric uke. Scrap and salvage wood. Threaded steel rod for a truss rod. Actual wires for fret wires. But there are two big problems with this scheme. One is that time and money graph against each other. if you want to do it cheap, it will take longer. Perhaps much, much longer -- when you are talking about things like making your own tuners from scratch. The other is that cheap and substitute materials are too likely to end up with, again, a uke that is nearly unplayable. And more than any other goal, I want a decent instrument I can continue to learn and grow on.

So. As another alternative, could Frankenstein a Grizzly soprano kit ($22) and a Saga electric mandolin kit ($116) and make an instrument. At the end of it, though, you'd have a mandolin bridge -- not a solid-body guitar or uke style -- lousy electronics, and a soprano fretboard. And there's no guarantee you can hack a decent Les Paul teardrop out of the pre-carved mandolin body, or re-purpose the Saga truss rod into a Grizzly neck of an entirely different shape.

So it pretty much looks like you need to go the route of purchasing Moongazer bridges and Almuse pickups and Grover tuning machines from Stew-Mac, rent some shop time to fit a truss rod and carve a body from a nice chunk of hardwood, and spend a few bucks on top of that for epoxy paints and chrome miscellaneous hardware like strap pegs -- oh, yes, and shape a nice pick guard.

So the total cost in parts and tools is very likely to exceed $300. The time commit is not THAT bad, not with pre-slotted fingerboard and carved neck and pre-shaped bone nut and so forth. But all in all does not seem an appropriate project to start at this time.