For the past 40+ years, a dominant feature at my residence has been a magnificent Black Walnut tree in the back yard. We loved that tree. Not so much in the fall, it did drop a few leaves, but in the summer it was wonderful. Especially sitting on the deck, looking up into its canopy and enjoying the shade. Our kids, of course, grew up in, under, and around that tree.
Unfortunately it became diseased and threatened to split apart and crush my house, or my shop, or my neighbor’s house; and anyone in them. So prudence demanded that we have it removed.
Once it was safely on the ground, it was cut up on site by NW Specialty Lumber and Milling and the slabs were taken to their facility in Sheridan to be dried. Part of the deal is that I get some of the wood back for my own personal use. So a couple of months ago, I drove out to visit my wood and brought home a sample.
The first item built from my dear old tree was a bass guitar for a seventh grader at Forest Hills Lutheran Christian School. Ellianna is just learning to play bass and I have been giving her a few pointers. A normal 34” scale bass guitar looks HUGH in her hands. So, I decided to make a smaller one for her; a 30″ scale version of the Mezaluna design I built for myself
Elli came to visit the shop a few times during construction and was able to participate in some design choices. She was so excited and appreciative. You just gotta love building for someone with a smile like that!
The body blank for this guitar was just a chunk we whacked off a slab that was too long to fit in my truck. That piece of firewood made a fine looking guitar.
- 30” scale 4 string electric bass guitar
- Body and head plate – home grown Black Walnut
- Neck – Maple
- Fingerboard – Ebony
- Pickup – Seymore Duncan SMB-4a; passive; one volume & one tone control
- Tuners – Gotoh Compact
- Bridge – Shaller roller
- All hardware – chrome
After finishing the first two guitars at home in my own shop, and proving I could do it, I launched off and built 8 more. The first of these were for my son and my brother-in-law.
Back and Sides are Myrtle; Neck is Mahogany.
Tops are Sitka Spruce, Headstocks are Myrtle and the Rosettes are Applewood
I like building guitars in pairs. Once I set up for an operation I might as well do it twice. The next pair was for my brother Keith and my friend Mike.
My brother opted for a Maple back and sides and Ebony bindings. The neck is also Maple.
The Fingerboard is Granadillo, the headstock is Ebony and the Rosette is Tigerwood.
Here a short video of me playing Mike’s guitar soon after it was finished.
The next I built guitars for two of my Nephews
Back and Sides are Myrtle Wood and Necks are Maple.
Pat chose the Ash binding while Ken opted for the Ebony.
Here there are at the Family Reunion holding their guitars for the first time. Maybe it is just me but I think they look happy with them.
Next I built guitars for a friend and another nephew that both happen to be police officers. I offered to inlay a cracker-jack sheriff’s badge into the headstock. But, in the end, we all agreed that a more tasteful and yet appropriate motif for their guitars would be a Thin Blue Line.
Back and Sides are Walnut.
The Blue Lines are made of acrylic sheet from Tap Plastics. I do like the way it goes with the walnut.
And it looks even better in Ebony headstock.
The position markers were cut from the same acrylic sheet with a plug cutter. And, serendipitously, someone had just given me some blue stabalized maple that made fitting rosettes.
The top is made of Sitka Spruce, glued up from two book matched plates, same as other instruments I have built so I have no pictures of that process. But the sound hole is much smaller. 18mm. Traditional instruments have a fancy inlaid rosette, usually with six petals. After weeks of stewing about how to do that, I settled on a simple circular inlay. But I still wanted it to look a little bit cool.
In case you haven’t noticed yet, this is the first instrument I have built using all metric measurements. And I am rather liking the system.
First I cut wedges of rosewood with the grain running to the center and arranged them on paper with purfling pieces in between. Once aligned, I superglued it all together.
I mounted the glued up mess into the lathe and turned the edge to a 60 mm circle which could be inlaid into the top. The the sound hole was opened up to 18 mm after it was inlaid.
Sound board braces have an 1820mm radius to provide a slight dome to the top.
The seams of the staves were reinforced with bias tape and wood glue. Also note the linings were notched out to receive the end of the braces. Off to the right is my home-made 1820mm radius sanding block and gauge.
That last little peek inside before closing up a box is always hard. I will probably never see inside that instrument again. And if there is anything else I wanted to do in there; its too late.
And so, with some glue and a lot of twill tape and wedges the box is closed.
When the top is dry, the overhang is trimmed flush with the sides. Then the same router jig I use on guitars makes short work of cutting binding channels.
Bindings were attached with wood glue and held in place with tape while they dried.
And so the basic box is completed and I turn my attention to the neck and headstock. I guess I skipped over the part where I inlaid the corner pieces. I must not have been in a picture taking mood that day. Sorry.
The balalaika is probably the most challenging project I have taken on to date. Books and papers and videos, all available on line, provide about 97% of the information necessary for construction. But the 3% that is missing is critical! None of the drawings I have found are done to scale. Most of the descriptive text I rely on has been translated from Russian to English. Many times I have been ready to abandon the project. But I finally have something that is beginning to look like an instrument and so I am ready to show the world what has been going on in the shop.
This was the first challenge. The squared off sections will be the neck and the heel which will live outside of the body of the instrument and the odd shaped projection on the end will be inside the body. The ends of the side staves will approach that point from different directions and figuring out how to cut all compound angles accurately kept me occupied for quite some time.
The transom, or base, wasn’t much better. Again, the angles are all compound. The Maple veneers and purflings are laminated on to baltic birch plywood.
An inlay of contrasting hardwood will go in the end where the strings will attach.
The staves are made of Maple re-sawn from a reject bass guitar neck. Again, each stave requires one edge to be beveled at a different angle. Here a thin strip of veneer is being glued on to that edge.
While attaching the staves, the neck/heel block assembly and the transom are clamped to a jig to hold them in their proper places. Note the block raising the end of the neck by a couple of degrees. That is one of the 3% details that wasn’t spelled out but I am pretty sure it needs to be there.
Old world professional builders hold the staves in place till the glue dries by putting in temporary nails where the bindings will cover the holes. I didn’t trust my accuracy though so I designed a clamp. And, of course, it requires four clamps to attach my special clamps. In other words, I am using 6 clamps to do what others do with a handful of nails. But it worked for me.
I did use the old nail and wedge trick to clamp the narrow end of the staves to the heel block. And some good heavy electrical wire helps hold everything in place along the seam.
A good strong light bulb inside the box helps while planing the edges to a good fit.
With all the staves glued in place, the edges are trued up before gluing on the linings. That miniature block plane is becoming one of my favorite tools. It almost makes me feel like a real woodworker.
And here is the basic shell with the linings. Time to start thinking about a top.