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Musical Instruments From Discarded Materials

The Instruments I've Built From Scratch So Far:

Hi! My name is James. Thanks to everyone who stopped on in to my website!

My latest passion is making musical instruments from the refuse of others. Well, I should clarify that. I don’t make bleach bottle banjos or soda bottle Saxes, not that there is anything wrong with those, mind you! I have been mainly interested in invented stringed instruments made with simple, easy to find materials, like wooden salad bowls and hardwood from commonly discarded furniture like tables, old console organs, cribs, etc. and inventing new ways to play them.

A little about me: I play sitar and keyboards mostly. I have too many instruments in my home at this point—both manufactured and made by me. I do work outside my home with the mentally ill, which has little to do with music and instrument making, though it is a job I love nonetheless. No, I’m not a poor bum that can’t afford a meal, or a new mucical gizmo when I want one. I like to have fun with my girlfriend, travel, I’m reasonably well adjusted (Ah, but it's all relative, isn't it?), have lots of unconventional interests, and feel there are strong links between madness and creativity...blah blah blah...

The Instruments

This was my first instrument called a “Lutejo” HEIGHT=300

It has movable frets (as do most lutes from all cultures) and kind of resembles a banjo. The body is made from a small wooden salad bowl, cue stick for the neck that was shaved down (I discovered that I love to plane!), thin plywood soundboard (Luan?)HEIGHT=375, and bent wire frets held down with rubber tubing. The tuning pegs are cut and shaped from spindles from a backboard of an old bed (of course I found them in the trash).


It has 4 strings of various gauges from various instruments (never throw away your old string) It can be tuned like a tenor banjo or modal tunings for playing Persian styled music. It has a pickup made from an old cheapo microphone I had that came with a tape recorder, which is firmly planted in the extension from the neck through the bowl—just under the nut. The only thing I paid for on the instrument is the ¼” cable outlet (2 for $1.99 at Radio Shack!).

The second instrument is called a “Criblute”

because it was made from wood from a discarded crib (d'oh!).


It is an amalgamation of various designs, but two primary ones are from the Persian setar and Indian sitar. It too has movable frets made from bent coat hanger wire tied down with 30 test monofilament. For the body, I used a bottle gourd cut in half laterally, and glued on a thin plywood soundboard, cut spindles for tuning pegs, and various other hardwoods for the bridge, nut, and tailpiece. It is played more like a pint-sized sitar, though you can't pull the strings like you can a sitar because the neck is very skinny. The 4 main strings are paired in two, and the side “strum” strings are not fretted, but are tuned to the major notes of what ever main themes you wish to emphasize in a "song" (various tunings are used for various moods, etc.). I decided to paint it at the last minute. The flowers and arabesque along the edge are taken loosely from designs traditionally painted on Flemish harpsichord soundboards.


Oh, and the little white things on the ends of the tuning pegs (are they called “pips”??) were cut and shaped from a plastic disposable fork that had an ivory color to it.


It too can be amplified (You got it-I used that other ¼” cable outlet!) Oh, and the neck strap is an old 50's tie I used to wear untill they went out of fashion (Somewhere in the 1990's I reckon).

The third instrument I built is now called a "Sextar" sex=6 tar=string.


It has a large 2/3 cut canteen gourd for the body, goatskin head and tensioning beads made from cut sections from the sapling of a hickory tree from my back yard.


The neck was made from one of the four corners of a crib. Three paired strings are tuned in unisons, and in various tunings. The original tuning pegs were made of 2 types of wood, one of which was rosewood--an oily type of hardwood that doesn't take to glue. Anyway, they were unstable, and cracked. So I cut some solid maple ones.


It has an aluminum nut and the three sets of strings are tuned in unison. The frets are of 30 test fishing line and are movable. It sounds like an oud (Arabic lute).

The fourth instrument resembles a spike fiddle common to numerous countries, but mine is closest in design to the Turkish kemancheh.


It has a section of a shovel handle for the neck, tuning pegs made from some craft-store wooden balls with hardwood shafts.


The body is a gourd (going through my gourd phase I guess!).


It originally had a goatskin resonator, but I didn't like the way it sagged in the humid weather, so I changed it to a piece of frosted mylar (used in the drafting industry for drawing on), and stapled it around the gourd opening.


I decorated the inside of the mylar with some permanent magic marker so that it would show through. I used some leather scrap to finish it off for a little decoration. The spike at the end is a spindle taken from the headboard of a bed. The bridge and nut are from an old, broken rosewood box I found that seems to supply me with unlimited amounts of scraps! It is played with a bow. I also recently drilled some holes in back and added sprayed some lacquer on the gourd head to brighten the tone and make it louder.


The bow is made from the same hickory sapling wood those tensioning beads were made from, and light gauge monofilament line instead of horsehair (If I knew a horse, I would ask him to donate some of his tail). I was encouraged though, that the synthetic monofilament I used seems to hold rosin pretty good, and has a nice even tone when bowed across the strings. The three strings of the kemanche can be tuned in 5ths or 4ths, or paired—you choose! I understand that kemancheh players don’t actually press the string to the neck, but merely touch the string at the appropriate tangents. I have gotten used to this method of playing, and have found that ornamentations such as vibrato comes rather easy.

The fifth Instrument is a banjo.


I wanted to learn how to play, and didn't want to put out the money for another instrument in case I got discouraged learning how to play. I made mine out of hard woods I collected from neighboring trash sites. I used section of toe molding shaved down evenly to about 3/16 of an inch (I think it is maple or cherry) and steamed it in an eave trough pipe stopped up with some rags. The neck is a mystery hardwood from an old 50's Scandinavian couch my mom and dad attempted to toss out, but I liberated it.


The fret wire is the flattened steel wire from my old windshield wiper blades (used probably to stiffen up the blades). An added benefit to using this pre-flattend wire (most likely stainless steel) is that it will hold up to abrasion longer than the average fretwire, which is typically made of nickel. The tuning pegs are cut from rosewood.


I used a rope and beads arrangement (like the tensioners on drums) to tighten the goat skin head. I did not kill a goat. I am not into Satanic rituals...but I am rather fond of lamb curry...Actually I obtained a skin from a local woman who raises lovely goats and milks/breeds/slaughters them. The beads were made the same way as the ones on the unnamed lute. The tail piece is a section of heavy gauge tin with 5 holes drilled through to accept 5 cut nails for the strings to hook on to. The cut nails are peened over in back to keep them in place.


I inlaid more of the rosewood for the fret markers and used a semi-gloss spray for the finish. I cut a maple bridge with an Exacto knife and added a rosewood strip on the top.


Here is a picture (albeit a blurry one) of some inlay I did at the top using two types of wood for the star.


I use a set of medium gauge wire strings, and it keeps in tune and sounds pretty good! In fact, the string set is the only thing I bought for the whole instrument. So it is an all round mutli-styled banjo that steals various designs spanning the banjo's history. I'm learning to play in the "clawhammer" or "frailing" style, which is an old-timey way of playing, rather than the more modern bluegrass style popularized by Scruggs. I had so much fun making this one I decided to make another one (see below).

I recently made a Mbira or "thumb piano" for my mother's birthday. I used a medium-sized "apple gourd" for the resonator and hardwood for the nut and base.


The metal tines were made from the same material I used for the banjo frets. I thought I'd decorate the soundboard after cutting out the heart soundhole.


From last reports my mother is enjoying playing her mbira while rocking away on her back porch.

The second banjo I made came after finding a drumhead one sunny spring lunchtime near work (strolling and dreaming about musical instruments, probably!)


I had seen pictures of mountain banjos in a Foxfire book, and liked the simple design of a small resonator. Althhough this banjo is on the order of a mountain banjo, it is more my own design that was dictated by available woods and paring down to essentials. I used more wood from the Scandinavian couch for the neck, used rosewood for the tuning pegs, nut, and bridge.


The bridge is curved or "compensated", and was left as a solid piece with no "feet" in order to facilitate more contact with the resonator. As the bridge is a hardwood and is rather thin, there was no need to lighten it up any more. The neck was "scooped" at the bottom to make room for frailing fingers.


For the tailpiece I used a heavy aluminum coaster (found curbside) and cut it out like a bear paw (thus "Bearpaw Mountain Banjo"). The tailpiece can accept loop or ball-end strings, or nylon strings (for an old-timey sound) knotted at the ends. I used old abalone buttons for the inlay, as well as a few pieces of shell taken from the Michigan shoreline.


The base is cut from the seat of an old kitchen chair (found curbside). The fretwire is from windshield washer blades. The "truss rod", used to secure and stiffen body and neck, is cut maple from an old crib rail.


I used 12 carriage bolts to pull the head taught (spent $2.40 on the bolts, nuts and washers. I wanted to use brass ones, but couldn't find any. So if any of you have any spare brass carriage bolts...!) I used a piece of African Makore veneer (found in a sample box of veneers) for the side of the body to finish it.


I added my label and date of completion to the inside.


It's finshed with Tru-Oil gun stock lacquer, and the entire instrument is held together with 4 wood screws (to be broken down for travel if needed). Strung with light gauge stainless steel strings, it produces a bright and perky tone.

16th Century Italian Pentagonal Virginal

Ah, another instrument from discarded wood! Oh the joy! This is an Italian Virginal from the 1500's. I have never built a harpsichord, but I always enjoyed the Flemish Single I owned for a time, which I recently sold because it was so big and heavy, and I am prone to moving. Besides, friends eventually catch on and tend to dissappear after so many covert requests to ask them to come help you "move something". So I reckon it's time for something small.

I don't claim to possess any knowledge about the fine art of harpsichord construction other than from books, abundant Internet sites, groups, having owned one, and playing a few in my lifetime. I am a reader, improvisor and autodidact (get out your pocket dictionary).

Here is a picture of the instrument I am attempting:

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Italian Pentagonal Virginal c. 1540

HA! who am kidding?! I go from making banjos to ancient keyboard construction! Yeah, man, think of it as just another banjo with a lot more strings and some other junk and it'll be OK. NOT!

The materials for this instrument come from dumpster dive finds everywhere between and around work and where I live. Technically speaking, the selections of woods used for this instrument are not per se traditional, and though quite modern in some instances, are not necessarily better, but seem at least initially to suffice. I won't bother blathering on about the types of woods I'm using for various parts of the harpsichord. If you're curious, you can always email me--I'm willing to share any "knowledge" I currently have. In general though, I'm using a variety of hardwoods for parts under friction or tension, and softer woods for tone. And that is sort of confusing, considering that balsa wood is actually a hardwood (No I'm not making that up! Google it yourself!)

After getting some measurements from the website of Neapolitan harpsichord maker and scholar Grant O'Brien (who in great depth describes early forms of measurement via geometry and trigonometry for harpsichord planning), I cut out the belly. It's a fascinating read for nerds like me, but in reality I'm American, gimme the dimensions now! I gotta build me a barebecue deck! Damn I hope he never finds my website....

Belly of the beast with corner bracings:

I always liked the look of dark naturals and lighter sharps (rosewood and rock maple). I took measurements for the keyboard from my small synthesizer, which to me has nice dimensions to it. The keys quite small, cozy. In fact their total key length is a little over 3 inches, and each key is around 7/8" wide. I tend to use every bit of wood when I can get a good source, i.e. the small rosewood jewelry box, which has provided me wood for banjo nuts, tuning keys, etc. I'll admit the Dutch in me really dislikes waste!

This virginal is a four octave keyboard with one octave below middle C up to two octaves above middle C. I realize that as a starter harpsichord, and for someone without a workbench or a lot of power tools, I am cruisin' for a bruisin'! All those oddball angles! Jeesh! But I just liked the way it looked, so what the heck?!

Liners that eventually support the soundboard:

Now, with virginals keyboards, (There seems to be a lot of speculation on the etymology of the term "virginal", and most people think I'm talking about young girls when I bring up the topic...At any rate, a virginal by and large is a keyboard with the strings running roughly parallel to the keyboard. Yeah I know-whats with all these long parenthetical notes?! Well it's my webpage and I'll cry if I want to...)the keyboard has longer tails in the treble end and shorter ones in the bass. So it is necessary to find the appropriate balance point to correct for mass and inertia of the various key lengths. The balance rail- the part that keys sit on like a seesaw, is positioned up the keyboard at an angle.

The key tails will require some sort of rail or slot to ride up and down to keep them parallel to one another and from jamming into one another. Also, the keys at the bass end will require some lead weights as they are rather tiny, and tend to "float" up.


Here is a picture of Herman, my ever-watchful snoopervisor at the time, who recently died. Here trying very hard here to disguse himself as a rhododendron.

Now at this point, I'm sure all the legitimate harpsichord makers have been scared off. Or I'm sure I've given them ripe material to laugh their butts off at! Herman says "Ack!" to them! Will I ever be a professional harpsichordkraftsperson? Time will tell in the comming weeks (read months, possibly years) after this project starts to resemble something other than a midget life raft.

Now back to our program...

The key rack is essentially a frame for the keys, balance rail, and key guide to attach. The purpose for this is to be able to pull the whole shabang out of the instrument if a key should break or warp, etc. In this instrument, rather than build a latice frame for all the parts to attach to, I simply cut a solid, thin polygonal board, approximately an inch longer than the set of keys. It fits snugly against the bottom frames.

The bottom frames serve a two-fold function. As mentioned, they allow a space for the key rack to slip into, rather like a drawer, and also offers additional lateral support to both stiffen the belly, and keep the back and front liners rigid. Keys in:

The process of cutting the thin soundboards with a Ryoba handsaw--A Japanese handsaw that cuts on the draw, is a tedious one. The saw has a very thin metal blade with cross cut teeth on one side and ripping teeth on ther other. Harpsichord soundboards are generally wafer-thin; around 1/8" or so in various regions of the soundboard. So to make a soundboard, you get your boards cut out about 3/16" or so, join them, and then plane them down. Easy, right? HA!

I realize it would be easier to go out to the local Home Despot and purchase a bandsaw. But for the one off job, why not attempt to approximate the process of making a harpsichord like the "old guys" did it? In addition, one cannot underestimate the tranquil feeling of sawing wood by hand. Hey, speed kills, dude! Actually, I can saw a 5.5" wide board about 2 feet per hour (taking into account that I stop to check the line of cut every few minutes, pet the cats, etc.)

Here is a picture of the last cut of soundboard wood using the Ryoba:

After all those months of worrying about cutting soundboard wood, and it was over in a few days! Jeesh! So now the planks will dry out a little more before I cut and glue them up.

I cut out a cardboard model for the soundboard, which I will use to position the bridges and plucking points for the jacks. Here is a picture of the soundboard planks cut to shape, but still as of yet not glued up or planed down (we're going through a rather wet/humid spell).


Jacks--The bits of wood with quills that pluck the strings to produce a tone are simple enough machines. There are a lot of variations on the same theme (Body, tongue, quill in tongue, damper, spring to push tongue back into position after it has plucked the string, etc.).

For awhile, I entertained the possibility of making the jacks out of popsicle sticks (!), but the thought of eating 49 popsicles, though initially an enthralling idea, seemed more ridiculous the more I ate... To be slightly more authentic, I thinned maple wood from old crib railings. Here's an illustration of these:

HEIGHT=260 I finally started cutting out the jack blanks: HEIGHT=290

Here are 3 complete jacks ready to be voiced (quills trimmed)


The jacks need a guide so that they travel in one plane only. Here is the upper jack guide to be glued to the under side of the sound board.

BottomHEIGHT=450 TopHEIGHT=250

Here is a tool I made to cut the round hole for the rose. It is merely a compass with an X-acto blade tied on, and a stick strapped across the middle to aid stability when cutting. Note also the upper jack guide and the bridges here.


Here are two sample rosettes that were cut, layered, and assembled out of acid free watercoloring paper. I'm not sure I like either one, actually. They are fun, yet laborious to make


The current rosette:

Here are the ribs that were glued on a while back. They add strength to the soundboard membrane.


It's been a long time, but here are the walls glued on awaiting moldings that will run along the top and bottom of the case sides.


I had to make 49 tuning pins out of thick gauge wire. The process involved cutting them out, tapering the bottoms, and flattening the heads. The heads were needlessly made way to flat. Cold flattening them to less of an angle would have been smarter.


I made the tuning hammer from a half-inch bolt trimmed down and mounted in a simple maple handle, which was cut from a kitchen chair (No, not my kitchen chair. It's one I found curbside.)


Here's another, all steel tuning hammer my dad and I made together.


A picture of "go-bars"--A simple, quick, traditional way to clamp wood down on a horizontal surface. Seen here, they are utilized to clamp down the soundwell moldings.


The trim molding (left) was nade with a contoured blade held in a bit of hardwood. The blade was made from a kitchen steak knife filed down to the profile of the desired molding. The trim molding is made by pulling and pushing wood stock back and forth over the blade.


I made 2 portable/adjustable scratch stocks. The one on the left has two adjustable fences. The one on the right has one curved fence for scraping round pieces of wood.


Four months shy of two years, and the harpsichord is basically, functionally done. It sounds nice! It needs decoration and a stand...

Painting the case a base green, layer after layer....the final few coats will be a black green

Cutting and fitting the mouldings:

And finally.....


So it's done. Whew! Now to learn how to play! Aye, there's the...etc.

In between periods of boredom when I just didn't know what to do (design-wise) with the virginal, I built this--a medieval hurdy gurdy.

Symphonie (Medieval Hurdy Gurdy)


Miniature from the Cantiga Manuscript

In no particular order you can see various parts of the instrument. A lot of cutting, scraping, and gluing of discarded/found wood. Cost of instrument parts thus far: $0

Some Pictures:

The crank (old kitchen handle + spindle knob)


The soundboard liner


The soundboard


Tuning peg head and shaping pegs


You can see how the tuning pegs take shape in 4 steps. This is how I make all my tuning pegs. There is no need for an expensive tuning peg shaver, though I'll probably make one in the future. If you take care to compare your peg to the profile of the reamer from time to time, there will be no problems. You can even get by without a reamer if you carefully file out the hole with a rattail file. I used this process for a few of the instruments, and have not had a problem with slipping pegs.

Cut out rough shape, scrape and file down the shafts, shape the heads.


Lid, not yet cut with soundholes


The wheel


Key hole's hard drilling rectangular holes!


Key shafts fit in the holes and inner brace for key tails


OK, so I skipped some steps....Here's some pictures:


In this photo (bottom right) of the inner instrument, there's a bridge called a "dog" or "trompette" (because it sounds like a horn). It's an adjustable bridge that vibrates against the soundboard. It is adjusted by a string attached to a lever (top of photo) on the outside of the instrument. The buzzing is created when you turn the wheel, and it adds rhythm to your tune.

Another picture of the trompette adjusting lever:

The shop snoopervisor: HEIGHT=300 HEIGHT=300

My latest musical instrument is an upright harpsichord, otherwise known as a clavicytherium. It will be a small, "gut" strung instrument, in which carbon monofilament--aka fishing line will simulate the gut. Here are the jacks and arms cut out and gleud together, as well as some jogs for cutting the tongue.


And you can read the rest here THE CLAVYCYTHERIUM PROJECT!!
cos I'm running out of room on my website!

Some links I like

A site for people who like old time music
Anthony's very interesting DIY banjos
Another DIY instrument maker
Grant O'Brian's fantastic Neapolitan harpsichords
Another banjo maker