Aislinn's Russian Gusli (her third instrument)

Neat thing lesson of the day - There is an almost universal acceptance and use of the simple lap-harp, or plucked psaltery.  Almost all cultures had some form of this instrument, and with only 2 major derivatives it existed for thousands of years in secular and religious uses.  The two derivatives are the front-blockable stringed and rear-blockable stringed instruments.  An example of a front-blockable instrument is the Finnish Kantele.  The strings can be muted by resting fingers on them while the instrument sits horizontally in the lap or on a table.  In this configuration you block and strum on the same side of the strings.  An example of the rear-blockable psaltery is the Germanic rote or Anglo-Saxon lyre.  You strum the strings with one hand, and use the other hand to block strings from behind through a hole in the instrument.  This type of gusli was most likely played predominantly in a horizontal position like a kantele, but skilled performers who played while strolling would play it vertically with a strap and held like a rote.

One day, it seems like years ago but it really has been only months, a package arrived for my student Dee from a particular historical ethno-musicologist instrument expert PhD by the name of Dr. Ain Haas.  In this package was the combined brain-dump of one of the worlds practical experts on the Baltic psaltery and it's derivatives.  We were very busy diligently studying a particular instrument, but a very neat, lean, shapely item was documented among the findings, an instrument that would have to wait.

Somewhere in the middle of the 11th century in the area of Novgorod, a performer and his instrument were parted.  This instrument was a bit different than most of the time, not in how it was built or what it was built of, but because it had a word carved in the side - the word 'Slovisha' - which translates, roughly, as 'Nightingale'.  Now we do not know if this instrument was given a name because of it's tone, or if it was the nickname of the performer.  But it does evoke quite an image if you let it.

So when the girls discovered Queen's Prize tournament (thanks to a couple of wonderful experiences, they LOVE A&S competitions) it was time to set off in search of a new project.  The girls want to compete and win, Dad has other motives.  At this point I have convinced myself that teaching these girls how to use a very important tool in the shop, the geared resaw bandsaw, will not be akin to child abuse.  But we need good projects that have limited but real use of the tool, use that demonstrates and teaches all the basic functions of the saw, but not too much.  And we need to be safe - we need bigger projects that allow the hands to remain very far away from the blade.

So the Slovisha Novgorod Gusli replica will be built after all - pine body, quarter-sawn Oak soundboard with integral ponsi (the 'ears' that hold the bar that acts like a tailpiece and bridge on these psalteries).  There is still a bunch to learn from this instrument, but it is not the concert hammered dulcimer that she has in mind for this upcoming Kingdom A&S - after all, this is only Queen's Prize, right?  <grin>

Each project that my girls do has to fulfill two requirements.  First, it has to produce something the girls want to have.  Second, it has to provide an opportunity for me to teach them something valuable about handwork - a new technique, how to use a tool, a finish, just something to expand their knowledge and abilities.  For this round of projects I have decided to teach the girls to use a new tool - one of the most versatile and useful tools in the shop, but one of the most potentially dangerous, both to the project and the craftsman.  This is the bandsaw. 

So here is the evil device - a Hitachi CB75 geared resaw bandsaw.  A VERY powerful saw, that can use a range of blades from 1/4 inch to 3 inches and cut up to 12 inch thick logs.  And here is my first, I mean student.  Aislinn.  But before I will let her do the big stuff on the saw, we need a little safety lesson and a few safety tools.  So we will build our universal sawing safety devices - a fingerboard and a push-stick.

Cutting out the push-stick, we keep hands at both ends of the stock, nothing on the saw table, lots of clean floor around the saw.  Cut rough, use the sanders, rasps and scrapers to get the final finish - the saw is not the last tool you use in an operation.

After cutting the fingers on the featherboard, the edges and faces need sanded to get rid of the fuzz from the saw blade.  And it is just nice to use a tool with smooth edges.

And now to test the tools - cutting 1/16 off the edge of a 2x4 without getting hands anywhere close to the blade.  Cool

Now for the part that becomes so important down the line.  Making templates and patterns.  Aislinn has become aware that many of her friends want to start building instruments as well, and she knows that if they want to build the things she has, making patterns will make that easier.  She has a real interest in teaching what she is learning, and as the weather warms up I think there will be a bunch of lyres and zitters and such coming out of the shop with Aislinn as the mentor.  And that is very neat to me.

Here she is, sanding the Masonite template for the side view of the instrument.  There are only 2 templates, plus a small pattern for the ponsi.  Overall the instrument has just 14 pieces including the strings, but it is not the easiest thing to build nor is the theory behind a good one that simple.  Lots of learning, not just about tools but also about what makes instruments really work well.  And that extends to dad as well, each of their projects forces me to absorb so much as well.

A 4x7 pine timber, reclaimed from an old trebuchet frame upright I had laying around.  seasoned for a decade, and nearly center-cut.  Here aislinn points out the largest crack in the piece, and we have determined that we need to plane away the wood down to the tree center to get rid of the crack and make sure it hasn't spread.

So off to the surface planer.  With a bit of extra cut from the timber, Aislinn sets up the plane depth.

And away we go.  The night was cool, there was a bit of fog on the goggles (nothing dangerous, but enough to completely white out her eyes in the flash photo.  About 25 thin passes and we are down to a crack-free surface.

Now to cut the timber to width.  Fingerboard in place, resaw blade in the saw, and cut both sides so the center of the timber falls roughly along the centerline of the instrument.

The way we will be cutting out the instrument requires 1 90 degree edge on the timber.  Since we will be cutting the side profile first, we need to be sure the timber is square to the blade of the bandsaw.  So Aislinn runs one edge over the jointer.  Then she marked the side with her template, and it's off to the bandsaw.

This cut has to be made freehand but she isn't really scared of the bandsaw - she doesn't want to get too close to the blade, but she is comfortable using it.  So I let her try the freehand operation, mostly because this is a big, thick piece of wood and it would be hard to have a dangerous accident occur like it is with a thin piece.

Now to set up to cut the top outline of the instrument.  First, carpet tape is put down on one of the recently cut faces.  In order to get an accurate cut, you can't mark an outline like this in the cut side of the wood, and if you mark it on the uncut side you don't have a flat face to set on the saw table.  I could work around that, but it can be dangerous.  Better to follow established practices and turn the pieces temporarily back into a solid block again, to mark and cut the outline.

Once the pieces are stuck back together properly, the template is applied and the outline is drawn.

And now it is a simple matter of cutting out the outline

Using a very important specialty tool, Aislinn pries the two pieces apart.  (The tool is a knife made for Lina by Master Alan, and it is a PERFECT thin wedge for jobs like this)

And the second mile marker is passed - the main part, the body (corpus) of the instrument has been cut free from the oppression of the tree which held it.  And this is what keeps me motivating the girls to do these projects, she really is happy to be at this point, it's not a staged picture.

OK, getting down to business.  All the flat finishing work is done before we relieve the edges and hollow out the box.  Aislinn on the big belt sander.

And the sides...

And around the head.  About this time we are starting to see the instrument as it will be.

We used LOTS of tools to do a simple round-over on this instrument.  LOTS of tools.  Starting with the spokeshave "Hey Dad, take a picture of me using THIS!"

And the drawknife
"Hey Dad, take a picture of me using THIS!"

And a small block plane "Hey Dad, take a picture of me using THIS!"

And a bigger jack plane
"Hey Dad, take a picture of me using THIS!"

And a permagrit rasp-board
"Hey Dad, take a picture of me using THIS!"

And a pattern makers rasp
"Hey Dad, take a picture of me using THIS!" (starting to see a pattern?  "Oh Mr. De Ville, I'm ready for my closeup!")

And a fine file.

And a scraper, but first she had to learn how to clean up and raise a burr on one.  So I gave her a diamond hone lap plate, and had her clean off the old burr, and true the face.

Then with a good tool steel rod, a quick burnish and she's off and running (Didn't let me get the camera card cleared out to take a picture of the process of scraping.  Funny that, But there's, yes, a VIDEO.  There's LOTS of video.  We'll link to it on this page as well.)

And strips of emery cloth to blend the curves.  A whole lot of work for some 1/2 inch roundovers..

To the jigsaw to cut the handhole out of the head area.  A spiral cut bit helps, because the instrument is too long for the throat of the saw.  But it leaves more clean-up.  That kind of work develops character - at least that's what my dad used to tell me when I was sanding and polishing his stuff...

And back to the oscillating spindle sander.  She really likes this tool.

Now that the body is basically exterior finished, time to hollow out the soundbox.  A mark along the edge, and an eyeball mark based on the drawings provided by Dr. Haas, and she has her boundaries.

And the drill press with the forstner bit with the pilot ground down.  Really great tool, but takes lots and lots of holes.  Better than lots and lots of sash chisel work for Acey.

But a chisel ends up in the works - y'all knew it would.  To clean up the points left by the round bit.  After a dozen or so points removed, I taught Aislinn the more efficient way - the cheating way, I guess you could say, but it pays to know more than one way to do a job.

Using a sanding drum in the drill press, we can easily get rid of the points as well.  Actually, it takes less time to remove the points with a chisel, but pine is notorious for being more difficult to chisel cleanly, and since a clean box sounds better than a fuzzy one, we did the majority of the points with the drum.

Cutting the soundboard from quarter-sawn oak.  This was the way the original was made, with the ears for the string bar cut as one with the soundboard.  We are making some design modifications to the original from this point on, though.  Other gusli found in the area were broken, most in the area of the peg head.  So instead of building the soundboard to be recessed into the body, we are placing the soundboard on top, and adding a cross-grained piece of pine to the peghead area.  This will make the top level, like the original, but make it more durable.

Drilling the hole square and true for the bar that holds the string.  This is the bridge of the instrument as well as the tailpiece, and thus needs to be straight.

And now cutting the soundboard to shape.  She will finish the surface of the soundboard after it is glued to the body.

With a good waterproof exterior glue, the soundboard is attached to the body, and the crossgrained peg reinforcement is also added.  Spool clamps and spring clamps are used where appropriate.

Now it's all clamped up.  We moved inside.  Yesterday the sun was out, it got to almost 80 degrees.  Today it reached 33.  My shop has no heater.  So inside the house, in a nice 70 degrees, the glue can dry.

Back to the jigsaw to cut the peghead reinforcement to match the handhole in the body block.  Last year the jigsaw really scared Acey, this year she is still afraid of the noise it makes when a blade breaks, but she just jumps right in with it.

The edges are sanded to match, the handhole is re-sanded to match, and now she is smoothing the saw marks from the soundboard.  Random orbital sander.  Only problem with this tool is that it blows cold air up your sleeve.  Nice in summer, not so much in winter.

Dad stepped in and set up a rickety table saw fixture to allow 2 cuts to be made to define the ears on the piece.  This on the most dangerous tool in my shop - Old Ugly, the ancient table saw that worked it's way from Valens to Pav to me, and which needs a whole lot of care.  With liberal application of novenas, holy water, and courage, I pushed the thing through the blade twice (I won't let the kids use that saw in the condition it is in, but it was the way to get this job done) and luckily pieces that weren't supposed to didn't fly off.  Then I handed it back to Aislinn to go to the drill press and make a set of holes to allow us to chisel the remaining wood out easier.

Rough chiseling for major stock removal, and then

Using the chisel as a open-nosed plane.  Aislinn is really learning a lot about using the hand tools.  It warms my heart to see it - that kind of work seems to be relegated to hobbyists nowadays, where it used to be normal.  And I am glad I can pass this knowledge on so that it has at least a couple more chances of surviving the onslaught of a mechanized, mass production world.

The bar holding the strings will be brass, mainly because Aislinn insists that each instrument have purple and gold in it somewhere.  Here she is taking the burr off the end of the brass rod on the disk sander.

The brass bar in place between the ears on the instrument.  Wish the picture would have come out better, but you get the idea.  Come see it at QPT for more details.

Now it is a matter of 5 tuning pegs, 5 holes, liberal hand sanding and waxing.  The instrument is really for the most part done, and Aislinn is pleased.  We are still deciding whether or not to carve something into the side now or wait till after the tourney.  Oh, yeah, we also still have the sun/moon motif to add to the ornament at the top of the peghead.  She is as into the astronomical themes as Ceilidh is into the nautical ones.  Next, it's off to the lathe for the pegs.

Now to the lathe to turn the tuning pegs.  Again, I pretty much keep this lathe set up for this operation, it is the thing I seem to do most of, and the thing I hate setting up the most.  She is using purpleheart for the pegs.  She insists on having purple and gold in all of her instruments, and with brass wrapped strings and a brass bridge-bar, there you go.

Using a machinist tapered reamer to fit the pegs.  Lots of experience has shown that inserting the pegs from the bottom makes it easier to tune and instrument and lets it stay in tune longer.  Just a little at a time and try the pegs constantly - 5 degrees taper can be eaten up in a hurry.  Take your time if you do it this way.

Briwax (clear original) is the preferred finish around my home for early instruments - beeswax and carnuba in a light carrier.  Easy finish, lets only the natural wood show through.  It is durable, repairable, and doesn't dull the sound of the instrument.  And the kids like using it.

And it is assembled and being played.  It has a very mythical sound.  It is quiet (as expected for such a small, shallow, narrow soundbox and oak soundboard).   The ears that act as bridge legs are part of the soundboard as per the original.  This means that they are in direct contact with the sides of the instrument - a good way to transmit vibration but not a good way to resonate sound.  That is the reason for the phenomenon of playing on a wall or a tabletop, as mentioned below.  It is strung with really low strings and tuned chromatic from whatever the lowest string sounded best at.  It is in tune with itself.  Played in air, it is soft and gentle.  Place it on a table (a preferred method of amplifying Gusli and kantele) and it resonates - a clear, mournful sound that evokes myths and legends of Russia.  It really is beautiful.

More to come as soon as dad gets the pictures edited and the text written.  Be sure to visit Aislinn at Queen's Prize Tourney on January 10 to see and hear the instrument and find out how much she's learning.