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Upcoming projects:
Conclusion of bookbinding
Iron Age bellows build
Pliers Build
Metallurgical Science behind Heat Treating

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Luthier: Part I- Framing

For the last 14 years I have been a percussionist, playing mostly symphonic and swing with four years of the marching variety, but since moving down south I have been unable to find a musical home. Music has, for such a long portion of my life, been one of the constant creative outlooks, and now that it has a glaring absence, I decided it was time to learn an instrument that was a little less oppressive to neighbours than drums and bagpipes (haven't forgotten about those just yet!). 

Despite my love for the violin, and although I may someday explore that as well, I decided to pursue a more celtic design. Mandolins, although in the right setting very enjoyable to listen to, I prefer the deeper acoustic tones. Guitars are fine and well, and there is such a wealth of resources available to learning them, but again, I am after a different sound. Mandolas, the larger cousin of the mandolin, are perfect, but harder to find. And then it came to me. To me, the best way to understand an instrument is to first understand how it is made. So, without any knowledge of the luthier's beautiful trade, I decided to build an instrument on which to learn. Because I am doing it myself, I am free of the commercial constraints of availability and reasonability.

The design will be a sort of hybrid between a mandola and guitar- the body of the former and the fretboard of the latter. In theory, it will yield similar sounds to the mandola while holding to the technique of the guitar. A 'Mandolar' if you will.

First, I needed a frame. For hollow body instruments, the sides must be bent into the requisite shape. Following the pattern of an A body mandola, I glued together a bunch of wood hiding out in the laundry closet in a rough trapezoid. Because it will be under a bit of pressure during the bending process, it had to be rigid and roughly the thickness of the side height. Due to my lack of a steam bending mandrel, I decided to instead turn to the route of a steam box. When the wood is sufficiently pliable, it is clamped tightly into the shape of the frame where it will dry and conform to the inset bends and curves.

Being extremely rough cut, the frame needed a tremendous amount of work to reach its final shape. However, my workspace is limited to the size of a bath towel folded in two. Without a workshop to use, or even a space that I can be unconcerned with producing dust and shavings, everything must be carefully done by hand.

Smoothing out the large rounds was the easiest part. My trusty No 52 spokeshave left a clean, even surface that required minimal correction later.

Periodically, I checked the frame for square, which I assume is extremely important when bending the sides. Torsion in the thin sides would be difficult to correct later, and this frame will also be used in the assembly and gluing of the sides to the back.

For the tight inner radii, I had little other choice than to use chisels and gouges. The process was even slower than before, and by this point roughly a week elapsed since first gluing the frame together.

After all the sides were finished, smoothed and sanded, I drilled a few strategic holes in the frame to accept clamps. Combined with some outer blocks, this is what forces the steamed sides to shape.

6 holes later (one for each pair of inner curves, one for the bottom, and one for each of the middle of the large outer curves), it's onto the joint braces. I have no idea if there is a technical word for any of this, as again, I have no experience being a luthier.

These strips will be in the corners of each joint where the sides cannot be bent to be one continuous piece of wood. It will both reinforce the joint as a structural anchor for the tension that will inevitably still be in the wood after bending (based on the test bends I did, the final curvature was never perfectly tight enough, requiring the wood to be bent into place).

Because the frame is not quite deep enough, the ends of the braces hang over a bit, although they are still longer than the mandola sides and will be trimmed after assembly.

First, the width of the brace is cut, sized to the frame.

Then it's back to work with the plane. Each shape is made individually to account for the direction of the sweep. Note the two finished pieces whose ends you can see above the plane.

Gradually, the waste basked filled with layers of shavings, changing from tan to brown to purple and back again.

Those four little pieces were the easiest, but the inner corner was a bit less so. Compound curves met at a skew angle, which made the wood too shallow to accept the needed dimensions. So I split the wood and glued it together to doubled its thickness.

First is trimming the width. I could have just worked from one side, but the two sides were not perfectly aligned from gluing, so I split the difference.

Then with a number of chisels, I cut out the inner corner and checked for square.

Transcribing the shape squarely onto the frame was tricky, but it does not matter all that much. The frame will only be lightly holding the corner block for bending, and during assembly, I do not want it to be tight anyway. The tighter the fit, the more difficult it will be to remove after the sides are glued together.

Scribing the lines using a handy knife, cutting the grain on the faces and across the height of the sides. Unfortunately, as I struggled with throughout the entirety of building this frame, the wood grain changed directions with every piece that were glued together. It made a sort of plywood, which is great for the strength but awful for shaping.

Slow work. Should have cut the long lines with a saw, but still would not have been able to chip out the rest because of how it is glued...

And there we are. The fit is a bit sloppy on the corners, but as I mentioned, not necessarily a bad thing.

Now we turn to the first major piece to be used in the actual mandolar. This block is what reinforces the butt of the instrument and serves as an anchor for a strap. Because it is not a piece of scrap, I did not want to make nay errors here.

Same as with the others, the block gets inset into the frame, and the necessary curvature traced. When seen from above, the shape of the frame should be uninterrupted for all these extra blocks and braces.

Close, but the corners need to go.

To the block plane to ease the geometry.

This, two weeks later, is where I thought I was finally done with the frame. Wrong! I still needed to make all the reverse curvature clamping blocks.

Fortunately, most of them were easy outside curves.

Trimmed out of pieces cut from the original roughing of the frame, the seven pieces were conveniently the perfect height.

Rasps, saws, planes and chisels made decently fast work (still monotonously slow, mind you) of the first five. Those remaining two, however, were a bit more complex.

Due to the grain directions changing in the block, I had to make several cuts with the saw and chip out the ribs, finishing with files.

Aside from one errant cut, it was not bad. Doesn't need to be perfect, as this will merely be a pressure distributor so the clamp does not destroy the side wood.

Finally, the last piece is carved and fitted to the interior corner block from before.

And that's it! About a month of work with simple hand tools over the foot of my bed as a work bench, and the frame is done. This will (hopefully) be by far the most tedious part that has no real place to be showcased in the final instrument. Next up- bending the sides to shape.

Thursday, September 3, 2015



Long the road of weary men, in gallant stride and sturdy hand
          A blackbird flew again from roost to distant land.
          Waves of silver and iron fen, sun of gold and ashen sand
          Were seen in dream on ocean's bend.
Two astride the mason's horse and four ahead afoot,
          Through autumn set an eastward course o'er loam and root.
          Day's lament and night's remorse in dusk turned blackened soot
          The heavens opened to dawn contend.
Mountains' shadow to foothills' plain the roads to wilds abscond
          Through forest of fern and sea of grain to pool and hidden pond
          Where a callous heart would search in vain for the home that lay beyond
          Until the errant souls in peace amend.
Twilit fire around doorsteps old to where the trailhead met its spade,
          Footfall trod to hearths uncold in the inn beneath the shade.
          Faces come with tales untold where friends are better made
          Beneath the hammer's sign.
Under the eaves the blackbird hears their merriment and song by mead
          And through thick pipesmoke the blackbird peers, and beholds a sight indeed-
          What was lost, in solitude perseveres, has sown companion's seed
          For a table set in the house of honey-wine.

When given nothing, all things we must create. And from nothing, I made more than I imagined I would ever be able to give life.

From nothing but scraps and trash, I embarked on a journey to make a puukko, a traditional Finnish knife, for an exchange known in the community as a Knife in the Hat. The last one I entered pushed me to my limits as far as patience in design and execution, and at the time yielded my best work to date. Here, I had a similar experience, and while the result is not as visually striking, the constraints of material and workspace brought me to understand the use of hand tools on a level which I have never before known.

To start, I grabbed a handful of scraps from the rubbish bin, cutoffs from other blades, failed projects, even bits of scrap pattern weld. The above result, tack welded into a hideous mass so I could hold onto it in the forge, is less than promising.

After the first pass in the forge, the billet is solidly welded together. On one face, I laid two strips of old delaminated pattern welded steel side by side, and here that seam is all but invisible. At either end, the uneven pieces resulted in poor welds and quite a bit of scale. Instead of trying to salvage it, I cut them off and returned them back to the scrap bin.

Two folds in, and the billet is extremely solid and clean of weld flaws. Above, only a faint line can be seen at the tong-end, which too disappeared in the subsequent working. Although I do not recall how many layers and folds I went through to establish the steel's pattern, the final billet is somewhere around 100 layers by the time I began forging the blade to shape. Also, because the steel all came from scraps, it was unmarked in alloy, making a predictable pattern difficult to create.

Due to the unpredictable nature of the steel, I began with twice as much as I needed in the event that the one blade failed during heat treatment. Here, the first (and only) blade has been cut from the bar and the tang established.

Puukkos, unlike most modern knives, have a skewed pentagonal cross section where the widest part of the blade is midway between the spine and the edge. Narrowing as a false edge might, the spine grows thinner, but still maintains a fair amount of thickness that is not sharpened.

With the blade forged to shape, I began removing the scale. This is the first major project I was able to use my new belt sander, and what a difference it made! Opposed to my old 2x42, moving to the 2x72 was about as significant as the transition between draw filing and the 2x42. A stronger, faster motor and the ability to adjust various surfaces to grind on made for short work of the scale.

This profile is,  like most things I do, not something I have done before. The centreline is relatively fragile in that it is easy to destroy by the slightest misstep at the grinder. As a result, once the rough profiling was finished, I turned to EDM stones, a synthetic abrasive similar to whetstones but very different in intended application.

At this point, the blade has just come out of a quick temper lest I drop it and it shatters (no pictures of the heat treatment process) after the final bit of girth on the edge bevel was taken out. This was also the first glimmer of the pattern, which is about what I expected.

Removing scratch marks from the grinder is laborious to say the least. Even the slightest of lines will darken dramatically when the blade is etched, so it is imperative that they are all removed from one grit before moving to the next.

For now, this will suffice. I do not intend to polish the blade yet because of how often it will be handled in the making of the handle and fittings.

The blade is finished (for now), so I can turn my attention to the handle. For wood, I used part of a block given to me by a friend who builds and restores clocks. He did not know quite what it was, but I believe it came out of his firewood pile and had no other use for it.

To start the holes, I drilled twice through the block, side by side, and filed it open until the tang began to fit inside. For the rest of the way, I heated the tang and burned it in.

Because I do not have a drill press or other means of ensuring the hole is straight, I leave handles a bit oversized until it fits onto the blade. Alignment traced and the shape sketched in, I can now begin the bulk removal process with an old hand plane. From here out, everything is done with hand tools. Just after the handle was burned on, I had to move into an apartment where shop amenities failed to match my old garage. So, with determination and my computer desk, I did the rest the only other way I could.

Keeping with the trend of sub par phone quality pictures, it was time to work on the fittings. I cut a piece of copper out of a bar that was once (I think) an electrical distribution bus. About a half inch thick, this part took far longer than I care to admit. Needle files are all I had to open the hole for the tang, and filing that much copper, despite its relative softness, took quite some time.

Finally, it fits snug to the shoulders. Removing the last gaps between copper and blade was a long road of trial and error, but there are no shortcuts here. Since this, I obtained a file guide, which would have been immensely useful in squaring the shoulders of the blade before fitting it to the copper. Even the slightest misalignment between the spine and edge sides, or curving to the lines, results in unsightly gaps.

Making the second cut in the copper. For the last four months or so all I have had as a workbench is a towel on my floor to collect dust and filings.

Same as the first hole, I have to drill it too by hand. Shortly before moving, the motor on my electric drill shorted, so once more, it's to hand tools that I have to turn.

With the back end of the handle wood scribed on the copper, I can begin working it down to size. Instead of breaking my fingers with the hack saw again, I used a farrier's rasp, which did wonders to remove material quickly and relatively cleanly.

After several days working away at the copper, I finally decided to move on to the sheath. Traditionally, puukkos had a wooden core and high necked leather sheath, a combination I had- you guessed it- never tried before.

With a random piece of wood from the laundry closet, I cut, split, and carved two halves for the blade to sit in. Once more with the trusty plane I worked it roughly to shape before gluing the two halves back together.

I am always surprised by how thin I can take the wood before while it still looks overly robust and unwieldy.

Now that the two halves are glued back together, a fit that is tight enough already to hold the weight of the knife through its friction alone, I can return to the blade and finish the final details before assembling the handle and finishing the sheath.

Unlike whetstones, the EDM stones are not very large and wear rather quickly, so I abandoned them for the final finish. An old oil stone from a garage sale years ago some friends gave me suited the task perfectly. Unmarked 'rough' and 'fine' grits were enough to bring the edge to a shaving sharpness, albeit a painful shave.

A few low spots remain from the previous test etches. Once they are gone, it's back into the ferric chloride.

And here is the blade out of the etch. Not many people outside the bladesmithing community realize that the etch will eventually darken all the steels (unless you are working with stainless which is a whole other animal all to itself) and the non tactile pattern is brought out by lightly sanding the blade to brighten the high spots while the dark remain untouched.

Midway through the finishing, I thought of something which would set my puukko apart from the others. I have never seen this done before, so I went for it and later came to like it rather much. Instead of having a uniform finish, I started sanding the spine bevels to remove every trace of the etch. It sort of gives an illusion that the spine is the edge, but I like the contrast in the crispness of the bevel's spine.

Sanded the rest of the way to a nice bright mirror, the blade went straight into a protective wrap of paper towel and cellophane. Then, the handle went on for the last time. Although the tang will be peened to lock the components in place, I also added a little epoxy to the tang for rust protection and reinforcement.

I should also mention that at this point, the handle was far from striking. The grain was bland and variation all but absent. So I lit it on fire.

While that cures, it was back onto the sheath. Despite having plenty of good leather to work with, I instead used this scrap from something or other that was of extremely poor quality and would probably have been thrown out. While the face is alright, the backside was porous and fleshy, and overall it was very thick.

Trying out something that came to me when I heard a suggestion of using a spoke shave to chamfer edges for stitching, I sharpened the block plane and began to have at it. At first, it was a mess, and the only result was fine dust everywhere.

Then the magic happened. Nice, even shavings curled out of the throat and a pristine surface was left behind. Over the entire surface I worked the block plane until it was a uniform thickness and all the knots and strings were gone. Who would have thought?

Handle dry and tang peened, I wrapped the lot in more cellophane, dampened the leather for wet forming, and dive right in.

Wet forming leather is not overly difficult but at the same time extremely satisfying when it comes out right. Burnishing the contours into place and pulling it just so, I was able to bring it to fit just like a sheath should.

At first, I was tempted to punch the holes for the stitching before forming it or before it was completely dry due to the strange shape, but I am glad I did not. With my trusty sharpened nail, I hammered through after marking it with a star wheel, aiming a little low of the corner so I could pull the leather tight around the wooden core.

I was also tempted to cut the leather before I did, but once again I am glad I did not. It is infinitely easier to cut large and work down to size than measure a thousand times and still have to try and get more out of what you have when it is inevitably too small. With the spoke shave, I trimmed down the spine of the seam until it stood about 3/8 of an inch proud.

At the top, I left in a little eye for lanyard for fastening it to a belt or whatnot. At this point, all that remains is to seal the leather and unwrap the knife for its final oil and photographs.

I must have forgotten to take a picture during the sealing, but I used a home made recipe that I came up with when I made an armguard a while back.

In a double boiler, mix the following-
-1.5 parts pure beeswax
-1.5 parts paraffin wax
-1 part or thereabouts of olive oil

This has done a fantastic job at protecting from moisture, and all but waterproofs the leather. If I were to do it again, I would add more oil so it is easier to apply at room temperature. Because of the wax, I had to heat it all back to a liquid for this, and submerged the leather entirely into the jar. Invariably there will be too much on the surface if you do it this way, but it is easy to buff off, and the surface penetration is much better when the leather is submerged into the hot bath where it can absorb the mixture.

That's it! Throughout the process I learned a great deal and developed a deal more in the realm of hand tool technique. What is perhaps the most important, I forced myself to believe that the only limitation on our work is that which we set in our mind. Neither more space nor the newest, greatest tools and materials will make you any more able. Faster, perhaps, but no more skilled and certainly no more able to get out there and create.