Jan 27, 2013

The Warranty Has Expired...

Keith K.Young 1929-2012
I first became aware of Keith Young around 1984.  I had acquired a book, The Autoharp Book, which had been published in 1983, and  I was in the market for a new, custom-built autoharp.  In the back of the book were several pictures of artists playing autoharps, and one was described as "Keith Young, playing an autoharp of his own construction."  It was a beautiful instrument crafted in curly maple.  I had to find out who this person was, so I called Becky Blackley, the publisher of the Autoharpoholic magazine, who had written the book, and asked her about Keith.  She informed me that he was a dulcimer builder who lived in suburban Washington, DC, and she provided me with his phone number.

I called Keith and told him I was interested in having him build me an Autoharp.  He was delightful to talk to.  We discussed the benefits of various woods and other features, and I ordered a curly maple instrument with ebony trim, walnut chord bars, and a carved dogwood blossom rosette in the sound hole.  He was very professional and businesslike -- precise in his pricing and exact in promising a delivery date a few months hence.  The instrument arrived a couple of days earlier than promised and was even more spectacular than I could have imagined.  It is to this day one of my favorites (Can it really be close to thirty years ago!?!).  Keith stood behind his instruments, saying in his cute way that they all had a "lifetime warranty, whichever comes first, yours or mine."

My Autoharp built by Keith Young

A few months later, my late wife Margo had a librarian's convention in Washington, and she drove our little Nissan Sentra.  She asked if I might fly up there near the end of the convention so that we could do some sightseeing and I could share the driving on the way home.  I flew up, and one of the places we visited was the home of Keith and Mary Young in Annandale.  I wanted to meet the man in person who had built my Autoharp with such care and skill.

Keith explains fret slot cutting
to a member of our dulcimer-
building class in 2005
Over the ensuing years, we became good friends.  I attended his class in dulcimer building one summer at the Augusta Heritage Arts Workshops in Elkins, West Virginia.  The following summer, he and I took a class together -- Kevin Enoch's Pearl Inlay and Engraving.  In later years, Keith asked me to assist him with the dulcimer building class.  It was an honor to work with him.  He started each summer session with the expected safety lecture and demonstration on proper tool usage.  For many class members it was the first time they had encountered power tools first-hand.
Keith in his shop with one of his exquisite dulcimers

But then, Keith delivered a sermon on craftsmanship.  He talked not only about being careful and finishing work in a professional and artistically pleasing method.  He also stressed problem solving as a sign of a great craftsman.  He pointed out that we would all "make mistakes" but that the real craftsman was the one who benefited and learned from the solving of such problems.  And as members of the class would encounter problems, Keith would use them as opportunities to teach this slant on craftsmanship.  He always made it clear that he was still striving toward an unattainable goal and knew that he would learn something in every class he taught.  To this day, I find myself asking, "How would Keith tackle this problem," or, "Would this be good enough to satisfy Keith?"  His legacy to me is a richer appreciation for learning through doing.  And he "did" far more than most of us.

Graduation picture -- Dulcimer and fretless banjo class,
Elkins, WV, August 2005 -- Keith in foreground
He was a respected soil scientist who served 34 years in the U.S. Dept of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service, receiving numerous awards for his contributions to a better understanding of soil resources.  He was married for 61 years to his devoted Mary, and they raised six children.  But he also crafted over 1,500 beautiful mountain dulcimers and hundreds of other musical instruments from MacArthur Harps to fretless banjos.  He never stopped experimenting with new ideas.  He founded the Mill Run Dulcimer Band, the Greater Washington Dulcimer Disorganization and taught hundreds of students to play the Dulcimer.

He was simply one of the nicest, most considerate people I've ever known.  This article that appeared many years ago in the Autoharp Clearinghouse bears testimony to his generosity.
The Mill Run Dulcimer Band
Keith is on the lower left.
Whenever business would take me to the D.C. area, I'd make it a point to visit Keith and Mary, and sometimes got to sit in on practice sessions of his beloved Mill Run Dulcimer Band, of which he was a member for over 35 years.  Sometimes, he and Mary and I would go together to one of his favorite nearby restaurants, Duck Chang's, for a fabulous Chinese dinner.

Sadly, I learned yesterday that my warranty has expired.  Keith had passed away several months ago and I was unaware of it.  I went to his Web site to get his email address to make him aware of the Banjo Boys' activities.  He would get a kick out of the very notion of building a banjo out of a car part.  I learned that "Keith had a fall in the shop... resulting in a head injury, and that despite the efforts of emergency and hospital personnel, and of Mary, his wife of 61 years, he died... February 9, 2012."

Rest in peace my friend and colleague.  I feel sure that you have long since organized a new ensemble of heavenly harps.

In tribute to Keith's legacy, a group of musicians (many of whom are friends of mine) calling themselves The Greater Greencastle PA Raffele Orchestra put the following video on YouTube last April.  The piece was composed by Heidi Cerrigione, who is playing the raffele (built by Keith) in the left foreground.  Keith would be honored in his unassuming way.

Banjo Boys - Chapter 7

A satisfied Banjo Boy admiring his work
The Banjo Boys started out today's festivities with a hearty Banjo Boy Breakfast at Hardee's in Meridianville, Alabama.  Then we headed north to the Mead homestead to get down to serious work.  To start out, all three of us had different jobs going on.  First, Monty had to glue the pearl dots in the recesses he had already drilled in his fretboard.  He got these installed in just a few minutes.  Monty had also cut the profile of his peg head out using his band saw, but it still needed to be sanded smooth.  I set him up with the oscillating drum sander using the smallest diameter drum.

The neck joint shaper in action!!
Clint needed to cut the recesses into which his mother-of-pearl birds will be glued, so I set him up with my Dremel Mototool and the smallest router bit I owned.  Then I began the finishing touches on the jig that I hoped would enable us to cut a curved sloped surface on the end of the neck that presses against the outside surface of the banjo "pot."  I got it done in about an hour.  I had seen a site on which a banjo builder used a 10" radial arm saw to cut the sloped, concave area at the base of the neck.  It dawned on me that if I could build an adjustable jig to hold the neck, I could use the blade on my 10" table saw to do the same thing.  Here it is in action with one of the necks attached.  I've clamped a board across the table saw bed to act as a transverse fence.

Monty finished his head shaping and pearl inlaying in time to run his neck through the shaper and Clint's neck was ready as well.  All 3 necks will now fit snugly against the outer surface of the Buick Dynaflow turbine ring (a.k.a., the Pot).  The fit is perfect.

Clint's neck fits against the pot.
We had a brief lunch at Dad's Barbecue in Hazel Green, AL, and returned to the shop, where Monty resumed his sanding, this time on the fretboard, where he had installed his marker dots.  Clint and I began the set up that would enable us to create a small "cutaway" at the lower end of our fretboards.  This design is often used by clawhammer-style banjo players.  Using my router table with the inverted router mounted underneath, we built a guide template and managed to produce a couple of very beautiful ogee-shaped cutaways.
The Ogee cutout

On my recessed area of the lower neck, I plan to fasten another Buick emblem -- this one a Buick script used on the pre-1920's cars.  One of Clint's beautiful pearl barnswallows resides in his recessed area.

I think we were all pretty pleased with today's results...

Jan 20, 2013

Banjo Boys, Chapter 6

How far we've progressed from the day we cut the maple blanks!
Today was another great work day for at least two of the Banjo Boys.  Monty called earlier in the week and informed me that he planned to spend today with his son Patrick.  His priorities are A-OK with the Banjo Boys' Code of Conduct.  We love the Waylon Jennings lyrics, "So you do all you can, but then you gotta let go, You're just part of the flow, Of the river that runs, Between fathers and sons."  So it was just Clint and I for the day and he arrived around 10:30 AM.

We made a quick run down to the Ace Hardware store to get some denatured alcohol.  We had bought some dark tobacco-brown wood stain that has to be diluted with alcohol.  We diluted it 10 parts alcohol to 1 part dye.  It is very dark and very fast acting.  We ran several tests on scrap wood. both maple and walnut.  We think we know how we can use this dye to darken our wood and bring out the grain.

When we finished the dye experimentation, we tackled the first band saw cut that will eventually define the overall profile of the neck.  After changing band saw blade to a much finer 1/8" blade, we "tuned" the band saw to get all the adjustments correct for the new blade.  This took about an hour.  Then, we made our cuts:

The "first cut" in shaping the necks
In the picture above, I have completed belt sanding of the back surface of the peghead, whereas Clint's is still in the rough cut stage.  The dark line on the edge of his peghead is where he intends to put an ebony veneer on theback side of the maple.  We got out the thickness sander and looked at ways in which we might be able to make a thin ebony veneer out of some left over ebony that Clint has saved.  As part of that effort, we glued a piece of ebony to a pine board that is thick enough to feed through the thickness sander.  Next week, we'll try to thin the ebony down to veneer thickness.  It should get interesting!

Clint had some remaining pearl and brass inlay to complete his "Milky Way" star pattern, and I had to complete the inlay of my B and U pearl letters, so we worked independently to complete those tasks.

Current status of the two necks

The Banjo Boys dined at Sonic today in Hazel Green, Alabama, enjoying the latest Sonic creation, the Ultimate Grilled Bacon Cheddar Cheeseburger.  Highly recommended!

In a last-minute dispatch to Banjo Boy Central, Monty let us know that in spite of his absence yesterday, he made significant progress on his own this weekend.  Photo evidence shows that he cut out the profile of both his neck and headstock, and drilled the holes into which his mother-of-pearl fret markers will be glued.
The recesses for the M.O.P. dots
Monty's neck and peg head cut out -- WOW!

Jan 16, 2013

Outstanding Dinner!

Typical Pasta e Fagioli - A thick, chili-like soup
A couple of weeks ago, Mary Ann and I met for lunch in Huntsville at the Olive Garden.  We both had the soup and salad lunch special and she chose the Pasta e Fagioli (pasta and beans).  She commented on how delicious and hearty it was and that it might be fun to try at home.  Well, tonight was the night to try it and it was exceptional!

Mary Ann had gone onto the Internet and searched for the recipe.  There are many, many sites that claim to have duplicated various restaurants' best dishes, and this soup was no exception.  She finally decided to use the recipe on Todd Wilbur's Top Secret Recipes Web site.  It was amazing in it's replication of the Olive Garden appetizer.  Mary Ann served it with warm fresh rolls and a small side salad.  Wonderful...

Jan 13, 2013

Banjo Boys, Chapter 5

Monty applying tape to his rose inlay

Today was a warm, drizzly day; a perfect day for working on Dynaflow banjos!  Monty and Clint came to the house a little before 9:00 AM.  Today was a day to complete the fixes to the fret slots begun last week, and to get started on the decorative inlay for the necks and pegheads.

These are going to be three very different and unique instruments.  Monty is decorating his in floral themes with a couple of beautiful and intricate roses.  His current plan is to use simple pearl dots as fret markers (specific frets are marked with single or double markers to help the player navigate).  Clint is making his neck with a couple of barn swallows rendered in pearl and abalone.  The remainder of the neck will be covered with various sized dots of pearl or brass with occasional 5-pointed stars.  The overall effect reminds me of the milky way in the night sky.  And my banjo has a strictly "Buick" theme, using stars and the letters B-U-I-C-K as the markers.

We started today with Monty laying out his pearl, Clint using the drill press and multiple-sized drill bits to lay out his Milky Way, and my starting to rout out the depression in which a Buick "trishield" medallion will reside on my peghead.

Clint's "Milky Way" pattern

One of the more interesting challenges arose around Monty's pearl assembly.  The pre-cut pearl from the vendor comes glued to a piece of stiff paper.  At first, we were unsure how to remove the paper without damaging the pearl, some of which is incredibly delicate.  I had gone to the pearl vendor's Web site and found a video describing his recommended process.  He sticks Scotch Tape© to the top surface of the pearl and then immerses the whole assembly - tape, pearl, and backing paper - into hot water.  The glue holding the pearl to the paper dissolves and the pearl comes free, held together by the tape!  Neither Monty nor I believed that the Scotch Tape would continue to adhere to the pearl after being immersed in water.  We did an experiment with some of my Buick letters, which were also backed up by stiff paper.  Lo and behold it worked.  The adhesive gets really gooey, but it continues to adhere to the pearl.  So by close of business, Monty had successfully gotten his fret grooves finished and had his rose fastened to his peghead.  That, too is an interesting process.

My peghead

To rout the depression where the pearl inlay is going, the craftsman needs a precise outline that matches the piece or pieces to be inlaid.  To accomplish this, the object to be inlaid is glued to the surface using Duco
 Household Cement.  Then, the builder carefully etches a line around the edge of the object using a sharp tool such as an Exacto knife.  Then a few drops of acetone are applied around the edge of the pearl.  This soaks into the glue and dissolves it, allowing the piece to be removed without breaking it.  A little chalk can be rubbed into the etched line to make it stand out, and the router is used to cut the depression inside the line.

Clint got most of his holes drilled and dots glued in place.  He also cut out the rough shape of his peghead.  I got my peghead decoration in place (though not yet glued) and my peghead shape cut out.  Mary Ann had the idea of shaping the peghead like one of the Buick shields.

And, of course, we had lunch again at Fayetteville's fabulous Chuck Wagon restaurant!

The fabulous Chuck Wagon Cafe

Jan 10, 2013

Homage to Bob

I changed offices.  My former next door neighbor, Peggy Meagher, said it just wasn't the same without me.  She's a graphic artist.  She reinstalled me (sort of...).

Jan 6, 2013

Banjo Boys, Chapter 4...

Clint is the student; Bob is the teacher; Pearl inlay is the subject
Today the Banjo Boys convened for another session.  We had two goals:  Fix a couple of troublesome fret slots and get started with some pearl inlay if time allowed.  We pretty much accomplished our goals.

Monty's Rose inlay
Monty and Clint arrived around 10:30.  Our first order of business was to fix the problem fret slots.  We tried a couple different ways of cutting razor-thin slices of wood to glue into the slots.  Then we glued them in and left them while we went for lunch.  When we returned, we began the delicate process of trimming off the excess wood prior to re-cutting the fret slots.  Then we turned to the subject of the pearl inlay that will decorate the Dynaflow banjos.

Monty has acquired a beautiful mother of pearl rose that he plans to inlay in his head stock.  It arrived this week.  Now all we have to figure out is how to cut out the receiving surface for such an ornate and delicate shape.  We will rout out a shallow depression in the wood into which the pearl is to be glued.  Then the pearl will be glued in place after which it will be sanded flush with the wood's surface.  The challenge is to get the edges of the depression in the wood to match the edges of the inlay with no perceptible gap.

In the meantime, Clint had designed a couple of gorgeous barn swallows to include on Sarah's banjo.  He got frustrated trying to cut the tiny pieces of pearl and trying to get all the edges to meet precisely.  He contacted a gentleman who sells precision-cut mother of pearl (M.O.P. to those in the trade), and asked him if he could craft the birds if Clint sent him image files.  The fellow (whose business is in Viet Nam) sent him a price and Clint gave him the go-ahead.  Friday, the man sent Clint a picture of the finished product.  Based on the picture, I think the finished banjo neck is going to be stunning:

Clint's barn swallows rendered in pearl and abalone
The Trishield decoration

My decoration is going to be a little more mundane.  I plan to place the so-called Buick trishield on my headstock and spell out the word B-U-I-C-K down the fretboard punctuated by a pearl star at each end.  Using the endless resources of eBay, I acquired the interior decoration from the back seat of a 1971 Buick Le Sabre and plan to use it as the head stock decoration.  I intend to use a so-called hole saw to cut the edge of a recess in the walnut to a depth of about 1/8".  Then I'll chisel out or router cut the inside of the circle to create the recess to hold the medallion.  The idea is similar to a coin or medallion album as shown here:
The recessed medallion mount

The same company that made Monty's rose also makes individual M.O.P. letters (in multiple fonts, no less!), so I ordered my letters from them and those were shipped on Friday.  As part of today's session, I held class on inlay cutting.  My first star was the demonstration item.  I'm not totally happy with it and may try to redo it at a later session.  For now, it is what it is.
The first inlay...

The Banjo Boys continue to pursue the goal of the best possible Dynaflow-based banjos in the Western World!