A Bridge To Nowhere.

Like a lot of adults with a misspent youth can say, I used to be in a band.  We played a lot of rock and punk music because that's what garage bands were supposed to play, and that is what my friends and I were into. I would never have admitted it to my friends then, but I really liked bluegrass.  Particularly, I liked and still really enjoy the banjo. I always wanted to learn to play one, but until recently, I never took that dream particularly seriously.   It just so happened that my wife's parents had one buried in their attic, along with the obligatory creepy attic contents proper old houses are supposed to have.  I asked to borrow it and they obliged with eyebrows raised, really?  The banjo?  My wife, who thinks banjos sound like cats caught in a shop vac, said the same thing. I brought the banjo home and opened the cardboard box it was kept in and realized that it was unplayable.  It was missing a bridge, a little (usually wooden) piece just before the end of the banjo that keeps the strings up off of the head, allows them to vibrate freely, and to make that oh so sweet sound.

My first thought about the missing bridge was, uh-oh I bet those are expensive (they aren't).  Against her better judgement, my wife said, "why don't you just make one, they are basically just a wooden block."  It was that moment I realized I could kill two birds with one banjo.  I could get out in my shop for a while, a rarity these past couple of weeks, and I could make my own bridge.

I went out to my refuge and grabbed a couple of walnut cutoffs from my milled walnut tree and an old piece of ebony I have been holding on to for just such an occasion, and quickly realized I had no idea what I was doing.  After returning to the house and scouring the trusty old internet for a while, I found a great reference website for my project.  Http://banjobridge.com/ has a ton of information if you are curious about making a bridge for a banjo.  Whats that you say?  You're a guitar enthusiast?  A cursory "Google" search for "make a guitar bridge" also turned up about 45 million results, so if you are interested, give it a shot.

Now armed with just enough information to be dangerous, I returned to butchering my walnut. With a hatchet, I split a large tapered piece (so the bridge would be quarter sawn) from the scrap.  I then cut a small piece with a handsaw, now tapered from 1/2 in to 3/4 in and about four inches long. Then I cut a thin piece, about 1/4 in by 3 in, of ebony.  I must apologize for the ridiculously staged, after-the-fact photos.  I was happily photographing my process along the way, and then realized I had no memory card in my camera.  I thought the days of no film in the camera were long gone, but apparently technology doesn't cure stupidity.  So, please ignore the obvious fact that the steps don't seem to follow the order in the photographs. Use your imagination.

I used a small block plane to straighten up the top and bottom of the walnut piece and to clean up the bottom edge of the ebony strip.  Then I glued the two pieces together with the ebony strip on the small end of the tapered walnut.

At this point a molding plane would have been handy, but I was able to successfully shape the concave profile using a carving gouge.  Scratch stock might have worked well here as well, and if I was going to make several more of these I'd give it a try.

Shaping A Concave Profile With A Carving Gouge
Concave Profile

Next, I shaped the "feet" with a round file, by just happily filing away until I got bored found success.

I then shaped the sweep on the sides with another carving gouge.  This worked much better than I thought, however, I did hone the gouge to within an inch of its life to assure it was razor sharp before I used it to lop off the edges.

Because the tools I used to shape the bridge were good and sharp I barely had to do any sanding, but I did clean up some edges with a little 250 grit sandpaper.

A tip I got from banjobridge.com which worked really well, was to use welding tip cleaners to form the tiny grooves/slots in the ebony for the strings to sit in.  This tool, if you aren't familiar, is a little metal container full of tiny round metal files used for cleaning out the tips on welding torches.  They are great for cleaning out all kinds of tiny openings and they are usually under five bucks at your local hardware store.  I just matched the size of the file to the size of the coordinating banjo string and filed in the groove.  They worked perfectly!

Welding Tip Cleaners

Filing In The String Slots

Finished Slots

I finished the bridge with a couple coats of beeswax rubbed in with a cotton cloth and it darkened up the walnut nicely.  I used George's Club House Wax, not because I'm going to eat the bridge, but because it's just beeswax and mineral oil and I didn't want anything funky seeping out onto the banjo head.

I'm certainly not going to become the next Antonio Stradavari, but for my very first venture into making an instrument accessory I was pretty happy.  Now, if I could just learn how to play the darn thing!


Woodworking In America 2013

I have an admission to make.  I haven't been in my shop in over a week and a half.  It physically pains me to make that statement.  I have been getting a number of other things squared away so I can attend the Woodworking In America conference this year.  After a drive through the night, and coffee fueled morning, I was able to stay awake for the entire first day of classes.  If you have never been to a WIA conference before, I would highly recommend the trip.  Just like I did last year, as these classes become pertinent to projects I'm doing, I'll post the my notes and photos of some of the classes I have attended.  This conference is a great learning and networking opportunity, but most importantly it gets me excited to get back in my shop.

The day started off with a class from Mr. Glen Huey about the proper use of a powered jointer and thickness planer for stock prep/milling.  I don't own a jointer but I know a guy who does, and he may be getting a phone call from me soon.  I snuck out a little early from that class to attend a class titled TIMBER!!! given by Mr. Roy Underhill.  I wasn't sure what to expect from this class, but I am absolutely glad I attended.  He essentially walked through the steps of squaring a log by hand.  I recently posted on this very topic and I was so glad to get the detailed instruction.  While this is a labor intensive project I actually might give this a try now that I know what is really involved.  I'll post on my attempt (hopefully this fall) and include the instructions I got today.  In the mean time, however, I'll leave you with some photos of Mr. Underhill doing what he does best.  More to come...

Take That Powerpoint!!!
What To Do, What To Do....

No, Not Really...

Broad Axe
All Squared Away


Turn Of The Screw.

As I have confessed on more than one occasion and to anyone who will stand still long enough, I love antique hand tools.  I have, however, in the most recent years started to be a bit more choosy about what I purchase and include in my collection.  I'm not becoming choosy because I only want to collect pristine works of art (unless I come across something really special and my wife isn't looking), on the contrary, I am being more particular about buying tools that I think I'll actually use.  I am not a true collector (in the strictest definition of the word) as I restore and use many of the tools I collect.  A few dings, dents, user repairs and signs of use are something I actually enjoy about old hand tools.  I have several new acquisitions that will undoubtedly help me round out my "collection" and will hopefully serve as patterns for some future Polthaus tools, if the stars align.

One tool that I have been pleasantly surprised by has been a 1 inch Marples screw box (sounds dirty, but I assure you it is not...well maybe a little).  This little guy turns a one inch dowel into a 5tpi wooden screw which is a lower tpi than many of the modern boxes which are often 8tpi.  I got this to make something totally unrelated to my woodworking addiction, but it turned out to work so well that I couldn't part with it after its first use. Unfortunately though, I purchased this one at a real discount because it is missing the tap (a rather critical part if you actually want the screws to work).  I believe, however, that I can make a replacement with my South Bend, a dash of elbow grease and generous helping of time and do-overs.  Once the tap is made, this will make some nice wooden screws for a shop made Moxon Vise (on the cheap) which will undoubtedly be added to my traveling tool box.

Marples Screw Cutting Box With Factory Test Piece
The Chips Come Out Of The Mortise In The Side
I have come across some of these screw boxes in the past and, unfortunately, unless they are in decent shape they aren't really worth the wood they are made from.  If the threads inside the box get broken or if the box won't stay shut, it is better to move along to the next one.  You could also buy the broken one for the cutter and and tap (assuming it is still located with the box) and make your own box.

And On The Inside...
Here You Can See The Cutter Adjustment Screws

Simple Cutter Geometry Makes This Easy To Sharpen and Hone
After a quick honing of the triangular cutter on a leather paddle, I cut a poplar screw as a test piece and it turned out really well.  I think a harder wood like maple would produce better threads but even in the softer poplar I got well defined deep grooves and nice strong threads with a single pass through the box.  A nice feature about the box is that it was created with a tapered tap.  This results in the exit threads at the bottom of the box being just ever so slightly narrower than the starting threads at the top of the box, so that upon exiting the box the threads are burnished.  Once I get the accompanying tap made for this thing and I can actually put the screws to use I'll be one happy camper with one less loose screw...sorry I couldn't resist.

Poplar Wooden Screw Test Piece
And now I will part with the chant of my old Air Force Civil Engineers drinking Softball Team  "Nuts And Bolts, Nuts And Bolts...We. Got. Screwed!"  We didn't win very many games..