Making wooden musical instruments is a combination of my love of music – starting with playing the clarinet in the high school band — and my love of the outdoors.
My journey in making musical instruments began when I started making cigar box ukuleles. I studied with Mike DaSilva, ukemaker, in Berkeley, California to make my first Koa ukulele.
Then, becoming smitten by the voice of the Native American flute, I started to learn to make flutes from “urban wood” (better known as PVC pipe). After making about 60 such flutes, I began using beautiful pieces of cedar, Southern magnolia, cherry, poplar, and ambrosia maple. And then I started making wood ocarinas with beautiful voices.
One June, I purchased a lathe to turn my flutes and ocarinas. I learned to turn at John C. Campbell Folk School with Rudy Lopez as my instructor. Woodturning became fascinating.
Then I studied bowl turning at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts with Warren Carpenter and Greg Schramek. A few years later I received a scholarship from the American Association of Woodturners (AAW) and studied pyrography and color design on wood with Molly Winton.
When it comes to playing flutes, I’ve learned I have small hands and like many people who play the Native American flute we don’t want to have to strain to play the flute when the holes are too far apart. Since I make my own flutes I decided to design the flutes to be comfortable and bring joy, not pain for people with smaller hands.
I also tune my flutes (except for my branch flutes that have their own musical personalities) to play with other instruments. It’s important to me that my A flute play beautifully with the ukulele, my E flutes with the guitar, and my B flutes play with my Kanteles.
Since much of my work is done in my outdoor workshop, that is how I came to name my flutes and kanteles “WrenSong”. As I test the instruments I have made, a Carolina wren flies in and sits on the fence to sing along with the instrument. The “WrenSong” is the final blessing of the instrument.
When a death in the family required me to drive often and out of state, I looked for something I could make while on the road. That is when I found spoon carving — requiring only an axe and a knife. I am a big believer in the axiom “we learn to read to empower us to read to learn” and that is how I learned to carve spoons — reading. Eventually, I did watch a few YouTube videos, a DVD on spoon carving and learned much from Barron Brown and Bob and Doug at Arrowmont.
Unlike flutes and kanteles, spoons can be started from a green tree limb and finished within a couple of hours. It can be done almost anywhere you can find a fresh tree limb.
The whole journey of learning to explore wood and what can be made with wood is inspiring. I recently began carving wood owls, terns, and cats — all favorite naturals of mine. And now dolls … I have discovered yet a further challenge … the carving of tiny wood dolls.
Each item leads to new skills with wood yet builds from skills recently acquired. Exploring how wood behaves in each of its new forms from musical instrument to spoon to doll is a delight.
Do join me in my blog posts if you love the outdoors and being in nature.