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. An old blog I used to keep, Ukulele Perspective, gives you insight into the range of ukuleles I built. I had an incredible opportunity and studied with Mike DaSilva, ukemaker, in Berkeley, California to make my first Koa ukulele.
While building and playing the ukulele, I became smitten by the voice of the Native American flute. I learned to make flutes from “urban wood” (better known as PVC pipe) under tutelage of flute circle friends, Dan and Joey.
After making about 60 such flutes, I began using beautiful pieces of cedar, Southern magnolia, cherry, poplar, and ambrosia maple that were originally destined to become ukuleles. From time to time, I make a batch of ocarinas to hear a change in instruments’ voices I play. And I embarked on making flutes from tree branches and driftwood.
One June, I purchased a wood lathe to turn my flutes. Previous to this I had planed and sanded my flutes semi-round. Turning can be dangerous and although I am sometimes self-taught, I learned to turn at John C. Campbell Folk School with Rudy Lopez as my instructor. Woodturning became fascinating.
Turning is a great deal of fun. 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. Changed my view on texture and color.
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 to play with other instruments (concert tuning). My branch flutes have their own musical personalities and are not always concert tuned. When it comes to kiln-dried wood, 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 and a range of the flutes play with my harp that I made in 2016.
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 into the yard 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 in order 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.
As a caution to those who just want to grab a piece of wood, carve a spoon and eat from it, you should be aware that some woods should not be used for food. For example, Eastern aromatic cedar is a beautiful wood and easy to work with. This is the wood that is used to make “cedar chests” because it keeps pests away from your wool blankets. The repellent is part of the wood — don’t eat from such a spoon.
The whole journey of learning to explore wood and what can be made with green wood (as opposed to kiln-dried wood) is inspiring. I recently began carving wood owls, terns, and cats — all favorite creatures of mine. And most recently I have discovered the challenge of carving tiny wood dolls.
Each item leads to new skills with wood yet builds from skills recently acquired. Also, each of the items I make require the use of different kinds of physical exertion. One stays equally mentally alert during all creation.
To illustrate my point, if I am carving spoons for 2 months using an axe and knife, after such a time my hands and arms grow weary from repeated actions. You can see then that tuning flutes or stringing kanteles or preparing an ebook gives a variety in exertion. And joy in all of the creating.