A combination of me personally wanting to make some stringed instruments, and Melisa looking to expand her repertoire for sound healing let me to take on making a couple of new instruments for her in September.
Both were built from kits supplied by ‘Musicmakers’, a company based in Minnesota who supply a range of instruments, both in kit or ready assembled form, as well as blueprints and hardware for those who wish to design their own instruments. –click here for their website
The first was a Kantele. This is a traditional Finnish instrument in the Zither family, that can come in variety of forms and with anything from 5 to 30 or more strings. The kit was of a 10 stringed version and is one of the company’s easier builds, ideal to start with. The main wooden parts comprise walnut for the frame and mahogany for the soundboard. The Music Maker kit includes a decorative ‘rosette’ with a choice of 12 or so designs. We chose the ‘Dragonfly’ design due to the proliferation of dragonflies on the property and the fact that we like them. The rosettes can also be supplied individually in three different sizes so that they can be incorporated into our own designed and manufactured instruments. The rosettes are laser cut from 1/8” Baltic Ply, and really do add a beautiful finishing touch.
Starting with the sound board (making sure it’s the right way up!) the three main frame parts are glued individually to the underside of the sound board. Two screws, that are later covered with wooden plugs, are used to strengthen the joins of the twos side frame parts to the cross frame part. The tuning pins are drilled into the cross part, so these joins need to be very secure.
After the frame is attached to the underside of the sound board, the tail end of the top side of the soundboard needs to be sanded, as once the tail-piece for supporting the bridge pin is in place, access for sanding that area will be very difficult.
The tail-piece was then glued in place and the ‘snail’, a shaped piece of walnut that affixes under the soundboard at the head of the instrument to form a back drop for the decorative rosette.
Once the glue on these pieces is dry it’s time for the first phase of serious sanding. The area around the edges of the ‘snail’ have to be shaped to conform to the sound board – I used a cylindrical sanding tube on my Dremel to speed up the process. Then all the areas where parts meet were sanded first with coarse paper to smooth the joins.
At this point, before the final sanding, I drilled the holes for the tuning pins. The holes for the tuning pins needed to be drilled with a 3/16” drill bit and 1 ¼” deep. Using my pillar drill, I could set the maximum depth, but I also put a piece of tape in the drill bit as a visual marker, just in case the locking mechanism slipped. This was one of the check and re check points, to make sure that I didn’t mess up the holes! Once the holes had been drilled it was back to the sand paper, using finer and finer sand paper, down to 400 grade to get a really smooth finish.
Before putting the tuning pins in I varnished the instrument. Using urethane varnish, I went through a process of light coat of varnish, let it dry, then sand lightly with very fins sandpaper, then repeat. It was surprising how rough the wood would feel after a coat of varnish. The process was repeated about five times before the wood felt as smooth after varnishing as it did before. This was just the process of the varnish soaking into the wood.
Once I was happy with both the look – I used satin finish varnish (do NOT use high gloss) – and the smooth feel of the wood it was time to put in the tuning pins.
Although the holes for the tuning pins are drilled 1 ¼” deep, the pins are only hammered in so that 7/8” is sticking out. This allows room for the pins to screw in as you tighten the strings. To make sure that I hammered them in the same distance, I got a scrap piece of wood cut it to a height of 7/8” and drilled a hole through it that was ¼” in diameter. That way I could tap the pin in to get it started, put the piece of wood over the pin and then gently hammer the pin in until it was flush with the top of the wood – all pins with exactly 7/8” sticking out.
After that it was a case of sliding in the bridge pin – which isn’t secured, just uses the tension of the strings to keep it inplace – and stringing the instrument. Musicmakers have a good video on youtube on how to do it.
The Kantele is supposed to be tuned in a key of D major, but we tuned it to D minor instead as it’s a key we both like and it was easy to do with the gauge of strings that were fitted; A3, B?3, C4, D4, E4, F4, G4, A4, B?4, C5.
I hadn’t realized it before but, when I gave the Kantele to Melisa, she told me that she had never played a stringed instrument before. Honestly, you’d never have known that when hearing her try it for the first time.