Jon Singer (jonsinger) wrote,
Jon Singer

Further Maunderings of a Dumpster Luthier

(Thanks to Patrick Nielsen Hayden, of Whisperado and Making Light, who described me that way a few days ago. It isn’t entirely accurate, as I actually get these things from thrift stores, not from dumpsters, but I like it a lot.)

Several weeks ago I saw another First Act “discovery” guitar at a thrift store. As you can tell from the photo, it’s not exactly easy to miss; but although the date on the pricetag was February 26th, and I keep my eyes open for these things, I hadn’t previously seen it. Odd, that.

The nut was missing, the saddle was loose and ready to fall out of its slot in the bridge, and the price was 18 dollars, which was too much.

[[For those not familiar with the construction of this sort of stringed instrument: the bridge holds the bottom ends of the strings, provides a platform for the saddle, and conducts the vibrations of the strings to the body. The saddle sets the height of the action. The nut and the bridge set the separations between strings, and the nut (or the “zeroth” fret if there is one, as there is on this instrument) and the saddle together set their active lengths. This becomes important for intonation, as you will see in the photo of the 12-string guitar bridge, below, but let’s not attempt to explain the ins and outs here and now.]]

At some point after I left the store I realized that I might have been able to get them to cut the price down a bit because of the missing nut; but I was already on my way home, and there was no guarantee that they’d be willing, so I let it go. I continued to think about it, though, and I went back first thing the next morning, but I couldn’t find it. The people at the counter said they had sold two guitars the previous day, so I thought it was gone.

That was around the middle of April...

Last week I went in again, and there it was on the shelf. I knew it was the same guitar because the nut was still missing and the pricetag still said February 26th. By that point, expectably, the saddle was also gone. I expressed surprise at seeing it there, and the store folks told me that sometimes people hide things, presumably so that other people won’t buy them. (They must be pretty ingenious about their hiding places. I had looked through the store fairly thoroughly once or twice, without finding it.) It was Wednesday, which is their half price day, so they wanted nine bucks for it; that was good enough for me, and I bought it.

I had parts of two paint stirring sticks, left over from the aeroponics project; I glued them together for thickness and strength (the wood is rather soft), marked the size and shape I wanted —

— and cut out the rough shape with a thin abrasive wheel on the Dremel®. (I didn’t have my coping saw or jeweler’s saw handy.) I filed and sanded it to clean it up, cut four slots in it, and soaked some CA glue into it to harden and strengthen it. The result looks about like this:

Not very fancy, but definitely serviceable.

In order to convert the instrument from 6 strings to 4, it is necessary to make two new holes in the bridge. I was very careful when I did that, and this time I managed to avoid damaging the finish. (See the two immediately previous postings for a bit more information about this.)

At that point it was about ready for an initial test. The store was out of baritone ukulele strings, so I gritted my teeth and got a set of guitar strings as a temporary substitute. (Standard baritone uke tuning is the same as the 4 high strings of a guitar in its most common tuning: DGBE.) I cut the 4 strings down to reasonable lengths — this instrument is intended for kids, and is only 33" long overall — and installed them. I also cut a short piece of insulated 12-gauge solid copper household wire to use as a temporary saddle. (Why not? It was sitting right there on the floor of the bedroom under a chair, twiddling its thumbs, and it looked like it would sit nicely on top of the slot in the bridge, which in fact it did. See photo...)

The wire worked so well that I almost left it in place, but after 2 or 3 days the little voices in my head got the better of me, and I went and bought some craft sticks. The ones I chose are rather like popsicle sticks (which are my standard for this application, as I mentioned a posting or two back) but they are shorter and narrower and a bit thicker, and they are made of much harder wood. They just barely fit into the slot in the bridge:

The guitar strings were on the heavy side, and they did not provide a particularly bright sound, so I have replaced them with a set of Baritone uke strings. Fakeleles don’t sound like real ukuleles, but they can sound pretty reasonable, and this one isn’t bad at all.


Speaking of bright: I really like the sound of a 12-string guitar, and I decided to try putting two more strings on Fakelele 5 to find out what that would be like. Because the two new string positions are at about 2&2/3 and 4&1/3, they can easily be paired with strings at the original 3rd and 4th positions. I bought a set of soprano uke strings, took the two highest ones, installed them that way, and set them an octave high. That unfortunately involved a bit too much tension, and the one at position 4 soon snapped. I really liked the sound, though, even with only 5 strings. It soon turned out that the string at position 3 had gotten itself wound up along the axle of the tuner far enough that it was mashed against the wood, which frayed it, and it also broke. Sigh. Being the fixiteer that I am, I cut the torn end off the highest string (the one that had been at position 4); that made it too short to use, so I cut a clean piece from the one that had been at position 3 and tied them together (about 18 times — this stuff is really slippery!) with a square knot, which I locked with a drop of CA glue when I was finally able to hang on to it for long enough. Then I reinstalled the string at position 3. A bit later I lined up the ends and glued them to the main line, both for extra strength and to prevent them from getting caught on things:

The reconstructed string has held nicely for several days now, and it can stay in place until it breaks or wears out.

[[Yeah, I know, you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) do this. Tough bananas. I was not gonna blow 5 more bucks and about an hour on the road for yet another set of soprano uke strings when I only needed one. (This was before the conversation about banjo strings that I mention immediately below.)]]

With the high G added to it this instrument has a significantly brighter sound than it did before, and I’m really pleased. Meanwhile, my friend Anne has told me that she uses nylon fishing line for the strings on her banjo, and I will be looking out for some at thrift stores.

Ukuleles being what they are, btw, a soprano uke string is only just barely long enough to fit on a guitar of this size; I couldn’t even use the regular knot on the bottom end, so instead I tied it around two very small washers and held it with a drop of CA. Looks about like this:

(The piece of toothpick on the right side is there to adjust the intonations of the two high strings.)


Because I am not about to attempt to play a steel-string guitar, double-especially not one with a dozen strings, I have put nylon strings on the 12. This, it turns out, is not something people do, and it sounds rather strange; but at least I can deal with it, to the extent that I can play the thing at all (which I will freely admit ain’t much). It takes a lot of strings: one set of 6 as the basis, the high 4 from a second set as the [high-octave] low 4, and the high 2 from a third set as the [same-octave] high 2. This combination was suggested to me by one of the counter people at Sam Ash, who seemed a bit nonplused that I would want to do such a thing, but who definitely had a viable idea about how to accomplish it.

The head of one of the adjustment screws for the saddle of the 12-string was broken off by the time I acquired the instrument. I flipped it upside down and ran it in from below on a temporary basis. It held up its end of the saddle, but I could only adjust it with the strings either slack or absent, and that was clearly not going to be viable in the long term. A modest search did not, unfortunately, reveal any source for a replacement.

I now have a Unimat®, which is a truly marvelous thing, and a few days ago it occurred to me that I could use it to make a new adjustment screw. I put a nice stainless-steel 8-32 machine screw into the chuck, cut the head down to a reasonable size, and then used the aforementioned thin abrasive wheel on the Dremel to grind a section of the shaft just below the head down to an appropriate diameter. (I actually had to do all of this twice, because I wasn’t satisfied with the first one, but I have plenty of 8-32 machine screws, and the practice was definitely worthwhile.) When I tried to install it, however, it was no go: wrong thread. Up to that point I had thought that the original was 8-32, as it went into an 8-32 nut just fine, but no: it seems to be some wacko nonstandard Metric thing, apparently M4 x 0.8 mm. (The usual M4 has 0.7 mm thread pitch.) I became so peeved at it that I took an 8-32 tap and rethreaded the hole, rather than wait I-don’t-know-how-long for Bolts from the Bizarro World. The saddle is now appropriately adjustable.

(The new screw is the one at the top in this photo.)

The little wood-chip structures that you see in this photo are adjustments to the intonation. It’s a tweaky business, but the instrument sounds significantly better with them than without them. (Yeah, I know, it sounds screwy anyway. Still, better to have the intonation more or less properly set.)

More as time and tide permit...

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  • Breadfruit of the Evening, Beautiful Breadfruit

    After the recent snowstorm [see news reports of “Snowzilla”] had subsided and the cars were dug out, I trundled over to H-Mart because…

  • The moon was almost full.

    Hi. — jon [iPhone 5 photo, thumbnail 225 x 300 px, 90% JPEG. The larger version is scaled down to 1080 x 1440 px, as close to full…

  • At the Supermarket

    Went to the market this afternoon while running various errands. As we were on our way out I noticed a coin changer machine, one of the big tall…