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The Case for Using Natural Dyes

The Case for Using Natural Dyes

by Nicholas Von Robison

Originally published in Guild of American Luthiers Quarterly Volume 11, #1, 1983 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie, Volume One, 2000



Luthiers do not need to color their raw materials as much as other woodworkers. We use fine woods that can stand on their own merit without any help from the dye pot. But now and then we do find a need for dyes: for example, for rosettes, bindings, taking grey streaks from ebony, enhancing the color cast of wood, and tinting finishes.

In 1856 young William Henry Perkin was trying to synthesize quinine but instead wound up with a black tarry mess. This was mauveine, the first of the coal-tar derived dyes. By 1900 the aniline dyes (coal-tar derived) had virtually replaced all other dye materials. Up to this point, dyeing was done with naturally occurring materials and was more of an art than a science. With aniline dyes results were predictable, repeatable, stable, nonfading, and a heck of a lot simpler. There was bound to be a reaction, of course. The art of natural dyeing is returning to the amateur weavers and textile artists; I doubt if woodworkers will be far behind.

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The Sami-Sen

The Sami-Sen

by Nicholas Von Robison

Originally published in American Lutherie #12, 1987 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume One, 2000



The Sami-Sen (pronounced and sometimes spelled “shamisen”) is one of the trinity of Japan’s important musical instruments, the koto and shakuhachi* being the other two. The equivalent of the Chinese san hsien, this three-stringed lute was originally a solo instrument, played by a wife for her husband, or a lone musician for his or her own enjoyment (and Buddha’s too!). Not until the Edo period (early 17th to mid-19th centuries) was the sami-sen used in <em>gagaku</em> (orchestral) and chamber ensembles. In recent years there has been a revival in the ancient solo literature, many of the solo pieces being conceived of as an aid to meditation. Poetic and descriptive song titles that reflect tone-painting are not uncommon.

The drawing was done from an instrument whose equivalent is probably the Volkswagon or the Sears Silvertone. Even though this bottom-of-the-line instrument shows some crudeness (the inside arch to the soundbox sides appears to have been hacked out with an adz), it is still remarkable. The neck joints fit perfectly, and the soundbox wood is a fine-figured, mahogany-like hardwood that is very attractive. Mrs. Richard Ota, a sami-sen teacher and performer, obtained for me strings, bridge, and pegs, and she owns an instrument of similar caliber to mine, plus a really nice instrument. Lacking a fretboard, once the performer’s fingers have put a hollow in the neck from the most used fretting positions after a few years, the neck is useless. For that reason, the serious sami-sen player owns a cheap instrument for practice and a better one reserved for performing.

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Alternative Lutherie Woods List

Alternative Lutherie Woods List

by Nicholas Von Robison

Originally published in American Lutherie #35, 1993 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Three, 2004



Western larch. Larix occidentalis. Western tamarack, hackmatack.

Western U.S. and Canada. 37 lbs/ft³; S.G. 0.59.

Heartwood pale red-brown with clearly marked growth rings. Straight grained with fine, uniform texture. Low stiffness, low shock resistance, and only medium bending strength. Very poor steam-bending classification. Dries fairly rapidly with tendency to distort. Kiln dries well but produces softer wood. Small movement in service. Very easily worked but knotty material is a problem. Difficult to harvest, moderate price, limited supply. Finishes well.

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Jatoba

Jatoba

by Nicholas Von Robison and Debbie Suran

Originally published in American Lutherie #36, 1993 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Three, 2004



Nick: Deb, you just recently completed your 100th instrument. That’s great! Why did you choose jatoba?

Debbie: I wanted to do something special for my 100th instrument. There were times when I was starting out when I thought I’d never live long enough to get into double digits! I decided to build a hammered dulcimer (my 95th) entirely from salvaged woods. I called on friends from CompuServe’s crafts forum’s woodworking section for help, and they sent me maple flooring from an old gym for the pin blocks, birch door casings from a 1913 old-folks’ home for bracing, and the redwood bottom of a wine cask from a 19th-century California monastery for the soundboard. You can still smell the wine on a damp day! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find any salvaged wood nice enough for the exterior frame and bridges for the instrument, so I decided instead to use a lesser known species of wood.

In 1986 I bought some tropical woods from a couple who had lived in Brazil for several years and who were augmenting the cash income from their homestead by importing Brazilian woods that were being harvested in an ecologically sound manner. They wanted a hammered dulcimer and I wanted some wood, so we swapped. Greg had a number of woods available that I’d never seen or heard of before and was quite insistent that I give these a try. He was persuasive, so I took some Amazon rosewood (Dalbergia spruceana), one piece of macacaúba (Platimiscium ulei), and a piece of jatoba (Hymenea courbaril). Both jatoba and macacaúba qualified as lesser-known species in those days; the jatoba had more character so that made the decision. A rather roundabout way to be introduced to a new wood. How did you first stumble onto jatoba?

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Floyd

Floyd

by Nicholas von Robison

Originally published in American Lutherie #37, 1994



KERplunkit!

I reduced speed hoping the noise would go away, but no such luck. I had been traveling up US 395 from Los Angeles, and for the last half-hour I had not seen another vehicle, village, or even a gas station. Just dust, sage, and a few billboards. Then, RANDSBURG — 35 MPH. I dutifully slowed and glimpsing a hand-painted GARAGE sign, pulled over and shut her down in front of the big double doors. I squatted behind the left rear wheel and saw that the rubber bushing on the shock absorber had deteriorated and come off, so that the shock was metal-to-metal on the stud. Sensing a presence beside me, I turned, and was about six inches away from a pock-marked face with three days of salt-and-pepper stubble. He grinned — no teeth and purple gums. I caught a whiff of unwashed socks and potato skins. Another nanosecond and the potato smell registered as vodka.

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