I finally got around to racking my bitters to my glass carboy for secondary fermentation. Everything looks good so far, and the gravity is down to 1.015. According to the formula at Realbeer.com, that means the beer is currently 3.8% ABV, which is about right for the style.
At the outset of this project, I had been planning to use black formica for the fingerboard and peghead overlay. Eventually I decided to spring for a rosewood fingerboard, but I had to draw the line there... I couldn't quite talk myself into spending the money for an ebony peghead overlay too.
I don't want to use formica next to a nice rosewood fingerboard, though, so I took a tip from the Banjo Makers group and bought myself a bottle of black shoe leather dye at the drugstore. I managed to fashion a thin piece of maple about 3" x 7" x ~1/8" from a scrap of 1x3. I was able to scrape it thin by dragging it diagonally across the bandsaw blade, and by the time I sanded all of the saw marks smooth it looked pretty good. It is not thickness sanded and it's certainly not the 3/32" you can get from Stewmac, but I think it will work. The leather dye works nicely, darkening the wood without hiding the grain.
The tricky part will be removing the extra wood from the peghead itself; the faux ebony overlay will add noticeable depth to it.
It's fashionable these days for software to go out to the internets and check to see if a new version of itself has been released. When a new version is available, the first thing you get upon opening the program is a supremely annoying popup window saying "A new version has been released! Would you like to visit our web site to download the latest version?" and some buttons: "Yes", "Not Now", and maybe a "Remind Me Later". Sometimes you'll see a "stop asking me" checkbox, which often doesn't do a blessed thing.
The problem is one of timing; when I open up whatever program it is I want to use, it's because I've made up my mind to perform some kind of task - and that task isn't to go to a web site, download an installer or disk image, browse to the file on my hard drive, uncompress it, run an installer, restart the program, read the annoying "What's new in version x.x" message, and then perform the task I wanted to do in the first place.
I like new version notification in concept, but in practice I find myself clicking the "Not Now" button 9 times out of 10. I would probably be much more receptive to the upgrade process if the program hit me with that message when I went to quit, after my task is complete.
I decided to re-make the dowel stick in maple... The mystery dowel wood was just too soft, and the more I looked at it the more I noticed that I had sanded a slight curve into the taper.
It was definitely the right decision... I still have a bit more sanding to do, but the maple feels infinitely more sturdy than the other wood, and it will finish consistently with the neck.
While there is no substitute for real live experience, the internet is a remarkable means of knowledge transfer... When I asked my original question about dowel stick dimensions to the Yahoo! Banjo makers group I received five replies within a couple of days, including one from Dave Ball, whose three-part banjo making series on DIY Network's Handmade Music got me off my behind and working on the neck of my dormant first project last fall. Twenty years ago it would have been a lot harder to find an answer.
I decided to start on the square hole through the hand drum, where the dowel stick will pass through at the neck joint.
Gaffe number one: I drilled the hole on the opposite side of the rim than I had originally intended; I wanted the Remo graphic to be at the tailpiece end of the instrument; it would have been a little less prominent, and it would also have placed the seam of the cheesy fake walnut veneer around the outside of the drum at the neck joint, hiding it completely. As the saying goes, measure twice, cut once.
I'm not all that upset about it... it won't affect tone in any way, and I'm probably the only person that will notice (or care) about the position of the logo.
I drilled a small pilot hole, then drilled a larger, 1/2" hole. The dowel stick will be about 3/4" at the wide end, so I wanted to be conservative. Next I tried to cut the corners of the hole with a coping saw, but I didn't feel like I had enough control that way. I'll probably finish the hole with files.
Upon drilling through it, I discovered that the drum shell is made of very dense cardboard, like the stuff you usually find in rolls of carpeting. I wonder how Remo mounts the head on these drums.
The airlock is bubbling happily away this morning - there was already some activity before I went to bed last night, but now the bubbles are more or less constant, and if you put your nose right next to it there's the singular, fresh aroma of young beer.
Like making Pastry Cream, this is a chemistry set experiment you get to eat.
Well, I stayed up way too late to do that, but it was fun to brew again and now it's done.
Original gravity for this five gallon batch was 1.044. I pitched the yeast at 87°F... it would have been more like 78, but I had to boil some more water at the last minute to top it off at five gallons. This was the "Theodoric of York's Best Bitter" kit from Beer and Winemaking Supplies in Northampton, Massachusetts.
For future reference: The pre-boiled, frozen/refrigerated water approach was fantastic for getting the wort temperature down rapidly. Anything more than the 2 frozen 2 liters would probably be too effective. However, next time the ice has got to be in something that it will just slide right out of. Trying to cut open a frozen PET plastic soda bottle without contaminating anything is not very realistic, and a bit dangerous.
I only hope that I didn't get too many foreign beasties into the wort as a result of wrestling so much with the frozen bottles before managing to get the ice out of them.
The fermentor is down in the workshop. Hopefully the airlock will be bubbling by morning.
The daunting thing about a dowel stick when you don't have a lathe is the "dowel" part. Fortunately, I have a new favorite tool that was up to the task at hand:
This Vaughn Mini-Bear Saw is the first Japanese-style pull saw I've ever used, and it certainly won't be the last; I've never used a hand-saw that cut with this kind of precision, or with such a narrow kerf. Here I used it to cut the corners off of the end of the dowel, turning it into an octagon:
Sandpaper did the rest. Towards the end I was able to use a shoe-shine action applied from several angles to even out the curves. It's certainly not machine-perfect, but I think it will work.
I contemplated trying to use my balky block-plane to taper the dowel stick, but in the end decided to use the band saw, cutting outside the lines to leave myself some sanding room. I was surprised how well the taper from 3/4 to 1/2" came out:
I posed the "standard dowel stick" question to the Yahoo! Banjomakers group, and it turns out that Vega dowel sticks tended to taper from 3/4" to 1/2", which is as good a standard as any. I was also reassured that it should be strong enough for the end bold as long as the hole is centered and true, although I didn't mention I was using mystery wood; the question at this point is whether or not to remake the thing out of maple. I'll have to sleep on it.
I cut out the neck from two pieces of maple 1x3 that I glued up last night; since the tenor neck is a relatively skinny with only 4 strings, I thought I'd be able to get away with a 1.5" wide blank... that was cutting it pretty close, but I think it will be OK in the end. Here I've just glued the peghead ears on (much wider than necessary, but it was easier to just cut another scrap of 1x3 in half than into thirds.)
Observations: I need a jointer plane.
It's hard to believe I haven't brewed a batch of beer since October 20, 2004 - that was the night the Red Sox beat the Yankees in game 7 of the American League championship series. I figured it would be good luck for the oatmeal stout I had brewed, but that turned out not to be the case. After a couple of months in secondary fermentation, the beer was still too sweet. (One week is usually sufficient in secondary, but I left it in much longer in hopes that it would keep fermenting.) I even pitched some champagne yeast into the beer at the homebrew supply shop's recommendation, but it was no use... for whatever reason, that last little bit of sugar remained unfermentable.
I bottled it anyway, but the few I've sampled since have been disappointing. The discouraging results last time probably explain why I haven't gotten back to it sooner. I should throw another one in the fridge and see how it's doing with over a year of aging... you never know.
But, spring is in the air and it's been long enough that I'm not particularly worried about a repeat of my last performance. This time around I bought a Yorkshire-style Bitters kit, which should be a nice ale to have on hand for the spring/summer. This will be the first batch I've done using a starter for the yeast... I've had perfectly good results pitching both dry and liquid yeasts directly into the wort in the past, but I feel like I should give it a try and see if it makes some kind of noticable difference in the end product. The starter is doing its thing on the kitchen counter right now, and I should be ready to brew later this evening.
I'm also trying something new in an effort to minimize the amount of cooling time for the wort, something that's been a source of frustration for me in the past. This time I boiled a couple of gallons of water, and (after cooling a bit) poured it into four sanitized two-liter soda bottles. I put two in the freezer, and two in the fridge... after the boil, I'll sanitize a utility knife blade and cut the frozen water free, then put it right into the primary fermenter along with the fridge water... hopefully that will chill the wort down dramatically, and I'll be able to pitch the yeast within minutes instead of hours.
At the time of this writing, I call myself an aspiring luthier in the 'About Me' section at the top of this page.
I began to take a fairly serious interest in building instruments as a hobby in late 2002, a few months after acquiring my first banjo.
I've spent the intervening years buying books, tools, and materials, and bookmarking other luthiers' web sites. Over the last year I've done some work on a short scale banjo, but keep running up against the realities of how expensive a banjo actually is to put together... and because some of my work is admittedly fairly rough I've been reluctant to spend very much more money for nickel-plated hardware on a learning project.
Enter this 10 inch Remo hand drum that I picked up last month at Downtown Sounds in Northampton, Massachusetts... for about twenty dollars, I've got a complete low-brow pot assembly. No need to buy 12+ tension hook/hex nut/shoe bracket assemblies for $3-4 apiece, no need to buy a $35 tension hoop, or coordinator rods. (I'm not even going to touch the subject of tone rings. If you care about tone rings, you probably stopped reading as soon I announced my intent to use a pre-tuned drum for a pot.)
So I've decided to build myself a 19 fret, open back tenor banjo, concentrating on the neck and getting my feet wet with installing frets and some pre-cut inlay.
I came across Coastr this evening. It's another socialnetworkingfolksonomyweb2point0ohmygodtaggingissooverated web site centered around beer and places to drink it. It appears to be built using Ruby on Rails or one of its many imitators, and I've killed a bunch of time there tonight.
I find the simple metrics provided by Coastr much easier to absorb, and therefore ultimately more meaningful, than the multiple score, hundredth-decimal figures on sites like Beer Advocate. I haven't made up my mind about the reviews yet - there are a lot of unhelpful
"yeah this beer is great"
reviews, but refreshingly few armchair beersnob* offerings like
"Pours with medium density head, not quite thick enough to float a bottlecap on. Head dissipates in 13.754 seconds, leaving nice lace on the glass. Color is appromately 16.523 on the Lovibond scale, with a rich mahogany hue (with a slight hawaiian koa cast). Smell is roasted barley with hints of oak. Taste is smokey with hints of fruitiness on the finish and blah blah blah notes of blah blah blah hints of blah blah blah medium body blah"
reviews. If enough people start posting something in between those two extremes, this could become an interesting resource.
I haven't been playing much over the last few weeks. Not clawhammer banjo, not three-finger banjo, not mandolin, not ukulele.
At a bare minimum I should absolutely be practicing guitar for the group class I'm taking, but I've been lax there as well, and it shows during class.
I think it's a symptom of a few different things. Let me get the easy one out of the way first: Getting home from work late. That's a bit of a cop-out, since I could always set aside some time to practice before work/over lunch/et cetera.
The harder ones are questions of short-term goals:
If I can browbeat myself into religiously devoting at least 30 minutes a day to banjo/guitar/mandolin, what aspects of technique am I hoping to improve?
and long-term goals:
If I'm true to those hypothetical short term goals and spend at least 182.5 hours practicing over the next year, what am I hoping to do with those improvements?
Donald Zepp makes me want to practice clawhammer banjo until I can play like that. Béla Fleck makes me want to practice 3-finger banjo until I can play like that. Chris Thile makes me want to take mandolin lessons.
Pretty much every musical method book I've paged through stresses the importance of setting those short-term goals (be able to play the forward roll at 180bps, be able to play Foggy Mountain Breakdown at full speed), but that sort of assumes you already know what your long-term goals are, even if they're as vague as "playing in a bluegrass band."
My problem is that after almost four years of hanging around the alt.banjo.* groups on usenet and the BanjoHangout web site, I don't think I want to play in a traditional "that ain't the way Earl plays that break, play it right son" bluegrass band - every musical genre has its purists, but compared to my days of comparing notes with other casual rock guitarists, banjo players are insane.
The fact is that I'm not a huge fan of dyed in the wool bluegrass. The nasally, twangy vocals that accompany most acts are like fingernails on chalkboard to me, and there's way too much obsession with "authenticity". There was a long, contentious thread on BanjoHangout a while back that was started by someone complaining about performers at some festival not tucking their shirts in. There are multiple discussion topics about whether it's OK to play the foggy mountain roll using thumb-index thumb-index instead of thumb-index thumb-middle.
Thanks, but no thanks.
On the other hand, I'm a huge fan of the musicians who have outgrown the boundaries of traditional oldtime/bluegrass music without abandoning the instrumentation; Béla Fleck, Tony Rice (guitar), David Grisman (mandolin), Edgar Meyer (bass), and plenty of others... for me it's about the music, not about a concept of 'good old time bluegrass' that's really more of a world view about tradition/simpler times/the-way-things-ought-to-be of which the music happens to be a component.
Setting aside the fact that all of my favorite acoustic musicians are virtuosi and the knowledge that realistically I will probably never, ever approach that level of mastery, my other source of frustration is experiental. I grew up in New England listening to my Parents' 1960s jazz and pop-rock, and my brother's 1970's rock. The only childhood exposure to banjo that I can remember was the guy playing tenor or plectrum at a Shakey's pizza in Maryland in the late 1970's, when I would have been 4 or 5; that planted the banjo seed, but otherwise I grew up with all of the typical cultural cues about banjo as a redneck/hillbilly/country instrument, and because of my absolute loathing of modern country-pop I spent 28 years of my life completely unaware of old-time music and all those great instrumental fiddle tunes. Like a lot of people, it wasn't until I saw O Brother, Where Art Thou? that I became aware of old-time music, and realized to my surprise that I liked it.
That led to the purchase of my first banjo and some lessons, and Béla Fleck's Tales From the Acoustic Planet Volume II: The Bluegrass Sessions was my foot in the door to the world of instrumental bluegrass that eventually led me to take some lessons in the three-finger style, and to acquire a mandolin.
It's been almost four years since I got my first banjo, and I have barely scratched the surface of the oldtime/bluegrass universe... I've still never heard a lot of the 'must have' records, and for every traditional tune I know like Cripple Creek or Old Joe Clark, there are half a dozen I don't. It's not like rock guitar, where 31 years of constant radio and household exposure makes it easy to hack around and bang out some power chords or licks that sound like I know what I'm doing. If I decide I want to learn a new song on banjo, I don't usually have that benefit of having heard the melody so often throughout my life that it's half-learned already. So there's the lack of cultural context... but I'm not going to be too hard on myself when I haven't even been listening to this stuff for four years yet.
The other reason I'm treading water is that I'm trying to go in too many directions at once, and I've been reluctant to settle on an instrument and willfully setting aside the others for a year or two until playing the one instrument is like riding a bike. Again, it's been less than four years and I've been tinkering with two styles of banjo, mandolin, and acoustic guitar... I shouldn't beat myself up over it, but I should make a conscious decision to focus on one thing in a disciplined fashion for a while, and see where it takes me.
Like others on Flickr, I got a message this morning from a service called Schmap - a downloadable city guidebook sort of a thing. Apparently 8 of my greater Los Angeles photos (including the one above) had been 'short-listed' for inclusion in their upcoming guide.
That all seemed very interesting (and admittedly flattering,) but I was puzzled as to why my photos had been selected in the first place; I post my photos to Flickr under the Creative Commons "Attribution, Non-commercial, Share-Alike" license. As far as I can tell, Schmap's use of my photos would be decidedly commercial.
The point has been argued that it's not *really* commercial if Schmap makes its guides freely downloadable and strictly ad-supported, but Adam Fields makes the more important point that Schmap is being quite proprietary about their own content, and that is counter to the entire spirit of Creative Commons licensing.