The Irish Bouzouki Project

About 5 or 6 years ago I was working in my shop on a Sunday afternoon while listening to The Nacho Celtic Hour on KPBX Spokane radio when I heard a beautiful sounding stringed instrument playing Gaelic music. Gaelic music is an umbrella term for the folk music of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. What I heard was the sound of an Irish Bouzouki; an 8 stringed instrument tuned to GDAD which evolved from the Irish folk music revival of the 1960's & 1970's. 

Having never seen an Irish Bouzouki before I was able to find one on the internet that was made at Trinity College, Dublin. It is a mandolin like instrument that you are unlikely to find on the rack at your average music store. Generally speaking these are custom built instruments that are hand made on an individual basis. Once in my possession I strummed my fingers across the strings and there was that beautiful sound I had heard on the radio. I was hooked.

Interestingly, the Irish Bouzouki is neither an Irish instrument nor Irish traditional. Irish musicians visiting the Balkan's in the 1960's adopted the Greek Bouzouki. It is a bowl backed instrument that Irish Luthiers were unable or unwilling to duplicate. They ended up building a flat back instrument with a tuning system more suited to Celtic music.

This is a video of Kise Osamu playing The Rain Song. Kise is a talented Irish Bouzouki player from Osaka, Japan. His music inspires me when I am working in my shop.

My intention is to complete and display this Irish Bouzouki at the Spokane Fall Folk Festival this November. I will continue to update posts as the Irish Bouzouki Project continues.

Craftsmanship and Goals

September is finally here and this is my favorite time of year. The blistering hot summer days are behind us and the cooler nights feel much better. For me, September has always been a new beginning. This month I will also start my 53rd orbit around the sun. That means it’s time, once again to make an assessment of where I’m at and where I need to go in order to continue my lifelong goals.

Besides having a successful and rewarding career in city planning and grant writing, one of my goals is to be a successful luthier, or craftsman of guitars. Wikipedia defines a luthier as someone who builds or repairs stringed instruments. In addition, a craftsman is defined as a pastime or profession that requires particular skills and knowledge of skilled work. The term is usually applied to people occupied in small-scale production of goods, or their maintenance. For example luthiers!

My father Robert Keeley retired at age 57 as a tool and die maker from Milwaukee Electric Tool. A tool and die maker is a class of machinists in the manufacturing industries who makes dies, molds, machine tools, cutting tools, gauges and other tools used in the manufacturing processes. As my father would say, "I made the tools that made the tools." He was a craftsman! After 35 years with Milwaukee Electric Tool he retired early and his job was then outsourced to Mexico, most likely done by robots and computers. After 35 years in a hot and humid factory, his retirement was welcomed. I am now the custodian of many of his tools.

Today, craftsmen are difficult to find as our economy has transitioned to disposable consumer goods made in foreign countries. Many high schools no longer teach industrial arts or shop classes due to budget cuts. To make things even worse, some high schools no longer teach music programs. What a shame.

My great-grandfather Lester Lenhardt worked for Caterpillar. In the 1940’s he built his home in East Peoria, Illinois using only basic hand tools. 

I am the custodian of the two handsaws that he used to build that house. He was very proud of his home and his tools.

Last week I met a very nice retired couple, Roy and Orly Corey. I restored a very old violin that was made by Orly's grandfather. Her grandfather was a luthier! Roy was a retired pattern maker; a wood carver.  Roy was very interested in my shop and my tools, and I was very interested in his knowledge about woodcarving. As our conversation progressed, he mentioned that he was 71-years old and can no longer use his carving tools because his hands shake too much. He broached the subject of possibly trading his wood carving tools in exchange for the work I did on their violin restoration. He stated “I can see that you would appreciate and use my tools the same as I did.” I was humbled by his comment. 

This brings me to my next thought. As craftsmen, we are also caretakers of fine tools and one day will pass them down to the next generation of craftsmen. I would like to take a photo of Roy and some of his woodcarvings. I would also like to write a short and simple biography of Roy to keep intact with his tools. I hope his tools will carve beautiful objects made of wood for many decades, if not centuries to come. Roy’s woodcarving tools will outlive both me and him. Hopefully, when it's time, I as the new custodian will pass them on to the next generation of craftsmen.

Most of my hand tools are over 100 years old; several even older. They are quality brands such as Bailey, Disston and Marples which have worked flawlessly since their creation. I’ve collected them through the years wherever I can find them from family, friends, yard sales, secondhand stores and auction websites. Some of the tools have the previous owners name proudly engraved on them. 

My power tools are relatively new in relation to my hand tools. They have labels on them like Grizzly, Jet and Craftsman, but they are a far cry from the quality of my vintage hand tools. Made of plastic, cheap cast metal and manufactured in a foreign country, I continually struggle to keep these machines running smoothly to avoid disposing of them. Unlike the hand tools that produce wood chips, these modern tools produce a lot of dust; fine annoying saw dust which require a dust collection system and air filter. Plus, the bearings, belts and blades continually wear out. I doubt you’ll see my modern tools in some wood shop 100 years from now. They’ll more than likely end up in the scrap yard after I’m gone. Relics of a modern throwaway society.

This is my sharpening station. A true craftsman must learn how to sharpen a hand chisel with a stone before they can operate a modern day CNC machine.

My workbench is made from scraps of locally grown birch wood. Each board leveled, hand planed and held together without a single screw or nail. The legs are made from locally grown fir. I will say this: Roy the woodcarver spotted my bright red pattern makers vise as soon as he entered my shop. It is a tool of his trade! It is also a tool of a luthier...

What will the next generation of craftsmen, luthiers, pattern makers, woodcarvers, tool and die makers be like?

I don't know....

Until then, I will continue to work towards my goal of being a successful luthier, craftsman and custodian of vintage hand tools. 

Thanks for reading.

Jim Mensik Custom Acoustic Telecaster

The thing I appreciate the most about being a luthier is not the actual building of a guitar or stringed instrument, but the relationships I build with my clients who eventually become good friends. Jim Mensik approached me last year about building an electric Telecaster style guitar. He loved it so much that he requested a matching Telecaster acoustic guitar and possibly an electric bass for a Tele-trifecta as he called it. 

The original electric guitar body was made of Padauk with a highly figured maple top. The neck thru was a laminate of 5 pieces; figured maple, Koa and monkey wood or a type of rosewood. 

The acoustic could not have a figured maple top so we selected Bear Claw Sitka Spruce to resemble some figure. The body would be bent and shaped like a Tele using Padauk. Padauk is a very good tone wood. However, the fibers would not bend well for the tight radius required. After failing horribly at bending the sides on two sets of wood for the body I finally contacted Jim and explained the situation. In an attempt to make things right I selected a set of figured Koa wood from my private stash. To our surprise, the Koa took the shape of a tele quite easily. I'm glad we used Koa in the neck of the electric model because we can transition with Koa in this acoustic build.

Continuing the theme of the original guitar, we kept the same inlay pattern of moons and clouds in an art deco design. Perhaps the shapes even resemble planets. The inlay material selected is Mother of Pearl and Abalone.