Dovetailing and Steam Bending

We have been making good progress this last week of Paul’s spring break.  Every evening we can dive in and work.  At this point the marimba, when we assemble it, sounds great.  So why aren’t we done after more than 1 year?  Well, we love the wood.  Building the frame has become a project of it’s own with the complex sliding box design and our addition of contrasting dark Wenge wood to the top.

So… we needed to learn how to dovetail.  Let me just say, that even with a new dovetailing jig, and several trips for more tools, it is a complex process.  We have completed 4 “boxes” as we call them.  They will support the “end blocks” (the ends of the marimba that hold up the “rails”.  In puzzle-like fashion the boxes are then mounted in a “pedestal”.  (we have realized that coming up with our own standard names for things has helped significantly as we work together.. “hand me the end thing” was getting old)

Below, are some pictures of our latest work.  Our wood shop consists of a set of homemade tools and jigs, the garage, and the kitchen counter :-)

The perfect size

The perfect size

Dovetailing is labor intensive, but oh so gorgeous

Dovetailing is labor intensive, but oh so gorgeous

Our first (failed) attempt at steam bending

Our first (failed) attempt at steam bending

Steam bending is all fun and games until Paul set's Beth's favorite pot holder ablaze

Steam bending is all fun and games until Paul set’s Beth’s favorite pot holder ablaze

Our successful steam bending contraption

Our successful steam bending contraption

A lebkuchen tin makes the perfect radius for our steam bending :-)

A lebkuchen tin makes the perfect radius for our steam bending :-)

Steam bending the Wenge

Steam bending the Wenge

A glimpse of the frame

A glimpse of the frame

Click this image for a short marimba test

Click this image for a short marimba test


The steam bent Wenge wood on the pedestal

The steam bent Wenge wood on the pedestal


Sudden Progress

After substantial work on both the design and construction of the frame, we were finally ready to put the rails into the 1/2 frame.  Suddenly a complete 5 octave marimba was ready for music.  It was absolutely stunning.

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The Sound of Music! An Incredible Day

Yes, we have a lot of explaining to do. Our last post was back in July! (4 months ago). But first, a short celebration.  Whoohoo!  On Novemeber 6th, 2012, the marimba played its first music. We are far from done.  But we took a major step forward.

Those first lovely notes were breathtaking.  The music from the bars just burst from the wood – so soft, so pure, decorated with gorgeous harmonics.  The notes have been trapped in the African wood for 9 months.  With an effortless mallot tap Paul liberated them.  Silky smooth tones rang out. For months we awaited the songs of hypnotic woodgrain undulating through rich red-brown Padauk. Majesty.

I apologize for the poor recording of those first tones.  I quickly grabbed the first movie-capable device at hand.  Think of it like Enrico Caruso’s first recordings.  The beauty of the wooden bars push through the background hiss and poor lighting.

Watch the video of one octave of our soon-to-be 5 octave Marimba:

So, what took us so long?  It has been 4 months since we were almost done cutting and tuning the keys.   However, In July, Paul spent several weeks at Birch Creek:

Serious marimba playing

The relief and joy of a piece well played


Steel Pan

Percussion concert at Birch Creek, in the barn

Less than 24 hours after Paul finished his final performance at Birch Creek in Door County, Paul and I were headed to Slovenia for some hiking.  It was a splendid trip.  We hiked from Alpine hut to Alpine hut.

For two weeks in August Beth and I were canoeing the remote wilds of the Canadian Wabakimi, taking our vacation.  When we returned, Paul was already marching… playing snare in the Naperville North marching band.  The marching season just ended, and we are now spending some weeknights and Saturdays trying to finish the Marimba by Christmas.

So… our current work….

The 8.5 foot long marimba

Just enjoying our accomplishment

Testing a single bar

Doesn’t everyone test marimba keys on their kitchen counter?

In Dave’s garage (borrowing his drill press), drilling the holes in the rails for the spacers that suspend the bars. 148 holes total.

We are not doing anything wrong, but it does seem we look a bit guilty

Testing a few bars in our assembly area, the space behind the couch

Wow. We are really building a marimba!

Just image all 5 octave, 61 keys, with resonators to sustain the sound

So there you have it.  After several slow months we are now back to work.  This weekend we might be able to build the initial end pieces that support the rails.  However, we are still designing… While we were in Slovenia, unable to work on the marimba, we spend our evenings in the huts sketching out possible designs for the end pieces in our journal.  While some of the designs need to me modified, I think we were on the right track.

One of our original designs, from our Slovenian journal.

If we work hard during Thanksgiving, we may be able to set up all 5 octaves for a test…


A Near-Death Experience


DON’T WORRY! It wasn’t actually near-death for dad or me. But for the marimba, it came close. Preparing to line up the new holes for replacement bars, we had a close encounter of the absent-minded kind. We had all the bars in place (or so we thought) and we began sliding a metal rod through the holes of the good bars in order to decide where to drill new holes in the replacements. But each time, the rod came out of the hole tilting the wrong direction. We tried again and again. Yet for every bar, it appeared the hole had been drilled at a reverse angle. A few minutes after this painful realization, we collapsed to regroup and think about solutions, thinking we had just ruined every bar on the entire instrument. Could we drill the other way? Change the post location between bars? All solutions seemed hopeless. Then dad asked a simple question, “Are these naturals or sharps?” At that point I realized the mistake. I had lined the naturals up as though they were sharps, causing the angling of the holes to seem backwards. A quick shift of position led us to the correct arrangement and a disastrous near-death experience was barely averted.

Now that we are confident that we still have bars that will function properly on the instrument, we have begun construction of the rails. These four long wooden pieces span the whole instrument and provide a base on which the bars rest. In order to construct them, we had started to drill holes in stainless steel plates to connect the two halves. We will then drill the same holes in the planks and put bolts through the wood to create eight-foot long rails on which to rest the bars. The pictures will help to explain.

Using the grinder on the stainless steel plates. The table saw is just providing a nice work surface, and is not plugged in

Rounding the corners


I think making sparks is always considered fun


Drilling the rails


The plate connecting it all together


The stainless steel plate. We now need to drill the 3 holes in the other side

Molybdenum Disulfide and Polyrhythms

Well, although we have made tremendous progress, we are currently in the doldrums of small tasks that seem to last longer than they should, and when completed, appear too insignificant to be considered accomplishments.

Nevertheless, we press on.

The tuning is nearly complete.  55 ruddy bars lay beautifully, but still silently on a table in the front room.  They are splendidly tuned.  I sat in the red box, grinding bits of wood and striking the bar while Paul managed 2 computers and analyzed the sounds.  A spreadsheet of our design calculated each frequency, and a formula we constructed helped us “stretch” the highest notes.

Formulae from our spreadsheet

Human hearing is imperfect in the highest and lowest ranges.  High notes are heard by our brains as flat. It is intriguing. We have to make them sharp (based on the measured frequency) to hear them in tune.  In the low ranges notes must be flattened.

We have 6 bars that we have to re-make.  We have cut them, and now need to drill the string holes and shape them.  Most of them are in a range where the fundamental and the first harmonic are NOT a perfect two octaves apart.  The first time we tried to tune that range our strategy failed.  This time, we will shoot for an octave and a sixth as the harmonic.

The video below shows a properly tuned bar.  Three tones are heard: the second harmonic, the first harmonic, and the fundamental.  The fundamental is so low, the little video camera has trouble picking it up.

A tuned marimba bar: demonstrating the harmonics (the movie takes a while to load…. be patient)

Our next big milestone will be Continue reading

Finally Final Tuning

Just a quick update: As purple begins to creep in the progress-o-meter, we start our quest for 61 perfectly tuned bars. Each bar is a very exact and calculated battle and we will soon post more about the journey.

Beauty Revealed

At every step, the hidden inner sounds of the wood grow stronger. Their glowing amber color is irresistible; we run our hands over the finished bars and marvel at the grain.

Wait… we are ahead of ourselves!  Today marked our hundredth hour working on the marimba.  In the weeks prior we drilled and sanded the keys.  Details below…

The beautiful color of oiled African Padauk. Over time, the wood will darken to a rich red-brown.

D2, the third lowest bar

The first step was to calculate Continue reading