So, you may have heard what happened to my old (ukulele) friend Gerald…
Well, I was determined not to see his broken body just tossed away like so much junk mail and apple cores. The only thing that didn’t involve putting a plant in him was to make a Kalimba, or thumb piano. I had been wanting to make one of these for a while now and figured this was going to be a good thing.
I went with bike spokes for the tines and 1/4 ” steel piping for the bridge pieces.
I then had to drill through the piping to fit the bolts through. Half way through the second hole, I had a huge respect for drill presses. I spent a lot of time making sure that my measurements were spot on, but found myself wrestling with the hand drill and thinking “This is nowhere near exact.”
I was right.
Not horrible, mind you, everything still fit together, but it’s not a fine tuned machine. I was hoping to have it look really clean, with every piece lining up within 1/32 of an inch, but it didn’t quite turn out that way. It certainly would have been a lot messier, though, if I didn’t pick up this machinist’s vice and clamping sawhorse from Maria.
In the next step, I developed an overwhelming respect for surgeons.
Allison had told me of a client’s husband who recently had a heart surgery with only a pea-sized mark on his abdomen as proof. In the procedure, they snaked in a long, flexible machine arm fitted with a camera and clamps through an artery that ran from his navel up to the quadrant of his heart that needed a tune up.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this as I tried to fit the nuts and bolts together inside the body of this ukulele. In the end, I just ended up drilling some 1.5″ holes in the back of the body to work through that I’ll probably glue a veneer over later.
This means that I would be a terrible surgeon.
So, I finally had the hardware installed, but I ran into another problem. In order to get enough tension on the tines to hold them in place, I needed to really crank down on the bolts. Before I was anywhere close to the tension I needed, I could hear the super-thin plywood of the body starting to crack. I unscrewed everything, afraid that I would ruin the whole project, and tried to think of how to solve this.
I tried making some over sized washers out of pennies, but that still didn’t distribute the weight enough.
I ended up using a small piece of maple 1×1 as reinforcement, which worked alright. I just drilled holes for the bolts and used the maple bar as one big washer. The body still sounded like it was trying to fall apart once I put some pressure behind it, so the tines still ended up more loose than I’d hoped.
Still tight enough to tune, though.
I found what tuning to use through a kalimba player that I found on youtube. He was the fist person that I’ve seen play the kalimba like an actual instrument and not just a toy. Luckily, he also has a website with a wealth of information, including history of the instrument, tabs for songs, and tunings of the different types of kalimbas. This guy knows his stuff.
Following his guidelines, I used my new ukulele to tune the kalimba while the tines were still long. I then went back and sawed each one off about1/4″ above the bridge and re-tuned it.
It’s not perfect, but I learned a lot about instrument making. I added luthiers to list of craftsman that I have immense respect for.
During this whole process I kept making the following language joke: If Gerald the ukulele is becoming a kalimba, then he’s becoming more femanine. I guess this is a sex change.” My three years of Spanish in High School finally enabled me to make an awkward joke that nobody understood.
I still changed his name, though.