In addition to the ponsi, a second “sculpted” wooden part was required for the kantele. This rounded end piece was created to be attached underneath the soundboard and allow the soundbox frame shape to relate to the shape of the top of the instrument. It was cut out with a circular saw and jigsaw and shaped by filing and sanding. The angle where the piece attached to the frame was hard to get right so it was also trimmed by hand with a Japanese pull saw.
A ponsi is a curved wooden block that holds the kantele’s varras (see previous Varras post on 8/15/2015). Together these two parts connect the strings to the soundboard of the kantele.
Creating the ponsi involved a number of challenges. A wood block of the appropriate size was cut out of a walnut plank. The ponzi shape was drawn on tracing paper using the original printed plan as a reference, transferred to the wood block using transfer paper, and then darkened with a Sharpie. The hole for the varras had to be drilled slightly off center on the 7/8” side width through the 5+ inch depth of the wood block. Since most drill presses only drill 2 – 2.5 inches in depth, we had to start this hole on the drill press and then finish with a long bit in a hand drill.
My brother constructed a jig to hold and center the wood block on his drill press, and we drilled the first half of the hole. It was challenging to find an economical drill bit long enough to drill a 5+ inch deep hole. Most hand drill bits are only a couple of inches long. After looking in numerous big box stores and home centers we finally found an economical 5/16 inch drill bit that was 24 inches long at Harbor Freight and used this to complete the hole. This was an awkward tool to use due to its extreme length, but the job was successfully completed through teamwork. My brother operated the drill while I steadied the block.
After the varras hole was drilled, the curved areas of the ponsi shape were cut out with a jig saw. It was then sculpted with files and sandpaper into the final shape.
Kanteles have a metal bar called a varras that the strings are attached to at one end of the instrument. After looking at several kantele plans and instrument examples, I determined I would use a 5/16” width metal rod for the varras of my instrument. A 36 inch long steel rod was purchased at Home Depot. This was a lot more than needed for my short 5” varras, but was the best option we could find. I have enough left over for about six more kanteles of this size.
The varras was cut to correct length with a hacksaw. Burrs were removed and the edges smoothed and beveled with a grinding wheel. The entire varras was cleaned and shined up with silicone carbide sandpaper.
I love the look of Walnut and decided to use it to make the frame, pin block, and ponsi of my kantele. When finished naturally the color reminds me of milk chocolate. I was lucky to find a slightly damaged 8-foot x 5” x 7/8” piece of rough sawn walnut at the Woodcraft store in Roanoke, Virginia. It was on clearance for about $20. They let me exchange it for a 3-foot length of similar width and depth milled walnut the Woodcraft store in Virginia Beach sold for 30+ dollars. I got almost 3 times the material for 2/3 the price. I also used a 3 foot x 2” x 2” length of walnut to create the pin block (the part of the instrument that holds the zither pins used to tune the instrument). I have enough walnut left over to make another kantele or two.
Cutting the sides and pin block of the kantele body was pretty straightforward. Since the kantele sides would be 2 inches high, the 5-inch wide plank was cut into 2-inch high strips with a circular saw. The lengths and angles of the two sides were measured and cut. Great care was needed to accurately measure and cut the angles of the pin block to make the parts of the triangular-like shape of the kantele meet up accurately. Some of these angles can be seen in the left over pieces in the image above. Curves at the back of the two side pieces were cut out with a jig saw. These will be visible in future posts.
- The Photoshop design files for both the top and bottom of the kantele were printed from the computer. Five printed 8.5 X 11 sheets were required for each of the top and bottom. These were taped together using X registration marks for alignment. The taped-together design shape of the kantele is shown at the top of the picture above.
- The soundboard shape was traced onto tracing paper from the computer printout. This tracing is shown at the bottom of the picture above.
- The soundboard shape was transferred to the sheet of plywood using red transfer paper, pencil and ruler. See the picture below which shows the bottom side of the soundboard after it was cut out, but with remaining red transfer lines showing the positions for glueing the sides of the soundbox later in the process.
- The soundboard shape was cut out of the plywood using a circular saw and jig saw.
- The edges of the soundboard shape were refined with a file and sandpaper.
- The top and bottom of the soundboard were smoothed with sandpaper after dampening it with water raised the wood grain.
I originally wanted to make the top/soundboard of my instrument from a 1/4 inch thick piece of solid walnut. Due to my woodworking inexperience and naiveté I did not realize this would be a difficult and prohibitively expensive item to acquire for a one-off instrument of this size. Looking around at local sources, I found there were only available sizes up to 24 inches long. I finally decided to make my kantele top from Baltic Birch plywood instead. I was a bit disappointed at first but realized a couple of things that made me feel good about this decision.
First, I thought it would be very appropriate to use a native regional material – Baltic Birch – for this instrument since the Kantele belongs to the musical instrument family of Baltic psalteries. Many other countries in the region have similar instruments; the Russian Gusli is one example. Part of the tradition of the kantele as a folk instrument is that it was made out of whatever materials were available at hand since resources were often limited. It seemed appropriate for me to use Baltic birch as an economical alternative. I also remembered that I had seen Baltic birch used for many other musical instruments including hammered dulcimers, lap harps, and zithers. While it may lack the more sophisticated tone and prestige of solid a wood top, I find I like the brighter tone that results from its use on some instruments and the fact it is less prone to cracking. Although it is often painted to hide the side grain when used in musical instruments, I personally like the look of the top grain of this material.
The design plans for my kantele were arrived at after looking at a number of resources. The approximate string lengths and gauges were determined from plans I purchased from English luthier Michael King. I own a Kantele purchased from Musicmakers in Stillwater Minnesota and looked at it as well as other instruments on the Internet for ideas. Through a synthesis of ideas from these sources I determined that I would create my own construction method and design shape that were appropriate to the tools and materials I would have available.
I used Photoshop to create my design and construction plan following closely the string placement from the plans by Michael king. The Photoshop file is 35 x 11 inches. To print this and use as a template for cutting the wood components it was necessary to divide the plan into 5 image tiles with overlapping X alignment marks and guides to depict page edges. The pages would be taped together to make the complete physical guide.
I had many questions about how to proceed with the process of constructing my kantele because I had limited woodworking experience and limited access to personally owned woodworking tools. I researched the Internet for information, acquired basic kantele plans, and observed Kantele examples. I asked several acquaintances if it would be possible to loan or use their tools. My brother John Rueckert and friend Charlie Engle agreed to allow me access to their tools, so I knew I could proceed with the project. My brother would also provide help with sawing and drilling as we used his tools, and Charlie helped as I drilled the zither pin holes.