The kantele construction was finished prior to the end of my summer break, about one week before I returned to school to teach for Fall 2015 semester. I started this blog on August 12, and finished the kantele construction posts on August 24th. Creating the instrument and this blog were part of a professional development project. There are several remaining components of the project. I composed a song that will use the kantele as the main melody instrument. I am currently developing the parts for other accompanying instruments and will record the song using multi-track digital recording software.
Installing kantele strings is a bit of a challenge the first time around. The music wire I used is very hard and can have dangerous, sharp ends. There is a very specific way to install the strings successfully; precision is necessary to prevent small ends of sharp wire from sticking out and creating injuries when handling the instrument. I had the experience of being punctured and cut with it several times while making the looped string ends and while handling other instruments where it wasn’t done properly. I was therefore very motivated to do the final installation properly.
Strings are attached first to the varras. The loop is pulled under the varras from the bottom. A needle nose pliers is very helpful at this stage. The string is then pulled through the loop and pulled taught.
Zither Pin String Technique
- At the other end of the instrument, the string is inserted through the hole in the zither pin and then clipped off leaving about 2 ½ to 3 inches of extra string sticking through.
- The extra string is pulled back flush with the side of the pin so it doesn’t stick out.
- The tuning pin is tightened about one half turn.
- The string is pulled back taught to make a bend or becket in the string that will hold it in the hole in the zither pin without slipping.
- The string is then held taught with one hand while winding with a tuning key until tight. The turns are watched carefully while winding. Pressure from the hand and fingers holding the string is also used to push the winds of the string close together on the tuning pin.
A previously noted in an August 18th post, standard 3/16 inch zither pins are used to hold and tune the strings on the kantele. The holes for the pins must be drilled 1 ¼ inch deep and as close to vertical as possible. A drill press was used to ensure that the holes were the right depth and perfectly vertical in the instrument. I thank Charlie Engle for his assistance and the use of his drill press to complete this step.
The standard zither pins must be inserted until 7/8 inch is left above the surface of the instrument before the strings are attached. The pins can be tapped in a bit with a hammer and then turned with the tuner to the right height, or they can be be more quickly hammered in all the way to the correct height. I implemented the second method and used a 7/8-inch thick piece of wood with a hole drilled in it to stop the hammer at the right distance. As the last few pins were installed I began to feel a sense of excitement and anticipation – all I had remaining to do was install the strings and the instrument would be complete!
The modern kantele has a unique, metallic, bell-like quality to its sound. The strings are attached to the instrument by wrapping them around a metal bar called a varras, which is in turn fastened to the top of the instrument by a wooden holding bracket called a ponsi. I think this steel varras is responsible for enhancing the metallic characteristics in the tone of the instrument. From the varras the strings run directly to zither type tuning pegs at the other end of the instrument.
Loop end strings are required to wrap around the varras. Since individual loop end strings are relatively expensive and not readily available in local music stores in desired gauges, I decided to purchase bulk music wire and make my own.
First, string length and gauge need to be determined and noted. Extra length is added to the actual string length for wrapping around the zither pins (2-3 inches) and winding the loop end of the strings (I added about 4-5 inches).
A number of tools and materials are needed to wind the string loops. They are shown and labeled in the picture below. The “loop winder” was made by drilling a hole in the end of an old paint roller extension handle and installing a screw eye. The screw eye had to have a gap large enough to remove the looped strings from inside the eye. I had several pairs of wire cutters and pliers on hand, but none of them would cut the hardened music wire which I had purchased. The stuff is tough! I had to go out and purchase a pair of induction hardened wire cutters appropriate for the task from the local home center. A vise is also essential, to hold the wire firm while winding the loops. I tried to do this in my apartment without the vise and it is nearly impossible.
Each string is gripped in the vise and placed inside the screw eye. The string is then pulled taught with one hand and rotated about four or five complete turns using the loop winder tool held in the other hand.
The music wire is then pulled taught at a different angle to allow it to be wrapped back in the other direction for several turns in order to lock the loop. The extra end of the string that was held in the vise is cut off as close to the winding as possible in order to eliminate any sharp ends sticking out.
The final finish on the kantele wound up being a simple, clear polycrylic coating. However, I had many other extensive ideas for finishing and decorating the kantele that I tested as part of the building process.
I thought I might use colored stains or dyes, acrylic paints and possibly inlays on the instrument. I tested Minwax water based blue stain and clear polycrylic coating and General Finishes water based blue dye and water based top coat as two choices for the basic overall finish. I wanted to incorporate colored wood grain within the overall visual design. At the recommendation of several finishing experts accessed online and in stores, I tested the stain and dye choices several ways in order to minimize the potential for blotching which is common when applying stains to birch. Minwax stain was tested in combination with a prior application of pre-stain conditioner, while the General Finishes dye was tested with a prior application of water. Both choices were also tested straight on the wood without any pre-applications. I also tested using acrylic paint, Pearl Ex metallic powders and several brands of water-based paint pens in combination with the Minwax and General Finishes products. I eliminated the idea of inlay because it would have required the purchase of several additional tools I didn’t have access to.
I had several ideas of decorative design possibilities for the kantele. One possible design mockup created in Photoshop is shown above. I also thought I might include Finish petroglyphs or figure elements from Finish shaman drums as design elements because of connections I made between these two simple yet powerful instruments. The reasons for this were interesting, but complex and beyond the scope of the blog at this point. Some samples of these drawn with paint pens are shown in the test image below.
I much preferred the General Finishes dye and top coat to the Minwax stain and polycrylic coating. The dye was the right color and created a sense depth and enhanced the wood grain, although some blotching was evident. The Minwax stain was dull and a less attractive color in comparison.
When I tested the top coats over the acrylic paints and paint pens I encountered some problems. The top coats smeared the paint pens. I tested acrylic varnish spray over the paint pens to fix them before applying the top coats but it affected the look somewhat and I questioned how varnishes would react with the top coats. I also learned from an acrylic paint manufacturer that the paints I intended to use should cure two weeks before being covered by the top coats. I did not have time for this due to work related deadlines, so I opted to not do a complex surface design.
Final Finish of the Instrument
I decided to save the General Finishes stain and top coat for a future project that I would have time to complete exactly as I desired. I used the Minwax Polycrylic coating as a finish over the bare wood. This was an unfortunate decision. Although the finish adequately protects and brings out the grain and beauty of the wood, it is very difficult to get a smooth, professional finish with this product. The first couple of coats worked well, but three minimum are recommended. The final coat kept bubbling and showing brush strokes. I repeatedly sanded and reapplied the finish (many, many, times!), following every instruction and recommendation on how to apply the product. I honestly spent several hours every day for a week re-sanding and re-finishing the kantele in an attempt to get a good finish. I finally gave up and accepted an imperfect result. While the finish is adequate, a close inspection will show the problem areas. So this is one aspect of the project with which I am a bit dissatisfied.
Standard 3/16 inch zither pins are used to hold and tune the strings on the kantele. The holes for them must be drilled 1 ¼ inch deep and as close to vertical as possible. A drill press was used to ensure that the holes were the right depth and perfectly vertical in the instrument. I thank Charlie Engle for the use of his drill press and assistance in completing this step. The drill stand base was not large enough to support the kantele properly. Charlie helped by holding and supporting the instrument in the awkward positions that were needed to drill some of the holes as I operated the drill press.
The countersunk screw holes on the sides of the kantele were filled with walnut plugs. These were hammered in with a little wood glue using a wood block to protect the instrument. Would I be able to build the kantele using a construction method that required countersunk screw holes? At first, I didn’t know how feasible it would be to do this. I certainly didn’t want to have holes in the side of the instrument unless they could be filled or plugged. I knew there were specialized tools that could drill holes and make plugs that would match, but I didn’t want to buy another specialized tool. I was relieved to find that I could purchase pre-made plugs that could fit the holes for the size screw head I would use.
The ponsi was carefully placed and glued to the top of the instrument. All surfaces were then carefully sanded to prepare for the finish coats.
Small gaps between the joints of the glued-together walnut pieces were filled with a mixture of walnut sawdust and wood glue. The joints were sanded smooth after the filler set and dried.
After the sound box pieces were glued, I decided the front of the sound box where the long side connected to the pin block needed to be cut off and rounded to make the design more pleasing and unified. The curve at the front of the instrument would repeat the curves at the back of the instrument and the instrument would also be more comfortable to hold. The straight front of the sound box was cut off at an angle with a Japanese pull saw and then sculpted by hand with a file and sandpaper to smoothly join with the curved front piece.
The pin block (the wood piece that holds the tuning pins) was glued first because it only needed clamps to connect the top glued surface to the soundbox. I didn’t take a picture of the just the pin block being glued.
The two side pieces of the sound box frame were glued after the pin block. See pictures above and below. Each of these two parts had to be glued on the top to the soundboard and on the side to the pin block. It takes a bit of moving and adjusting to get both of these joins to properly align because there is a tendency for the wood parts to slip around on the wet glue. On the small piece, clamps were used to hold the top glue joint to the sound box while countersunk screws were used to pull the side together with the pin block. The long side piece was glued to the instrument last. In addition to using clamps for the top join and countersunk screws to pull the side together with the pin block, a large clamp was needed to adequately hold the side joint together.
The gluing process can be messy – glue seeps out of the joints when they are pressed together. This should happen – it is an indicator that there is enough glue if a little bit squeezes out all around. If it doesn’t in places it means there may be spots where the two surfaces are not attached. The excess glue needs to be quickly cleaned up with a wet rag or paper towel before it dries up. A bowl of water to clean fingers and a small screwdriver to push the rag into the corners are helpful tools to have on hand during this process. A lot of care is needed when cleaning because any missed spots of glue that may not be very visible on the unfinished wood become quite noticeable when finish coats are applied.
One of the many issues that held me back on this project was access to woodworking tools, in this case clamps. I did have some small ones but they were too small to use for this project. I did not want to buy new ones outright because the ones found in local big box stores run about $13 – $15 each for the size needed. As you can see in the pictures, quite a few are required, and I didn’t want to spend around $100 for 7 or 8 clamps I wouldn’t use very often. I was looking to borrow some but was relieved when my brother found an extra good deal on the clamps you see in the pictures – they were purchased for $3 each. My brother and I each bought 4 and 3 of them respectively. He wanted to have some on hand in the future so this saved me some money.