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Musical shop sounds

Blog by Rob Brown
It Looks Good

On Family Day we were at a loss for what to do.

My daughter went to spend time with her boyfriend, so I told my son he should come to the shop with me. I say “told” because if I ask him he usually says no. The thing is, he always has a great time once he’s there.

Off we went. I had a few things to putter with, as I was coming to the end of a pair of cabinets for a client. I wasn’t quite sure what he would get up to, but I knew he’d find something to keep his mind occupied.

Within three minutes of arriving he found a long hose that was part of a Festool dust extractor. It was coiled up and it reminded him of one of his favourite school subjects: music. Although he’s never played an instrument in his life before this school year, he’s really taken a liking to the saxophone. He often plays it so much he gives himself a headache and has to lie down. I love seeing that focus and intensity in him, and I think we can all agree it’s far better than wasting another hour on a device.

Now, I know what you’re saying. What, on earth, does a Festool hose have to do with music? Good question. My son said the hose reminded him of an instrument in his music class that includes a series of hoses, all cut to different lengths, that make a sound when you hit the tops of the hoses with a hand-held paddle-like object. Not surprisingly, he wanted to make one in the shop.

How could I say no?

I was onboard right away, as I can’t possibly say no to any shop project he wants to do. I brought a few other hoses and pipes to him so he could check them out for sound. We tapped, banged, whapped, smacked and bashed each of the hose ends, but try as we may, we couldn’t get a decent sound to come out of most of them. At least not good enough of a sound to impress my son, who was used to the professionally made instrument in his music class. Seeing as he wasn’t impressed, I encouraged him to keep looking around for something else to do.

Next up?

Three more minutes went by, and I guess his mind went right back to music class, as he told me about another simple instrument he played in his class called a marimba. It has a series of wooden blocks, one slightly longer than the next, lined up in a row to be hit with a small wooden mallet. That’s what he now wanted to create. It would be easy, he assured me. I guess he somehow doesn’t know he doesn’t have to talk me into shop projects, and he wanted to make sure I didn’t scorn his new idea.

Rather than break out a bunch of hard maple, I took a short trip to my caul shelf, where I found a few 3/4″ thick plywood cauls of differing lengths. We screwed them to a long 2×2 and hit them with a piece of wood. No good, he informed me. The sound was poor, but it was the stick that we used to hit the different pieces of wood that was the problem. In his class they have a tool that’s essentially a round wood dowel about 10″ long with a round solid wood head on it. No worries, I said, we can make something similar.

The clock is ticking

Now, keep in mind my son is 12 years old. His attention span has him forgetting what he got up from the dinner table for regularly. I wanted this musical project to move along smoothly and quickly, so he wouldn’t lose focus.

Back to the little wooden hammer he needed. I found a short dowel and we drilled a mating hole in a piece of scrap, then rounded its corners and glued it up. We waited for three minutes for the glue to dry (more than enough in this situation) and tried it out. Still no.

Musical project #3

For some reason, this is when he glanced at my wrench collection and had an idea. Suspend them from a piece of thin wood and tap them with another object. The wrenches were a great idea, as I had every size wrench imaginable, short of the 10mm one. They would make different notes and would sound wonderful. We put them on a 36″ long piece of maple that was 1/4″ square. Although there were still some details to work out to make this worthy of a symphony, our basic approach didn’t even come close to working well enough to proceed with it.

Running out of ideas?

As you can imagine, he was on a musical ride at this point. If it didn’t include the potential for sound it wasn’t going to be considered that day. He played around for another five minutes or so until I stumbled across a piece of scrap metal. It was a short portion of an adjustable coat rod from a job I did a few months ago. He picked it up and started to pretend to play it like a clarinet, which, in fact, he brought home for kicks a few weeks ago even though that’s not his instrument. Right away he could see it; drill some holes in its length, add his sax mouthpiece, and enjoy the sweet music.

We set up the drill press to bore the holes, which he mostly took care of. A piece of masking tape laid down the length allowed us to mark the hole locations without permanently marking the fabulous instrument we were so carefully crafting. Next, a hole to accept a small screw eye, so he could support the instrument with his sax neck band while playing. Our work at the shop was now done.

At home

He grabbed his sax mouthpiece, popped it in the hole and it was almost a perfect fit. Some talk of using a balloon to block the hole between the mouthpiece and new instrument was had, but in the end the mouthpiece just barely worked if he used the upper portion of his sax and pushed it down into the piece of scrap metal.

The sound it made left a little to be desired, but the fact that he made the instrument goes a long way in enjoying the awkward sound that comes out of it. I’ve said it before, kids in the shop equals fun, especially when you don’t say no to their imaginations.

It Looks Good

But will it play? We headed home to see if my son’s sax mouthpiece would fit it.

It Looks Good

Adjusting on the Fly

The mouthpiece was too large, but the upper portion of his sax could be removed and inserted into our shop-made clarinet to make a sound. You can even see the screw eye we added to the rod so my son could hang it around his neck while he played.

Adjusting on the Fly

Marimba

This is our try at a marimba. It’s not overly loud, and we didn’t see a lot of short-term options to improve it, so we started making something else.

Different Notes

My set of wrenches inspired us to create this very simple instrument. The different-sized wrenches play different notes when hit, but once again, we decided to put it aside for now.

A Simple Clarinet

A few holes drilled in a piece of coat rod is the start of a great instrument, or so we hope.

The Best One Yet

It may not be headlining any shows at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, but it sounds pretty good for a shop-made instrument.

Published:
Last modified: February 22, 2024

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

3 Comments

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  2. Well, that was some fun! It was clear though that you’re not a musician, Rob, when you tried using plywood for a marimba. Hardwood — and not glue-laden plywood — is necessary to get a musical tone from a struck block.

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