Monday, 5 October 2015

Oud Construction

Construction of an Oud for a Special Exhibition

In March 2015, I was commissioned by Cat Auburn to construct an Oud for an exhibition taking place in June in the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui, New Zealand.  The exhibition, titled The Horses Stayed Behind, would commemorate the 10,000 horses that were sent from New Zealand to the Middle East to serve the allied armies in the first world war.  Of this number, only 4 horses ever returned.  The artist, Cat Auburn, plaited 500 different horsehair rosettes to make a mural depicting this story. Many different colours of horsehair, donated from all over New Zealand, went into this stunning creation.

My brief was to construct an Oud, an Arabic precursor of the lute, using horsehair and which would be played at the opening of the exhibition.  This was a very unusual request, as you might imagine, but seemed to fit the theme of an Antipodean/Arabic fusion and I was up for a challenge.  It is important to me that all the instruments I make sound good and are enjoyable to play so I would not simply be making an artwork but an instrument I had no experiencing of making in a very short timespan.  I knew that complex wooden joinery goes into making the curved bowl back of a traditional instrument and, as I had such a short time available to deliver it, I decided to rather employ my standard method for constructing resonator instruments. This would involve making a fibreglass mould in which to make a fibreglass bowl for the Oud body and I would then apply various colours of horsehair to the surface to imitate the vaulted back of a traditional instrument.

Here is the shell of the Oud fresh from it's mould and awaiting the application of stripes of horsehair.

The assortment of washed and combed horsehair donated by people from all over NZ and sent to me by Cat.

Above and below, the hair being applied. It was stuck on to the shell using polyester resin, the same material that the shell is made of.  It holds the hairs in place and has good adhesion to the resin surface.

After some time and much sticky mess, the back of the instrument looked like this - below
The top of the instrument was to be constructed of Kauri, a type of soft pine native to New Zealand.  I chose this as I thought it added to the cross-cultural idea of the commission - old and new materials, eastern and western influences.
I used a pattern of bracing I found on the internet and made the top as thin as possible.  I have made ukuleles and mandolins using this combination of wood top and resin back and sides in the past with good success so I was certain that if I could build the top light and flexible enough, the tone and volume of the instrument would be good.
The neck and pegbox were constructed in American cherry with a maple centre strip. This strip extends into the pegbox and is vital for holding the whole assemblage together. The tenon on the right is half of the body neck joint.   Dimensions for the neck were largely a guess and probaby ended up being wider than they should have been.
The photo below shows the shell with the hair applied sitting in the original mould while having its end blocks and linings glued in place. The mould was very handy for holding the egg shaped body in place while it was being worked on. The linings are a type of laminating foam that holds glue very well and gives an easy to bend extra gluing surface for the top to body joint.
Below - the top being glued to the body using a traditional tape method but also modern slow setting epoxy glue to give me time to get everything in the right position. The neck was already in place without the pegbox. The clamps held the neck to the workbench while I wrapped the tape around the body.
Below - this is the body sitting in its mould with pegbox and fingerboard attached and waiting for the next step - the addition of bridge and braided edging and setup.  I sprayed the top, neck and pegbox with varnish at this stage. The back only needed a final coating of resin and picking out of loose hairs and it would be finished. The pegs came from Pakistan and are made from a type of teak.  Luckily, they came with their own tapered reamer to make fitting them easy.
Below is the finished body with braided horsehair edging and a woven horsehair rosette in the soundhole both of which were supplied by Cat Auburn, the commissioning artist.
So, for anybody needing a simple way of building an Oud, I can supply polyester resin bowls from this mould.

Above - the completed instrument ready to ship to New Zealand in time for the exhibition opening.
Shortly after shipping it off, I had the good fortune of seeing the Oud trio, the Joubain Brothers, play in Leeds. Their beautiful, traditionally made instruments sounded wonderful and I was pleased to find that my non-traditional instrument held up very well in comparison for volume and tone.
The Horses Stayed Behind by Cat Auburn can be viewed at The Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui,
New Zealand until 10 January 2016.

Friday, 7 February 2014

To All Visitors To The Beltona Blog

I must apologise for the lack of new content on my blog.
 Some of you might be aware that in late 2013 I moved family and business from New Zealand to the UK.
It was a big move for us all and has taken longer than I would have wished to get set up again and be producing instruments and writing blog content.
Most of the instruments shown for sale have sold. I hope to have more stock listed soon
Please come back again in the near future.

Monday, 8 April 2013

National Square-neck Headstock Repair

Wobbly Headstock Problems

National Square Neck Guitars often develop problems with the joint between the wooden headstock and the metal body. The simple mortise joint into a pine block inside the neck is held by animal glue. This glue crystalizes over the years and any joint like this that takes a lot of tension is bound to give way. At some stage someone has  drilled through the metal neck from behind and inserted screws(3) . This isn't enough to hold it once the glue has gone. 

After removing the fingerboard the photo below shows what is revealed. Far from being hollow , the neck has a pine block inserted from the nut to the 10th  fret. The sides wrap around this and their edges are nailed in the block. The is no metal on the front side of the neck as you can see below.

When the glue is cleaned off the wooden surfaces they are still a reasonable fit so all that is needed is some  2 part Epoxy glue. This  is also good at filling any gaps in the recess. You can see the  3 screw holes in the back of the neck in this photo.

The dismantled tricone. The fingerboard is glued to a small fillet of  wood to provide a rebate for the overlapping edges from the nut to the 10th fret. I added a couple of screws under the pearl dots for extra strength. The rest of the fingerboard over the body is held by the traditional National bolt under the pearl dots that pass through the body and  a wooden pad and into a nut  under the wood.You can see the block bottom left  of this photo with it's felt covering to keep down the rattles.

The finished Style 2  1928 Tricone fully  fettled and back in playing order

Back in the 1990s Bill Johnson and I made  some square neck Beltona Tricones.Bill made the body with a complete square section neck ie it had a front metal surface too. These were very rigid and unlike some of the old ones there was no bending  along the neck. It also meant we could put a much smaller block in the neck to take the headstock. This left more of the body hollow , all the way up to the 4th fret.. I also drilled out  a honeycomb of holes in the block to further reduce the weight. The mortise also had a ramped face that  worked against the headstock ever  pulling forward. I think this was an improvement in the construction of these wonderful guitars that changed the world of steel playing back in the late twenties before the Tsunami of electrification.



 Above is a very poor scan of a photograph of two  Beltona Square neck tricones built in the 1990's. A tribute to Bill Johnson's metal working skills.


Thanks for looking


Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Beltona/Francis ukulele model


Collaboration Ukuleles

Limited Edition of 7

These are a collaborative effort between Steve Evans of Beltona and Tony Francis of Tony Francis Instruments.  

For the last few years, Steve has been experimenting with, making and selling non-resonator ukuleles made from the fibreglass moulded back and sides that are used for Beltona resonator ukuleles with the addition of a tone wood top to replace the fibreglass top and resonator cone.  The range of woods for the tops includes New Zealand Kauri, Tasmanian Blackwood and Mahogany - all with great results but had yet to try Koa wood.

Tony makes wonderful Weissenborn style guitars using nothing but Hawaiian Koa wood.  The leftovers from his tops and back shapes are pieces just the right size and quality for making uke tops.  The combination of Tony's koa tops and the Beltona fibreglass moulding produces the best tone yet in these experiments.  The Koa still has the lovely resonance and life that characterises it and the resin back and sides gives the ukes volume and sustain with a nice crisp attack
  • The tops are Hawaiian Koa Wood 
  • The backs and sides are a "Bakelite" pattern with a matt finish echoing the Maccaferri  Islander ukes.
  • The necks are mahogany and the fingerboards are rosewood.
  • Concert 14 3/4" scale length
  •  The headstock is a pearloid veneer with matching fret dots.
  • Gotoh tuners and Hilo strings
  • Price- $US700 including case and shipping

 All the ukuleles are individual and details differ.  A couple are shown here and photos of others can be supplied.

Here are a  couple of sound samples of one of these ukes being played by string maestro Rob Matthews

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Tiny Tim's Ukulele Part 3

Tiny Tim’s Uke     Part 3

Fortunately another customer came to our rescue:  Colin McCubbin, a collector and documenter of all things resophonic purchased the uke.
 His website is the  repository of wonderful pictures and information concerning National, Dobro and other resonator instruments of the past.
I think that when he first saw our Beltona uke Mr Tim hadn’t seen a resonator uke. Being a nickel plated brass uke it was obviously heavier than the wooden ukes he played. We installed a stud in the waist of the instrument so he could attach a saxophone type strap that balanced the uke and made it possible for him to use both his hands in gesticulating and the uke would hang there waiting for him .
Tiny Tim was a genuine eccentric and was accepted for it in the mainstream music world in his heyday. This would be difficult to achieve now in this much more fragmented world where you can be an eccentric star in a small group for a short time but not an eccentric star on the scale of  Mr Tim for a prolonged period of time.
Thanks for viewing


Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Tiny Tim's Ukuele Part 2

Tiny Tim’s Ukulele       Part 2

Back to the uke order: A few telephone calls and month or two later the uke was ready and sent to him in the US.   He was pictured in magazine articles holding his Beltona Ukulele.  It was very good for our business profile.

This is what we came up with . The scale length is 12 1/2 ", the cone  is  the standard 6" and the back is flat. The whole body resembled a cake tin but it sounded really good and was as loud as any resonator uke inspite of the  small body.
A few months later, Tiny Tim telephoned once again with a new request.  Could we build a very small version of the uke he had – one that he could travel with easily?  He wanted it to pack inside his suitcase but be as loud as the one he had already.  I thought about the possibilities and called him back with the idea to make the uke with a body no bigger than it had to be to hold the resonator and the shortest possible playable scale length.  My partner Bill and I set about this interesting commission but, unfortunately, Tiny Tim died before taking possession of it.   Mr Tim had a heart attack while performing:  I am told that he was playing his Beltona at the time and he died a few days later.  The man who was, some years later, to buy this uke from Mr Tim’s widow told me that the uke was dented from the fall when he collapsed.

A comparison between a standard Beltona Concert Resonator Ukulele and  Mr Tim's travel uke. ( Sorry about the bad reflections)
So the world had lost a wonderfully individual performer and we were left with an eccentric individual ukulele.

This photo of Mr Tim playing his Beltona Concert Resonator Uklulele is borrowed from where there is a transcript of an interview with him.
Part 3 to follow

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Tiny Tim's Ukuleles Part 1

Tiny Tim’s Ukulele          Part 1

The other day I came across a photograph of one of our instruments while searching for something else entirely - a photograph of a very strange resonator ukulele: it was the shape of a small banjo uke but made of nickel plated brass. 
This is its story

 It was in the early 1990s, while Beltona Resonator Instruments was based in the UK, that we made a resonator uke for Peter Brooke-Turner who is a founder member of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.  At that time, the Orchestra whilst being little known in the UK or in fact anywhere else, was very big in Japan but this situation was changing for it rapidly and they would soon become widely popular.

A couple of years later, Peter phoned me to say that Tiny Tim was in London playing a few gigs but was without a ukulele.  Someone had suggested he visit Peter as he was known to have one or two lying around the house.   The one that took Mr Tim’s eye and ear was the Beltona uke that Peter owned.  Tiny Tim used the uke for his gigs after it was retuned to play left handed.  A few weeks later, I received a call from Herbert Khaury, aka Tiny Tim asking me to make him a ukulele exactly like Peter’s.
Peter Brooke-Turner and TT. I think on the day he visited Peter (photo courtesy of Peter)

You have to remember that at that time the ukulele was not a the wildly popular instrument it is today and Tiny Tim had kept it in the public eye almost single handedly since his heyday in the late 60’s and early 70’s.   He was the biggest living thing in the ukulele world to me.  I remembered him being on TV when I was young.  He was famously (or infamously) married on TV to Miss Vicki.  His version of the old Nick Lucas tune “Tiptoe Thru the Tulips” was widely loved.  Eccentric and lavishly over-dressed he may have appeared but he carried in his mind a vast repertoire of tin pan alley songs of love and romance unmatched today.  He was a walking archive of crooning tunes previously lost but revived and passed on to a new generation by Mr Tim.
We were thrilled to have received a commission from this colossus of the ukulele world. 
When I was speaking with him he addressed me constantly as Mr Evans despite me being 30 years younger than himself. An old world politeness so rare today and indicative of his charming manner.
A Still from a Tiny Tim video "Songs and Stories of the Crooners" Available from

To be continued