Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Toy Castle

January 11, 2017

This wooden castle is another in a long line of wooden toys built for nephews and nieces. This one is for a nine-year-old for Christmas. The big challenges for this one were that first, it needed to have a fairly small footprint and second, I wanted to be sure that small hands could access every part of it.


The solutions were to go more vertical to keep the footprint size small, and to have walls in several places that swing out on hinges to allow access to the inner-sanctum and the keep in particular.


castle closed from the side


castle open from the side


castle closed from the back


castle open from the back

…did I mention the dungeon? A good place to keep the domesticated dragons, or prisoners.

Winter is here!

January 7, 2011

Winter is certainly here, and you never know what it will bring…

Run little snowmen! Run!

More Ukulele Building

February 26, 2010

In an earlier post I mentioned the ukulele building that has been going on in the shop. For anyone out there who is looking for some inspiration to make your own ukulele, here are some examples to get you thinking.

Four Concert Ukuleles

All four of these ukuleles are concert sized, that is, bigger than a soprano ukulele and smaller than a tenor ukulele. I built one, and three other members of the SOLO staff have each built one. We have been getting together on our free evenings after work this autumn and winter to work in the shop.  Two of us have had some experience building instruments, and the other two are novices to wooden instrument making. Each ukulele has been built from a very nicely detailed sheet of plans that I bought from Hana-Lima-Ia in Hawaii. All of the hardware and some of the purfling and inlay material came from Stewart MacDonald Music supply. Some of the exotic wood was special ordered from Hawaii, and some came from a hardwood supplier called Highland Hardwoods in Brentwood, New Hampshire. Lastly, much of the wood in the ukulele that I am building is scrap wood leftover from when I did the restoration of our friendship sloop.

Starting with the one that I built; the neck is made from a strip of African ebony sandwiched between two pieces of cherry. The head is cherry with a piece of Indian ebony inlay. The back of the instrument is made of cherry, and the sides are mahogany. The belly of the instrument is Douglas fir with ebony and maple inlay around the sound hole. The fingerboard is African ebony with maple inlay. The strings are Aquila strings. The sound is excellent on this ukulele, bright and surprisingly loud for such a small instrument. I did have problems with the original fingerboard, and eventually replaced it, and I should also point out that the strings are set further apart than is typical because I have such large hands. This instrument makes an OK strumming instrument but it seems made for plucking.

detail of back

This next one also has a neck made with a strip of African ebony sandwiched between two pieces of cherry, and the head is a continuation of the same piece. The back is made from morado with cherry sides. The belly is mahogany inlayed with ebony and maple around the sound hole, and the fingerboard is made of African ebony and we finished this instrument with lacquer because the morado wood that the back is made from is so oily that it cannot be varnished because the varnish will never dry. The sound is softer, perhaps due to the softer wood used in the belly of the instrument. The strings are GHS strings, and I suspect changing them for Aquila strings would change the sound.

The third Ukulele has a neck made of African ebony sandwiched between two pieces of rock maple. The head is rock maple with African ebony inlay. The back is made of zebrawood with mahogany sides. The belly is Douglas fir with ebony and maple inlay and the fingerboard is African ebony. The strings are Aquila strings and the sound quality is somewhere between the first two ukuleles in both tone and brightness. The result is a rounder sound better adapted to strumming than plucking. I suspect that the reason that the sound is a little more muted in this instrument is that the zebrawood back is so hard.

The last one is the most exotic and took the most time to finish. The neck is made of seven alternating strips of rock maple and African ebony. The head is an extension of the neck with a complex palm tree inlay made of alternating rock maple and Indian ebony. The back is made of pheasant wood ordered from Hawaii, as are the sides. The Belly is cedar inlayed with maple ringed with ebony, and the fingerboard is made of African ebony.

All of the strings were purchased through Just Strings, and although we all started off with GHS brand strings several of us switched to Aquila for a brighter sound.

Wooden PT Boat

December 3, 2009

December is upon us and there has been a lot going on in the shop, not least is the first wooden toy for the season. This wooden PT Boat with a crew of small wooden bears was made for the eighth birthday of a nephew. The toy is fairly simple (no moving parts) but the nephew in question already has a somewhat significant fleet of similar ships, so this is another addition to his navy.

Wooden PT Boat

The PT Boat Crew

Building Ukuleles

December 1, 2009

There has been a lot going on in the shop of late. Throughout the fall, several evenings a week four of the SOLO staff has been meeting after work to build concert-sized ukuleles. It has taken a lot of hours, but the first two ukuleles are finished and the other two are not far behind. If you have been wondering why there has been little added to this blog in the last two months, it was because I was down in the shop building musical instruments.

Parts for four ukuleles in boxes

Gluing in the back lining

Another back lining

Another back Lining

Gluing in the label

There will be another long post shortly, that will show all four instruments and give a write up of materials and sources.

Distractions #2

August 17, 2009

Back in March, I wrote about making Ukuleles (see “Distractions”)The first three Ukuleles mentioned in that post, have actually been complete for a while. In fact, one has gone to Africa and back, and another to Nicaragua and back, which may be insightful of how much SOLO staff travel and less to do with the ukuleles. The tenor ukulele that I built has traveled the least but has at least been to the boat a number of times.

The tenor Ukulele, built from plans bought from Stewart MacDonald Music, is the one destined to live on the boat. It turned out well and has a nice tone. I would note that if you work from these plans, double check the measurements everywhere. In particular, if you are new to this kind of project, take the measurements for the fret placement off the tables provided on the sheet of drawings and do not measure from from the drawing itself. This is a 17” Ukulele, which means that the string length from bridge to nut is 17”.

The model that I made has mahogany sides, a back made of rock maple, the neck is a combination of cherry and maple with an ebony inlay, and the face is made from Douglas fir.  Much of the wood used in this instrument came from pieces left over from the restoration of our Friendship Sloop, so it is fitting that it will live mostly on the boat. The nut and bridge on this instrument are made of bone and the sound quality is pretty good.

the tenor ukulele

the tenor ukulele

The soprano shown below was built directly from a kit bought through Lark in the Morning. The main problem after completing the kit “as is” is that the action is so very high that it is impossible to play. We tinkered with it though and got it to sound acceptable.

kit ukulele

kit ukulele

another shot of the kit ukulele

another shot of the kit ukulele

The next soprano used the neck and fret board that came from the Lark in The Morning kit, but had a custom body. The body has sides and back made of Rock Maple and a face made of Douglas fir. The sound hole is unusual and does not seem to affect the sound one way or the other. We had the same difficulty with the action on this one that we had on the other kit. In both cases the bridge had to be lowered and the nut filed down in order to make playing the instrument possible.

custom soprano ukulele

custom soprano ukulele

In summary; we bought the kits for the two sopranos because we wanted to save the hassle and time of making up fret boards and the matching nut, saddle, and bridge. I think in the end, we spent just as much time fussing with the kit version of these as we would have had we made them from scratch.

The next two Ukuleles will be concert sized and built from plans from Hana Lima Ia.

New Children’s Book

May 27, 2009

There has been a lot going on here of late, enough so that I have not been able to contribute to this site in a while. Coming soon: some photographs and notes on the Ukuleles that were described in the last post, and some updates on the boat page, but for now; let me plug a new children’s book. Cat In the Clouds.


                This is the fifth book I have illustrated and the second children’s book. The book is about Nin, a lost cat who finds a home at the Mt Washington observatory, on the summit of Mt Washington. Nin is a real cat, he lived on the summit for twelve years, and the book’s author, Eric Pinder knows Nin well.  Nin is quite a local celebrity, so much so that when he retired from the summit, the news made CNN!

               I like the challenges presented by illustration work. I like trying to create images that catch the eye but that do not necessarily give away what is in the text. I also like trying to find a style that compliments the writing. Cat in the Clouds is, essentially, a true story, so I tried to make the watercolors true to the setting, while keeping the focus on Nin. This presented a constant balancing act between those images that were more panoramic and those that were more about Nin.

                I have worked, and do work, in a number of mediums. Watercolor has become one of my favorites. I like the spontaneity and the immediacy of watercolor, but I also like the challenges. For example, unless you are just trying to get beautiful big splotches of color (and some painters just want that) it is an extremely difficult medium to master. I think part of the reason for this is that there is a continual tension for the painter between a well thought out approach to a subject, knowing what areas to leave light and where to apply darker colors to the composition, and an ability to take advantage of those moments when the combination of paint paper and water does something unexpected. Another way to look at this is that if you just want to be surprised, watercolor is easy. If you are actually trying to achieve a specific look, it is much harder.


Front piece from Cat in The Clouds

Front piece from Cat in The Clouds

From Page 11, Cat In The Clouds



In case you were wondering each watercolor took on average four hours.


            So now you know what happened to at least one month of my winter. The book is available here through, or you can go direct to the Publisher, The History Press.


March 13, 2009

One of the downsides of being addicted to the creative process is that sometimes-innocent investigation of a new craft or skill can unexpectedly take over your life. This happened to me recently. After a January, which I spent cranking out 42 watercolors for a new children’s book to come out in May, several younger staff at SOLO asked me if I could help them build ukuleles.

       Now I know next to nothing about ukuleles, or I should say I did know next to nothing about ukuleles, but I have built guitars and lutes, as well as the odd fiddle and dulcimer. So I thought sure, no problem—we order a couple of cheap kits—replace the cheaper pieces with better ones we make ourselves, and we’ll be all set. So kits were ordered, and them I made a fateful mistake; I started reading about Ukuleles. I also went to “you Tube” (almost always a mistake) and started watching videos about ukulele tunings, and ukulele songs, and building ukuleles. Well before you know it I was ordering some detailed plans—you know—just to check up on the kits.

       Things spiraled out of control, and I am still not even sure how. Anyway, there are now one ukulele being built from a kit, two being built partly with kits, and I have pieces for two more, one a concert size and one a tenor ukulele, scattered all over the shop. In other words two ukulele projects turned into five (there are rumors of a sixth).

       The nearest thing I have to a rationalization for the two ukuleles that I am building is that they are for the boat…because…um…oh, never mind.


plans for the tenor ukulele

plans for the tenor ukulele


bindings being glued into ukulele body

bindings being glued into ukulele body


tenor ukulele ready for the back

tenor ukulele ready for the back


soprano ukulele body ready to be glued to the sound board

soprano ukulele body ready to be glued to the sound board


one tenor and two soprano ukuleles in the varnishing room

one tenor and two soprano ukuleles in the varnishing room







       If you are inspired to make Ukulele yourself, here are some resources:

       Lark in the Morning has a basic ukulele kit for $40. The body comes-pre assembled so you can be up and playing soon. One note: the instructions for this kit were clearly translated from another language, so you may have to do some pondering.

       Stewart MacDonald has a ukulele kit for about $100. This is one where you have to build the body, but the sides are pre-bent, which eliminates one step that can be intimidating. Stewart Macdonald also has scale plans for a tenor ukulele and a how-to book. The plans are not quite as exact as I might expect for a musical instrument, but they are certainly workable. If you have never built musical instruments of this kind before, you will need a book to guide you. More importantly, Stewart MacDonald is the best source for parts and supplies that I know of, and that goes for almost any string instrument that you might want to build. Their shipping is prompt and their service is excellent.

       If you want authenticity, you can’t go wrong with Hana Lima ‘Ia, as you might have guessed they are in Hawaii. Excellent, detailed, plans, building materials, kits, and hardware, their service is also excellent, but be aware that since they are in Hawaii you will pay more for shipping unless you are in Hawaii.

       For Ukulele strings my recommendation is Just Strings; fast service and simple site to navigate make this an easy one-stop shopping experience.

Tree house

February 11, 2009

I have not written about my friend Peter’s tree house in a while so I thought I would add a post here. One of the best things about writing a book about the tree house while building it is: rationalization. That’s right rationalization.

Tree House in Winter

Tree House in Winter

The whole process of building a tree house as an adult is not practical and not rational. Kids never asked why we were building a tree house; it was obvious. But adults would start right away with the questions of doom and gloom: what if the tree dies? What if it gets struck by lightning? How much time is this going to take? How much is this going to cost? All questions that no self-respecting child would concern themselves with. In this kind of questioning environment it became difficult to pursue the kind of neat, and pointless, extravagances that, in essence, define a tree house. That is where the book comes in. There were many instances, the folding staircase, and the custom chess set, to name only two, that would have been a difficult sell to most adults except: “It will add so much to the book”.

Yes “the book” became the rationalization for all kinds of excess: the water-clock, the retractable desk, windows that look out only on the tree-trunk, an elaborate door locking mechanism concealed in….well I am not at liberty to divulge that. These elements, which were in many ways some of the most fun parts of building the tree house, would most likely not have been included in the project had it not been that we could rationalize them; “for the book”.

The truth is, this was about doing something fun that had been a life-long dream of Peter’s. Wouldn’t it have been nice to not have to find rationality for it? Anyway, it got me thinking, maybe someone should write a beautifully illustrated book on renewable energy, or affordable heath-care, or holding government accountable. Then when people whine and ask; why we have to do this, we can just tell them. It’s for the book.

So many people have found this site by searching the word treehouse or the words tree house that I wanted to create a page for tree house stuff.

If you click Tree House Page at the right, you will go to a new page with some older posts on tree houses and some new material as well. Enjoy!

Handmade Hearth Tiles

March 25, 2008

Last week I had an open house at the wheelhouse for the class of EMT students that was at SOLO. The tiled hearth at the center of the wheelhouse drew a lot of attention, as it often does, so I thought it would make good fodder for a post.
             The base of the hearth is poured concrete and I wanted to cover the concrete with something attractive, washable, and durable.
             A friend who is a potter suggested designing and making tiles for the round hearth. I came up with several designs but the only one I really liked involved making more than six hundred tiles. At first, this was too much to contemplate. What I eventually did was break down the pattern into twelve tile shapes. I made a pattern for each tile shape and assigned each a number. I made a poster-board showing how many tiles of each pattern needed to be made (with a few extra to account for breakage), got the clay all prepared, set up a production area in the shop that I was using at the time, and invited a bunch of friends over for a tile making party.

Tile pattern

             The party was a much greater success than I expected. We actually made all the tiles in one afternoon. The tiles are made of stoneware. The prepared blocks of clay were set up to cut tile slabs with a wire ¼ inch thick.
             The process went like this; the slab of what will become tile is cut and placed with what will be the top side down. The back of the tile is scored lightly with a toothed trowel to take the tile mortar. Patterns are now laid out on the back of the slab in whatever way leaves the least waste. We cut around the patterns, removed the waste clay to be re-wedged and made again into clay blocks for cutting into slabs. The next step is very important, many of the tiles look quite similar but are not interchangeable, so each tile was stamped on the back with the appropriate pattern number, and this eliminated a lot of confusion later on. The very last step was to carefully remove the green clay tile from the work surface, touch up any imperfections by hand and lay the tiles face up on sheets of drywall to dry.

Comleted tiles

             My potter friend then lent me one of her electric kilns (she did, and still does collect pottery stuff to an alarming degree) I set up the kiln in the garage where I lived and was able to do all the bisque firing in one go. I had to do the glaze firings in several different firings, first because some of the colors I chose needed to be glaze-fired at different temperatures from one another, and second because not all the glazed tiles would fit in one firing without touching one other and thus sticking together.
             At last all the tiles were bisque fired, glazed and glaze-fired, boxed by pattern type, and the boxes numbered and labeled.
             I now thought that the worst was over, it came as something of a surprise therefore when I discovered that the actual process of tiling would take several days and many hands helping in order to complete this project. In fact, it took several months to find a window of opportunity to set the tiles, but the finished hearth met all of my expectations.

Setting the tiles
Completed tiles