It was supposed to be a workbench

A couple of years ago, Carol got some locally-harvested eucalyptus boards from her friend Darrel in Richmond. In addition to being an architect, Darrell runs a side business turning urban trees that need to be cut down into useable boards. We traded a spare router that I happened to have on hand for a few boards.

I finally have the time to do something with these boards. First I made myself a simple workbench. The boards had cupped pretty dramatically, and I had fun scribing the parts to fit to one another. Since this was just a workbench, I nailed the base together, attaching the top with brass screws (brass is softer than steel so it won’t dull sharp tools). Flattening the top proved to be a challenge. Although eucalyptus works like poplar in many ways, the grain is so intergrown that if you plane it you get lots of tearouts. Fortunately, the local Home Despot had a demonstration model belt sander that they sold me for thirty bucks.

When I got done putting a couple of coats of spar varnish on the workbench, it looked pretty good, with the deep red of the wood, the unplaned natural edges, and the organic curving lines of the cupped and warped boards — good enough that we brought it inside, where it provides a little more counter space in our tiny kitchen.

The workbench, repurposed in the kitchen as a counter.

Now I wish I’d taken more care with the joinery. But after all, it was just supposed to be a workbench.

Improvised oil lamp

We’ve been having some warm evenings here, warm enough to sit outside in our small back patio. I wanted to sit and the patio and read, so I picked up the LED lantern we have as emergency lighting. We now have to have emergency lanterns on hand because Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) has decided that in times of high fire danger, it’s cheaper to turn off power than to actually spend their shareholder’s money to upgrade their crumbling infrastructure.

The problem with LED lanterns is that you have to keep buying batteries. Plus the LED lanterns we have tend to have weird internal reflections and shadows. I looked at Carol’s collection of oil lamp parts, harvested from her scrounging expeditions, but unfortunately there weren’t enough compatible parts to make one working oil lamp.

Surely there must be a way to make a simple oil lamp without buying anything, I thought to myself. A quick Web search revealed lots of DIY plans for a glass jar oil lamp, all of which probably stem from an old Mother Earth News article on the subject.

I took one of Carol’s Mason jars, cut a piece of cotton string for the wick, and bent a piece of wire to hold the wick up, and poured in some olive oil (the only vegetable oil we happened to have on hand). The tiny wick didn’t produce enough light to read by, so I braided three pieces of string together. Now the lamp produced enough light to read by.

The glass jar oil lamp in use; I put it on an upside down clay plant pot to raise it up.

Unfortunately, with the bigger wick, the lamp produced a lot of smoke; I’d never use this lamp indoors. And the glass jar didn’t adequately shield the flame from the evening breezes, so the flame flickered and jumped, making it hard to read; in fact, I had to leave the LED lantern turned on to have enough light to read.

There’s a reason manufactured oil lamps have elaborate glass chimneys, and large flat wicks the height of which can be adjusted by a turn screw. Those technological innovations provide more light, and prevent the lamp from smoking. The glass jar oil lamp is better than nothing, so it’s useful for emergency lighting if you don’t have anything else. But with fire season due to begin soon, and with the continued incompetence of PG&E suggesting that we’re going to have more power outages this fire season, I guess I’d better bite the bullet and buy some manufactured oil lamps, with wide flat wicks and glass chimneys.

Adventures in sourdough

We’re all sitting at home under quarantine, with time on our hands. Not surprisingly, many of us thought, Now would be a great time to bake bread. I used to bake bread regularly, back when I lived in a group house with other twenty-somethings. We’d trade recipes and tips, and I got to be pretty good at the overnight sponge method of baking bread.

Clearly, lots of other people had the same thoughts about baking bread, and maybe even the same fond memories of how they used to bake bread. Not surprisingly, then, our local supermarket ran out of yeast three weeks ago, and I haven’t been able to purchase any yeast there since.

So I decided to make sourdough. I found a method online: mix a few tablespoons of flour and water, cover with something porous, then add another tablespoon of flour each morning and evening until you have a nice foaming mess of sourdough starter. It sort of worked; the flour mix bubbled a little bit, but it didn’t foam. Then I dragged out my old copy of Joy of Cooking; Marion Rombauer suggests adding a bit of sugar along with the flour, and that made the difference. Within a couple of days, I had a pint Mason jar filled with foamy sourdough starter. Then I followed the recipe for sourdough bread in Joy of Cooking, which includes eggs and some oil, and turned out two smallish but attractive loaves.

Above: Top view of a finished loaf. At left is another loaf still cooling on our chopstick cooling rack. The sourdough starter is in the jar at top, and at top right is the coffee filter I use to cover the sourdough jar.

The loaves are moist, and have a nice crumb. The taste is quite good — there’s a faint tang of sourness, but it’s not in the least harsh. But the loaves weren’t perfect, and I think I should have kneaded them a little longer, and let them rise in the bread pans a little longer.

But then, baking bread is all about perfecting your timing. And in quarantine, I’ll have plenty of time to work on my timing.

Update, April 30: The next batch of sourdough bread came out much better!

Adventures in mask making

As of April 2, the San Mateo County Board of Health recommends that everyone wear a mask when they’re in public places.

I’ve been doubtful about the efficacy of masks, since my understanding is that wearing a mask won’t do much to protect you from being infected by others. But I’ve come to understand that masks might protect others from being infected by you, if you happen to have COVID-19 but are still asymptomatic.

So today I decided to be a good citizen and sew a couple of masks, one for Carol and one for me. I am very slow at sewing, partly because I don’t know how to use a sewing machine, and partly because I don’t know what I’m doing. But I found a good online video showing how to make one of the 2-layer pleated masks that are supposed to be the most effective handmade masks. I didn’t have the elastic bands called for in the video, but I had some 1/4 inch polyester cord to use for the ties. Carol has a big bolt of unbleached cotton muslin, and I sacrificed an old t-shirt. Sewing the pleats by hand was kind of a pain at first, but I quickly figured it out.

After two or three hours, I had a mask for Carol and a mask for me. We went to the grocery store, and three quarters of the people there were also wearing masks. Mask wearing peer pressure has begun.

Me wearing my mask

As soon as we got home, I washed both masks in hot water, as you’re supposed to do.

Next step: make another mask for Carol using a high fashion fabric for the outer layer….

Making your own burial shroud

A week-long event called “Reimagine End of Life” is taking place in San Francisco right now. As a part of this, Carol and Ms. M. will offer a workshop on Saturday called “It’s a Wrap: Design Your Own Burial Shroud.” The point of the workshop is not to make the actual shroud you’re going to be buried in, but to start thinking about a design for something that you’d like to be wrapped up in after you die.

Tonight, Carol and I decided to play around with some materials and try a few things out. So we went down to Joanne Fabric and got 3 yards of 90 inch-wide unbleached cotton muslin, and a couple dozen different colored fabric markers. We wrapped Carol up in the muslin to see how much cloth was needed, and discovered that 2 yards of 110 inch fabric worked. (But if I were to do this again, I’d use a 90 inch square. And if I were making one for myself — Carol’s five foot nine inches tall, but I’m six foot five — I’d probably want a 110 inch square of fabric.)

Carol lay on the cloth diagonally. I flipped up the corner down by her feet first, folded over one side then the other side, and finally flipped the top corner down over her face. After flipping the corners back down, I used a pencil to make faint lines about where I folded the fabric; then when I started drawing, I knew about where to draw the designs.

Carol wanted to draw a face, but I said that would be far too difficult. Instead, she let me draw an abstract design within an oval shape:

Next I drew a design on the final flap of fabric that would be folded over her body. Ultimately, I suppose you could draw designs over the entire piece of fabric. But most of what would be exposed would be those two flaps of fabric, as you can see in the photograph below:

(That took me about an hour. But I have excellent hand skills, and years of training and experience in making art; someone with less experience could easily take two hours to get that far.)

To complete the shroud shown in the photo, I’d use fabric paint to fill in the design — perhaps a light wash inside the drawing at the head, with a dark bold color outside it; and then a light wash inside and around the swirls in the part over the body. If I wanted a more carefully crafted shroud, I’d get another piece of fabric and hem all the edges, and repaint the design on the hemmed fabric.

Really, though, for me this isn’t about coming up with a carefully-crafted final product. It was very pleasant working with these materials, and it was a chance to reflect on — not on death so much as to reflect on the entire life cycle.

Cost: 90 inch cotton muslin is about US$8 a yard. A nice set of fabric markers is going to set you back $20-35. If you want to use paints, that will cost you about $3 per color (for good-but-not-expensive paints). If you want to try stamping or printing with dyes, expect to pay about $45 for a starter kit.

Registration is closed on the workshop, but if you contact Carol directly ASAP, she might be able to get you in.

Washtub bass

Steve lent me his washtub bass, so I could take it home and try to learn to play it.

Steve’s washtub bass is simplicity itself: a 15 gallon galvanized washtub with a hole drilled in the center of the bottom; a length of 3/16 inch braided polypropylene rope, and a broom handle with an eyebolt screwed in one end and a slot cut in the other end. Tie a stopper knot in one end of the rope, thread it up through the hole, and tie it to the eyebolt. Place the slot of the broom handle on the rim up the upturned washtub, pull the string taut, and there you are.

Playing the washtub bass is not so simple. You have to put one foot on the rim of the washtub to keep it on the ground. You adjust the pitch by changing the tension of the rope by tilting the broom handle back and forth. The range is pretty limited — I got less than an octave — and it’s a challenge to get exactly the pitch you want. The biggest disadvantage, though, is that playing it took a lot out of me: it’s a real workout to move that broom handle back and forth, and twanging the braided rope is hard on your hands. After half an hour, it became clear that it was going to take more time than I was willing to devote to building up strength and building up callouses.

There had to be a better way. I began researching other ways of building and playing the washtub bass.

Eddie Holland of Possum Trot, Kentucky, built himself a two-string washtub bass with a fixed neck that you play by fretting, not by moving the neck. He’s a heck of a player, and his bass sounds great, but by the time you buy the hardware, the tuning machines, and a couple of strings for an upright bass, his bass probably cost a couple hundred dollars.

Shelley Rickey has a washtub bass made out of a big plastic tub with an arm bolted on the side; the string is fretted by means of a short length of PVC pipe that you slide up and down. She has a video where she plays cigar-box uke and her partner plays the bass, and the bass sounds good. But it still takes a lot of muscle: “I’ve been playing it now for five years,” Shelley writes, “and have developed the arms of a lumberjack.”

Dennis Havlena of Michigan devised a lever-action arm to reduce the muscle strain. Marion Billo shows plans for Joe Birdsley’s five-gallon (plastic) bucket bass with a special attachment for keeping it on the floor. But I don’t see that these offer much advantage over Shelley Rickey’s design.

I found different playing styles, too. “Washtub Jerry” stands with both feet on the rim of the washtub; this brings the neck of the bass closer to his body, which might give him better control. I also found a photo of Amy Sutton holding down the rim of the washtub with a bare foot, which seems like it would be painful.

There are also more complicated designs for washtub basses where you don’t tilt the neck to play. Michael Bishop made a hardwood frame with a five-gallon bucket as the resonator, and a fixed neck and tuneable string. Marc Bristol, writing in Mother Earth News, September/October, 1980, issue, describes an elaborate upright bass made using a washtub as the resonator. I found a photo online of bass made on a similar plan, except the oblong washtub supports a wood sound board.

I guess if you really want an upright bass and you can’t afford a wood one, you could make one of these. But these really aren’t washtub basses; these are upright basses made in folk instrument style. The upright bass is an instrument in the violin family from Europe, but the washtub bass has roots in another continent. According to “Afro-American One-Stringed Instruments, an article by David Evans in Western Folklore (vol. 29, no. 4 [Oct., 1970], pp. 229-245), the washtub bass comes from Africa:

“Two kinds of one-stringed instruments are known to Negroes in America today. One is the familiar one-stringed bass, sometimes called a ‘washtub bass’ or ‘gutbucket’ from the materials of its construction…. Its origin in the African ‘earth bow’ has been pointed out and generally accepted. This African instrument is made by digging a hole in the ground and covering it with a membrane of bark or hide, which is pegged down at the edges. From the membrane a string is led to a nearby sapling or stick placed in the ground. The string is then plucked, the covered hole serving as a resonator. In America an inverted washtub is simply substituted for the membrane and the hole.”

(The other one-stringed instrument is a “jitterbug,” which is a single string played in bottleneck guitar style; the jitterbug derives ultimately from the mouthbow).

What I was looking for was a version of the washtub bass that didn’t require me to develop the arms of a lumberjack, yet retained the flexibility and character of the American version of the African earth bow. And what I found was the simple yet elegant washtub bass built and played by Jim Bunch. He describes his instrument as follows:

“I have built a cross brace for the pole using a board the width of the tub supported by two small blocks that fit on the rim. This allows you to support the pole closer to the center of the tub and get good notes without putting as much tension on the string and your fingers. [Moving the pole changes the string tension and the pitch, but] you can also move up and down the pole to change notes. I tend to both adjust the tension and finger 5ths when I play. I screwed a rubber table leg cover to the middle of the cross brace that the pole fits in. This allows the pole and brace to be disassembled for the trunk of the car.” (from the Tub-o-Tonia Web site, c. 2005?)

Jum Bunch washtub bass

This keeps the simplicity of the instrument; all you’re adding is a cross brace. You can still change pitch by changing the tension of the string, but it requires a lot less arm strength. And you can fret the string up and down the neck (without having to slide a PVC pipe). Using some scrap wood I had lying around, I made my own version of this, and it’s really a joy to play.

Since Jim Bunch first described his instrument on the Tub-o-tonia Web site, he has made a few modifications (see this discussion for some details). He replaced the metal bottom of the tub with 1/4 inch thick Lauan plywood; for strings, he upgraded from a 3 dollar bike derailleur cable to an upright bass woven-core G string (perhaps 50 dollars). Photos of his instrument reveal that he’s added a headstock with a nut to hold the string a bit off the finger board, as well as a tuning machine. These somewhat elaborate modifications make sense for him because he plays a lot, and he plays at a pretty high level, as you can see from his Youtube videos.

I’m not trying to perform at Jim Bunch’s level, but I feel his type of washtub bass — with the neck supported on a cross brace — is the best bet for an occasional player like me. After a couple of hours of practice, I’ve gotten good enough that I’ll be able to play in tune on simple songs at a low-key folk music jam session. And that’s all I want.

Update (Aug. 9): I’m adding sketches of Fritz Richmond’s washtub bass. Richmond played washtub bass in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and played washtub bass with popular musicians from Maria Muldaur to Loudon Wainwright to the Grateful Dead. One of his washtub basses is reportedly in the Smithsonian. In short, Richmond is probably the most famous of all washtub bass players, so his bass and his style of playing are worth looking at. A few things I noticed: First, the neck of his bass has a metal lower part and wooden upper part; it looks like it can be broken down for easier transport. Second, videos of Richmond’s playing style show that he both moved the angle of the neck and fretted up and down the neck. Third, he uses a metal nut, which in photos looks like it’s a section of a metal guitar slide. It’s also worth noting that Richmond used a special leather-and-steel glove for fretting, and a large pick for strumming.

Addendum (July 12): details of my additions to Steve’s washtub bass: I took his washtub, replaced the line (it was rough and worn and hard on my fingers), and added a neck with a Jim Bunch style cross brace. I made the neck out of scrap wood (including a discarded floral tripod that I found in the cemetery’s trash). The string is a new piece of 3/16 inch braided polypropylene rope, which I’ve tuned roughly to D, a good tuning for many simple folk melodies. The string is tied off with figure-eight knots (a stopper knot that’s relatively easy to adjust for tuning). And Steve’s original mop handle and string are untouched, so I can return his instrument to him just the way he gave it to me. The photo below gives an idea of the most important dimension for the Jim Bunch style washtub bass — the distance between the neck and where the string is attached to the washtub.

Biomass-burning camp stove, pt. 1

For some time, I’ve been thinking about making a lightweight portable stove that burns biomass instead of fossil fuels. Search the Web, and you’ll turn up lots of plans for such stoves — tin can rocket stoves, Canadian candle stoves, etc. But most of the plans I looked at seemed overly complicated and not particularly elegant. Then I stumbled on a video titled “How To Make a Wood Gasifier Stove”: it showed how to make a stove that was simple, even elegant. So tonight I made one.

The basic principle for the “wood gasifier stove” is the same as for a rocket stove: the solid biomass fuel (wood) burns at the bottom of the stove, with another combustion area higher up where rising gases are enabled to burn further. This is supposed to extract more heat from the fuel, and additionally the more complete combustion should result in less crud going into the air and into your lungs. However, where the rocket stove has been tested for greater efficiency by scientists, I know of no such studies for this design; we’ll just take it on faith that this design is probably more efficient than an open fire.

The biomass-burning stove
The biomass-burning stove with a fire in it

The stove requires two “tin” cans, one larger than the other: I got a 15 oz. can of pears, and a 29 oz. can of peaches. The smaller can, nested inside the larger can, is where you build the fire. Ventilation holes at the bottom of the larger, outer, can line up with ventilation holes at the bottom of the smaller, inner, can. The smaller can also has a row of ventilation holes near the top; this is where additional air is injected so to make rising gases can burn. If you look carefully at this photo of the stove I made, you can see the upper ventilation holes, with jets of flame coming out where the injected air is igniting rising gases.

Upper ventilation holes in the stove
Upper ventilation holes in the lit stove

I completed the basic stove in about an hour (including the time it took to eat the pears). The stove is reasonably practical, particularly for car campers or ordinary backpackers (i.e., not those crazy ultralight backpackers). And the stove is environmentally responsible: it’s made with recyclable materials, and it burns biomass instead of fossil fuels like white gas, butane, or propane. Plus, since it’s homemade, it doesn’t feed consumer consumption; and consumerism is a major contributing cause to the pending global environmental disaster.

I still have to make a potholder, to keep the cooking pot a couple of inches above the flames, where the greatest heat should be — but I have to wait until I eat another can of pears. Once I get the potholder made, I’ll post a photo showing something cooking on the stove (and I’ll add a sketch showing how to make one).


After reading a biography of Buffy Saint-Marie, I got curious about one of the instruments she played: a mouthbow. After listening to listening to several Youtube clips of mouthbows, I decided to make my own. I went out and found a fairly straight twig about as thick as my little finger; and took the bark off and shaved the butt end down with pocketknife and block plane so it would bend evenly across its length. I used a 010 loop-end steel banjo string I happened to have, attached the loop end to a copper tack in one end of the stick, and tied the straight end of the string through a 1/64″ hole I drilled in the other end of the stick. It looks like this:

When you play the mouthbow, the fundamental note of the string sounds as a drone throughout, while changing the mouth cavity brings out overtones to produce the melody — that combination of melody and drone sounds to me a little like a mountain dulcimer. While I make no claims to mouthbow virtuosity, here’s an audio recording of the instrument I made today:

Since your mouth cavity acts as the resonator, you can hear the mouthbow louder yourself than anyone around you can hear it. So I’m thinking this might be a good instrument to make with children: fairly easy to make, fun to play, quiet enough that it won’t drive everyone else crazy. However, if I do make it with kids, I won’t use a steel string: it’s too easy to hurt yourself if a steel string breaks; and something like nylon monofilament or linen thread would make for a quieter instrument.

Mouthbows were used by Indigenous peoples in North America, including California Indians: “Southern Yokuts men sometimes played the musical bow after settling themselves in bed; the Chukchansi in mourning the dead. These may be but two expreissions of one employment. Modern forms of the instrument have a peg key for adjusting the tension…. In old days a true shooting bow, or a separate instrument made on the model of a bow, was used. Mawu or mawuwi, was its name. One end was held in the mouth, while the lone string was tapped, not plucked, with the nail of the index finger; the melody, audible to himself only, was produced by changes in the size of the resonance chamber formed by the player’s oral cavity.” Alfred Kroeber, Handbook of the Indians of California, p. 542. Elsewhere, Kroeber says, “The musical bow is a device definitely reported from the Maidu and Yokuts, but probably shared by these groups with a number of others…. [It] was tapped or plucked….” p. 419. Kroeber also reports the musical bow being used by the Pomo and other tribes.

Buffy Sainte-Marie is probably the best-known contemporary player of the mouthbow, mostly because she played mouthbow on several television shows, including “To Tell the Truth,” “Sesame Street,” and the folk-music showcase “Rainbow Quest.” Sainte-Marie makes her own mouthbows; while they may look primitive at first glance, they are tuneable, and she writes: “I like to tune my bow precisely and work with other instruments, so I favor a geared peg, like the Grover peg in the picture.” Sainte-Marie’s blog post on making and playing mouthbows is excellent. Here’s Sainte-Marie playing the instrument on Sesame Street:

Notice that she holds the mouthbow at the end farthest from her mouth; that way, she can control the tension of the string, and thus adjust the pitch as she’s playing. By contrast, traditional Appalachian mouthbow player Carlox Stutsberry does not flex the tension of the bow to alter the tone:

Both Stutsberry and Sainte-Marie pluck the mouthbow with a pick; however, the mouthbow can also be tapped (like the strings of a hammered dulcimer), or bowed. South African jazz musician Pops Mohamed plays mouthbow using a bow:

If you search Youtube for “mouth bow,” you can find quite a few modern practitioners of the instrument. But only a few of them are worth listening to, including Pops Mohamed, Carlox Stutsberry, and Buffy Sainte-Marie; clicking on the photos above will take you to videos by those three.

Animal ears

The No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant we do every year requires some kind of minimal costume for the six animals in the manger scene. The vinyl animal noses I’ve been using for the past decade and a half have started to get tacky, and it’s time to stop using them. Nor did I want to purchase new animal noses; the world doesn’t need any more cheap vinyl junk. First I made a chicken hat as a possible replacement for the chicken nose, but this week I decided that making five other animal hats (and finding a place to store them) simply wasn’t practical.

So instead I made animal ears mounted on head bands. It turns out that animal ears mounted on head bands are a substantial cottage industry, sold on Etsy (just search for “farm animal ears”) and elsewhere. But I decided to make my own — cow ears, donkey ears, dog ears, pig ears, mouse ears, and a chicken crest — using hair bands, felt, wire for stiffener, and a hot melt glue gun.

It would have been cheaper (once you figure in my time) and easier to purchase the ears available on Etsy. However, having made them I know how to repair them, and I anticipate that these animal ears will last until I finally retire.

Chicken hat

For quite a few years now, while serving in four different congregations, I’ve been doing a No Rehearsal Christmas Pageant as an intergenerational service on one of the Sundays before Christmas.

The simple costumes are what make this participatory pageant so much fun. Back in 2003, I bought a bunch of rubber animal noses at a theater supply store in Berkeley to serve as costumes for the farm animals who gather around the manger. These rubber noses have to be rubbed down with alcohol after every performance, which is easy enough for the cow, camel, and pig noses — but the chicken noses have lots of hard-to-reach interstices, and are difficult to clean adequately.

So this year I decided to come up with alternate costume for the chicken. Starting with with a cotton baseball hat and some yellow and red felt, here’s what I came up with:

Chicken Hat

I think this chicken hat will be a fun addition to the No Rehearsal Christmas Pageant.