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.

There are even more complicated designs for washtub basses. 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 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, and 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.

Addendum: 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).

Mouthbow

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.

Portable radio

Michelle and Don stopped by this morning to pick up some amateur radio gear I got from Dad that I’m no longer using. We stood around talking for a while, and Don showed me the prototype of a large variable air capacitor he’s fabricating for use in magnetic loop antennas. So of course I had to show off my latest project: a portable box containing a low-power transceiver, digital interface, power supply, antenna tuner, and antenna.

OK, in terms of raw geek street cred, my portable radio box isn’t as cool as fabricating a large variable air capacitor. But it’s worth something as a small piece of systems engineering that addresses a specific problem that I face: our new house is clad with stucco on wire mesh, which means I live inside what is essentially a Faraday cage; and the landlord does not allow permanent outdoor antenna installations (let’s face it, most visitors to a cemetery don’t want to see a big antenna array). Now I can grab this box, walk out to our fenced-in patio, sit down and get on the air. Mind you, as with any good DIY maker-type project, there is room for improvement and expansion: it definitely needs a door on the front to protect everything; I’d like to add a straight key for Morse code and a space to store an Android tablet for digital modes; I’m thinking of a separate battery and solar cell unit to go with this; maybe someday I’ll add a small linear amp. But in the mean time, this works as is, and it was fun to sit outside in the sun yesterday and monitor the mobile maritime net.

Pounding flowers

One of the best projects we did in Nature Camp last week was “Pounding Flowers,” a project from the book A Little Bit of Dirt: 55+ Science and Art Activities To Reconnect Children with Nature by Asia Citro (Woodinville, Wash.: Innovation Press, 2015), pp. 72-73. The idea is to collect several different flowers, arrange them on a piece of watercolor paper, cover them with paper towels, and pound the heck out of the flowers so that they release their juices which are then absorbed by the watercolor paper.

Our campers, who were ages 6-7, particularly enjoyed pounding the flowers with rubber mallets. So did we adults: the feel of the impact of the rubber mallet on a hard concrete floor was satisfying in itself, and the addition of the flowers sandwiched between towels and watercolor paper was even better.

(Photo courtesy of Ecojustice Camp; parents provided a media release for this child.)

But I was not entirely satisfied with this project myself. The paper towels did not work very well; they tended to shred under heavy pounding, and the flowers tended to shift under them. So tonight I tried something different. I collected some flowers; arranged them on a piece of watercolor paper on a smooth concrete surface; then instead of paper towels I laid another piece of watercolor paper over the arrangement, and pressed gently down.

This worked extremely well. It was even more satisfying to pound on, because the top piece of watercolor paper didn’t shred, and it didn’t shift much. When I was done, I got two pieces of pounding art, mirror images of one another. And, best of all, this process yielded more detail of the flowers: I got distinct outlines of the petals or pistils in some cases.

This was a very fun process art project to begin with, and by sandwiching the flowers between two pieces of watercolor paper it got even better.

Compact camp cook box

I’ll be driving across the continent by myself during July, camping for about two and a half weeks of that time. The camp cook box we have is big because it’s designed for two or more people. I decided to make a more compact camp cook box for this trip.

I found an old wooden wine create we had in the basement, did extensive repairs, and sealed it with some leftover wood sealer. A standard plastic dishpan fit perfectly inside, and I attached two wood strips for the dishpan to slide on. I made a small cutting board, elevated on wood runners so there’s storage space under it.

The dishpan holds a 2-quart pan with a teapot nested inside, a 1-quart pan, a mug, a small wood box with a sponge and scrubbing pad, dish detergent, and matches in a waterproof case. Under the wood cutting board there’s a cloth tool roll with various kitchen utensils (measuring spoons, stirring spoons, vegetable peeler, can opener, etc.).

I didn’t buy anything except the dishpan; everything else was something we had lying around. I spent too much time hand planing the wood for the cutting board, then hand-rubbing it with chopping block oil. And I used no power tools, which also took more time. But who cares if it took too long? Who cares if the various parts and pieces don’t quite match? I had fun working on it. This kind of project is like process art: the final product is less important than the process of making it.

Failed rain barrel

Carol and I wanted to put together a rain barrel for the middle school Sunday school class in eco-justice. Of course we waited until the last minute to purchase materials, and so when I saw the “DIY Rain Barrel Diverter & Parts Kit,” it seemed like the perfect solution. The packaging proclaimed, “Works with Plastic Barrels, Wooden Barrels and Garbage Cans.” So on a Saturday evening we purchased one of the kits and a 32-gallon trash barrel, and brought everything to Sunday school the next morning.

DIY Rain Barrel Diverter and Parts Kit

The class had fun drilling holes in the trash barrel for the plumbing fittings. But when we tried to install the fittings — a faucet and a drain hole — into the holes, the class found it very difficult to screw the fittings in. Before people got too frustrated, class ended, and after class I figured I’d try putting the fittings in myself — but they just wouldn’t go. After a lot of fiddling, I finally managed to force them into place. It started raining, so I quickly put the trash barrel, er, rain barrel next to an existing rain barrel that was already full. I directed the overflow from the existing rain barrel into the new rain barrel. It started filling. And then I saw that it was leaking around the drain hole. I wound up having to plug the drain hole with threaded PVC fittings, gasket material, and pipe joint compound. I should have replaced the faucet fitting as well, because by the next day, it, too, had a very slow but noticeable leak where it went into the trash barrel. And now, after three weeks, the sides of the trash barrel are very definitely bulging — it simply isn’t strong enough to bear up under the weight of the water.

Failed rain barrel made of a trash barrel; note bulging sides

Instead of purchasing an expensive pre-packaged “DIY Rain Barrel Kit,” I should have gotten a couple of 3/4 inch bulkhead fittings, two sink faucets, and one of those blue plastic rain barrels. Live and learn.

Pot-in-Pot Preservation Cooling System

This system, developed by Mohamed Bah Abba of Nigeria, cools food by evaporation, using no electricity. The Arabic term for this device is transliterated as “zeer,” so it is sometimes called a “zeer pot.”

How it works: The Pot-in-Pot Preservation Cooling System consists of two nested porous clay pots, with fine sand in between them, and a cloth covering the opening. You pour water into the sand, until it soaks through the outer pot. You also soak the cloth in water. As the water evaporates from the outer pot and the cloth, it cools the inside. The sand and pots act as both water reservoir, and thermal mass (so the pot stays cool when you open the lid). The moist interior is especially good for cooling fresh produce (which is what it was originally designed to do).

How cool it can get (theoretically): The inside temperature of the Pot-in-Pot Preservation Cooling System depends on outside air temperature, humidity, air flow around the pot, and whether the pot stands in the sun. Under ideal conditions, the inside temperature should get close to what meteorologists call “wet-bulb temperature.” Some users report temperatures as low as 40° F. I will track the temperature inside this pot over time.

How I made one:

Materials:
1 – 12″ dia. terracotta pot
1 – 14″ dia. terra cotta pot
6 – small pottery feet
2 – corks to fit the holes in the pots
1 – 12″ dia. pot saucer
1 – old T-shirt
25 lbs. of fine sand
water

Note that dimensions of terracotta pots are variable, so you may have to adjust things to fit what you can get.

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Sand the holes in the pots until the corks fit smoothly inside. Cork the holes. Place 3 of the pottery feet in the bottom of the 14″ pot so that the 12″ pot will fit inside without the corks bumping. Then fill the rest of area with sand, leaving room for the cork in the 12″ pot. Now put the 12″ pot inside, and fill the space between the pots with sand with a funnel — I made a funnel from a cut-off seltzer water bottle — to within an inch of the top of the outer pot.

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Place the whole assembly on the three remaining pottery feet, so air can circulate on the bottom, which will increase evaporation and cooling slightly.

Pour an inch or two of water into the 12″ pot, wetting in the inside of the pot. Next, slowly pour water into the sand, letting it soak in. The idea is to give the water time to soak into the sand and the terracotta pots. It can take several hours and up to a gallon of water to fully charge it. I found if I rushed this step, the inner pot started floating up; then I had to weight the inner pot with a cinder block to keep it in place until the water soaked in. Some people suggest tying the inner pot down with a strap or rope; others use threaded rod with nuts and washers (expensive and sure to rust). I had a cinder block on hand, and that worked fine.

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The pot saucer isn’t entirely necessary, but it helps keep the inside clean, and where we live it helps keep the squirrels out of the food (the cinder block might even keep raccoons out). Pour some water into the saucer, soak the old T-shirt, and cover the pots with the T-shirt, adding even more evaporative surface. It gets pretty windy where we are, so I tied the T-shirt in place.

Total cost: about $55 (if you have to buy sand), with no cost to run it ever. Mohamed Bah Abba sells them for 40¢ ea. in Nigeria, a brilliant example of low-cost yet highly effective technology from the developing world.

More about this invention here.