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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Ken Weidinger: Luthier Builds Instruments That Tell Stories

Ken Weidinger's first banjo made in Highlands wood shop.

So you see this banjo? It is handmade by Ken Weidinger and was inspired by the Foxfire books popular who he was in high school. This was the first banjo he made.  The front is a solid piece of wood. It has friction tuning pegs.  The sound hole is cut into the back of the instrument. The neck is thick and heavy, but it is well made - no gaps, no globs of glue, no glaring mars. And why is the sound hole in the back?  “Just ‘cuz. We both could ask a lot of questions about this instrument!” He laughs.

“I had the Foxfire 3 book (1975) and I saw some of these old mountain banjos with basic measurements and I just got the fired up about this stuff. So that banjo was inspired by that book. I mean, it’s a crude instrument. That has the wooden head so it doesn’t have the bright sound of a Scruggs type banjo. I made it in Highlands wood shop in ’75.”  And so began Ken Weidinger’s journey into making musical instruments.

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Ken is an accomplished woodworker. In fact,in his first career he taught high school woodworking before he became a counselor. When he retired he began his encore career as a minister with the United Church of Christ  and is currently working on the east side of Cincinnati.
Ken Weidinger in his wood shop.

He knows his way around a wood shop. He tells a wonderful story about a cradle. “In 1984 or 1983, I think, I make a walnut cradle for my brother’s first child. It had turned spindles, a Queen Ann head, all on a stand and I gave it to them as a gift.” His brother had two children and then Ken and Tammy had their first child so the cradle came back to him. “So when they sent the cradle back, my brother wrote in Sharpie the names and birthdates of his children on the bottom of it. And now his brother’s second child’s second child is in the cradle now.” That cradle has since held 48 babies and all of the names and birthdates are signed on bottom of the cradle. “Two sets of twins, a set of triplets, our kids, and then we just started loaning it out to friends who started having kids. Some of the names on the list we don’t even know. I never thought or dreamed that that cradle would be around this long.” 

Dulcimer, zither, ukulele, and banjo made by Ken Weidinger.
We infuse our spirit into what we make but then that item takes on its own spirit, its own life. That is true of the cradle and it is true of Weidinger’s many instruments. Each one is as unique as any of those 48 babies. Each one carries a story with it. And each instrument takes Ken to a new place in his own journey of learning and exploring.

Ken Weidinger has made banjos, zithers, kalimba (thumb pianos), dulcimers, and ukuleles.  His instruments are often made from reclaimed lumber. A friend has even found interesting pieces used as pallets and has passed them on to Ken who then works the wood into beautiful handcrafted instruments.

I have to be honest here, as lovely as these instruments are, the most interesting thing is listening to the stories behind each instrument. They reveal a man’s reverential journey and some pretty clever problem solving. Oh, yeah, and math. Lots of math.

So if you are going to make a mountain instrument, then follow mountain ways, right?  Take his zither, for example, an isosceles triangular instrument with fixed tuned strings that is played with a bow. Each string is a different note. “These strings are from clothesline. You remember the plastic coated clothes line? You just strip that coating off and you have string wire underneath.” That is resourceful. He must have gone through a lot of clothesline to get all of the wire for this instrument.

Weidinger then made the bow in an equally resourceful way. Instead of using a traditional violin bow, he crated the bow and strung it with fishing line. Lots and lots of fishing line. Imagine how much line it would take to create a bow that is about 3/8 wide. It doesn’t sound sound like much until you examine the hundreds of loops that make up the bow. It may be a mountain instrument made from reclaimed materials but it elevates the spirit with its music.

The attention to detail, the cleverness, creativity, that he puts into building each instrument is a work of art itself. Take the kalimba, or thumb piano, that he made.  He cut leaf rake tines to specific lengths in order to create specific notes. This particular one has a dove shaped sound hole. Weidinger says, “A lot of third world countries will use bike spokes and pound them flat so they can use them.” Once again, it is a clever use of reclaimed materials to solve a practical problem but has a beautiful impact on the eye and ear.

A Weidinger crafted jig to make ukuleles.
Then there are the ukuleles. These are real beauties. Each piece of wood is milled to a precise measurement, .0072 thick for the sounding boards. The neck is carefully cut, sanded, and fretted using precise measurements. Wood is carefully bent in a device that he created using parts from auto parts and hardware stores.  Each step in the creation of a little uke presents a new set of problems that require pretty creative thinking and the end result is a highly playable and resonant instrument.

Weidinger’s passion and luthier knowledge run deep. He gets lost in the task. He loves to tell the story of each instrument and the people who have helped him learn more along the way and he freely credits so many others for expanding and deepening his knowledge and skill.

He had to create a specialized wood shop in order to build his instruments and really that too is an instrument to behold.  It sits in a long and narrow room that once served as the garage. It is chock full of saws, lathes, sanders, an elaborate dust collection system, a myriad of jigs, hand tools, wood pieces, and instruments in various stages of becoming. He has reclaimed and restored machines and tools and turns them into things of beauty that carry within them a story of generations of use. This shop is loved. And it all serves one purpose - create a beautiful instrument.
Weidinger does not track how long it takes to create an instrument. That’s not the point anymore. The point is to problem solve, to learn something about the craft and about himself.

He says, “Here’s the deal. I love the instruments, but I have always been a woodworker, but the whole problem solving part of it, I could get lost in that part of it. And that’s what I really love. Figuring out string lengths, angles, the woods. I can go into the shop and get lost in it, you know. And it would be 2 or 3 in the morning and I’d be working on trying to figure something out.” Then he goes into an explanation about making head and tail blocks and how he made a jig to put a curve on the piece rather than using a flat block piece of wood that makes it look more beautiful. It took time to determine the arc and to build the appropriate jig but it made the piece stronger and more beautiful.
A Weidinger created tool for bending instrument wood. 
Weidenger has come along way from his rustic beginnings as a luthier. He has learned his lessons well.  He takes joy in listening to a master musician play one of his instruments.

Whether you bake, build, garden, sculpt, sing, paint, or whatever, a hobby is so much more than a way to pass time. Research shows that a hobby recharges a spirit and enhances our quality of life.  When we get in tune with ourselves, we thrive. Talk to anyone you know who is enthusiastic about a particular creative past time and you will see them light up with energy. A hobby is a great way to explore and learn about a subject and yourself.

This story is really not about making instruments. It’s about creating something of beauty for others to enjoy. Instruments evoke emotion. Ken Weidinger explains that “a song is different every time it is played.” True, you don’t know its potential until it is set loose.  And that’s true about people too.

1 comment:

  1. Ken also made beautiful stained glass pieces!!