This is a post and a slideshow about an independent project that I took on last year. As a designer and a musician I decided, with the help of the UWSP wood shop, to build an electric cello. This is the evolution of my project, it is the pictures, the story. It was such a huge part of my year and still is something that I am passionate about.
I did not use a blueprint, this thing that I created is my own design and my own motivation. I am immensely proud, and am happy to share it with you today.
I have played cello for 15 years. I started playing and taking private lessons when I was in first grade. Although there were some very rough patches where I almost quit, I have managed to maintain a passion for the instrument and a passion for the music. Now, at the university I am working on a music minor and I am also involved in orchestra, quartet, sextet, cello studio, and lessons.
Last year I took ART 103, which is a required 3D design class. In that class I was introduced to the UWSP wood shop and to the wonderful Bill McKee, the shop supervisor. That semester I also had the opportunity to work with suzuki cello instructor Tim Mutschlecner while our usual professor was on sabbatical. It was these two things combined that provided me with the inspiration and the means to start my electric cello project!
One day in studio we were having an “alternative” day. And to this studio Dr. Tim brought his electric cello, which he built himself, and told us about his process. As he went on I realized that I could do what he did. And I could do it with minimal cost! By carving and shaping the wood myself in the wood shop I eliminated the need for a professional carpenter, and by using an old pickup from my upright bass I eliminated the need to buy one.
Here I will describe my own process, my success, and my failure. This project was conducted in my free minutes and hours between class and on weekends. I learned insurmountable amounts about wood working and about the ergonomics of the cello itself.
First I started with an idea. I talked to Dr. Tim. And I talked to Bill McKee. Luckily, Bill was on board with the project from the very start. Neither of us had ever done something like this before, but we were still pretty jazzed!
Before we started I already had some requirements and ideas about how the cello would have to be constructed. I wanted it to be able to fit into the overhead compartment on an airplane (so that I could take it back and forth from NH to WI easily), I wanted to have the option of a obstruction free fingerboard, and I wanted it to be beautiful.
Dr. Tim gave me a few measurements that he used, and I did a lot of measuring on my acoustic. In the end I decided on having one solid stick approx. 5″ by 42″, one detachable part for the knees, one detachable part for the chest, and one adjustable end pin.
So, lets take a look at the tools that I worked with on this project. There was of course the bandsaw seen in earlier pictures. For shaping, carving, and refining I used a variety of handheld tools. Mostly I used a small thumb plane, rasp, parallel, and lots of different grades of sand paper.
Very unfortunately my camera died for a period of time in which some very important changed were made. Most prominently is the creation process behind the chest piece and the knee piece. To create these there was A LOT of trial and error. I would make something out of plywood and then tape it onto the stick and sit, pretending like it was a real cello. I did this until I found the perfect size. What threw a wrench into this plan was the realization that this really needed to be at an angle. Like a fool I didn’t reevaluate the length that was compromised in tilting the wood, the result is a beautiful knee piece that still doesn’t work exactly how I would like it to work. What happens is that the bow hits your knees on the severe up or the severe down. Although not optimal, after practicing for a little while it is something that becomes less of an issue. The chest piece was very easy. I simply imitated the curve of the acoustic cello, and used the actual depth of my acoustic. The wood is a mix of cherry and ipe.
I traveled with the cello through the airports and back to New Hampshire at the end of the school year. For transport I put the end pin, chest piece, and knee piece into my check bag and then put the stick into a rifle case and carried it onto the airplane. Surprisingly I didn’t even get questioned at airport security! Not surprisingly I got a whole lot of weird looks from people in the terminal.
I used this instrument during my summer job at the Appalachian Mountain Club. It was small enough that I could store it in limited space, and my tiny Peeve Bass amp served as a table next to my bunk.
On my way back to Wisconsin for Semester I 2011 I was sitting in the Detroit airport with my cello leaning on my chair. I shifted and the cello fell over, almost in slow motion. I bent down to pick it up only to find that the whole head had snapped off! I discreetly slipped the broken scroll into my carry on and then sat back down, trying not to let anyone notice what just happened. I didn’t even asses the damage until I got to my Wisconsin apartment.
I took the stick back into the UWSP wood shop and that is where it currently sits. We epoxied the two parts back together and I carved a special piece that was then glued onto the weaken connection.
Now the cello is fully functional, stable, and beautiful as always. If you have any questions or feedback please feel free to comment here or send me an email!