The Kantele Project (Sysi)
Building a kantele or how to come of age the Finnish way
Part 1: The Idea
I don't really recall where I got the idea to build my own Kantele. I had never thought about it too seriously before now, although I had sometimes dreamed of making one of my own. One day I just thought "why not", and decided to give it a try. At first I had great doubts if I could pull it off. You see, I have no experience in building musical instruments or anything of the like, but I decided to try it anyway, to at least learn something new. Actually, I believe that everyone has the potential to learn to do anything if they set their minds to it, and if all went well I might even succeed in making a good instrument.
I got it into my head that I should try making a kantele with the strings tuned approximately an octave lower than in normal 10-15 stringed kanteles. This was because I wanted something that could also serve as a backing instrument and provide low power for distorted sounds. And speaking of distorted sounds, I also wanted to try making an electric kantele, with magnetic pickups, and the works - something few people to, my knowledge, have tried. And that was not enough in the pickup department. I also wanted to leave room behind the varras (the kantele equivalent of a guitar's bridge) for a contact pickup/acoustic transducer so that I could get both an acoustic and an electric sound from the instrument. ...But wait, there's more. I also wanted to use standard guitar tuners and strings to make the kantele easier to handle. This would also have the benefit of making replacement parts easier and cheaper to obtain.
Was I heading straight to disaster with such megalomaniacal plans? There certainly wasn't any shortage of challenges in the horizon. Time would tell, and I would see once I had the finished instrument in my hands.
Part 2: Planning
Because I have no prior experience in building musical instruments and my idea for the kantele was a bit unconventional, I wanted to make sure I planned everything as thoroughly as I could. First I drew the shape I wanted the kantele to be, based on the general shape of a normal 10-15 stringed kantele, but with my own twist. I measured what length the strings needed to be to accommodate the strings tuned to the notes on normal kanteles and used them as a basis to calculate longer string lengths for my "baritone" kantele. This was the most important part of the design, because if I didn't follow the example of existing kantele strings, I would have no way to predict how mine would end up sounding like. I also needed to position the varras, and measure enough room for single coil sized magnetic pickups as close to it as possible. This was because I wanted to carve most of the bottom open to provide resonance for acoustic playing. A completely solid body was out of the question.
After all these were planned, I designed the outline of the kantele. I wanted something a bit more aggressive, more "metal" if you will, but still retain the traditional kantele character. I went for function over form in all areas, because some of them would have compromised the useability of the instrument. On the other hand, some things that I designed for pure functionality ended up making the kantele look better too. A good example of such are the hand rests below the longest string. They both provide a good anchor point for your hand while playing, and look quite cool.
Another example would be that I used guitar tuners instead of normal kantele tuning pegs. Tuning a normal kantele is quite a frustrating experience, because the tuning pegs are everything but precise. Guitar tuners provide some much needed relief to the process. Using them has cut the tuning time down to less than half, and the chrome looks great on the black surface of the finished instrument. Using guitar tuners also meant that I had to make the thickness of the wood onto which they are attached to 10-12mm thick which is considerably less that on kanteles with normal tuning pegs. Before I could try the finished instrument I had no idea if this would hinder the characteristic kantele sound in any way, but luckily it didn't.
I wanted to build the kantele from a single piece of wood, because I didn't have any means to do gluing and such with the precision needed. I also wanted to see if I could make the instrument using only hand tools. I guess I wanted to keep the making process as traditional as possible, even if I used electrical and motorized tools. I also wanted to use hardwood, because it would provide for a stronger instrument body. The best option for me was ash. It is easy to obtain here, and cheap enough. I read that hardwoods generally produce a brighter sound, which should work great with the kantele, and this turned out to be true. I got a plank of ash with the dimensions 300cm x 32cm x 5cm. This was the thickest plank I could obtain, and the 5cm was perfect. The length is also enough for 3 kanteles. Maybe this is a sign that I must make a couple more.
As I briefly mentioned, I wanted to paint the kantele black. This was because I already have a couple of ones with the wood texture showing, and I thought the black colour would suit an "electric" kantele quite well. In an optimal situation, I wanted the wood texture to show through slightly, so I chose wood stain instead of paint.
Part 3: Building
- 3a: Shaping the Wood
I printed the design for the shape onto six A4 sized sheets of paper, taped them together and cut the paper according to the design outlines. I then used this to trace the outlines onto the wood. First, I cut as much of the wood that I could away with a circular saw. After this I cut along the outlines with a jigsaw. This was all that I had to do cutting wise, so next I proceeded to carve the shape. I first drilled plenty of guiding holes to show how deep I could carve, and then set to work with an angle grinder equipped with a wood carver disc. This process took surprisingly little time, mostly because the carver disc was excellent. I could carve most of the areas with it alone, but for some smaller places like the control cavity and pickup cavities I has to just drill as many holes that I could, and chop away the wood witch a chisel. I carved all edges to be nicely rounded, because I wanted to avoid straight lines and sharp edges - to amplify the organic hand made look of the body.
Next I drilled the holes for the tuners (10mm), tuner pot shafts (6mm), the jack (250mm), wires (6mm), etc. I also had to shape the wood to specifically fit a Les Paul type jack plate.
After all this was done, I sanded the surface. The larger areas with an angle grinder and sanding disks, and the smaller with a dremel and it's small sanding heads. I didn't do much decorative carving, because I wanted to keep the design simple. I had a feeling it would become detailed enough with just the strings, tuners, varras, pickups, knobs. etc. in place. I only cut a couple of inset lines running along the head, next to the tuners, and the hand rests. These turned out to provide just the right amount of detail to the top surface with all the other elements in place. The underside turned out quite beautifull with all the curves. It's a bit of a shame it's not visible too often.
- 3b: Painting the Body
This was definitely the most frustrating part of the building process. Waiting for paint to dry is as interesting as... well... waiting for paint to dry. I started with black wood stain varnish, applied it once to one side, waited for a day for it to dry to withstand touching, turn the thing over, and paint the other side. I did this for 3 layers, so that took 6 days in total. After that I applied clear glossy varnish for 2 layers, taking 4 days in total, but that thing dried and cured even slower to full hardness.
I did the whole painting operation in a bomb shelter, which had adequate air flow, but was a tad on the cool side. At first I waited for a week for the clear varnish to dry, but there was little change to the hardness of the surface, so I figured I needed to get the kantele someplace warm to dry faster. Well, I'm a Finn, so I thought that the sauna would be the perfect place for drying stuff. I took the kantele to the sauna, and let it dry in temperatures around 40-80 degrees Celsius for a couple of weeks, until the lacquer was properly hardened. I didn't keep the sauna heated constantly. I heated it up a couple of times a day, and let it cool off at its own pace. This took anywhere from 2 to 8 hours, so it provided a nice amount of heat for as little electricity consumption as possible. I might not have had to keep the kantele in the sauna for that long, but because I was waiting for the pickups to arrive, I could do nothing else, and therefore let the instrument dry as long as I could.
An interesting detail in the painting process was that after it was finished, I brushed some areas of the top with tar scented concentrate to make the kantele smell slightly like tar when smelling it up close. I love the smell of tar, and it helped to mask the smells of the wood stain and varnish.
- 3c: Strings & Hardware
First thing I had to do here was to bend the stainless steel rod to be used as the varras. This is the thing to which the string loops are attached, and similar to the bridge of a guitar. I wanted to make it a wide U shape that could be sunk into the wood. This was the simplest and in my opinion the strongest design. First I had to bend the rod in two places, and make the bends as small and sharp as possible. A friend helped me as we fixed the rod onto a workbech, and bent the thing with locking pliers and plumber's pliers. After this was done I cut the ends of the rod away, and measured where I needed to drill 8mm holes for the varras to be sunk into. I proceeded in this order, because it would have been much harder to try bending the varras to fit existing holes.
I then proceeded to attach the tuners and the strings to see where they would be best positioned. After all this was done, and I knew where I would put the strings, I marked the places for the two varras supporting bolts between the 4th and 5th, and between the 8th and 9th strings. After this I had to remove the strings and varras, drill 6mm holes for the bolts, attach the bolts, varras, and the strings again. Also, before attaching the varras, I put in some electrical wire running from one varras hole into the control cavity, to act as the ground wire for the strings, etc. The process had to be done in this particular order, because the supporting bolts needed to go precisely where the strings allowed them to go. This would have been impossible to do without actually trying out the strings in their correct places first. Even 1mm of deviation in the bolt locations would have forced me to move the strings too much.
After all the wardware was attached, it was time to start figuring out what strings worked best for the sound and pitches I was going for. I found a guitar string tension/length/thickness calculator online, and I used that to deduct the approximate thicknesses of the strings I should try out. I soon realised that I could not use almost any of the thicknesses I obtained this way. Luckily, I had obtained a wide range of strings, so I had lots of options to try out. Since the calculator didn't provide usefull information for the kantele, I just had to try out strings on a "trial and error" basis.
6 hours, approx. 12 snapped strings, and adequately sore fingers later I finally got the thicknesses nailed down for all the strings and for the pitches I wanted to use. Here's a list: D#4=p018, D4=p020, C4=p020, A#3=nw021, A3=nw022, G3=nw024, F3=nw030, D#3=nw034, D3=nw038, C3=nw042, A#2=nw044, G2=nw049. The first 3 strings are plain steel, and the rest are nickel wound, this is because I wanted to make the kantele an octave lower than normal kanteles, so I opted for wound strings as much as I could.
One detail about the string ordeal was that because I used standard guitar strings, I had to break the brass rings on the loop ends with pliers so that I was able to attach the strings to the varras better. Nevertheless, this was a simple procedure and did not harm the strings in any way.
- 3d: Electronics
This is an area in which I have practically no experience. I had soldered some simple electronic stuff back in elementary school, but those were all from instructions. I could not do any self-conceived electronic stuff, even if my life depended on it. So, why change something that apparently worked well in elementary school? I searched the web for some quitar wiring instructions, and cooked up my own design based on them. I actually found great instructions on how to shield and wire guitar electronics so that it outputs a minimal amount of noise, and naturally planned my stuff based on these.
I wanted to make the electronics as simple as possible. I only included one volume pot for each pickup and nothing else. I didn't even include tone controls, because i've never used them on a bass or a guitar. Well, the control cavity probably wouldn't even had enough room for them anyway. The kantele body is a bit smaller than that of a guitar.
After I felt everything was planned adequately, I soldered the electronics, and to my surprise everything worked on the first try. My friend who owns a local music store even said that I succeeded perfectly, as the instrument was also considerably less noisy than the guitars we compared it to. Needless to say, I couldn't have been more pleased. My kantele was now finished and ready for it's maiden play. The moment I had been waiting for had finally come. Would everything work or was all the work a big waste of time?
Part 4: Conclusions
Even if I say so myself, the kantele turned out excellent. Sure, it has minor flaws and such, but these are mostly cosmetic. There's nothing that hinders the functionality or sound of the instrument. I think that it sounds just as good or at least very close to the quality Koistinen 15 stringed one I own, and this is the thing that makes me the most happy. It's especially interesting to think that I was able to make a good instrument without any prior experience, just by planning and executing everything as well as I possibly could. Well, the kantele is quite a simple design too. I'm glad it doesn't have a guitar like fretboard.
In the end, the whole project took approximately 4 months from start to finish. At times it was frustrating, and at times rewarding. All in all, it was a great experience, and I learned a lot, including some completely new areas. I'm glad the task is complete and now I can concentrate on playing the beast - something that I was anxious to do from the moment I first envisioned the project. But I must admit that now I feel quite strange when I don't have to spend so much time building an instrument anymore.
I decided to name my kantele "Sysi". It's a characteristically Finnish word for wood coal. We often call deep black coloured objects "sysimusta" which basically just means coal black. As the kantele is quite black, I thought the name was simple and fitting.
And last, but not least, in older times a Finn became of age only after he had built himself a kantele. So now, after so many years of my life I can finally say that I am a man. Pretty schweet :)
Part 5: Thanks
Even though this was my project, I couldn't have done it with the help of some good friends. I thank them all, and hope they still speak to me after all this :)