Sunday April 7, 2019
We return to the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention's Spring Situation, where we'll be making
Tin Can 2-Strings with all comers!

Summer 2012— I made instruments with the kids at Camp 510 in Oakland.

We returned to the East Bay Mini Maker Faire on Sunday, Oct. 16, and made 3 dozen instruments with visitors until we ran out of cans!

We we're at JUNKSTOCK III on July 23, at Lindley Meadow in Golden Gate Park

At the for the PLACE for Sustainable Living, May 2011, Emeryville, CA

Making instruments with kids at the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention Spring Fling, April 2011. Twenty kids each made a tin can 2-string in an hour and a half of creative bedlam!

At the DIY Musical Instrument Tailgate Party at Stanford; April 2011.
photo:Laura Hofstadter

At the East Bay Mini-Maker Faire
October 24, 2010

Pictures from
Thingamajig 12
Sept. 2009.

The instruments were shown at Cricket Engine Gallery, May 15-21, 2009.
See pictures of the show here.

In November 2008 we made tin can koras and ukuleles with 15 middle schoolers in Kelly Tacunda Orphan's Park Day School music classes. The kids made some cool instruments!

"The Wreck of the Old #10" ,
a collaboration with Karen Celia Heil, performed on the instruments as part of the 2008 Thingamajig Festival

I participated in “Made and Found Sound”, an artists talk at the Rock Paper Scissors Collective in September 2007, as part of the
Tenth Annual Music for People &Thingamajigs Festival

The instruments were featured in
Dog Act, a play by Liz Duffy Adams that ran in October 2004 at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley.

Check back soon for more pictures of the instruments, information about workshops, and musings on sound and technology.


Click on the instruments for more pictures and info.
New Instrument Photos


I like making tin can instruments because they’re quick and direct. My “real” instruments take from between 50 to 150 hours to make and the building and finishing process can run as long as 6 months, with drying time, fine adjusting, letting things settle, etc. I’ve always had difficulty with delayed gratification— I can make one of these in a single session. I also began to be intrigued with the educational possibilities. With traditional crafts apprenticeships and industrial arts education mostly a memory in this country, they provide a way for folks interested in instrument making to learn something about the way stringed instruments work, and to try out some basic woodworking techniques, without making a large investment in tools and materials. I can do an all day workshop with 5 or 10 students and everyone will finish an instrument (or two).
tin can banjos crutch guitars, bucket basses, found objects, stringed musical instruments, classes, workshops, instrument making, Oakland, Berkeley, SF San Francisco, The design of our modern stringed instruments has been worked out for centuries. Stradivarius did his work at the turn of the 18th century; Torres was dead by the end of the 19th.

But they didn't have tin cans.

After I’d made a few of these critters I got to thinking that I was putting in maybe 4 or five hours forming the neck/stick— fitting pegs and a nut, compared with about 20 to prepare a guitar neck. but after that was done, it only took me an hour to prepare a can and fix it to the stick, as opposed to maybe 50 or 60 hours for a guitar body. Did one of my $3000 guitars really sound 60 times better than my Crutch-o-phone? I don't know. Maybe it just sounds ten or fifteen times better. I suspect the point of diminishing returns was reached a long ago.
These are not “toy” instruments or sculptural one liners. They play in tune and are loud enough to be heard in ensembles with traditional acoustic instruments. And I’ve found that playing them has improved my musicianship— I don’t really know exactly how they work until they’re strung up and I’ve played them for a while, and finding my way on them often leads me into hours of aimless playing, free of any preconceived notions of what music should sound like or how instruments should be played.

Unlike academic musicologists, who group the stringed instruments by how they are played (bowed, plucked, struck with a mallet; stopped or one string per pitch; frets or not, etc.) I like to think of them in structural terms: String tension carried by a frame and a box with the radiator perpendicular (harps), or parallel (Zithers, guitars, lutes and fiddles) to the strings, or tension carried by a stick, with the radiator/resonator also carried by the stick (Banjos, Kemanche, Erhu, and Koras) Like all attempts at classifying the real world, this one has some blurry edges— the whole body of the rebab is carved out of a single chunk, with a skin stretched over one hollowed lobe. For me what distinguishes this illustrious family, which I think of as the Banjo, or Drum and Stick instruments, is that no extremes of artiface have been resorted to to make a box that is both structural and acousically live, as is the case for the violin, lute, mandolin, and guitar families. The structural and acoustic functions are neatly separated, simplifying both, and begging the whole “failing structure” question of guitar making—how to make it light enough to be loud, and heavy enough not to fold up under the tension of the strings. I think this simplification is the reason that these instruments are so widely distributed. If you've got a stick and a drum (that is, a membrane supported by a frame— skin over gourd or hoop, cigar box, tin can) all you need is some strings and a little rough carpentry and you've got an instrument.

I draw on my skill and experience as a luthier, carpenter, metalworker, visual artist and musician. I try to stay away from heavy milling and machining because I want to use as much found material as possible and I want to make stuff that others can make easily. I use the lathe and some specialized tools to make the tapered pegs because it’s important that the instruments really tune, and because there is something organic and satisfying about traditional wooden tuners.

Write me! I love to see what other instrument makers are up to.

My other pages:
Guitar Repair
Images of my other work

Stewart Port
Oakland, Calif.

I use my hand powered eggbeater drill a lot, and 4 or 5 handsaws, planes and chisels, and straightedges and dividers. For large holes in the cans or drums I use holesaws or “cobra” bits or chassis punches. Sometimes I don't know if it's going to be bowed, plucked or strummed until I string it up. I start by matching a drum and a stick, paying attention to both to aesthetic and physical qualities. Then I figure out a tuning arrangement and a way to anchor the strings. I put some strings on it and try a bridge— often just a piece of dowel or a disgarded one from another instrument. Once I’ve got it to this point the fun part begins— tinkering with it and learning to play it. Most of my instruments go through 3 or 4 bridges and a couple of sets strings before they're “done”. Scale length is adjusted, maybe a fingerboard is added, sometimes I’ll even try a different can. Once I did some modifications on the crutch guitar and just used a piece of 1/2" dowel that was laying around to approximate the bridge height and decided I liked the sound better than the elaborately detailed bridges I usually make. Go figure.

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