String it up!

This past weekend as planned my helper and I spent a couple more hours finishing up our new “Back to Basics” dulcimer. Annalise was excited about finishing this up – as was I – so shortly after breakfast we retreated to the shop to get back to work.

The Tuners and Tail

The tuners were first. The head was essentially ready, waiting only for the small pilot holes needed to affix the tuners. Annalise quickly installed all four tuners.

The plans suggest using 4 small pins that the strings loop over. I didn’t care for this look, so instead I crafted a small acoustic-guitar style tail that we glued to the bottom. I was slightly concerned about the stresses from the strings shearing this block off – especially because it was glued on after applying the finish. Therefore we carefully sanded a bit of the finish before gluing and then, for a bit of extra insurance, and because we thought they’d look nice, we added a couple brass screws to the tail.

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Attaching the tuners

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Brass screws to reinforce and dress up the tail

 

Nut and Bridge

I crafted a nut and bridge out of a couple Corian sample blocks purchased last year. The band saw sliced neatly through the sample blocks. And with a bit of sanding on the oscillating belt sander, and some adjustments to the nut slot with a chisel, the pieces were installed and ready for notching.

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Time to try it out!

Lessons Learned

We followed the original book design that calls for a guitar style headstock – with the string posts oriented vertically. Unfortunately the angle of the headstock is too shallow to pull the strings down into the nut slot with sufficient force to keep them there. I installed a couple Fender-style string trees – which mostly work – though there is still a tendency for a string to jump its slot if strummed too aggressively.

This isn’t tragic and I may put some more time into this in the future to improve the situation. However it’s still a very playable instrument that we’ve been having a lot of fun with.

Now that this is complete, we’re moving forward with a more traditional style with curved sides and a carved scroll headstock.

Next up: starting work on the Kimball book “hourglass” dulcimer…

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Back to Basics

In the first post of this series, the kids and I built “canjos” following our visit to the Great Smoky Mountains. Besides being a fun “shop time” activity with the kids, this was a prelude to – and preparation for – building our own mountain dulcimer.

I admit I was tempted to purchase a finished dulcimer from Wood-n-Strings dulcimers. They also sold kits including all of the pre-cut pieces and pre-bent sides. However, I also knew I’d rather build one myself and, frankly, I don’t see the point of woodworking kits in general. IMHO kits remove most of the artistry and craftsmanship from the process. If everything’s already perfectly machine-cut, the headstock scroll carved, I’d be little more than the last step on the assembly line. Too much “paint-by-numbers” means very little risk of utter failure – which also means no true pride of real accomplishment, at least for me personally.

Back to Basics

Back to Basics

The 2-page spread on how to build a mountain dulcimer

The 2-page spread on how to build a mountain dulcimer

Reading Up

Of course, I had no clue how to actually build a proper mountain dulcimer.

Having read several books on acoustic guitar building, I understood the basic construction techniques and concepts such as scale length – or vibrating string length (VSL) as I see it called on the dulcimer forums. But I wanted to find a plan showing how the tuning head and body are typically attached, internal structure of the body, etc.

Thankfully I found the book – “Constructing the Mountain Dulcimer” by Dean Kimball.

This is a very old book (you can tell by the printed BASIC code for calculating fret placement designed to run on a Commodore 64). Many Internet sites sell used or hardcover copies, but Luthier Merchantile International sells ’em new in paperback for only $15.

I also read a blog post describing another old book – the 1981 Reader’s Digest “Back to Basics” that includes plans for a mountain dulcimer. This book is out of print but there are dozens of used copies available online. I grabbed a copy from Amazon and sure enough, there on page 390 is a plan for building your own mountain dulcimer.

Though a traditional hour-glass shaped dulcimer is pictured on the cover, the plans inside the book are for a relatively simple triangular shaped dulcimer. This suited me just fine – I decided I’d build two.

Cutting the fret slots with a template and custom blade

Cutting the fret slots with a template and custom blade. The blue tape is blocking off the “skipped” frets not in the dulcimer’s diatonic scale.

Gluing up the body

Gluing up the body

Reader’s Digest Dulcimer

The first one is the simple Reader’s Digest “Back to Basics” dulcimer. The purpose of this build is to gain additional experience fretting an instrument – something I’d yet to tackle on my two prior electrics or my as-yet-unfinished acoustic 6-string.

Following the (hopefully successful) basic build, I’d tackle a more traditional body style per the Kimball book. Through the second I’d gain experience bending wood. Both of these will hopefully lead up to finally finishing my acoustic guitar build.

Fret Not

Fretboards scare me. Not playing them, but building them. The precision required is a bit intimidating to say the least. Measurements are often specified in hundredths of an inch. And if you’re off just a bit, your gorgeous handmade masterpiece will forever play out of tune. Yikes.

To help ensure success and take some of the anxiety out of the process I decided I’d purchase a template.

Stewmac.com sells a very nice metal fret template and table saw blade that I’d picked up a few months back. After getting a somewhat imprecise and inconsistent result using the guide to mark frets with a pencil and hand saw them for the canjos, I figured I’d use the template as intended for the dulcimer – paired with the table saw and a simple jig.

The book specifies a 28″ VSL. Because this will be played primarily by the kids, and because I really wanted to try out my 25.5″ scale template, I adjusted this to Fender-style 25.5″.

 

Gluing on the top

Gluing on the top

Wipe-on Tung oil finish

Wipe-on Tung oil finish

Daddy’s Little Girl

My very “crafty” 10-year-old daughter was eager to help out with this project. So I put her to work doing nearly everything that didn’t require the use of power tools. She performed most of the gluing up, fret installation and beveling, and final finish work. We started on Saturday morning, and by Sunday afternoon the first coats of finish were drying.

Next weekend after a few more coats of finish and a few days’ curing time, we should be ready to buff it out, install the bridge, tail, nut, tuners and string it up!

Next up: how does it sound?

Applying finish to the body

Applying finish to the body

Beveling the frets

Beveling the frets

Wiping on the Tung oil finish

Wiping on the Tung oil finish

Fret board hollowed out on the underside

Fret board hollowed out on the underside

Gluing the fret board

Gluing the fret board

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Canjos and Dulcimers and Bears – Oh My!

This most recent Spring Break week, we decided to take our “new” popup camper out for our maiden voyage on a week-long trip to the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.

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Setting up camp

A tiny sample of the dozens of carved bear art pieces found in stores dotting the highways in the region

A tiny sample of the dozens of carved bear art pieces found in stores dotting the highways in the region

The original motivator, besides finding a relatively warm place to camp in March, was to ride one of the alpine coasters running in the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg area.

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Sean gets an impromptu lesson on playing the mountain dulcimer at Wood-n-Strings

The coaster was great fun, as was the amazing Tuckaleechee caverns tour. For me however, the highlight of the trip was visiting the Wood-n-Strings Dulcimer Shop in Townsend, TN.

A day earlier we’d wandered into the Sunshine Mountain dulcimer shop in downtown Gatlinburg. There, during an interesting conversation with the luthier, we were introduced to the “Canjo.” This is basically a toy instrument – a single-stringed stick with an aluminum soda can for a resonator at one end.

Fretted like a dulcimer, you can play simple melodies on it, as demonstrated by the maker. I decided to pick one up to use as a template for building our own. The kids loved it and it immediately became the hit of the campsite. The kids decided they wanted to build their own canjos after we got home.

Building the Canjos

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Nate rockin’ out on the “canjo”

Canjos are trivially easy to make. They consist of a single stick of wood roughly 1-1/4″ wide by 3/4″ thick with the length determined by the chosen scale length. They are fretted similar to a guitar, however canjos, like dulcimers, use a diatonic scale (think white keys on the piano in key of “C”) instead of a guitar’s chromatic arrangement.

Because I already have a guitar fret template with 25″ and 25.5″ scales, I chose to use a 25″ scale length.  I actually had plenty of scraps around of varying species that fit the bill. The kids each chose their own stick which I cut to length. After marking for the frets, I had each of them hand saw the fret slots and then glue/pound them in.

Annalise cuts fret slots

Annalise cuts fret slots on a shop-made simple miter box

Emma wanted to paint the back of her canjo stick

Emma wanted to paint the back of her canjo stick

The purchased canjo uses a phillips head screw for the nut. I figured I might as well make a more traditional guitar style nut for these. Upon hearing last year that Corian makes decent nut material, I’d purchased a couple sample blocks online (failing to procure any from local stores). The blocks cut quite nicely and sanded easily. I’m sure the dust will do you no good, so be sure to have decent collection if you’re working with the stuff!

Emma enjoyed installing the fret wire!

Emma enjoyed installing the fret wire!

Nate files down the frets

Nate files down the frets

Nate loves the "Monter canjo"

Nate loves the “Monter canjo”

Ready for her solo!

Ready for her solo!

Ready for the big concert

Ready for the big concert

Though we had plenty of soda cans in the house, my 7-year-old son insisted on using a “Monster” energy drink can for his. Rather than staple the cans in place like the original, my daughter suggested using hot glue. This was quick and easy and seems rather solid.

A couple layers of Tung oil and we were ready to string ’em up and enjoy the music!

Next up: our first mountain dulcimer!

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Beat Boxes: Building Cajones with the Kids, part 2

Painting and Finishing

This weekend we painted and finished our cajones. Sean’s was constructed from furniture-grade mahogany veneer plywood, so this one would be finished with a natural finish. The girls wanted flowers, butterflies, and ladybugs. Nathan had his heart set on a monster. Since I’m entirely unable to draw any of these things well, we ran to the store and found some stencils that the kids could paint on their respective boxes. These worked much better than I’d expected – the kids were able to do it themselves with beautiful results!

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grass and sky background for the beetle box

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Painting on monster hands

 

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Stenciling on some flowers and a couple skulls

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Stenciled flowers on Emma’s flutterbox

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Making a bead rattle/snare

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Nate posing with his monster box

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An initial coat of polycrylic applied

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Sealing in the waterslide decal

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He likes the skull

 

The finished products

These are definitely family-room worthy pieces that we should be able to enjoy seeing and hearing for years to come. Great work, kids!

Emma's cajon

Emma’s cajon

Emma painted flowers on the side

Emma painted flowers on the side

The "flutterbox"

The “flutterbox”

 

Nate's cajon

Nate’s cajon – el “cajon monstruo”

Nate's monster box

Another view of Nate’s monster box

el cajon monstruo

Nate wanted a skull and bones on the side

Sean's cajon

Sean’s cajon

skull and sombrero

Mahogany sides and top with a skull and sombrero stencil

Annalise's cajon

Annalise’s cajon

the beetlebox

the beetlebox

Annalise chose a dragonfly stencil for the side

Annalise chose a dragonfly stencil for the side

Another shot of the four

Another shot of the four

the group

the group

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Beat Boxes: Building Cajones with the Kids, part 1

One of my (sadly now former) co-workers is an amazing drummer. As in professional-studio-musician-in-another-life amazing. I would spend quite a bit of time chatting with him about music and his experience as a working musician.

Shortly before his departure he mentioned to me at the Chicago Drum Show was coming to town in my neck of the woods. It seemed like a great way to spend an afternoon with the kids, so I figured I’d pack ’em up and check it out. One of the first booths we happened upon was that of Aaron of Empowered Percussion. After a brief chat he gave the kids an impromptu lesson on the cajón.

At this point I’d never heard of a cajón, but they sounded cool, the kids really enjoyed banging on them, and they were made of wood. Seemed like something we should be able to put together in the workshop!

So, first, what’s a “cajón”?

Cajón
A cajón (Spanish pronunciation: [ka?xon] (Ka-hon), “box”, “crate” or “drawer”) is nominally a six sided, box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru, played by slapping the front or rear faces (generally thin plywood) with the hands, fingers, or sometimes various implements…Cajón – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 

In woodworking terms this equates roughly to a simple wooden box, frequently made of plywood from what I see online, with a thin (~1/8″) ‘tapas’ (cover or lid) on the front. Seemed like a fun, easy woodworking project that I could do with the kids on a cold (or and/or rainy) weekend, which unfortunately we’d had far too many of this spring.

We designed these in the shop together, sizing them appropriately for each child. Naturally I needed to do all the cutting, but the kids were able to glue them up, assemble their boxes, and sand the rough bits.

The kids were great and we all had a wonderful fun – and full – day in the shop!

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an impromptu cajón lesson

Applying the glue

Applying the glue

Applying the glue

Applying the glue

Applying the glue

Applying the glue

Sanding the sound hole

Sanding the sound hole

Clowning around

Clowning around

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A job well done

A job well done

Testing the assembled box

Testing the assembled box

Next up, finishing our cajónes.

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This Cabinet Goes To 11!

Something's missing

Something’s missing

Grill cloth installed

Grill cloth installed

With apologies to Nigel Tufnel…

Shortly before completing the cabinet, I began considering the hardware – what to do for drawer pulls and knobs?

Nothing off-the-shelf appealed to me, so I started searching for an alternative. In the end I modified some Marshall stack gold-top volume knobs for drawer pulls and some very cool, retro “chicken head” style knobs for the doors.

 

 

 

 

After letting it cure for about 3 days, it was finally time to install the top. And here is the finished piece:

Top installed

Top installed

Need a pick?

Need a pick?

Grill cloth was tricky to wrap

Grill cloth was tricky to wrap

Side view

Side view

Keep calm and rock on

Keep calm and rock on

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A new home for my old guitars

 

And of course…

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Picky Media Cabinet

I love doing fine woodworking and remodeling. I’m not fond, however, of building basic cabinets and honestly wasn’t interested in spending any real time on the cabinetry. Unfortunately, after a fairly extensive search, it appeared that if I wanted a shallow base cabinet with a configuration anywhere near what I envisioned, I’d need to build something custom.

The point of the “media cabinet” in the design is to provide a) a place for the PA head and eventual home theater components to live, b) a nook for a mini-fridge, and c) a countertop for the popcorn machine.

Cabinets are painful for a few reasons. First and foremost – the plywood. It’s large, heavy, and awkward to move and slice up in my shop. Decent plywood is also rather expensive, and moreover, the only place that sells true cabinet-grade stuff is a bit of a hike and way overpriced. Second, they’re just not that interesting. And in this case, I really didn’t want the cabinet carcass to be a primary focal point – the guitars above it were to be the draw. Ultimately I decided to pick up the best “big box” ply I could get and spend some time up front working out how to cut up the sheets in the store such that they’d be more easily transportable. I used inexpensive dimensioned poplar for the face frame, and slapped on some Polyshades American Cherry, which is about as close to paint as you can get while still retaining some translucency. Needless to say I didn’t take many pictures of the build process – it’s just not that interesting.

The cabinet carcass glued up

The cabinet carcass glued up

Got picks?

The counter top was an entirely different matter. Here again I spent some significant time searching for a decent top. At first I figured I’d use some type of solid surface top, like Corian. I also considered some fairly cheap laminate countertops from the big boxes. For under $100 I could get a top and cut it down.

The problem was I just wasn’t satisfied with any of the laminates – they either were the wrong color, or the pattern and style were a poor fit. A solid wood (or stained hardwood plywood) top just didn’t seem to work here either. What to do?

I don’t recall where I got the idea, but I thought it would be cool to a collage of guitar picks, concert tickets, 45’s, and other memorabilia sealed under pour-on epoxy. The guitar picks would act as the base for the whole thing – they would cover the substrate like confetti. Some quick basic math showed I’d need around 1,800 picks arranged without overlap just to roughly cover the top. This would leave tons of gaps of course between picks – especially the rounded edges.

The main problem was expense – sufficient quantities (3,000+) of real guitar picks would cost more that I was willing to spend.  A few years back I picked up a sample pack of wood veneers. I thought these might make for good “picks” – they wouldn’t hold together for plucking strings, but under epoxy they should look quite nice. So I picked up a punch and began a nightly process of punching out these faux picks from the veneer sheets.

Punching out "picks" from veneer

Punching out “picks” from veneer

With around 1,800 of them in hand, the next step was to construct the top. This was fairly straightforward – a sheet of plywood wrapped with 1-1/4″ strips of poplar. I left about a 3/8″ recess for filling with epoxy. Then began the process of gluing down the  veneer picks. The mod podge swelled the veneer, resulting in some curled edges that required a bit of extra work to pin them down either with pressure or for some with cyanoacrylate.

Assembled top empty

Assembled top empty

Starting to glue down the first layer

Starting to glue down the first layer

First layer complete

First layer complete – mod podged down

While I liked the veneer, I really wanted to add some celluloid picks to the mix. The problem with the affordable ones I could find on Ebay was they all shipped from China – and my last attempt to purchase something from China ended was a mess. I lost the money, no product. It also takes weeks.

Thankfully I found an American seller with an offer of 1000 picks for $43! It was the last batch offered, so I snatched ’em up and started laying them down over the veneer. I heated up the shop to 70+ degrees per the Envirotex Lite instructions and made a first pour over the wood picks. This proceeded through 4 pours, each time adding new picks on top of the prior pour after a few hours while it was still tacky. It worked quite well and resulted in a very nice layered effect.

The final pour I let flow right over the edge, covering them and smoothing the transition from the center to the frame. The epoxy worked quite well, however I did run into an issue with the next to last pour. It was a very thin pour and I got a bit too aggressive with the heat gun in a couple spots – leaving a few round, rough impressions in the top. Thankfully a final pour cured all ills leaving no evidence of its existence. Whew.

Adding a new layer on top of a still-sticky pour

Adding a new layer on top of a still-tacky pour

Layering on the celluloid picks under Envirotex Lite

Layering on the celluloid picks under Envirotex Lite

Final pour

Final pour

Next up…installing the top, drawer pulls, and grill cloth

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Fuzzy Walls

I spent a good deal of time contemplating the wall covering below the chair rail. I didn’t see traditional wainscoting here…it called for something different. I turned again to my collection of inspirational images I’d assembled from the web. The recurring theme here was rectangles. My favorite image of the lot was a wall panel built of random strips of various lengths and widths of wood. I’d also considered a wall composed of endgrain 4×4 blocks like this one, and a panel wall of randomly stained 2′ squares.

The “wood strip” wall, while very attractive and unique, would simply be too costly to reproduce. The 4×4 blocks looked interesting, but I couldn’t see them blending well with the chalkboard above.

It ultimately occurred to me that I could get a similar effect of the stained wood with far less effort and a bit of added interest by gluing carpet tiles to the walls. I found some rather inexpensive thin squares and bought five different shades (in the same family) of the stuff. Since there were four boxes and five of us (the kids insisted on helping with this bit), we were each assigned a single shade and I would, more or less randomly call out a child’s (or my) name who would then pick up a tile and place it on the floor as we laid this out.

Laying out the tiles

Laying out the tiles

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My helpers taking a bit of a break

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One wall complete

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Music cabinet/guitar display wall covered

Speaker towers

Three parts comprise the proscenium – two vertical “speaker towers,” and the top horizontal “bridge” piece that connects them.

I figured since these would be finished rather dark, and live in a dimly-lit corner of a dimly-lit room, there was no point in using expensive hardwood to construct them. Instead I built simple frame-and-raised-panel facades out of cheap big box pine.

Every stage needs a curtain, of course. The material is a bit pricey but thankfully I only needed a few yards – and the results I think were well worth it.

Unfinished speaker towers

Unfinished speaker towers

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Completed wainscoting, chair rail installed with proscenium sides in place

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Teaser with gold trim

Top with teaser and legs installed.

Top with teaser and legs installed.

 

Framed

As mentioned in my initial post, I really liked the idea of mounting empty frames to chalkboard walls – essentially inviting family and guests to fill them. My sister-in-law helped out here by painting and mounting them for me. I think she got the spacing just about perfect. The kids certainly had a blast coloring them in…and they continue to tweak and re-draw bits. It’s quite a bit of fun.

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Pictures frames from Goodwill painted and mounted to the chalkboard walls

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Emma sends a message to mommy

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Sean gets into the act

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Rock & Roll

 

creating their first masterpieces

creating their first masterpieces

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The Jaromin Family Band logo

Next up…custom cabinetry

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Setting the stage

The Stage

The main focal point for the music area is the stage. With only 7′ of height to work with under the drop ceiling, it would need to be a fairly small step up. 2×3’s would fit the bill here, topped with 5/8″ OSB. I added additional support under the area where the drum set would live and pink insulation under the entire thing to deaden any resonance from the platform. The entire 8′ 6″ x 12′ 5″ stage would be finished off later with some inexpensive laminate flooring…and some rather pricey matching stair nose at the front to finish off the front edge.

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Building the stage

Platform framework

Platform framework

Insulating the stage

Insulating the stage

The kids got a chance to learn how to use a screw gun!

The kids got a chance to learn how to use a screw gun!

I probably should have made her put her hair up, but she did great driving screws for the first time.

I probably should have made her put her hair up, but she did great driving screws for the first time.

Even Nathan was able to use the driver

Even 6-yr-old Nathan was able to use the driver

The Ceiling

I was greatly concerned about the ceiling. On the one hand I knew it really should match the wall color. On the other, the dark walls were already going to darken up a small basement room with limited lighting. But I ultimately decided to march forward and figured I’d deal with any lighting issues that arose. The big question was if I could actually paint the squares and supporting framework – and how would that look? This gave me an opportunity to (literally) dust off my Earlex 3000 sprayer and try it out. The tiles coated fairly well. They each required two coats – I would paint in one direction, rotate the tile 1/4 turn, and spray it again. This helped getting the paint into all the nooks and crevices in the textured tiles. They look really good, however if you hit them with a bright light from an angle you can see some white in the deep pockets. As long as I don’t install any up-lighting this won’t be an issue!

For the metal supports, I considered using a separate primer first. In the end they took the paint well enough without a primer coat, though requiring two coats for full coverage. In this case the short ceiling was a big help as there was no need to march a ladder around the room…though it was a bit hard on the neck!

Painting the ceiling tiles

All of the tiles removed for painting – the walls are covered in grey primer at this stage

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Spraying the ceiling tiles to match walls

Freshly painted ceiling tiles in place

Freshly painted ceiling tiles in place

Chalkboard Walls

I knew early on that one thing I really wanted for the “Rock ‘n Roll Basement” was chalkboard walls. We would allow the kids to draw on the walls and I could jot down chords and lyrics! I found a few inspiring images online of folks that mounted empty frames on chalkboard walls, inviting visitors to frame their masterpieces. I thought this was just brilliant – and decided I would copy them.

With such a large area to cover, commercial chalkboard paint, which I found available only in limited colors and quart-sized cans, would be both expensive and inconvenient. Thankfully there are numerous articles online discussing making your own chalkboard paint by mixing in non-sanded grout with standard flat latex paint. This worked just great – though it made for a fairly noxious odor, so be warned if you wish to do the same. The added benefit of making our own was the choice of color was virtually limitless. For the basement I chose a color called Starless Night – a very deep blue.

The kids insisted on helping prep the walls.

The kids insisted on helping prep the walls.

 

The kids enjoyed helping with this step - and with such a large are it was definitely an arm-saver.

The kids enjoyed helping with this step – and with such a large are it was definitely an arm-saver.

Priming the chalkboard walls with chalk

Priming the chalkboard walls with chalk

Taking it for a test spin

Taking it for a test spin

Wall complete.

Wall complete.

Next up…a special wainscotting

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Rock ‘n Roll Basement

Shortly after moving into our home in 2003, I began to dream of building a home theater in the basement. It would feature a frame and panel proscenium, wainscoting, and super cool reclining leather theater seats. Then we started having kids and priorities changed…dramatically.

A few years later a new plan emerged – it was going to be a super fun playroom with a slide, a treehouse, and even a boat. I managed to make some progress towards this new goal. Up until this point the basement was used solely for storage – it was finished (ugly but finished). Unfortunately, following the first step in the remodeling process, cleaning up the room, the kids discovered the basement space and almost immediately moved in. Mom and Dad too found it was great to have a space where the kids could run around out of sight and at least somewhat out of earshot for a bit during cold winter days. So this plan too was shelved…the basement would simply have to wait.

So here we are, or at least were in October 2014, when I was finishing up the LCA SG electric guitar and rehearsing with the company band for our holiday party. Over the summer we had inherited a drum kit from a cousin, and an electronic keyboard from Grandma. For years we had joked about starting a family band and the older two had already started music lessons. Now that the kids were a bit older, I figured it was time to re-make the basement.

The Plan

A view of the stage from the initial design

A view of the stage from the initial design

The finished part of the basement is basically “L”-shaped and can be considered as three separate parts. I would put a small stage for the band on one end, a sewing/craft room on the other, and a general living space that will someday feature a projector for watching movies and playing games in the middle. The whole thing was planned and drawn up in SketchUp.

Guitars hanging above media cabinet at bottom of stars

Guitars hanging above media cabinet at bottom of stars

Sewing and crafts area

Sewing and crafts area

Front projection video area

Front projection video area

Next up…chalkboard walls and setting the stage

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