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So, You Want To Learn To Build Your Own Kantele:

A Book Review by Lani K. Thompson

(Note: This review was written back in 2004 and refers to an earlier version of the book. Mike now includes his plans for 5, 10, 11, 12, and 15 string kanteles on a CD rom, which you can order from his website. Also included are his designs for a piccolo kantele and an electric kantele template, information on playing, case making and more. You can also buy individual plans here.)

Name of Book: Construction Manual for the 5 String Kantele

Author: Michael J. King

The best kantele teacher is a player's own kantele. By studying his instrument intimately, a player can learn how and where to place his fingers; when and why he should pluck the strings a certain way; how he can create a desired sound. The more a player listens, the more he hears. I think it's this desire to understand one's instrument completely that causes so many players to eventually decide that it's not enough to learn how to play the kantele. They must build one, too. How better to understand your instrument then to shape its wood with your own hands?

So, I was pleased to hear that Michael King had written Construction Manual for the 5 String Kantele to accompany the 5 and 10 string kantele plans that he offers for sale. I had reached the point where I wanted to try making my own kantele -- and I didn't have a clue as to how to go about it!

Michael's book is extremely well organized. After a short introduction, he discusses the tools. I like the way he lists them all in one place. It makes it easy to see what's needed before getting started. I like the way he gives alternatives, too. For instance, he says that if you don't have any handplanes, you can use sandpaper and blocks or rasps/surforms but it's much dustier. It's nice having a choice!

He gives a list of power tools that will make your work easier, but states that the only one that's absolutely required is the bench drill. I really appreciated the helpful hint that a small 5-speed bench drill was fine and economical - and that while you can use a drill attachment, it will be less accurate. Michael seems to be aware that "hobbyists" might not have his professional woodworking shop setup and he looks for ways to make the project safe, easy and affordable.

There's a lot of useful information under "Wood Selection". Michael makes several recommendations based on what's locally available in different parts of the world. He discusses the kinds of woods he's used successfully, and gives a number of useful hints and tips about how to select the proper grain. He even has adaptations for those who need or want to use less desirable softer timbers to help insure that their instruments will turn out well.

The Construction Manual deals with three different methods of construction: making a kantele with a solid body, separate soundboard and tailpiece; making a hollowed out/dugout version; and an economical way of using smaller pieces of timber to construct a kantele with separate sides, tail and head blocks, soundboard and tailpiece.

The book has a lot of pictures to illustrate each step and you can clearly see exactly where to cut and drill.

One of the things I like about his book is that when he gives you a choice, he often explains the consequences of each choice and gives details as to how and why he does it a certain way himself. I noticed that several times he gives cautionary information. For instance, when drilling the zither pin holes, he warns you to drill a test hole first to check for fit. I wonder how many people would think to do that on their own?

By breaking the job up into different categories and discussing each one separately (drilling the zither pin holes, making and gluing the tailpiece, carving the head rebate, stringing, etc.) he makes the whole process seem manage-able and less intimidating.

Reading his book, I had the feeling that Michael was working with me and guiding me. He was the professional, but he was giving me room to create. His style of writing is conversational, yet knowledgeable. For instance, he writes:

"Before we glue the tailpiece on we need to sand the top and apply a sealing coat to protect it. I usually begin with 150grit and work all the way up to 320grit. If you are using a wood like oak or ash or hickory you may find 180grit is fine enough. Clamping the tailpiece in position, apply some sealant, (shellac ss) as before to the whole of the top surface. Do not get any under the Tailpiece for ease of gluing. You can now glue and clamp the tailpiece to the body. I tend to use 1 large G clamp in the centre and 2 Wolfcraft quickclamps on either side of the string bar."

Once I tried to change a string on my kantele without any luck. I just couldn't do it. The string got all twisted and wouldn't bend properly. The idea of having to do it again has always frightened me. However, after reading the section on "Stringing Up", I was left with the feeling that it wasn't an impossible job after all. Having a string winder helps, and Michael even tells you how to make your own low tech version of one. I liked the clear drawings he uses to show you exactly how to insert and wind the string.

Supplementary notes are included for those who want to make a ten string kantele.

The last few pages include advanced technique notes on string spacing, adding more strings, decoration, and instruments with backs. The last page lists suppliers in the UK, USA, and Australia.

I tried to find a "down side" to this book - to make my review more balanced, but I couldn't find one. After reading Construction Manual for the 5 String Kantele, I'm more than ready to start making my own!