‘What Do You Do All Winter?”

“Winter solitude-
in a world of one colour
the sound of the wind.”
Matsuo Basho

How many times have we been asked “What do you do all winter?” When people visit us or even hear that we live on top of a mountain with few neighbors, the first thing they focus on is winter. Yes, they agree, it must be beautiful in the summer and fall, but day after day of snow in the winter? “Do you get plowed out?” “Aren’t you bored?” “I could never be content up there!”

Frankly, I sometimes think winter should last longer. Not that I love the season – the cold, or feeling shut-in, or scraping off the car and driving up and down the 3-mile road; but we do love the solitude.

There is a privacy about it which no other season gives you…. In spring, summer and fall people sort of have an open season on each other; only in the winter, in the country, can you have longer, quiet stretches when you can savor belonging to yourself.  ~Ruth Stout   

During my first 8-10 years out here I was busy writing and illustrating books; one for each of my ten grandchildren.  The Great Cavern of the Winds: Tales from Backbone Mountain was written and illustrated as the snow fell (and after). Other books, A Garden Full of Clouds; and a Christmas story, The Knight of Gnomes Knoll were written and illustrated for the family, plus Great-Nana Goes to Show and Tell, a sequel to Great-Nana Finds a Shoe, which I wrote years ago.

Yes, my winters have been full, mainly with writing and drawing. However, one year I wanted to take a break from those projects.  I wanted to try something new––something really different. I wanted to use wood and tools. I wanted to build something by hand all by myself.

A marimba! That’s what I wanted to build.

A MARIMBA! Why did I ever think of that? What vision came to me in the night that said “Build a marimba”? What little piece of my brain came up with such an idea? I hardly knew what one really looked like. Besides, I’m not a musician––I can’t even read music. All I thought was that I had to cut pieces of wood, each a different length and width, and lay them out in a row on some kind of stand. How easy could that be? Then I could teach myself how to play a few songs. Yes, a marimba it would be!

I rushed to the internet and found some plans on makeamarimba.com. It said “It is designed to be easy enough for the average person with minimal woodworking skills to build.” and “The marimba making project will take the average person about a week or three weekends worth of effort.” I could do this. I was sure that I was average and had minimal working skills. However, I thought I’d give myself a little longer – maybe take two to three weeks. Yes, this is it!

I bought the plans for a 3 octave marimba, and downloaded the 50 pages. I was ready to go!

Yes, even YOU can make this Exact Marimba in just a few days with these Easy Step By Step Instructions and Video Tutorial; — makeamarimba.com

Mark and I made a list of supplies. First, the right kind of hardwood for the bars–-not something one buys at the local lumber stores. We settled on shagbark hickory––and for the frame, cherry. We located a furniture maker who had a huge workshop. He went through stacks of wood to get us enough planks.One done. 35 to go.

One done. 35 to go.

A neighbor loaned us a belt sander and a small electric plane. We bought a band saw and a drill press. We measured, we cut, we planed, we sanded, and we tuned each bar by hollowing out its center, using a music tuner as a guide. We worked in the utility/laundry room––saw dust, wood chips and wood debris were everywhere. We cut PVC pipes––a resonator for each bar, tuned them using a precision audio oscillator, and sprayed them with gold paint.

We built the frame. More measuring, cutting, sawing, and painting. The resonators were riveted to two pairs of aluminum strips running the length of the keyboard, and then installed in the frame. We drilled holes through the edges of my perfectly tuned bars and strung them on two ropes across the top. When the ropes were tightened they lifted the bars off the frame. The marimba was finished.

We brought it up to the living room. With my new set of mallets I went up and down the bars. I picked out some tunes. The sound was (and still is) beautiful. The instrument was beautiful. It’s still in the living room––piece of art. I still get a thrill today just looking at it, although I still can’t play it, except for easy tune now and then.

Would I do this again? Are you kidding? Did you notice that I changed from “I” to “we” a few paragraphs ago. It was impossible to do it alone. I couldn’t manage the heavy hand tools, the big planks of wood, or the long pipes. The directions weren’t easy to follow.

Besides that, because the plans came from Australia, everything was in metric. Mark converted each number. Our products didn’t always match their sizes. When we bought the PVC water pipes for the resonators, our English measurements were slightly larger and therefore the cumulative length of the keyboard resulted in the overall dimension being too large; we substituted one smaller diameter pipe for the larger one––fortunately it worked. We made countless trips to town for supplies. Mark worked with me until the job was complete.

Did we do this in 2 or 3 weeks? Once again, are you kidding? We bought the wood on November 9, 2008. We began cutting the planks roughly to length on the 16th. Work was sporadic through the holiday season, but in late December we planed all the boards (from 1” thick to ¾”thick), and trimmed down the width of some––and vacuumed sawdust and chips endlessly.

I tuned the first bar on December 27th. The marimba was finished and in the living room on June 8th, 2009.

The winter project had oozed into late spring. Obviously we didn’t work all day everyday on this, but it was a huge project wrought with frustration over confusing directions, problems of sizes, substitutions, small working quarters, among many other things.

I, the “average person” with “minimal skills” couldn’t have done this in 2 or 3 or 10 weeks, if ever, and certainly not without help.

Am I glad we built the marimba? You bet! Am I glad we built it together? You bet! I love it. Someday I may even play more tunes on it, but right now it just makes me smile to see it in my living room.

“The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

And be warned, don’t ask “What do you do all winter?” You may not want to hear the whole story.

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I love your Marimba – it is a beautiful sounding instrument and a piece of art!

This blog is fabulous! Be sure to keep writing: your showing and telling is beautiful, both of you!

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