Monday, June 28, 2010


There’s a definite overlap between the worlds of molecular biology and lutherie, and that has to do with tools—and no, it’s not that a luthier’s knives are sharp enough to reliably cut DNA. One of the frustrations of molecular biology is the amount of time required for tool building. Your observations give you a brilliant idea, but testing that idea requires a few things—you’ll probably need to build a couple of new plasmids, which takes a few days of cutting and pasting DNA; the result must be verified, which takes a couple more days; you need to modify a few bacterial cells or cell lines, which can take days or weeks; you may need to get some new hardware for testing, or new enzymes, or learn new techniques, or borrow them from another lab—and so on. It all adds up, so that it seems as if you spend less time doing science than you do building the tools to do it. There were times at the violin-building workshop when I felt the same way, as an afternoon of tool-building gave me an hour of woodwork.

The experienced luthier has a selection of tools that he or she knows well—in many cases, the luthier made the tools, shaping them to specific tasks. The tools are kept sharp, and experience and practice have made the luthier adept at sharpening them. A beginning luthier faces a double frustration. My beginner’s toolkit is in a constant state of flux since everyone swears a different set of tools is perfect. Myself, I spend a lot of time trying to accomplish a specific task and cycling through this gouge and that plane until I get the right thing; clearly, some selection must happen. Worse, new tools are never usable “out of the box.” Planes must have their soles flattened, and their blades shaped and ground; a new block plane took me an entire day to make ready for use. Gouges, which are bought with a straight edge, need to be rounded; if the tool is made of good hard steel, then this can take me most of a morning—and it will still require sharpening. And knives? We bought a bunch—but there’s a problem.

The frugal luthier doesn’t buy many knives. They may be made of dubious steel, and cost a lot, and have uncomfortable handles. I now know that the trick is to buy a Starrett “Red Stripe” brand power hacksaw blade for twenty bucks. (Before this class, I was serenely unaware of power hacksaws. They look like so:

And I can only imagine what a nightmare they are at work.) The blade is monstrous, almost two inches wide, a tenth of an inch thick, and twenty inches long. However, it is made through and through of top quality high-speed steel, as hard as you can get and capable of holding an edge for darn near ever. The big blade can be sliced up with a cutaway wheel into blanks for smaller blades—a noisy, time consuming process that produces so much iron dust that your snot turns black. Rather than cut all the way through, which takes the patience of Job, you cut halfway and then break the steel, which is hard but brittle--occasionally, as happened here, one of the blanks you hoped for snaps in half.

The blanks can be roughly shaped on a belt sander or high speed wheel (huge thanks to Jim!), but it’s necessary to guard against overheating the steel. So, the finer shaping that gives you a finished blade must be done on a low-speed wheel. The same hardness that makes this steel so good for a blade makes it very hard to shape, so it took me an entire afternoon of the constant rrrr-rrrrr-rrrrr-rrrrr-rrrrr of the hand wheel to produce a couple of blades. This gives you a lot of time to think--about how much I'd rather do the “real” work of violin-building, about how much worse the process would be if I lived in 17th century Cremona, about how annoying the minimalist music I was making must be for everybody else in the room. Eventually, though, you get a blade:

I still have to make the handle--another afternoon of toolbuilding!

As with most things, practice makes better. I should spend a bunch of time just sharpening all the tools we’ve bought, and "scary sharp" should become routine rather than a happy accident. But, just like lab work, if you want the exact right tool, you have to make it yourself. So, I have another Starrett blade awaiting my attention.

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