STRUMMIN' ON THE OLD WASHTUB CELLO by Ellen Kahaner
Updated: Mar 22, 2019
Could a metal washtub do more than hold wet laundry?
Imagine a gourd the size of a bowling ball or an old metal washtub – the sort meant for scrubbing laundry against a washboard. Could these utilitarian objects be a source of music to your ears? South Orange resident Jeremy Osner thinks so. He’s on a quest to repurpose unusual materials into warm-sounding stringed instruments, a journey that began last summer.
Back in June, at the start of a weeklong instrument-making workshop in Long Branch, luthier Jeff Menzies from Kingston, Jamaica, handed him a large gourd. For most people, the hollow pear-shaped vegetable might not have conjured up the vision of a musical instrument. But musical exploration runs deep in Osner’s family: his mother is a Suzuki flute teacher, his father photographs musicians, both sisters attended conservatory, and his brother is a musicologist.
Osner himself, a software engineer by day at Audible, has a passion for diving deep into the mysteries of music by learning to play unusual string instruments. You may have even caught him around town plucking the sitar at Porchfest in Maplewood, playing his Stroh violin at a Hat City open mic, or thrumming the dilruba (a 300-year-old Asian string instrument) at a South Orange house concert.
A special request from Osner’s musically-inclined daughter gave him the impetus to create an unusual instrument, just like the ones he enjoys playing. For her 2018 graduation gift from Columbia High School: a banjolele (short strings like a ukulele, shape like a banjo). Over the course of five days, he carved the pear-shaped hollow gourd, stretched and mounted a goatskin on its face, and cut and sanded a cherry wood neck, all under Menzies’ guidance. The result: a unique hybrid of two folk instruments from half a world apart.
Success sparked a desire to devise another funky instrument, and two months later, Osner, who has always been curious about the cello but has never played one, started doodling cellos with super-sized gourd bodies. “I remembered seeing a four string washtub bass with a bridge, and it occurred to me that a washtub is similar to a gourd and that the bottom of the washtub might work as a soundboard for a cello,” he says. (In a stringed instrument, the vibration of the strings is transferred by way of the bridge – the piece of wood that holds the strings above the soundboard – to the soundboard itself, which then vibrates, adding volume and resonance.)
Perhaps the steel base of the washtub, Osner mused, could receive the vibration of the strings and amplify them just like the goatskin on the banjolele. Is there life after laundry for the pedestrian metal washtub?
Research and design took two months. Osner filled sketchbooks with drawings, puzzling out what kind of modifications he would need to implement a washtub body. Unlike the rigid wooden body of a cello, his washtub would not be able to withstand the powerful tension of the strings without caving in. And Osner realized that the neck of the instrument, which on a regular cello extends upwards from the top of the body, needed to go all the way through the tub and be reinforced by bracing inside the tub.
Then he had to find a source for the wooden parts, called blanks, since they had to be shaped to the specific instrument. The fingerboard provided the hard surface for the strings. “Would anyone be able to recommend a good source for a 4/4 fingerboard?” Osner asked on a message board for luthiers. He began an email correspondence with Vermont luthier Alan Goldblatt, who explained the numerous steps for shaping the fingerboard.
In the end, Osner decided to use the fingerboard from a broken cello, which he bought for a dollar from Menzel’s Violins in Livingston. In continued correspondence, Goldblatt coached him on how to make a wedge tool to remove the fingerboard, by grinding an edge onto a butter knife.
But it is the time-tested process of trial and error that counts most when it comes to turning the parts into a whole working instrument. And Osner had his share of catastrophes.
The beauty spot of a traditional cello is its scroll, the delicately carved end piece at the top of the neck that contains the pegbox where the tuning pegs are housed. Osner spent weeks carving and sanding his design for a simplified scroll, with a plan to wind the strings on the outside of the headstock, in order to avoid the complicated task of carving out a pegbox. And then, disaster struck. He accidentally knocked the scroll off his work bench to the concrete floor of his basement workspace, and it cracked. Merely gluing it back together wouldn’t produce a scroll strong enough to withstand drilling and tapering for the peg holes. He had to glue strips of wood on the outside of the scroll to reinforce the damaged wood. Finally, after two months of cutting, carving and sanding, the parts were ready to be assembled.
On a recent cold winter afternoon, a friend of the family, Alessandra Hill, a senior at Columbia High School and a member of the Virtuosi Ensemble, tried out the washtub cello. She managed to adapt her traditional hand positions to get the deeper, warmer tones this cello produces. Take a listen here.
“It was great to hear it played by a skillful musician,” Osner says, proudly displaying his instrument. Will the total immersion of building an instrument make learning how to play it any easier? He has just started taking cello lessons, so only time will tell. Meanwhile, Osner has started a to-do list for future luthier projects: a four-stringed viola da gamba with a bronze wok soundboard, an erhu with a coffee can resonator, and a soprano violin with a cookie-tin resonator.
Anyone want to start a metal ensemble?
Ellen Kahaner coaches Elizabeth public school teachers in the art of teaching reading and teaches adult literacy for the SEIU Education Fund by day, and reads and writes to the beat of a different drum by night.