Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Makin' Whisky Part 2

Okay then! In Makin' Whisky Part 1 we learned a little about the theory behind producing distilled alcohol. In this installment we will get right down to it.
I'm assuming you have a still and know how to make it work. If not, and you want to, you can check out the websites I suggested in part 1.

First of all we have to make some mash. Since we are making corn whisky we will need the following ingredients and supplies.
One 4-5 gallon plastic bucket with a tight sealing lid.
One airlock. This can be purchased at a beer and wine making shop or you can run a piece of plastic tubing from a hole drilled in the bucket lid to a jar or bottle half filled with water - more on this later.
One candy or meat thermometer.
5 lbs of corn meal or dried, cracked corn or frozen corn.
1 lb of malted barley.
5 lbs of white sugar.
2 packages of baker's yeast.
4-5 gallons of water

Dump your corn into a large cooking pot and add enough water to cover. Heat to boiling. Remove from heat and wait until the temperature drops to about 150 degrees or so. Check it with your thermometer. Stir in the malted barley and all of the sugar. Stir it well. Let the mixture cool until it reached about 85-90 degrees. This takes longer than you might think. Hot corn seems to retain heat for a fair amount of time. If you don't have a store bought airlock and you want to make one this is a good time to do it. Punch or drill a hole in the lid of your bucket the same size as your plastic tubing. It should be a tight fit. You'll probably need a couple of feet of tubing, by the way. If the hole you made is a little big you can seal the tubing in the hole with a little silicone caulk. The tubing should stick in the lid no more than 1/2 inch or so. Have your bottle or jar at the ready.

Your mash should be at about the right temp now. Check it again with the thermometer. If it's between 85 and 90 degrees or so (a little cooler doesn't hurt, but no hotter!) stir in the yeast. Dump the mash into the bucket and add more 85 degree water until the level is about 2" under the bucket rim. Stir well.
Now, seal the lid and run the plastic tubing to the bottle or jar, which should be 1/2 or 3/4 full of water. Make sure the tubing is sticking in the water in the jar.
Keep the bucket in a warm room. 65-70 degrees is perfect. Warmer is okay but cooler will make for a longer fermentation time and, if you're like me, you want this stuff to be done as soon as possible.
After a few hours the mash will probably start to 'work'. The yeast will start eating the sugar in your mash and commence to piss alcohol and fart CO2 gas. It's by the farting that we know the stuff is working. The CO2 gas will come out of the tube and make the water bubble. If we didn't have an airlock the gas would build up in the bucket and pop the top off and possibly split the sides. That's one reason for using plastic for your fermenter. If you used glass for the fermenter and the CO2 built up with no release mechanism it would explode the glass with messy and possibly worse consequences. The other reason we use an airlock is because we don't want any nasty things in the air to get into the bucket. If any bacteria get into the bucket it will kill the yeast and we'll get vinegar (or worse) instead of alcohol. Remember, we are maintaining a controlled environment for the yeast here. We want fermentation, not rot.

By the second day the airlock or jar should be bubbling merrily along; the yeast orgy is really taking off now. Over the course of the next week the orgy will peak and then slowly die down, like any really cool party. If the bubbling stops after only a few days remove the lid and give the mash a good stir. Actually, it is a good idea to stir it every couple of days during the fermentation period. It can't hurt and it probably helps.
When you remove the lid you will smell the alcohol in the mix. It's kind of sour smelling. As a matter of fact, even without opening the lid you will begin to smell the fermentation process after a few days. Some people like the smell, some don't. To me it smells like sourdough bread rising. To my wife it smells like ass.
Either way the smell is your clue that you have alcohol in the bucket.

Let the mash work until the bubbling stops. Even if it has stopped I'd let it sit 7-9 days, depending on the ambient temperature in your fermenting room.
Your mash is now ready to be distilled. Some distillers like to strain the mash through cheese cloth or something similar into another bucket (with airlock) and let it sit a few more days. It will work a little more and get you a little more alcohol. It's not necessary, however. If you want to store the mash for a while before running it through your still (crazy talk!) you will need to strain it into another container. You don't want it sitting in the original fermenting bucket with all the yeast and corn. It could 'drop', which is an old moonshiner's term for turning to vinegar.
Anyway, strain your stuff into the still, light the fire underneath, turn on the cooling water and wait for a while. When the thermometer on your still reads about 160-165 degrees you should have a few drops coming from the output tube.
Put your collection vessel (a one-gallon glass jar works great) and start collecting. You'll have to adjust the flame under your still a little now and then to get it running just right. Too hot and steam comes out - bad! that steam is wasted alcohol wafting away through the air (it's flammable too) when it should be condensing in the still and coming out as whiskey. Too cold and you get a tiny little stream - maybe only drips.
Keep running until the temperature gets to about 200 degrees or so. You have probably sucked most of the alcohol out of the mash by now. You have also sucked out a bunch of other stuff that lives in the mash that is not especially good for you, but that's okay because your going to do the whole thing again. That's right, we have to run this stuff twice. The first time we run it we suck all the alcohol we can from the mash. The second time we run we keep just the good stuff - the 'middle cut' - that is the best whiskey you've ever drank in your life.
Ever see the original John Wayne version of the movie 'True Grit'? There is a scene where Rooster Cogburn (Wayne's character) offers young Mattie a nip from his jug. 'It's genuine double-rectified busthead, aged in a keg!', says Rooster. 'Double-rectified' - now that's what I'm talking about. Single rectified, where the mash is only run once is crap, pure and simple. Only degenerate alcoholics (or normal people in jail) would drink it.
The first run contains many nasty things that probably wouldn't kill you, but they surely will give you a hangover from hell and probably make you puke. The term 'rot-gut' originally meant cheap, single run liquor.

Okay, back to business..Dump the mash left in your still in a bucket and save it. Rinse your still out (you did shut off the flame, didn't you?) and pour the good stuff you collected back in the still.
Fire the still up again, turn on the cooling water and place a shot glass under the output tube. When the temperature on the still gets to around 150-160 degrees you will start getting a few drops. Then a small stream. Collect a shot glass full and set it aside for now. In the unlikely case that there is any bad, methyl alcohol in your stuff it will be in the first ounce (shot glass) that comes out. That's because methyl alcohol boils at a lower temp than good, ethyl alcohol. If you have a large still and are running more than 5 gallons collect more in the shot glass. This stuff is called 'the heads' by moonshiners and kept for later. There probably is no bad, methyl alcohol in it, but just in case...Replace the shot glass with your gallon jar and start collecting.
Adjust the flame under the still until you get a nice little stream coming out of the output tube. The still will start chuckling and humming - making little happy still noises. Experience will teach you when your still is happy and running nicely.
Keep an eye on your thermometer! It will hit around 170-175 or so and stay there for a while as the still strips the good whisky from the first run stuff. As more and more alcohol is stripped the temps will slowly rise. When the temperature hits around 180-185 replace the collecting jar with another jar and let the still keep going until it hits 200 degrees or so. You will probably have about 1/2 gallon of approximately 130-140 proof whisky in your gallon jar. Obviously this is way too strong to drink so you need to dilute it with water down to between 80 or 90 proof. To do this by taste (the old moonshiner's method) poor one cup of whisky into a jar or large glass and try adding about 1/4 cup of water. It your shine is still too strong tasting add water a little at a time until it tastes right. Be careful as you can easily get carried away with tasting. You want to stay reasonably straight while you are mixing your whisky. If 1/4 cup of water made your 1 cup of whisky taste right you need to dilute the rest in a 4-1 ratio - four parts of whisky to one part of water. If you needed 1/3 cup of water you will dilute your whisky to 3-1 ratio and so on.
They sell hydrometers at beer and wine making stores that will show you what the proof of your distillate is. It is a long glass tube marked with 'proof lines' that you place in your whisky jar. It will float in the whisky and you read the line on the tube that is closest to the surface of the whisky in the jar. If your undiluted whisky reads at 150 proof (75% alcohol content) and you want 100 proof finished product you would mix on a 3-1 ratio. The taste test method is more fun and it makes you feel all organic and shit. Like I said, it can also make you feel drunk, so take small taste sips, okay?
Oh yeah, that stuff you have left in the still and the stuff you collected after the second run is used in place of water to make your next batch of mash. This stuff is called 'sour mash' and it contains more good alcohol than you might think. By the way, you can make your next batch with the stuff left in your fermenting bucket. Just add the sour mash, another 5lbs of sugar and top it off with water. You really don't need to add more yeast as there is still lots left in your bucket. You can use the same corn/yeast/barley in your buckets for three batches. You just keep your sourmash and add it and more sugar to the buckets. After the third batch you should use new corn, barley, sugar and yeast. But use your sourmash to mix it with, adding water as necessary to top off the bucket. It's just like having a sour dough starter. You just keep using it.

Why did we stop collecting our drinking whisky at 180-185 degrees? Glad you asked! Above that temperature you start getting more by-products coming out of the still. Yeast cells, unfermented sugar, and chemicals called 'higher esters' that are present in the mash. They are also called 'fusil oils'. These things are good and bad. They are good because they are the things that add the flavor to the whisky. Bad because in any but very small amounts they are poisonous. They contain the elements that give you a hangover and, if there are too many, can kill you. DON'T EVER DRINK ANYTHING THAT COMES OUT OF THE STILL AT OVER 185 DEGREES! This is a simple safety precaution. If you never break this rule you will be fine.
Commercial distilleries collect to higher temps than home distillers and, frankly, that's why commercial booze gives you a hangover. The commercial distillers have super high-tech shit that analyzes the distillate and keeps it at just under the poisonous level. Home distillers don't have access to all that high-tech shit, so we have to play it safe.
That brings up another good point - home brewed alcohol that comes off the still at less than 185 degrees will not give you a hangover. It's amazing, but true.
With experience you learn what temperature yields the best tasting whisky. There's an old moonshine saying - 'You gotta know when to quit'. The old timers knew by taste, smell and gut feeling when to stop collecting. Don't get greedy. Hell, after dilution you're gonna have over a gallon of good old corn whisky. Pretty good return for you investment in ingredients and time, I'm thinkin'.

So anyway, that is the way one makes whisky. It takes the same amount of care that any kind of cooking takes and, like cooking food, the quality of your ingredients and the amount of time, care and skill yields the best results.
Now, once again - I'm not recommending this to anyone. It's illegal and it can be dangerous if you're not careful. You are producing a flammable liquid over the top of an open flame. If your still has any leaks stop the process - turn off the flame NOW and repair the leaks. You are also practicing chemistry and there can be some dangerous substances produced. As long as your fermentation went right and you stop collecting at less than 185 degrees it should be fine.
Of course if you stuck with this chapter to the end you're probably really interested in the subject and are probably smart enough not to kill yourself. This can be quite the hobby and you can really get into it if you wish. As I said in Part 1 there is a lot of info on the net about home distilling. I'd strongly advise anyone who wants to try it to study as much as possible first. Home distilling is legal in New Zealand and those crazy Kiwis have really come up with some cool stuff. Just Google 'home distilling' and start reading. You'll be amazed.
This has been a rather short and sweet explanation and there are lots of details to be explored. Again, I recommend further detailed study into this fascinating subject before diving in.

Here is a good rum recipe.

5lbs of brown sugar
4 cups of molasses
2 packs of yeast
4-5 gallons of water

Mix the brown sugar and molasses in a couple of gallons of 85-90 degree water. Do it right in your fermentation bucket. Fill the bucket to within 2" of the top with more water and stir in your yeast. Seal the bucket, hook up your air lock and let it work for 7-9 days. Run it twice. That's all there is to it. And guess what? You're gonna get more booze than the whisky recipe yields due to a higher sugar content. I just don't think rum tastes as good as whisky.
You can also make excellent rum with just molasses, water and yeast, but it takes a lot of molasses (which has about a 40% sugar content) so it is more expensive than using mostly brown sugar with enough molasses for the taste.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Makin' Whisky - Part 1

 First the obligatory disclaimer: Making distilled alcohol for drinking is a violation of federal law. If the revenuers find out you're makin' whisky your ass is grass. You can make wine and beer for your own consumption, but distilling liquor is a definite no-no. Boo on makin' whisky!
Far be it for me to encourage anyone to dabble in illegal activities. So I'm saying right now, don't do it if you are worried about getting busted.
 Having said that, making whisky (or rum or vodka or brandy or apple jack or any other distilled liquor) is a fine old American tradition. Since the laws concerning distilling are basically tax-based, rather than being morally-based, and knowing the standard view Americans hold about taxation, this activity is rather patriotic in my view. In the interest of helping others on the path to becoming an Accomplished Idler I'd thought I'd share a little what I learned about this fascinating subject. Not saying I've ever done any whisky makin' myself...

 Distilling liquor is really quite easy, in theory anyway. You mix up a 'mash' of some sort of sugar and water, mix it with yeast, let it ferment and then boil the alcohol off. That's basically it.
We have to discuss a little basic chemistry here, but if I can understand it pretty much anybody can, chemistry was definitely not my long suit in school. So, here we go.
I'm assuming we all are aware that water boils at 212 degrees f., okay?  Ethyl alcohol (the kind we drink) boils at 173 degrees f. If you heat up a pan of water and alcohol mixed together the alcohol is going to boil first, right? So the steam coming off the heated mixture will be mostly alcohol when it reaches 173 degrees.
If you could capture this steam and cool it off until it becomes liquid again you would have liquid alcohol, right? That's all a still does. The still captures the steam from the mix boiling within it and cools it off until it becomes liquid again and drips from the stills output. That is what distillation is - boiling liquid, capturing the steam and reducing the steam to liquid again.
Basically, all a still is is a sealed pot with a pipe coming out of it. If you filled the pot with water, sealed the lid and heated it to boiling (212 degrees) steam would come out of the pipe. I mean it has to go somewhere, right? Okay, if you ran the pipe through water, or packed it in ice, the steam coming through it would cool off enough to become liquid again and drip out the end of the pipe. What drips out the pipe is distilled water. Pretty easy, huh? Now if you filled your still with a mixture of ethyl alcohol and water and heated it up the alcohol would boil first (at 173 degrees) and the resultant steam would be alcohol. The alcohol steam runs through the (cooled) pipe and what drips out the end is distilled alcohol. As more and more of the alcohol is boiled off the temperature of the mixture would rise until all the alcohol is gone. By the time your mixture has reached 220 degrees you have boiled all the alcohol off and are now just boiling water.
That's all there is to the process of distillation. A still doesn't 'make' booze. All it does is separate the alcohol from the water in an alcohol/water mixture.
I'm not going to tell you how to build a still here. There is plenty of information on the Internet and in books about building and buying stills. Oh yeah, you can legally buy a still on the open market. It's not against the law to own a still, it's just against the law to make drinkable alcohol with one. You can buy a bong legally in a head shop and as long as you don't smoke any dope through it you haven't broken any laws. Same thing with a still.
Some people use a still to make essential oils and non-drinkable methyl alcohol for fuel. If you want to build a still just Google 'making a still' and you will be inundated with sites that describe in detail how to make a still. You might try There's a guy in Arkansas who builds and sells beautiful all-copper stills. You can find 'The Colonel' at Check his stills out, they are truly works of art.

Okay, now we know how a still works. So how do we get the alcohol/water mixture in the first place? Never fear, Rev George is here. We will now learn how to make a 'mash', the first step in makin' whisky.
Just a little more basic chemistry here. This part is really fun.
 If you pour some warm water into a bucket and stir in a bunch of sugar you have a bucket of sugar water (see how easy this is?) mix. If you add some yeast to the mixture the yeast, being a living organism, will start eating the sugar. Like all living things, as the yeast eat, so must they pass waste. The yeast eat the sugar and pass two different waste products - they fart carbon dioxide gas and pee ethyl alcohol. So, when we drink alcohol we are really drinking yeast pee. Something to think about, huh? Anyway, the yeast are swimming around in your bucket, happily eating sugar, farting CO2 and peeing alcohol. They are also reproducing. They are making more little yeasties that also eat sugar, fart and pee. There is a veritable yeast orgy going on in your bucket.
After a while the yeast eat all the sugar, starve to death and die. All parties must eventually end, after all.
Now what you have is a bucket full of water/alcohol mix, dead yeast and a few other byproducts. This mix is called a 'mash' by moonshiners or a 'wash' by commercial distillers. We're gonna call it a mash.
Now you strain the mash into your still, fire that dilly-doggy up and when the temperature of the mash in the still reaches around 170 degrees alcohol starts dripping out of the water cooled pipe. A smart person would probably put some kind of container under the end of the pipe to collect the alcohol. You keep collecting the alcohol until the mash in the still reaches a temperature of around 180-185 degrees. If the temperature gets higher than that you start boiling off some of the other byproducts, which moonshiners call 'fusil oils', that are unsafe to drink. You now have a container of distilled alcohol. Pretty simple, huh?
At this point you might be wondering how you know what the temperature of your mash is while it's being distilled. Well, most home-made stills and all commercial stills are equipped with a thermometer that shows the temperature of the mash during the boil.
You can see that a thermometer is a pretty important piece of equipment for the distiller. It's all about the temperature.

 The quality of the alcohol you have collected depends on several things. The kind of sugar you used to make your mash being the most important. Earlier I said you mix sugar and water. Sugar doesn't necessarily mean processed, white sugar you buy at the grocery store, though that would work. Sugar can be brown sugar, Karo syrup, molasses, honey or the sugars that occur naturally in grains, fruit and vegetables. Most booze is made from these naturally occurring sugars. Rum is made from sugarcane. Vodka is made from grain and, occasionally, potatoes. Scotch whisky is made from barley. American bourbon whisky is made from corn. 'Blended' whiskies like Black Velvet, Seagram's 7 and Crown Royal are made from a blend of grains and processed sugar. Tequila is made from agave cactus that grows in the Tequila region of Mexico.
 It would seem pretty obvious that using a product that contains more sugar is going to yield more alcohol. I mean sugarcane obviously contains more sugar than a damn potato. That's why sugar cane is sweet. It's easier to make rum from sugarcane than it is to make vodka from potatoes because you get more sugar from a pound of sugarcane than you do from a pound of potatoes. Duh.
All grains, fruits and vegetables contain, among myriad other substances, sugars and starches. This is important to the distiller. We need those sugars and starches to make our booze. We need to know how to utilize those ingredients to maximum efficiency. We want a lot of booze for all the hard work we have to do, after all.
 Were going to be making traditional American whisky from corn, so I'll use corn as an example of utilizing the available sugars and starches in grain to make alcohol. Here comes that chemistry thing again...
A kernel of corn contains sugar and starch. More starch than sugar. That's why corn is not all that sweet. 'Sweet corn' has more sugar than 'feed corn'. That's why it's called 'sweet corn'. Since corn doesn't have all that much sugar - as compared to sugarcane, for example - it's going to take more corn to make our whisky than it would take sugarcane if we were making rum. Why go to the bother? Why not just make rum and get it over with? Well, I like whisky more than rum. Also, corn is cheaper and more available than sugarcane. Sugarcane grows really well in the Caribbean and in Central America. That's why they make rum down there. Besides, this is my blog and we're going to make whisky, dammit.

There is a way to get more sugar from your average kernel of corn than occurs naturally. It's called malting, and that's what were going to talk about now. A corn kernel is just a seed. You plant a corn kernel, water it and it sprouts and grows into a corn plant. A wonderful feat of biology. When a seed of any kind sprouts it chemically turns the starches contained in it to sugar to feed the little plant while it's just starting to grow.
Think about that for a minute - If we could make the whole-kernel corn were going to be using for our whisky sprout, we would have a whole lot more sugar available to us than from the un-sprouted corn kernels we started with. This is way cool. It's pretty easy to make seeds sprout. If you put a bunch of whole-kernel corn into a bucket and get it wet it will sprout. Anyone who grows alfalfa sprouts in their garden for salads knows this. When the corn kernels in the bucket sprout, and the little green sprouts coming out of the kernels are about the same length as the kernels themselves, you take them out of the bucket, spread them in the sunshine and dry them. Cruelly, this kills the corn kernels, but what the hell, we have a bunch of sugar-filled corn kernels which will make fine whisky. Priorities must be maintained. We are Accomplished Idlers here...
Malt is nothing more than sprouted grains ground up into meal or powder. Malted milk contains malt to make it sweet. Why does it make the milk sweet? If you answered 'because it has a lot of sugar in it' you win the gold star.
There is a drawback here. It takes an awful lot of time and work to malt all that corn. You will spend a shit-load of time and effort malting enough corn to make a few gallons of whisky. Trust me on this. Fortunately many, many years ago some really smart (or at least inquisitive) people discovered a pretty cool bit of chemistry. It's called amylase, which is defined as an enzyme that reduces starches to dextrin (sugar). It's the substance in the sprouted seed that turns the starch to sugar.
Here's how it works. If you took say, five pounds of un-malted corn, ground it up a bit and cooked it in water until it turns to porridge and then mixed in about a pound of your malted corn (dried and ground up)
the amylase in the malted corn will turn the starch contained in the un-malted corn to sugar. This is a wonderful thing. The perfect definition of a 'gimme'. All you have to do is add malted corn to the un-malted corn in about a one-to-five ratio and you will end up with a lot more sugar.
The old-time moonshiners used to malt about a fifth of their corn and then stored it up for use in making mash. The longer you age your malt the better it gets, by the way.
Malted barley contains a lot more amylase and sugar than malted corn, and interestingly enough, it will turn the starches in corn to sugar as well. Amylase doesn't care if the grains are different, it still turns the available starch to sugar. You need a lot less barley malt than corn malt to turn the corn starch to sugar so most traditional moonshiners use barley malt instead of corn malt. By the way, the reason real 'malt whisky' is so expensive is because the distillers go the extra step of malting all of their grain instead of depending on amylase.

So, we now have cooked up a bunch of corn and added our malt to it. Now we pour that into another bucket, add yeast, seal it up and let the aforementioned yeast orgy commence. In a five gallon bucket it will take about a week for the yeast to eat all the sugar, piss out the alcohol and die. The the mash is strained into the still and distilled as described above. That is the process in a nut shell. In Makin' Whiskey Part 2 we will get into the real nuts and bolts of the operation.

As a reward for sticking around and wading through all that chemistry and distilling theory here are a few fun and interesting facts about moonshine and moonshining.

The 'Whisky Rebellion' in the newly born United States was a result of the George Washington administration's levying taxes on the corn whisky made by the people living west of the Appalachian mountains. Those people rightly figured it's one hell of a lot easier and cheaper to reduce their corn crops to whiskey and shipping it to the east than shipping bushels and bushels of corn. It took about a bushel of corn to make two gallons of whisky, so one fifty gallon barrel of whisky contained the equivalent of twenty five bushels of corn. You can fit a fifty gallon barrel on a mule a lot easier than twenty five bushel bags of corn.

You cannot go blind from drinking ethyl alcohol - either home made or commercially distilled. You can get way drunk and even die from drinking too much of it (not to mention going to jail, getting pregnant or getting your ass kicked ) but you won't go blind. You can go blind from drinking methyl alcohol, also called 'wood alcohol'. Unscrupilous moonshiners were (are?) known to now and then add methyl alcohol to their 'shine to increase the alcohol level cheaply. These low-life scumbags should be forced to drink their own vile concoction and then, if they live, have their blind asses horse-whipped.

New Zealand allows their folks to distill a certain amount of liquor for their own use. This wise outlook has resulted in some high tech stills that can really pump the juice out. The Kiwis have also developed high-yield 'super yeasts' that live longer, eat more sugar faster and piss out alcohol like your Uncle Vern after drinking a thirty of Keystone Light. Those super yeasts are also used in the distillation of alcohol used for fuel. And the booze made with them tastes like it, in my opinion.

The economy of the New England colonies before the American Revolution was based almost entirely on rum. Ships sailed from Boston to the Caribbean islands, bought cargoes of sugarcane and brought them back to Boston. The New England distillers made rum from the sugarcane and sold it back to the islanders and to the British. That's why there was a long-standing tradition of British ships serving rum to their crews.
"Old Mr. Boston" brand rum is still quite popular. Interestingly enough, the economy of the southern colonies was based almost entirely on tobacco. Who says those folks didn't have their priorities together back then?

Stay tuned for Makin' Whisky Part 2  




Sunday, March 6, 2011

Gourd Banjos

 The banjo is the original American instrument. It was brought to this country by African-American slaves. Although the instrument we know has African origins the concept of strings stretched over a drum with their vibrations transmitted via a bridge is pretty wide spread through out the world. China, Japan, India, Europe, Arabia - they all have an instrument that is basically a strung-up drum.
 The first American banjos were gourd banjos. A hide of some sort (house cat was considered the best) was stretched over a hollowed out gourd, a stick for a neck was inserted into the gourd and strings were run from the gourd up the neck and attached to tuning pegs at the head of the neck. The number of strings on the banjo varied from maker to maker, from one to five, with four stringers being the most common. The feature that made the banjo different from virtually all other stringed instruments was the inclusion of a short string running only about 1/2-way up the neck. On modern banjos this string is called the '5th string' but originally it was called 'the chanter'. The chanter is tuned higher than the other strings and is generally not stopped with the left hand while playing. It is struck with the right (picking) hand and produces a drone note along with the other strings that are stopped with the left hand (called the 'fretting hand') and adds much of the ringing chime so familiar in banjo music. We have no idea who first came up with the idea of the chanter string but he or she was a friggin' genius, I can tell you that.
 Gourd banjos have a distinctly different tone from that of modern day banjos.  The use of gut strings instead of the more modern metal strings and the body being a gourd instead of wood makes for a much subtler, mellow tone. Almost guitar-like. It wasn't until the wide-spread use of steel or bronze strings around the 1870s that banjos took on the twangy, nasal tone they are now famous (or notorious) for.

 I first became aware of gourd banjos in the late 1970s when I was in the middle of my get- back-to-the-land-lets-move-to-the-mountains-and-be-self-sufficient days. The Foxfire series of books were thought of as some sort of holy text to all rural hippies and one of them had a chapter on gourd banjos. I was living in a tipi in Moyie Springs, Idaho - not far from where I live now - at the time and playing music with a guy called Singing Turtle. Singing Turtle played guitar and mandolin and I was playing a cheap 5-string banjo I had picked up somewhere. We played lots of parties out in the woods and at a place called The Old Opera House that was a few miles away near the Montana line. The guy who ran the Opera House didn't pay us much but he gave us all the beer we could  drink and the audience gave us all the weed we could smoke. That was fine with us.
Anyway, one night a guy named Rosie came to one of the gigs and he had a gourd banjo he had built.  That was the first one I had seen, except in pictures, and when he handed it to me to play I discovered something: Gourd banjos don't have frets. They are a fretless instrument like a violin or cello. Frets are those little wires inlaid into the neck of stringed instruments that define where the notes are. On a fretless instrument you have to find where the notes are for yourself, without the aid of those little wires. I also discovered that I sucked at playing a fretless instrument. But, ineptitude aside, I loved the tone of the thing and decided I would have one one day.
 Fast-forward about twenty-five years. I wandered into the library in our little village one day and, lo and behold! - there in the shelf was the Foxfire book with the section on gourd banjos. I checked the book out, re-read the chapter on gourd banjos and decided I would build one.
First I had to find a gourd. A big gourd. North Idaho is not really gourd country. Gourds seem to like to grow in warm places. It ain't warm here. At least it ain't warm long enough to grow gourds. So I did what any real, back-to-the-land, self sufficient, lives-in-the-mountains-and-screw-the-real-world hippie type old guy would do: I got on my computer, fired up my slower than mollassas internet connection and Googled gourds for sale. Bingo! Lots and lots of gourds. Big gourds, small gourds, pretty gourds, ugly gourds. EBay had lots of them for sale so I sent off for my first gourd.
While waiting for the gourd to get here I had to come up with a piece of hardwood for the neck. North Idaho is not really hardwood country. There are a few birch trees, but mostly it's all softwoods - pine, fir, hemlock, spruce. The folks who had been living on the property next to ours had moved out recently (sometimes the homesteading thing just doiesn't work out) and left a whole lot of shit in the 'house' they had built out of lumber wraps. I went over there poking around and found the hardwood headboard from their bed. I had no idea what kind of wood it was but it was definitely hardwood. I found that out while sawing it into chunks of the right size for banjo necks. Notice I said 'necks', not 'neck'. Necks - plural. That's a thing about me. I decide to do something and I become overzealous about the idea. I wasn't going to make just one banjo. Oh hell no! I was gonna make a lot of them, sell them at flea markets, folk festivals and on EBay. Become a gourd banjo tycoon! Another way to make money without having to get a real job! More on that later...I also had to find a skin for the banjo head. As I stated earlier, house cat skins were considered the best banjo head material back in the old days. We didn't have a cat. Don't really care for cats. Raccoon skins make good banjo heads as well. North Idaho actually has raccoons. Not a lot of them, like North Carolina or Iowa, but a decent number. So, I take my self sufficient ass out hunting for a raccoon. Generally one doesn't hunt raccoons, one traps raccoons. I didn't have a trap but I had a gun. To make a long story short I couldn't find a raccoon so I ordered a goat-skin banjo head from a site on E Bay. 'This self sufficient thing is getting easier all the time', I was thinking, 'so long as you have E Bay.'
I set to work carving my first banjo neck using a draw knife, files, rasps, scrapers, sandpaper and all sorts of other tools that can cut you and generally make your hands hurt. I came to realize that people invented power tools for a reason. The reason being that they make carving banjo necks way easier. I didn't have any power carving tools and besides, I felt smugly organic carving my banjo neck with hand tools. I also ended up with smugly cut, aching hands. I've played stringed instruments most of my life and I know what a banjo neck looks like and my first neck came out looking pretty much like a banjo neck. Cool. I also made the tuning pegs - those thingies that the strings attach to at the head of the neck so you can tune the banjo - a bridge, tailpiece, nut; all the pieces I would need to assemble the banjo when my gourd and goat skin arrived.
One day I went to the post office and there was large box waiting for me there. It was from Texas. Good gourd country, Texas. There was also a little box from Illinois that contained my goat skin banjo head. Illinois is probably good goat country, but on opening the package I learned that my goat skin had originally come for Afghanistan. Great goat country, Afghanistan. They also grow great opium and terrorists. At least they grow two useful products.
At home I took the gourd out of the box. To those of you unfamiliar with gourds they are big ol' squash-looking things. They have a hard shell and, once you cut the top off, you find they are filled with lots and lots of seeds and some kind of membrane. The seeds and membrane must be scraped out to make the gourd useful as a banjo body. The seeds come out pretty easy but the membrane must be soaked with water to make it soft enough to scrape out. Filling the gourd with water softens the membrane. It also turns the membrane into a slimy, stinky, unspeakable goo that is really not too easy to scrape out of the gourd. After scraping out the filty slime you must let the gourd dry and then get out any left over membrane. The membrane, when dry, turns to dust when it is scraped out. Horrible, toxic dust that causes some pretty severe allergic reactions in some people. One of those people being my wife, Jeanne. She found this out while scraping the gourd, of course.
When the gourd was dry I cut holes to fit the neck into. It looked pretty cool, actually. Sort of like a musical instrument. Sort of. The next step was to stretch the goat hide over the hole resulting from cutting the top of the gourd off and gluing and tacking it in place. The skin must be soaked in cool water until it is pliable enough to stretch over the gourd. As it dries it becomes, well, tight as a drum. Or a banjo. I quickly surmised this was going to be a two-person operation. By this time Jeanne had pretty much stopped sneezing and the swelling had gone down considerably, so I figured she was up to the task.
I filled the kitchen sink with cool water and placed the goat skin into the water to soak. Soaking the skin also filled the kitchen with the smell of dead goat. Dead goats smell pretty bad, by the way. After about ten minutes of soaking I took the smelly goat skin out of the sink and we placed it over the gourd hole. We smeared glue around the the rim of the gourd and while Jeanne stretched the skin as tightly as she could I poked holes through the skin, the gourd (and Jeanne's hand once) with an awl and stuck tacks in the holes, fastening the head to the gourd. We put the gourd aside to dry overnight and the next day sure enough it was dry and very tightly stretched over the gourd.
I stuck the neck through the holes in the gourd, attached the tailpiece and ran a single nylon guitar string up to one of the tuning pegs and tightened it up. I plucked the string and a beautiful tone eminated from the banjo. I mounted the rest of the strings, tuned up and tried playing a few licks. Despite my lack of ability with fretless instruments it really did sound good. It took a while for the different parts of the banjo to 'settle in', as they call it - but after a couple of days it felt really solid and sounded great. I had done it. I spent the next few months learning how to play the thing. It really was easier than I thought it would be.
 Over the next couple of years I built more gourd banjos (and a couple of regular, wood bodied banjos) and decided the time had come to unleash my creations on an unsuspecting world. I took three of them to a local flea market and sold none. People really liked them, but the banjo players around here didn't really 'get it' and viewed them as some sort of pre-historic instrument that were a nice oddity but not a 'real' banjo.
I put some on E Bay and sold one to a rich guy in Maine. I also built one for blues legend Taj Mahal, but I have no idea if he plays it. I also traded a couple to friends for other instruments.
I ended up building ten gourd banjos and have ended up giving them to my friends. I still have one gourd left and a really nice piece of maple for a neck so I might make another one one of these days.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

An Accomplished Idler

Being an Accomplished Idler is a state of mind and a way of life. Becoming an AI is actually pretty simple. It requires two basic steps to get started.
Step 1 - Find activities that you enjoy - love! - so much you would do them for free and then get somebody to pay you to do them.
Step 2 - Be happy with what you do and with what you have. If you have accomplished Step 1 then the first part of Step 2 has been taken care of. See how easy it is?

 Look, I always figured that life is too short to spend it doing things I really don't want to do. Of course there are times when a guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do, but keeping those to a minimum has always been a priority. Working your butt off at some stupid job you detest because you are infested with some weird Puritan work ethic is, frankly, sheer laziness. And it shows a distinct lack of creativity. The Accomplished Idler is never lazy. And he is always creative. Making the most of the opportunities the gods present you is really what life is all about, isn't it? Some of the opportunities presented may seem like misfortunes, but, viewed the right way they are indeed opportunities. It's all in how you look at them. That's what the second part of Step 2 - being happy with what you have - is really all about.
 Here's an example of a misfortune turned into an opportunity by viewing it as such. I am a Disabled Veteran. I was pretty severely injured while in the military and over the years I have developed further complications related to the original injury. I was 'awarded' a small pension due to my disability. I also get free medical care from the Veterans Administration. And not just care related to my service-connected injury, but all of my medical care. Okay, so I had it coming to me - injured in the service of my country in time of war and all that - but that pension and medical care has allowed me to be able to spend more time on the things that really count (playing guitar, fly fishing, writing blogs) instead of having to spend time earning money for medical insurance, paying the mortgage, paying the power bill etc.
So, in a lot of ways my spinal fracture was a lucky break (pun intended). It's all in how you look at it. Hell, if I had broken my back while working some half-assed job I would probably still be fighting for Social Security Disability or Workman's Compensation. Or living on the street in a box.

Hopefully this blog will be an opportunity to turn something I love - writing - into a way of further supporting my AI lifestyle. We shall see.
I'll have a lot to say in the future. I hope you come back for more. I welcome comments, ideas and opinions. Shall we begin?