Made By Hand

Written by Bill Leebens

As a late Boomer (as well as a late bloomer) I’m clearly a child of the industrial era. Perhaps because of that, I have an inordinate appreciation for those who can do things well with their hands—and little else.

Having worked around machine shops, I’ve tried my hand at operating a variety of mills, lathes, files. The results were not pretty. The machinists who tried to teach me, ultimately found me unteachable. I just didn’t have “the touch”, and my projects would end up as amorphous chunks of metal, accompanied by a pile of chips. While that may sound like an appetizer at a Mexican restaurant, the results were not at all appetizing.

My friend Jeff is the polar opposite. He once built a wooden fence around my back yard, all perfectly square and plumb,  just by eyeballing the job—all in the time it would’ve taken me to dig one post-hole and set the post. He can also pick up any musical instrument and play it well, whittle by hand with museum-quality results, adjust any machine within a thou or two. All by eye and ear.

I hate Jeff. —Not really, but his abilities confound me.

My father was a dentist who could carve perfect replicas of teeth, so the genetic ability should be there. And when I let myself, I can kinda sorta draw, though not as well as I’d like. What I lack is confidence and the 10,000 hours of practice Malcolm Gladwell claims is required to gain expertise. That’s 4-5 years working at something as though it were a full-time job. That’s a lot of damn hours.

When it comes to audio, I have yet to master the skill of producing a solder joint that actually conducts electricity. Massive dead-short bubbles of dull-looking solder are my specialty. As you can imagine, I’m thwarted by minor repairs, much less building a kit. I’m sure that if I could suppress my fears, I really could learn how to do this— but I’ve always been told that friends don’t let friends solder drunk. So it goes.

An extreme example of hand-made audio, admittedly with the assistance of some big-ass machines, is the work of the group at Wheel Fi. The guiding light at Wheel Fi is Jeffrey Jackson, known for his custom steampunk tube amps and horn speakers under the name Experience Music. Paired with transformer guru Dave Slagle of Intact Audio, Jackson has also done business jointly as EMIA (Experience Music plus Intact Audio).

The Wheel-Fi website has inexplicably vanished, but you can see their handiwork here.  The group builds massive conical horn loudspeakers out solid walnut, winding and building their own field-coil drivers, powered by wall-hanging vacuum tube amplifiers reminiscent of Western Electric theater units—complete with the violet glow of ancient mercury vapor rectifiers.  The aesthetic may not be to your taste, but the worksmanship, the wrangling of walnut and bronze, is impeccable. The video showing the Wheel-Fi design and construction process is beautifully done—a work of art itself.

In the video you’ll see every step from creation to execution, planing planks of solid walnut from whole trees, machining and patinating bronze for the loudspeaker throats. It’s immensely impressive, and sets a high-water mark for anyone who aspires to build their own.

That high standard of workmanship can be a little off-putting, like seeing someone who built a car from scratch in their garage—while you’re struggling to do an oil-change on your own.

Peter Ledermann working at the ‘scope. Think this isn’t stressful? Peter’s only 27!

Also off-putting is the handiwork of phono cartridge makers, like Peter Ledermann of SoundSmith. Can you imagine putting together tiny bits all day, working under a microscope? I can’t, but that’s what’s required to precisely assemble the miniature generators that are phono cartridges. Cartridges vary wildly in their type (moving coil, moving magnet, moving iron, strain-gauge, and so on) and also in their sonic characteristics; I’m amazed that the tiny things work, and in fact often work miraculously well.  I feel about the functionality of phono cartridges the way Dr. Johnson did about the dog walking on its hind legs: “you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Not terribly relevant, but who can resist?

Computers can be useful and versatile tools, but I’m saddened by the gradual disappearance of illustrations that are drawn, printed, or painted by hand. Computer graphics have come a long way in the last few decades, but they tend to have a certain uniformity. Magazines and websites tend to rely upon rapidly-cranked-out computer illos or photographs, and they lack the richness of the works of illustrators past…like Virgil Finlay’s detailed stipple and scratchboard works.

I shouldn't be surprised that computer art dominates the field: it can be produced almost anywhere, generally in less time and with less expense. Haven't we also seen ease of access and convenience trumping quality in audio, for the most part?

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