Build a real, 4-string upright bass using an upright washtub.NOTE: 27 additional photos (plus 17 photos of basses other people built) and a sound sample of this instrument are available. Click here for information.
This upright bass was my year 2000 Christmas-break project & turned out every bit as nicely as hoped. I always wanted to diddle with a string bass & this certainly fills the bill. It sounds & plays great. Much fun to play. I never played bass before and the instrument seems "more free" & less constrained than a lot of other instruments. String length is 40".Click HERE to see a short YouTube video of me playing a few instruments, including this oneClick here for a photo of this instrument (just before painting the soundboard and the "main support" black).Click here for construction details.Click here for photo of tub inside with soundboard removed.I don't claim that this idea is necessarily original -- elsewhere on the internet is a somewhat similar design utilizing an electric bass neck, but that page contains very few details of the instrument's construction. So far I have not seen any description of building a double bass using an upright washtub with a wooden soundboard. Concerning the fingerboard, the easiest way to go would be to buy a commercially made fingerboard, but that could be expensive. As an alternative, a smoothly curved fingerboard can certainly be carved out, or more simply, one where the two middle strings are on a flat surface & the two outer strings are also on flat surfaces could be made (see illustration). Perhaps this sounds unworkable, but most commercial bass fingerboards I've seen have just such a flat for the lowest string & that works fine. The obvious easiest way to create these two fingerboard angles (one for the E string & one for the G string) would be with a table-saw, but it's not hard to do by hand, resorting constantly to a good straight-edge. A straight, level surface can be assured by using a few sheets of sandpaper stapled to a very straight 3 1/2' length of 2x4 (By the way, this method also works fine for "straightening" warped necks on inexpensive guitars). The most important thing is that there not be any "dips" or high spots beneath the strings. LATER NOTE (a few years down the road): I've been experimenting with leaving the "fingerboard" top surface flat -- with very good results. The only somewhat difficult part of building my bass is making the "curve" or "angles" on the "fingerboard". Leaving it flat eliminates this chore and the difference in playability and feel when going from curved to flat playing surface is negligible. The only downside I see is that bowing the bass would not be possible with a flat "fingerboard". Of course the bridge has to be made flat as well. I made the neck the same overall thickness as in the original design. My hardwood of choice is rock (sugar aka hard) maple. It's like steel to work with, but is quite available at any cabinet shop etc & stays put. I removed 1/4" of the entire top surface of the top end of the neck (the part that the tuning gears are mounted to) (I changed it from 3/4" thick to 1/2" thick) to be able to mount the tuners properly (to allow for enough room to be able to wind the strings on the tuners). This also serves to allow the strings a better angle as they ride over the nut. This thing weighs 16 pounds & cost me a little over five dollars to make. I scrounged the tub (they sell for $16 at the local farm store). The soundboard plywood came from the side of an old A-frame doghouse that my dog never liked or used. The neck wood came from a discarded historic display at the fort I work at -- etc etc. Some words about strings (whew!!) Being extremely adverse to spending upwards of a hundred bucks for commercially made strings, I spent far more time diddling with strings than I did building the instrument itself. I lucked out & discovered .080", .095" & .105" monofilament weed-whip line for sale at the local Tru-Value hardware store! This stuff is Tru-Value brand name so it should be available widely. It proved to be excellent for the highest pitched three strings of the instrument (G, D and A). The thickest string (E) was another matter -- I could write many pages about my numerous experiments to make a good-sounding/playing E string -- Some of the experiments I tried included: - 24 strands of twisted artificial sinew (not loud enough) - Strands of twisted plastic covered small-gauge multi-colored telephone wire (nice loud sound, but rough on fingers) - 1/4" cotton rope (!) didn't sound too bad but again irritated fingers - Various lengths & thicknesses of hardware store nylon/poly rope - 6-conductor, gray vinyl-covered telephone interconnecting cable which actually sounded pretty good! - I epoxied 50 lengths of stretched, 15 lb monofilament fishline into a nice looking round "cable" -- sounded "thuddy"! - Tried silicone gluing together the same number of 15 lb fishlines & it sounded nice, but the silicone didn't stick good to the fishline & made a flaky mess - Etc etc I settled on "5/32 inch vinyl coated clothesline wire" (product #955) bought at K-Mart (saw the same stuff recently sold at Wal-Mart too). It has eight.012" hardened steel wires coated with smooth green, see-through vinyl. The sound and playability is much better than the next "runner up" & I am almost satisfied that I've found the elusive E string - almost! Oddly, there is no brand-name on the package other than the invitation to contact their website at http://www. lehighgroup.com. Experiments on this front continue. Double bass strings are tuned (from high to low): G- Pitch & octave matches the 14th white key from piano's left side D- Pitch & octave matches the 11th white key from piano's left side A- Pitch & octave matches the 8th white key from piano's left side E- Pitch & octave matches the 5th white key from piano's left side PS - I have had good results with the lower two strings by making wound strings myself. The process is quite easy.Click here for instructions.This instrument plays & sounds as good as I had hoped and I encourage anyone interested to build one! Later note concerning strings: My brother just bought me a $97 set of "Thomastik, superflexible, rope-core, all flatwound" bass strings (from Elderly Instruments). It's kinda hard to admit when you've been "beaten", but this I must admit here -- My weed-whip/clothesline strings certainly work and sound nice, but the Thomastiks are very noticeably better sounding - and with additional volume and sustain to boot! The downside is that they are stiffer than the weed-whip/clothesline strings, requiring more attention to action adjustment, lest one's fingers take a beating. So to sum this paragraph up, I likely won't be going back to the old strings, but still highly recommend their sound, and playability (and certainly their price) to anyone thinking of building this washtub bass. The accompanying .gif drawing should provide enough information and dimensions to build the thing. It's all really very straight-forward -- nothing much complicated or fussy. A few construction notes: - String width at nut is 1 1/4", at bridge it's 3 5/16". - Fingerboard width at nut is 1 1/2", at bottom end it's 3 5/8". - Distance from bottom end, center line of the surface of the fingerboard to top of soundboard is about 1 13/16". - String length is 40"*. - My "action" (distance from strings to fingerboard surface at board's bottom end) is about 3/8" - 1/2". This plays nicely with no buzzing. - The "main support" fits tightly through a carefully laid-out & chisel-cut rectangular hole cut in the side of the tub just below the rim. Install the "main support" so it's nearest surface is parallel to and 3/4" beneath the bottom of the soundboard. Cut the rectangular hole on only three sides & bend the uncut side 90 degrees to act as a strengthening flange. Install screws through this flange into the "main support". I fit a small wooden block snugly into the 3/4" space between the "main support" & the soundboard bottom --- this lessens the chance of the string/bridge pressure crumpling the metal. However, the nice thing about using this through-the-body "main support" scheme is that there is virtually no strain or pressure on the tub itself. What little pressure there is is exerted downwards onto the soundboard by the strings/bridge & is scarcely "seen" by the tub. - For sound-holes I used twelve 3/4" holes arranged as in the illustration & one larger 1 3/4" hole in dead center. LATER NOTE: I turned these twelve sound-holes into four irregular shaped, round-"pointed" triangular-shaped holes by making 16 straight saw cuts (see illustrations above). This noticeably increases the overall volume of the bass. - To secure the bottom end of the "main support", install two screws & a slightly pried-open large screw-eye (that strings connect to) through the metal and into the bottom end of the "main support". I happened to have bass tuners, but I see Elderly Instruments in Lansing, Michigan sells "Fender type" electric bass tuners (4 in a row) for around $16. If I didn't already have tuners, this is the route I'd go (it's easy to saw "ganged" tuners into individual tuners). Also, a friend who built one of these instruments bought nice Grover bass tuners from Elderly for around $60 a set. LATER NOTE (JUNE, 2002) Due to my experimenting with an extremely simple "learning bass" I call the "Doodle-Bass", it has become obvious that so long as you are using weed-whip strings for this washtub, regular, guitar tuning gears work fine -- you won't have to buy sometimes expensive bass tuning gears. You'll have to enlarge the string holes in the posts for the thicker strings.
Click here for information on building this "Doodle-Bass".A friend also reported good luck forming the fingerboard flats using Stanley rasps to rough them in, followed by passes with a belt sander. He then finished the flats using a length of straight aluminum angle iron (a very straight, stiff length of wood should work as well) with a disassembled sanding belt glued to it using 3M spray-on adhesive. ................................................................ Remove the handles on the washtub lest they vibrate mercilessly. ................................................................ Dennis Havlena - W8MI The 8th of January, 2001 northern Michigan email@example.com
Click here for information on building Bill Koch's oblong-tub version of my design.
Click here to return to my webpage * A few words about string length. I settled on a 40" string length largely because that is what's played most in this part of the Great Lakes. I've been trying to pin down what might be considered a "standard" string length, but have become very convinced that no such standard exists. Information from countless sources shows no general consensus -- with string lengths varying from 39-1/2" to 42"! In any event, this instrument can easily accommodate whatever string length you desire -- just slide the bridge forward or back.