Songs from scrap
Chico man repurposes junk into musical instruments
The large pile of plywood stacked dead center in Mike Menzie’s living room would seem terribly out of place in any other home, but it fits fine here. There’s something new to see with every step through the maze-like collection of rooms and alcoves occupying the top floor of a large Victorian home-turned-apartment-building he shares with his girlfriend, Jenica Swetzer.
A computer monitor is turned into a cat bed (“We call it kitty vision,” Menzie quipped), as is the top half of a vintage wicker chair hanging halfway up one wall. An old motorcycle gas tank, a mailbox and other metal items rusted to varying degrees sit on shelves resting against another.
In greatest abundance among the curios, tools and half-finished craft projects are musical instruments of all shapes, sizes, condition and origin: An ancient accordion tops a stack of wood and books here, a handmade dulcimer hangs above the cat bed there, and near the door is an 8-foot-long zither carved out of a single log, which Menzie explained is an antique Japanese Koto a man left here indefinitely because, he told Menzie, “I like what you do.”
What Menzie does is build functioning musical instruments out of found objects, scrap wood and irreparable existing instruments. He scours thrift stores, Craigslist and—literally—the side of the road for things other people see as junk but he sees as potential projects. In a rusty gas can, for instance, he sees the body of a cello.
Swetzer—a budding silversmith, rockhound and jewelry maker—shares his do-it-yourself sensibilities; a recent piece of her work is a silver ring made from melted-down, thrift-store spice shakers.
Swetzer was Menzie’s inspiration to start building three years ago. “She wanted to play upright bass and we couldn’t afford one,” he said. “I’ve always liked projects; just something to do with my hands, so I found a website where someone built a full four-string upright bass out of a washtub. I couldn’t find plans, but made my own design based on the pictures, and added and subtracted things to make it more my own.”
Menzie said the bass took three months and cost about $150 in parts, plus unforeseen expenses: “I broke my dad’s belt sander, hand drill and some other tools not knowing what I was doing,” he said. “It cost more to replace them than the materials.”
Still, even low-end, factory-made basses can cost more than a thousand dollars, and Menzie found building his own had other advantages: “I made a bass for her and thought, ‘Hey, that wasn’t so bad, I kind of enjoyed it.’” Furthermore, Menzie, who suffers from disabling anxiety, said he found the work therapeutic.
Next came an acoustic lap steel guitar, also made out of a washtub. Forming the necks for these first instruments was Menzie’s first attempts at woodworking. His third build was an electric lap steel requiring more elaborate carpentry.
To date, he’s built dozens of instruments—from tin-can banjos to hand-carved bowed psalteries—with current projects including a cigar-box fiddle and acoustic cell-phone speakers. He gifts and sells some of his projects, but prefers to barter: “I’d rather hand over a new instrument and say, ‘Now give me a few broken things to tear apart or fix,’” he said.
“I made the lap steels because I’ve always wanted to learn to play an instrument,” Menzie continued. “Instead, I got so distracted building them I still haven’t learned. But I can play half a song on about 10 different instruments, enough to know if something sounds good or bad so I can fix it, and that’s about it.”
Menzie said he now alternates between building instruments out of repurposed objects and wooden ones. Even those made with found objects usually include shaped necks and other hand-crafted wooden parts. “You want found parts to look old and cool, because they’re old ideas, but I like the crafted parts to look nice,” he said of his aesthetic.
Menzie fashions nuts and bridges out of bird bones he finds, cleans, dries and carves. Strings, tuning gear and other items are cannibalized from cast-off instruments. Some instruments can be plugged in, equipped with similarly-gleaned electronics or hand-wired piezo pickups. Drums donated by friends are dismantled and turned into more exotic instruments, like a plungy-sounding one-stringed contraption called an ektara, primarily used in Indian music.
“That thing took me about four hours to build,” he said of the ektara. Menzie uses it to show others how easy—and how interesting—homemade instruments can be. Though his homegrown luthiery is very much in the folk tradition, he likes to diverge from standard forms by experimenting with body shapes, building materials and techniques.
Menzie prefers making instruments lost to history or unfamiliar to American audiences, thoroughly researching each and retaining an astonishing amount of that knowledge. He knows a lot about Chinese guzhengs, Appalachian mountain dulcimers (“It’s the first American instrument, not the banjo, which is African,” begins one lengthy digression) and more esoteric instruments than many formally educated musicologists. Like his building skills, this knowledge is entirely self-taught.
Much of Menzie’s wood is leftover scrap from other projects. The living room woodpile will soon be outdoor planters, and he figures he’ll have enough extra for two or three instruments and dozens of small components. For new materials, he prefers Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore (220 Meyers St.) and favors using inexpensive, available and sustainable woods rather than commonly sought-after, rare materials.
“It doesn’t matter so much what kind of wood you use if you focus on the tone of each individual piece,” he said. “If you pay attention to how it’s been milled and cut, and do tap tests to test the tone, it’s not necessary to use fancy wood. People just use those woods because they’re pretty, or they think that’s what you have to use.”
Even worse, he said, some people seek unsustainable wood for the taboo factor. “The fact it’s rare and going extinct is why people want it. It’s all just nonsense.”
Though the impetus for Menzie’s craft was practicality rather than a concentrated effort to “go green,” the value of turning trash into treasured items is undeniable, as is Menzie’s driving ethic: “It’s important to not rape our resources and find renewable energy and everything, but it’s also important to know we can do things ourselves instead of supporting a system in which everyone just wants to sell us crap.”