Topic: Saniss builds a Viking music instrument.

I've been hinting lately at my current attempt to make a music instrument. While I originally wanted to describe the whole process when it's finished, I realized it had mostly to do with my fear of failing. I'll still go more "public" about it when it's done, but this place is a cozy little corner of the internet where there's no need to refrain from sharing stuff as it's being done. I should point out however that the process has been going on for months and will most probably take weeks to reach its end, depending on when I can work on it and how fast I go. This thread will therefore be updated on a chaotic basis and this first post will focus on presenting my project.

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Making a Tagelharpa

https://i.etsystatic.com/13844316/r/il/de73b3/1942603676/il_794xN.1942603676_rznn.jpg

a typical modern-day tagelharpa

What?

A tagelharpa is a very ancient nordic music instrument. I should immediately point out that the term Viking I used in the title was clickbaity: there's no such thing as Vikings as western culture wants to see it (warriors thirsty for blood, anyone?). The Viking term has more to do with an era (793-1066AD) where Norsemen set to explore Europe and settled in Greenland, Iceland, the British Isles, France, etc. Viking would then designate those explorers, who would in pragmatism be merchants, raiders, etc. They even converted to Christianism when they realized they would profit more from settling in France in peace with the kingdom (and so was born Normandy). Anyway, that's a grossly simplified explanation and I'm sure our local Norseman can elaborate.

The tagelharpa may have existed in the Viking Age, but its first recorded mention is in the Eddic poem Völuspá (10th century). It's a bowed lyre, usually ranging from 2 to 4 strings, played with a bow or sometimes plucked. It's very akin to other instruments you may find in certain regions: jouhikko in Finland, cwrth (god, that name.) in Wales. Its name probably comes from the word tagel, meaning horsehair, from which the strings are traditionally made.

https://www.rahvamuusika.ee/sisu/122_53s.jpg

a tagelharpa player in 1903

Though it was widely played in courts in medieval times, it has seen a recent return to popularity, mainly thanks to Norwegian musician Einar Selvik, creator of the music band Wardruna, which aims to use ancient instruments to create music deeply rooted in northern mythology and primal sounds. They have been featured heavily in the TV series Vikings.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/2c/Wardruna_%40_Roadburn_2015_01.jpg/440px-Wardruna_%40_Roadburn_2015_01.jpg

Einar Selvik with his tagelharpa

The tagelharpa is a drone instrument, meaning one string will always play the same root note while another, generally tuned to its fifth, will articulate around it. A third string will usually be the same as the root but an octave higher. This allows for deep, instinctive, contemplative music.


Why?

I have been a huge fan of Wardruna's work since I discovered them, and being at the same time in the process of following inspiration wherever it came from, in any form of art, it dawned upon me I could not only try to integrate that kind of music in how I express myself, I could also put meaning into the instrument itself by building it. I felt it could be something unique for me, and it would allow me to develop a kind of relationship with my instrument that wouldn't be possible otherwise.

This is also a way to expand my horizons. I'm still not quite comfortable with music I compose and I've let myself focus on instinctive improvisation a lot while I play the guitar. Inspiration doesn't come often when I sit in front of my computer... so I've been starting to use my instruments in places that inspire me (mountains. it's always mountains.) The tagelharpa being a fairly small instrument, I'm very eager to see what it can bring out of me in natural places.

Lastly, it's very solid from a practical point of view. The tagelharpa is an instrument that is easily feasable, unlike a classical guitar. I believe it's one of the best ways to get into instrument building, and I was interested in woodworking as a way to learn manual work and feel close to nature.

How?

I have started this project with absolutely zero woodworking experience. But I have read and watched a lot about it to get a closer idea of how I needed to approach, well, everything. I've had to buy tools, a small workbench... I'm fairly broke but I'm lucky to be surrounded by people who have resources they can lend me. A colleague of mine recently built a neat workshop at work, too, and I've been able to use it.

There are two ways to go with building a medieval instrument. One is to stay as close as possible to historical authenticity in the design and the methods employed to make it. The other is to go a more practical way, which involves incorporating modern elements (metallic tuning pegs, nylon strings, etc.); I decided to go somewhere in-between. I am not interested in being as accurate as possible historically. Why? Because I'm not looking to replicate (and neither is Einar Selvik). I'm looking to re-use what's been done in the past to create a personal expression. No one exactly knows how northern people played the tagelharpa in the 11th century. The sound I'm looking to make comes from that past, but the style will be mine and may not have anything to do with medieval music. I am, however, interested in making an instrument that feels natural, which is why everything will be made in wood and the strings will be horsehair (the latter also being due to looking for a more rustic, grittier sound than nylon would allow).

When?

I don't recall exactly when the idea first dawned on me. But a huge starting point was that one of the music composers for the show I've worked on in the past few years, built a tagelharpa when he had to compose music for an episode that focused on the Viking era. He built his in like 3 days, though, it was very rudimental. But that told me, hey, it's at least feasable.

I do recall though that my first Maya file for the design was saved in September 2018. It's come a long way since, but all in all, that idea has been in my brain for more than a year now.

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I will be talking about the design next but I gotta run. Hope you guys find some interest in it, but in any way, I owe it to you to share it here. The Fuck yeah, make stuff approach can go farther than Teague probably would have expected, and I know I partly owe it to this community to have found the courage to dive into this crazy project. If I had the ability to go back in time and tell myself from three years ago I would one day attempt to build a music instrument, I probably would have slapped myself in the face.

Last edited by Saniss (2019-09-26 10:49:13)

Sébastien Fraud
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Re: Saniss builds a Viking music instrument.

This is so badass! All of this draws me in! Can't wait for updates!

Witness me!

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Re: Saniss builds a Viking music instrument.

Stopped reading at the word "tagelharpa," went to YouTube, watched a tagelharpa being played.

"Yes, obviously, this is the best thing that has ever happened." — me, out loud, right then

['This' meaning: 'this project you're doing.']

Fuck yeah. Make that.

(And then slap a blueprint sketch of it onto a black shirt with white sketchlines, so I can wear that shit.)

This is so cool, dude. You can totally do it, too. I can see the whole thing unfolding. Thanks for sharing.

Teague Chrystie

I have a tendency to fix your typos.

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Re: Saniss builds a Viking music instrument.

So cool! Looking forward to updates

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Coming up with the design

I quickly came up with a basic design that drew inspiration from various tagelharpa I saw on the web. I did it in Maya straightaway to get a better idea of the volume:

https://i.imgur.com/XZKByCW.jpg

Most of the basic elements were there: body, hollow upper part for the left-hand playing, tail block so the instrument has a "foot" and somewhere to tie the cord used to hold the tailpiece around (not yet designed here). I immediately incorporated the idea of breaking the symmetry of the instrument with a curved upper edge of the body. I wasn't really satisfied with the bulkiness of the whole thing though, and the aspect of the head which had too much of a Thor's hammer/stereotypical Viking imagery to it.

Following the approach I described earlier, I didn't have much interest in keeping a typical design that was found everywhere else. I wanted it to be mine...

https://media1.tenor.com/images/e1f10e71ac22d64e10d0ad5ca1346ae1/tenor.gif?itemid=3937721

Yes, Will, thank you.


...and I was strongly encouraged in that direction by a homemade tagelharpa I found on the web. A Norwegian guy called Espen Winther, with strong experience in carpentry and Norse reenactement, built a tagelharpa with a very unique look. He made it bigger than the usual size because he wanted a deeper sound (tuning it in D). Here's him playing it:

I love what he did. It's a beautiful work of art and the deeper tuning sounds amazing. Espen also posted a lot of pictures of the work in progress, and even a few videos giving advice on some aspects of making a tagelharpa. These would follow me for months as I tried to understand how he went about making his instrument.

The curved, boat-like aspect of his instrument felt like a good answer to the bulkiness I didn't really like in my first design and most of the tagelharpa I've seen. I made some drawings mixing different designs for various parts of the instruments until I approached something that felt elegant. The final drawing I did that would establish the design I kept was the following one. I remember I did it on my phone while on a train (not an easy exercise. Autodesk's Sketchbook app is really great, though. Look it up.):

https://i.imgur.com/xZuFlfc.jpg

I was really satisfied. Some things were to refine but I had the main idea. The inspiration from Espen's design was there but I felt I had really made something that was my own. I kept the upper edge asymmetrical because I still liked it that way, but it can also serve in balancing the weight to sit better in the playing position. I also had the idea to shape the soundhole as the Raido rune. I'm not a metaphysical nor a superstitious person, but I've come to enjoy creating my own personal spirituality. The attraction I feel for the Raido rune started with Wardruna's song Raido, which is my favorite of all and reaches very deep into myself. It's one of the few songs in the world that could be described as... the sonic representation of my vision of nature. I'm not that knowledgeable in ancient runic alphabets but putting it in my instrument felt right. Sometimes, you gotta let go of your rational self, y'know? It's one of my main quests as a photographer and artist.

I also originally intended to put two soundholes at the bottom which I then shaped into what's known as shield knots, though it has more to do with Celtic symbolism than Norse (which are very much tied together). I proceeded to model all this in Maya:

https://i.imgur.com/JsO16vi.jpg

This process was the longest, as I tried lots of things to really refine my design. I believe I finished it around late May. Since the drawing, my design got basically an 80% scale horizontally, the two necks got thinner and I precisely modeled and put into place the various pieces that were missing. The only things I kept basic were the tuning pegs, which would have been too long to sculpt precisely in 3D. I only needed them to be there.

I finally did a quick texturing to get a more realistic idea of it, and had a bit of fun with it because why not.

https://i.imgur.com/qF4mMrS.jpg

the tuning pegs have gone on a trip to Belize on this one apparently

This design hasn't changed since, although I've decided to drop the two soundholes at the bottom for now as I was told one should be cautious about letting the sound escape the cavity too much. I was not very comfortable with the difficulty making it would represent anyway, and I rather like the simplicity and harmony without it. I'll see if the central hole is enough.

Last edited by Saniss (2019-09-26 18:38:49)

Sébastien Fraud
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Choosing the right wood

According to my design, I would need two pieces of wood a bit under 1 inch in thickness for the body, and two much thinner ones (.2 in) for the soundboard and the back + the front and back of the head.

Instrument-making is demanding when it comes to wood. You don't want knots, sap, marks, etc. I had several options to get the material: I could buy planks at the local DIY store, which would mean low or medium-quality wood not particularly tailored for instrument making, and not necessarily local. I could buy them from a special website, which would mean excellent quality but definitely not local.

Or I could try and find something around where I live. From the get-go I wanted an instrument that would have the smallest carbon imprint possible, in accordance both with the approach I had, and the way my girlfriend and I try to live. I wanted wood sourced as locally as possible. After some time, I found a small business that could get me pine wood from an area not too distant, and cut it the way I needed. For the body I initially wanted to go with chestnut wood because chestnut trees literally cover the local mountain range, but it's not the best-suited wood I could go with and they couldn't get some locally anyway. I settled on cherry wood from a more distant mountain range but still French. It's good luthery wood and gets a wonderful reddish hue when varnished.

https://i.imgur.com/SSLAV2r.jpg

For the small pieces (bridge, tailpiece, tuning pegs, etc.) I planned on using leftover wood from my planks. However, while at the wood store, I met a guy (the only other client there) who had experience in instrument making, and not only did he give me valuable advice, he also invited us over to get a coffee and I left his home with two hours worth of passionate discussion (he and his girlfriend work together as playwrights; he incorporates the instruments he makes into their projects), but also some blocks of ebony (not the actual ebony; an European variant, less difficult to get but still beautifully dark) and ash. Talk about serendipity. The ash will go to the bridge while I'll keep the ebony for the tailpiece and tuning pegs.

https://i.imgur.com/P3CzUGy.jpg

I also wanted local wood. So I went to the forest around my garden and found this, right there on the ground:

https://i.imgur.com/o3R2ERW.jpg

A branch of oak, nice and dry. A miracle. I originally wanted to cut the shield knots in it, but the branch would probably not have been wide enough anyway, so I'm keeping it for the bow. The branch has already the good curvature.

Going from looking for wood to actually having everything I needed took a couple of months, I believe. But everything fell into place in the end and I'm so grateful for the man I met at the wood store. There's added value to making a project like this that you never expect.

Last edited by Saniss (2019-09-29 12:57:31)

Sébastien Fraud
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Cutting

My 3D model allowed me to create templates directly. I printed them out in real size, stitched the different sheets together and proceeded to cut out the shapes with an utility knife...

https://i.imgur.com/npQfSnj.jpg

...which I then transferred to the wood.

https://i.imgur.com/nx0xKPg.jpg

I borrowed a jig saw and a drill at work and launched myself into the noisy part of the project.

https://i.imgur.com/zKkbtK8.jpg

https://i.imgur.com/deLeZ38.jpg

It's a rough cut, because 1/ it's hella difficult to be precise with these things and 2/ you need to keep extra material for the matching of the two parts of the body and the sanding.

Looks good, though. This is the point where it's starting to feel real. I'm actually doing this and not completely failing at it, for the moment.

The only problem I encountered was that one of the head top pieces split in two when I cut it. .2 inch is kinda thin and pine wood tends to split easily. I had to glue it back together. It's still resting for now, firmly held in place with medical tape.

https://i.imgur.com/TAXvEpS.jpg

Time to bring out the chisels and the gouges and the files!

First order of business - which I'd been looking for the most: carving out the rune soundhole. To do this, I first drilled out an opening along the interior of the rune with a Dremel and then widened it and detailed the angles with diamond files.

https://i.imgur.com/KhcLbgf.jpg

https://i.imgur.com/DcL2ynI.jpg

all done

Then I sculpted the curvature of the back of the body with a gouge:

https://i.imgur.com/2Gu1BOd.jpg

Ready to glue!

Sébastien Fraud
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Re: Saniss builds a Viking music instrument.

Ah. I missed this thread. Hell, yeah. This looks amazing.

The difficult second album Regan

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Re: Saniss builds a Viking music instrument.

Modeling it first is somethig I totally do.

The difficult second album Regan

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Re: Saniss builds a Viking music instrument.

Saniss, I finally got around to reading your work on this so far. This is fascinating! I totally get what you mean about that moment of, "This is real, this is happening now." I love that moment.

Can't wait to see updates as work continues!

Boter, formerly of TF.N as Boter and DarthArjuna. I like making movies and playing games, in one order or another.

Re: Saniss builds a Viking music instrument.

Thanks man smile Really appreciate the feedback. This is huge for me, and I just can't get the project out of my head. Progress is slow but steady, as I'm able to work on it almost every day at the moment, using the workshop at work during my lunch breaks. I still have quite a long way to go before I can hear my tagelharpa play its first note, but I feel closer to it everyday.

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Gluing the body

Having now a rough cut of the two parts of the body, it's time to glue.

https://i.imgur.com/HZ0xMWj.jpg

I first sanded the two surfaces to glue with a fine grain (and then carefully wiped the dust off them)...

https://i.imgur.com/8ZGEkLO.jpg

... and proceeded to apply glue. I went for the Titebond glue most of you are probably familiar with. It's not common in France but is regarded as the best glue for instrument-making, so I ordered some from their website.

https://i.imgur.com/gUA8tme.jpg

The trick is to have glue everywhere and as evenly as possible. So after pouring the glue, I used a brush to spread it out and make sure all the tiny gaps in the wood were filled.

https://i.imgur.com/ti2mVcY.jpg

Of course, the next step is to press the two surfaces together as strongly as possible while the glue sets and dries.

https://i.imgur.com/aePRQKx.jpg

I don't have C-clamps or anything like that, so I borrowed clamps from work. We normally use them for our green screen, but they're found at the DIY store. They are strong, though. I used I leftover bits of wood from the cutting to protect the surfaces of the body and fitted as many clamps as possible.

https://i.imgur.com/oRutU4a.jpg

I once read a joke that went "How many clamps does a woodworker need?" "One more than he's got."

I then wiped some excess glue that had squeezed out, and let the whole thing sit in the garage for 24 hours.

https://i.imgur.com/Fzshbb5.jpg

All done. Things are really taking shape now.

We're now roughly up to date. I've since these pictures been sanding the body to refine the shape, which is a tedious part of the process and also where some problems have started to appear. Nothing I haven't been able to get past, thankfully. I expect to be done tomorrow. Can't wait to write about it and move on to the next stage.

Sébastien Fraud
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Re: Saniss builds a Viking music instrument.

This is wonderful.  Please keep doing it.

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Re: Saniss builds a Viking music instrument.

I agree.

This is wonderful.

Please keep doing it.

Teague Chrystie

I have a tendency to fix your typos.

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Re: Saniss builds a Viking music instrument.

With all the passion of this luthier-ian venture; I've started one of my own. I'm building an electric guitar - The I Once Seen A Hedge guitar. A sort of Gibson SG rip-off but stained green (hedge-like), beaten up (relic-ed) and burnt with a blow torch ( to bring out the wood grain).

Last edited by Regan (2019-11-01 19:36:36)

The difficult second album Regan

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Re: Saniss builds a Viking music instrument.

Dude, that sounds badass. Share at will.

I'll try updating the thread soon. Personal life has been busy lately but I've made good progress on the instrument while simultaneously hitting a wall with the bow.

Sébastien Fraud
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Re: Saniss builds a Viking music instrument.

Probably make better progress with the bow if you stopped hitting it against a wall, that can't be good for it

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Re: Saniss builds a Viking music instrument.

Well I did say I'm making a Viking instrument. If it can't resist a simple wall, what good is it gonna be when raiding the west?

Sébastien Fraud
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I get this viking conquest reference.

The difficult second album Regan

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I don't. But I still endorse this project.

Re: Saniss builds a Viking music instrument.

Gut test.

(stretch those strings in first you oaf - or at least tune it)

Last edited by Regan (2019-11-22 16:10:12)

The difficult second album Regan

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Re: Saniss builds a Viking music instrument.

Mmmm. I also know what you're talking about. (Re: Arm of chair.)

I quite like the sound of that guitar.

Teague Chrystie

I have a tendency to fix your typos.

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Re: Saniss builds a Viking music instrument.

EDIT: yeah, Regan. Saw that fucker clean off.

*looks at last update*

Oh, um, yeah. So... tape rewind noise

https://i.imgur.com/84nRlyp.jpg

yas, gud work. pet me n keep goin

As I mentioned in my last post, refining the body created some problems. I used a wood rasp to easily remove mass, but when doing that in a perpendicular direction to the wood grain, some bits teared off. I had to fill the results gaps with a mix of glue and sawdust and file down the result.

https://i.imgur.com/JHYNIlo.jpg

I then spent some time working on my bow, but it turned out that the piece of wood I'd kept for it was too small and had defects, so I put it aside, and as of today I haven't decided if I want to try again or just find something else.

After I was happy with the semi-rough shape of the body, I went ahead and glued the top...

https://i.imgur.com/ljZlrFi.jpg

...and the two head plates.

https://i.imgur.com/tCShBc0.jpg

I drilled the three holes for the tuning pegs, which created some problems too: splinters, holes not round... Lots of filing and sanding involved.

The next stage was something I didn't necessarily have to do, but it could add a lot to the sound: a bass bar. This is something you find in violins: a piece of wood placed under the soundboard, roughly aligned with the low string, that helps propagate its vibrations in the whole instrument.

I didn't have a single piece of wood that matched the needed length so I glued several together. Not ideal but it should do.

https://i.imgur.com/5kPeED6.jpg

https://i.imgur.com/yYz8gFY.jpg

https://i.imgur.com/cSsF1OU.jpg

I sculpted it, then glued it inside the instrument and reduced its size again so it wouldn't produce the opposite effect and prevent the soundboard from vibrating.

https://i.imgur.com/LGgnlWc.jpg

https://i.imgur.com/TbzY0cf.jpg

https://i.imgur.com/JNAEFxC.jpg

Finally, I closed the instrument - there's no coming back now! I didn't have clamps wide enough so...

https://i.imgur.com/6HkAMtl.jpg

I mean, from a strictly scientific point of view, the anvil and the table are just one big-ass clamp. Right?

I cleaned the sides, but I'm leaving the top and bottom surfaces for the very end so I don't accidentally dent them. I intend to reduce their thickness and give them a bit of curvature.

https://i.imgur.com/Weo4tuz.jpg

I took the time to make measurements and be sure the instrument was correctly symmetrical and had a properly centered middle.

Roughly speaking, the body is finished. I'm now focusing on the small parts.

First I sculpted the tailpiece with the ebony. Looks gorgeous. A friend gave me a strip of waxed leather lace which I braided. It will hold the tailpiece in place, pulled from the opposite direction by the strings, and floating midair.

https://i.imgur.com/NQcJmoA.jpg

https://i.imgur.com/Yda9i3J.jpg

https://i.imgur.com/T0FRoef.jpg

Next I did the bridge.

https://i.imgur.com/aFqvXPt.jpg

https://i.imgur.com/aKNPxOz.jpg

I think it's too thick in its current state, so I'll probably get back to it.

I'm now making the tuning pegs. I had time to make one before the holidays, but I don't have a picture for it yet.

Basically, what's left to do is the two other tuning pegs, making strings from the horsehair I've received from ebay, refining the surfaces of the body and oiling everything, and making the bow. I'll also have to make a leather strap for the instrument.

I think I can safely say I'm closer to the end now than to the beginning. It feels great and I can already hear my tagelharpa slowly coming to life, as I hold it close to my ear and tap the soundboard. I can definitely hear its voice, though weak and untrained, kind of like a newborn. And when I hold it in my hand, it feels correctly balanced: the slanted design effectively shifts its center of mass to the high-string side, so the instrument naturally wants to be vertical. Good call.

I don't want to be too eager, but I believe I could be done by the end of January. I am beyond excitement.

https://i.imgur.com/j6jZJ1Y.jpg

Thanks for reading.

Last edited by Saniss (2019-12-23 21:28:37)

Sébastien Fraud
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I love every bit of this.

The difficult second album Regan

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Pegs are done.

https://i.imgur.com/NoljB20.jpg

https://i.imgur.com/IC2zDpA.jpg

https://i.imgur.com/09HNOYr.jpg

Right one is done; forgot to take a picture of the lot finished

I'm only slightly worried they're too smooth and will rotate freely, but the pressure from the strings should be enough to hold them. If not, it shouldn't be too difficult to fix.

Next task has been making a nut.

https://i.imgur.com/MbTZS5k.jpg

https://i.imgur.com/e6tV1Td.jpg

Pictured here is the nut glued but not sanded yet. Now it follows the inner curve of the head.

Current task is painstakingly perfecting everything through sanding. Sides are done, I've still got a bit of very fine work to do around the tail, and today I started refining the top and bottom plates.

If all goes well, I may be able to start tainting and varnishing next weekend.

Last edited by Saniss (2020-01-20 23:48:34)

Sébastien Fraud
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oh my god this is so cool

Dumb, minor comment: The finished peg looks great!

Teague Chrystie

I have a tendency to fix your typos.

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