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Parts To Build A Washtub Bass

The Washtub Bass is a very simple, and yet very much-engineered instrument. Everyone has their pet theory about what makes the best Washtub Bass.

These opinions are mine, and of course I think they are best. Your mileage may vary! 

If you follow these instructions, you will have a fine-working Washtub Bass, though not necessarily the only good bass that can be built.

Total materials are:

1.) #3 washtub (24-inch mouth) from a hardware store.  The bottom of the tub will often have a numeral "3" embossed in the center. I got mine at True-Value Hardware for about $17, as I recall.

(See the notes below about types of tubs)  

2.) An Eyebolt, at least 5/16 or up to about 3/8" if desired. Cast ones are more expensive, get regular ones at Home Depot or ACE. Use one with the shortest shank you can get, probably a little over an inch long. You can also use a U-bolt, but that may create problems installing large reinforcing washers.

3.) A toilet plunger to use as a riser 

4.) 2 Locking extra nuts for Eyebolt, or extra nut and 2 lock washers.  Either get an appropriate lock washer for the bolt shank, or get nuts for it that have a nylon insert (also at ACE), so it will hold against vibrations without a lock washer.

3.) 2 Fender Washers, and maybe 2 cut washers also.  Fender washers should be the largest outside diameter you can find that is near the bolt-size on the inside hole.  One goes on the eyebolt shank inside the tub head, and the other goes on the shank outside of the tub head.  This will help prevent metal-fatigue from the eye-bolt being pulled by the string. If your inside diameter of the fender washer is too large, also get a couple of cut washers that will fit the bolt diameter better.

4.)  A Stick for a staff, at least 48" long. 

The ideal staff is, exactly, a Green Thumb brand,  60-inch "Eye" Hoe Handle,  1 3/4 Round Eye, Professional Quality, Model # 811-29.  True-Value Hardware carries them. (See Photo Below, under "notes"

5.) 6 Feet of Parachute Cord, 3/16" Cotton Clothesline Cord, or what-have-you.

6.) 1/8 Wire/Rope Clamp (for tying the string to the tub)clamps-1.jpg (43235 bytes)  Click photo to enlarge!  Clamps-3.GIF (37384 bytes)

7.) A Drill Bit suitable for drilling bolt-sized holes in washtub and staff, and a drill motor to use it in

8.) Two wrenches, of the proper size for tightening the hell out of nuts on the eyebolt.

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NOTES

TUB TYPES

There are two types of tubs, Hot-dipped and Pre-galvanized. In general, Hot-Dipped tubs are best, as they are much stronger. 

You can recognize a hot-dipped tub because they are shiny, and if you get the light coming in across it right, you will see a crystalline structure that hot-dipping process leaves all over the surface. 

Pre-galvanized tubs, such as you will find at The Home Depot & Wal-Mart are just smooth gray, and not as shiny. These tubs weigh less, and may even give a little better tone, but are much more fragile. They will dent, and even crush much easier. It can be hard to find one in good shape, even while it's still in the store.

Some people use a 36" tub. This size will carry more microphones & cords after a gig. The actual diameter of the tub makes some difference in tone, but mostly it's a volume difference. The string is all you are hearing. The tub is merely a speaker for it. To a small degree, the staff is too. A larger tub will be louder, but not necessarily have a deeper voice.

STRINGS 

I use Parachute Cord for the string, which I get at a local Army Surplus store (National Outdoors). Places that sell camping gear are likely to have it for well under a dollar/foot.

Traditionally, 5/16" cotton clothesline cord was used on basses, but the parachute cord flexes more (so you can get more notes) and lasts longer. It can be had in dark colors, but I prefer white, as that adds to the "Downhome, Homebuilt" appearance. (looks more like clothesline cord)

You can get something similar to parachute cord at Home Depot, and clothesline cord can be had at Home Depot or Wal-Mart. I recommend genuine parachute cord.

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I won't go into a lot of detail on Steel Cable Construction, as I don't recommend it and don't have first-hand experience at building one.  You're on your own, there. 

However, many  people use various steel cables (about 1/16th) for strings, but you get notes by flexing the string, and no steel cable will flex enough to give you as many notes as parachute cord, or clothesline cord either one. You can get Stainless Steel Aircraft Control Cable at ACE, or most hardware stores.

You can also get a little cinching rig that uses small U-bolts to cinch it into loops at the end, I understand that some people use a split tennis ball on the cable inside the tub, to help prevent rattle. 

Steel-cable rigs typically don't use eyebolts. Those folks just drill a hole in the tub, run the cable through it, then cinch it in a loop around a bolt or something too large to pull back through the hole. 

I think you can just use crimp-on cable stops on both ends of your string, probably available wherever the cable is sold.

Cable-string Fans claim that you get more sustain with a steel cable, and maybe they're right, but I get all the sustain I need with parachute cord. I want an Upright-Bass sound, not an Electric Bass sound. Upright basses don't have a whole lot of sustain.

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Please note that the Tub-O-Tone uses steel cable, but can play a full 3 octaves. Since the string is fretted against a fixed staff, note-changes are not dependent on string-flex or changes in string tension. It's a totally different concept from a traditional WTB.

Some people also use Weedeater Cord for strings. I never tried it, but mostly what I've seen on the Internet is people talking about how their basses sounded like crap when they tried Weedeater Cord for bass strings.

I've heard of people using a Bow String (Bow & Arrow) but I haven't heard any specifics. I would imagine that it would be a string for a compound bow, because you need at least 48", even if you attach to the staff with an eyebolt. I doubt if a bow string would have much more flex than a steel cable, but it might produce a more mellow sound. Personally, I wouldn't expect much from a bow string.

You can also use the "D" or "G" string from an actual acoustic bass as your string, but they are very expensive and like steel cable, won't flex enough to give you a very wide range of possible notes.

I met one guy who used a low "E" string from a piano, but mostly he was just a "Thumper".

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STAFF

The staff should be a large-diameter stick, about 5 feet long. I used a 60-inch "Eye" Hoe Handle one and three-quarter inches in diameter. It cost $15 at Beere True Value Hardware 12826 Nacogdoches Rd. in San Antonio. I would imagine that all True-Value Hardware stores carry them, and probably most hardware stores in general.

An Eye Hoe is a forged hoe, with am "Eye" at the top, where the handle fits through. The handle itself has no eye, holes drilled in it, or metal ferrule. The bottom end must be plain, flat wood.

Specifically, I used a Green Thumb brand, 60" Eye Hoe Handle, for a 1 3/4 inch Round Eye, Professional Quality, Model # 811-29 It's pictured to the right.  

       Eye Hoe            Eye Hoe  Handle  

There is no potential staff more perfect, in my book, than this one. 

It's a hardwood staff, with a nice-looking, nice-feeling taper out both at the top & bottom. Bottom has a big wide flat area to cut a groove in, to fit over the lip. (Don't cut the groove too deep. Too shallow is better than too deep). If the groove is cut too deep, the bottom of the staff will stand up on the head (tub bottom) when you play low notes. It should never touch the tub at all, except for the rim it's hinging on.

Some people buy a 1.5 inch diameter piece of dowel to use for a staff. Pine isn't as good as a hardwood, though.  If your potential staff is doesn't have pretty visible grain, it's probably pine. 

Maple, Ash, and Hickory all have very visible grain, and most high-quality handles are made from one of them. (Usually Ash)

Mop handles and broomsticks tend to be made of soft woods, usually Pine, and most are so small in diameter that they have too much flex.

I prefer a large-diameter staff, personally. It feels good in your hand (lacquered) and doesn't flex when you haul back on it for high notes.

Home Depot has a 60" wheelbarrow handle for $11 which should work well, also. It's 2x2, with a nice rounded handle at the top. I like to grip the top, though many WTB players prefer to grip the staff under the string, near the middle.

Get a toilet plunger from Wal-Mart or elsewhere, and throw away the handle. Use the rubber part as a riser, to hold the front of the tub off the floor. That will make it project more. With a large knife, cut notches in the top, for the rim of the tub to sit in.

Traditionally, building bricks or pieces of two-by-four have been used as risers (or "Tub Lifters") The plunger insures that you don't get any rattle from it, and adds a certain "ambiance" to the general appearance. <grin> 

                                         

If you use a brick, cover it with carpet, and it's not a bad idea for a 2x4 also.  You can use Goop or some other adhesive to stick the carpeting. The whole tub vibrates when played, and rattles sound bad.

Also, the plunger-riser will lift the tub higher than a 2x4, if you choose your plunger carefully, and that's good.

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When you play, stand on one foot, behind the tub. Place the other foot on the rim of the tub, towards the front, over the riser. To get different notes, haul back on the staff, putting more tension (or less) on the string. Your foot is necessary to hold the front of the tub down while you're yanking on the center with the string. You can also sit down and hold the tub with both feet, still on the rim.

If you're concerned about your volume, be SURE that your foot is resting on the top rim of the tub ONLY, and not on the head (which used to be the bottom). 

Some people are content to play VERY few notes on a WTB. 

That's acceptable, if it's all you want to do. You function more as a kick-drum than a bass when you do that, but it's pretty effective. 

People who use steel cables tend to do that, and as long as they get a good "thump" out of it, that's all they're looking for. Also, people who use steel cables usually play with a rawhide work glove on the plucking hand, because it's hard on fingers. I've never needed a glove with the parachute cord.

If you're playing with acoustic guitars only, and using a riser, with no microphone, you can be heard just fine for about 40 feet.

The WTB will sound very different on a carpeted floor than on a hard one. Some players carry a "Floor" with them. This is a 24"x36" piece of 5/8" plywood (Approx), covered with carpet, or not, depending on preference. 

A hard surface gives you more volume, but carpet gives a more mellow sound. I prefer carpet, especially since I mic the tub.