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Feb 13 / KL Pontz

How to Build a Washtub Bass


WHY

First: Why not? If you clicked your way here, you probably feel the same way as me, but, if you need more convincing…

The stand-up bass is an easy and affordable way to add variety to the music you are playing, especially if you play unamplified. You don’t have to invest in an expensive stand-up bass or an electric bass and amp. Also, the simplicity of one string is perfect for people who don’t play an instrument but want to participate in the music making. I never played bass before making my washtub bass, but I have already been able to figure out some simple and sweet bass lines.

For me in particular, a combination of forces brought me to the stage of life in which I needed to build a washtub bass. For one, I live with a group of stellar dudes, some of whom play music, and over the past year, we’ve slowly broaden our instrument horizon. Doug decided to learn the mandolin even though he has never played an instrument (he is rocking it because he is a STUD!), and JR, who is already awesome on the guitar, started to learn the banjo. So, with everyone trying something new, and with other housemates and people around who could participate in the music if they had an easy instrument to play, I figured, why not make a washtub bass.

Also, I needed a project. I had an itch to build and create something. And why not build something for making music. That seemed like the best of every world, and it was: Planning, making measurements, solving problems, revising expectations, constructing, whittling wood, drilling holes in metal, walking to the hardware store, and being outside while doing it all! Sure! That sounds like a perfect project!

 

WHAT

A plethora of washtub styles exists, and you’ll have to decide which one will best suit your purpose. Perhaps you are looking for something eccentric and awesome like a bucket bass or perhaps a bass suited for the office. In addition to your purpose, consider the complexity in constructing the bass. Some will be easier than others. The washtub I made lies somewhere in the middle of difficulty. Adding a bass tuning key to the garden tool stick adds a level complexity in constructing, but the pay off is great when you start playing the bass. The ability to tune the instrument is very useful. No guessing at notes. No playing with people out of tune. And, with the bass tuned, you can mark frets for notes on your garden stick!

For this bass, I was inspired by Mary, a woman that I met at PSGW. I remember being struck by her design and how ease it was to play. I had never seen a washtub designed this way, and I knew at once that if I made a washtub bass it would be this washtub bass. So, from my memory and Mary’s Blog, I was able to recreate the bass.

 

HOW

The majority of this post covers the how of the project. There is a list of tools and items that you will need for building the bass. Start with the list and visit your favorite hardware store, music store, or Internet store to collect all the parts. I probably went to a couple music stores and even more hardware stores to collect all my ingredients.

Once you have all of your ingredients together, you are ready to build the bass. You will find step-by-step instructions (with pictures) of the entire process in this post. I recommend reading through all the steps before you actually cut or drill anything; you will save time and energy if you know where you are headed in this project. It’s perfect light reading while you wait for ingredients to be amassed.

Lastly, If you have any trouble following the instructions, please leave a comment so I can revise the instructions. I want this guide to be as easy as possible for people to follow.

 
 

TOOLS

  1. ratchet & socket set
  2. drill
  3. 1” drill bit (for hole in 2” x 6”)
  4. metal drill bit (for hole in tub)
  5. drill bit (for hole in tool stick)
  6. 1” chisel
  7. hammer
  8. clamps
  9. razor knife
  10. saw (hand or electric)
  11. any type of string
  12. tools for tuning key
  13. measuring tape
  14. pencil
  15. protective eye wear

 
 

INGREDIENTS

  1. a 15 gallon galvanized steel tub
  2. a 1 1/8th” wooden garden tool stick
  3. 4 2” L-shaped brackets (8 wood screws if not included with brackets)
  4. 2” x 6” piece of wood (about 25” in length)
  5. small wooden shims
  6. rubber door stop
  7. rubber plug
  8. 8 hex bolts + 8 nuts
  9. 16 metal washers (diameter must cover rubber o-rings when cinched down)
  10. 16 rubber o-rings (for hex bolts)
  11. 4 rubber o-rings (as a spacer between L-bracket and washtub)
  12. 1 rubber grommet (for the hole in the washtub)
  13. bass tuning key (find one with a narrow plate for attaching to the garden tool stick)
  14. bass string (I used a D string)
  15. hose clamp

Ingredients: Comments & Tips

The Hipshot HB2 Bass Tuning Machine, which I purchased on Amazon, has a backplate that is wider than the diameter of the wooden garden tool stick. As such, I had to jimmy-rig the tuning key to the garden tool stick. Looking on Amazon now, I can see a couple of tuning keys with a narrower back plate, which would work much better. Also, the rubber plug shown here could easily be replaced with a small rubber ball or rubber stopper. Just check that whatever you use sits comfortably in the cup of the door stop (turn over the door stop to see the cup).

 
 

These are the different rubber o-rings and washers I used. The three small o-rings (bottom right) were used as spacers between the shims and the washtub. The large-diameter o-rings above them were not used; they were too big. I recommend using 16 of the o-rings in the top row (1/2” in diameter & about 1/8” thick). The rubber washers on the bottom left were used with the bass string and door stop. They are flat on one side and tapered on the other.

 
 

If you enjoy counting, you will notice that this picture does not have all the hex bolts & nuts needed for the project, and there are far too many wood screws–eight too many if you are still counting. Due to poor planning on my part, two types of washers were used on the finished washtub. The first set of washers I bought did not have a sufficient diameter to cover the rubber o-rings when cinched down to the L-bracket. So, back I went to the hardware store to get washers with a wider diameter. I used the original washers as well because the head of the hex bolt was too small compared to the bigger washers.

 
 

“FIVE” STEPS TO WASHTUB BASS HEAVEN

I. Preparing The Tub

II. Attaching the 4”x6” to the Tub

III. Drilling a Hole in the 4”x6”

IV. Installing the Tuner

V. Plug the String & Put it All Together

 
 

I. Preparing The Tub

This first step is nice ‘n easy. We’ll prepare the tub by drilling a hole for the string.


I.1 Remove Handles

If you have all your ingredients and tools close by, let’s begin with the tub. The first step is to remove the handles. I found that these rattled when left on the finished bass, so I pulled them off. Originally, I tired cutting them off, which was a lot of effort for little return. After wresting with one handle, I discovered that I could stretch out the handle and pull it out of the holes that hold it in place. I used a broom stick to stretch the handles by moving the stick back and forth while lodged in the handle at an angle.

I.2 Drill Hole for String

To locate the center of the bass, first find the total diameter of the bottom of the tub. My 15 gallon tub has a diameter of 19 inches. Use the measuring tape to find this length. Hold the measuring tape against the rim of the base of the tub, and with the other side of the measuring tape, move along the rim of the tub’s circumference until you find the greatest distance. That number is your diameter. Divide the diameter in half and you will locate the center point on the tub.

So, half of 19 is 9.5, so I put a mark on the tub at 9.5 inches. To ensure that I was accurate with my placement, I took another measurement 90 degrees from the first, and marked 9.5 inches again. Now you have an “X” to mark your drill spot. You can vaguely see my pencil marks in the picture bellow.

I.3 Install the Rubber Gasket

I was worried that the bass string would rub up against the metal hole, get cut, and break. So, I added a rubber gasket to the hole to protect the string.

I had to widen my hole to fit the larger gasket that I purchased. I didn’t have a larger metal drill bit, so I just used the drill bit to work around the hole and widen it until the rubber gasket fit. But now after playing the bass for a week, I am starting to see this gasket pull out from the tension in the string. I might need to get a larger gasket to fit the hole.

 
 

II. Attaching the 4”x6” to the Tub

A step up in difficulty: we’ll attach the L-brackets to the tub in order to attach the plank of wood. BTW, you’re doing a great job.

II.1 Size your 4”x6”

Place the 4”x6” on the tub so that the edge of the wood is right up to the hole that you drilled. A half inch from hole to edge of wood should be fine. I marked this position on the washtub with a pencil so that I could remove the wood without worrying about losing the position.

The wood should hang off both sides of the washtub about 3 inches. Basically, you want enough overhang to attach the L-brackets. I recommend sizing the wood by holding the L-bracket in place, flush against the wood, and making your measurement.

Now, you are ready to hack up the wood. Any manner of saw is fine here, but make sure you have protective eye wear. Also, most hardware stores will cut wood for you, so if you make the measurement at the store when purchasing the wood, L-brackets, and tub, you can save yourself a little time and effort.

II.2 Scribe your 4”x6”

With the wood cut to the correct length, I marked a line on the wood — as you can see in the image above — so that I could quickly and accurately line up the wood with the wash tub after inevitably knocking the tub or wood while working. I also marked a line on the rim of the tub to line up with the wood. This will also be useful for upcoming steps.

II.3 Mark Drill Holes & Drill

Now with the wood in place, hold the L-brackets flush against the wood and color in the screw holes on the tub (you can see the blue dots I made in the picture above). At this point, you will notice that the 90 degree elbow of the bracket does not align very nicely with the angled tub. As such, there was a pretty decent half inch gap between the tub and the L-bracket. For now, color in the holes the best you can even though the L-bracket isn’t flush; we’ll deal with the gap in the next step.

With eight dots on your tub, you are ready to drill the holes. Make sure that the diameter of the hole you drill is large enough for your hex bolts to easily pass through. Don’t make the hole so small that you have to thread the bolt through the hole; you are looking for a little bit larger than the diameter of the bolt.

II.4 Make Wood Spacers for the L-Brackets

To deal with the gap between the L-bracket and the washtub, you could try and bend the L-bracket with a vice, a set of pliers, and a man with huge forearms. This might actually be an easier solution for some. But, fret not if you don’t have these things.

I, instead, used the shims to fashion little spacers for the L-bracket. Notice in the image above the very advanced measuring system implemented for this task. 😉 You will need two shims for each L-bracket; one cut to the full length of the L-bracket, and the second, cut to about two-thirds the length.

Once the shims are cut, mark screw holes with the L-bracket. To drill these holes, put the spacers on a piece of wood you don’t care about, and drill through the spacer, into this scrap wood. Clamp the spacer to the scrap wood instead of trying to hold onto the spacer with your hand. Trust me, that will end badly.

Super important: set your drill to the lowest setting, or use it very tenderly to drill through the spacers. I did crack one of the spacers during this process and had to make a new one. Be slow and tender when drilling the holes and you won’t have to remake a spacer.

II.5 Attach the L-Brackets to the Tub

With all the spacers made, you are ready to install the L-brackets. I used two washers for each bolt, and a rubber o-ring between the washers and the L-bracket. Also, an additional o-ring is used as a spacer between the wood spacer and the tub at the bottom of the L-bracket. Using an o-ring here made up for any errors I committed in making of the spacers. Consult the pictures for further clarity.

This is a look inside the tub. In the final configuration, I used only two washers, even though there are three washers in the picture. More importantly, the rubber o-rings between the washer and the tub help to eliminate any possible rattling.

II.6 Attach the 4”x6” to the L-Brackets

After installing all four L-brackets, use the wood screws to attach the 4”x6” to the L-brackets. I placed the piece of wood on the ground, put the tub on top, lined up the rim of the tub with the lines I scribed on the 4”x6” (in step II.2), and screwed the L-brackets into the wood. Bam!

 
 

III. Drilling a Hole in the 4”x6”

How are you doing? You’ve finished one of the major hurdles. Now it’s time to put a hole in the plank of wood to wedge the garden stick into.

III.1 Attach the String to the Stick

In order to get a sense of where I wanted the stick to be, to make sure that the string wasn’t going to be too far from the stick, making it hard to play, I used a cotton string to line up the garden stick on the 4”x6”. I tied off one end of the string a small stick, threaded the other end of the string through the hole in the tub, and attached it to one end of the garden stick. This allowed me to experiment with distances and decide on one I liked. See the orange string in the picture above?

III.2 Drill the Hole

Once I marked where the hole would be (4 1/4” for me), I unscrewed the 4”x6” from the tub, and placed it between two chairs. The garden tool stick that I purchased is 1 1/8” in diameter, so I used a 1” drill bit for the hole. A slightly smaller bit would probably have worked as well. Have a friend help you hold the wood will you drill your hole, or use the clamps to secure it down.

I ended up drilling a hole completely through the plank of wood. You may not have to do this on yours. It really depends on the garden stick you buy. Mine was tapered at the end, and so more of the garden stick needed to be pushed into the hole to create enough contact with the wood in order to keep it in place. Test how the stick fits in the hole. Start with a shallow depth and drill as deep as necessary to keep the stick secured in the hole.

With the hole drilled, attach the wood to the tub, and we are ready to move on to the tuning key!

 
 

IV. Installing the Tuner

Congratulations on your progress! You are nearing the the finish line with one last major hurdle. Time to install the tuning key on the garden stick tool. The process I describe here is not the only way to do this. I am sure you could use a table saw or a router for a cleaner cut, but I don’t have those awesome things.

IV.1 Secure the Stick

In the picture, you can see how I secured the stick. You may have big enough clamps to secure the stick directly to a stable surface. The clamps I have were too small so I used a combination of the clamps on the side and rags wrapped around the stick. This protected the stick and helped secure it in place. The other end of the stick is wrapped in a rag and pushed against a wall to prevent it from sliding around.

IV.2 Scribe the Stick

In this picture, you can see the complex process used for scribing the garden tool stick. 😉 You will need to determine how deep to make the cut into the garden stick based on the length of the shaft on the tuning key as well as the amount of area needed for screwing the tuning key down. The tuning key is positioned near that top of the stick, about 2” or 3” from the the top.

After approximating how much space I would need and how deep to cut into the stick, I used a straight edge to connect the dots. Before cutting the stick, this is what it looked like.

IV.3 Score the Stick & Chisel

This step requires a saw. You will be making two cuts on the shaft of the stick. I used a Sawzall for this step (with a friend holding the stick in place). A hand saw would be sufficient as well. Make two cuts on both sides of where the tuning key will mount (see picture above). Cut to determined depth, and then go get your chisel.

With the chisel and hammer, you will slowly start to remove wood between the two cuts that you made. Don’t rush through this step. Don’t try to take the wood out in big hunks. Take your time. Relax and slowly whittle down the stick to the line that you scribed on the side. Use a little sandpaper to clean up your expert chisel work, and now you are ready to drill a hole for the shaft of the tuning key.

IV.4 Drill a Hole for the Tuning Key

From the picture, you can see how I scribed the stick before drilling the hole. Again, I determined how the tuning key would be affixed to the stick, and made a mark for drilling the hole. To drill the hole, use a drill bit that is of sufficient diameter for the shaft of the tuning key. I actually brought the tuning key to the hardware store to make sure I purchased an appropriate drill bit.

When drilling the hole, the drill bit burst through the back side of the stick and ripped up some large splinters. It was kind of a mess, so I used the chisel and some sandpaper to clean up the hole a little bit.

IV.5 Attach the Tuning Key

To attach the tuning key, follow any specific instructions that come with your tuning key. I only could use two screws to attach my tuning key. But this was due to poor planning on buying a tuning key.

Here is the final installation of my tuning key. You can see what I mean by jerry-rigged now. Because of my poor planning when purchasing the tuning key, and ordering it off of Amazon, I had to attach it at an angle with only two screws. This definitely works and serves its purpose. But, know that there is a cleaner solution. Also, getting a smaller tuning key will allow you to cut less wood out of the stick.

 
 

V. Plug the String & Put it All Together

You are basically done!! Been quite a journey. I am sure things didn’t go exactly as planned, but when do they. The fun part is when things don’t go as planned. It’s like that saying, “The adventure doesn’t begin until something goes wrong.”

V.1 Drill a Hole in the Door Stop

Alright, pull that drill out one last time, and drill a hole in your door stop and in your plug. Make sure to use your scrap piece of wood underneath the door stop. You don’t want to put a hole in your deck. I used the same drill bit I used for drilling the hole in the washtub.

V.2 Set up the Bass String

From the picture, you can see the rubber o-rings and washers I used. I removed the the last o-ring at the bottom of the picture because it didn’t jive well with the rubber grommet in the washtub.

V.3 Set up the Garden Tool Stick

You need to wedge the stick into the hole with some force. Twisting motions work best. Make sure that you line up your tuning key with the hole in the tub. Also, remember to put the hose clamp on the stick before wedging it into the hole. The hose clamp should be tight enough to keep the sting in place, but lose enough for the string to move when being tuned. Once the stick is wedged into the hole (it may wiggle a tad, which is ok, but only a tad), you are ready to string up the bass.

V.4 String Your Brand New Washtub Bass

Stringing the bass is as simple as it sounds. Nothing left to do here, but thread the string through the hole in the tub, run it up under the hose clamp, and wrapped it around the tuning key. BAM!!!! You are done. Also, you may want to wedge some shims under the 4”x6” to ensure that it doesn’t wiggle around.

Tune the string started plucking. Experiment with playing it on carpets, rugs, and wood floors. Also, you can get different tones if the washtub is propped up on something, allowing sound to escape from the bottom. So, now you get to find what works best for you. Lastly, to make the bass more accessible for all people, I used a tuner to locate notes, and marked them as fret lines on the stick.

 
 

Awesome! Congratulations! Now that you have your washtub, its time to learn how to play it. My only tip is start plucking away. I don’t play bass, so that is what I am doing. This was the result of playing my washtub for the first time with reckless abandon. Here’s to playing with reckless abandon!

 
 

I hope that you found these instructions informative. If you have any questions, or suggestions for ways to improve these instructions — make things more clear, more efficient — don’t hesitate to leave a comment. Or, better yet, leave a comment about how much you are enjoying your washtub bass. Happy Music Making!

3 Comments

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  1. SMS420 / Feb 13 2012

    first off, sweet javascript scrolling action!

    secondly, awesome post.

    • KL Pontz / Feb 13 2012

      first off, thanks! secondly, thanx. :)

  2. di / Feb 14 2012

    You are such an impressive individual.

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