Meet the Makers – Jenny of Isthmus Instruments

Isthmus Instruments

Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in Kentucky on a farm. When I was able, I spent all my available time outdoors. Primarily building tree-houses, boats, docks, swings, paintball courts and forts. When I was inside, I was building model airplanes or carving out of wood. Later I began playing musical instruments which funneled my building energy into music creation. I left KY to go to Northland College in Ashland, WI. After a number of jobs post college, I decided to make steps to return to what I always loved, building. What I do now is a synthesis of physical building and making music.

What are you presenting at Maker Faire Milwaukee?
I am presenting the steel instruments I build, under the name Isthmus Instruments. These instruments are a new (of the last decade) steel acoustic instrument. All instruments of this kind, (including their influence, the Caribbean Steel Pan or “Drum”) that exist in the world today have been put “into tune” by a skilled human. The art of tuning steel spans only 50 some years at this point. I have spent the last 4.5 years developing my own process of building these instruments. I didn’t learn from any one particular person or apprentice with anyone. I have had an opportunity to connect with other handpan makers in the world and share information, but even so, 90% of the progress I have made has really just been hours of grinding labor, background research and tons of trial and error.

Isthmus Instruments

What inspires you to make?
I am inspired to make the things that fascinate me. If I am impressed by something, I want to learn about it. The best way for me to learn about things is by doing them in some way. Musical instruments fit this category, playing and building. I am also inspired by others and their creations. I love seeing what other people make. I love finding ideas I never would have had otherwise. The experiential journey of making is full of challenging experiences. Sometimes they expose more wonder than certainty however! I think makers get even better at making over time.

What is something you’ve made that you are most proud of, and why?
I am most proud of making musical instruments out of steel at this point. It has been the hardest thing I have ever tried to do. In the aspect of making a unique musical instrument, I have developed many of my own tools in the process. All tools have had multiple revisions themselves. For instruments, I have scrap pile over 50 pieces of steel which is more hours worth of work than I can count at this point.

Why do you consider yourself a Maker?
I actually think that we all, as people, are makers on the most fundamental level. Our very existence requires maintenance. And with our evolutionary advantage of a big brain, we have responded to the maintenance puzzle with creativity. What might distinguish one group of people as “Makers”? I think makers are the people who are willing to draw up their dream on a napkin, make up all the ways to get there, and in that process, re-draw that napkin picture ten times over. And just never stop that process, on a project small or large.

Isthmus Instruments

What tips or advice would you give to someone who wants to become a Maker?
Don’t wait to do what interests you. Most often making something new is not smooth or pretty. And you will probably have alot of failures along the way. But you might find your strengths and weaknesses along the way as well. And you will get better with time at the whole process.

Tell us about one of your failed projects.
I wanted to make my hand drill stationary in lateral and rotational movement when cutting holes in a steel surface. The wrong position of the blade could lead to binding, which felt like a potential threat to my wrist health. I modeled a press design after other stationary press versions I had seen, but mine needed to be MUCH bigger… When I put everything together, I realized I would need much more design stability, better materials & consistency to eliminate movement. I took the failed design down and re purposed the pieces for a rolling welding table out of other odds and ends. I lovingly call that failure design, franken-table.

For more info check out the 2016 profile page for Isthmus Instruments.