A Washboard for Greg


How Greg gave up trying to acquire a second hand washboard and found a company that cocked up big time but went beyond the call of duty to put it right.

I'd been hankering after a washboard for a long time. I wasn't really thinking of using it in my One Man Band, but rather in a little combo that I played with at my local pub. Somewhere that not only allows me to play my kind of music, but also is where my little 17ft boat was moored just 30ft from the front door. Life really couldn't be better!

I didn't feel I could justify a new washboard, but everyone I asked would either only let me borrow theirs or, it would turn out weeks later, that the one they thought they had in their shed, attic, or at their mother's, had, in fact, been disposed of years ago.

I turned to eBay. I was amazed. The going rate seemed to be anything up to £30 and some would ask up to £7 postage on top of that. I made a rash purchase. "Scruffy" said the description, but I couldn't resist the £11 "Buy It Now" price tag, especially as it boasted a modest £4.50 carriage charge. When the purchase arrived I was to find that the wafer thin brass scrubbing surface appeared to have been passed through a mangle. It was, indeed, scruffy, but also unusable as a musical instrument. When I placed it back on eBay it had a fuller description, stating that it is unsuitable for either washing or musical use!

Carbolic Soap Company LogoCarbolic Smokeball CompanyWhen it came down to it, there was no choice. I had to buy new. A search of the web determined that the wonderfully named Carbolic Soap Company could supply one. Not only that, but they'd do it for only a few pounds more than the good looking second hand ones I was seeing sold on eBay. How could I resist? The company's washboards were specifically advertised for musical use and - am I too easily impressed? - came with a stainless steel rubbing surface, that surely I wouldn't be able to flatten in a mangle - if I happened to have one.

It was shortly after midnight on Sunday night when I placed my order on line. After that I retired to bed. As I was about to fall into slumber I did wonder whether it was an ominous sign that the company with whom I had just done business had a name that sounded so much like the "Carbolic Smokeball Company" that I had learnt about many years ago. As Wikipedia explains, "Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company [1893] ... is frequently discussed as an introductory contract case, and may often be the first legal case a law student studies". Indeed, it was for me, back in 1967!

Next morning when I awoke I was somewhat taken aback to discover an email saying that my order had been despatched from Bromley, Kent, home of the Carbolic Soap Company, at 03:42 that morning. I knew the company was small, and hardly likely to be so busy it was running a night shift, but there was little that could be done except await delivery. In fact there was something that could be done. I had paid extra to have trackable delivery by FedEx, more expensive than two other possible couriers. I had done that as I was hoping to have the washboard delivered in time for a gig at the local pub at which I was due to play on the Friday evening. Using the cheap courier services were very unlikely to meet that deadline.

Suspicions about the despatch of my order grew over the next 24 hours as there was still no tracking number given on my order history page. Shortly after midday, at 12:43 on the Tuesday I emailed the company:


On 02 Apr 12 03:42 "Carbolic Soap Company Ltd" said:
> Carbolic Soap Company Ltd
> Order Number: 28554
> Detailed Invoice:
> http://www.carbolicsoap.com/account_history_info.php?order_id=28554
> Date Ordered: Sunday 01 April, 2012
> Your order has been updated to the following status: Despatched
> If necessary, you may update your order directly by following the
> link above (login required). If you have questions or comments,
> please reply to this email.
> With warm regards from your friends at Carbolic Soap Company Ltd

Warm regards to you too!

I'm puzzled! There's still "No tracking numbers are available yet." on
this item. I was hoping it would have arrived as the item was
supposedly despatched 33 hours ago. I was hoping it would arrive in
time for a gig on Friday! When should I expect delivery?

Greg Chapman
Folk, Skiffle and Blues. Music with added Fun!

I was impressed to receive a response within an hour.

From: UK Carbolic Sales
To: Greg Chapman
Subject: Re: Carbolic Soap Company Ltd Order :
Date: 03 Apr 12 13:27
Hi Greg, thanks for your email.

Did you select FedEx delivery? If so, you can expect it today or tomorrow.

Many thanks


Thank you for contacting the Columbus Washboard Company.
The last remaining washboard manufacturer in the United States.

Then an amazing thing happened. The phone rang. No that wasn't the amazing bit. It was the content of the call that amazed me.

It was 14:29, just over an hour since the email. "Hello, this is James from the Carbolic Soap Company", said the caller. James went on to explain that something had worried him after he had sent his email an hour before and he had done some investigation. "There's no way to get round this", he continued, and went on to explain that that my washboard hadn't been despatched. Worse than that, there wasn't even a "Musical/Laundry Family Size Stainless Steel Spiral Washboard" in the country.

He was full of deep apology, going on to explain that they had decided that they would take a big loss on my order. They would fly one to me direct from Columbus Ohio and hoped it would reach me by Friday. I pointed out that Friday was Good Friday and a public holiday, to which he could only say that FedEx had suggested that a Friday delivery should be possible.

I wasn't too worried by that, because although I had hoped for delivery of the board in time for the Friday gig, it wasn't the end of the world if I didn't have it by then. One of the reasons I wasn't content to borrow other people's boards was that I had been assembling bits and pieces to add to the board I hoped to acquire and had already bought a cymbal, cowbell, and a box that used to hold a bottle of wine. I figured that it would take me a while to decide where those bits should be attached. As I still hadn't made up my mind whether I would adopt a vertical or horizontal approach to my washboard playing, it was likely that I'd do no more than show off my purchase on the Friday and not actually play it.

Washboard from Carbolic and Columbia sites

But that wasn't the best bit about the call. James went on to explain that the Carbolic Soap Company was owned by the Columbus Washboard Company of America (which I'd already realised from looking at both web sites) and he was in the factory at this moment, where it was just after 09:00am. He was standing beside the girl who was about to make my washboard and I could have it any way I wanted it. I was working at my computer as the call had come in and immediately called up the Columbus Washboard site to remind myself of all the options.

I had already settled on the "stainless steel spiral crimp" but I had been confused about what to expect as the Carbolic Soap site shows completely plain boards, whereas the Columbus site shows a wide range of brand boards that are normally fitted to the different models depending on the rubbing surface, which I was now learning to call "the crimp". This could be made of glass, tin, galvanised metal, brass or stainless steel. Had I ordered my stainless steel board direct from Columbus, I would have expected it to be branded "Authentic Musical Washboard".

I quickly decided on a "Sunnyland" brand board, but kept the rest of the order as I had originally made it. I wanted the robustness of the stainless steel crimp and the spiral finish as, having previously listened to the sound samples on the Columbus site had decided that I preferred its slightly softer sound. "Would you like it signed on the back by the girl who's going to make it", enquired James. "No, have her sign it on the front in the middle of the big rising sun", said I.

So there it was, settled. I was to have a custom made washboard, with a nice colourful header board normally used on the model with the wavy, not spiral, galvanised, not stainless steel, crimp, and it was to be signed by the maker, where I had requested it. I was tickled pink! It almost no longer mattered how the board would sound, I knew I would have a tale to tell every time I got it out to play to a new audience.

James, signed off the call, saying, "Thank goodness for an iPhone and VOIP. Without it this call would have been prohibitively expensive", and once again apologising for the cock-up over the original order. At 15:45 I got an email from James confirming that FedEx had collected my board from the factory quoting the tracking number.

FedEx Tracking Information

Now all I had to do was wait. The FedEx tracking service first noted it moving from Columbus to Indianapolis and then on to Stanstead airport, where it arrived, a two hour drive from me, on Thursday at 5:38pm. I can't work out from the tracking data whether Customs in the UK close down for Easter, or whether it was because my package was classed as "INTL Economy" but my board seemed to sit waiting at Stanstead somewhere between "International Shipment Release" and "available for clearance" until Tuesday morning, finally, reaching Norwich, just 15 miles from me, at 5:22am on the Tuesday after the Bank Holiday.

Greg and his finished WashboardWashboard and Accessories

The FedEx van pulled up outside my home at 11:10am. I wasn't worried about the late arrival. Everyone had been told, on Good Friday, about the soon to arrive, personally imported, custom made, signed by the builder, stainless steel, spiral crimped, American washboard, that would be ready for ther next gig. Having signed for it, I got out the cowbell, cymbal, strap and other bits I had acquired and been storing to go with my, yet to be acquired, board. I dug out of the garage other bits and pieces that I was planning to use to mount them on the board. I spent the day cycling to and from the local DIY store in town, checking what other parts they might have in stock. It's one of those wonderful local hardware stores that just are not found in many towns these days, but then Stalham (pop: 2,931) is not a big place and still has an old-fashioned hardware store, where you can buy wing nuts and washers in exectly the quantity you need.

And so it is that I now have the perfect washboard for me. In the end, I decided that I would play it vertically, but I fitted everything using threaded rod and wing nuts so it will be easy to change things should I ever get the urge to play sitting down.

There's a couple of other things worth saying to any other buyer of a Columbus Board. It's definitely worth buying the spiral crimp, as it is "single sided". The crimp is not backed, as are some boards that I have seen. This means that while you get the spiral effect on the front of the board. You can play the back with its conventional "wavy" crimp. In other words, you get the benefit of both types of finish in one board. As to quality, compared with my eBay purchase it's so much better. For example, the top rail is attached with a nailed three tongue box joint. I also now realise that the photograph on the Carbolic site shows the back of a board. (Maybe that's why there is no branding on the header board?) You can just make out the six nail holes that don't show on the front of the board. I don't know if my board is special for another reason, but mine has the "Bear on Easy" logo on the back of the brand board, so it's only the overhank of the top rail that distinguishes the two sides as the front.

Just think! You wouldn't be reading this if it wasn't for the wonderful way that the Carbolic soap Company handled their cock-up. If I ever need to buy another washboard, then I'm sure it will be a disappointment. I can't believe that James will need to make another Trans-Atlantic call to sort out my order in such a personal fashion. The only thing I need to make this story complete is a photograph of Diane Hopkins, sitting at her workbench, who made my board for me. I wonder if James can manage that as a bit of after-sales service?