Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Recent Work, Summer 2018

Hi everyone--I have four new lutes to present to you today.

You may have already seen pics of these that I posted a month or two ago on Facebook. If that's the case, and I've dragged you here under false pretences by calling this post "Recent Work," well, I'm sorry--you're free to go. However, if you're not in too big a hurry, by all means stick around and I'll try to add a few comments, to make the visit worth your while.

I started this group of four in late 2017, hoping to have them finished before the summer of 2018, which I knew was going to be a busy one. I didn't quite get them all done before summer, but instead finished them one at a time, in June, July, and August. I'll present them here in the chronological order of their completion.

I always work in groups, usually two or three. I think that there are some efficiencies to be gained by doing the same or similar jobs across a number of instruments (carving roses, making necks, putting backs together, etc.) Once you've taken the time to set up your tools to do a job once, you might as well do it two or three three times and make it worth your while.

At least that's the theory.... After working this way a number of times I still think it's true, but there is a limit to how many instruments a person can work on without something like boredom setting in. Four lutes might be the limit for me. Progress in the shop can seem slow at the best of times, but working on a large group means progress often seems to come in very tiny increments. You need to be okay with going into the shop each day and being greeted by a bunch of lutes that don't look like they've moved along very much in quite a while. (I keep expecting the Lute Elves to show up overnight or over the weekend and, say, finish carving the bridges I left half-done for them, but alas they never do....)

Luckily, I'm a patient person--I think that's probably very high on the list of qualifications for being a lute maker. And, thankfully, I have clients who are very patient people too.

The first lute of the group, finished in late June, was a new model for me: a 6 course with a string length of 54cm, in modern pitch a', for George Moss of Kansas City, MO. It's from a design by Grant Tomlinson, which he based on early-16th century Italian models. I actually built this lute using Grant's mold, which he lent to me; he also sold me the lovely set of German maple ribs for the back, which, according to his notes, he'd sawn in 1982. (I asked him if he'd care to come over to my shop and build the lute for me too, but sadly he declined.)

It made a lovely little lute with a very sweet, rich, balanced sound. In my experience, lutes in a' don't generally have a problem making their treble register heard--indeed, they can be a bit overbearing. Not this one, though. I was a little surprised--and pleased--at the presence and warmth of the basses, and in general the balance of sound throughout the register.  To me, it sounded not so much like an a' lute, but instead like a really good 6 course lute that just happened to be tuned in a' (if you get what I mean.)

Mug shots front and back: the neck, fingerboard and peg box are pear, and the bridge and tuning pegs are plum. The back, as I said, is of German maple, and the belly is one of my finest pieces of alpine spruce. The fingerboard edging is snakewood.

As usual, I supplied a number of possible rose designs to my client, and George decided to go with a pattern from a baroque lute--an 11 course, I believe--by Martinus Kaiser (I don't have the date of that lute to hand just now.) As with so many old lute rose patterns, this one works a variation of the Star of David, with twisting vines and leaves contrasting with the geometric basis.

This lute was finished in time for me to hand-deliver it to George at the Lute Society of America LuteFest in Cleveland at the end of June. He liked it! I was pleased. Then after the week of lute festivities I returned to Canada to do a little repair work, which you can read about here; then met up with my darling wife Julia for a holiday trip that included stops in Montreal, eastern Ontario, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Lakes, rivers and oceans were swum in, rare liquors tasted, fine cuisines sampled, and old friends, and new friends, were met. By late July, we were back in Vancouver--and I was back in the workshop, rested, and eager to finish up the next lute.

This one was another new model for me: a 'théorbe de pièces,' or 'Lesser French Theorbo,' for Bruce Burchmore of Los Angeles, CA.

This project was a lot of fun, and a real challenge.  There are so many interesting features to this instrument, and much of its design had to be done pretty much from scratch. I had no museum drawing to work from, and really not much expertise to go on to get me started. I didn't know the instrument, and I didn't know the repertoire. I did a lot of learning along the way, from a whole bunch of teachers and advisers, starting with the very patient Bruce Burchmore, and including Grant Tomlinson, Ray Nurse, and my old friend Nelson Amos. I think there's a tale here, and I'll tell it in my next blog post.

Some data: the top string is in d (A=392), and the top two strings are re-entrant (i.e., an octave low.) The string length to the first nut is 72cm, and to the extension 114. There are 14 strings, 8 to the first peg box, and 6 to the extension. The fingerboard, belly edge binding and neck veneer are ebony; and the extension is made of two pieces of English sycamore, dyed black. The belly, as always, is one of my finest sets of European alpine spruce; and the back of the lute is 11 ribs of curly maple.

The rose pattern I used is known as the 'Mouton,' since it is taken from the famous painting of the lutenist Charles Mouton by François de Troy. This version of the pattern was drawn by Ray Nurse.

Perhaps the most striking feature of this type of lute is its extension, which basically consists of a plank of wood with a cutout for a carved panel at the back of the lower peg box, and a second peg box carved from a separate block of wood, attached to the far end of the plank. I've made lutes with extended necks before, but nothing quite like this. I think it's a really cool design, and aesthetically it seems totally of a piece with the refinement of the music that's played on the lute.

I found this lute compulsively photographable. (If you'd like to see further evidence of the compulsion, please go to my flickr page.) Most lutes are like a little world unto themselves, and some of them, like this one, seem incredibly vast. They will not be captured by a single photo, or even a hundred. But I try!

OK--next lute. We're now into mid-August: Julia and I are back from a short trip to the interior of BC,  where we holidayed with my mom and sister, who had driven out from Saskatchewan. The lakes and rivers of the BC interior are beautiful, and we swam in them daily. The air, however, was thick with smoke from wildfires; a new reality, a constant companion in the summers. Back to the coast, where the air is (relatively) clear.

This lute is not a new model--it is a 10 course lute based on the body of the Tieffenbrucher archlute, C45 in the Vienna KHM, which I've scaled down to 95% of the original. (The back is 17 ribs of dark, heartwood pacific yew.) I have built a number of 10 course lutes on this model, along with a few 7 and 8 course as well, and all of them have been very successful.  Reducing slightly the original size of the body allows a string length of 64 cm (while retaining 9 tied frets) which is a convenient length for stringing in g', either in modern or low pitch.

For this lute, my client, Mark Bagley, of Madison, MS, asked me to try to come up with a design that reduced the string length as much as possible, while still tying 9 frets easily. A little squeezing here and there--shortening the neck a little, raising the bridge position just a few millimeters (and correspondingly adjusting the location of soundboard bars and, in consequence, the position of the rose)--gave a string length of 62 cm. A very manageable length for a 10 course lute!

One thing that was different about this lute was the suite of veneers that I made for the neck and peg box. Mark had asked for a special look for this lute, so I suggested a design based on the 1609 Magno Dieffopruchar lute, 144 in the Museo Bardini in Florence. Here's what the original looks like (photos by Stephen Gottlieb, courtesy of Grant Tomlinson):

And here are some shots of my version. The veneers on the Dieffopruchar are made up of strips of ebony and ivory; my version is made of ebony and english boxwood.

Once again, if you'd like to see more photos of this lute, head to my flickr page.

I'm kicking myself a bit because I didn't take any (or not many) photos of my process of making these veneers. It is a fairly involved, and time-consuming, procedure to make them, and I would have liked to write a blog post detailing the steps.... Oh, well, I'll save it for next time: I'll be doing another set of veneers like this within the next couple of years, so I'll try to remember to take lots of pics and talk about it then.

The rose on this lute is based on the 'knot of Leonardo' design, with a chip-carved border.

And now, onto the last lute of the bunch. By this time we're at the end of August (the holidays are done, though we're still taking some last-minute swims in the ocean in Vancouver), and I am finishing this, a 7 course lute based on the 1592 Venere. The string length is 58.5 cm, and the back is of 13 ribs of dark heartwood yew, with sycamore spacers. I had originally begun this lute as a demonstration model for the lute making class at the 2017 LSA Workshop West, in Victoria BC; it wasn't made to order for anyone, but I decided to complete it as part of this batch, and see if someone might be interested. Someone was: a fellow who works in the video game industry here in Vancouver got in touch, and I completed it for him at the end of the month.

The neck and peg box are made of some nicely figured cherry I picked up a few years ago. For an unveneered instrument like this, I might ordinarily use pear for the neck and peg box, but I was very happy with the look, feel and weight of the cherry. (It's nice to have a 'spec' instrument once in a while to try out some different woods). The lute itself sounds great, full and rich, with a nice singing treble and lovely bass sound. I really need to make myself one of these lutes one of these years.

The rose is based on that of the original 1592 Venere lute.

And that is all for recent work. Next post, I will talk about the process of designing and building the 'théorbe de pièces.' I'm onto new projects now: two lutes only this time. Hopefully they'll go reasonably quickly. I'll tell you about them soon!

Saturday, 29 September 2018

A Bass Rider Fix, for Nelson

Hi everybody--it's been a while. Hope you all had a fine summer. Mine was great: plenty of time relaxing, holidaying, swimming in rivers, lakes and oceans (a major summer pastime with Julia and I), as well as a little time to finish up a new crop of instruments. I'll talk about those in a future post, but for today, I want to tell you about a small repair job I did back in early July.

The last week of June I attended the Lute Society of America's LuteFest in Cleveland. As always, the LuteFest was a lot of fun. It was nice to meet up with old friends again, and make some new ones--it's always great to see new people excited about the lute!

And, of course, it was great to be able to spend an afternoon wandering the galleries at the Cleveland Museum of Art. You never know what you might find there....

The Atrium, view from my table at lunch, the Cleveland Museum of Art

One old friend and client I met up with at the LuteFest was Nelson Amos. I've made him a couple of lutes over the years (and fixed one of them for him too), and our paths seem to continually cross in lots of interesting ways. Toward the end of the week, Nelson asked me if I could have a look at his 13 course lute, one that was not made by me but by a now-retired lute maker in the Pacific Northwest.

The problem: the bass rider had been knocked off. Dang!

This lute had been a topic of conversation and debate at Andy Rutherford's Lute Doctor repair shop during the week at the LuteFest. It was pretty obvious that the rider couldn't just be stuck back on with glue: this had been tried once already, prior to the LuteFest, and had failed. Part of the problem was the angle of the bass rider. As on the original Burkholtzer lute (Vienna KHM SAM 44, upon which this lute is based), it leans over the bass side of the pegbox at a pretty steep angle. The arrangement seems to work fine as long as the bass rider is whole and strong (and made from a stout piece of wood), but under string tension, the broken-and-glued bass rider didn't stand a chance, and toppled over.

Here are a couple of pictures showing the rather extreme angle of the bass rider on the original Burkholtzer lute. I have no idea what kind of magic spell is keeping it in place, but I doubt the museum keeps much tension on the strings these days...

Photo by Stephen Gottlieb, Courtesy Grant Tomlinson

Photo Robert Lundberg, JLSA XXXII, 1999, p.42

Various solutions to re-attach Nelson's bass rider were put forward: glue the rider on again, and reinforce it with pins inserted in holes drilled through the back of the peg box; build some kind of support attached to the treble side of the peg box; or replace the entire peg box and bass rider with something stronger and less leaning-over.

None of these suggestions seemed practical. It was hard to see how pins could be inserted to reinforce the joint--there's just not much material to drill into, and even if one could, it didn't seem likely that they would offer much support. Same problem with building a support from the treble side: where and how would it attach? What on earth would it look like? As for the third idea, replacing the pegbox and bass rider, that would work, but it would be very time-consuming and intrusive. It would eliminate a lot of nice work done by the original maker, and change the character of the lute completely.

At the end of LuteFest week I still had no solution, but we packed Nelson's lute, along with all our other lutes, into the van and headed back to the northern side of the border.

I was travelling that week with Wilma Van Berkel, a rising star in the lute making world who lives in London, Ontario, Canada. Wilma's been working with me periodically in my workshop in Vancouver for a number of years now as my protégé, and over the last few years we've developed the custom of working together on lute repairs at her workshop London in the week after the LuteFest. It's a good opportunity for her to gain experience doing lute repairs in a supported environment, and it's a good opportunity for both of us to to get a lot of lutes working again for players on the eastern side of the continent.

We took a couple of days to rest up, then got back to work. Wilma's first project was to re-attach a theorbo bridge that had flown off due to an impact.

Wilma, hard at work preparing the belly to re-glue the bridge

And mine was to get this bass rider back on. I still had no clear idea of what I was going to do to fix it, but I decided to go ahead and work carefully step-by-step, and trust that a solution would reveal itself as I went along.

The first step was to create two new good gluing surfaces, by planing away the broken sides of the joint--on the peg box cheek, and the bottom of the bass rider.

Once that was done, I pretty much knew how the repair would go--I would need to build some sort of ledge, or cantilever, off the side of the peg box for the rider to sit on. Once I had decided that, all I needed to do was make sure a) that it would be strong enough to hold under pressure, and b) that it would preserve as much as possible the original look of the lute.

I decided to affix a pear wood plate to the top of the peg box cheek. It's pretty substantial--about 8mm thick. You can see here that I drilled holes with a jeweller's pin vise through the plate, partway down into the cheek (being careful not to drill all the way through.) You can see one pin, a piece of bamboo dowel, in the upper hole, and I put one in the lower hole too. These pins help align the piece during gluing, and also provide added strength to the glued joint.

I carefully masked the cheek and padded the back of the peg box, so that I wouldn't damage it during gluing.

Once the plate was in place, I used my pin vise and bamboo dowels to locate the bass rider in the same way.

Front view

Back view

Before gluing up, I did a couple of things--I strung some fishing line from the bridge down to the bass rider, to make sure that it was aligned properly; and, I rounded over the inner edge of the plate (I figured it would be much easier to do this before the bass rider was glued on.)

When the fit and alignment were great, I glued up, and got some good clamping pressure.

Action shot of your humble narrator gluing on the rider courtesy of Wilma Van Berkel

Next morning, I got to work carving the plate to match the look of the bass rider.

As you can see, I also carved a bit of relief on the underside of the plate, up near the top: I needed to make sure there was enough room for the strings of the 10th and 11th courses (which wind onto pegs outside the peg box) to travel freely from the nut to the pegs.

I finished off the piece, then blackened it to match the surrounding work. I first inked it with some permanent black ink, then brushed on a number of layers of very thin shellac mixed with lamp black. Here's a final look:

And a view from head-on:

As you can see, the angle of the bass rider is now much closer to parallel with the 12th and 13th course strings, so there's a lot less torque on the bass rider, and a lot less tendency to pull to the side. When I strung up the lute, I was prepared to see some deflection to the bass side under tension, but there was very little. It looked like the bass rider was secure.

As I said above, my other aim in this repair was to try to preserve as much as possible the original look of the lute. I think I did that. There is, of course, an extra chunk of wood on this lute now, and the bass rider no longer sits at its original daredevil angle; but that was the trade-off necessary to get a good lute working again, with minimal fuss, and minimal intrusion.

So, there was one more lute back in action--and for the time being, I felt satisfied. I bade farewell to Wilma, who had by this time moved on to an archlute repair, and flew to Montreal to join Julia for some holiday adventures. There were still some lutes back in my workshop in Vancouver, lutes so close to being finished that I could almost hear them crying out--but they would have to wait a few weeks longer for their first breaths. I will tell you all about them in my next post.