Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Building a 13 Course Lute, Start to Finish, 22: Dyeing the Peg Box, Finishing Out, Oiling the Neck and Peg Box

Hi friends, it's been a while, and I hope you're well. I'm itching to get back to the story of the 13 course lute in progress. Let me catch you up.

Last time we spoke I showed you how I put together the peg box of this 13 course lute: building the box and veneering it, fitting and carving the chanterelle tuner and bass rider, and finally making the joint and fitting and gluing to the neck. A very satisfying process, and it all went quite well.

Now I've got a few more jobs to do before I can finish out the neck and peg box and apply a finish. I'll tell you about these jobs today.

First, a look at the glued-up peg box. You can see here how much wider it is than the neck in this Schelle-style arrangement--about 10mm. (The way I think about the width of the peg box is that the inside of the bass side peg box cheek more-or-less coincides with the bass edge of the fingerboard.) The exposed extra width needs covering up: as in the original Schelle lute in Paris, I fit a thick piece of ebony onto the top of the box and against the edge of the neck and fingerboard.

The grain of the insert piece is parallel to the grain of the fingerboard.

Here's my fit. This will be fine, but I think I could have saved myself a bit of trouble in the fitting if I had left the edge of the fingerboard square (that is, not rounded over) in just this area.

Once it's glued in place, I can shape and trim the piece. A skew chisel seemed the best tool for this job (I think the position of the bass rider made it impossible to use the low angle block plane.) Please note that my left index finger is positioned well down the front of the peg box; if my chisel happens to slip, my finger is not going to be in the way of the cutting edge. Another item to note, as far as technique is concerned, is that I am holding the chisel close to the cutting edge for good control, and that my right hand orients the tool, while my left thumb applies the cutting force. 

I use the same tool and techniques to trim the outer edge of the piece.

And though this looks a bit unlikely, it was the best position I could find for filing flush the back side of the piece. My left elbow rests upon the bench; the lute is well-braced against my shoulder and side of my neck, and against the two cork blocks on the bench.

There's my result. As you see, on the upper surface the piece is shaped as a continuation of the fingerboard's curve.

On to the next chore: I want to do a little more carving of the bottom block to get a good final shape, and remove some glue residue left from when I stuck the peg box on. (Again, the right hand holds the tool, the left thumb applies the force.)

Now it is time to dye certain parts of the peg box black. As on the original Paris Schelle, I will black only the bass rider and chanterelle tuner; I'll also dye the little tongue of neck wood between the peg box and the fingerboard. The inside of the peg box, as well as the peg box cheeks, will be left their natural colour. 

This process involves carefully masking off the peg box cheeks. Though I will try to be as careful as possible when I apply the dye--especially where the dyed and undyed sections meet--I also want to make sure that the edge of the masking tape is pressed down very well to prevent colour bleeding. 

This is my dyestuff: powdered logwood.

I measure a small amount into a jar that's about half-filled with distilled water. 

The mordant: ferrous sulphate. I measure a similar amount into another jar half filled with distilled water, and then place both in a water bath, and heat, almost to the boiling point.

Here is the set-up. The cloth over the belly helps to stabilize the lute, but it's mainly there to prevent any bits of dye from getting on the belly. I try to be very careful brushing dye and mordant, but a little flick of a bristle could send a tiny drop flying, with potentially heart-sinking consequences. 

This is what the logwood looks like going on first: it shows not black  but red or yellow instead.

The mordant fixes and colours the dye--you can see it becoming black where I've brushed it on. The coverage is a bit motley at first, but by the time I do a number of alternate coats (dye-mordant-dye-mordant-dye, with a few minutes' drying time between), the colour evens out nicely.

When the dyeing is done, I leave things to dry overnight and then next morning carefully wash the dyed areas with cold water and a toothbrush, to remove any traces of free dyestuff. 

I didn't take any photos of the finished dye job specifically, but you will see the result just a little farther along in this post, when I apply a finish to the neck and peg box. For now, I want to move along to the next job: giving the fingerboard a final shape, and setting the final action.

You might remember my description of the tedium of shaping the fingerboard when I originally did it, in episode 16 of this series. At that time--just before finishing out and varnishing the body--I left the lute's action about 0.1mm higher (measured at the 8th fret) than I want the action ultimately to be. This was to help account for any possible movement of wood and consequent change in the lute's action during the varnishing process. Even under normal circumstances wood never really stops moving and changing shape, but there are a couple of reasons to be wary of it during this time: first, the fingerboard had been glued on only fairly recently, and might still have been settling into its final shape; and second, the UV booth I use to cure the varnish--in which the lute is kept for around two solid weeks--is a fairly warm and fairly low-humidity environment. Both of these circumstances call for caution in shaping the fingerboard and setting the action. It's a lot easier to leave the action provisionally high a very small amount and then lower it later, than it is to try to find room to raise the action if, as often happens, the lute comes out of the light box with a slightly lower action than when it went in.

In any case, I always find it a good precaution to leave the lute for as long as possible before working on it after taking it out of the light box (or indeed after a major gluing job such as the fingerboard), just to let it settle into shape in the ambient humidity of the workshop (40-45% r.h.) The process of cutting the rebate for the peg box, then making and fitting the chanterelle tuner and bass rider, gluing up, and dyeing, takes I would say at least a week; and that's enough time for things to have settled reasonably well, and for me to move on to the final shaping work.

I mask off the entire belly against ebony dust. I lay down masking tape across the 'belly tongue,' then cover the rest with paper towel.

A cutout for the bridge allows me to string nylon fishing line on the first eight courses, and the 12th course. 

I string lines only on the top eight because those are the only courses that are fingered (with rare exceptions, I am told) in the baroque lute's repertoire. It's not that the rest of the courses that cross the fingerboard are ignored--I will be keeping a close eye on the longitudinal flatness of the fingerboard under those courses--but I am not so concerned to know their specific stringheights. (I string the 12th course, by the way, because I want to see how the things are going to line up on the bass rider.) 

If you've looked at episode 16, then you'll already be familiar with this drill. Stretch the fishing line over a 1.6mm thick spacer at the first fret, then measure the height of the string above the fingerboard at the 8th fret with a spacer of appropriate thickness.
I've made a set of these carefully-thicknessed spacer pieces just for the purpose. I find that having them a few centimetres long, rather than short blocks, makes them much easier to use, especially on the curved fingerboard of the baroque lute. 

Here's how I keep an eye on the flatness of the fingerboard: draw an array of lines exactly under each of the courses; set my straightedge upon each one, and sight along the bottom with strong back lighting; and then mark the high spots, and flatten them very carefully, with scrapers and sanding blocks. It's also important that the course lines be integrated with their fellows to create a smooth curve across the fingerboard.

These are my final action numbers. The fingerboard is also reasonably flat in long section, and nicely curved in cross section. I am now ready to erase my pencil lines and numbers, and move on to finishing out the neck and peg box.

This is accomplished with files, scrapers, and a piece of shave grass that I've cut open, flattened and stuck to a cork block with double-sided tape.  

A few minutes of work with this gives the back of the neck and peg box a very warm, sleek feel. 

I don't touch the dyed parts in this finishing out stage, but I do give the peg box cheeks a careful going-over. (By the way, there turned out to be a nice, crisp line between the dyed bass rider and the pear peg box cheek. Same with the chanterelle tuner on the other side.)

One of the final stages of finishing out is to chamfer lightly all the inner and outer edges of the peg box with a very fine (#4) file.

I do this not only for the 'finished' look I get, but also to rid the lute of any edges and corners that might stab, slice, or otherwise maim the player. (And yes, I have seen and held lutes with such features.) On the tip of this peg box, for instance, I've not only chamfered the edges of the veneers, but also docked each corner with a single stroke of the file. 

At long last, it's time to apply a finish to the neck and peg box. I begin by masking off the body...

... and the belly. By the way, don't feel bad about the fingerboard points not being oiled along with the fingerboard. They have already received a finish, along with the belly, prior to varnishing: the one-two-punch of casein size and marienglas ground coat, described in episode 17 of this series

My finish for the neck and peg box is Tried and True (T&T) oil. I brush a fairly conservative coat on neck veneer first, then turn over and do the same with the fingerboard. I then wipe away the excess with soft cotton cloths. 

Once I've completed a coat on the neck veneer and fingerboard, I move on to the peg box. I cover the inside of the box first, then the outer surfaces, including the bass rider and chanterelle tuner.

You can see in the photo above that the logwood-dyed pear looks a little cold before oiling--an almost blue-black. But the T&T Oil really warms up the colour, and once the oiling is complete, the chanterelle tuner and bass rider match the ebony veneers really well. The result, after polishing with soft cotton, is  positively sumptuous.

I'll remove the masking and hang this lute overnight in the light box, so that the oil finish has a chance to firm up before I move on. Next stage is fitting the pegs, which--along with a few other items, perhaps--will be the subject of my next post.

Monday, 10 August 2020

Building a 13 Course Lute, Start to Finish, 21: Fitting and Shaping the Bass Rider; Gluing in the Peg Box

Hello friends--welcome back to the ongoing tale of a 13 course lute. In our last episode, I fitted the pegbox, and glued and carved-in the chanterelle tuner. Today, I shall finish the pegbox installation by making, fitting and carving the bass rider, and then gluing the completed peg box into the neck.

I make the bass rider of quarter-sawn pear, the same material that I've used for the peg box and the chanterelle tuner. The piece I've selected is a couple of millimetres thicker than the finished dimension. There's enough material in this piece for two bass riders, so I'll trace them out back-to-back and rough in both at the same time.

My template has locations for peg holes and for some larger radii within the pattern that I will drill out with forstner bits.

I've screwed my blank down to a backing plate for a couple of reasons. First, I have to be able to drill through the material and into something beneath, so that the drill won't splinter out the backside of the piece. Second, I want to be able to clamp and hold the piece securely so it doesn't become a nasty out-of-control helicopter when I start drilling (I've seen it happen.)

The backing board is clamped securely to the drill press table.

The pear is pretty tough material, and there's a lot of thickness to get through. To ease the stress on both the drill press and the bit, I take small cuts and lift the bit up frequently, and rub wax on the sides of the bit.

With all the peg holes and radii drilled, I use a coping saw to remove material from the teardrop cutout.

Then I can cut out one of the blanks on the band saw, and get to work shaping it in the swivel vise. I use a chisel to shape most of the outer profile, cutting in from both sides across the width of the piece. For the cutout, I use knives and a small gouge. 

The overall shape looks pretty good for now. I've used my template to mark the approximate depth of the inside of the pegbox, and the approximate contours of the sides and foot.

Now it's time to fit up the peg box temporarily, and see how the bass rider should align on it. This is my basic gluing rig for peg boxes (you'll see it in action when I glue the peg box at the end of this post.)
I have a fairly good idea of how the bass rider fits on the peg box of the original Schelle lute in Paris, since I'm working with some very nice photographs of that instrument taken by Grant Tomlinson (as you'll see below.) However, I still need to clamp it to the peg box and stretch a string from the bridge to check its alignment, in both the horizontal and vertical axes, and adjust the position as needed.
One of the great advantages of the Schelle peg box-bass rider combination is that, unlike other peg box-bass rider pairs of the era, this one does not slope to the side. Instead, because the peg box is made over-wide and extends out the bass side about 10mm, the bass rider sits in direct alignment with the bass side peg box cheek, and there is virtually no torque being applied by the 12th and 13th course strings. In my experience it's a much more stable arrangement than some other examples I can name--one being the 13c Burkholtzer in the Vienna KHM. I've never personally examined the Burkholtzer lute, but from the photos below I get the impression that the bass rider may have drifted outward somewhat over the years.

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

Photo by Stephen Gottlieb, courtesy Grant Tomlinson
Perhaps I'm wrong and it hasn't moved a hair since it was built, but in any case it seems to me that such an arrangement is very vulnerable, an accident waiting to happen. Such an accident did, in fact, happen to an instrument based on the Burkholtzer belonging to a friend of mine, and he sent it to me to fix. My repair involved figuring out a way of removing the bass rider's tilt and straightening it out to improve its strength, somewhat like the Schelle bass rider. You can read about my solution to the problem here:  A Bass Rider Fix, For Nelson. 

Back to the task at hand. With the bass rider clamped to the peg box and aligned carefully, I am able to mark out locations both on the peg box cheek and the bottom of the bass rider. Then I can lay out the basic contours of the cheeks, and start carving out the recess.

I set up the rider in a portable vise in the drill press, and drill a number of holes to a certain depth.

I remove most of the material with gouges.

Eventually I can work with small flat chisels to square up the sides and bottom.

I also cut and file a small channel, into which the nut will eventually be fit.

Then I remove as much excess material as possible, with flat chisels, gouges and knives. (It's much easier to do in the vise than after it's glued onto the peg box!)  
The small violinmaker's knife with a curved blade allows for very good control when removing material. (Notice the little piece of dowel, which makes the bass rider a lot easier to hold in the vise.)

There's my working shape--I've still got a ways to go, but I think it's good for gluing in.

Fitting the bass rider into the peg box is a lot like fitting the chanterelle tuner, which I described in last week's episode: the slot is about 2.5mm deep, with the front edge square to the cheek, and the back edge angled slightly. I have chiseled out this area by hand, but will run over it with my dremel router and then clean it up with files and a chisel. (The block of wood inside the peg box provides a flat surface for the router to ride on.)

With the channel cut and the rider fitted into it, I can check the alignment one more time before gluing up.

Here's my nylon fishing line stretched from the position of the 12th course octave on the bridge. I know how far away I want that string to be from the 11th course bass string, and I know how high I want it to be in relation to the nut slot on the rider. This alignment looks good to me--I'm going to heat up my glue, and get this bass rider glued into the peg box.

Here are all the pieces. Along with three c-clamps, I've got a small piece of spruce to protect the front of the foot, and a small shaped caul that fits in the back end of the rider. There's also a thick piece of spruce on the back of the peg box, to protect it during clamping.

The length of the foot means that unlike the chanterelle tuner, the bass rider needs to be clamped in place.

When the glue has dried and I've cleared the excess away next morning, I can carve the piece in. I hold it on a piece of leather in my lap and work mainly with the small, curved-blade violinmaker's knife across the grain. 

I like the textured surface I get with that knife--it allows me to see the developing shape pretty clearly, and I can get a good overall form before moving on to finishing tools.
The tools I use for that part of the process are a set of Japanese finger rasps from Lee Valley Tools; fine files; and small curved scrapers.
I like the finger rasps--they cut well but aren't too aggressive, and leave a nice surface that can be finished with scrapers.

Here's my result: I think it's an elegant shape. The front leg needs to balance lightness with strength, as do the cheeks, and the width of the rider must gracefully taper to width of the peg box cheek into which it's glued. In addition, that teardrop cutaway wants elegant curves and well-chamfered edges (and I quite like the way it mimics, a little, the shape of the chanterelle tuner on the far side of the peg box.)
It's a lot of fun to sit down and carve something like this, and actually figure out the shape of the thing by doing it. It's a process of continual discovery, a period of intense looking and observing--turning the thing in your hands, adjusting the light source, seeing how the curves and recurves work and evolve, trying to get a sense of the overall visual and physical balance. It's a very satisfying experience, one of the most satisfying of my whole lute making practice.

Of course, I'm greatly assisted in this work by the set of photographs I have of the Paris Schelle, some of which you see in the photo above. These were taken by Grant Tomlinson on one of his European research trips in the 1970s and 1980s. It's been my privilege throughout my professional career as a lute maker to have had ready access to Grant's entire collection of his photographs of historical lutes. I've also benefitted immensely by having access to the notes Grant wrote on those trips for all the lutes that he examined. He looked at instruments in museum collections in England, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium; dozens and dozens of instruments altogether, a real treasure trove of information. Many of the dimensions of the lute I'm telling you about building were adapted from measurements that Grant took in his travels. And, of course, the photos are extremely helpful in puzzling out shapes and details. I owe Grant a ton; I owe Grant a house.

Let me ask you a question. After reading that last paragraph, are you not the least bit jealous of me, and the access I've had to all this wonderful information about historical lutes?

Well, you needn't be. At least, you'll only have to be jealous of me for a little while longer. A few years ago, Grant approached the Lute Society of America and offered to give it his archive: hundreds of photos, and hundreds of pages of hand-written notes, on dozens and dozens of historical lutes. The LSA accepted, and for a few years now, Grant and Phil Rukavina, the LSA's web master, have been toiling away at scanning the pages of Grant's notebook, digitizing photo negatives (many of which had never been printed before), and getting the results up online. I know that it's been a great deal of work, for both of them, and I know that not quite all the work is done yet. However... a little bird has told me that the work is finally nearing completion, and in a little while, the whole world of lute makers will have access to this invaluable resource. I don't yet have a date, but when the launch happens, I will let you know. So please stay tuned.

But enough talk! Back to lute making. What's left to do is get this peg box, with all its encrustations, onto the neck of the lute.

I've sized a number of times, with hot glue size, the base of the peg box, and the rebate for the peg box in the neck of the lute. When that size has dried--next morning--I re-flatten the peg box and re-fit it in the rebate. 
My final fit. I'll warm up my glue, and get set up.

Here's my peg box gluing jig: just a piece of ply with cork lining the underside, and an angled block screwed on. I use the jig for pretty much all my peg box gluing jobs--depending on the lute, I'll swap out the block for one with a different angle. I also need to adjust the distance of the block from the end of the neck, again, depending on the lute.

This is pretty much the whole set-up. Four cam clamps on the back end of the jig, one up near the peg box rebate. That should be enough clamping pressure to keep the thing from pulling forward when I glue in the peg box and put clamps on it.

One feature I might draw your attention to here is the pair of wedges I've placed between the edges of the jig and the edges of the neck. I need them because of the fingerboard's rather extreme curvature. (If I use this jig on a renaissance lute, the flatter fingerboard means I don't need the wedges.) 

This is the basic posture of the instrument when I glue on the peg box--belly-down on the bench pad, propped up on the stems of the cam clamps. By the time I get the peg box on and a couple of ratchet clamps in place, the lute will be a little end-heavy. I've found that the best way to keep it from tipping over--and at the same time protect the lute from any mishap--is just to lay on pieces of fabric. I have a green velvet piece on the back, topped with a folded sheet of heavy green fabric (which I once used for a photo backdrop.) I'll probably put some towels on top of that too, just to be on the safe side.

To locate the peg box for gluing, I hold it accurately in place and press a piece of 1/2" masking tape over the front of the joint, from the bottom block of the peg box down onto the end of the neck. I will then take a small, sharp knife and cut that piece of masking tape in two, exactly at the joint. When I glue up, I will be able to align the peg box by aligning the edges of the bisected piece of tape.

This is one of the dry runs I do to work out details before gluing up. In a minute, I'll take of the clamps, then check my glue. If it's hot and the right consistency, I'll heat both the peg box base and the rebate with the hair dryer, then brush hot glue on both. Quickly but calmly I'll place the peg box in the rebate, and rub it side to side ever so slightly, bringing the locator tapes into exact alignment. Then I'll place one cam clamp, and snug it, then the other, and then snug both. And that will be that. 

I look for good glue squeeze-out all around the joint. I will also paint some hot glue around all the edges of the joint, so that the glue, as it cools and contracts, will help to pull the two sides of the joint together. (I've used this technique many times during construction; see, for instance, gluing on the neck, in episode 4.)

I think the fitting and gluing went very well, and I'm looking forward to coming in tomorrow morning, cleaning up the excess glue, and seeing how things look. There are a few more little jobs to do before finishing out the peg box and neck, and I will tell you all about them next time.