Tuesday, 15 November 2011


Today, as promised, a brief description of making the Widhalm 'swan-neck' extension--the elegant, elongated double pegbox on the 13 course lute that I completed earlier in the summer.

But why a Widhalm extension? you ask.  Who is this Widhalm you keep talking about, Travis?

Well, the full name is Martin Leopold Widhalm, Leopold to his friends, and he was a lute and violin maker in Germany in the middle 1700s.  Originally from Vienna, he came to Nuremberg to work in the shop of the master luthier Sebastian Schelle shortly after Schelle's death, in 1744.  At this time the workshop was being run by Schelle's eldest daughter Barbara.  Apparently sparks flew (a dangerous thing when there's sawdust around!), because she and Leopold were married within the year.  They worked together to the end of their lives--Leopold died in 1776, Barbara in 1781--making lutes and violins of the highest quality, and they raised three sons who carried on the family trade.

I mention this not just because it's an interesting and happy story of true love in the lute shop (though I am all in favour of that)--it also shows a direct connection between the model of lute I've made and the model of pegbox extension I want to use with it.  Whenever I consider the design of an instrument, I try to make sure that my choices are historically informed--that there's some sort of evidence, whether pictorial, or documentary, or physical (a surviving instrument) that supports what I'm doing.  I'm not dogmatic about such things, but I do want to guard against creating any glaring historical anachronisms.  In the case of the Widhalm extension, it's a good historical fit, but it's also a really good model.  If it's executed well, it looks great, and most importantly, it works.

Anyway, on to the process.  And to give credit where credit is due: the method I've used here was shown to me by my mentor, master lute maker Grant Tomlinson.  One cannot go far astray with such a generous teacher to show the way!

Begin with an appropriately sized chunk of beautiful, creamy English Sycamore, and two patterns, showing the plan and side views of the extension.  Draw the patterns on the planed surfaces of the blank, and proceed to the bandsaw--
I've cut from the side first, but as you'll notice, I haven't cut the waste pieces away completely--I've left little 'bridges' of material at strategic places so that the entire blank remains intact for the time being.  This is so I can now lay down the blank flat on its back, and cut out the plan-view shape.

And this is what it looks like after cutting the plan view.  I can now take the piece to the workbench and cut away the waste pieces with a hand saw.
And here's what I'm left with: the basic shape that I can now refine with rasps, files, and scrapers.

No sooner said than done!  This sycamore is lovely stuff to work.

Next, I locate and drill all the peg holes in the pegbox extension.  There are 24 pegs, so 24 holes in each side of the pegbox...48 holes in all... and they'd better be in the right place!  Once I've engineered all that, I can use patterns to lay out the areas that I need to carve out.  I avail myself of the modern technology of the drill press and forstner bit to remove the bulk of the material, and then I'll finish off these cutaways with hand carving tools.

I need to fit a tall nut on the extension, so I carefully cut a slot and fit a tapered piece of hard maple.

Everything looks good so far--I'll start fitting the extension to the neck of the lute.

The main things to keep in mind while fitting this is that the extension needs to be aligned in two axes, up and down and side to side--but the joint itself needs to be perfectly fitted.

When I'm absolutely sure that everything is in proper alignment, I can set up my gluing rig, take a deep breath, and glue it in place.  As always, hide glue is the perfect adhesive for the job.

To give myself a little extra room for adjustment during the fitting-up process, I've left the root end of the extension a little over-size.  Once the extension's glued on, I can carve away this excess, and make a smooth transition between the neck and the extension.

When it's all in shape, I dye the extension black, using a dyestuff called logwood.  It comes in powder form, and it's taken from a South American tree.  It's a very reliable, colourfast dye, and it's been in use for a long time (I've read that the Puritans used it to dye their clothing black.)

You'll notice that I'm dyeing not only the Widhalm extension, but also the pegboxes and pegs of a couple of other lutes (the 8c and 11c that I built alongside this 13c).  Dyeing is a bit of a messy and involved process, and I try to arrange my work so I can do a number of different jobs all at the same time.

The colour of the dyed extension is a little cold at this point, and so far not a good match with the warmer tones of the ebony veneered neck.  The colour changes, though, as soon as I apply an oil finish to the extension.  The oil warms up the colour considerably, and now there's a nice match of colour and surface texture between the veneered neck and the extension.

Now we're ready to fit the pegs, fit the two bone nuts, and string up the finished instrument.

There we are!  Now all I've got to do is learn how to play the Baroque lute.  (So far, at least, I'm a Renaissance man only....)  If there are any Baroque players out there, maybe you could leave a comment telling me if I'm at least holding the lute properly!

And that's the end of the process.  What I've described here is by no means a blow-by-blow of the entire procedure of making and fitting this extension--I've just given some highlights.  The end product turned out really well, and I'm quite happy with the process and the result. 

Until we meet again....

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Fresh-baked lutes! Get 'em while they're hot!

Hi everyone--hope you had a great summer.  Mine was fantastic--among many other adventures, the Lute Society of America Workshop was held in August at UBC, and I was the Lute Doctor.  I got to meet a lot of old friends and new friends, and got to meet a whole lot of lutes (and tie a whole lot of frets!)  I'll post a pic or two on an upcoming blog post--for now, I have some older business to tell you about.

Last I posted was in late June.  I was working on three lutes at the time,  an 11c lute, an 8c, and a 13c.  Well, the good news is that all three are finished, all three turned out fabulously well (if I may say so myself), and all three are with their new owners, in their new homes--Seattle, Washington; Homer, Alaska; and Sydney, Australia.  Here they are, the finished products:

The 11c Frei--

The 8c Tieffenbrucher--

And the 13c Schelle (with an extension after Leopold Widhalm)--

 Three new lutes; a good winter's work.  I'm on to new projects now, but for the moment I'd like to dwell on the 13c lute, specifically the pegbox extension.  It was the first time I'd made one of these beasts, and it was a big challenge, and a lot of fun.  I'll tell you about it in the next post--soon!

Thursday, 23 June 2011

A long, long, long, long, long story short

Hello friends, and welcome back to the lute blog.  It has been a long time since I last posted, and for those of you who once hung on my every word, and have felt bereft, nay betrayed, since the last installment, my sincerest apologies.  All I can say in my defense is that work in the shop has taken precedence over writing about work in the shop.

I think I need to refocus my expectations a bit about what I can do with a blog.  Lute making's all about details (finely wrought, one hopes), but trying to cram all of that detail into a journal such as this is just foolish.  Not that I intend to do that--the subtitle says clearly this is an occasional  journal--but to me all of these details are equally fascinating and worthy of blogification.  But then the idea of sitting at the computer and rehashing the hours I've just put in at the workbench, fascinating though they may be, turns me off the idea altogether, and I just want to run out into the meadow and chase butterflies.  Then the shame spiral sets in, and the less I blog the less I feel worthy of blogging, and then nothing gets blogged at all.  Oh, Blog, it wasn't supposed to be this way!  Oh, Blog, why dost thou torment me so?

Ahem.  Excuse me.  Back to what I was saying, about lutes.

So last time we talked I was just about to glue in bellies into the three lutes.  (That was in April.  I've had two haircuts since then!)  The good news is, all went well, the bellies stuck, and life continued.  The gluing of the lute belly is always a bit of a wistful time, a time of hope and fond wish and sincere expectation; you've done your research and your best work and made your best choices, regarding thicknesses and barring patterns and suchlike; you may even have strung up a temporary string with the belly taped in place, just to hear what the top course might sound like--but even with all this preparation, you still don't really know how things will sound until the lute's done and strung and played.  Think of it as a time capsule, a box into which you place your most treasured possession, in the hope that sometime, somewhere down the line, someone will discover it and find it beautiful.
A lute belly glued in--

Soon becomes a lute (or three) with edge bindings, fingerboard points, and fingerboard.

Ah, how quickly they grow!

(from left: the 11c Warwick Frei, the 8c Tieffenbrucher, the 13c Schelle.)

At this point, the lutes are finished 'in the white', and are nearly ready to be varnished.  The fingerboards have been planed to the proper contour (so that the action will turn out just right), and the entire lute has been carefully brought to its final shape.

One of the last tasks at this stage is it burnish the back of the lute (the bowl).  This is done not with any kind of space-age abrasive, but with the dried stalks of a common plant called horsetail (it's also called shave grass).  It grows everywhere in marshy areas, so there's lots of it around Vancouver (there's some growing up against the cinderblock building across the alley from my workshop).  Here's a sample of some of the dried segments I used to burnish the back of the Schelle lute:
Here is a disembodied hand in action with the shave grass:

If you work patiently, shave grass will burnish the wood of the bowl to an almost gloss surface--a great foundation for your layers of varnish.

Luthiers of all kinds have been using this stuff to burnish instruments probably since musical instruments started being made.  It's funny how a small thing like this can, if you give it a moment's thought, connect you with a tradition that's about as old as humanity itself.

The lutes are now ready to be varnished.  Another major step's complete.  And while they're being varnished, I'm going to get to work on pegboxes and pegs.  This is a fun topic all on its own, and the subject of the next blog post....

But for now, I've got butterflies to chase!

Monday, 25 April 2011

Disembodied hands

So, the bars are glued onto the underside of the belly...now what?

Now things start to move along relatively quickly.  If lute making was an action movie, the point we're at now would be at the beginning of a (really slow) car chase.  In a reasonably short time, a number of pieces are going to be fitted together, and things will soon begin to look an awful lot like an actual lute.

The first thing to do after the main bars are on is to glue on a number of small bars that support the delicate pattern of the rose.  Depending on the pattern, there might be a half-dozen or more placed strategically behind the rose:

Notice the ends of these little bars--I've scorched them with a hot iron.  This is because of another amazing property of hide glue.  While normally it takes a few minutes to set, and another few hours to dry hard, hide glue will crystallize instantly if it is scorched.  So, rather than clamping each rose bar separately, all you need to do is brush some hot hide glue on the bar, stick it down in place, scorch the ends, and voila--the bar is stuck down securely, effectively clamped at each end, and the hide glue in the middle can dry naturally over the next few hours.  I ask, is there anything hide glue can't do?

The larger bars have been glued on over-size, so the next job is to plane them down to their finished profile.  Here are a pair of disembodied hands doing just this work:

The bars are chamfered along their tops, and their ends are given a long, gentle scallop.  Here's what the 8 course belly looks like with this trimming done.

If you look closely at this photo, you'll see the outline of the lute's body that I craftily drew onto the belly just before gluing on the bars.  At this point,  I can trim back the ends of the bars until they are just inside that line, and begin the process of fitting the belly into the body of the lute.

I won't rely on just that line when I'm fitting up the belly to the body, however.  In fact, I'll spend a lot of time at the bench trimming bar ends, fitting the body over the belly, looking at the outline of the lute and the curve of the outside rib, making sure I've got a smooth shape all the way around.  This trimming and testing is the only way I have of making sure I'll have a good, smooth, aesthetically pleasing outline when the belly is eventually glued in.

Right now, though, I'm most concerned with getting a true and accurate fit because I want to find out where the bridge will be located (and glued) on the belly.  Of course, I have a theoretical location in mind where I hope the bridge will go--it's on the detailed drawing I made of the lute long before I started to build it. Theory and reality don't always exactly match up, however, especially when putting together such a complex machine as a lute. 
So what I do is carefully fit the belly into the body, and tape it securely in place.

Then I lay my detailed layout drawing on top of the lute, and see how theory and reality match up.

Hmmm... looks good.  Looks very good, in fact.  I flatter myself (and invite the wrath of the gods of lute making) by telling myself I must be getting good at this.

In fact, all three of the lutes in this batch look in very good shape.  I'm able to mark the location of the bridges on their respective bellies by using only a couple of pricks of a sharp pin.  Then, in a flurry of work and concentration, and following a carefully worked-out and time-tested routine, over three successive days I glue three bridges on three bellies.

If I've done my work correctly, I've created a glued joint on each that will withstand the combined tension of as many as a couple of dozen strings, and transmit the vibrations of those strings to the soundboard as efficiently as possible.

As with all of this, the proof will be in the playing... but for now, I'm very happy with the progress of these lutes.  


Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Innards

At the risk of stating the obvious, I have found that the work of making lutes consists largely of making things.  Cut a rose, carve a bridge, turn a set of pegs--there are just a lot of different items that need to be produced.  That's good: I like making things, and each day in the shop is different, so there's never a dull moment.  That being said, however, you can make a lot of things without actually making a lute. There comes a time in the process when you have to start putting some of these things together.

Most of the time, that will involve using hide glue.  Perhaps you're familiar with this stuff; if not, I'll briefly acquaint you.  

Hide glue is made from the hides and connective tissues of certain animals (and yes, horses are prime candidates for this job).  It's been used by woodworkers for thousands of years, though not too many woodworkers use it these days--synthetic glues are more convenient and readily available.  (Incidentally, my mom tells me that my Swedish great-grandfather, a woodworker who came to Canada in the early years of the last century, used to make his own hide glue.)

But nothing beats hide glue for putting together a lute, for a lot of reasons.  It dries hard and makes a very strong joint, yet with a little water and heat (and time, and much care!), any joint on a lute may be reversed.  This is especially important where the soundboard joins the body.  Most lutes will, at some point during their lifetime, need to have the soundboard removed for repairs or action adjustments, and this difficult job is made a little easier if hide glue's been used.

Here's what it looks like in granular form, straight out of the bag.

Put a scoop of this stuff in a baby-food jar, add a little water and swish it around.  Leave it for an hour or two to let the glue absorb the water, then heat the jar in a pan of water.   The glue becomes liquid, and it's ready for use.  So get to work!
Today's job is to glue bars on the underside of the soundboard (or the belly, as it's called in the trade).  These bars are "innards" of the lute, and they function exactly the same way your innards do: they provide strength and structure, and ensure that the whole body functions harmoniously (and keeps you singing sweetly....)

The barring patterns for these three lutes are all basically similar, but there are some important differences.  I don't want to launch into a big discussion of lute barring here--I'll only say that within some basic parameters, there are just about endless possibilities for varying the height, thickness, and location of one or all of the bars, and each of these adjustments will have an effect on the sound of the lute.  

I've devised a barring scheme for each lute, based on historical evidence.  I've selected barring material from my stock of fine European spruce, creamy-white, close-grained and stiff, and cut and planed each piece to the correct dimension.  My hide glue is ready, heated to the correct temperature and diluted to the correct consistency.  I'm just about ready to go....but wait.

In a minute, I'm going to be gluing a dozen or so bars to the underside of the belly--that's going to involve a lot of clamping.  I don't have enough clamps in my whole shop to do it, and even if I did, I couldn't put all those clamps on the belly at once--there just wouldn't be room for them.  I suppose I could glue a few bars down, let the glue dry, then glue on a few more, but the whole job would take days.  At the same time, gluing a few bars at different times and in different shop humidities might introduce tensions into the soundboard that could eventually end up cracking it, and causing a lot of other problems.  So what's the solution?

The solution is a contraption called a go-bar deck.  Lots of lute makers and guitar makers use them, and they are a miracle.  Not the simplest thing to use--it gets to be quite a forest in there toward the end of the job, and the one thing you do not want to do is accidentally nudge one of those sprung bars--but once you are ready to start the job, it's pretty much guaranteed that in an hour or so you'll be done, and all the bars will be glued on at the correct humidity.  Here's what it looks like, fully-loaded, all bars glued and stuck down, held in place by flexible bars made of red oak.  (My glue pot on the hot plate is just on the left.)

Here's a closer shot:

And one from the back side, showing a better view of the belly and bars.

This go-bar deck was kindly lent to me by Grant Tomlinson. (His workshop is just down the hall--we'll go visit him and see what he's been up to in a future post.)

So that's another big job done.  I'll leave it to dry overnight, then next morning carefully remove the go-bars and set the belly aside.  Then later on in the afternoon, I'll glue the bars on the next belly... and the next day, glue the bars on the third. 

Here's what one of the finished products looks like--this is the 13 course belly with bars glued on, just after coming out of the go-bar deck.  The bars still need to be trimmed and given a final shape, then the belly will be fitted into the body.  Exciting stuff coming up!  See you next time...