Sunday, 14 May 2017

Calling All Lute Makers, 2017, or: Building a Lute at the Kitchen Table

Hey everybody--what are you up to this coming August? If you're itching to do some lute making, I've got just the thing for you....

I will again be teaching the lute building class at the LSA Festival West (AKA WestFest), this year in its new location, the campus of the University of Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, August 6-11 2017. I'm really excited about the move--Victoria is a beautiful and very musical city, and the UVic campus will be a lovely location for our classes and concerts. Full details of faculty, courses, accommodations, etc, may be found at the website of the Lute Society of America. Today, I want to tell you a little about what I have in mind for the lute building class.

As in years past, I'll be bringing tools and materials to a classroom on campus, where I will set up a fully operational lute making workshop. The difference, this time around, is that I'll be a little bit farther away from the comforts of my home workshop than I've been before. When the LSA Festival was held in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia (just down the street from my workshop), I could basically toss every tool, jig, and piece of wood I owned into a moving van and haul it out there, but now that it's in Victoria--a two-hour ferry ride away--I will have to be much more selective about what I bring. The new rule is that whatever comes with me must fit into the trunk of my car. So there, I guess, will be the first lesson of this lute building class: how little do you need, in terms of tools, equipment, and materials, to get a workshop working, and put together a lute? It's an important question for folks just starting out in instrument making, or who otherwise have limited space and resources to do so. Hence the subtitle for today's post, which has been the experience of many first time lute makers I've known: Building a Lute at the Kitchen Table.

As in years past, I want to touch on all the main lute building techniques:
--looking at historical evidence, and designing a lute;
--building a workable mold;
--choosing and thicknessing materials;
--bending and fitting ribs;
--joining and thicknessing the belly, and carving the rose;
--barring the belly;
--making the bridge;
--controlling the action (i.e., neck angle and string height) throughout the building process;
--and (as we say in the used-car business) much much more!!!

So, the course will be a mix of theoretical stuff and hands-on work, both for me and for class participants. I want this to be a hands-on course, so depending on your experience, skill level and comfort, I want you to try out the techniques of lute making.

There will also be a special emphasis this time out on how to do a final setup on a just-finished lute. For the last couple of years, the very talented emerging lute maker Wilma Van Berkel of London, Ontario, has been making regular visits to my Vancouver workshop to study with me.
Wilma, hard at work gluing on the belly
During those visits, she has worked on a single project: a 6 course lute, based on the small Frei (C34 in the Vienna KHM). Right now, she is working on the last couple of stages in her own workshop, varnishing the back and installing a peg box. If everything goes according to plan, she'll bring this lute with her to the WestFest, and there we'll work on the final-final steps in the class:
--fitting pegs;
--fitting a nut;
--filing string grooves and adjusting string heights;
--tying a set of gut frets;
--stringing up.

I think it'll be an exciting finish to Wilma's project--playing the first notes on a brand new instrument, in front of some of the best and brightest lute makers, players and teachers in the world. Not much pressure at all!

For the main part of the class, I want to work again with one particular model of lute: the 1592 Venere. You might remember that we worked with a 7 course, 13 rib version of this instrument in the 2015 building class in Vancouver. I think it makes a good model for two reasons: one, because it makes an excellent lute for beginning players, and two, because it makes an excellent lute for beginning makers (though of course it's great for more experienced makers and players too.) As in the 2015 class, I will offer a technical drawing of the lute, and a packet of other information, free to all class participants.

Here are a few pics of the lute that began life during that class, that I and some of my lute making colleagues here in Vancouver gradually put together over the months following the course.
The back, of 13 ribs of dark yew with sycamore spacers, was built by me and Wilma van Berkel.
This lovely bridge was made by Grant Tomlinson (Grant also kindly supplied the soundboard.)
Grant also made a set of pegs for the lute. Ray Nurse made (and fitted, and glued) the peg box, and made and fitted the nut.

I did most of the rest of the work on this lute--the neck, the fingerboard, thicknessing and barring the belly, finishing and varnishing, stringing, etc. Since it was already the product of a number of hands, I decided to include work by another emerging lute maker--Travis Carey. This is a rose that I carved for a lute that never quite got made, circa 2003. I'd kept it around for years as a demonstration piece, but Grant Tomlinson suggested that I inlay it in the new belly of this lute. I think it looks good--it adds a patina of instant age and respectability to a freshly-made lute, and it was certainly less work to inlay the old one than to cut a new rose! (By the way, recycling like this was commonly done in the workshops of the old master makers.)
Before I glued the belly in, I had all the makers involved write their initials on the maker's label that's glued on the inside of the lute's back, visible through the rose. (My darling wife Julia hand-lettered the label for us.)
So there we are: Grant Tomlinson, Ray Nurse, Wilma van Berkel, and me, Travis Carey: the Commonwealth of Vancouver Lute Makers. I would again like to thank everybody who participated in making the lute--many hands made lighter work for all, and I do appreciate the efforts. (I would also like to thank the Lute Society of America for covering the cost of a hardshell Kingham case.) The instrument was always intended to be used as a loaner or rental lute for a deserving student within Canada, and so it is: it's on loan to a student of music at the University of Victoria. (Perhaps it will make an appearance at the upcoming Lute Fest...)
Just as we did in the 2015 class, I want to start building another one of these lutes in August, again as (eventually) a loaner or rental for a deserving student or player here in Canada. We may not be able to build an entire lute in one week, but I want to make a good start--and I want the participants of the lute making class to lend a hand. I invite you to come to the class ready to give things a try--to bend a rib, fit a rib, glue a rib, help to carve the rose, carve a bridge, shape the neck, or make the peg-box--any of the thousand and one tasks involved building a lute. And, as is the custom for those who've worked on the lute, be ready to sign your initials on the maker's label.

I hope to see you there!


  1. This is a wonderful resource. Looking forward to further posts. LPK