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.


  1. A very smart and well-executed solution to a tricky problem--my hat is off to you, Travis. It all this old whistle-worker likes to say--thoroughly organbuilderly. Fairer than that I cannot say.

    The next time you're in Montreal, get in touch if your schedule permits. It would be great to meet you!

    James Louder

    1. Thank you, James--I appreciate it. And I will get in touch next time I'm in town!

  2. Hi Travis,
    That was a real challenge,and you surmounted it with brains and grace. It looks as if it always was there and it looks stronger. I always thought the Burkholtzer bass rider looks risky weak.
    I assume you used a strong grade of hide glue. My question(s) is/are: is the jointing on the new plate just surface to surface? And how was it clamped?
    Thanks for your wonderful blogs. I hope we'll meet some day.

    1. Hi Jean,
      Thank you very much for your comment, it means a lot. I'm glad you approve of the solution I came up with!

      I used my regular hide glue on this (192 gram strength from Bjorn Industries), and joined the two surfaces flat to each other. As I describe in the blog post, I used two bamboo dowels to locate the plate and provide extra strength. I had planned to drill holes and insert more dowels after the glue was dry (there was room for a few more, spaced in between the peg holes in the peg box cheek), but I found after the gluing that the piece felt very solid, so I didn't bother. I judged that the only way this piece would come loose was due to an impact (which is I think how the bass rider was knocked off in the first place), and I think there's not much you can do to build stronger to guard against that. Under normal conditions, under normal string tension, I think it should be fine.

      By the way, there is a photo of the gluing setup: it's where I talk about masking the peg box cheek and padding the back of the peg box. Look closely, and you'll see I used two wooden cam clamps, with the stems facing in opposite directions.

      Hope to see you soon too--perhaps on our next trip to the east. Cheers!

    2. Hello Travis,
      Yes I see it now. Oops I don't know how I could have miss it. 🙄
      Btw your French Lesser Theorbo is absolutely gorgeous.

    3. Thanks! I plan to write about that little theorbo in the next couple of posts.