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!