Sunday 1 November 2015

On the Proper Method of Pruning a Rose (or, My Adventures in Copyrightland)

I recently received a pleasant surprise, a message in my newfangled electronic-mail inbox.  "Dear Mr. Carey," it began, "Here's a kind of request you may not have encountered before."  Indeed, I had not.  The message was from Barbara Newman, a professor of English, Religious Studies and Classics at Northwestern University.  It was a request to use an image of a lute rose that I had carved, photographed and posted on my blog a couple of years back, for the cover of her forthcoming book, an edition of a set of 12th century Latin love letters, possibly written by Heloise and Abelard.  The book is scheduled for publication by Penn (the University of Pennsylvania Press) in the spring of 2016. 

As Professor Newman explained, "Finding good cover art was a challenge; all the great medieval paintings of lovers are later than my letters, and I wanted to avoid anachronism.  But then I stumbled on your blog, with the photo of your lute rose adapted from a 1592 Venere instrument.  I sent it to my editor, who had already rejected several of my suggestions, and he liked it a lot.  Below you'll see what the designer did with it, turning the rose into a window through which we glimpse a distant landscape."

Of course, I immediately gave permission to use my photo of my rose carving.  The project seemed so worthy, the jacket design so tasteful, and the request so gracious--how could I possibly refuse?  Additional incentives were that I would be given a credit line (to be written by me), and that I would receive a free copy of the book.  Pushing my luck, I asked for two copies--one for me, which I will treasure, and one for the client for whose lute I carved this rose.  I'm sure he'll be thrilled to receive it.  I remember him telling me when he requested this design, out of all the possible historical examples I had shown him, that he had just fallen in love with the pattern.  I know the feeling, and I'm sure many of you do as well.

Here's the photo of the original rose I carved in 2014, which was used for the jacket design.

Most of you will know that I love to carve lute roses, love to photograph the carvings, and love to post those photos on this blog.  It's a bit of advertising, sure, but it's really mostly just a way for me to celebrate and share the work I do and the beauty I live for.  It makes me happy when I learn that other people take pleasure in my words and images, and to receive a request like Professor Newman's is gratifying and very flattering indeed.

Sometimes, though, I'm a bit more... ambivalent about such attention.

Take, for instance, that morning in the spring of 2014 when, over my bowl of porridge, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and this popped up:

Neat poster, I thought, cool program, great line-up of players, but that rose photo looks pretty familiar... now where have I seen that before?  Oh yeah--on my blog!  I carved it, I photo'd it, I posted it, and there it was, looking right back at me, a friend and a stranger at the same time.  Odd feeling.  A bit, I suppose, like watching somebody drive by in your stolen car, or walk your stolen dog down the sidewalk in front of your house, or play your stolen guitar from the stage.  Alienating.

The original photo:

I can see why the music school would want to use this for their poster--it's one of the best carvings of this pattern (from the Warwick Frei) that I've done, and it's certainly the best rose photo that I've ever taken.  I remember the morning I took it: I'd finished the carving and set it in the window, and the light was beautiful, the air so soft, a mist coming up from the river, the sun breaking through the clouds of late-winter rain... the carving glowed, lit up from the inside.  It was kind of a miraculous moment.

Obviously, somebody else felt the same way.

Mightily annoyed, I climbed up on my very highest horse and fired off a tersely worded email to the offending institution, requesting, nay demanding, that the poster be taken down, expunged from the internet, cast into the depths, etc., etc.  Further, I shamed them, shamed them with my wagging, nagging finger that as an educational institution they should know better than to thieve so blatantly.  Then I hit send, sat back, and waited for my satisfaction to come rolling back to me through the transatlantic wires.

And even before it did--long before it did, actually, before I received their complete and abject apology for having used my precious photo without asking--I felt like a total jerk.  Who on earth did I think I was?  What possible difference did it make that they'd used my photo?  The concert was free--I'm sure nobody was paid anything for participating--and the only reason the school and the players put on the show was to share some beautiful music, and spread the good word about the lute, the instrument I most love and that I've devoted my working life to.  Why wouldn't I support that?

Confused and a bit guilt-ridden, I went to Facebook, told my friends and acquaintances about the situation, and asked the collected wisdom to speak its mind.  I got a lot of responses, some of them helpful, some not.  Don't worry about it, some said, it's just a little free show.  You should be happy your work got shown around--it's exposure!  (No matter that my name and the source of the photo were nowhere attached to the poster.)  Others said, hey, it's a real problem, but there's not much to be done, unless you want to start watermarking your photos.  It's the internet!  Stuff gets used everywhere, all the time, everything's up for grabs.  It's the future, and you might as well learn to live with it, old man.

Time passed.  I felt less bad for giving the music school such pure, unadulterated heck for their misdemeanor.  They even sent me a DVD of their 2009 production of Monteverdi's "L'incoronazione di Poppea." It was nice of them--they didn't have to do that.  Bad feelings went away, and were replaced with a kind of rueful forgiveness.  I hoped that we'd both learned a valuable lesson.

But I have to say that for me, things still felt a little unresolved--until, that is, I got that email request from Professor Newman.  There's one sentence in it that really made my heart sing: "Since the photo is under copyright," she wrote, "I'm writing now to ask if we might have your permission to adapt it."

For me, that's the whole issue in a nutshell.  As I understand it, the copyright of all the words and pics I post on this blog belongs to me, without my having to do anything else to assert it.  The phrase that appears at the end of this post, down at the bottom of the page, "Copyright 2011-2015 by Travis Carey," is a courtesy, a reminder to anyone reading the blog that to borrow, adapt, or otherwise re-use anything on it should be done only after asking my permission.  For Professor Newman, coming from an academic background, asking permission and giving credit where it's due is a professional imperative; but to me, it's also, generally, just good manners.

But I hear the objection: what about re-posting?  What about social media?  What about sharing?  All of those are fine, and I welcome them, but I must insist that my name travel along with any of the images or words that get passed along.  I don't like the idea of having to electronically watermark my photos, because in a way that just assumes the worst in people, which I prefer not to do (if I were a professional photographer and made my living from my images, I might feel otherwise).  At the same time, I realize that mistakes are easily made, and I am willing to forgive an error, or ask that an oversight be corrected.  And I ask that the same courtesy be extended to me: I occasionally use images from other sources on this blog, and I try my best to track down their owners and ask permission to use them, but sometimes it's just not possible.  If I've committed an error, or made an oversight, please let me know, and I will correct it. 

If anyone is ever in doubt about whether she or he should ask permission to use my words or photos in another context, I would say that you should let that doubt be your guide, and ask permission.  Leave a message for me on the blog; message me on Facebook; send me an email.  Chances are that unless you are planning to do something morally or politically objectionable with my words or images, I will say yes to your request.

All you have to do is ask. 

Sunday 24 May 2015

Calling all lute makers!

As some of you may know, I will be teaching the lute building course at the upcoming Lute Society of America Workshop West, July 26-31 at the UBC campus in Vancouver BC (the city where I live!  how convenient.)  An overview of the entire LSA Workshop is available on the website of Early Music Vancouver; today, I thought I'd tell you in a bit more detail what I have in mind for the lute making course.

For those of you who haven't attended the lute building class at the Vancouver LSA, what happens is that we, the lute making group, commandeer an entire corner third-floor classroom in the Music building and set up a pretty much complete lute making studio there.  I spend days before the Workshop packing up my belongings, and on the Sunday before the course begins, I and my helpers move them from my Barnard Street work space out to UBC.  Two work benches, various lute molds and materials, many plans and drawings, clamps and jigs, planes, scrapers, knives, and chisels--practically all my hand tools--are spread out in all their glory on tables in the classroom, ready to be put to work.  There's essentially everything we need in that room to build a lute. 

And that's exactly what I'd like to do--build a lute!  Or, if not actually build a whole lute, then at least make a very good start on one.

Over the week, the class will talk about all aspects of lute making, and to do that most effectively, we'll focus on one lute in particular: the 7 course by Vendelio Venere, 1592, in the Accademia Filarmonica in Bologna.   I've put together a working drawing, based on Grant Tomlinson's original drawing of the historical lute, for a new 7 course version; the drawing contains a ton of information, and will be provided free of charge to course participants.  There will also be a sheaf of historical photographs of the original Venere lute available, courtesy of Grant T (participants should bring a thumb drive.)  Participants can also purchase, for a small fee, a copy of Grant's historical drawing of the Venere lute, which he examined and documented during his European Grand Tour of lute measuring, in 1978-79.  I urge you to get one--this drawing has provided me with practical, aesthetic and moral inspiration for years.

I've also revised and spiffed up my mold for the 1592 Venere 7c.  Here it is:

I chose the 1592 Venere for the class to study this year for one practical reason: because I think it will make a very fine student lute.  The keen-eyed among you will have noticed that my mold is for 13 ribs; the original lute has 25.   Reducing the number of ribs in this way allows us to simplify construction quite a bit, while still retaining the body's beautiful lines.  It may also, I hope, allow us to put at least the back of this lute together during the week.

To do that, I'm inviting participants in the class to try their hand at bending, fitting and gluing a rib (and a sycamore spacer.)  Whether you have a lot of experience or little--or none at all--with bending and fitting ribs, now is your chance to give it a shot.  Trained and experienced technicians are standing by to give advice and coaching (or even to take over if you start to have major problems.)  We will be using a set of heartwood yew ribs for this lute, so if you've never worked with this material before--and it is somewhat rare and difficult to obtain--come down to the lute shop and give it a try.  (I also have it on good authority that a couple of celebrity lute makers might put in appearance during the week, and fit up a rib or two, if their busy schedules permit.)

My idea is that this lute will be a cooperatively built instrument intended for student use, either as a loaner, locally in Vancouver, or as a donation to the LSA's lute rental program.

Here's a list of some of the topics I hope to cover in the week of our Lute Making class.  If there are topics you don't see here that you'd like to hear about in class, you can let me know by email, or by leaving a comment at the end of this blog post.

Lute-specific topics:
--working with historical evidence--drawings and measurements
--making a working drawing
--building a mold
--preparing ribs and top block
--building the back: fitting and gluing ribs, fitting and gluing the capping strip
--removing the back from the mold, reinforcing the back, fitting the false belly
--fitting, shaping and gluing the neck
--joining and thicknessing the belly
--carving the rose
--barring the belly (using the go-bar deck)
--fitting the belly to the body
--carving and gluing the bridge
--gluing the belly into the body
--fitting points/ gluing the fingerboard
--making the peg box
--fitting and gluing the peg box
--finishing out: varnish and oil options
--fitting pegs, nut, frets and strings

Those cover most of the bases, I think.  There are also some more general topics we'll cover:
--shop safety
--sharpening--plane blades, chisels, knives and scrapers
--using hide glue
--making and using jigs

And by the way, this last topic, making and using jigs, is one of my favourites.  I have a number of handy shop-made jigs and assists that I will be happy to share, and if you have any, I would encourage you to bring them along and share with the rest of us.

Okay--so that's the mornings of the week taken care of.  Now, we go on to the afternoons in the lute workshop.

In addition to taking on the Lute Making class this time around, I'm also continuing with my duties as Lute Doctor, which I've done for the last number of LSA Vancouver Workshops.  This means I'll be doing repairs and maintenance to the lutes of faculty members and Workshop participants throughout the week.  Mostly that amounts to changing frets and unsticking pegs, but every once in a while an interesting challenge comes along, like at the last Vancouver Workshop where I saved from a near-death experience a nice Hiro Watanabe 8c lute with severe action issues.

I expect to be quite busy with Lute Doctor duties this time around too, but I also want to make time to examine and do some work on one particular patient: a 7 course lute made in the mid-1980s and recently donated to Early Music Vancouver.  Although apparently well made, the lute is at present unplayable; it needs repairs, some major, some minor, to get it to the point where it can be strung up and played again.
 Here's a quick look at one of the more obvious issues with the lute--a pegbox that's started to come apart, and actually push its way out of the joint:

And here's another issue that should be dealt with--the bridge seems to be lifting, at least in spots, and needs re-gluing.  Note the separation from the soundboard beneath the second and third course:
So those are a couple of the issues facing this lute--are there more?  This is something I'd like the class to try to figure out, by having us do a thorough examination and diagnosis of this lute as a group.  Let's find out what's wrong with the lute and what can be fixed, and let's figure out whether it's worth anybody's while to do all the necessary work.

I've always felt strongly that if I am going to build lutes I should be prepared to fix them, and my hope is to promote that feeling among the participants in my class.   There is a big demand for lute repairers right now, and I would love to be able to start training a few, new eager repair people, and turn them loose across the continent to fix all the broken lutes out there.  I think it's a great way to give back to the lute playing public, and I also think it's a great way to make you fearless about your own work.  Whatever is broken, it can be fixed--that should be one of the cardinal rules of anyone's lute making.

So that's what's coming up in my Lute Making class at the LSA Workshop West in Vancouver.  Let me know if you're thinking of coming, and let me know what you think the class should cover.  And I'll see you at the end of July!

Sunday 1 March 2015

New Lutes, February 2015

I have two new lutes to tell you about today, and honestly, I couldn't be more proud of them.  Both in their ways are new models for me, which is always a challenge, and to have them turn out as well as they have done is simply thrilling.

First up is a 12 course lute, for Lucas Harris, of Toronto.  In addition to being a conductor and very busy accompanist and teacher, Lucas is the plucked-string player for Tafelmusik, the well-known Toronto baroque ensemble.  Lucas got in touch after seeing the 12 course lute I made for Evan Plommer in 2012 (you can look at pics and a description of that lute here).  He was looking for a new lute that he could use in the many different musical situations he works in: accompanying singers, in ensemble, and as a soloist.  A real workhorse, as he said, a lute with a beautiful and powerful voice.

Well, I hope I've been able to make that for him.  I completed the lute three weeks ago and shipped it to him in Toronto; a week later, he took it with him on tour with Tafelmusik to Australia and New Zealand.  I haven't heard from him since he left (and here's hoping that no news is good news), but I'll expect a full report when he returns.

Built to Lucas's specifications, this lute has a string length of 65cm, and tunes at A=415.  There are eight tied frets, with the ninth a wooden fret glued just on the neck.  We debated a bit over which historical model would make the best body for this lute, and after considering things like overall size and shape, number of frets on the neck, and string length, we found that the C45 Tieffenbrucher archlute body fit the bill best.  Now, I've made a number of 10 course and 8 course lutes on a smaller C45 shape, but this body would have to be somewhat larger, and to make it, I needed to build a new mold.  I based it upon Grant Tomlinson's design for a slightly enlarged version of the C45 that he has used in his shop for many years.  Like the original C45, Grant's lute is made with 31 yew ribs; I designed mine to have 21 ribs, in homage to a couple of ancient lutes: the Hans Burkholzer (SAM 44 in the Vienna KHM) and the 13 course lute by Thomas Edlinger in the National Music Museum in Vermillion, SD (NMM 10214).

Here's how it looks:


The 21 ribs are, in this case, of Honduras rosewood, and the spacers are of holly.

I don't know about you, but I get a real kick out of the 12c extension.  It seems like such a slight little thing, and with four bass courses strung to it, there is a fair amount of tension on it.  All of this, and it's attached only to the tiniest corner of the bass side of the peg box.  This is the second of these extensions that I've done, and I've become quite confident of my design and construction of the thing. It's well-built and solidly attached, and even under tension, it hardly bows or moves at all.  Have a look:
Okay, a couple more photos of the whole lute--just a couple.

The second lute I recently completed is a 7 course for Doug Asherman of Oakland, CA.  Based on the smaller C45 mold that I've used for numerous 10 and 8 course lutes in recent years (you'll see many examples if you leaf through some of the older posts on this blog), this lute is a new model to me because I've never done a 7 course version of it before.   I was pretty sure it would turn out well, but I wasn't sure how well it would turn out... and I must say, I like it very well indeed.

The back is of yew wood, with sycamore spacers; the neck and peg box are veneered in ebony.
The string length is 62.5cm, and there are 9 tied frets on the neck.  So far, so much the same as I've done before; but this lute's a little different.  Besides being only 7 courses, this lute is the first I've built in a very long time to be completely strung in gut, and I think the results are absolutely spectacular. 

The trebles and octaves are gut from Boston Catlines; the basses are, on the 5th course, a copper-gimped, and on the 6th and 7th courses, silver-gimped, all from Gamut Strings.

I don't know if it's the gut, or the lute--it's a bit of both, I'm sure--but this lute has a warmth and clarity that I don't think I've quite heard before in one of my instruments.   The yew back adds a shimmer and quickness to the sound that just isn't there with other woods.  All of that, and at the same time the lute has a very big voice, very well balanced and free.  I think that sometimes yew, as a wood for the back of a lute like this, is the victim of a certain kind of prejudice: players tend to think of it as having a nice, rich sound, but one that's perhaps not quite as strong as a harder wood like rosewood or maple.  On the basis of this lute, and some others I've built, I think that prejudice is wholly undeserved.   Yew wood can have quite as strong a voice as either of those, and at the same time a richer and more complex one too.

For anyone who would like a look at some more pics of these instruments--and all the others I've built over the last few years--I would direct you to my flickr feed, here.  For now, I'll just add a couple more detail shots of this lute's back.  The yew wood that I used for this lute was just spectacular.  I'm constantly awed by its beauty.

What's up next?  More fun, and more adventures: a 10 course lute on this smaller C45 mold, and a 12 course bass lute.  I can't wait to get back to the shop.

Take care, and I'll talk to you again soon.

Sunday 15 February 2015

A Small Fix

I have another repair to tell you about, which I did in December, in the between putting varnish coats on a couple of new lutes (I'll tell you about them in a little while).  The repair was pretty minor, but I thought I'd talk about it because it illustrates a couple of important principles of lute making--how to make a well-fitted joint, and how to use hide glue to get a really solid bond.  These skills are applicable in many stages in the lute's construction, and every aspiring lute maker should know them.

The repair was to a 6 course lute owned by Nelson Amos, of Ypsilanti, Michigan, and as a matter of fact, it is one of mine, a lute that I built for myself in 2007.  Nelson bought it from me a couple of years ago, when I decided to make myself a new 6 course lute.  The problem: a detached peg box. A sudden wrong move, a small impact, perhaps, had knocked it out of its joint.  It looks pretty terrible, and of course the lute is out of commission until the problem's fixed, but it's really not that big a deal to put things back together.
Photo: Nelson Amos
The first thing to notice is the quality of the break itself, and the results thereof.  When the pegbox came out, it took a fair bit of material along with it on its underside; however, the back side of it is almost completely undamaged.  This suggested to me that although the pegbox was well glued underneath, the back side was not well glued at all.  In fact, on closer inspection I could see very little glue residue at all on the back side of the peg box, or on the corresponding surface of the rebate in the neck: tell-tale signs that I either hadn't fitted the pegbox well, or hadn't glued it well, or, most likely, a little of both.  
All the wood was still there, and the break was pretty clean, and I guess if I was one kind of lute-repair person, I might consider just sticking the peg box back on with some kind of modern gap-filling adhesive.  For better or worse, though, that's not the way I work. The peg box might stick, but probably not for long, and in any case the joint would look really ugly.  I like to do these jobs right, and if I didn't quite do it right the first time around,  I would happily do it right the second time.

The first thing I needed to do was repair the rebate in the neck.  The back side of the joint was fine, but the 'tongue' of the joint was quite severely damaged, with much material having been torn away.  I needed to build that area up again.  I first chiseled and filed the area back to make a flat surface, then glued (with hide glue) a new chunk of pearwood down on top.

There was also a small chip of wood that had been taken out of the back side of the peg box (proving that that surface wasn't actually completely devoid of glue after all).  I chiselled out a small channel and filled it with a slip of pear, then flattened the area with chisel and file.  I also removed the torn-out wood from the bottom of the peg box, and flattened that surface too.

Then I got to work re-shaping the rebate joint.  Most of the material I removed with a chisel, but when I got close, I used some (shop made) bevel-edge plexi-glass sanding blocks.  The bevelled edges allow me to get far into the very corner of the joint; the blocks have 180 and 220 grit paper, stuck on with double-sided tape.  (The very corner of the joint is cleared using a sharp chisel.)
 I needed to shape the sides of this piece as well, to follow the contours of the neck.
Okay, so here's the first point I wanted to talk about: how to get a well-fitted joint.  The pegbox joint can be a tough one to fit: the rebate cut in the end of the neck is an odd shape, and it's difficult to tell if the two surfaces are flat--a straightedge is of little use, especially on the back side of the joint.  So how can you tell if the surfaces are flat? 

Probably the best approach to seeing whether the surfaces are flat in the rebate is to make sure that the contact surfaces of the peg box are flat first.  And by flat, I mean dead flat--a straight edge held against the bottom of the peg box should not rock at all, whether it's held across the bottom, or along its length, or from corner to corner.  Hold the straight edge against the surface, and view with strong back lighting--no light at all should be visible between them.  (The same flatness test applies to the back of the peg box, especially where it contacts the back side of the neck rebate--it too needs to be dead flat.)

Once the peg box surfaces are flat, you can use the peg box itself to test the flatness of the bottom and back sides of the rebate.  Hold the peg box in the joint, and look at the fit--if any gaps are visible, you need to remove the material around the gap to get a close fit.  Once you've done this, though, and the fit looks good, there can still be problems--especially on the outer edges of the joint.  The only way to really test the fit is to put the peg box in place, and apply pressure to the very corner of the peg box.  With your thumb, press the peg box into one corner, say the corner on the bass side of the neck, first.  Push hard, and observe the other (treble side) corner.  Does that corner of the peg box move out of the joint at all?  If it does, then that means the joint in the corner you're pressing the peg box into is not dead flat, and the peg box is rocking a tiny amount in the joint.  The joint needs further work, with files, sanding blocks, or a chisel.

In the same fashion, apply pressure with your thumb to the treble side of the peg box, and look at the bass side.  Does the peg box want to rock outward, even a little?  If so, the joint's not flat, and you've got work to do.

Only when the peg box won't move in the joint, no matter where you press on it, is it really fitted well.

Okay, so that's the first point I wanted to make: fitting the joint really well.  The second point is gluing the joint really well.

I use hide glue for all joints on the lutes I make, which is wonderful stuff, but it requires some careful use, depending on the joint it's used to glue.  For joints that involve gluing end grain, especially, it's necessary to size the joint first--otherwise, the glue will tend to wick away, leaving the joint starved.  I think that's what happened to the peg box when I originally glued it back in 2007.  As you saw above, there wasn't much glue residue on the back of the peg box when it broke out, which suggests to me that the glue had wicked away--and the reason was, I hadn't sized the joint.

Actually, I hadn't known to size the joint.  In all the reading I'd done over the years about lute making, I had never really encountered the concept.  The book I was most familiar with, Robert Lundberg's Historical Lute Construction, doesn't mention it at all; that's not surprising, I suppose, since Lundberg didn't actually use hide glue (for the purposes of that book, at least).

I really first learned about the importance of sizing joints carefully from Grant Tomlinson, my first and best teacher in lute making.  All that I'm sharing with you here comes straight from him, so for whatever benefit you derive from my writing, the thanks should go to him.

Back to sizing: make a batch of hide glue as you would normally do, soaking the glue granules first, then heating in jar in a water-bath; then when the glue is hot and liquid, dilute it to about half its normal strength.  Brush this size on all the surfaces of the joint, on the bottom and back of the peg box, and on the bottom and back of the neck rebate.  Allow the size to dry--about 15-20 minutes--then size all surfaces again.  Size about three or four times in total, and leave to dry thoroughly overnight--then the next day, re-fit the joint again, for the final time (the sizing process will have slightly distorted the surfaces of the wood).

When the joint is perfect, you can glue in the peg box, with the assurance that the glue won't wick away from the joint.  With a peg box fitted this well, and sized this well, there should be no more problems with fragile or glue-starved joints.  This peg box joint will not fail, and that's a guarantee.
So that's the story of my peg box fix, and, for those about to fit their own peg boxes, I hope it will be helpful.  This post strikes me as being a bit text-heavy, and that's too bad, but sometimes things just need explaining and there's no way to get around it.  However, there's one last part of the peg box gluing procedure that I haven't talked about, and that's the actual gluing part--the part where glue is applied, and the peg box is clamped in place.  I won't talk about that here, but I tell you what--for those more visually-oriented learners out there, I will include as a bonus a photo of my gluing rig.  You may find information in it that's helpful in your own work.  Enjoy!