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!