Sunday 4 August 2019

Building a 13 Course Lute, Start to Finish, 1: Making the Body

Hi everyone--today I start a new project on The Lute's Progress: a complete chronicle of the building of a 13 course lute, from the very first to the very last steps, in as much detail as reasonably possible. What I have in mind is a series of photos taken along the way, each with a one-or two-sentence explanation of the stage or operation depicted. I want to stay away from long descriptions of how-to-do stuff; my aim is simply to document.

I have a few reasons for doing this. First, the person for whom I'm building the lute, Bob Eby, of Vernon, BC, Canada, asked if I would send him pictures of the process, and I said sure. I haven't documented my building very closely for a long time; it's not that I'm against it, but usually I'm too focussed on the task at hand, and don't think to grab the camera. With Bob's request, however, I now have a reason to make the camera part of the process. And photos are, these days, vanishingly cheap to produce and distribute, so creating a detailed chronicle won't break the bank.

There's one more reason I think it might be a good idea, and that's to show people, including my clients, aspiring makers, and otherwise interested bystanders, how many small, discrete, and necessary steps are involved in making a lute. There are a lot of glorious photos of finished lutes being shared by makers all over the world (myself included), and that's great, but sometimes I think there's a danger that the actual work involved gets forgotten or effaced. I hope to bring that sense of work back to the foreground with this series, and to remind us all that the amazing shot of the finished lute is the product of almost countless hours of real, difficult, at-times boring, and yet always highly-focussed work. "The Tedium and the Triumph" could well be an alternate title to the series.

A couple of things you should know before I kick off the chronicle: the lute is based on the body of the Tieffenbrucher archlute, C45 in the Vienna KHM, which I have designed as a 21 rib back, and the body will be built of Honduras Rosewood, with European Boxwood spacers. I'll address other questions of design and materials as they arise in the series.

If you have any questions about specific procedures depicted, please let me know in the comments section below, and I will consider discussing them in detail in posts separate from the series.

And so we begin!

Preparing to attach the poplar top block blank to the mold.
Laying out the shape of the top block on the poplar blank.
The rough top block profile cut on the band saw.
At this point the lute making elves showed up overnight, and finished carving the top block
 by hand. They forgot, however, to take any pictures of the process. Thanks a lot, guys!
(By the way, the mold on the right is for an 8 course lute
being built at the same time.)
Wood for the ribs and spacers: on the right, Honduras Rosewood rib blanks cut consecutively from 
a single large plank; on the left, sheets of European Boxwood for spacers.

Laying out and cutting out rib shapes. Stabilizing some small cracks with cyanoacrylate glue.

The complete rib set, cut close to final profiles. 
Using a hand scraper to take the ribs to their final thickness. (I've already taken the ribs to rough thickness in a thickness sander.)
Cutting boxwod strips to rough size for spacers. 
Sizing the spacers to their final dimension with the pull-through scraper.
The centre rib's bent and fitted.
Centre rib glued in place to the top block.
Fixing the centre rib in place on the mold, along its length.
Second rib and spacer bent, fitted, and ready for gluing. 
After a few ribs are glued on, the centre rib hold-downs are removed and I begin
 fitting and gluing ribs on both sides of the mold.
More ribs, trying to get the widths even at the front edge of the top block.
More ribs, trying to get the widths reasonably uniform as they pass
under the capping strip (which is marked on the mold.)
The outside rib is ready to glue on the bass side.
All the ribs are on; the back will be scraped, and
the bottom end shaped to receive the capping strip.
The capping strip is built up of numerous pieces of rosewood and boxwood.
The pieces are edge glued, then pressed between cauls overnight as the glue dries.
The built-up capping strip is cut out with jeweller's saw, then refined with a knife and files.
The capping strip, ready to be bent and fitted.
The capping strip is bent, positioned accurately, and dry-clamped
on the back--then the clamps are removed from one side.
The clamps (and shaped cauls that go with them) are laid out
in order, in preparation for gluing.
When the glue is dry on the capping strip, the back can be popped off the mold.
Note the hide glue remnants on the rib joints on the inside of the back.
I've carefully scraped the glue from the rib joints.

Another view of the back and mold, showing the capping strip.

Shaping the counter cap with a low-angle block plane.

Bending the counter cap with hot water and the bending iron.
The bent counter cap is clamped to a shaped caul and left to dry overnight.

Next morning: ready to glue paper reinforcing strips on the rib joints. Each paper strip
is soaked in hot hide glue and pressed into the joint, and the excess glue 
is cleared away with a wet cloth.

Almost half-done, and time for a little break to clean up a bit (it's a messy job.)

Gluing in the counter cap after the rib tapes are done (note the five
tapes across the ribs that help to prevent rib splitting.)

The reverse view of the counter cap glued in. 

Next day, the clamps and caul are removed. The bowl is essentially finished.

There, that's the first installment. Seems like a good place to end for today. Next time, working with the bowl and preparing to fit the neck. See you soon.


  1. Meticulous work, a pleasure to watch. Thanks.

  2. Thank you! Can’t wait to see the progress. Hope to build my own someday.

    1. It's very rewarding work. Thanks for looking in!

  3. Beautiful. When you're wiping up the HHG after gluing on the paper reinforcements do you also leave a thin layer of glue on the wood bits as a sealer?

    1. Yes... since it's difficult to get all the glue up off the ribs anyway, you end up with the equivalent of a coating of glue size on the inside of the body when you're finished. I count that as a benefit to the lute's eventual sound, especially when the body is made of a less dense material such as curly maple or yew.

  4. That was really very interesting, Travis! How many hours roughly does it take to build a lute like this? Are renaissance and baroque lutes quite similar in the way that they're built?

    1. How many hours... very good question. It has been a long time since I thought about hours. I usually think in terms of weeks or months. Since I make a number of instruments at once--I'm doing a group of three this time around--it's difficult to separate the hours of one from those of another. I hope to have this group done in six months, start to finish.

      Baroque lutes and renaissance lutes are alike in many respects, but as you'll see (if you continue to tune in to the series) there are a lot of differences that arise mainly because of the very generous curvature of the fingerboard in the baroque lute. The renaissance lute has a fingerboard with a convex curve across its width that, at the nut end, is usually around a millimetre; the baroque lute will usually have much more than that, and in this lute that curvature will be about 5 millimetres. This has consequences for practically all aspects of building. Also, the sheer number of strings involved ( a total of 24, I believe) means that the pegbox is going to be a much more complex production than for a renaissance lute.

      Stay tuned!

  5. Wonderful work , love it , thank you for sharing

    1. Thank you so much! I am glad you enjoy it.

  6. Dear teacher! I would like to start in the construction of one of these, can you give me or add the measurements of each part and finally know how to locate the neck pins and fingerboard?

  7. Trés interessant de suivre au fil des pages l'élaboration pas à pas d'un luth ,de différents luths,jusqu'à la beauté des" Chef- d'Oeuvre de Compagnon" des l'instruments prêt à être joués

  8. Awesome workmanship. What do you do to prevent gluing the lute to the mold? What kind of paper is used for the reinforcements? I understand that historically parchament (animal hide) was used and sometimes cloth. Have you tried anything other than paper?