Saturday, 2 November 2019

Building a 13 Course Lute, Start to Finish, 6: the Rose

Hi again. Today I shall talk about the 13 course lute's rose--preparing the belly for the pattern, gluing the pattern on, and carving the rose. There's much ground to cover, so let's get started.

As I mentioned at the end of the last episode, after thicknessing the belly I placed it in the low-humidity light box for 24 hours, then gradually allowed the humidity to rise over a couple of days until the belly stabilized in the ambient humidity of my workshop (about 40-45% relative humidity.) I'm now ready to thin the rose area, to prepare for gluing the pattern.

The belly centreline and rose position are marked. The central area of my belly is around 1.5mm thick; I'll want to thin the rose area to just under 1mm.

I use a small, curved fingerplane to remove most of the material. It seems to work best (to minimize tear-out) to plane diagonally across the grain. I can only plane up to the belly centreline, since the grain direction will reverse on the other side of centre. I'll need to approach from the opposite direction.

I work in a crosshatch pattern, over an area that is slightly larger than the diameter of the rose pattern I'll be using.

I do the fine thinning of the rose area with a small, sharp hand scraper. I don't want too abrupt a transition from thin to thick, so I also use it to blend these areas.

The rose pattern--photocopied onto 60 lb. watercolour paper--is cut out with about 5mm extra width around the perimeter. I locate it very carefully, and hold it in place with one hand...

While with the other I spread hot hide glue under one side of it, then the other, and then on the top of the pattern. The paper more or less becomes saturated with glue, and the glue on the outside acts as a lubricant for my finger to rub the pattern securely in place, and press out any air bubbles.

Once the pattern's on, I set the belly aside overnight to dry. I can begin rose carving the next morning.

I'll mention one thing about the glue itself. When I glue on a rose pattern, I mix a little alum into the glue, by dissolving a bit in a dish with hot water, then adding it to my glue jar. Adding alum tends to counteract (a little) hide glue's tendency to contract as it dries--a sometimes-useful, sometimes-maddening property. In so doing, I hope to minimize shrinking and distortion of the rose pattern.

My rose carving station--cutting mat, reading glasses, a clean, soft brush, a block of wax, and a photo of the original pattern, which is from an early-17th century archlute from the Sellas workshop.

This rose is going to eventually have a chip-carved border, so before I can begin punching out the pattern I need to do some preliminary layout work with my compass. (One foot has a sharp point, and the other a small, sharp blade.) The first step is to find the true centre of the pattern--which, owing to distortion from the gluing process, may or may not be as marked. I need to adjust the compass and work by trial and error to find the true centre point.

Once I've found the centre, I can transfer it to the topside of the belly by pressing a fine pin all the way through. If I'm careful and don't push too hard, I can make a very tiny mark that will be visible on the top of the belly but won't mar the pattern.

Once I've got that point, I place directly over it a small piece of plexiglass with a pin-mark in it. This is my centre point, and I can use it to lay out all the circles I need for the various rings of the chip-carved border.

Here's a good look at the circles that I've scribed. I don't push too hard with the compass to deepen the cuts--I've found that doing that can distort them pretty badly. Instead, I scribe them fairly lightly, and at a later stage I'll deepen them with my carving knife. 
These are my two main rose carving knives, both made with lengths of 2mm graver steel set in pear handles. The upper one is shaped as a small chisel, while the lower one has a fine, slightly curved knife edge.

Quick note on the carving station. I have three roses to carve, for three lutes; each will take about 24 hours, or 3 good, long days at the bench, making 9 days in total. I made it only a couple of days before... umm... certain parts of my anatomy rebelled, and I had to reconsider my method of work. For the first time, instead of sitting, I decided to try a stand-up carving station instead. I'm happy with the result: the roses turned out nicely, and various parts of my physical person were thankful as well.

I 'punch' the pattern out in two stages, using both of my knives. First, I make a relief cut about halfway through the wood, along all the lines...

Then cut at an angle into those outline cuts, to remove a chip of wood.

I go over the entire pattern--except for the outer edge--making these 'relief' cuts.

Then I use my tiny chisel to punch through the remaining thickness of wood.
Why do it in two steps? Well, I used to use just the chisel to try to cut all the way through, but found that it's impossible for me to shape and sharpen a chisel that will cut well (and I mean almost flawlessly) all the way through the 1mm thickness of wood. I almost always found that instead of a pure cut, the chisel would compress some fibres, and I'd end up crumbling or even breaking out pieces--especially pieces cut across the grain--that I'd then have to glue back in place. It was a pain. I'd spend time fixing, and the pattern would end up weak in crucial areas. This two-part method takes a bit more time to do in the initial stages, but I end up with a physically stronger rose pattern that allows me to be more bold with the top carving. I actually end up saving time, and get a better result.

The majority of the pattern is punched through from the back...

But the outer circumference is punched from the front. The chisel seats nicely in the scribed ring, and I get a very round and orderly-looking result.

I keep my photo of the original rose close by as I begin work on the top carving, because I don't want to confuse the over-under pattern that 'weaves' the organic and geometric parts together.

I us my knife to 'peck out' all the points where the elements cross; all the 'crotches' among the vines and leaves; and all the terminus points of what will become parallel v-channels in the geometric elements.

I'm always amazed by how making single, sweeping cuts to relieve the edges of the vines makes them instantly come to life.

Three cuts are enough to finish these leaves--one down the middle, then one small scooping cut at an angle on each side of it. (It should go without saying that one needs to be conscious of grain direction when doing this; it usually works best to follow the grain 'downhill.')

For the smaller leaves, there is no actual cut, just a pin-prick which I then widen by twisting a small, sharpened point of my own making.

There's the profile. It's a salvaged broken drill bit set into a piece of dowel for a handle. The angle of the tip is pretty flat, and I've ground some (rather random) facets into the sides. It seems to work well.

I make the parallel v-channels with three cuts (all of them free-hand, without any kind of straightedge, just in case you were wondering.) The first cut is the most crucial. I mark out the spacing between them first, by making a couple of parallel knife-pricks.

Then I set my little curved blade in one of the marks, and push it away, rather lightly, in a slightly rocking motion, toward my destination, the terminus point that I've already marked.

Then I pull the knife back toward me, hopefully in the very same line I've just made, confirming and deepening the cut. (It's hard to say exactly how deep the cut is, but I suspect it's at least halfway through the thickness of the wood.)

Then I make an angled cut alongside the central line, first on one side, then the other.

The result should be one nice, crisp, v-shaped channel, sharing the  width of wood in an amicable way with another nice, crisp, v-shaped channel.
And this is where we're at so far: all the vines, lines, and leaves as crisply cut as I can make them. All that's left to do is define the outer scribed rings, and execute the chip-carved border.

First: deepen the scribed rings. Again, I'm going about halfway through the material.

Then: lay out the border. I make these cuts by eye, estimating the angle of the cuts and the width between them. I use the geometric elements of the rose pattern to help orient the cuts.

The border's all laid out--not with perfect uniformity, perhaps, but hopefully with some assurance and energy.

Now, the chip-carving. With the cuts you see here, I'm working with the grain and cutting away from me, but as I get round to the top of the circle I'll be going against it, and will need to reverse my knife blade to cut toward me.
Another v-channel. Always cutting with the grain, I'll need to change my cutting direction four times on this outer side of the ring, then four more on the inner side. (On the very outside ring, I won't make a v-channel, only a bevel cut on the inner side.)

That's about it for this rose. I'll go over it once more with a very sharp knife to relieve little shaggy edges that catch my eye, and perhaps tidy up some cuts that don't quite make the grade. In general, though, I try not to revise my work too much. My sense of how the ancient makers cut their roses is that they worked quickly and surely, and didn't look too much in the rearview mirror, but pressed on to the next job. This gives their work a liveliness and energy that I find very appealing, and I strive for it in my own rose carving.
So there we have it: nine days' work at the rose carving bench. Seems like a lot of time to spend on a purely decorative item, but then again the rose is where, more than practically any other place on the lute, the maker asserts his/ her/ their craft. It's really an emblem of beauty for its own sake.

But it is a long time to stare intently at very small things. I'm going to go outside now, and look at the horizon for a while. I'll be back with the next instalment of the blog in a few days; until then, please have a look at the two other roses I carved alongside the 13 course rose, during my nine-day stand.

For the 8 course lute: the rose pattern from the 1592 Venere, in the Accademia Filarmonica, in Bologna.

For the 7 course lute: a variation of the Gerle/ Bellini pattern, drawn by Ray Nurse.


  1. That is an amazing piece of work - both the piece itself and the remarkable photo blog. Thank you very much.

  2. It’s wonderful, thanks for sharing.

  3. The master-hand at work--I've just learned so much. Thank you, Travis!

  4. Very nice work indeed 'Sir' Travis

  5. Beautiful work. I hope some day to cut a rose myself !

  6. A beautiful, impressive and educational report! (you must have damn good eyes..)

  7. Thank you very much for your kind comment. My eyes are good, but I was serious when I said that after doing all this rose carving I needed to go stare at the horizon for a while. It is a bit of a strain!