Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Inset Lute Rose: A Contemporary Example, and Some Historical Ones

In my last post I described a lute that I and some of my colleagues here in Vancouver put together for loan to a deserving music student. We started work on it in the lute making class at the LSA Workshop West in 2015, and it had contributions from Grant Tomlinson, Ray Nurse, Wilma Van Berkel, and me: I dubbed our little group the "Commonwealth of Vancouver Lute Makers."

In the post, I mentioned that I didn't carve a new rose for this lute, but instead inset one that I had carved in 2003, for a project that I eventually set aside. I had no qualms about reusing it: the rose looked good (I must say I was a bit impressed by the carving skills of that young whippersnapper Travis Carey); and it saved me a fair amount of time. To give you an idea how much, I usually spend around 20 to 24 hours carving an average lute rose, while inlaying this old one took probably no more than 2 or 3.

A further reason I felt comfortable insetting my old rose was that, from the evidence I've seen, it was a trick of the trade used commonly by the old master lute makers. Just like modern makers, they obviously took a lot of pride and satisfaction in making a rose that was (in the words of Thomas Mace) "smoothly cut," yet they often seemed willing to re-use and recycle suitable old parts in new lutes, one supposes for reasons of economy, as well as aesthetics.  This is true of roses, just as it was true, for instance, of early 16th century Italian lute bodies (and bellies) by Hans Frei and Laux Maler that ended up in France a hundred years later, converted to 10 and 11 course lutes.

Today, what I'd like to do is just give a brief description of my technique for insetting an old rose in a new belly. It's not too complicated, but I think it's worth showing. In my experience as a lute repairer as well as maker, I've seen quite a few instances where otherwise healthy lutes have needed new bellies--and there's often no good reason why the fine original rose shouldn't be preserved and given new life.

After that, I'd like to show you some historical examples of inset roses in lutes that I've come across in my travels.

So first, the technique.

Take one rose, already carved, and in an appropriate place--perhaps the line deeply scored around the perimeter--use a sharp knife or rose cutting chisel to carefully cut the rose out of the surrounding soundboard.

The edge of the cut-out rose is bound to be a little rough, so smooth out the bumps by running a sanding block around the outside. I use a square-sided sanding block and place a block of wood under the rose, so it's raised about 10 mm off the table top. This ensures that the perimeter of the rose, while perhaps not perfectly round, is at least straight-sided (that is,  perpendicular to the surface of the pattern.)
Step two: cut a hole in the new soundboard. Lay out the location of the rose centre along the centreline of the belly, then use a compass to scribe a circle that's approximately 1mm smaller than the diameter of the rose to be inlaid (you should check the diameter of the rose very carefully in many places, since the rose might not be perfectly round.) Use a knife or rose chisel to cut out this circle...
then fashion a disc of, say, 3/4" mdf (medium density fibreboard), a millimetre or two smaller in diameter than the hole you've just cut. Use double-sided tape to stick a strip of 220 grit sand paper to the outside...
and use the disc to carefully shape the hole. Again, use spacers to raise the belly a few millimetres above the table, so when you use the sanding disc, the edges of the hole end up straight-sided.

Proceed very carefully, and check the fit often, from the back side of the belly. Make sure to mark the centreline of the rose, so that its grain orientation matches that of the belly. I found it helpful in the fitting process to work roughly quadrant by quadrant--get a decent fit on the upper right quadrant, then work into the upper left, then lower left, and so on around the circle. Eventually, the rose popped snugly into place.
Once it was fit, and everything looked good from the back and front sides, I just left it in place, and proceeded to gluing. I cut out some pieces of thin handmade paper to overlap from the soundboard partway onto the pattern--specifically, across the outer ring of semicircles to the solid ring partway in.  (I thought that would offer more security than just gluing to the fragile outer part of the pattern.) I applied hide glue to the paper--not too much, because I didn't want to have to clean up great gobs of dried glue later on--and stuck it down. On top of this went a layer of waxed paper; then a circle of thick card slightly bigger than the rose, that covered the whole gluing area; then a batten; then clamps.
Please note that I did not attempt to brush any glue around the outside edge of the rose and try to stick it into the hole in the belly. That would have been totally impractical, and created a terrible mess. I reasoned that the paper would do a good enough job of securing the rose, and that I might incidentally get some glue squeeze from the paper in the (very slight) gap between the rose and the belly. And eventually, the rose would be secured in place by three harmonic bars, as well as numerous other small bars, so I didn't think there was any danger that it might come loose.

This is the look from the back, after the glue dried: 
And the view from the front:
All that's left was to take my rose chisel and carefully cut out the paper that underlay the outer ring of the pattern. Once done, I could treat this belly as I would any other--gluing on a set of bars, fitting into the lute body, etc. Here's the final look:
Nice. I think the Travis of 2003 would be pleased.

Now--let's have a look at some slightly older examples.

I don't get to Europe too often these days--I'm pretty much chained to the workbench (sigh)--but when I do, I head straight for the musical instrument collections (heere bee the lutes!) Julia and I made a trip to Munich and Copenhagen during the Christmas season of 2015-16, and I got to ogle lutes galore. The museums in Munich were wonderful, but I must say the Carl Claudius Samling at the Danish Music Museum was a real revelation. They had just moved into a new space in the former home of the Danish Broadcasting Company. The exhibits were fine, the staff friendly and helpful, and the musical instruments on display were, simply, stunning. We visited on short notice, so I had to be content to look at the lutes through glass in their display cases; at some point in the future, though, I would love to make arrangements to do some research among the instruments in the collection. 

Here's my first example of an inset rose, from a lute in the Carl Claudius Samling, by Andrea Harton (no. 102A). Dated 1617, it was originally a theorbo (the body is ebony and ivory), but was converted at some point to its present configuration as a German Baroque lute. I have no information on when, or by whom, the conversion was done; from the look of things (from a distance, and through glass), to me it seems as though the body may be the only original part of the lute to have survived the conversion.

Or, perhaps, the rose as well?

It's a lovely triple rose, and it is indeed "smoothly cut"--and it is definitely inset. Here's a little closer look:

This view shows clearly a ring of dark-light-dark-light purfling around each of the three parts of the rose. It's an unusual look, but I think it's quite well-done: not only are the roses neatly fitted, but the purfling rings are actually cut into each other slightly, elbowing each other's space a tiny bit, which helps to integrate them together visually. (On original old triple roses, the chip-carved border will often wind and snake and overlap to integrate the three parts.) 

Is this the original rose? I don't know, but at the very least it looks to me like a rose carved in what I would call a high-Renaissance style--the elements are beautifully proportioned, the lines are cleanly and deeply cut, and the work overall gives an impression of efficiency and mastery. If it is not the original rose, it certainly is an original rose, and whoever did the conversion made an inspired choice to include it.

(Of course, it's also an open question whether the three parts are actually from the same original rose--the pattern of the top element is different from the two below it, and though they all appear to be cut by the same steady hand, the chip carved border at the top is a little bit compressed compared to the other two...)

Two more examples, both from the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, SD, USA. These are the two superb 13 course baroque lutes of the 1720s by Thomas Edlinger of Prague (nos. 10213 and 10214), both, again, conversions of earlier lutes. They've travelled an interesting path: from the 18th century they were kept stored in the attic of a castle in Bohemia, and were "rediscovered" by the castle's owners only in 1907. From the 1950s until the late 1970s they were loaned to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (Robert Lundberg examined and photographed them there; some photos appear in his book "Historical Lute Construction.") In 2002 they were acquired by the National Music Museum. Supported by a research grant from the Saskatchewan Arts Board, I was able to visit the Museum and measure and photograph these lutes in the summer of 2006.

I'm not sure I can adequately describe the thrill I got from looking at and handling these lutes. It was one of those rare instances in my life where all my senses were heightened, my eyes and hands and mind totally engaged in observing the object before me: sensing its weight and balance, the way it shimmered in my hands when I simply spoke a word; observing the woods used and the joints fitted, the curves, cuts, colours and proportions; trying with all my concentration to notice, and commit to memory, every single detail about the lutes.

It's a good thing I did, too, because I sure wasn't able to get much use out of the photos I took. I was working with a (film) 35mm SLR camera, and did not have the expertise to photograph in the rather harsh lighting conditions in the museum's basement (I would love to go back there with a good digital camera.) Most of my shots of the roses were a wash, unfortunately--so for my purposes today, I'll rely on the museum's own photos.

First the larger of the two, NMM 10214. This lute, attributed to the famous Tieffenbrucher family of lute makers in Padua (a label inside reads, "In Padua. Vendelinus Tieffenbruker"), has a beautiful back of 21 striped yew ribs, and probably began life as a bass lute in the late 16th century. Edlinger's label inside shows that the 13 course conversion was done in 1724.

Photo courtesy NMM
Photo courtesy NMM
The rose, one of the most intricate and beautifully carved examples I've ever seen, is inset. From the original lute? Difficult to say--but that doesn't diminish its glory.

Photo courtesy NMM
The pattern of interlocking rings is a fairly common motif in surviving old lute roses, but the carver has added some interesting features--first, a set of eight flower patterns forming a square within the circle; and second, and most intriguingly, a pattern of a sun with a human face at the very centre.

According to Wikipedia, that figure is actually a very common heraldic charge called "the sun in splendour" or "the sun in his glory." In its most usual form, the figure "consists of a round disc with the features of a human face, surrounded by twelve or sixteen rays, alternating wavy and straight...The alternating straight and wavy rays are often said to represent the light and heat of the sun respectively." That's exactly what we have here--the human face, and 16 rays, alternating wavy and straight (the carver's skill in accomplishing this detail in the fragile spruce is simply astonishing.)

But what is the significance of this in a lute rose? Well, the heraldic figure is one that is used on a variety of coats of arms, both of individuals and families, and geographical locations such as towns, cities, and countries. Could the motif point to a possible origin of the rose--either a particular person, or a particular place? I can't say for sure, though a couple of intriguing possibilities present themselves. A quick survey of the coats of arms with the motif listed on the Wikipedia page shows many localities in France and Switzerland, both of which seem unlikely candidates. There are, however, two in the Czech Republic: Loukov, a village and municipality (obec) in Kroměříž District in the Zlín Region, 249 km east of Prague; and Věžky, a village and municipality in Přerov District in the Olomouc Region, 230 km (143 mi) east of Prague. (And by the way, I turned up no associations of this design with Padua or regions near it.)

The coat of arms of Loukov, By Pkotrla at Czech Wikipedia
The coat of arms of Věžky, By Pkotrla at Czech Wikipedia 

Of course this is all speculation (and definitely not an exhaustive survey), and probably of very little consequence for our appreciation of the lute itself. However, to me, as a lute maker and student of the work of the old masters, it is interesting to contemplate the idea that, on balance, it's more likely that the rose's origin is closer to Prague than to Padua--in other words, that the rose might be one that Edlinger had on hand, rather than the original rose in the bass lute.

On to the last example, NMM 10213, the smaller of the two Edlinger lutes. There is a label inside reading "Magno dieffopruchar a venetia" with no date; Edlinger's label alongside it shows that he converted the lute to 13 courses in 1728. This lute, I must say, is a bit of an oddity, though a fascinating one.

Photo courtesy NMM
Photo courtesy NMM

Here's the inset rose:

Photo courtesy NMM
Again, it's a beautifully and crisply carved old rose, complete with the central leaf motif that (I imagine) originally accompanied it. The borders around each of the three circles are most noteworthy to me because they appear to be round-bottomed channels. I've seen this feature in other old lute roses, but no matter what tool I've tried, I've not been able to find one to make this kind of rounded channel in a straight line, let alone in a perfectly-executed circle such you see here. (If any lute makers or carvers reading this have figured it out, please let me know.)

I had actually been interested in this lute as a possible model for a small theorbo, but when I got to the museum and examined it, I saw pretty quickly that the idea wasn't going to work out. Simply put,  the shape is just a little too wonky--the outline is wobbly, and the bowl is kind of lumpy and irregular. I felt that if I used this lute as a model, I would end up having to change the cross sections, longitudinal section, and outline so much that I could barely point to the original lute as the origin for the shape.

But even though I didn't end up using the information I took from this lute to make a new instrument, the time I spent with it in the museum was, I feel, incredibly important to my evolving sense of what a lute actually is or can be. Before then, my idea of "lute" was shaped mainly by my contact with the work of modern makers--lutes built on solid wood molds that have been carefully shaped to iron out all irregularities in body shape, and where every detail of workmanship is executed to the nth degree. Modern lutes, by and large, are pretty much perfect artifacts, and in this way they are very unlike most, if not all, of the old lutes that one sees in museum collections.

This is true of both the Edlinger lutes in South Dakota, but especially true of this one. Besides the wobbly old body and the inset rose, it's pretty clear that Edlinger also re-used an old belly when he put this lute together--as you can see in this photo, he's added a strip of spruce at the very top to fill in the gap where the belly wasn't quite long enough. There also appear to be old "ghost" marks of some previous body frets (you can see one just above the 12th fret); and, though it's hidden behind the third course bass-side string, there appears to be a ghost mark of the very tip of an old fingerboard point which has been filled in with a spruce patch (you'll just have to take my word for it.)

Photo courtesy NMM
What else? Ghost marks of what appear to be the ends of an old capping strip on each side of the bowl; a strip of maple that's been added to the edge rib on the treble side, to add depth to the body; a "new", two-piece capping strip that's been stuck on the bottom of the bowl, almost, it seems, as an afterthought.

Photo courtesy NMM
If it was anybody besides Edlinger who had done this, you'd probably say that some of it is pretty rough work. Indeed, you can say it of him, and if you want to be brutally honest, you can say that he must have used up a lot of spare parts he had kicking around his workshop to put this lute together.

And yet, I don't think in this case that to say those things is an insult. What Edlinger did was, very simply, put together a lute for a certain client who had a certain musical purpose or necessity in mind.  He did what can be called, somewhat generously, a workmanlike job in doing so. Quite obviously, the lute served that purpose well--the marks of it having been played vigorously, and for a long time, are clearly seen.

It must have been a wonderful instrument. And though in its present state it is far from being technically perfect, it is nevertheless very mysterious, and very beautiful.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Calling All Lute Makers, 2017, or: Building a Lute at the Kitchen Table

Hey everybody--what are you up to this coming August? If you're itching to do some lute making, I've got just the thing for you....

I will again be teaching the lute building class at the LSA Festival West (AKA WestFest), this year in its new location, the campus of the University of Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, August 6-11 2017. I'm really excited about the move--Victoria is a beautiful and very musical city, and the UVic campus will be a lovely location for our classes and concerts. Full details of faculty, courses, accommodations, etc, may be found at the website of the Lute Society of America. Today, I want to tell you a little about what I have in mind for the lute building class.

As in years past, I'll be bringing tools and materials to a classroom on campus, where I will set up a fully operational lute making workshop. The difference, this time around, is that I'll be a little bit farther away from the comforts of my home workshop than I've been before. When the LSA Festival was held in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia (just down the street from my workshop), I could basically toss every tool, jig, and piece of wood I owned into a moving van and haul it out there, but now that it's in Victoria--a two-hour ferry ride away--I will have to be much more selective about what I bring. The new rule is that whatever comes with me must fit into the trunk of my car. So there, I guess, will be the first lesson of this lute building class: how little do you need, in terms of tools, equipment, and materials, to get a workshop working, and put together a lute? It's an important question for folks just starting out in instrument making, or who otherwise have limited space and resources to do so. Hence the subtitle for today's post, which has been the experience of many first time lute makers I've known: Building a Lute at the Kitchen Table.

As in years past, I want to touch on all the main lute building techniques:
--looking at historical evidence, and designing a lute;
--building a workable mold;
--choosing and thicknessing materials;
--bending and fitting ribs;
--joining and thicknessing the belly, and carving the rose;
--barring the belly;
--making the bridge;
--controlling the action (i.e., neck angle and string height) throughout the building process;
--and (as we say in the used-car business) much much more!!!

So, the course will be a mix of theoretical stuff and hands-on work, both for me and for class participants. I want this to be a hands-on course, so depending on your experience, skill level and comfort, I want you to try out the techniques of lute making.

There will also be a special emphasis this time out on how to do a final setup on a just-finished lute. For the last couple of years, the very talented emerging lute maker Wilma Van Berkel of London, Ontario, has been making regular visits to my Vancouver workshop to study with me.
Wilma, hard at work gluing on the belly
During those visits, she has worked on a single project: a 6 course lute, based on the small Frei (C34 in the Vienna KHM). Right now, she is working on the last couple of stages in her own workshop, varnishing the back and installing a peg box. If everything goes according to plan, she'll bring this lute with her to the WestFest, and there we'll work on the final-final steps in the class:
--fitting pegs;
--fitting a nut;
--filing string grooves and adjusting string heights;
--tying a set of gut frets;
--stringing up.

I think it'll be an exciting finish to Wilma's project--playing the first notes on a brand new instrument, in front of some of the best and brightest lute makers, players and teachers in the world. Not much pressure at all!

For the main part of the class, I want to work again with one particular model of lute: the 1592 Venere. You might remember that we worked with a 7 course, 13 rib version of this instrument in the 2015 building class in Vancouver. I think it makes a good model for two reasons: one, because it makes an excellent lute for beginning players, and two, because it makes an excellent lute for beginning makers (though of course it's great for more experienced makers and players too.) As in the 2015 class, I will offer a technical drawing of the lute, and a packet of other information, free to all class participants.

Here are a few pics of the lute that began life during that class, that I and some of my lute making colleagues here in Vancouver gradually put together over the months following the course.
The back, of 13 ribs of dark yew with sycamore spacers, was built by me and Wilma van Berkel.
This lovely bridge was made by Grant Tomlinson (Grant also kindly supplied the soundboard.)
Grant also made a set of pegs for the lute. Ray Nurse made (and fitted, and glued) the peg box, and made and fitted the nut.

I did most of the rest of the work on this lute--the neck, the fingerboard, thicknessing and barring the belly, finishing and varnishing, stringing, etc. Since it was already the product of a number of hands, I decided to include work by another emerging lute maker--Travis Carey. This is a rose that I carved for a lute that never quite got made, circa 2003. I'd kept it around for years as a demonstration piece, but Grant Tomlinson suggested that I inlay it in the new belly of this lute. I think it looks good--it adds a patina of instant age and respectability to a freshly-made lute, and it was certainly less work to inlay the old one than to cut a new rose! (By the way, recycling like this was commonly done in the workshops of the old master makers.)
Before I glued the belly in, I had all the makers involved write their initials on the maker's label that's glued on the inside of the lute's back, visible through the rose. (My darling wife Julia hand-lettered the label for us.)
So there we are: Grant Tomlinson, Ray Nurse, Wilma van Berkel, and me, Travis Carey: the Commonwealth of Vancouver Lute Makers. I would again like to thank everybody who participated in making the lute--many hands made lighter work for all, and I do appreciate the efforts. (I would also like to thank the Lute Society of America for covering the cost of a hardshell Kingham case.) The instrument was always intended to be used as a loaner or rental lute for a deserving student within Canada, and so it is: it's on loan to a student of music at the University of Victoria. (Perhaps it will make an appearance at the upcoming Lute Fest...)
Just as we did in the 2015 class, I want to start building another one of these lutes in August, again as (eventually) a loaner or rental for a deserving student or player here in Canada. We may not be able to build an entire lute in one week, but I want to make a good start--and I want the participants of the lute making class to lend a hand. I invite you to come to the class ready to give things a try--to bend a rib, fit a rib, glue a rib, help to carve the rose, carve a bridge, shape the neck, or make the peg-box--any of the thousand and one tasks involved building a lute. And, as is the custom for those who've worked on the lute, be ready to sign your initials on the maker's label.

I hope to see you there!

Sunday, 12 March 2017

In Which I Open My Mouth and Speak

In November 2016 I was invited to present a talk at a TEDx event in Penticton, British Columbia, Canada. What was my topic? You guessed it, lutes! The event was live-streamed, and then later, the talks were edited and uploaded to YouTube. Here's mine:

It's not often that I'm asked to organize my thoughts on lute making coherently for presentation to a general audience, but I think it's a good thing to do every once in a while. I enjoy telling people about what I do, and introducing them to the beautiful musical instrument to which I have devoted my working life. My thanks to Brian Hughes, who organized the event, and to the Lakeshore Resort in Penticton for the lovely accommodations.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

'A Modest Gluing Surface,' or, Attaching a 12 course Ladder Extension

Today I want to talk about my method for fitting and gluing a ladder extension on a 12 course "double headed" lute. I've made three of these lutes now, the oldest one being I think almost five years old; the extensions are still firmly attached to all three, so I'm fairly certain that my method is a good one, and I can confidently share it with the wide world of the lute.

For those of you who don't know what a 12 course lute with a ladder extension looks like, here are a couple of photos of the finished product. These are shots of my latest one, a 12 course bass-baroque lute for Evan Plommer, completed in late 2015.

So what's the big deal with this joint? Well, the main problem is that the extension attaches to a very tiny corner of the bent back peg box, and that's almost all the support it gets. The extension, as you can see, carries a fair load of tension from the four bass courses strung to it, which pull it both forward and to the bass side. So the extension has to be well made, and the joint has to be well fitted and well glued; there is very little room for error here.

Let's have a look at the neck-pegbox area before the joint is fitted to see what the issues are.

Here's what the area looks like, once the bent-back peg box has been fitted and glued into place. See that little pink corner of the peg box? That's it.

As you can see, a small corner of the neck and fingerboard have been cut away on the bass side to accommodate the "root" of the extension. Just a quick word about layout: the neck is designed with the width of a 10 course lute, and the edge of the cutout is just a couple of millimeters to the bass side of the fundamental of the eight course. (By the way, the width of the bent-back peg box is determined by the position of the 8th course fundamental too, since that string must thread inside the peg box. Therefore, the edge of the cutout, and the inside edge of the peg box cheek, are virtually aligned.)

Confused yet? Try building one of these things. I remember making the first one of them and being just barely able to comprehend how all of this would align and fit together. I've found that the only solution when you feel this way is make accurate drawings, keep careful notes, and proceed slowly, one step at a time.

Here is a photo that shows some of the layout work I did on the fingerboard before making the cutout.

 And here's a shot of me holding my breath, and plunging in, saw-first.

This was the result--an accurate cutout on the corner of the neck and fingerboard. The back of the cutaway follows the plane of the back of the rebate for the bent-back peg box.

Once that was done, I fit and glued the bent-back peg box--and there I was, looking at that tiny pink pegbox corner, wondering how on earth I could get an extension to stick on that.

Last year, when Evan's bass lute was just finished, I posted some of these pictures to Facebook. One of our eminent lute makers of an earlier generation commented, upon looking at this photo: "A modest gluing surface." He then went on to tell a rather gut-wrenching tale (no pun intended) of having one of these extensions shear off, just as he was delivering it to his client.

I had visions of that very thing happening to me when I was making and fitting this extension for the first time (really, it haunted me in my sleep), and for a long time I racked my brain to find a solution, some way to lock the thing in place. I could just fit the extension and glue it and then... what? reinforce it with a wood screw? drill a hole and insert a dowel? wrap it in duct tape? None of these ideas seemed effective or plausible, let alone elegant. I was stumped.

So I decided to do what I normally do in situations like these, which is just go ahead and work one step at a time, and see what inspiration might come along during the process.

The first step seemed to be just to fit the extension--cut a matching notch in the end of it to fit onto the tiny corner of the pegbox.

There it is marked out. I cut the notch with chisels, and checked the goodness of the fit often. I checked the orientation of the extension by holding it in place with clamps and stretching fishing line from the bridge out to the end of the extension. I had worked out (on my layout drawing) the spaces between all the strings, going both to the main nut and to the extension: this gave me the horizontal orientation of the extension. I also had a clear idea how far forward I wanted the extension to tilt, and I used the same fishing lines to orient it in that axis too.

Here's a look at my clamping setup--I used it to check the fit and orientation of the extension, and later on, to glue the extension in place. This photo shows how I achieved clamping pressure across (note the shaped caul I've placed on the treble side of the neck and peg box).

And this photo shows how I achieved clamping pressure downward. Since there is only a small surface on top of the pegbox to apply pressure, I devised a kind of screw clamp (made with an old piece of threaded rod), with a very small foot below it, to get pressure on that very specific point. This whole rig needed to be clamped securely to the top of the fingerboard--that's why you see the wooden cam clamps in the background. It may look complicated, but in fact it's quite a simple and effective jig for holding and gluing the extension.

So the extension was fitted--now what?

Well, it seemed to me that there were still two problems with this joint. First, there just wasn't a very big gluing surface. Second, there was no real integration--no real link--between the extension and the peg box. I felt that, once string tension was applied, there was too great a chance that the extension would just shear off, and I'd be back at square one.

So, here's the solution I came up with: an internal tenon.

I think that's what it's called, anyway. I cut a small mortise in the inside of the rebate, parallel with its top surface; I fitted and glued a small tenon of pear wood into that mortise; and then I trimmed the tenon so that about 3mm or so of it stuck out.

Then I cut a corresponding slot for this tenon in the side of the peg box.

Once the slot was cut, I could slip the extension into place easily.

After clamping and checking the alignment one more time, I went ahead and glued the extension.

And that was it. Next morning, when the glue was dry, I unclamped and had a look. The fit was tight everywhere, and the alignment still looked good; but more important than that, the joint felt strong to me. I took the extension in hand and carefully flexed it, testing it for strength, listening with my ears and my hands for any tiny fractures, any weaknesses, and I detected none. I was pretty sure I had found a solution to the problems with the joint--the internal tenon gave an increased gluing surface, but more importantly it linked and locked the extension to the peg box.

So, I carried on and finished the instrument, strung it up, brought the strings to tension, and... the extension held. Five years later, it's still holding strong. And as I said, I've used it twice since then, and those lutes are holding strong too--so I'm satisfied that I've found a reliable solution to the problem of attaching a ladder extension to the teeny corner of the peg box on a 12 course lute.

Of course, the joint is still very vulnerable to damage--not from string tension, I think, but from impact. (I would be very careful when walking through doorways carrying a 12 course lute!) But I feel that it would take quite a substantial impact to separate the extension from the peg box. And if that did happen, the extension would not simply shear off--instead, the extension might break, or the corner of the peg box would. That's how well integrated the two pieces are on these lutes.

So that's it for this time out. I must confess that I debated for a long time about whether I should share this little insight I had into how to join this extension. One part of me felt like it was a trade secret, and if I gave it away freely, I might be doing myself or my livelihood some harm. However, I've come to the conclusion that it's best to share these insights when one can. After all, everything I know about lute making came from many people who have shared, and to this day still share, their knowledge generously with me.

And what's the worst that could happen? That there's a sudden rash of 12 course lutes being made with secure extensions? That a lute maker somewhere sees my solution to this problem and uses the concept in some new way to tackle a whole other problem? Or that I see some other maker's solution to a different problem, and apply it in a new way in my work? I'd be pleased with any of those outcomes. Happy lute making--and happy sharing, everyone.

Monday, 5 December 2016

New Work, and a Bit Unusual, Too

I see that it's been a very long while since I posted anything here about my new work.

I can't write about everything that's gone on in the shop over the past year, but I want to give some highlights that will show the kind of work I've been up to and the kind of challenges my clients have set for me. I want to talk specifically about two people, both of them excellent musicians who have very clear ideas about the kind of music they want to play, the kind of performing circumstances they'll encounter, and the kind of lute they need to fit the bill.

First up is Evan Plommer, of Sarnia, Ontario. This is the second lute that I've made for him, and just like the first, with this one he set me an interesting task. Again, he was looking for a 12 course lute to explore the world of accords nouveaux or 'transitional' tunings; this time out, he wanted a larger-bodied lute with a longer string length and lower pitch level to explore some deeper sonorities. (The lute has a string length of 79cm.)

Mug shots!


I think the body itself may have been the germ of this idea for Evan. It is that of a bass lute originally designed by Ray Nurse--he built an 8 course version of it a number of years ago, which Evan admired very much, so he asked me to design a 12 course lute around it. (The design is from a lute body dated 1589 by Magno Tieffenbrucker, in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.) Ray kindly lent me the mold, and I completed the lute in the late autumn of 2015.

As you can see, the body has a quite flattened profile--Ray's concept in designing the bass lute with this shape was to enhance its projection. I think it works very well--the combination of string length, body shape, and the material of the back (11 ribs of honduras rosewood) give the lute a mellow yet robust tone.

One of the challenges of building a lute like this is the stepped extension. I've made a few of these lutes now, and I think I've found quite a secure way of attaching it--secure in the sense that it's not likely to separate from the neck unless there is some kind of impact (and let's just utter a small prayer right now that such an event will never come to pass), and secure in the sense that it doesn't bow an inordinate or unpredictable amount due to the tension of the strings. (I will share my method of attaching the extension in a future blog post, so stay tuned.)

I've found that this deflection due to string tension is more of a concern the bigger the lute gets. The string tension itself doesn't change much whether the lute is big or small. Instead, the problem seems to be that the longer the bass strings, the more room one must allow between the strings at the extension end of the lute so that they don't clash against each other when the basses are played.

The amount extra that one must allow between the courses is minute--less than 1mm extra for each course--but when it's added together over the four courses of the extension, it becomes a relatively substantial amount.  The main problem is that the more space there needs to be between courses, the more the extension must skew outward, that is, must point toward the bass side. The strings pull to the side, as well as forward, meaning there could be problems if the extension isn't built robustly and attached securely.

But everything seems fine so far, and the lute's been under tension for over a year. I hope to see it again sometime soon--I'd love to take some measurements and see how much the extension has deflected during that time.

On to the second player, and the second lute. The player is Ronn McFarlane, one of the best-known and best-loved lute players on the scene. I've been listening to Ronn for years, and enjoying his concerts and the classes on lute technique that he's taught at the Lute Society of America Summer Festivals. So it goes without saying that I was thrilled when he contacted me to see if I'd be interested in making him a new lute.

Now, I knew that Ronn had been playing one main lute for a lot of years--a 10 course that Ray Nurse built him I think in the early 2000s--and that it had been a long time since he'd commissioned a new lute. And indeed, once we started discussing the design features that Ronn wanted in this new lute, it became clear to me that he had done a lot of thinking about the kind of instrument that he would need in his career from this point forward. The result for me were a lot of small but crucial challenges in the design and the building of the lute.

Let's have a look first--then I'll tell you about some of those challenges.
This is a 10 course lute as well--I expect that this number of courses gives Ronn the maximum flexibility he needs to use the lute in all the different playing situations he encounters as a professional lutenist.

One of the main stipulations he had when we were initially talking about the design of the lute was the string length--59cm. As you may know, that is a fairly short string length for a 10 course lute. (My usual model for a 10 course lute tuned to g', a shrunken Tieffenbrucher C45, comes in at around 63-64cm.) Now, it's easy to find a model of renaissance lute with a string length of around 59cm--the 1592 Venere and the Hieber lute both come to mind--but a 10 course lute would not work on these models, for a couple of reasons. First, those bodies are a little too compact to handle 10 courses--they don't really have the resonant capacity to deal with all that sound. Second, their necks have room for only 8 tied frets--and Ronn was adamant that this 10 course lute have room for 9 tied frets (and he wanted the ninth to "tie easily," he said.)

So, that sent me back to the drawing board. The solution I came up with for a lute with a relatively large body, relatively long neck, and relatively short string length, was a Sellas archlute--the same small liuto attiorbato that I had used for the first 12 course lute that I made for Evan Plommer, in 2012.

As you can see in the pics above, the body of this lute is quite broad and short--almost as if the folks in the Sellas workshop in the early 17th century had taken the outline of a small-bodied 7 or 8 course lute, and just inserted a spacer or wedge in the middle to broaden it (Robert Lundberg talks about this  design concept in his book Historical Lute Construction.) At the same time, as you can see in this side view, the back of the body is quite flattened--which enhances sound projection, but also, fortunately, makes the lute more comfortable to hold and play.

Even with this rather squat body, however, getting the ninth fret to tie easily was a bit of a trick--I had to raise the position of the bridge by a few millimeters, and change slightly the profile of the lute's back, right where the middle ribs meet the back of the neck, making them gather in a slightly steeper curve. I got it to work, though--as you see here, a most relaxed ninth tied fret.
One other important design consideration was the peg box. Ronn is very much a travelling musician, and often that means he needs to be able to take his lute into the cabin of an airplane as hand luggage--and the case needs to fit into the overhead bin. A 10 course lute of the usual design has a long peg box, and a deep case to fit it--too deep for Ronn's needs. The solution: make a shorter peg box by having a chanterelle tuner, a main peg box that carries 7 double courses, and a bass overrider that carries courses 9 and 10.

As you may have noticed, the overrider is not based on any particular historical design. The idea of basing an overrider on some ancient 13 course lute where you'd normally find such a thing (an Edlinger, say, or JC Hoffmann) seemed quite anachronistic to me, so I followed Ray Nurse's lead in the lute that he build for Ronn in 2000: I designed a functional (and hopefully attractive and natural-looking) piece of equipment that will get the job done with a minimum of fuss.

Two final features to mention: I installed a set of Pegheds, the geared, mechanical tuning pegs; and I installed a K&K Pure Classic pickup inside the lute. Both were Ronn's special requests, and I consented to them without question.  The Pegheds make a lot of sense for Ronn's situation: I cannot imagine anyone playing a lute more, and needing to tune a lute more (and more quickly and accurately) than he does. As for the pickup, Ronn plays many gigs in many different situations--solo, with the Baltimore Consort, or with Ayreheart, electric or acoustic as the case may be. The pickup allows him maximum flexibility to use this new lute in any situation.

So that's it for me for this week. I 've suddenly realized that throughout this blog post I've been typing the words "Ray Nurse" quite a lot. Who is this mystery man, you may be asking? Well, I'm sure many of you have met him, or perhaps seen or heard his work--he's been an amazing lute maker, musician and scholar for many years. This is what he looks like, standing in the doorway of my little shop. Ladies and Gentlemen: Ray Nurse!