Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A Buchenberg Theorbo

As I mentioned in my April Update from 4/20/18 I still needed to finish a few details on my Buchenberg theorbo.  I also hoped the case would arrive in time for the lute to have its coming out in a performance of Ulysses .
I got everything done but the case didn't arrive after the show closed. I am sure there will be other opportunities.

V&A No.190-1882

My Buchenberg is based on a technical drawing made by Stephen Gottlieb. Although Stephen based his drawing on  several instruments by Buchenberg the principal source seems to be No.190-1882 conserved in the Victoria & Albert, London. I never was able to arrange an appointment to examine this instrument but I did visit the V&A instrument gallery in 2006 and shot this photo

The V&A instrument gallery was closed in 2010. I took photos of all of the lutes that were on display. Eventually I hope to post a photo story of that visit.

The technical drawing is available from The Lute Society.
Click here for the link.

To see the Museum's photos of No. 190-1882.  Click here.

 The bowl of the original (and in Stephen's drawing) is made of 41 shaded yew ribs. My stock of yew boards was insufficient for this project and my hands are no longer nimble enough to handle such narrow ribs so I built my model with 29 ribs in bird's-eye maple. I knew that several surviving lutes by Buchenberg were built with maple bowls. His large theorbo (99 and 170cm) Number 1570 in MIM Brussels is built with 21 ribs of maple. I have an appointment to examine this instrument later this month so the configuration of fewer maple ribs was an appealing option. Furthermore, the properties ( density, hardness and elasticity) of yew and birds'-eye maple are similar. I'm a fan of bird's-eye, a believer in its acoustical properties and I had large boards, well speckled with tiny eyes.

I built an open mold with a central spine and the five cross-sections that are represented on the drawing. I marked off the position of the two edge ribs and the center rib then divided the reminder of each cross-section into the required number of segments. A"segment "denotes the position and width of each rib. I did not cut facets into the cross sections since the ribs are relatively narrow and lie close to the mold in any case.

The rear of the bowl is always a difficult area in constructing both the mold and in assembling the ribs. I try to make the procedure as simple as possible.

I dispensed with adding a final cross-section as I have done previously.  The shape never seemed to be quite right and its presence caused additional problems.

My technique now is the construction shown in the photo. Its shape is derived from three known profiles; the longitudinal profile (the center rib), the soundboard profile and the the profile of the last cross-section. I roughed out the shape on a bandsaw, glued the curved sections in place and finished with a fine rasp. I bent three ribs out of scrap wood each one representing a given shape; the center rib, the edge rib and an intermediate one whose curve lay between the two. These served as templates to guide the final shaping. I did not lay out the course of the individual ribs but I did mark the location of the future endclasp. As I proceeded to assemble the ribs beyond those seen in this photo I found it necessary to slightly alter the shape of this addition to the mold which was easily done.

Flattened back lutes such as this one usually require that about a third of the ribs terminate horizontally rather than vertically.

It is necessary to monitor the width of the ribs as they pass under the endclasp.

When I examine an historical lute I am always careful to record the size of the end clasp and the width of each rib as it passes under the clasp. The two notches on top of the endclasp are usually an important indicator of a transition point in the construction of the bowl.

 The end clasp covers the untidiness.

The soundboard is 40 cm wide and 63 cm to the neck joint.
The  string disposition on my model is 7x1 / 7x1 at 88.3 cm and 164 cm.

The bridge is plum with the string holes on 11 mm centers.

The belly frets are positioned according to 1/6 comma meantone.

The neck is 31 mm thick at the joint tapering to 22 mm at the first fret. Its core is quartered sitka spruce. The veneer is made from Claro Walnut rib stock that I bought to use on multi-piece flat-back baroque guitars. I cut several of these into tapered strips,  and re-assembled them reversing the grain direction on alternate stripes. The pattern is edged with ebony that better resists marring from the fret knots.

This photo shows the bird's-eye maple to good effect. The finish on all hard woods except the fingerboard, that has none, is blond shellac as the base coats with garnet shellac on top applied with the French polish method.


The fingerboard has a 2mm camber at the nut centered under the 6th and 7th strings. From that point the degree of camber diminishes toward the neck joint where the fingerboard is nearly flat. I also scraped a little relief into the length of the fingerboard.

I decided to restrict my use of ebony, limiting it to fingerboards and purfling or banding. My decision is partially based tougher CITIES restrictions on Dalbergia (rosewood) and Diospyros (ebony) and a skin sensitivity to these woods that has now become troublesome.

I had been thinking about this switch for several years and last summer I found a plank of European walnut in southeastern Pennsylvania that was cut from locally grown timber. The story is told that early English colonists wanted English walnuts and brought the saplings with them. The trees' descendants survive to this day.

The extension is constructed with a sitka spruce core capped on the edges with a 5 mm thick strip  of European walnut. The top and back surfaces are veneered with the same walnut.  I sawed  all of these pieces from a large plank.


The back of the extension is cambered along its entire length while the sides taper in from top to bottom. This reduces weight without reducing strength.


 The theorbo head is a separate piece of solid walnut that is 'finish' shaped and then glued to the extension.

The tuning pegs are European plum.


    All photos are by the author.


Friday, April 20, 2018

April Update - Buchenburg and Kaiser theorbos

Michael Manderen, admission director at Oberlin Conservatory, avid Renaissance Fair musician and owner of a half dozen of my lutes and guitars, picked up his Tecchler archlute last week.
Although its size remains a limitation on its popularity the Tecchler remains one of my favorite lute models.  Its beauty is unsurpassed and I value its structural stability.

Now a new set of instruments have my attention.

In the foreground a Kaiser theorbo bowl is taking shape. This is modelled closely after E.24 conserved in Museé de la musique, Paris. Work on it has slowed while I finish the Buchenberg
(on the right).
 My shop is cramped and I don't have a dedicated space for finishing so I utilize unusual  set-ups. The theorbo spans the length of the bench and over-hangs the aisle. This is intentional as it allows me to reach every part of the bowl. I have just finished shellacking the bowl when I took this photo.
In the background is the back of a Voboam guitar that was seriously damaged after being left on a radiate-heated floor during the owner's holiday.

I planned to finish my Buchenberg early in April to coincide with the visits of several clients who were or are in town for various shows. Charlie Weaver was here last weekend with  Quicksilver Baroque . Lucas Harris, shown in the photo, is playing in Opera Atelier's production of Return of Ulysses along with Daniel Swenberg whose Schelle theorbo was in my December's update. It was a pleasure to listen to all three and informative to discuss their impressions.

Since Daniel was here with his Schelle (his left) I though we would  make a side by side comparison. Both lute bowls are approximately 40 cm wide and 65 cm to the neck joint. The bridges are equally placed as a proportion of the belly length. The Buchenberg is built to its recorded string lengths but Daniel had me shorten the fretted length of his Schelle  from 88 cm to 86 and the extension from 160 cm to 140 for the convenience of flying. He can buy a seat for his lute as it fits under the overhead bins on planes used for medium and long distance flights.

I haven't completely finished the Buchenberg. It still needs more shellac on the extension, a higher diapason nut, final fitting of the tuning pegs and most of all the case that should arrive in the next week. If all goes well Daniel will play it in the final performance of Ulysses on the 28th.

This Buchenberg will be the subject of my next post.

This is a photo of my Voboam as it appeared when new. It arrived back in my shop with the following injuries: a 10 centimeter crack in one rib of the of the six piece back, multiple separations of the joints between back spacers and their adjacent ribs, a major separation of the back from the side ribs, a detached bridge and missing parts of the bridge flourishes and damage to the finish of the back and side ribs.

The owner has been touring extensively and will continue to do so for the near future. Therefore, I decided to give the guitar a complete overhaul. I started by detaching the back and removing the braces. This allowed me to level the affected joints one at a time by sandwiching them between two pieces of plexiglass while the glue set.

Next I'll replace the back bars and attach tiny triangular locating tabs around the perimeter of the back. These help to hold the back to the side ribs but also to insure that the back re-aligns perfectly with the side ribs when the back is re-attached. There's much more to do and the owners next tour begins May 12. I'll report further on this as a side to my next post.

Charles Weaver photo
   More problems: Quicksilver's next show is tonight, the 20th, in Boulder Colorado. Charlie sent me this photo yesterday when he arrived in Boulder. The photo shows the joint between the fretted neck and the theorbo extension of his 2011 Schreiner built Kaiser. The lute is upside down so the fingerboard is at the bottom of the photo and the nut is the white object on the left bottom. The angled sloping form is the extension. It fits into an horizontal V that is cut into the neck  The joint under normal circumstances is reliable and easily withstands the tension of the diapasons. But, if the instrument is dropped by a careless baggage handler the joint can suffer whiplash and crack the joint  ( see arrow). This is the one area of a theorbo that can not be satisfactorily repaired. The neck has to be replaced. Fortunately Charlie has been able to borrow a theorbo for this evenings show.

All photos by the author except as noted.


Thursday, February 15, 2018

David Tecchler A Roman Archlute 1725

The David Tecchler archlute is a stunning instrument. I first saw it unexpectedly as part of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,  The Still Lifes of Evaristo Baschenis  The Music of Silence (November 17, 2000 - March 4, 2001). The Met enhanced the exhibition by displaying many of its finest baroque instruments along side Baschenis' paintings.  All of the instruments were mounted in stand alone glass cases that offered unobstructed views from all sides. I was smitten.

You can see the Met's online page of the Tecchler archlute Here

And you can read the exhibition overview Here

I had been interested in large archlutes and the year before I had examined an anonymous archlute in Paris (E.25) and had built a model that had worked out well. But the Tecchler stuck me as something special. I was impressed with the contours of the bowl and that it was built with hard resilient ebony. I wrote to Stewart Pollens, the Met's musical instrument curator at the time, and asked for an appointment to study the instrument.

When I arrived a few months later Stewart's office/workshop was completely taken up with two fortepianos . There was no room for a large archlute so I worked in the musical instrument gallery. It was a Monday so the museum was closed to the public and the lighting seemed to be dimmer than usual.
I decided that under those circumstances to concentrate on observation, measurements and taking notes rather than relying on photographs for details. At that time the afore-mentioned webpage was online. Therefore I had access to detailed photos.

I managed to get a good photo of the contour on the central axis of the lute. This photo shows the fullness of the depth of the bowl.

Also visible is a slight re-curve of the bowl at the rear.

The outer banding on the edge of the bowl is striking. The soundboard is bordered by ebony and ivory lines with a strip of red tortoise shell glued to the exterior.

I also got a good shot of the cross-section of the bowl. Here I focused the camera at the center top of the apron. You can see that the bowl is asymmetrical. Among the measurements that I made were the rib widths at the apron, deepest point of the bowl and the neck joint. These measurements are essential in determining the layout of the ribs and offer clues to the techniques of the luthier. The bowl has not been cut down as is often the case with surviving lutes so the edge ribs retain their original width. Although the rib widths at the neck joint and rear apron are mostly symmetrical, the widths across the deepest part of the bowl are not.

Stewart gave me a copy of the restoration report written by Enrico Pacini, the first page of which is shown here. The document is six pages, with all of the important measurements, photographs of the interior of the belly, the bowl, close-ups of the front block and of the interior rear apron.

The report also includes a detailed discussion of the design of the bowl complete with nine carefully drawn diagrams; cross-sections and profiles.

The format of this report leads me to believe that it appeared as a journal article. I had it translated into English for my own use. I would like to make the contents of  the report more widely known but I have not been able to locate Enrico Pacini or determine where or even if this was published. If any of you can help, please get in touch.

When I built the first model I constructed an open mold composed of five cross-sections and a three dimensional rear section supported by a central spine the shape of which I determined from my photos.

Since the two sides of the bowl were asymmetrical I chose the treble side and replicated that throughout my design.

The original lute has a broad ivory band as the middle part of its apron. On earlier models I included this effect by using a band of holly but here I opted for three pieces of ebony.

The spacers between the ribs of the original lute are two strips of ivory sandwiching a strip of ebony. The total width is nearly four millimeters. I included this feature on my first model but the multiple joints proved unreliable and since then I have used a single strip of holly about 2.5mm wide.

The neck of the original is red tortoise shell with a layer of gold leaf underneath that enhances the transparency of the shell. On earlier models I used bloodwood strips cut from a blank but here I used a figured  mahogany. The ninth fret falls just in front of the neck joint. I  use a tied fret looped over a tiny wooden peg.

Fitting the combined narrow strips with their accompanying spacers can be tricky. Here I have assembled the veneer strips held together with masking tape. The shaped and previously fitted neck is covered with plastic tape. I applied a layer of thin glue to the back of the assembled strips and attached it to the neck in its proper position holding it in place with more masking tape. Once the glue dries the veneer can be pried loose retaining its curvature. The two parts can then be re-assembled free of the anxiety of the separate pieces shifting.

The neck extension is veneered both sides with the same figured mahogany. The purfling is composed of  narrow strips of holly and ebony edged with a wider piece of holly. The center dart topped by a heart is a feature of necessity as much as an adornment.

The veneer when bent over the compound curve of the back of the extension is prone to splitting. A disaster! This is prevented by sawing a kerf up the center of the veneer before it is applied. In the photo you can see the rough edges of the kerf. I have bent a piece of poplar to the curve of the extension (left) and firmly clamped it in location that forms one edge of the dart. When both edges are sawed through the veneer I remove the center part and inlay the holly dart. Topping it with a heart finishes the job.


The theorbo head is a standard design made with poplar and blackened with carbon black dissolved in shellac.

 I use the same soundboard layout as the original lute: bridge and rose position with the same rose diameter.

The rose is a familiar pattern that appears on many  surviving lutes. Tecchler's variation uses curved elements that terminate at the outer ring.


The design of the bridge is simple. But it is the original design and size. My choice of a heart inlay  differs from the original.


A further word about the bridge. You must have noticed that the pegbox held twelve pegs for stringing in courses while the lute is single strung.  The bridge is drilled to work both ways. I was able to use the original Tecchler spacing with holes for single spacing interspersed.  One hole is used jointly. The small while dots are markers that denote the location of the holes for single spacing - to avoid confusion.

All photos by the author.

Edited February 19, 2018
Since posting this story a reader responded to my call for information about Enrico Pacini and his restoration article. The full citation is: Pacini, Enrico. “Una tiorba romana del ‘700: Appunti di restauro.” Il flauto dolce: Rivista semèstrale per lo studio e la pratica della musica antica 10-11 (January-June 1984): 23-28.

February 22, 2018
Another reader found this article on JSTOR, the digital library available to scholars or for fee. 
Go  to JSTOR



Tuesday, December 19, 2017

December Update - Theorbos, Archlutes and Guitars

My workshop has gotten crowded. In the foreground is a Tecchler archlute that is just about finished. In the back left is a Buchenberg bowl that is coming along. The baroque guitar is in for a bit of glue and the Schelle theorbo is having its neck finish redone.

I finished the archlute with French Polish that I have been allowing to harden for few weeks.

In the meantime I decided to start a new theorbo as a special project. It is based on Matteo Buchenberg (Victoria & Albert , London). The string lengths will be 90 and 170 cm.

I built this Voboam model baroque guitar ten years ago and you can see it gets a lot of work. Occasionally, it comes in for a little glue and I am always happy to see it. This time it has a loose bar and an open back seam.

The extension of the historic Schelle theorbo is painted black and at the request of my client I painted the fretted neck as well. I have used this method before, but not for ten years or more. Since then paint products have changed and my favorite is no longer available. I wasn't happy with the substitute so I am re-finishing it with black shellac using the French polishing method. You can see the  results of this method on my newest Voboam in my post from 9/11/17.

I have some catching up to do with my posts. Hopefully I'll finish my report on the Josef Pagés guitar soon and the Tecchler archlute deserves a detailed description too.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Josef Pagés 1813

Jonathan Bouquet MIMEd Curator, St Cecilia's 

Early last week I was in the Music Museum of St Cecilia's Hall, University of Edinburgh, for my appointment to study their Josef Pagés guitar.

Former St Cecilia's curator Darryl Martin had told me this was an interesting and important guitar.  Since Pagés was an early innovator of fan barring I was excited to get a look at what he had done.

I spent a day taking photos, measuring all principle components, making profiles of the top and back and taking notes on construction details that I could not easily photograph.

I had seen the guitar in its display case on previous visits to the museum - but it was even more impressive to see the superb and flawless artistry up close.

Pagés was just as thoughtful and meticulous with the internal construction of the guitar - to those components that effect its acoustical response and structural integrity.

Here is a partial view of one of two sheets of the working drawing that I made during my visit. The lines and lettering are faint because I always use soft lead pencils during my work.

Although this is not suitable for publication I will reproduce a full size version, adding information from my notes, and publish it here as a download.

As a companion to the download the post will include a thorough description of the Josef Pagés guitar with detail photos.

St. Cecilia's has recently undergone an extensive renovation. You can read about it here:  Friends of St Cecilia's .

The Museum and its collection is  also a teaching institution. I worked alone in one of the gallery's small glassed-enclosed teaching rooms visible just to the right in the photo. My visit was on a day when the museum was closed to the public so my only companion was the spirit of St Cecilia.

All photos by the author.


Monday, September 11, 2017

Another Voboam


Early this summer I built this Voboam model to exhibit at the Boston Early Music Festival. The design is based on the 1690 Rene Voboam, E. 2087 in Musée de la musique, Paris. I have built a lot of these always using similar aesthetics and construction methods for each one. I had been thinking about changing some of these details. Coincidently, I bought a copy of La Guitar, Paris 1650-1950, Addendum by Sinier de Ridder. Among the many photographs was a guitar attributed to Alexandre Voboam from 1657. Two features of this guitar stood out - a black neck and pegbox and a two piece back, apparently made with yew wood. The guitar also had plain ebony side ribs without ivory dividers.

Since I have been building nineteenth century guitars with maple necks finished in black shellac I decided to use the same procedure for my Voboam. My model retains the separate peg head secured with a 'V' joint and the usual Voboam inspired peg box with scalloped edges. The pegs are castelo boxwood stained black.

I colored my shellac with carbon black and applied it with a cotton rubber in the standard French polishing technique. However, the areas around the 'V' joint and the transition from the heel and the sides of the peghead required using a chisel tipped brush.

Note: I was curious about whether the black neck of the original Alexandre Voboam guitar was veneered or blackened in some manner. I emailed Françoise and Daniel Sinier de Ridder who kindly replied, "In this A. Voboam the neck is veneered in ebony and also the heel." Thank you.

I have used different methods of attaching the neck to the body. This time I used a slipper foot style neck that Sinier de Ridder calls the "archaic" method. They explain that this was the Voboam family's standard procedure. This was an important take away from  La Guitare. 

Here I am using a pair of skew chisels (left and right bevel) to shape the heel. These chisels simplified the shaping of the contour particularly in the transition from the heel to the shank of the neck.


   I am not a good draftsman  so reproducing the design for the moustache has always troubled me.

But I developed a good technique for replicating the spiral shape that defines many baroque guitar moustaches. I use tin solder as a flexible ruler.  This is the stuff used to connect copper plumbing pipes or electrical connections in electric guitars. It is easily shaped into a spiral and most importantly it holds its shape.

Tracing around the circumference achieves the basic design. I filled in the appurtenances free-hand.  The moustaches are cut from a assembly of two pieces of ebony 1.2mm thick. The pattern is glued to one face while slips of paper are glued to the opposing face and between the ebony  pieces. I used a hand scroll saw to cut the pattern.  While the assembly is still together I round the edges with various small files. The two parts are separated and the paper removed by dropping them in near boiling water for a few seconds. Everything floats apart and as long as the moustaches are rescued quickly no harm is done. I allow the new moustaches to dry sandwiched and weighted between two pieces of plexiglass.

I didn't have a suitable piece of yew for a two piece back but I have been saving a small stock of this beautiful koa for special projects.

I finished the guitar with shellac using the French polishing technique. The soundboard received multiple coats of tung oil.

The side ribs are Macassar ebony

Coming Up. I am working on a model of the David Tecchler archlute that will be finished soon. I examined this instrument in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2000.

This is a 2008 model

All photos by the author.