Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Variation on a Theme - A New Voboam

I just finished a new baroque guitar after the 1690 Jean Voboam, E.2087 Musée de la musique, Paris. Since I published four posts earlier this year ( Feb 8, 27 and Mar 6, 15) on a similar guitar I will only describe the variations that I made on this one.

I usually sculp the edges of my pegheads with one of the characteristic Voboam designs, veneer them in ebony and leave it at that. But with all of the repair work that I have had to do this year I have been feeling frustrated and depressed. I decided that I needed to make something elaborate and challenging.

René, Alexandre and Jean Voboam often decorated the pegheads of their elaborate guitars with parallel lines of ivory and ebony chevrons mounted by a panel inscribed with their name, place and date. The peghead photo at left is of the Jean Voboam guitar, E. 2087 that I model. I used the same general lay-out as Jean but I reversed the sequence of the ivory and ebony chevrons and omitted the border around the inscribed panel. Various combinations of these elements are found on other Voboam guitars. I also used holly, a fine textured white wood in place of ivory.  I cut the  straight letters with micro chisels and the curved ones with gouges after having made many practice samples.

Original bridges and their flourishes often have not survived. This photo of Royal College of Music No. 32 London, attributed to René Voboam, shows a replacement bridge with original flourishes. I liked the ornate delicacy of this example and decided to model it.

I drew an approproximate likeness and re-sized it to fit my guitar. I glued the pattern on a thin plate of ebony .8mm thick. Since there are many delicate elements in this design, I backed the ebony plate with a layer of paper for added security. Usually, I glue two plates of ebony together sandwiching a slip of paper between and then saw two flourishes together, carefully separating them when finished. In this way I am assured that the two flourishes will be symmetrical. But this time I sawed out each flourish separately and purposely altered the design slightly. Adding a top plate of holly and ebony parallelograms completed the design.

Inside, I made a significant change. In my post from February 8 I commented on current research that suggests that later additions made to the barring of the back and belly and the re-inforcements of the side ribs of Voboam guitars obscures the makers' original intent and affects the sound of the guitars if these additions are copied by modern makers.

Here I am concerned with the barring of the back. The back in this photo of the Smithsonian Voboam, MI*65.0591 taken by Thomas Georgi has no braces and the continuous re-inforcement strips over the joints suggest that it never did. 

When I examined E. 2087 in 2008 I was curious about the location of the braces on the back and by listening to tap tones I decided there was a single bar located across the lower bout. I have ignored this information but I this time I changed my mind. Making the back a little over 3mm thick I included a single bar and a number of small short tabs. The latter secured and maintained the back's outline.

The treble side is left.

I strung the guitar and tested it before I applied any finish. It responded with the usual silvery warmth, quickness and volume level that I expect, but with a degree of responsiveness that I found disturbing. I attributed this to the freely vibrating back. I wanted to retain the quality of sound that I could hear  the back was contributing, but some control needed to be added. I believe that musical instruments, at least lutes and guitars, are counter-intuitive. I lifted the belly and inserted a thin moderating bar behind the bridge as shown in the diagram. It is 70mm long, 3.8mm thick and 4.3mm high. It is located 58mm from the rear of the belly. The bridge is 104mm from the rear. It did the trick.

All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Checchucci Baroque Guitar Drawing

I have made a drawing of the guitar by Jacopo Checchucci, Livorno 1628, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accession Number 2001.707 and I am publishing the PDF as a free download as a service to early guitar builders. The file size is 633 KB and the printed drawing measures 58 cm x 106.5 cm. The guitar was the subject of my post on April 25, 2012.

Click on the link to view and download the PDF  Checchucci Guitar Drawing

The drawing is full size and includes primary measurements and general details. Some features I recorded in greater detail because the designs are handsome or the style of construction is interesting. I have omitted representing the inlaid ivory arabesques because they would have been time-consuming and difficult to render accurately. I believe the photos that are included in this description will better represent this feature.

The back is constructed with seventeen deeply fluted ribs of ebony inlaid with ivory arabesques. Each rib is separated by a triple spacer of ivory-ebony-ivory varying in width around 2mm. The back is not perfectly constructed. At any cross-section the widths of the ribs are uneven. The rib edges in several locations are also uneven and the center rib is tilted (you can see this in the photo) so that the bass side is higher than the treble in the area

of the deepest part of the back. Inconsistencies such as these made it difficult to make templates of the longitudinal and cross-sectional profiles. I decided to use the bottom of the flute of the center rib for the longitudinal profile. The cross-sectional profile is represented showing the tilted rib but without the flutes.

Photo: Museum of fine Arts, Boston

The side ribs, displaying the intricacy of the arabesques, are angled inward from the top, all around the perimeter of the body. The degree of angle varies  2 to 4 degrees from 90 degrees. The largest angle is at the waist and the smallest at the heel of the neck. The smaller angle at the heel is probably a result of the neck pulling up under tension and twisting the front of the body; as the crease over the front block in the back attests.

The neck is glued to the front of the body and secured with a nail as restoration photos show. Astonishingly, the heel is placed off-center to the treble side and the neck is angled back towards the bass so that the nut lines up with the center-line of the body. I will mention the neck angle later, but for now you can see the heel's position in the photo by comparing the visible width of each side rib. Note that the narrow end of the heel lines up with the center rib of the back which is denoted by the tiny ivory heart. The arabesque pattern is also symmetrical. Although this area of the guitar had been severely damaged -- the neck had violently detached from the heel -- there is no doubt that this asymmetry is original.

The elaborate aesthetic of the arabesques continues onto the neck and fingerboard and both face and back of the peghead.

Looking closely, the triple line that borders the heel continues the length of the neck as seen in the photo. There is a second triple line that is visible only as a single line running along the bottom edge of the fingerboard. This area of the neck and over-lying soundboard had been damaged at some point and incompletely restored.

At the peghead end of the neck both triple lines are intact. The veneer sandwiched between the lines is not the same black ebony used with the arabesques, but a dark wood streaked with brown, offering a pleasant contrast.

The tuning pegs are ivory and most likely are original.

On the face of the peghead all of the elements come together in a balanced design. The center panel of black ebony with arabesques is delineated by triple lines of ivory-ebony-ivory mitred at the corners. A field of reddish-brown wood surrounds the center panel and frames the two rows of ivory pegs. This, in turn, is edged with the triple lines. The scalloped edge is actually solid black ebony glued to the edges of an unknown wood that forms the core of the head. The two joints of this assembly are hidden under the outer most triple lines. The end of the peghead is veneered on top with black ebony while the exposed end of the core is painted black.

The rear of the peghead retains the same design motifs but accommodates the V-joint of the neck. Notice (between the first and second set of pegs) how the arabesque flows uninterrupted from the curved surface of the neck onto the centre panel of the peghead. The same reddish-brown veneer that comprises the bordering field on the face of the head is used on the rear, including covering the end of the head.  To complete the design two triple edge lines run off the end of the head rather than closing with a perpendicular line joining the two as on the face.

The fingerboard is black ebony inlaid with the now characteristic ivory arabesques. A triple line of ivory-ebony-ivory provides a border set about 4mm from the edge. These lines terminate at the nut while at the soundboard end they were once, presumably, joined by the perpendicular triple line with mitred corners, but which now remains fragmented as the restoration, previously mentioned, was left incomplete in this area.

The two-headed eagle, in black mastic, may represent an association of the guitar with a member of the Hapsburg family as suggested by the Museum's explanation of its provenance.

Black mastic arabesques surround the rose and embellish the area below the bridge. The tiered rose is gilded parchment with red accents. A ring of thirty-two ivory triangles set in black mastic bordered on each side by triple lines of ebony-ivory-ebony completes the design.

The bridge is a modern replacement. I marked the position of the front edge of the bridge on my plan but I did not include a drawing of it. I think it was designed and constructed in such a manner as to compensate for problems arising during restoration and is only marginally representative of historical practice. My explanation is complicated: Any marks on the soundboard denoting the position of the original bridge are covered by the foot-print of the present bridge. This bridge measures 15.6mm front to rear and was likely constructed a little larger than the original in order to conceal the usual damage to the soundboard associated with a bridge that has detached. The replacement bridge is centered on the soundboard as you can see by comparing its position to the peak of the arabesque that is centered on the soundboard. However, the strings are attached to the bridge off-center to the treble side. This arrangement compensates for two construction features previously noted. First, the heel of the neck is off-center to the treble. Second, the angle of the neck is angled towards the bass to the extent that the nut is in line with the center-line of the guitar body. As a result of this manipulation the strings do lie properly over the fingerboard and the guitar is playable. There is no way to know whether this arrangement is a re-construction of the original.

The border around the perimeter of the soundboard is composed of 104 parallelograms of ivory set diagonally in black mastic in such a way as to create a saw-tooth pattern. The outer edge of the design is bound by an ebony/ivory strip while the inner edge is delineated by an ivory/ebony strip.

Acknowledgements. I would like to thank Darcy Kuronen, Pappalardo Curator of Musical Instruments, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for arranging my visit and sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm.

All photos are by the author unless otherwise noted.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Lacote Decacorde in St. Cecilia's Hall, Edinburgh

I continued my instrument museum holiday in Scotland by visiting St. Cecilia's Hall, Edinburgh to see examples of several guitars that have I been collecting information about; Lacôte's decacordes and guitars built by members of the Benedid family.

The two Lacôte decacodes that I examined recently in Paris differed from each other in various important details (my post of Feb 23). From published photos I knew that this guitar presented yet a third option for some of the same features.

The undated guitar (UEDIN:288) was built by José  Benedid in Cadiz sometime before he moved to Havana where he died in 1899. I thought this instrument could represent a point of reference for interpreting other guitars by the Benedid family that I intend to examine in the future. Since I want to describe both of these guitars in detail I'll write a separate  post for each.

A technical drawing of the Lacôte decacorde is available from the museum (UEDIN:767). I had a copy at hand while I studied the guitar and this saved me a lot of time in noting general details. The disposition of strings on Lacôte decacordes vary from 5 fretted and 5 open to 6 and 4 or 7 and 3. This example is arranged for 5 and 5. As listed on the drawing, the fretted string length is 630 mm while the open strings, set on a slanted nut, vary from 683 to 715 mm.
The book-matched soundboard is impressively close grain spruce that widens only a couple of centimeters from the edge to 1.5mm between grain lines. The sound hole rings and edge banding are in the typical Lacôte style, composed of multiple narrow strips of  alternating ivory and ebony. The bridge appears to be original as it is precisely shaped in the Lacôte style and size. Interestingly, the bridge pin holes are not equally spaced. This feature is certainly intentional. The first through fifth holes are 12 mm apart while the sixth is 11 mm from the fifth. There are 10 mm between each of the remaining holes. The Lacôte decacorde in Paris, E.986.5.1 which is also arranged in a string disposition of 5 and 5 has a similar spacing although the holes are not as accurately spaced.

The back is a single piece of mahogany veneer glued over a piece of close grain quartered spruce, probably utilizing a shaped form in its preparation that results in an arched back. Across the lower bout the crown is 4mm high while at the waist it is 3.5mm and across the upper bout it measures 3mm.

The side ribs appear to be solid mahogany. Shining my pen light through the sound hole I couldn't be sure because of the accumulated grime and discoloration. Had the side ribs been constructed with a layer of spruce I presume this feature would have been visible because the grain pattern of even dirty quartered spruce is recognizable.

The design and construction of the neck and peghead for a guitar with this many strings is a challenge and Lacôte's solution is elegant. Although only five strings on this example are fretted while the remaining five are played open all ten strings lie over the fingerboard. It is structurally necessary to support these strings but acoustically it isn't.  Modern ten strings guitars that have all strings fretted are built with full width necks where the neck stock, whether it is spanish cedar or mahogany, fully supports both structurally and acoustically, the width of the fingerboard with no attempt to reduce the mass of the neck.
 Lacôte recognized that this wasn't necessary and chose to reduce the mass of the neck stock and ease the burden on the player by cutting a channel into the bass side of the neck from the peghead joint to the heel. In each photo, part of the ebony fingerboard is visible at the bottom of the channel. The heel is fully formed and centered on the body while the peghead is attached with the usual long "V" joint. Looking closely at this construction you can see that the neck channel was carved with the fingerboard glued in place because the under-side of the fingerboard has been gouged out in the process of carving the channel.

A similar solution is found on the signed instrument, E.986.5.1. Here the channel was cut and finished before the fingerboard was glued in place allowing the maker to fully contour and delineate both the principal part of the neck and the bass side support. Both of these examples demonstrate an elegant solution to a tricky design problem.

 The simplest solution is found on the unsigned Paris instrument E.1044. Here the neck width is made no wider than necessary to accommodate five strings. The continuation of the neck stock material to form a support for the bass strings is completely omitted. What you see in its place is the bottom of the ebony fingerboard supported on the edge by a separate, narrow piece of sculpted ebony.

The heel end of this arrangement shows an equally simple  construction. In this example, however, the heel is off-set to the treble side of the body to maintain symmetry.

photo of E.986.5.1, Paris
An interesting feature of this guitar is the pitch-raising mechanism, an idea borrowed from the harp, that Lacôte patented for guitar. The Edinburgh guitar retains only one of its original three mechanisms so I am using my photo of E.986.5.1. The mechanism is a brass lever, operated from the underside of the peghead that swings across an open bass string pushing it down onto a secondary nut and raising the pitch of the string a half step. Each lever swings in both directions so the three can alter the pitch of all five bass strings, three at a time.

An explanation of the mechanism is much more complex than the mechanism itself: The small blackened lever at the top is integral with the brass cylinder as is the threaded screw at the bottom and the squared section just above the former. The cone shaped feature is a separate brass washer that slips in place when the mechanism is assembled. The mechanism fits into a hole in the peghead the same diameter as the narrowest part of the assembly. The collar under the small lever holds the assembly in place when it is inserted. The cone-shape washer fits over the brass cylinder and rests in a similarly shaped counter-sink in the back of the peghead. Below the washer the cylinder is squared in order to fit snuggly in the corresponding square hole in the larger bottom lever. This arrangement allows the bottom lever to rotate the entire mechanism when the wing nut (item on the left in the bottom photo) is loose and locks everything in place when it is tightened.

During my visit I was situated in a room adjacent to the hall where the instruments were exhibited. The museum was closed to the public that day so I was able to wander at leisure during my breaks from work.
I would like to thank curator Darryl Martin for his time in arranging my visit and for his generosity is sharing his knowledge of the museum's extensive guitar collection.

Edinburgh University Collection of Historical Musical Instruments

Checklist of Plucked Instruments

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Unverdorben Lute in Dean Castle Scotland

Sue and I were in Scotland last week combining holidays with my museum appointments. I am fascinated with the 16th century lute maker Marx Unverdorben and I have made the examination and documentation of his lutes a special project. Unverdorben lutes are seldom used as models by current builders even though he is represented by as many surviving lutes (9) as his more illustrious contemporaries; Hans Frei (12) and Laux Maler (8). Note: totals from Klaus Martius'  lute database

Dean Castle houses an interesting Unverdorben that prompted our visit to Scotland. I was doubly fortunate because when I arrived I was escorted up a narrow winding  stone stairway to the top of the tower where space had been  prepared for me among the museum's wardrobe storage. Where would there be a more atmospheric place to study a 16th century lute?

I spent the day measuring and making templates of the bowl. Some lute makers built elaborate contraptions for recording bowl contours, but faced with a trans-atlantic flight I wanted to find a simpler way. I used the same principle but substituted laminated card stock for templates that I had prepared in advance.These were supported in grooves cut in pine blocks that were positioned on a paper grid. Throughout the process I used the grid to record reference points.

I cut pointed strips of thinner card stock and positioned these at close intervals against the bowl and taped them in place. Alternating from one end to the other then to the center of the arch this apparatus stabilized itself allowing me to create an accurate contour of the bowl's axis. I was particularly careful at the neck joint and at the point where the ribs bend over the edge of the front block.

I followed the same procedure for creating cross-sections. Here I found it necessary to use two markers per rib, each placed so that the marker's edge aligned with the rib joint. Sometimes this procedure was complicated by mis-shapened or ribs that were poorly aligned.

After finishing each contour I traced the result on heavy paper. Besides the axis contour I made four cross-sections; one at the deepest point of the bowl, another at the front block, a third between these two points and a fourth at a point equal to the bridge position.

I had seen museum photos and read descriptions of the lute so I knew in advance there were features of the instrument that were either not original or suspect.
 Mike's Oud Forums . I finished the afternoon examining these.

I was interested in determining if the bowl retained its original contour because the outline of the belly appears too full for a lute of this era. Lute bowls are flexible and were often forced into a different shape and fitted with a new belly during later re-buildings . The rear view of the bowl also suggests a degree of forced distortion and the belly displays a dip of 6 mm  or more from the imaginary plane when I put a straight edge on it. Luthiers achieve this latter effect by either cutting down the edge ribs or pushing the edge ribs out to a wider contour. You can see in a previous photo that the ribs have not been cut down by any appreciable degree.

 Is the belly original? It is very fine grain wood, but the design of the inset rose and the style of the guitar type bridge makes me suspicious. The current rose and bridge could occupy and obscure the position of the originals. I will compare the positions of these with the information that I have gleaned from other Unverdorben lutes that I have examined and analyze the contours of the bowl further before I reach  a decision.

I have no doubt that the neck is original. Its dimensions agree with surviving original six course lutes and it has a characteristic "V" shape like that found on the lute by Georg Gerle.

A convincing feature is how the 19th century guitar peghead fits into the original recess of the lute pegbox. The angle at the end of the ivory neck is 9 degrees. A line representing the seat of the recess is visible too. The edge strip of ivory veneer would have continued across this area to the nut, but it has been replaced with ebony in order to blend with the guitar peghead.
Certainly you have noticed the design covering the ivory ribs. This is a floral motif painted in black and gold. It appears on the fingerboard and around a small part of the circumference of the rose and a small portion along the soundboard binding. It is worn in areas that were subject to abrasion. Painted ribs are unusual, perhaps for the very reason evident here, but decorated ribs are not. Interestingly, Unverdorben has indulged before as represented by his lute, formerly in the V&A.
Unverdorben Lute V&A 193-1882

I would like to thank Jason Sutcliffe, Museums Development Manager, for arranging and making my visit so enjoyable and especially for sharing his passion for Dean Castle so enthusiastically with Sue and me.

Dean Castle
Dean Castle Country Park

Monday, September 17, 2012

Jauch Baroque Lute - The Black Lute

My Jauch triple-nut lute is finished.

Jozef van Wissem, the Dutch lutenist/composer, for whom I have built lutes since the 90's has, with each new order, asked me to built him a black lute: I have always protested and declined.

But last fall Jozef was in Toronto and stopped by after his gig with a convincing argument. His duet partner, film director/guitarist, Jim Jarmusch is making a movie about a centuries long love affair of a lute playing vampire; Only Lovers Left Alive. Josef has a hand in the movie score.

Black lutes were popular in the 18th century. But they were painted black, "ebonized" rather than built with ribs of ebony and often using curly maple. I have had the opportunity to examine several ebonized lutes. This is a photo of a Thomas Edlinger lute in the collection of Harvard University, HUCP3279, that was obviously ebonized during a later conversion. Much of the black paint has flaked off revealing the original brown varnish.

I decided to mimic historical precedent. I applied a chicory tea stain to darken the curly maple ribs a little and then sealed the wood with a light coat of clear lacquer. Before ebonizing the lute I strung it up and played a little; letting it enjoy a few days in a brief historical niche.

To ebonize the bowl I built up the finish with subsequent coats of black lacquer, sanding lightly between each one. After the lacquer had hardened a few days I rubbed out the surface with 4000 MicroMesh and waxed with conservator's wax.

When I agreed to build the black lute Jozef was adamant that it needed to be all black. History has a way of repeating itself. While researching this lute I read an article by Eszter Fontana, The Case of the Missing Lute, JLSA XXXV (2002) and was astonished to read in a footnote (pg. 4) a description of a no longer extant J.C. Hoffmann lute: "Very beautifully crafted body, black lacquered resonating belly with triple rosette."

I stained the belly black with spirit stain and sealed it with several light coats of clear lacquer, rubbed out and waxed.

photo courtesy of Jozef van Wissem

Last Monday, Jozef appeared at Le Poisson Rouge, New York, with the Black Lute.