"A dialogue between the author and his lute: The lute complaining sadly of its great wrongs and injuries".
John Edward's theorbo needed attention. Since his New Year's Day program for The Musicians in Ordinary required using an archlute, his theorbo, which had been suffering many "wrongs", could in the interval, be put right. Being in the holiday spirit myself, I thought what fun it would be to invite the venerable Thomas Mace himself to oversee our work and to lend a hand if he thought things weren't right.
By rapping on the soundboard of John's lute it was obvious from the dull response that one or more of the harmonic bars were loose. Thomas was explicit in describing the technique and the tools necessary for mending this annoyance.
"First, untwist your Strings, only so much, as you may have Liberty to take them from the Bridge.... draw those of the first Head all together through your Hand, and twist them about that Head and Pegs: Then take the other four Ranks of Basses, and do the like with them..."
I have always followed Thomas' advice but gut strings have a mind and memory of their own and they are an unruly mob regardless of how carefully you treat them.
"Proceed next to the taking off the Lace, and if it be a Parchment, you may be the bolder with it, and never fear the spoiling of it, for you must have a New one put on." The lace on John's theorbo is made of black cloth cut on the bias. I have several yards of the fabric so I won't mind spoiling it.
Thomas continues: "First, have a Dish of Water , and let it close by you upon a Table, and with a Linen rag,...anoint the Lace all over... and then warm all your Lace over with your Iron, being red hot..."
The photos demonstrate the technique that Mace describes but the tools are a little different. Thomas suggests; "Let your Smith make you a Four-Square Iron, about the length of your Middle Finger, and about three quarters of an Inch Square...". A friend of my daughter's did study to be a smith but was never able to get started in business and is now building custom bicycles. Obviously following Thomas' directions was going to be difficult so I decided to improvise. In the photo (left) I am using the blunt end an old 25 watt soldering iron. "... and then warm all your Lace over with your Iron, being red hot, drawing your Hand slowly and closely, from place to place, till you think the Lace is hot quite through, (but take heed of Burning) and when you have done so, you may take the Lace at one end, and draw it off, so easily as if It had never been Glewed..." Indeed! The heat from the iron essentially steams the water saturated lace off the edge of the lute. This was surprising quick and tidy.
The next procedure: separating the belly from the bowl by slipping a small knife into the glue joint between the belly and the top rib is nerve racking to me; fraught with peril. Thomas agrees; "...Attempt the Belly after the same manner, but yet with more Caution..." Among the the list of tools necessary for this procedure Thomas described the knife to be used. " A little working - Knife; such, are most commonly made of pieces of Broken - Good - Blades..." Well, I prefer our kitchen knives for this sort of thing. My favorite for this operation is a three inch Henckels paring knife. It has a marvellously stiff, thin blade that keeps a good edge with a comfortable handle. I just have to be sure to return it to the kitchen when I am finished using it on a lute.
Thomas explains, "Then take your Little Working-Knife, and begin to try to get it between the Belly and the Back, at the Bottom first... And if you have Wetted, and Heated enough, your Knife shall find an easie Entrance..."
I have only built a few lutes with a lace binding rather than a hard wood half binding. But I must say that at this stage the work is going very smoothly compared to my experience with removing bellies from lutes edged with a half binding. There are several reasons for this, I think. First, there is no finish under the lace so the heat and moisture that is used to remove the lace immediately attacks the glue joint as well. And then too there is little concern for spoiling the finish on the edge of the belly so if the knife does not "find an "easie Entrance ... Wet and Heat that part again where you are at work, till you perceive it will willingly yield to the gentle force of your Hand and Knife."
"So when that Flat bottom is opened...then put in your Knife again, and when you feel a Barr, then get your Knife under that Barr, and so gently force it, till you perceive It loose. And so from Barr to Barr..."
Factors such as the strength of the original glue, the height of the bar ends and the closeness of fit will influence the ease or difficulty with which the bars yield their grasp.
"... you must again Wet and Heat and thorowly, and then
taking the bottom of the Belly (which is loose) in one hand,
and the Neck of the Lute in the other, you will find
(with a little forcing) that it will come off very readily... "
I have seen the results of this manoeuvre on lutes both ancient and modern. It is a sad indictment of those with little patience. Thomas continues with a wiser method; " but if need be, you may take a board Meat-knife, and getting it underneath within, help it to part by degrees." Lute makers will often glue a thin sheet of paper between the neck block and the belly when assembling new lutes. This aids in the removal of the belly if necessary. This is visible in the photo (below).
"And now your Lute is quite undone, and you must get it mended again as well as you can." Thomas explains in detail how to mend cracks of which John's lute has suffered many, but I repaired those long ago and the problem at hand is several loose bars. "Thus having mended all the Cracks, fall to work upon those Barrs you find loose,
I quickly made one trencher from scrap beech to see how the concept worked. Of course the success of the idea depends on the thickness of the trencher material which I was only able to guess at. I tied one end tightly together with a piece of gut string. In practice, the amount of pressure that the clamp exerted seemed about right for this operation. It held fast and since the material was wood I didn't worry about marring the top of the belly. Furthermore their lightness in comparison to metal clamps is an advantage for many delicate operations. I intend to make several more to have on hand.
they will fit...Then fear nothing, but boldly proceed to the Uniting, which must be done after This manner."
the Belly, in the midst of that upper Flat, and joyn Belly and Back together."
This serves as a method for positioning the upper belly accurately during final assembly. I don't have an awl so I used a hand pin-vise with a small drill bit.
In the photo John is smearing glue on a small piece of paper (I use 90 lb. water-color paper) My glue pot, lower left, consists of a hot plate, sauce pan and a small plastic container of glue that I clamp to the inside of the pan with a clothes peg. My "iron" is now a shortened artist's spatula. For heat I use a propane torch that heats the spatula red hot in a few seconds.
"Now having in readiness your Great Iron, red hot, heat the edges thorowly all over, and then especially the upper Flat where your aul sticks, till you perceive the Glew is become warm and thin." For this procedure I used my electric iron set on maximum with a scrap of cloth between the iron and the lute.
At the beginning I was too hesitant and did not heat the iron hot enough. The glue melted but didn't hold. I held my iron in the flame until it glowed red hot. That did the trick. I was careful to apply the iron only on the part of the paper that covered the area where the lace would lie, both top and side. It immediately scorched the paper. Then I quickly, but lightly, followed through by touching the after-length of the paper. The iron had cooled enough to still set the glue but not to risk scorching the glossy or varnished areas.
"Then after this manner proceed Inch by Inch, first on one side, and then on the other...and be sure at every Bar, you thrust it so close as possibly you can, with your Thumb and fingers; and Paper it well all the way with Scorching..."
"...and when you have rounded it Thus, lay it by till next day
before you cleane off Those Papers, &c."
When I examined our work I was satisfied that the belly and back had joined properly and the glued had crystallized. The scorch marks seemed ominous and I was worried that I had marred the belly or the back. But I had to wait until the next day.
"When This is done, proceed to the putting on of your Lace..." As I mentioned previously, I have a supply of black cloth that I cut on the bias to enable it to curve around the edge of the belly. Furthermore, I fold the cut strip over on itself and iron a crease in it so that it will lie evenly on over the edge.
"This being done, lay by your Lute for a Day or Two, that the Glew may harden, and then you may proceed to the Stringing of it."
This was quite a bit of work and we all thought that it turned out well. John was pleased to get his lute back. Thomas enjoyed sharing his passion for the lute with us. And I am happy to have brought you the story.
The text of Thomas Mace's directions for repairing one's lute that I used in this report is available as a download:
Part II -- The civil Part; or the Lute made easy
John Edwards will play his theorbo at The Musicians in Ordinary next performance: