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Martin Skowroneck

Harpsichord Construction
Erfahrungen und Erkenntnisse aus der Werkstattpraxis
A craftsman's workshop experience and insight


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0 2003

PPVMEDIEN GmbH, Edition Bochinsky

ISBN 3-932275-58-6
Fachbuchreihe Das Musikinstrument; Bd. 83
Titelgestaltung: nawim96
Bilder: Martin Skowroneck
ijbersetzung: Tilman Skowroneck
Lektorat: Jan GroRbach und Nigel Edwards
Satz und Layout: nawim96
Druckerei: Scherhaufer, Augsburg
Alle Rechte vorbehalten. Nachdruck, auch auszugsweise, sowie Vervielfaltigungen
jeglicher Art nur mit schriftlicher Genehmigung der PPVMEDIEN GmbH.

157 Planes
157 The cabinet scraper
158 Hand tools for mouldings
158 Clamps
164 Preliminary thoughts
165 Scaling calculation
168 Practical elaboration
182 Choice of material
183 Joining
184 Gluing
185 Planing
187 Bridges, ribs and 4' hitchpin rail
191 Bridge pins and rose
193 Frame
194 Key panel
195 Marking
196 Choosing the guides
197 Drilling
198 Keyplates for the naturals
199 Cutting the keys
199 Finishing
201 Adjustment, placing
204 Key plate materials
210 Sawing off the slides

211 Assembly
212 Final touch up
213 Installation of the slides and guides

215 General considerations
216 Preparing the blanks
217 Slots for the tongues and dampers
218 Drilling
218 The tongues
221 Assembly
224 Form
23 1

Working with Delrin

234 About gluing
237 The secrets of the soundboard
238 The thickness of the soundboard
240 Soundboard wood
242 4' hitchpinrail
243 Sizing and varnishing the
245 An Attempt to answer a yet
open question

266 Quality
267 Copy

his book is the result of all the innumerable questions asked by colleagues and
amateurs during my entire professional life. Having started as an amateur myself,
both amateurs and professionals always were welcome with me. So I would like
to have the 18th-century term Fur Kenner und Liebhaber (for connoisseurs and amateurs)
as a motto for this book.
I certainly preferred informed questions: they often made me pay attention to details that
had escaped my notice and contributed to many new insights or more elegant solutions.
But even such questions, which entirely missed the core of a matter, could be inspiring.
I learned to know, and if possible, to understand apparently inadequate ways of thought,
before responding. As a late result of these efforts, this text might sometimes resemble a
lecture, whereas in other places, technical descriptions and the explanation of working
steps get into considerable detail to avoid misunderstandings.
I always react openly to questions, without secrets. Even experiments in my workshop
are kept private only until they are completed, to prevent the premature circulation of
conclusions that may prove wrong at a later stage. It is like my profession as a music
teacher: even here, there should be no secrets. A teacher can support his pupil by giving
every possible information and individual help, but the music making will always remain
the pupil's responsibility, and not the teacher's.
Some of my statements may seem contradictory at first sight. The topic is too complex
generalized tenets do not lead to good results. If my ideas about details are detached
from their context, the interaction of various decisions or working steps might not be fully
understood and the isolated instruction may seem absurd.
In certain passages, I address the reader directly. I found this the easiest way to describe
the work and to discuss problems. For instance the chapter on voicing is based on a lecture,
and I have kept its style unchanged since it fits the issue well.

This book should be understood as a collection of materials and thoughts on various

harpsichord-building issues, and not as a complete course. I doubt that such a course is
possible. For full understanding, the reader should be familiar with the following standard
works: Frank Hubbard Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making', Raymond Russell The
harpsichord and Clavichordz and ideally also: Grant 0 . Brien Ruckers. A Harpsichord
and Virginal Building Tradition3.Basic knowledge in music theory and acoustics is also
As diverse as the individual opinions in our branch of instrument building are, as diverse
seem to be the motives to make these public: here we meet organic curiosity, scholarly
ambition, an urge to circulate recipes to 'improve' instruments, descriptions of working
principles in advertisements but also plain commercial tactics or undisguised jalousie de
me'tiel: Accordingly, the quality of verbal or written statements varies; the spectrum
stretches from serious scholarship to questionable claims or even mystery making. One
fundamental mistake seems to reoccur in some of these utterances disregarding their
status. Often a detail is regarded as the single most important cause of the quality of a
whole instrument. Therefore I want to introduce a second motto, which for a long time
has helped me to keep my independent judgment intact: Don't Believe Him Who Knows

Exactly. A motto, which my readers should have in mind even when reading my book! I
certainly try to find logical and stringent arguments for my descriptions, but yet I am one
of many subjective voices. Therefore I prefer readers who arrive at different results, to
those who extract indisputable rules from every half-sentence.
Often, only my personal view makes this text different from known facts. In order to be
complete, I have at times not avoided certain basic information, even though it might be
known to most readers.
The chapters of this book are based on each other, meaning that preceding information
often explains the following statements. So if, for instance, a reader is tempted to jump
immediately to the chapter "secrets and tricks" to find 'certain passages', he will have
less pleasure and profit than otherwise.
The terminology of this English translation is adapted from various lists as found in the
book by Frank Hubbard, in dictionaries of terms in music and on various Internet lists.
Generally, English harpsichord terminology is more descriptive and less misleading than
the German Fachwortel; which at times are somewhat ridiculous or even misleading. The
comparative discussion of various terms at this place in the German text can therefore be

For their valuable help during the work on this book I wish to thank:

- My wife Susanne, who during more than 4 decades has made my work easier. She
transcribed my pencil scribblings into readable text.
- Our son Tilman, who through his experience as a harpsichordist and in maintenance
of different conservatory harpsichords gave me valuable advice. He made the graphs
to the present book and made the pre-editing of both versions.
I also wish to thank everyone who gave me inspiration or asked questions, and my openminded colleagues.


Hubbard, Frank 1965. Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press.
Russell, Raymond 1959. The Harpsichord and Clavichord (London: Faber).
O'Brien, Grant 1990. Rnckers. A Harpsichord and Virginal Building Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University


his chapter does not contain a complete description of the tools common for harpsichord building, or their use. I also avoided admonitions about tool sharpening
or their maintenance1, since I do not seriously expect my readers to spoil their
work by scraping about with blunt tools. I simply want to tell about my personal experience with my tools. This is basically an experience of someone, who once started as an
enthusiastic amateur without any education in a craft (apart from a three-month course
in bricklaying in 1945). This starting point possibly makes this chapter more interesting
for the amateur than for the professional builder.
For many years now, the do-it-yourself clientele seems to have surpassed the professional craftsmen as an economic factor. Formerly there were special stores that only delivered
to craftsmen and firms (this had partly to do with the German tax system). Here one could
buy or order tools, screws, nails and other small parts of a good quality. Today, we have
to go to the do-it-yourself-store to which the old firm has been transformed, if it hadn't
given up a long time ago. Here we encounter a seemingly endless choice of tools, parts,
accessories and gadgets, which even the most playful fantasy cannot imagine. But the
longer the time spent pushing our shopping cart around, the longer the faces. Small parts
are packed by the dozen in plastic boxes for a price that once bought two hundred. Screws
are only available in a few standard sizes, and already from the outside of the box we discover a great number of blanks or damaged ones. Certain things seem to be altogether
unavailable, like massive brass hinges, which used to be common in all the stores. When
asking, one is sent with the impatient answer "here right in front of you" to the rolled brass
hinges. I couldn't even find out whether the massive hinges still are produced.
The choice of tools and power tools is enormous, but their quality and usefulness varies
enormously too. Unfortunately, the quality of power tools is dominated by DIY standards. For instance, I have been using a little Bosch power drill of only 60 watt for more
than 40 years. It still works very precisely without any loose play. At the time of purchase, this machine was certainly not expensive. Now why do all new power drills have
so much loose play right from the start, so that the resulting vibrations only worsen the
problem? Why are all these machines laid out for 400 watt or more, whereas the description - and the chuck - do not allow for drills much bigger than I used in 1953 - with
60 watt? Apart from a burned-out capacitor I had not a single problem with my old machine. When I later needed a second drill, it soon had to be replaced by a third one, after
several costly repairs.
Even the usual range of hand tools seems fragmentary. For instance, I have been searching a half dozen stores for files to sharpen the blades of my circular saw - in vain, even
though they all carried blades of all possible sizes. The only thing I could get were common triangular files. Apparently the reason for t h s is to encourage a behaviour, which is
diametrically opposed to the traditional conception of dealing with hand tools: formerly,
a craftsman cared for his tools in such a manner, that they gradually adjusted to his specific working technique. Therefore we have the subjective impression (or is it objective?)
that a worked-in chisel performs better than a new one. The overly complete supply of
blades and no files to sharpen them demonstrates what the customer - now consumer is supposed to do: throw a blunt blade away and buy a new one.


But let's face and discuss the rich choice of hobby tools. As I love experiments, I have
tested some, although very sceptical. Certain unpromising gadgets I didn't even try.
Other tools, which I approached rather reluctantly, proved to be surprisingly effective,
like the plastic handles for stick-on grinding or filing foils supplied by the Swedish firm
Sandvik (unfortunately they were taken out of the assortment in spite of their usefulness),
and some other grinding tools. Thus some typical hobby tools, used appropriately, proved
to be a real enrichment. On the other hand, certain small planes fitted with throw-away
blades or suited for razor blades do not work at all, or perhaps only on tool-fair demonstrations. Perhaps one can produce a handsome amount of wood shavings with these
planes when breaking the edges of straight-grained soft wood, but already on trying to
plane a surface of lOmm width the blade gets jammed and breaks. No wonder; the blade
easily flexes out of the plane, so when it gets stuck, the problem only gets worse.
Similarly I had no good experience with a set of rasp-like tools called Surform. Only the
round rasp was useable. As a disclaimer, I should add, that I possibly did not understand
the right way to handle them - well, after some experiments I did not care any more.
Another tool I never managed to handle properly was a motorized handsaw. Of course,
the work piece needs to be clamped tight, or the thing does not work at all, but even
then, its rattling and shaking remains impressive - certainly not a tool to make the job
significantly easier, unfortunately not even when cutting firewood.
Combination tools are often problematic: for instance, the centre of gravity of the sander
accessory for power drills is so inconvenient, that hand sanding remains the easier alternative. High-speed mini drills and their accessories are useful, even though I would prefer
a lowest speed well below the usual 15000 or 20000 ulmin. This is the only power tool
which I dare to use for drilling bridge pin holes; its power is low enough to help detecting
hard or faulty areas in the wood before the drill breaks.
Another important recommendation for drills: take the expensive 'malcus' drills which
are pressed or rolled in the form of the drill, and not those, which simply are milled out
of a piece of round steel. Their inner structure is more stable which makes them more resistant to breakage. This is especially important for small diameters. A broken drill inside
its hole is a hopeless thing, especially if there ought to be a bridge pin instead.
Flat drill bits for larger diameters are cheap. But even here, the quality varies, and a more
sophisticated drill should be preferred. But I would hesitate to use even the sharpest one
free hand - only in a proper drill stand; then they perform unexpectedly well. These drills
also are excellent starting points for making special drills for key fronts, or for custom
made cutting or punching tools.
Another useful, but expensive novelty should be mentioned: 'micro mesh' a sanding
medium on a textile basis. I use it for sanding painted surfaces. The gradations stretch
from fine sandpaper to extremely fine. Its coating prevents this material from getting
clogged like common sandpaper, and there is a special rubber for cleaning.
Japanese tools are still relatively new in Europe. The saws and planes - to be pulled rather
than pushed - work very well, and like the chisels, they remain sharp much longer than
usual. Their high quality is equalled by the price; also, as many special tools are offered
for special jobs, one needs a large collection. Some of these special unknown cutting tools
are very effective. It is well worth reading books on Japanese woodworking and enriching the western toolbox with these tools.

Some remarks on the hand plane, which in modern carpentries has largely been replaced
by machines, seem appropriate. Many customary hand planes, from the tiny ones for violinrnakers to the largest ones, are to some degree faulty, which in its turn accounts for the
decrease in popularity of this ancient and useful tool. A plane cuts properly only when optimally designed and prepared. New planes scarcely are. The soles of most iron planes need
to be sanded, or ground true, which involves a lot of work. A simple steel ruler, held straight
on - and diagonally across - the sole, will reveal any hollowness, unevenness or twist of a
"ready-for-use" plane. Also, many plane blades are ground coarsely and at too high temperatures. Careful honing does not help when the steel has thus been softened; only when,
after long use and much grinding and honing, the steel becomes shorter, its edge gradually
becomes more stable. Expensive planes present fewer problems of this kind, but unfortunately the price is no guarantee; still it is worthwhile to invest more money here.
Of all wooden hand planes, the most expensive ones almost always have one principal
fault: to make the sole resistant against wear, it is made in harder wood than the body.
Usually the body is made from beechwood and the sole from hornbeam; a more expensive variant combines pear and lignum vitae. In both cases, the shrinkage of both species
differs (even lengthwise, which is often neglected), making these planes hollow or convex according to the weather, but almost never straight. Apart from the trouble of straightening the sole before every use, this would not really correspond to the original aim to prevent wearing out. For this reason, I exclusively use metal planes, apart from my wooden
moulding planes (see below). Once straightened, they function reliably for a long time.
Sometimes, the manufacturers of planes no longer mention the specific use of a special
plane design, which may cause a problem in practice. For instance a small low angle
plane (with the bevel of the iron up instead of down) might be offered as "one-handplane", or even "trying plane", whereas the old German term "Vergatthobel" (vergatten
= to join) tells more about its proper use: this plane was used to prepare the surfaces of
large baroque mouldings before joining; its special design allows for cutting across the
grain at various angles. Even if one can use this plane for some other tasks, truing a flat
surface is not amongst these.
I already mentioned Japanese planes. These have to be prepared in a special way before
use. Their preparation is not easy and should not be done without a precise instruction
(for instance, here the sole should not be true). Many suppliers carry special literature
about this, which absolutely should be consulted; it is well worth while the effort.
At first sight, so-called boat planes (with a bent sole) seem to be ideal for harpsichord
builders. But in practice, their fixed radius only fits one shape, so one would need a
whole collection of such planes to meet all needs. Those with a flexible sole seem a better
choice, but unfortunately the sole remains flexible at work too, causing the iron alternately not to cut at all or to jam into the same workpiece, without even having changed
the iron's position.

The cabinet scraper

In harpsichord building, cabinet scrapers are useful not only for finishing problematic
wood surfaces, but also for fine work on bridges, wooden strips, in confined areas and

on action parts. It is worthwhile to get accustomed to sharpening and using this seemingly simple tool.

Hand tools for mouldings

I usually make my mouldings according to one of the two historical principles2.
Mouldings are made either using special planes or they are scraped. During the fifties, I
started collecting moulding planes. In the Kalverstraat in Amsterdam, a tool shop offered
a remaining stock of new moulding planes for one guilder per piece. At the flea market
at Waterlooplein, old moulding planes were offered literally in heaps around the same
time. Unfortunately these times are past, and today one must be content with a few pieces
sold for fantasy prices in antique shops. Nevertheless, I recommend their use. They perform smoothly, and if one takes the direction of the grain into account, the results are
neater than with a router.
It is relatively easy to make one's own moulding planes. If a moulding of a certain shape
was unavailable, or if I couldn't adjust an existing plane to a desired shape, I made a new
plane. A piece of hardwood is prepared with the negative of the desired moulding. This
can be done with a router, or by sawing with a circular saw, filing and sanding step by step.
Some wooden special planes can be used as a starting point. In the same manner, the irons
of special planes, like the ones used for grooves, can be used for profile planes. First, they
need to be softened by heating. After applying the proper shape of the desired moulding,
they must not be hardened too much, because they are sharpened with files. The groove
for the plane iron can be made at a slight angle (seen from above) to help pulling the plane
towards the workpiece. Otherwise one must press the plane against the workpiece since
the direction of the grain chosen for good results pushes the plane outwards.
A second technique is scraping, using a "scratch stock": a hardwood block is fitted vertically with an iron (a piece of a cabinet scraper, or a bit of a saw blade thick enough,
filed to the appropriate shape), so that it protrudes just as far to match the amount of
wood to be scraped off. There is no need to shape the block itself in any special way. This
manner works surprisingly well even on parts with irregular grain, or on bent surfaces,
like the bridges or the hitchpin rail. At the beginning, everything seems to lead towards
a rough and uncontrolled disaster. But the deeper the scraping, the neater the moulding,
until at last the block rests on the unmoulded surface, and only the last slight irregularities are shaven off. This manner of making mouldings is very ancient. In the 16th century, one used huge benches similar to those used for wire making. The Strips or planks of
wood were pulled through underneath a fixed iron. For the wavy mouldings, as used for
picture frames, furniture or instruments, correspondingly wavy strips of wood were
pulled through together with the new profile3.

An old carpenter's saying goes "you cannot have too many clamps". This applies certainly to the harpsichord builder, because tasks like gluing the sides to the inner construction, or the liner onto the sides, or making bent parts from multiple layers of wood
requires more clamps than most carpenter's jobs. One needs not only many clamps, but



clamps of all sizes and of various systems to add up to the necessary maximum number.
Arriving at the quantity required is not too difficult; even heavy, long or wide clamps can
be applied in many ways, if they are placed carefully and supported strategically. A useful light variety is the "Klemmsia" a combination of wooden parts and piece of steel band.
As I recall, these cheap clamps were developed just after the war, when raw materials
were scarce, but they proved to be fully useful and cheap and they are still available today. Their advantage is, apart from their easy use, a construction based on a few simple
standard parts. Therefore, one can easily combine sizes not included in the standard program. So, years ago, I purchased some clamps made after my own wishes for the ordinary
price. A few drawbacks of this construction are for instance that the hornbeam heads, depending on the grain, sometimes split up, when the handle is pulled tight. Also, the earlier variant made using steel band sometimes slips, so the clamp loosens. Some ordinary
clamps also have this problem. Galvanized clamps of a newer date normally don't slip. Of
course, the total pressure of these "Klemmsia" clamps is lower than that of ordinary
clamps. Also, clamps with a long stretch ought to be made from steel, even though they
are clumsy and heavy. Two of my large wooden clamps (beech, with a screw handle of
hornbeam) became disjointed after only being used twice - too expensive for firewood.
A clamp-construction for larger surfaces, described in the chapter on soundboards, is
omitted here. For several years now, spring clamps of a variety of sizes and designs are
available, small ones to be opened with two fingers but also some, which require as much
strength to open as the arch of Odysseus. Almost all sorts are cheap and useful, especially
for gluing long and narrow or thin strips, like mouldings. Some spring clamps have cushions of soft plastic, which unfortunately tend to discolour resinous or aromatic species of
wood. Some gluing jobs in harpsichord building, like attaching the hitchpin rail from the
inside to the bentside, require special clamps. This is an important issue for the overall
stability, much like the attachment of the hitchpin rail to the soundboard. A high hitchpin
rail presents no problem, but one with a low profile, and possibly a moulding at the edge,
is better attached by using a custom-made clamp.

metal screw
., ,,
.... ,.,,,,
...... ,...,.,.
.. ,,,.,,
..,.,, .,,,,,,,,.

, ,



cork or leather





< L,,
, ..

scale 1 :2
This drawing shows one possible solution. It is no big task to make, say, twenty of these
clamps, and then one has a useful aid for all harpsichords and early fortepianos. Any differences in bentside or hitchpin rail dimensions can be adjusted with small blocks of wood.

An important method of clamping is the use of wooden strips, called go bars, bent and
tensed against a surface, such as a low ceiling. This allows for quick and precise clamping. This method is traditional in piano building. I made my counterpart under the roof
ridge on the attic. Depending on the weather, I can glue ribs and bridges under desired
conditions: during the summer sometimes the temperature rises above 40" C and the humidity sinks below 20%. Choosing the right moment, I can control the humidity of the
soundboard quite precisely.
Other jigs and special tools are described in the respective chapters.


I recommend Kingshott, Jim 1994. Sharpening (Sussex: Guild of Master Craftsman Publ.), a book that contains
much useful information.
Only once, I used a router to apply a moulding to the short sides of a clavichord bottom, across the grain.
This procedure is described in: Gerber, Josef M. 1956. Die Geschichte des Hobels von der Steinzeit bis zum
Entstehen der Holzwerkzeugfabriken imjkihen 19. Jahrhundert (Ziirich: VSSM-Verlag).



sually, one of the four grooves that optically divide the fronts and back parts of
the bone keyplates of Ruckers harpsichords is incomplete at some place (in contrast to later practice, the division is in fact optical, since the Ruckers keyplates
are made of one piece). This is a symbol of the modesty of the master; only God can make
a thing perfect. This interrupted line is certainly just a symbol; a closer look at historical
instruments makes clear, that the old masters hardly indulged in too strict a perfection. The
Ruckers instruments reveal a, for our taste, remarkable degree of imperfection. Inside the
instruments, we encounter rests of bark, rough tool traces, and especially, considerable
differences in the dimensions of construction parts of comparable instruments. But in
places of importance for the result, the work was done really carefully: the selection and
preparation of soundboard wood, or the scaling - if it has not been changed later on - are
of such quality, or precision, as in few other historical schools.

These two terms need to be further investigated. First of all the quality of a soundboard:
historical soundboards tell us that quality, precision or even 'flawlessness' were opposite
extremes between which the master had to find the best position. Any superficial 'precision' was regarded as less important than the quality, to be defined as the best possible
suitability for the sound. The treble was fine-grained and the whole soundboard was
made of quarter-sawn strips (anyone who makes his own soundboard instead of buying
them ready-for-use at a special firm knows, that it costs an effort to meet these criteria:
coarse-grained strips often are not long enough, or faulty, and isn't it a pity to cut the fine
strips to bits for the treble?). Small knots, variations in the direction of the grain, and other small faults were accepted if the overall quality was good. Bigger faults were accepted in the less 'dangerous' areas, like on the 4' hitchpin rail, or behind the cutoff bar. The
painted flowers or animals could camouflage all these flaws. Also, the rose could be used
for cutting out a faulty area, or even to join two shorter strips of wood lengthwise. A less
surprising result of assembling a soundboard this way, is that the strips may vary in width
in a rather haphazard way. But we scarcely encounter sudden changes from fine-grained
to coarse-grained wood.
The result of this painstaking selection has nothing to do with 'perfection' in the current
sense. Today it is almost unimaginable that this effort was maintained in spite of the high
production of the Ruckers workshops.
When working with wood, the limit for precision is reached pretty soon. It will not be
possible to work to tolerances of, say, 1/100mm, and even if one succeeds, one only
needs to look once in the wrong direction to spoil the result with one's humid breath. So
in practice, for instance a scaling may vary millimetres in the treble and centimetres in
the bass.
Action parts, of course, need to be made to closer tolerances to ensure a proper performance. But also here, sheer millimetre-faithfulness alone is no guarantee, not even
a prerequisite for a reliable performance. On the contrary: if the jacks are made with
too close tolerances (i.e. the jack in the register, the tongue in the jack, or on its axle)
problems will ensue. To understand this, we only need to remember that during weather
changes, the material will treat our carefully observed tolerances obstinately and undisciplined. Occasionally, one can experience the results of this in new jacks and registers


in museum instruments; such parts from restorations of the 20th century have contributed
to the myth of the unreliability of the 'primitive' historical action.
Around 1959, Friedrich Emst, once restorer of the Berlin collection, almost declaimed in
his fatherly manner: "The old have achieved precision with imprecise means." This is a
sentence of more content than initially apparent, and it is well worth declaiming.
When working by hand, great precision is a tricky goal. Even though historical jacks were
made using planing jigs, the results sometimes vary considerably. Even a jig does not
prevent the jack from becoming too thin, if it is pulled towards the plane iron, because of
the grain going in the wrong direction or being irregular, or because some wood shavings
have found their way into the jig. Even when using a drill gauge, a drill of 0.7mm might
change course once it has entered a piece of wood. If this happened in the jack and in the
tongue, one either has to throw away a certain percentage, or one could "achieve precision with imprecise means", which in this case means combining jacks and tongues that
have similar inconsistencies, so that the faults level out. A moderate divergence of the
axle only disturbs the function if the tongue jams in the jack. Thus assembling the jacks
(mounting the tongues) requires a good deal of attention. Unfortunately drilling both jack
and tongue in one turn does not work in practice, as the drill will not keep straight all the
way through. Better is drilling jig with two steel bushings, one above the jack, and another one in the gap for the tongue. These problems would not occur with an axle of larger diameter, but this would result in a higher friction and also could cause problems of
space at the groove for the bristle.
Planing jacks by hand will scarcely ever result in jacks that are not slightly thicker at one
end. The thicker end becomes the upper part of the jack; otherwise one would need to force
the thicker end through the upper register to fit below, where the thinner part would rattle
loosely in the upper register. Should the lower register slots still be too narrow, the jacks
can easily be planed to fit, with no bristle and no tongue disturbing. So the result is a tapered jack. My instruments contain many such jacks, even though most of them are made
from a stock of 2 kilometres of beechwood strips, which I had made especially about 30
years ago. So these strips are absolutely regular. But even original jacks that are made as
described above (which can be assumed, if all the jacks of an instrument are tapered) have
no other advantage than their easier use to level out inconsistencies.Their function, and that
of straight jacks are exactly the same. I cannot agree with the various other philosophies
about the meaning of tapered jacks. A simple calculation shows why: if a jack of 15cm is,
at its base, 'hmm thinner than on top (which is a rather exaggerated figure), the difference
in thickness, presuming a key dip of lOmm, will be '11s of that half rnm, which is far less
than we need to prevent the jack from jamming, caused by climatic fluctuation.
Much more important than a precise mechanical standard is a good balance between
various factors: the distance axle-plectrum, the length of the plectrum, its thickness and
the springiness of plectrum and bristle. By observing these points one can make even
quite imprecise jacks to work reliably under all circumstances. Another source of possible imprecision is the punching of the slots for the plectra into the tongue. Even a well
thought-out and sharp tool may change direction when punching an irregular piece of
wood. The tolerance for the angle of the quill is small upwards, and zero downwards:

A plectrum pointing downwards ever so slightly will not slide off the string.
Plectra pointing upwards naturally slide off, but the disadvantages are too big:
the touch gets hard and inflexible, and at the same time tough and imprecise.


Also the plectra will break more easily. This has two reasons: first, the plectrum will be
forced to protrude under the string slightly more than in its rest position; second, the string
will be 'caught' longer, so its gliding off will occur later and more suddenly, bending the
plectrum more acutely (here an experiment helps more than lengthy explanations).
So one should try to make the slots exactly horizontal (i.e. at a right angle to the tongue),
and one needs to control the results in regular intervals. Also this work needs a lot of attention, and if possible, practical experience of voicing a harpsichord. Only after working
with completed jacks in the instrument does one acquire a feeling for the possible tolerances at various points.
The preceding explanation shows that I do not plead for imprecision or sloppiness. The
contrary is true: one should always work as precisely as possible, or even better: as precisely as necessary. The jacks of late English harpsichords can serve as another good example. Perhaps they are big and heavy in appearance, but every detail is very well
thought-out - so well, that they were suited for the division of labour in the big harpsichord workshops in 18th-century Britain. Any precision exceeding this standard might
not be a drawback, but it does not improve the result, and it makes the production slow
and expensive, also because of high investments for precision tools, jigs and machines.
Is this the reason why wooden jacks are much more expensive than plastic jacks? Or do
they include a special dreariness- or hardship-charge? Now and then, I time all the working steps for making 200 jacks, counting off all the discarded parts (about 1% of the
tongues break during the punching, for instance); I have never exceeded the average
price for plastic jacks. My small investments in material and work time making jigs and
drill gauges were amortized after some hundred jacks.
Finally I want to mention another advantage of working by hand: flexibility. As an example, it is not at all problematic to make small amounts of jacks of various dimensions
or shapes for restorations and the like. Also, any new experience can easily result in actual change of the production. When I for instance noticed that the distance axle-plectrum in historical 4' jacks was smaller than in the 8' registers (which is logical, as the
plectrum is shorter as well) I could change my own design right away.


Preliminary thoughts

coustically, a harpsichord is very complex. Together with the varying characteristics and the unpredictability of our living building material wood, this realization may cloud one's view of the fact that technically, building harpsichords is
not all that difficult. Initially apparently impossible tasks are easily divided into comfortable working steps that can be carried out without the need of an exaggerated arsenal
of tools or machines - provided that one knows how to use and to maintain one's tools.
Today, one possible, and for a beginner perhaps practical starting point is the acquisition of a kit. Even though this is slightly beside my topic, 1will give here my thoughts
on this matter. Both enthusiastic and frustrated hobby builders introduced the issue to
me, by asking me questions after getting stuck in their work. My many answers on kit
building in the course of time are worth a brief summary.

I do not share any principal reservations against harpsichord kits. This does not say anything about my possible criticism on details, like faulty parts, poorly written instruction
books or wrong promises. But I do not believe that a harpsichord from a larger workshop
necessarily will be 'better' than a kit. If a kit is good, a good harpsichord can be the result. Its builder does not even need to understand all he is doing, provided he has some
craft skills (more, than many advertisements suggest).
A kit needs to be designed and produced to be more or less foolproof, which definitely
is not the same as primitive. On the contrary, this might even result in better-designed details, to prevent mistakes during the assembly. Also, since the customer will be able to
check the quality of every single part, the selection of all the materials needs to be tolerable at least. In contrast, in a complete harpsichord, hidden material faults, bad joints or
cheap solutions like the use of staples might well be hidden in the closed case. Not every
builder resists this temptation. But unfortunately, not all the kits meet the requirements
listed above.
As an alternative for building a kit one could take a historical instrument as a model.
Today, museums or special dealers offer a large variety of original plans, so it is possible to 'copy' an original without the need of measuring it, even without ever having heard
it. Even if the act of copying a historical harpsichord seems to be far more professional
than the assembly of a prefabricated kit, it is no guarantee, that the builder understands
what he is doing; the principal difference between both approaches is rather little in this
In the following example, a small Italian harpsichord with a compass of four octaves (Cc"') will be used as an example for demonstrating the development of an individual
sketch. The goal is an instrument after a historical model (rather than a copy of one individual instrument) made fit to meet specific requirements or circumstances, such as the
intended pitch and the properties of the available strings. I will also explain some important physical principles. Purposely, I will not refer to historical measuring systems, or
to certain simple proportional relationships in the case construction. The most important
basis is the relationship between pitch and string length.

Scaling calculation
The scaling of stringed instruments means the length of the strings. In a finished instrument, it is fixed. Most bowed or plucked instruments (except theorbos or chitarrones) have
strings of only one length. Their scaling is thus expressed with one figure (between nut
and bridge). The scaling of pianos, harps, dulcimers, psalteries and related instruments
varies from tone to tone and thus becomes subject to calculations. All explanations, which,
apart from length and pitch, also combine the term tension (in kilogram) with the scaling,
are wrong. Often this is an effort to find a neater basis for an inconsistent scaling, whether
dictated by modem construction principles or simply miscalculated.
The Pythagorean definition says that halving the sounding length of a string results in a
sound an octave higher, doubling makes the sound an octave lower. A scaling based on
this principle is called Pythagorean. This will be the basis for the following explanation.
This is the simplest way to calculate a scaling: the string length of the string material of
one's choice needs to have sufficient, but not too large a distance to the breaking point
of the string at a given pitch. If the whole stringing is adequately and consistently laid
out, this one empirical figure can help to deduce the whole scaling. First of all, all the octaves are laid out. Historical builders often marked c and f# (in the middle between the
c's) with dividers. With a calculator, we can be more precise. The factor that will give us
course logarithmic paper can be used
the 12 half tone steps (equally tempered) is ' ~ 4 2 Of
instead of a calculator (albeit less precisely): to the left, on the regular scale, one enters
the pitches, and on the scale on top and below, the octaves, which are easy to double or
halve. All the dots add up to a straight line, from which one conveniently reads all the
A consistent scaling might result in a harpsichord, which in the bass gets so long, that its
static no longer is determined by matching the string load, but by counteracting sag
caused by its own weight. Such a harpsichord has actually been built; it was designed
after the calculations of a mathematician, and built in 1756 by Johannes Broman in
Stockholm where one can still see and hear it. Even though its length of 3.60m and its
eight legs make an impression as if something went wrong, its sound is amazingly similar to the historical 'average'. But for my taste the usual harpsichords of that time do not
only look better.
The string material for harpsichords until the end of the 16th century would have been
either brass or iron (gold or silver are exceptions, which also can be alloyed and
processed in a way to have breaking points similar to brass). This results in practice (taking a = 440 Hz. as a basis) in a scaling that, with a reasonable safety margin, starts at f"
with lOcm, f ' 20cm and so on. I do not take c" as a start, as usually done, because
10cm is so easy to handle. c" would have a scaling of 267mm. Any scaling that varies
significantly from these figures indicates another pitch, or another string material, or a
combination of both.
In terms of pitch, the typical brass scaling and the (soft) steel scaling differ about a
fourth. So for steel, c" can be lengthened to 350mm, but in practice, it is often somewhat
shorter (also related to a = 440 Hz.). I have even tried really soft iron, like the soft wire
for gardening purposes. It sounds dull and cannot be used for musical instruments. Also,
its breaking point seems to lie even below that of brass. A good definition of the transition from "white" to "yellow" strings, and from "yellow" to "red" (i.e. from steel via
brass to red brass) can be found in Grant O'Brien's book on The Ruckersl.

For our Italian harpsichord we now choose brass strings, and the scaling for its four octaves
(C - c"') is laid out. Taking the 10cm as a starting point, we get the following scaling:

The figures of the great octave are in brackets, since in practice the scaling of the lowest
notes is shortened to avoid constructions like the mentioned Broman harpsichord. In practice, the bridge is bent, or joined at an angle in the low bass. It would at least be unusual and not too functional - to make a harpsichord with a brass scaling (such as I will call our
lOcm scaling) and a compass down to C, of a total length of 2.40m. If we analyse as many
historical scalings as possible, we find various divergences from the Pythagorean scaling.
This is the right moment for a recommendation: try to measure as many harpsichords as
possible (in as much the curators of the collections will allow you). Make a collection of
data, including the plucking points. I am convinced that only on the basis of many data,
you will be able to work freely and independently. Only in this way, one gets to know
about the 'average', and learns to understand the general setting and the limits, especially
in terms of influence on the sound. So, when I started to build at the beginning of the
fifties, I even measured all modern harpsichords, not to imitate them, but rather to understand why they sounded like they sounded.
Back to our Italian scaling: in the bass area of original harpsichords, we can sometimes
observe small deviations from the Pythagorean scaling; sometimes shorter and only
rarely longer. A longer scaling should be regarded critically: in my view, bass strings
longer than the doubled octave almost always came about through imprecise work, mistakes during a restoration or similar influences. A shorter scaling, on the other hand, even

has several advantages. First of all, one creates a safety margin for avoiding the first mistake (the longer scaling), which easily happens: in the bass, the angle between the strings
and the bridge is very acute, so a lateral error of a few millimetres results in a difference
of centimetres in the scaling. So, if we work using the actual figures from a certain historical instrument, instead of applying the underlying principle, and if we then accept
similar inconsistencies as the old builder possibly did, the resulting faults could well be
too big to be tolerable. This danger is even bigger as identical technical challenges then
and now, like for instance the problem of precisely bending wooden parts, easily result
in related faults, which then add up.
Another reason to shorten the bass scaling is the tradition of using thicker strings in the
bass, even though a precise scaling does not require this. This is done for reasons of
sound. You should experiment when stringing your instrument.
Of course, theoretically and with regards to the breaking point, the thickness of a string
is unimportant; the diameter of a thicker string should match its higher tension. But in
practice (as already described in historical sources) thinner strings are less prone to
breaking, because the pulling of the wire causes an inner lengthwise structure, which makes
it tougher, though strangely enough also more flexible2.I will later give some practical instructions for a moderate foreshortening of the bass scaling in Italian harpsichords (not in
all Italian harpsichords!).
A different scaling principle applies to the northern European harpsichords from the 17th
century onwards. The starting point - the doubling of the octave - is the same, but the
Flemish Harpsichord makers, certainly the Ruckers family, made use of the progress in
steel wire production (not to be confused with modern steel wire). Now, the scaling of f'
could be lengthened from lOcm to 13cm or 14cm. A consistent scaling on this base would
result in a length of 2.80m for C and more than 4m for contra F. Apart from being unpractical, such dimensions are musically really unsatisfying and correspondingly useless.
Such giants would be the opposite of certain modern compact-harpsichords with a single
8' register, and just worth as much, only without the advantage of a small box. Instead, the
bridge of northern European harpsichords becomes almost straight in the bass, so their
scaling deviates increasingly from the Pythagorean curve. This decrease is strong enough
to make the bass of many of these instruments shorter than Italian harpsichords, in spite
of the shorter scaling of the latter. As a compensation, in northern European harpsichords
the strings get thicker towards the bass, and the material changes from 'white' via 'yellow'
to 'red' wire (see above. I will later come back to the string material in more detail).
My assumption that a correct steel scaling produces a poor sound was confirmed in an experiment. Of course I could not make a harpsichord of four or five meters length, but from
a separate wrestplank, I could pull a string on to an existing harpsichord, across the room.
The resulting chirping of overtones with no perceivable fundamental was charming, but
practically useless. So the bass foreshortening is a musical as well as a practical decision.
Foreshortening usually starts somewhere in the middle of the instrument, in the small or
the one-line octave. There are several methods, some simple, some complicated, which results in certain esoteric approaches to the matter, The simplest way is a foreshortening by
optical judgment: the curve of the bridge is straightened to some degree, which corresponds with a shorter scaling. Some historical harpsichords have a straight bridge in the
bass. It is rather unlikely that the principle behind the resulting linear scaling consists in
exact calculations or deep thought. If we want to calculate the foreshortening, we could

gradually diminish the octave ratio from 1:2 via 1:1.9 to 1:1.8 and so on (the half tone
factor changes accordingly to 12d19 and so on). The result will not be too different from
the first method. Another, more modem method reduces the whole scaling by using a
smaller octave ratio right from the treble downwards3.The last method subtracts a fixed
figure from each doubled octave. I have not found any convincing example of this principle; also, by mixing arithmetic and geometric series, this faulty calculation causes an
increase of the octave ratio in the bass.
One can keep speculating about the calculations and the secrets of the Old; the options
may be number symbolism or the golden section. One should not forget, that their use of
dividers and a few measuring points per octave resulted in a certain lack of precision.
Feel free to calculate a little along these lines; it is amazing, how much can be 'proved'
in this way. I am convinced, that the influence of such considerations on the quality of
an instrument consists in nothing else than a more conscious approach and a more detailed working attitude, which sharpens in its turn one's view of other important details.
Other observed deviations from the scaling seem to me the result of certain technical
problems, or of the wish, to keep the bridge somewhat straighter than the calculation
suggests. So for instance too short strings in the upper treble are rather common, as well
as too long strings around the middle of the two-line octave. This can be observed more
frequently in instruments with a narrow bridge curve, or where the bridge is actually
made of bent wood. It is up to anyone to decide, whether this phenomenon has other hidden reasons as well.

I will present one last modern method, which according to my explanations above can be
identified as arbitrary. Here the curve of the bridge is made according to optical and perhaps production-inherent aspects: for instance part of a circle is combined with a straight
line. The result is scarcely calculable and largely coincidental. Modern string wire allows
for almost doubling the 10cm scaling; the breaking point requires no attention. One can
for instance find a description of this principle - or better its application without any explanation - in an instruction for the hobby builder to make a 'modem' harpsichord by
Gerhard Krame?.
This modern manner of making a scaling brings about that the necessary calculations
come to deal with the string tension. In this way inconsistencies of the string length can
be compensated by adjusting the string diameter, as described by Kramer, based on
Hanns Neupert5. This principle makes no sense: first of all, the treble strings become
thicker than the lower ones, which never occurs in historical instruments. Second, the
constant string tension (Kriimer names 6.5kg6)is not historical either, as can easily be deduced from old scalings and gauge numbers. Third, even though an equal tension seems
to be a neat calculation, the sounding result is inconsistent and unsatisfying. Fourth, even
though the tension is equal, the relative distance to the breaking point is arbitrary and
varies enormously, which has influence on the tone and on tuning stability7.For an introduction to the various principles of scaling calculation this may be sufficient.

Practical elaboration
Now you need a big sheet of paper (at least 80cm x 240cm). For the sketch of the plan,
we now need to determine the distance between the tones, i.e. between the strings, or

expressed otherwise, the slots in the registers. For this one usually takes a division gauge.
To avoid this detour, I make my register guides before anything else, so I can take all the
necessary measurements directly from them. This solves also the technical difficulty of
making the guides really precise, regarding the distance of the slots. To be sure, all the
guides have to correspond to each other, and the distribution of the slots needs to be consistent, but whether the guides are overall 5mm longer or shorter does not make a big
difference. To start making the guides before everything else is a matter of convenience.
The 'extra' guides (see the description in the chapter on register guides) can be used to
put down all required measurements; even the distance between the 8' strings can directly be taken over from the width of the slots (if they are not much wider than 3mm).
The same extra guide is used to mark the location of the pins on the nut and the bridge.
This method leads to great precision and to the correspondence of elements that need to
match, in an area where a good deal of exactitude is needed. Yet one can work freely
without a detailed drawing.
Now you need to decide how much wider the wrestplank will be at the left (bass) side.
In most Italian, early English and many German harpsichords the guides do not run parallel to the keyboard, but lie farther away in the bass. This saves space, allows for a more
elegant shape (with a shorter cheekpiece), and on close observation one also gains an advantage regarding the balance point, even though historical builders do not seem to have
observed or even made use of this (see my chapter on keyboards). This difference between bass and treble is usually between 3cm and 5cm. I perhaps should say, it ranges
from zero to an average of 5 cm and a maximum of lOcm (Christofori). For a convenient
start, I recommend (for four octaves) an average figure of somewhat less than 4cm.
Draw a long line parallel to the left side of the sheet of paper (i.e. left seen from the keyboard). This line marks the inner side of the spine8.Now another line is needed, at right
angles to the first one, plus a thin auxiliary line to mark the position of the register guides.
Depending on the octave span (see chapter "keyboards"), a keyboard of four octaves will
be between c. 65 and 68cm wide. Now add on each side 35mm space for the inner construction, the stop levers and for the distance of the last string respectively to the spine
and the cheek. This may seem little, but when working precisely, there is no need for
more. If you want to be careful, take four cm instead. More is not advisable (for a small
Italian harpsichord). To some, it might seem practical or tempting to make space for writing utensils and a cup of coffee on both sides of the keyboard, but the harpsichord will
become too wide and bulky. Also I am convinced that any superfluous built-in space has
negative consequences on the sound, because the treble - difficult for achieving nicesounding results - actually would need much less resonating volume9.
So you add seven or at most eight centimetres to the width of the keyboard. This distance
is marked on the auxiliary line, from where you draw a diagonal line so that its distance
to the keyboard is 4cm more at the left (bass) side, as mentioned above (there is no need
to be overly exact. Only the definite line is mandatory). This line represents the plucking
points of the longer choir of strings. Counted from the left, i.e. the line of the spine, a distance of 35mm is marked, to find the position of the lowest string. Since we base our calculations on the breaking point, we must naturally take the longer strings as a point of
departure. Now starting from here, all the longer (left) strings are marked along the
plucking point line, by using a register guide, or another form of gauge. You can write
the names of the tones right beside the marks.

For the highest note, we need to mark the shorter string as well, to be able to put down
the inner line of the cheekpiece by adding 35mm. This line can be made parallel to the
spine, or perhaps a few rnillimetres wider at the front (it is not infrequent in historical
harpsichords to have a keyboard space which is a little wider at the front). Apart from
making the building-in and removal of the keyboard easier, this looks better: exactly parallel sides seem to converge towards the front. The typical later deformation through the
string load further intensifies this effect. So now, we have marked the string positions
along the plucking-line; next, the strings are drawn parallel to the spine, at both sides
sticking out a little longer than their sounding length would be.
Now you have to decide how far away from the plucking point you want to place the nut;
in other words, how far towards the middle you want to pluck the strings. This is not an
easy decision, and we want to give it some attention. As you perhaps know, the further a
string is plucked towards its middle, the 'darker' (the more fundamental) it sounds.
Exactly in the middle even the octave as an overtone is eliminated. Naturally, the string
will have its greatest amplitude where it has been plucked, and will be less prone to forming a node at that point. The node of the octave lies exactly at the middle of the string.
But this is only a rule of thumb, which leaves the rest of the sounding system unconsidered. How fundamental a harpsichord will sound is a matter of a balance of all the factors,
which contribute to the sound character. The plucking point is one of these factors, but certainly not the most important one. A harpsichord (or a certain harpsichord model) that
tends to sound bright and rich in overtones cannot be converted to 'dark' by a different
plucking point. This attempt is rather frequently made and the results seem pleasant at
first, but they become soon tiring and gradually less satisfying. This makes me think of
certain wines where the first mouthful tastes better than the second, and a second glass
seems undrinkable. To make a good decision here is a matter of experience and a lot of
observation. The collection of scalings, which I recommended, can be a great help here.
A useful distance between nut and plucking point for an Italian harpsichord, meaning the
distant 8' register at c"', can be between 40 and 60mm. This is doubled at c'. These marks
are joined by a straight line, which is extended to the bass. From this line the string lengths
are measured and put down on the parallel lines that represent the strings.
Before deciding where to shorten the bass bridge you need to attend to another matter:
The bass strings of the last 1%or two octaves need to be placed slightly to the right at
the tail of the instrument, to allow for more free space between the last tone and the spine,

than the front distance of 35mm. One possibility would be to let all strings run diagonally. But the need for more space in the upper half of the instrument and the reduced
distance at the treble (compared to the original 35mm) are drawbacks of this method. If
you instead start to place the strings from around the little octave and downwards, a little
to the right, you achieve a slight ever-increasing bass foreshortening at the same time. If
you find this effect too strong for an Italian scaling, you need to reposition the bridge as
Also the following modification causes bass foreshortening: the nut of many Italian harpsichords is (unlike northern European ones, which are straight or slightly bent towards
the sounding string) bent towards the player. If you regard the (thin) line of the nut, you
will notice, that it comes very near to the front at the bass. Now one can (after putting
down the scaling) correct the nut line towards the left with a curve or an angle so that the
plucking distance increases slightly less in the bass.

All these methods result in a meaningful and slight decrease of the scaling in the bass region, even all put together give good results. Here it is not too important to calculate the
foreshortening exactly. If the bridge curve and the string distances make a harmonious
impression, the decrease will be harmonious as well. A slight foreshortening in the bass



has some advantages, but there is no absolute necessity for such a step, and no historical
reason. In the majority of Old Italian harpsichords, the Pythagorean scaling is realized
until the joint of the bass bridge. It is your decision if, and how much you want to deviate from this. The less foreshortening, the brighter and richer in overtones the harpsichord will sound in the bass, which means that the bass will also be less prominent. It is
a matter of taste, and if you do not exaggerate in one of the directions (which also does
not look harmonious), your results will be good.
Now to the angle of the bass bridge: it is especially appropriate, if a short or a broken octave is planned as well. Clearly, such an arrangement, where lower tones are transposed
upwards, is not easily made in an area with a progressive scaling (even if in Flemish
muselaers this is exactly the case).
Now the whole area, which is covered by sounding strings, is marked out, and only the
remaining surfaces need to be added. At the side of the nut, which is nearest to the front
(that is in the bass), 4 or at most 5 cm are added to the front. Here a line exactly perpendicular to the left side is drawn, which marks the front edge of the wrestplank. Now the
distance between bridge and bentside is needed, which determines the curve of the
bentside. This distance is in old harpsichords between 8 and 15cm. I have collected some
thoughts about this in the chapter "Secrets and tricks" when discussing soundboards.
Here I simply recommend starting with a distance of lOcm, to increase it in the bass to
11-12cm, and to reduce the treble corner somewhat. The latter can be done without harm;
one saves space, and in the treble the bentside can be bent less sharply (you may recall
that my call for saving space has nothing to do with the small modern apartments).
Now you have everything: the outline of the whole instrument, defined by the inner line
of the sides, the curves of the bridge and the nut, the string positions and the plucking
points. The intended width of the register slides leads to the far edge of the wrestplank
and the bellyrail. On the soundboard side, a line parallel to the plucking line is drawn in
' 1 2 register width, and on the wrestplank side ll/z widths of the register are added. This
defines the width and position of the gap between the bellyrail front edge and the wrestplank back edge. Now you only need to decide, how long the visible part of the keyboard
shall be. To this, the nameboard thickness and a few millimetres plus the strip in front of
the keyboard are added (if this strip will be located between the sides and not in front).
With this front line, the shape (of the inner sides) of the whole instrument is ready.
Many old harpsichord makers made these marks on the bottom board, and started building directly, without a separate drawing. You can note down or simply remember the
height between the bottom and the soundboard- and the wrestplank upper edges, and of
the entire sides. As long as no one else has to work according to your plan, a drawing is
superfluous. The same applies to the inner construction. There is no real difference between choosing the position of the 'knees' and other parts beforehand when making a
drawing, and directly building them in, except that placing and building gives a better
impression of how the elements have to be distributed than on a sheet of paper.
I do not need to describe the construction of northern European harpsichords; the different scaling has already been discussed, and other deviations regarding wall thickness,
height and inner construction also need no special drawing. If, for some important reasons, one chooses to make a drawing, this can be done without problems.

O'Brien Ruckers.
For more information on wire, and on this effect, see: Goodway, Martha and Jay Scott Ode11 1987
"The Metallurgy of 17th and 18th century Music Wire", The Historical Harpsichord 2, ed. Howard Schott
(Stuyvesand N Y Pendragon Press).
This method was used for instance in many fortepianos from around 1800.
K r i e r , Gerhard 1979. Cembalo und Spinett - selbst gebaut (Merseburger:Kassel)
Ibid. p. 81, table I.
Ibid. p. 48.
My observations suggest, that influences on the sound are primarily dictated by the distance to the breaking point.
So, in contrast to many colleagues, I am less interested in the exact tension. Information about this can be found in
various articles by Klaus Fenner (for instance ,,Bestimrnung der Saitenspannung des Pianos", Das Musikinstrument
11, 1966).
I find it useful to mark only the inner lines, and to build everything else without exactly planned measurements.
What does it help to draw two or three parallel lines for marking the thickness of the sides, the upper mouldings
and perhaps also the lower moulding? Then one could also add a line to indicate the thickness of the liner. For
documenting a historical instrument (during a restoration for instance), all this should be carefully taken down, but
if you want to build a harpsichord, it is yon who makes the decisions about wall thickness etc. I do not see any
necessity to include all these measurements in the drawing. You will certainly be able to recall a decision until you
can cany it out; or else it is better to decide just when one wants to start building.
Comparing the sound of a violin with what the cellists (and the composers) try to extract from the upper range of
their instrument will clarify what I mean here.

s in the previous chapter, I will start by describing the Italian model. Since its
walls are thin and the case is light, the wrestplank needs to be attached to a spe. cial construction: the load of the strings tends to force the wrestplank in a rotary
tipping movement out of its position. The thin walls alone would not give enough stability to resist to this movement. So the wrestplank is instead mounted on two planks at
both sides that extend to the bottom and are attached there. These wrest plank blocks
should be at least 15mm (occasionally up to 30mm) thick. The treble block is best made
to extend to the treble corner, where the bentside begins. Of course it is easier to make
the left block of the same size as well. The blocks of some instruments only extend to the
bellyrail; this construction is too weak and cannot be recommended. Sometimes the
blocks were not cut level with the front edge of the wrestplank, but only cut out on the
top; the lower part extends to the front edge of the bottom. This has the advantage of giving the whole construction more stability. If the plank is not too thick, one can let it slope
in decorative ornaments from beside the keyboard down to the front. This can either, together with the outer wall, give a decorative ending, or - in a "false inner-outer" construction - it can imitate an instrument in its outer case. Such decorated planks occur also
in German instruments.
Flemish or French harpsichords have as a rule no wrest plank blocks, or only a very thin
wooden strip. Here the wrestplank is let into the outer walls, which are rather thick. All
instructions for building Flemish or French harpsichords I know proceed from the outside inwards. First of all the sides, the wrestplank, the lower bellyrail, the lower frames
(that is all parts that are let into the walls) are all joined. The liner, the upper bellyrail and
the upper braces are only mounted afterwards. In most old harpsichords, work traces, and
the manner of joining the parts suggest, that this indeed was the usual procedure. Italian
harpsichords (and often German ones as well, which have many similarities with the
Italian) are built from the inside outwards.
First the bottom planks are joined together, planed, and the front bottom is glued in place.
This cross-grain plank, which forms the front edge of the bottom, must be cut flush with
the entire left edge of the bottom, and joined at right angles to this edge. Usually, a
tongue is made at the front edge of the bottom to fit into a groove of the front bottom (the
bottom parts of Ruckers harpsichords are scarf-joined instead). The right side of the
joined bottom must not be cut to size; one leaves it slightly larger than necessary.
Next the wrestplank is planed and cut to size, as well as the wrest plank blocks and the
bellyrail. The wrest plank blocks are now very precisely let into the wrestplank, until
about half of the wrestplank thickness (you also can use the full wrestplank thickness,
but then it cannot be doweled as described below). When everything fits, the bellyrail is
let into the wrestplank blocks (one can use a dovetail groove). When fitting perfectly, all
these parts (wrestplank, two blocks, bellyrail - or if this is split: upper and lower bellyrail)
are glued together to form a stable, frame-like part. One should not forget to start by soaking all end grain surfaces with glue. After drying, and after removing the clamps, one drills
from above (through the wrestplank into the blocks) each three, and from the sides
(through the blocks into the wrestplank), staggered to these, each four holes of 8-lOmm,
and glues corresponding dowels in place. This results in a very secure attachment of the
wrestplank. Also the bellyrail can be secured with dowels.

Now the drawing is laid out on the prepared bottom, so the front edge and the left edge,
which are already cut to size, match their respective lines. Now the front edge of the
wrestplank, the front edge of the bellyrail, the right side edge, the bentside and the tail
are marked out on the bottom. Now you can glue the combined section of wrestplank and
blocks precisely in its place on the bottom. Still, the bottom is not yet cut to size along
the right edge.
Now an end block is glued into the left tail comer. The direction of its grain should be
the same as that of the bottom. This block needs to be 6-8cm long, as thick as the liner
and, together with the liner, as high as the wrestplank blocks and the bellyrail. The same
measurement is needed for the steps in the knees that support the sides and the liner. All
the needed knees are now prepared. For static reasons these should be longer than high.
Around the middle of the slant one makes a step at right angles to accommodate the
clamps later on. Now you can distribute the knees on the bottom, and shift them about
until you have a feeling of a certain balance. You will appreciate the advantage of this
method over working with the fixed measurements of a drawing. The bentside needs
more knees, to counteract string pull, than the spine. All the knees have to be placed at
right angles to the tangent of the curve. The apparently logical idea of placing the knees
at an angle to meet the string pull in the right direction is a mistake, which already Vito
Trasuntino made in 1606l. Knees at angles cannot keep the bentside straight, as, under
the string load, they tend to bend inwards together with it. Now you mark down the definite places of the knees and glue them in, one by one, the left ones precisely on the edge,
and the right ones along their line. The next part to follow is the bass liner. At the front,
it is let precisely into the left wrest plank block. But before doing this, you need to clamp
a stiff, straight plank on its edge lengthwise under the left bottom edge. Otherwise the
bottom would sag, and since the gluing-in of the left liner already results in a rather stable construction, such a deformation would otherwise be permanently fixed. The bass
end of the left liner is left a little longer; it will be cut off at a later stage, when everything is fixed (the assembly of parts that fit everywhere at once is an unnecessary inconvenience which perhaps only makes sense in kit building).
Now you glue the bentside liner in place in the same way. Again - as later also with the
short piece of the tail - you leave both ends a little longer to be cut to size when everything else has been assembled. It is not crucial how the bentside liner has been bent. I
prefer bent massive liners, or those glued in three layers, to those with a lot of saw cuts.
I actually draw the bentside on my plan after the prepared liner, after marking its exact
position in relation to the bottom. Its curve needs to be rather precise for this operation.
For bending, a negative parabolic form is the most useful (to be calculated similarly to
the Pythagorean scaling), which should be longer than necessary. On this form, the liner
can be bent or glued in three layers. If this curve is made long enough, it can be used in
various types of instruments and scalings. A curve that in - or decreases regularly can be
shifted to fit most circumstances. It also looks more elegant than a curve with a straight
tail end (the latter indicates that the described method is not useful for copying historical
instruments with a partly straight bentside).
It is unimportant whether you glue a block (like in the left comer) or a knee into the right
corner of the tail. The first pair of knees near the tail end is best combined to one U-shaped
unit, which combines the opposite sides. The last piece is the liner of the tail. The ribshaped bottom frames can be mounted following one's intuition, or after a historical model.

Any further decisions for reinforcing the construction are optional. For instance, some
historical instruments have additional braces that run from the bentside diagonally to the
bottom. I do prefer to be on the safe side with my constructions, to avoid the very annoying situation where I don't dare to apply a heavier stringing, which might be necessary for the sound, for static reasons. Unhistorical for Italian harpsichords, but easy to
apply and useful would also be some light braces to join the opposite sides of the liner,
like they were used in northern European instruments. Like the upper framework of a
boat is designed to prevent the sides to expand, and thus helps to keep the boat straight,
the upper braces in the Ruckers instruments contribute significantly to their stability
lengthwise. Here lies a major static weakness of the original Italian construction (and of
certain German ones, like Zell or Mietke). For my own production, I decided to eliminate this static problem. I do not fear any drawbacks in the sound but I do want to avoid
the distinct structural weakness. This is one of many instances, where practical preferences come into conflict with organological knowledge. It is up to everyone alone to
weigh up, whether the weakness of the Italian construction should be accepted for a possible advantage in sound, or whether it is merely an unquestioned tradition.
This is a good moment for a pedagogical remark. I have always been afraid of two mistakes: a weak static (resulting in a poor tuning stability) and an unreliable action.
Working alone and after completing over a hundred instruments, I would otherwise long

ago have been forced to stop building any new ones and to devote my time exclusively
to the maintenance and repair of my own production. So I strongly recommend sparing
no effort when thinking about and planning the important working steps.
Let's return to the work. Now finally the right side of the bottom is cut to size along the
bentside, using a right angle to check whether the edge lies directly under the liner at all
places. Now the skeleton of your harpsichord is complete. The advantage of this method
is, that you can assemble all the parts very precisely, which is much more complicated
when building the parts into a complete case. Also you can secure all the joints between
the liner and the knees and at the corners of the different parts of the liner with additional dowels.

Interior construction by Christian Zell(1728) developed from Italian models

Now the sides are glued on to this construction. You start with the bentside, which also
is left a little longer and wider than needed. One could say the thinner the bentside, the
less precisely it needs to be bent. There are different methods of bending. Thin Italian
bentsides can be ironed with water on top of a form. An advantage of this method is, that
the dampness and the heat are applied at the outside of the curve, which later becomes
the inner surface of the bentside. So most of the stains that are easily caused by this procedure, will later be hidden inside the instrument. One can also use an electric iron specially designed for bending the sides of string instruments. Here one needs to take the
biggest model for double basses. However with this method, eventual stains would later
appear on the outside of the instrument.
The upper moulding of French or Flemish instruments is best applied before bending the
bentside2,particularly if you want to use a moulding plane and no router. These thicker
bentsides can also be bent by ironing, only it costs more time and requires much force3.
A thicker bentside can instead be glued together in several layers on a form4.The most
elegant is the historical method of soaking the wood for at least ten days in water and
clamping it to a form afterwards. Here, much time and good planning in advance are
needed. The bending itself requires a lot of force. Nevertheless it is, of all historical
methods, the least exiting one. Because the soaked wood remains soft, there is sufficient
time to place and tighten one clamp after another, (in contrast, steam bending requires

quick work). The most time consuming part of this method is the drying. The historical
method of drying the clamped bentside on a baker's oven seems too crude to me5. It is
better to leave it - clamped - to dry in the attic for about half a year. Through the constant temperature change of day and night the wood will dry most effectively. Laminated
gluing as described above gives the most stable and regular results. Another method is
bending with fire, as used by the Ruckers. I have tried this method - it works well and
safely (but only in the open air without a fire risk) but also here, much force is needed.
The inner side of the curve is heated with a blowlamp (historically with brushwood) and
simultaneously soaked with water. It is actually better to soak the plank some days in advance - this will help avoiding burn stains on the surface. This method only works for
harpsichords that are to be painted, because some stains cannot be avoided.
After bending, no matter which procedure was used, the bentside must rest as long as possible, to level out the humidity in the wood. Ironing adds another insecure element: either
the wood is too damp or, considering the work of the hot iron, too dry. In any case, the
water will be distributed unevenly in the wood. Laminated bentsides will, on the other
hand, always be too damp, since the glue will have brought excess moisture into the wood.
Now the prepared bentside is clamped dry into place. Below, you drill holes for screws
through the bentside into the bottom. These (in combination with hardwood buffers) are
used instead of clamps, which can only be attached at the bass end of the bottom. The liner and the knees, however, present no such problem; here you can use clamps. Only when
everything fits perfectly should one start gluing. After drying, the screws are replaced by
trenails. Often, or perhaps always, historical builders attached the bentside to the bottom
with iron nails. I am not really fond of this carefree nailing. In an original, I saw dozens
of very pointed forged nails that attached the lower moulding, protruding more than
20mm at the inside of the instrument. My trenails usually are covered by the moulding.
Otherwise they should be distributed evenly, and the visible square surfaces should be
placed edgewise. This looks both decorative and functional.
Now the glued-in bentside is cut exactly to fit, and the joints for the cheekpiece and tailpiece are made. Thin sides are usually mitred, but for thicker planks I prefer the manner
used in Ruckers' harpsichords. This is a combination of a mitre and a lap, strengthened
by trenails. I think that this joint is more stable than dovetails. On the other hand it is only
useful for painted instruments, because even a very neat joint in this manner looks all too
functional. All these joints can be made on the glued-in bentside, simultaneously with
cutting it to size. This may be more complicated than preparing everything beforehand,
but it is almost impossible to glue a prepared bentside exactly into place without it slipping ever so slightly. The front edges of the cheekpiece and the spine are cut exactly to
size after making the joint; this presents no special problem, since nothing may slip during the gluing anyway. Slip can be avoided by pressing the pieces (for instance with
slightly diagonal clamps) into the joint.


The thin sides of Italian instruments can - at their upper edge - be secured with a few
lamellae made from 2-3mm thick wood. The edge is sawn in diagonally until well into
the inner moulding. Then the lamellae are glued in, and covered by the outer moulding.
I need not describe the mouldings, the nameboard or the jackrail attachment. Also, the
different set-up of a "false inner-outer" case will be self-evident.


Some German harpsichords with thin sides, doubled only above the soundboard, are exactly constructed according to the Italian false inner-outer principle, and to be built in just
such a manner. This applies for instance to instruments by Christian Zell and Michael
Mietke; other instruments resemble Flemish, French, or later English harpsichords, and
are better built from the outside inwards.
This description of one harpsichord type, and my comments about certain variants, helps
to construct all the important options from the Italianate building tradition. The result is
a small, light continuo harpsichord, with no historical instrument as a direct model; yet
it could have been built by most of the old masters. If one has access to cypress wood, it
will be almost like the real thing. But this is not strictly necessary; many Italian harpsichords have spruce soundboards, and there are also many with sides from pine (perhaps
the Mediterranean variant) or maple. Such a new construction is no contradiction to exact copies, but both are possible ends of a continuum of options. So instead, one also
could only re-calculate a given original, correct obvious mistakes and perhaps change a
few technical details, like the stop levers. Or one could combine several historical examples to a similar new instrument.

I want to add a short comment on experiments. I recommend giving one's curiosity all
the space needed. Do try out things. Experiment. Develop and exercise your practical curiosity; by doing so, you speed up the accumulation of experience. Also many results or
solutions simply do not reveal themselves at the drawing board. Yet I hesitate to recommend my personal way of tackling this issue. I have experimented all my life in almost
every instrument, sometimes even with two experiments in one instrument. The sleuthwork afterwards, to find out which step had which result, was most satisfyingly thrilling.
But such an excessive interest in experiments requires a good feeling for not overstepping the mark, and for not putting the quality of the work at risk, and a sort of focused
fantasy to avoid useless experiments.


The structure of a Flemish harpsichord

I will now outline the Flemish construction, from the outside inwards, and I will chose a
description, which emphasizes the succession of the working steps in a relaxed manner.






The wrestplank, the upper and lower bellyrail, the lower frames and two strips
of wood, which will be placed on both sides between the keyboard frame and the
sides, are cut to size and planed. A moulding is applied to these two strips, and
the wrestplank is best veneered (across the grain) at this stage. All the sides are
now prepared, and the bentside bent. The wrestplank and the lower bellyrail, the
lower frames and the nameboard need to be 12-14mm wider than the inner width
of the case.
According to these 12-14mm, one cuts grooves of 6-7 mm depth into the sides
(if the space between bellyrail and first lower frame is planned to be accessible,
i.e. if one plans a 'Ruckers box', one needs to cut a square opening into the spine).
The wrestplank, the nameboard, the lower bellyrail and the first lower frame are
assembled without glue, and holes for trenails are drilled into the sides
from the outside.
Now all these parts can be glued together with the spine and the cheekpiece.
The moulded strips are glued inside the front of the case, and their lower edges
are planed flush with the edges of the sides. Another two strips are fitted from
the lower edge of the wrestplank to about 10mm lower than the top edge. These
fill the gap to the upper bellyrail and serve as a rest for the upper guides.
The scarf joint between the bottom and the front bottom is prepared, and the front
bottom is glued under the front edge of the sides, and secured with trenails.
The combined part is placed on the drawing and the bentside is fitted in the
correct angle, according to Rucker's principle in a combination joint (mitre and
lap; the bass edge of the bentside is still left a little longer). The lower frames are
let into the spine and bentside, and assembled without gluing to accommodate
the drilling of holes for the trenails.


Now the bentside and the lower frames are combined with the first part, glued
into place and nailed. The trenails used for the sides into the frames, and
through the bottom into the sides should be about 4.5 to 5 mm thick; those used
to secure the edge between the bentside and the cheek that are driven into the
end grain of the cheekpiece (and those used correspondingly at the tailpiece),
should not be thicker than 3 rnm.
When gluing, a perfectly straight plank should be clamped on its edge under the
spine to keep it straight during the assembly. This plank should be in place until
the upper braces are glued in.
The bass end of the bentside is cut to fit the drawing, and the tailpiece is fitted,
in the manner of the treble corner. The tailpiece and the spine are mitred; the
acute angle at this edge makes the gluing surfaces sufficiently wide. Also, after
having completed the other joint to the bentside, a mitre is easy to make.
All the pieces of the liner are fit and glued into place (one can use trenails
like the Ruckers', but this is not strictly necessary). The best order is tailpiece,
bentside and then both the straight pieces. It is more secure to fit all parts that
support the string tension behind the ends of the other parts - even though the
old builders were unconcerned about this detail.
The upper braces are fitted, glued and nailed into place (best use nails with large
heads, like some forged decorative nails).
The upper bellyrail is let in and glued in. A variation is to glue the upper bellyrail under the soundboard and later glue them into the case togethep.
Turn the case around and fit the bottom exactly onto the slant of the front bottom.
Drill the holes for the trenails into both sides and frames, and attach the
bottom loosely. The case is stable enough to allow for working without the
bottom glued in. When gluing in the soundboard, it is an advantage to be able
to check the exact fit of the 4' hitchpinrail and the ribs in the liner from below,
without the bottom.
Only at the very last, the bottom is glued in. The slant must be secured by large
clamps. After drying, the edge of the bottom is planed flush with the sides.


Venetian instrument builder (before 1560-1606)Also called Vitus Trasuntinis. His Archicembalo from 1606 is
located in the Museo Civico, Bologna. Boalch, Donald H. 1974. Makers of the Harpsichord 1440-1840 (Oxford:
Clarendon Press), p. 181.
This is a historical method. See Hnbbard Three Centuries, p. 212.
Bending with steam requires special instalments and much energy. I do not have any experience with this.
According to Hubbard, p. 212 and 242, there is a description of this laminated building method in the article
Clavecin in Diderot's and d' Alembert's Encyclopkdie me'thodique from 1785. Hubbard notes, that no historical ,
examples of this technique survive.
Verhandeling over de Muziek 1772, p. 193, quote from: Hubbard, p. 211. Hubbard's translation "in a baker's oven"
is not correct.
Personal communication from a colleague.


Choice of material
ustom made soundboards can be ordered through special firms. Such soundboards are neatly sanded, and after adding bridges, ribs and a 4' hitchpin rail,
they are ready for building in. Quite a number of harpsichord-building firms have
accepted this possibility - like prefab keyboards and jacks - as a welcome means to rationalize and speed up the production. But, whether you like it or not, this is a decisive
step in the direction of kit building, and besides a clear example of rationalization at the
expense of the final result. It certainly helps to avoid some laborious work, but at the
same time, no possibility is left for influencing the sound character of the instrument fundamentally, and for collecting any related professional experience.
The suppliers of complete soundboards usually also sell soundboard wood in various
states, for those who want to make their own soundboard. There are for instance the
1 3 m m thick planks for piano soundboards, which can be sawn into two strips thin
enough for our aim. But not many of these planks are quarter sawn; deviations of 20"or
even 30"occur. This is easily explained: if one wants to saw as many planks as possible
from a round trunk without too much loss, not many of these planks can be cut out exactly radially. If one wants to make a selection (which some firms allow), the price is usually higher. I have done this for many years, but often I had to use much of this selected
wood for bottoms, lids and parts of the inner construction, because after planing, the
rough planks turned out to be not good enough for soundboards (you will find more on
the criteria of wood selection in the chapter "Secrets and Tricks"). An alternative, cheap
at first, but laborious later on, is to buy a whole trunk and let it be divided into eight
pieces like a cake. From these wedges, you can carefully cut the strips as desired. This is
the method I use, but on a larger scale it is possibly not an economical solution.
The soundboard strips should not be thinner than 5 m m . It is very annoying to have to
plane a soundboard partially thinner than planned, just because of a slightly slipped joint
or a faulty area discovered too late. Usually, my planks are sawn on one side and planed
on the other. Planing is sometimes done by hand, or on top of a sharpened - very finely
set - planing machine. I never put my soundboard wood, in any form, through a planing
machine. This is an intuitive decision and cannot be proved by hard facts. But I have
looked at soundboard wood through a microscope; its structure is so fragile, open and
spongy, that I cannot face confronting this delicate material with the pressure of the driving rolls, even if the modern ones are made from rubber. Even if the pressure only creases some of the fibres, at a thickness of 5 m m , the percentage of weakened wood might
soon become too high. If you don't share these reservations, plane the strips to a thickness of 5 m m ,or minimally 4.5mm.Now the wood can be judged from both sides, which
makes the selection easier.
Faultless European spruce is scarcely available, at least not in long strips for the bass end.
Therefore it is useful to cut the planks evenly, without any attention to faulty areas or knots,
and to shorten them only later on at the problematic spots. In this way you avoid cutting a
faultless, or at least useful, plank rashly too short. You will end up having many short
pieces anyway1.Now you can sort the planks on top of the drawing until the soundboard is

complete. Try to avoid cutting long strips shorter for the middle or the treble; you will
most certainly regret it when building the next instrument. On the other hand, some faults
can be left in longer strips, if they are located in the left front corner, or supported by ribs,
or the cutoff bar. Another method is to shift the faulty area so it can be cut out with the
rose. Also in the area, under which the 4' hitchpin rail will be located, faulty parts have
no negative influence. Apparently a main reason for the flower decorations on soundboards is the masking of faults in the wood. Resin inclusions can scarcely be seen as
faults, they can usually be repaired with a piece of healthy wood2.
Apart from a selection according to length and faults, the strips should match each other. A fine-grained strip near a coarse one does not only look irregular, even their sounding qualities might not match. Usually fine-grained wood is used for the treble, and the
coarser parts for the bass (this could cause a conflict with the advice above not to cut up
longer strips). Fine-grained wood is usually seen as being of a higher quality. But the
grain is not the only quality indicatoP. Usually fine-grained wood is suitable for the thinner treble, since otherwise the distance between the hard and the soft years is greater than
the soundboard's thickness; here the 'sections' are, in a manner of speaking wider than
high, which might influence the stability across the grain negatively, but not necessarily
so. Some coarse spruce is very stable across the grain, but many an instrument builder
will probably choose to be on the safe side. If all the planks are cut from one eighth of
the same trunk, such problems do not arise.
Another thing should be considered during the selection: if possible, all the pieces should
allow for planing in the same direction later on. The grain never runs exactly parallel to
the surface of a plank. So it is a good thing to try avoiding that the grain rises in one strip
and falls in another; such a surface would be really inconvenient to plane. Besides, the
changing reflection of the grain looks disturbing in the finished soundboard. All the
named criteria for a selection - which first and foremost are a result of experience and
taste - make the work time consuming but inspiring. All this helps to understand the material and to enhance ones experience. Buying a ready-made soundboard not only minimizes the influence on the sound, but also deprives the builder of this experience.

Now you mark out all the strips and the joining can begin. This is done with a trying
plane. I prefer iron planes, even if one might need to grind the sole true. Wooden trying
planes have a better 'feel' but I have not yet found one, which was really useful. One
problem with wooden planes is that the sole is usually made from harder wood (see chapter "Tools and accessories" under planes). A large, stable and flat surface (like a large
workbench) is also needed. One also needs a joining jig, which consists in a large and
carefully planed plank with an end block glued on. This plank should be at least 25 rnrn
thick. It is clamped on to the workbench. Now the strips (a pair at a time), which are to
be joined, are held (or the longer strips clamped) on to the top of this plank, on top of
each other and sorted face-to-face, or back-to-back, with the joining edges protruding.
Their end, in the planing direction, is stopped by the end block.
With the plane on its side the edges are planed until they are flush and smooth. The quality of the joint can be controlled by holding the strips together against the light. If no light

can be seen through the joint, i.e. if there is no gap left, it is ready. Adjusting the (very
sharp) plane iron to a very shallow cut will greatly improve the results. Only in this way
can the long straight sole work correctly, taking away only the deviations from the
straight line4.
All the joints should fit without pressure, to avoid unnecessary tension in the soundboard
later on. Longer joints are more difficult in this respect. So it is recommendable to start the
work with the shortest treble pieces to gain some experience. Joints made in the described
manner fit well, even if by a deviation of the plane or the working base, the joint is not at
right angles, since the same divergence occurs on both parts and is thus levelled out.

In the following section on gluing, I will make various suggestions, and explain the advantages and drawbacks of each. But one remark first: it is important to glue soon after
making the joints. A change of weather can ruin any ever-so-careful joining effort. This
only seems to contradict the advice to make joints without unnecessary tension. As soon
as the joints are all integrated in one surface, they will not nearly as easily be affected by
temperature or humidity changes.
The first method for gluing soundboards needs no other preparation than a flat, level surface as a base. Some violin builders use the same technique for gluing the middle joints
of belly and back: the very neat joint is rubbed - using warm glue - lengthwise together. The glue gets quickly tougher and suddenly it tacks. To avoid the pieces tacking together in a wrong position, the back-and-forth movement needs to become increasingly
smaller. Now everything is left unclamped until dry. According to my experience, this
method works astonishingly well for short joints, but it is unusable for long ones. A drawback is, that the joints need to be warmed up (unless one uses modified glue - see gluing in the chapter "Secrets and Tricks"), which includes the risk that they change form
and do not fit any more. Also, one can always only glue one joint at a time. But the joints
between one pair of soundboard strips and the next will no longer fit after the glue has
brought so much moisture into the wood. I am also not quite sure, if the tension caused
by the warm and wet glue cannot be sufficient to open up an unclamped joint before the
glue gets hard enough. Some will certainly be able to work according to this method - I
do not have full confidence, which in its turn might result in failure.
All other ways of gluing a soundboard require some sort of preparation, i.e. arrangements
to clamp the strips, and to keep them level (or arrangements for both simultaneously).
For example, for gluing larger surfaces, some carpentry workshops use a set of metal
rails with regular holes, which can be fitted with suitable parts for clamping. This is too
rough for our work, but the principle in itself is useful: I use sets of pairs of wooden
sticks with holes. The soundboard is held flat between these. By fitting bolts (like big
nails) into the holes, and by inserting wedges, it can be clamped at the same time. My
working surface is an old harpsichord lid made from block board, which I replaced by a
solid one in 1955 (I use the same lid when planing the soundboards). For gluing, I use
glutin glue modified with vinegar (see gluing in "Secrets and tricks"). This leaves me
enough time to do all the gluing, aided by my wife. For some years, I have used light aluminium clamps which work according to the principle described above, but are very light

and easy to handle. Whatever technique one chooses, it should be easy to handle; we cannot afford unnecessary nervousness at this work.
It is important to avoid too much clamping force. The gluing surfaces between the 5mm
strips are very narrow, and require little pressure. Also, my reservations for using planing machines would be useless, if I now squeezed the fibres anyway. If the glue does not
gel too soon, and if the joint is neatly made, only moderate pressure is sufficient. Too
much pressure could force all the glue out of the joint.
All wooden surfaces (like wooden rods and the working surface) that come in contact
with the workpiece should be isolated, to prevent the soundboard adhering at unintended spots. Paper, or torn plastic bags could be used here. Very good are the back foils of
bumper stickers and the like - I usually go to the vegetable department of our supermarket to ask for old rolls of the price stickers. After 24 hours, the soundboard can be cut to
its proper shape and planed5.

A sufficiently wide working surface is now needed: a workbench is too narrow for planing a soundboard. A surface of similar dimensions works best - I already mentioned my
discarded harpsichord lid - although this is not strictly necessary. The soundboard must
be attached firmly (with clamps and pieces of wood in between) to the working surface.
I then place the whole on top of my workbench. You start planing the roughest side. But
before this, the side, which now comes to lie face down is inspected for evenness; glue
drops, glued on wood chips and the like need to be removed. Now you start carefully
with a jackplane - later, especially towards the end, and at problematic spots with changing grain direction, it is better to use a smoothing plane. The plane iron needs to be kept
absolutely sharp all the time, the cap iron must be set very close to the cutting edge, and
the cutting depth has to be minimal. Observing this, you will be delighted how easy planing spruce really is - even partially against the grain. One can start with somewhat more
cutting depth to speed up the work, but carefully: the risk that 'wrong7grains tear out and
leave deep grooves is great. Keep altering the planing direction to avoid unevenness.
Working across the grain is a good way to shave off much without too big risks. For this,
the plane is held at an angle to the grain: the iron cuts well and the wood will not tear out
as easily. The result is a somewhat rough, but even surface, without tears and other damages. If the lower surface is very even, one can plane the entire upper one in one turn.
Normally however, it is better to plane both sides in several turns, until everything is according to you ideas. The upper surface will naturally be finished before the under side
so that it can be smoothened when necessary without taking away too much wood. The
under side is finished last of all and the soundboard is now planed down to the desired
thickness. Should any area remain rough on this side, we can just leave it like that. This
is to be preferred to planing both sides smooth, but partly too thin. For finishing, the
planed surface is rubbed (using clean fresh wood shavings) along the grain - this gives
a pleasant silky gloss to the soundboard. On this surface, one can paint tempera flowers
without any preparation - on a sanded soundboard the paint tends to run out into the
surrounding fibres. Only rarely can spruce not be planed in this manner. Then the final
finishing needs to be done by using a cabinet scraper and fine sandpaper. The best way
to proceed in this case is to plane as long as possible, very close to the desired thickness. Sanding is considered a finishing procedure, and hence unsuited for adjusting the

thickness. The underside will in any case be smooth enough after planing. The top is
planed with an orbital sander (not a band sander, which works too uncontrolled and sands
away too much at once) using sandpaper from 180 grit via 220,280 until 320. Every step
should be checked against the light, to make sure that the spiral grooves of the previous
step are completely sanded away. The last step is to sand with the finest sandpaper on a
cork block along the grain until all remaining grooves have vanished. Now, after the
soundboard is dusted, wiped, and rubbed with wood shavings, you can be content with
the result. This is also a good way to improve many ready-bought "sanded" soundboards.
A shortcoming is, that sanding never leads to the silky glow of a planed soundboard.
Also, the soft years will always be sanded down slightly more than the hard ones, which
results in a slightly wavy surface - the hard years remain somewhat elevated. The soundboards of the Ruckers harpsichords have an inverted pattern: here the soft years stick out.
Possibly they swelled during the grounding (see my chapter on this).
Also Cypress, which usually can be planed without tearing out, sometimes cannot be
planed even when using a very sharp plane with little cutting depth. Here sanding is less
problematic, since the wood is more homogenous and has less lustre anyway.
If you are confident, you can use one of the expensive Japanese planes. It is not easy to
prepare these and to use them properly. But when you have found the right technique, the
work goes easily and the result is an incomparable silky smoothness. Unfortunately authentic Japanese planes have no cap iron so that problematic areas can tear out in spite
of their very narrow mouth. Japanese planes with a cap iron are a concession to western
taste. The results from using these are scarcely better than those from an ordinary
smoothing plane. Apart from the register guides - as I described in the chapter on the
construction - I usually start building by making the soundboard, so it can be exposed to
the light to get brown until it is built in. I do not like the pale colour of freshly planed
spruce. However the soundboard should never be put into direct sunlight outdoors: the
ultraviolet light bleaches and damages the wood.

Two different Italian ribbing patterns

cut out

Bridges, ribs and 4' hitchpin rail

Now the soundboard must be completed with the bridges the ribs and the 4' hitchpin rail.
Italian bridges are almost always bent and the prismatic ones in Flemish, French and
English harpsichords are cut out. Only the 4' bridges are bent in both traditions, with few
exceptions. With simple means, it is almost impossible to bend a triangular rod in a controlled way. If we instead prepare a strip of 6 to lOcm width for several bridges, the bending goes very easily. Again an iron or a special iron for violinmakers can be used for
bending. An alternative is a blowlamp and much water, used with much care. After bending, the triangular profile is worked out, using a convex violinmaker's plane, a cabinet
scraper and only at the very last and as little as possible, sandpaper. Less elegant is the
use of rasps, files and sandpaper. Only now the bridge is sawn off the bent strip. The underside of the bridge is now prepared for gluing, i.e. planed - perhaps with a toothing
plane. The small slant of the bridge, which lies towards the sounding part of the string,
is applied only when the bridge is glued in place6.

The wood sorts used for bridges are: beech, pear, service tree, maple or walnut. Other
sorts are uncommon, however there are some Italian bridges from cypress. Oak would be
hard enough and is bent easily, but for bridges it is too rough and irregular. The Ruckers
made their bridges from service tree (which is somewhat harder and tougher than pear;
it is difficult to distinguish both species by their looks), and the 4' bridge from beech.
This wood is especially suited for the thin, bent bridge: it is hard, and has a greater bending strength than pear or service tree. But nevertheless it can be bent without breaking.
None of the other national schools was as consistent in the choice of wood for the bridges
as the Flemish. The French preferred walnut, but beech, service tree and pear can also be
found. The English used walnut in the 17th century and mainly beech in the 18th; the
Italian used walnut and beech (and, as mentioned, occasionally cypress). In Germany, all
the listed species were common. There are other useful species of wood, which were unknown to historical builders, for instance the African mansonia, which resembles walnut,
but has a finer structure. Black bridges in historical instruments are always from dyed
maple, pear or service tree.
In order to be able to fix the bridges at their exact position, I first cut the soundboard to
its exact shape. In the meantime, the case is ready, so I have a reference for this shape.
Now I put my drawing on top of the soundboard. Into the bridge (from below), I have
hammered pins without their heads at distances of 10-15cm. These protrude slightly more
than the soundboard's thickness. Iron nails could be used instead, but they would react
with my vinegar-glue. Now I place the bridge precisely on my drawing and press it down,
until the pins leave a mark on the soundboard. At these marks, I drill holes of 1.5mm into
the soundboard; this is wide enough to accommodate the pins. All this prevents the bridge
slipping during the gluing. Under the soundboard, a softwood base (for instance poplar in which the pins can impress) is placed. I mark the location of the pins on top of the
bridge to be able to clamp the bridge exactly there. After gluing, the pins are extracted, the
holes widened slightly, and small trenails glued in their places (the best are birchwood
nails for shoemakers, if one does not want to make one's own nails).
Historically, the bridges almost always were positioned with two pairs of pins placed at
each side of the bridge. The holes were later frequently filled with small wood shavings,
but they can often be rediscovered. Usually, even in piano building, the bridges are
clamped by bending supple long sticks ("go-bars") between the workshop ceiling and the
bridge to apply pressure. There are even stable special constructions (go-bar decks), with
a 'ceiling' near to the working surface. Of course, the use of a larger amount of clamps
will do almost as well. Only for the 4' bridge, very large clamps would be needed. If there
is a rose, one can insert one or two clamps carefully through the hole to clamp the 4'
bridge nearby.
For securely clamping prismatic bridges one needs a sufficient amount of blocks with
their negative profile to place between the go-bar and the bridge. For Italian bridges,
small pieces of wood, like the discarded ends of the jacks, are sufficient.
After gluing the bridges, I fit the 4' hitchpin rail into the case and attach it so it stays exactly in the proper position. Two headless pins are nailed on top - one in the treble and
one in the bass, exactly on the line where later the pins will lie. Now I carefully place the
soundboard on top and press the pins into its underside. Two (smaller) holes are drilled.
Now the 4' hitchpin rail can exactly be placed. Before gluing, I mark the position of the

pins on a large curve-ruler for the hitchpin row. This ruler can be custom cut, or one can
use the prepared 4' hitchpin rail of another instrument. With the position of the two pins
marked on my ruler, I can draw the line for the hitchpins on top of the soundboard, simultaneously avoiding that it does not match with the rail below the soundboard. The
wood used for the 4' hitchpin rail ought to be mentioned (some tricks can be found in the
corresponding chapter): the Ruckers (how could it be otherwise) used poplar. Also the
French harpsichords after about 1700, which were more of less based on Ruckers, have
a poplar or limewood 4' hitchpin rail, but occasionally, conifers were used instead. In
English, German and Scandinavian Harpsichords, pine is the usual wood.
Next the cutoff-bar and the ribs for the triangular area behind are glued on; as you will
have noticed I have departed from my Italian harpsichord, and purposely described the
more complicated system. Any simpler design can be derived from this.
The direction of the wood in the ribs and similar parts has been an issue for controversy:
should the annual rings stand or lie? The arguments are almost the same as in discussions
on the bass bar in string instruments - the bass bar is nothing more than a rib, only one
in the direction of the grain, and not across. Research on the bending strength of spruce
has not shown any significant difference between lying and standing rings. Only diagonal pieces have a lower bending strength. I believe that the bending strength is the most
important factor when choosing an appropriate piece of wood - in relationship to the
weight, that is; otherwise bongossi would be the best wood to use. So, for the reason stated I chose my ribs either with standing or lying annual rings (consequently in a single instrument) but not diagonal.
But the bending strength is not the only important thing. So I will provide some more
ideas for anyone to form his own judgment. The bass bars in string instruments nowadays almost always have standing annual rings. The main reason for this is probably that
the bar needs to fit exactly into the belly, which is more difficult to make, when large portions of lying hard and soft grain alternate. Perhaps a craftsman will not admit this - one
would certainly prefer to be seen as someone who masters all the technical challenges.
Anyway, for a harpsichord builder this specific problem does not exist, because even flat
annual rings can be planed even without any difficulty. The history of the bass bar suggests another reason for choosing vertical annual rings: originally, it was carved out of
the quarter-sawn belly, and hence had the same direction. In our case the following argument speaks against vertical rings: the wood splits more easily at right angles to the
annual rings, i.e. along the medullary rays, but works more in the direction of the annual rings. I think nevertheless, that by using healthy, faultless spluce I can neglect these
weaknesses. But you may decide yourself.
Finally I will discuss some alternative wood species: generally, fir has a greater bending
strength and elasticity than spruce; it is thus well suited for the ribs. In instruments by
Christian Zell one finds pine ribs, which are even stiffer. On the other Hand, the ribs of
Ruckers' instruments were made from poplar, which is even weaker than spruce. Some
recommend pre-tensing the ribs, that is to plane them slightly convex, to give the soundboard a slight arch for withstanding the string pressure. This may be (modern or historically) useful for fortepianos, and also recommendable for certain clavichords, but I do
not do this in my harpsichords. My aim, and at the same time the tolerance limit is the
straight line. So if I happen to plane a rib concave, I correct this, but if a rib turns out
somewhat convex, I might leave it like that.

For the dimensions or the position of the ribs, I will give no directives. This is not in order to keep anything secret, but in order not to influence your personal decision. This is
one of those details (like the thickness of the soundboard), which cannot be seen separated from other elements, which all influence (or ideally support) each other. You can
chose from the historical options what appeals most to you. Yet not all historical ribbing
layouts seem to be the consequence of careful considerations.The ribbing of some 16thcentury Italian, and 17th-century French harpsichords look more like an embarrassed or
despaired reaction to sunk-in soundboards and other catastrophes. Partly therefore, the
Ruckers instruments with their strong 4' hitchpin rail, the cutoff-bar and their ribs are for
me an unbelievable miracle. Here, acoustics and static are combined ideally. Without any
antecedent, the ideal solution seems to have popped up at once, and it took about hundred years, until most European harpsichord builders understood this system and started
using it (for Italian harpsichords, the Ruckers-system is naturally not suitable. Hubbard
gives two good solutions7).
Another issue should be discussed: the humidity, or rather the dryness of the wood. Many
heated rooms become very dry during the winter - so dry that soundboards develop
cracks. The question is now, how much we can prevent this by pre-drying the soundboard. Of course, it does not help simply to dry the soundboard and to proceed afterwards
as usual. The humidity would change after a half-hour at the latest, often much sooner.
So if one wants to build in a soundboard as dry as possible, one needs to perform all the
preparatory steps following the planing, i.e. gluing on the bridges, the ribs as well as the
final gluing in of the soundboard in great dryness.
Let us consider whether this is advisable: many have had the experience that a pre-dried
soundboard warps in high humidity, causing severe functional problems. I have not had
this experience (I don't know why. Should perhaps my refusal to use a planing machine
have something to do with it?). During the humid summer months, the bass part of the
8' bridge of my instruments raises somewhat, which is not a real problem (a little trick
to control this process, and to make sure, that the soundboard never bends downward,
should be mentioned here: the surface of the liner should not be exactly level, but rise
very little, seen from the sides, towards the middle of the instrument. Additionally, the
tail liner can be made just slightly convex. In a Broadwood harpsichord from 1778, I
found the middle of the tail liner to be about 1.5 to 1.8mm higher than its ends. Such deviations are often overseen, or interpreted as the result of inaccurate work).
I think that the risk of cracks in a dry environment is greater, and consequently I dry my
soundboards considerably. I take advantage of the fact that wood dries more at high temperatures, than the relative humidity, strictly spoken, admits. Paradoxically, warm air can
contain - absolutely - more water than cold air. But still: the higher the temperature at a
constant relative humidity, the lower the moisture content of the wood. The amount is
different for the different species of wood, but the tendency is the same in any case.
Additionally, we can make use of the fact that the relative air humidity decreases as temperatures rise. Short and practical: On a warm summer day, I carry my soundboard,
clamps and the glue pot into the attic, where between 2:00 and 4:00 p.m. the temperature
can get as high as 40C (the exact time depends on when the sun reaches both sides of
the roof). The humidity, outdoors at 22-23C perhaps 50% or more, will be up there already much lower. And, at say 40%, the soundboard will, at these temperatures, be really dry (I don't want to exaggerate either!). Now I glue on all the parts. After taking down

the soundboard again, it changes alarmingly; perhaps it even warps at the edges. Before
gluing in, I dry the soundboard so much that it gets flat again, and then I glue it in quickly. This last drying goes well between my double windows in the sun. There it becomes
so warm, that I need a hygrometer and a thermometer to control the drying - with the
bridges and ribs all in place, the risk for cracks is already high.

Bridge pins and rose

When building Flemish, late French or English instruments, the soundboard can now be
glued in. The advantage of a not yet closed bottom is that one can hold a counterweight
against the underside of the bridge when drilling the holes and beating in the bridge pins.
Otherwise, the bridge pins need to be mounted before the gluing in of the soundboard.
Not only once, have despairing kit builders asked me how the pins are beaten into the
bridge: "It doesn't work at all!" No, this does indeed not work, and should not be tried.
But not many situations are completely hopeless - in circumstances like this one, one
cannot just put everything into the fireplace. To solve the problem, the holes for the
bridge pins need to be wide enough, i.e. exactly of the same diameter as the pins, (instead
of about a tenth millimetre narrower). Now the pins are pressed in and not hammered.
As an extra safety measure, one could also add a drop of glue (without vinegar!), because
loose pins damp the tone dramatically, almost like the buffstop8.
The position of the pins is marked using the extra register guide (see there). Doing this
before gluing in the soundboard is more convenient, but the result is, because of possible later changes due to drying, not as exact as making the marks after the soundboard
has been put into place. In any case, I cannot recommend drilling the holes before gluing the bridge on to the soundboard (naturally, the pins cannot be in place, or how would
one be able to clamp?). There is a risk that the bridge slides a little during the gluing, in
spite of its being fixed with pins. The difference from the exact scaling caused by this (if
the position of the pins is marked later) is less disturbing than a lateral deviation of the
string position.
The exact position of each pin is the result of a line on the bridge, and the distance measured from the left side. For this, I attach the spare register guide to a piece of wood,
which serves as a stop against the left side, at the correct angle. A small piece of wood,
the same height as the bridge, is also needed to prevent the arrangement from tilting.
Around the bass area, where the strings are shifted somewhat to the right (see my chapter "The Construction"), the pins can be distributed according to taste, if one avoids too
abrupt changes. The last "normal" pin should be marked on the bridge; until that point,
the location of the pins on the nut can be found by using the register guide. Further below, their exact position is found by stretching a thread from the bridge pins (one by one)
across the register guide (exactly in its place) until the wrestplank. This is easiest done
after the guides are already built in, and one can insert some jacks for finding the desired
string position at that spot.
The last open question is, whether a rose is advantageous or not. Some old sources claim,
that the rose (or the "star") is only a decoration without any influence on the sound. This
is not entirely true, as everyone can try out by alternately opening and covering a rose in
an existing harpsichord, and listening carefully from various distances. Yet the difference

is small. According to my observations, the rose chiefly creates a warmer, fuller sound for
the player. A harpsichord without a rose sounds - towards the keyboard - somewhat thin
and damped, but from the other direction full and dark. Its sound carries out, the farther
away the better. This effect can be heard very clearly with the Christian Zell harpsichord
from 1728 (in Hamburg). I have no explanation for this phenomenon, just a speculation:
as Rainer Schiitze in several lectures during the 60s has shown convincingly, and ad extenso, the open modern harpsichord suffers from an interference between the sound waves
from above and under the instrument, which eliminates especially the more diffuse lower
frequencies. The reason is, that one side of the soundboard always emits the negative of
the other side. This phenomenon has long been known; for instance ancient loudspeakers
were built into large surfaces to prevent this acoustical short-circuit. Today the damped
loudspeaker boxes have the same effect. Now perhaps just a little of this effect could be
caused by the opening of the rose - in both cases the sound from nearby is freer and more
open than from a distance. Of course, the difference to the modern harpsichord, without
any case resonance, still is dramatic.
In most cases, the instrument's type will dictate the choice of the rose; I would never
make a Ruckers-type instrument without a rose. Another important aspect should not be
forgotten: the weight of a metal rose has a huge influence on the vibrations of the soundboard. If one would, for instance, replace this by a rose from parchment (or plastic!),
much of the typical character would be lost. I make my harpsichords with or without a
rose. Only in small instruments, like clavichords, I prefer not to make a rose. Many old
clavichords and square pianos without a rose seem to sound darker (and perhaps slightly softer). With a rose, the sound tends to some extent towards a mandolin. A rose in a
modern harpsichord, through which the floor can be contemplated, is certainly only a
decoration - but that is not what the old sources meant.

This is a good reason to build a clavichord every now and then.

These resinous areas, also those that form stripes in older wood, indicate that the wood is not fir wood (abies).
Unfortunately this cannot be reversed: some spruce does not contain any visible traces of resin.
The chapter "Secrets and Tricks" provides ample information for timber selection.
This work is made easier by lubricating the side of the plane and the working base with an appropriate substance.
Thicker surfaces, like the lid, need to rest considerably longer. The wood around the joints swells quite a bit
because of the water of the glue. Later these areas shrink, and if such a surface is planed too early, ugly grooves
will be visible even after painting. A soundboard is thin enough to minimize this effect, even if grooves should
occur; anyway the water will evaporate from the 5mm thin wood within hours.
In contrast to the prismatic bridges of the Flemish tradition, Italian or German bridges with their almost square
diameter present no problems for bending. Here, the little 'step' towards the sounding part of the string can be
made using a moulding plane, a scraper, or a fine blade on the circular saw.
Hubbard Three Centuries, Plate LI.
I do not recommend the pressing instead of nailing as a standard procedure, as is done in some kit instructions.

n spite of the spontaneous impression, the keyboard belongs to the less complicated
parts of a harpsichord. One does not need a complicated keyboard-mounting machine - if necessary, even an old-fashioned hand drill will do. But the choice of the
wood is of utmost importance here. The price- and quality spectrum of pre-assembled
keyboards is wide. In practice, a keyboard with bent keys or a twisted balance rail (which
could be the result of too high tolerances or the use of artificially dried wood) naturally
is of no practical use, even if a keyboard should look perfect. Besides, the keyboard is
the very part of the instrument which the player encounters first of all, and it should
therefore be considered a personal thing, and not a ready-made standard unit.

First of all the frame is made. It's most important parts are the balance rail, on which the
keys lie as on a seesaw, only a little in front of the middle, and the rear part of the frame,
where the key ends rest and are guided1.During the 18th century, front guides came in
use, which implies that there must be a front frame piece, if this construction is preferred.
Here, the guide pins reach from below until under the keyplates. They are either mounted in a straight line below the edge of the sharps, or, like in the modern piano, in separate rows for the sharps and the naturals. As front guides were only used in very late harpsichords, I will not go into more detail here. If you want to try this principle, my short
sketch should not present too many problems.
I cannot give a general rule for determining the position of the balance rail. There is
much variation in original instruments. 'A little in front of the middle' they all are, and
not one behind the middle. But in original Ruckers harpsichords, the balance rails are so
much in front, that many of their keyboards were changed during the 18th century, and
the balance rail was shifted further back. A balance rail at the front makes the touch heavier but more precise; with the rail farther back, the touch becomes lighter, but unfocused.
So the touch can be influenced significantly by the choice of the balance point. For instance, changing the lever can ease the somewhat hard touch in the treble of short-scaled
instruments. Also, the fact that when plucking, the bass strings are brought out of their
position more than the treble, which results in a more indistinct touch, can be neutralized
by shifting the balance point a little more towards the front in the bass. In some few old
harpsichords this was done. It is especially suitable in cases, where the registers are
slightly diagonal, and therefore the key levers in the bass are a little longer.
The balance rail must be firm, should not twist, needs to hold the balance pins securely
and must not split. Hard wood is theoretically best suited, and indeed many historical balance rails are made from oak, beech, walnut or chestnut (only the Ruckers made the
whole key frame, including the balance rail, from their main material poplar). If you can
find a straight, old and dry piece of one of these species, you can use it for the balance
rail. As already mentioned wood splits easiest radially, and expands or contracts least in
that direction, so the balance rail should be made of a quartered piece of wood, i.e. with
vertical annual rings. So the splitting direction is at right angles to the pins (which could
wedge the wood apart), and the widest section will expand least. The same applies for

the rear part of the frame, if the guides are here. When using front guides, the rear frame
can be made from softwood.
Unfortunately, even the finest piece of wood can twist or warp unexpectedly. If this happens to the balance rail, you can burn the whole keyboard, if you do not want to perform
the extremely complicated act of exactly fitting and drilling a new rail. To prevent any
such thing, the balance rail is better made in three layers. The middle layer, and at the
same time the thickest one, is made from conifer (pine, spruce, Oregon pine or the like;
straight grown conifer wood does not warp or twist as readily). On top and below, one
glues each one layer of 6 to l O m m quartered hard wood. Safest, both layers are cut from
one piece and mounted in the same direction. In this way a possible tendency of the wood
to shrink or expand lengthwise is neutralized and the piece stays straight. A pianobuilder's manual from the 19th century raves that the bending strength of such a construction is even greater than with a hardwood piece of the same dimensions. I do not
know if this is correct, but it is certainly not much less; the principle resembles the double
t-beam or airplane structures, where the middle part is made lighter. One should consult
specialist books on wood about the bending strengths of the various species. For instance, it is interesting that beech has a higher bending strength than oak, and that limewood (ideal wood for keys, especially in clavichords) has a high bending strength compared to its weight.
Now the balance rail and the rear guide rail must be connected to a complete frame. How
this is done exactly is not important, only the result must be really stable. Historically,
the parts were usually tenoned or they just overlapped in one cut-out step. If there is no
space for frame parts to the right and left of the keyboard, one of these joints is necessary. In this case, they must lie under the keys. To fit the balance rail into the sides of the
frame, an easier, but stable method is this: I clamp the prepared balance rail and one of
the sides in their exact position onto my workbench and drill three holes for 8 to l O m m
dowels from the outside through the frame. The same is done at the other side. Now I can
join the parts just by using dowels (one should not forget to size the end grain with glue).
I usually cut a step into the rear ends of side parts to fit the rear part, by using screws
from below. The upper manual for two manual instruments can be mounted on a board,
on which a rod (ideally from the same board) is mounted at the right place. This principle can be found in Ruckers, Kirkman and Shudi harpsichords. I keep this board straight
by attaching it to side rods with a dovetail groove, but no glue. To both sides of the balance rail, a screw fixes each of these side parts to the board, so it can expand or contract,
but is kept in the right place nevertheless. The frame of the upper manual (that is in this
case, the two side parts) should lie on top of the lower frame. This is not always the case
in historical instruments, but very useful, especially if the keyboard is to be 'hooked on'
as I will describe further below. The top edges of the balance rail should be chamfered
to let the keys move freely. Historical balance rails were often tapered at the rear edge,
to give space for the naturals, whereas the sharps were undercut not to collide with the
front edge of the rail. It is unimportant, which of these solutions is chosen.

Key panel
The key panel is a board as long and wide as the entire keyboard. Naturally, the grain
runs in the direction of the keys, so the board becomes wider than long, and has the key's

thickness. Generally, limewood is the most frequent choice for the keys, but spruce or
pine are used as well. As expected, the Ruckers used poplar, and in Italy cypress, beech,
oak or chestnut can be found. When using conifers, the board should be flat-grained.
Otherwise the holes cannot be drilled precisely: the drill would be diverted by the hard
annual rings. Pine should be not too resinous, or some keys could later stick to the pins.
It is not easy to recommend any particular wood. Limewood has, apart from its stability,
the advantage of not rattling. Hardwood is difficult to work, and tends to rattle. I would
never use beech, because it sometimes changes very much. Possibly, the beech in Italy
has other characteristics, or there would be no reason for its frequent use. Important anyhow is to use faultless straight grown wood.
The key panel is assembled from as many as necessary, but as few planks as possible.
The joining must be done with great precision, and the adjacent planks should, if possible, be equally hard and run in the same direction. When the panel is later sawn into separate keys, it is unlikely, that a cut lies exactly on a joint. So there will always be a few
keys which consist of two joined halves. If these are dissimilar in quality, they might
twist spontaneously or later on.

The next working step is marking the keys. First, four lines are drawn perpendicular to
the keys:



About 30mm from the front edge, i.e. approximately where the front plates end,
and where the sharps begin. When using separate plates for the front plates (for
instance when using bone or ivory), this line must be exact already at this stage.
In this case, you must decide now, how long these plates will extend beyond the
front edge, or more precisely, how you want to make the key fronts. Turned key
fronts take up more space than embossed parchment - a painted front needs no
extra space at all.
A line about 5 to 10mm behind the back edge of the back plates.
Two lines on top of the balance rail; the pins for the sharps lie 15 to 20mm
behind those for the naturals.
A line which lies just in front of the (seen from the player) front register guide.

The next step is marking all naturals and sharps in the section between the front edge
and the second of these lines.
I recommend making a keyboard ruler. For this, you take a hardwood rod of at least
2Ox20mm diameter, on which you mark the key positions for five octaves F, - f"'. Before
this, you have to decide which octave span you will use. The easiest way is to determine
the span of three octaves, the so-called StichmaJ, a term created by Friedrich Ernst. The
three-octave span has been internationally accepted; it is large enough to measure with
required exactness, eliminating local inconsistencies, and small enough to measure instruments with a very small compass. Representative three-octave spans are 47 or 47.5 cm
in German or French harpsichords, via 49 or 50cm in many Italian ones to about 51 in
some historical organs, and in such harpsichords, which obviously are influenced by organ standards. This is for instance the case in the Conrad Fleischer harpsichord from 1716
(Hamburg). The modern piano, as well as original Ruckers keyboards, have a three-octave

span of 50cm; modern harpsichords vary generally between 47 and 48cm. The width of
5 octaves can now easily be derived from your favourite Stichmass.

of the rod (at least 81 cm) into 36

sections, which represent the naturals. The groups of three and four
keys, i.e. from c-e and from f-b are
defined. The groups of three are, at
the remote edge of the rod, divided
regularly in five; the groups of four
Italian! German, French
are divided in seven. The resulting
individual sections of the groups
three (now five) are somewhat
wider than those of the groups of
four (now seven). It is your choice
whether you leave it at that (as in
the modern piano), or if you make
the d-key wider, like in Italian,
French and German harpsichords,
or the c and e keys, like in Ruckers
instruments. Now you can draw all
the keys clearly on the rod. I recomA = c a . 12,7mm B=ca. 16,5mm C = c a . l 5 m m
mend painting the positions of the
the cut is reduced from the sharps
sharps black, to avoid mistakes later on. The division at the rear end of the keyboard, i.e. the one apparent in the division of
the register guides, can be marked on another edge of the rod. This is done by dividing the
whole length minus 12mm (because the highest key f"' is 12mm wider) into 61 even parts.
This keyboard ruler is fixed with small nails at the front of the key panel, and the keyboard is drawn until the second transverse line, using a large right angle. Now the ruler
can be removed.
If you are working from an exact drawing, you can now mark the division at the key
ends, using the ruler. Safer and more convenient is the following method: the key panel
is fixed with a few nails on the key frame, and this is placed in its exact position inside
the instrument. Now, using a pointed piece of wood the size of a jack, the position of
some jacks (a few to the right, in the middle and to the left) is marked. Now one can draw
on all the key positions with the spare register guide - of course the marks represent the
middle line of the keys; the cuts must lie between these. At exact right angles to the front
edge, the resulting marks for the cuts are drawn from the key ends to the fourth transverse line on the key panel. From here, the front division and the division of the key ends
are connected by straight lines. Because the front and back division is not entirely identical, some keys will not be completely straight.

Choosing the guides

Before drilling the holes for the balance pins, the location of the guide pins needs to be
chosen. Front guides are simply drilled through the key panel into the front frame, just

as later the balance pins into the balance rail. If the keys are guided at their tails, for the
upper manual the same technique is used. Here, the guide pins are located a few centimetres before the end of the key. The rear ends of the upper keys need to be free, and
to extend a bit over the frame to accommodate the coupler mechanism. The holes for the
guide pins need later to be enlarged into slots, which guide the pins along their sides, but
have a bit of space both in front and back. A similar principle applies to front guide holes.
This sideways guide should be 3-4mm high, and the sides need to be convex, or the key
gets wedged at the slightest twist. When front guides are used, the contact surface of the
guide slots should lie at the key bottom; a rear guide in the upper manual could be constructed in the same manner, but this is not necessaly since the pins may be as long as to
protrude over the top of the keys.

front guides

rear guides

I will give two historical principles for the rear guides of the lower manual. These should
suffice to derive other possibilities or combinations. The most common method uses wire
bits or whalebone pieces, which are guided in vertical slits in a rail behind the keyboard.
Whalebone now is protected, but horn, like cow horn, works as well. The slits often are
undercut, to prevent wedging, and to reduce friction. Pieces of wire as guides are historically correct, but technically unsatisfying, as the guide slit's edges are end grain, which
produces more noise and friction together with a thin pin than with a rounded horn plate.
Friction can further be reduced by applying graphite or - modern but effective - Teflon.
The second manner to make rear guides is with vertical pins mounted in the rear frame.
Of course it is easier to place the guide pins between the keys, but this works really quite
poorly: in dry weather such guides rattle, and in damp conditions they get stuck. Also, a
single twisted key cannot be corrected easily. On the completely marked key panel I cut
2.5mm wide slits into the key ends instead.
Now the key panel is attached with three thin nails to the balance rail. The order of the
next two steps is unimportant. I will first describe the marking of the rear guides. For the
variant with vertical guide pins - my previous second example - I insert a well-sharpened (but centred) 2.5rnm pin into the slits at the rear end of the key panel to mark the
exact position of the pins on the back frame. In my first example, flat horn guides (or
wire), either the position of the slit on the guide rail behind the keys needs to be marked
on the key ends, or reversed, the exactly marked middle of each key must be transferred
to the rail, before the slits are cut. The first method should be preferred, since cutting individual slits is more likely to lead to inaccuracy than the marking.

Now the holes for the balance pins are drilled through the key panel into the balance rail.
As unimportant as the order of these steps is, it is all the more important to do both in succession. In no case should an interval of a few days be made: the panel could change in
the meantime. For the same reason, marking and drilling should also be made soon after
In piano factories, a special keyboard setting machine is used for the drilling, and for further work, like widening the holes. As said before, even a hand drill will do perfectly. The
depth of the holes can be adjusted by putting a piece of cork or the like on the drill. The
drill should be about a tenth of a rnillimetre thinner than the pins. For the guide pins of
the lower manual, 2.5mm is useful, for the balance pins and the back guides of the upper manual they should be not thinner than 2mm and not thicker than 2.5mm. Because
you drill simultaneously into the key and the balance rail, small divergences can be tolerated, as they occur in both parts. Even in an extreme case of irregularity (which you
should perhaps better try to avoid), the keys will later lie on their exact position and the
octave span is correct.

Keyplates for the naturals

Sometimes, the keyplates are glued on after cutting the keys, but I find this inconvenient,
because their position is easier controlled on a board than on single keys. If one uses individual plates from bone or ivory (historical descriptions suggest, that even ebony plates
were cut separately), these can best be orientated with their back edge against a fixed
(clamped) long steel ruler, and glued on, either one by one, or a few at a time. Laterally,
they can be secured with pins or small nails to prevent shifting. Later, the back plates are
glued exactly against the fronts (which means, that the edges where front and back plates
meet need to be straight and rectangular).
For wooden keyplates, the easiest way is to use larger plates of wood. These are 2.5 or
3 mm thick, and are cut exactly as long as the keyplates will be. 'Long' means, in the direction of the grain - and the keys; about 11-13cm. These plates - leaving them as wide
as possible - are cut exactly rectangular, and in a manner to fit a certain number of keys
exactly. The gaps between the different plates must correspond with the gap between two
naturals. To glue all the planks in place disregarding the joints between, and either replacing joints on top of a key, or even leaving them like they are, is perhaps more convenient, but less aesthetic - especially when using species of wood with a lively grain
(like olive wood). It is easier to place the joints so they are covered by a sharp later, because the visible part is only 36-40mm long. The long joints between b and c or e and f
are more difficult to make exact. Also here, the gluing goes easiest against a fixed ruler,
and with pins to secure against lateral slip.
After drying, the front edge (which should already be quite precise) is cut exactly straight.
Also, the surface of the covering is smoothened with a cabinet scraper and sanded very
finely. In the case of a continuous covering, like my last description, the key division
needs to be marked on top of the plates again. First one scores the line that divides the
front and back plates, if you like, with two or three decorative lines like in historical instruments. Then, using the key ruler and a right angle, one scores the individual keys. It is
important, that the key panel has the same size now as it had during the drilling. This is
the case if the nails of the keyboard ruler fit in the holes they left behind in the key fronts.

Cutting the keys

If you chose a moulding for the key fronts, like many English harpsichords had, or just
a plain hardwood front, the best way is to glue this on as a whole strip of wood. It is important to carry out this end-grain gluing with considerable care, and to saw up the keyboard immediately afterwards, because the least change in the panel might cause the strip
to detach. Before cutting the keys, however, you should number them, or at least make a
diagonal line across the panel, or you will have much trouble to sort out the heap of keys
later on. It is easiest to cut off the octaves first, and these are divided in c-e and f-b sections. From the back up to the keyplates, you can take a fine band saw, from the fronts
the circular saw, fitted with a well-sharpened fine-cutting blade. Thus, the surfaces between
the naturals will already be quite smooth. If you do not have any of these machines, a
handsaw will do, even if this involves more labour and some skill to make vertical, clean
cuts. The French harpsichord builders of the 18th century used fine saws, which had been
made from clock springs. Dom Bedos2 describes a machine to saw the keyboards ("as
many workers have trouble to saw exactly vertically"). This consists of a frame and a
table similar to a band saw, only instead of the band, a saw blade on a slide runs vertically through the table. The cutting is done by treading a foot pedal, a spring pulls the
saw back.
After obtaining the key groups of five or seven, the remaining cuts between the sharps
are made, up to just before the first decorative score between front and back plates. The
fronts of the sharps are sawn off using a fretsaw; the cut does not quite touch the score.
Historically, this part was chiselled out and not sawn. However, this leaves the key levers
of the sharps slightly shorter than their glued-on block; the fingers of the player can touch
the edge, which is not a pleasant feeling. The last step is to separate the remaining groups
of the naturals.

For the following steps, the order is not fixed. The blocks covering the sharps need to be
made, and glued on. These are mostly slightly narrower on top than below, and in front
slightly higher than the back. However, there are exactly rectangular historical sharps, and
anyway so many variants (like in the length of the front plates), that I will not give any
measurements. If you choose to remove the key covering under these blocks - or if you
used separate key plates for each natural - these blocks need to be higher, than if you (more
conveniently) glue them on top of the covering. The gap between the front plates of the
naturals and the blocks of the sharps needs to be made wide enough to avoid any collision.
The front plates need also to be rounded until the first transverse score; this can be done
using files, a cabinet scraper, and fine sandpaper. The lowest and the highest key sometimes
are only rounded at the keyboard side. Even the front edge and the corners should be rounded somewhat, because any sharp edges are inconvenient for the player. Wooden plates, and
eventual fronts are oiled with linseed oil, and later polished (for instance with Tripoli or
Viennese Chalk). Be careful when oiling the key fronts of a bone-plated keyboard. The
bone has been thoroughly degreased, and it becomes unsightly stained when oil is spilled.
Now the holes for the balance pins must be widened, so they can rock freely. We need an
exact hole at the key bottom, but on top of the key a slit, which has the pins width, and

simultaneously allows for it's moving lengthwise. This extension towards the top of the
key, but only lengthwise seems difficult; to be sure, it would be difficult to make using
chisels and other cutting tools. There is a simple trick to avoid this problem: the wood
can be pressed lengthwise out of the slit. This is a more professional and durable solution than it may look like.
So we need a tool, which has the shape of the intended hole: below it should be round as
the pin, and above it should look like the slit, i.e. triangular in profile, and seen from the
front just as wide as the balance pin is thick. This tool doesn't have to be hardened, so a
thick nail, beaten flat and filed to the required shape is good enough. The triangle should
be somewhat longer than the key's thickness, and accordingly on top, slightly wider than
the intended slit. Its edge should be sharp (but not the point that fits into the key bottom);
seen from the front, it should not be thicker on top than below (better the contrary), in
order to prevent the key from splitting. This tool has to be pressed from above into the
hole; exactly vertically, and in the intended lengthwise direction of the key movement.
The rounded point guides it safely through the hole. Either you hammer it into the key which must be done on top of a hard surface, to avoid pressing the tool too deep. Perhaps
it is easier to fit the tool into the drill in its stand (remove the plug to avoid unintentional
switching on), adjust the stopper to the precise depth and press it down with the handle.

You can remove the tool with a slight rocking lengthwise movement. This method produces a very clean lengthwise-widened hole, and a neat, round key bottom. Remarkably,
even hard wood like chestnut presents no problem here. Before placing the key on the
pin in the balance rail, it might be necessary to insert a pin of the same thickness into the
key, and to rock it a few times vigorously. Apparently, most historical keyboards were
made using a similar technique.
On a few old keyboards, the keys have the balance holes extended below and are guided on top. This is impractical for several reasons. First of all, the friction is increased by
the key rubbing lengthwise along the balance rail. Second, the lateral orientation of the
key now is determined not by the drilled holes in the key bottom, but by the orientation
of the ends of the balance pins. The apparent advantage of a possible fine-adjustment of

the key position by bending the pins is balanced out by the fact that this work now has to
be done in every single case. Also the result can easily be disturbed by mechanical factors.
The only apparent advantage, that the friction between the keys and the jacks is reduced
because of the high turning point of the keys, does not compensate for these drawbacks.
The next few steps need no special instruction. The guide holes need to be widened, or
the rear guides adjusted. The fork ends of the keys should be rounded so that the keys
keep moving freely, even if they should get slightly twisted. The same applies to the
plate-slit principle. Let me describe a curious example to avoid: the mentioned Carl
Conrad Fleischer harpsichord from 1716 has funnel shaped balance-pin holes. To prevent
the keys from rocking sideways, the wooden rear guide plates were made especially
wide. One can imagine how this keyboard combines all the characteristics one likes to
avoid: the plates never stabilize the keys sufficiently to prevent their rocking and rattling,
and they get wedged in spite of their loose feel. Around 1900, a restorer, who was not
afraid of really horrible changes, did in this case the only right thing: he screwed small
brackets with slits on top of the keys.
This brings me to the modern use of brackets; if you use brackets, these should not be
the customary 3.5mm piano brackets with a cloth bushing. The bushing increases the
friction so much, that the keys have to be filled with lead to work at all. The touch of
such a "historical" instrument can be imagined.
After hammering in all the pins, and after fitting balance rail washers, and a strip of cloth
on top of the back frame, the keys are put in place and adjusted to move freely. This is a
laborious and time-consuming task, which additionally requires full concentration. Even
on bought factory-made keyboards, you need to do this work. The keys have to move
easily, without rattling. To achieve this, all the holes, slits and plates etc. must be widened
and smoothened until each individual key functions in the desired manner. It is important to leave the key bottom as narrow as possible.

Adjustment, placing
Now the keys need to be balanced. This is generally done by undercutting. For instance,
the wider d-keys are relatively too heavy in front and must be made lighter. Lead weights
in the keys increase the mass inertia and have a bad name amongst organologists; indeed,
they should only be used as a last resource, and as little as possible.
Balancing can be combined with smoothing the key sides. This might not be strictly necessary, as the sides are normally hidden inside the harpsichord. But usually, the cut is
rather thin, and it is advisable to widen them somewhat to prevent any inadvertent friction (if you plan a transposing keyboard, do not widen the cuts where the jacks stand!).
Also, even after carefully choosing the key panel wood, some keys will get twisted anyway, which can be compensated by smoothening. And finally, the balance can be regulated in one working step: some key lever sides (for instance Christian Zell) are heavily undercut at the rear, that is, narrower at their lower edge than above, to make them lighter.
A slightly convex violinmaker's plane of about 50mm length is ideal for this work.
Apart from personal taste regarding the touchweight, the decision, whether the keys should
fall back or be in exact balance, is dependent on the number and the weight of the jacks.
My keys usually just tip backwards. In a Kirkrnan harpsichord, I found a pronounced

overweight to the front, which partly was achieved with the help of lead weights, to compensate for the heavy English jacks.
Now the keys must be adjusted. This is easiest done after the keys move easily and are
properly balanced. If the keys are balanced so they do not fall back, the key ends must
be weighted accordingly. The following techniques are employed when adjusting a
keyboard: tipped keys can be straightened by bending the balance pins. Keys that are not
level with their neighbours are made level through placing paper or cardboard washers
under the balance rail washers. If a key lies too high, one can carefully remove some
wood where they touch the balance rail. But first one has to check, if not just a wood
shaving or something else props up the washer. Finally, lateral deviations are corrected
by bending the guide pins, or - somewhat more complicated - by replacing the guide
plates. The adjustment of a keyboard may need some fine-tuning after a few weeks.
In many old harpsichords, the key dip is determined by the jackrail; others have a rail fitted with thick cloth above the key ends. I prefer the latter solution, because this rail can
be made thicker than most jackrails, it can be attached in the middle, and not only at its
ends, and thicker cloth can be applied, to damp action noise. The jacks now need neither
survive the temperamental outbursts of a player nor any amateurish hacking. Also now the
harpsichord can be played without a jackrail, which might seem pointless, but is a great
help when voicing. A front-guide keyboard is stopped with a strip of cloth under the key
fronts or with thick washers on the guide pins. The touch is stiffer and less flexible, which
needs to be so to prevent the guide pins knocking against the keyplates from below.
I also should mention the 'carpets' of cloth under the jacks, which should be soft enough
to avoid noise and hard enough to make the touch direct and precise. Make your choice
from the rich range of products available at suppliers of piano parts. Woven fabric is to
be preferred to felt, as it tends less to knocking when exposed to harder blows and does
not compress as easily after some use. In historical harpsichords, these 'carpets' often are
attached only at their ends. In the middle, one can insert something to compensate for a
too short jack. In a transposing keyboard this method is not suitable.
The coupler for the second keyboard consists often of vertical pieces of wood, which
stand on the lower key ends, and are engaged, when the upper manual is shifted backwards. Even between the couplers and the upper key ends, there needs to be a cloth layer to which the same applies as to the mentioned 'carpets'. I replace the traditional couplers by a combination of capstan screws from the upper manual downwards, and blocks
of wood with a cloth layer on top, which stand on the lower key ends. I put the capstan
screws into the upper keys, because they only bear one set of short jacks and hence need
extra weights anyway. They are not meant to be a regulating help for my customers, only
a convenience for myself; they certainly are not necessary. Couplers, which are engaged
by stop levers and intermediate levers are often prone to malfunctioning, heavy going
and use up much space. The same applies to couplers, which allow for coupling while a
key is depressed. The moving coupler flips back on releasing that key, usually with a loud
click. A usual coupler without additional gadgets is generally safest - every harpsichordist should know that it is impossible to shift back the upper manual when keys are
depressed on the lower.
Another coupler design was customary in middle Germany: here the jacks of the upper
manual are doglegged, a step resting on the upper manual and the dogleg on the lower.

On the lower keyboard, blocks are mounted that engage the upper jacks if the lower keyboard is shifted backwards (even here no keys may be depressed while shifting). With
this method, only the upper jacks move and not the keys, which is - regarding the reduced mass - an advantage. All couplers share the fact that the upper manual is coupled
to the lower, and not vice versa, so it always remains playable alone. To join both manuals completely fixed would be technically difficult and musically meaningless.
The key frame is best screwed in from below through the bottom. If the harpsichord is
not to be moved later on, this is not strictly necessary, but who wants to exclude this option?
There remains the trick with the hooked on keyboard: a harpsichord made from massive
wood can during the summer, in damp conditions, easily be a few millimetres higher than
during the winter. But the standing grain of the jacks remains almost the same. So the
distance to the plucking point changes with the weather. From this point of view, the
screws, often found under the jacks, are indispensable. But they are awkward to use, and
in practice they often lead to problems, as any accessible regulation aids have a magical
effect on most owners, leading them to regulate all the time - often in the wrong direction. If instead one connects the key frame at the rear with the upper edge of the bellyrail,
the distance between both parts remains the same, how much the case should expand or
shrink. Now the jacks can be cut to a final functioning length. The only thing to consider is a small margin for the cloth layers, which will compress slightly after some use. The
length of the hooks for a two manual keyboard should be somewhere in the middle between the lower and upper keyboard, so that the seasonal variation is reduced to a level
which makes regulating superfluous.
For hooking on the keyboard I use flat rectangular hooks of aluminium (2Ox3mm),
which I screw a few centimetres under the soundboard level into the bellyrail. The key
frame rests on both sides on these hooks. Under these hooks, about 3 mm of space should
be left, to avoid their bumping on to the bottom during a dry period, losing their function, or even getting bent. At the front, the key frame can be fixed with a screw at each
side, which is not fastened excessively.
If you want to make the keyboard transposing (a half tone), that is, shift the keys under
the jacks, the front attachment must allow for lateral movement. I guide my key frames
on two metal pins of about 6mm thickness, which fit into corresponding holes in the
sides of the key frame. These pins are fixed in wooden blocks, which are attached to the
bottom under the keyboard.
A shifting keyboard works well even with wooden jacks without capstan screws or otherwise widened ends, if one observes these points:



The space between the keys should not be too wide, and especially: the 'carpets'
must be neatly cut, and in contrast to many historical examples, they must be
glued on over their entire surface.
The lower ends of the jacks must be straight, smooth, and their edges somewhat

Whatever the keyboard position, on one of the sides a jack will not be supported by a
key. It is better not to expect one's customers to remember removing these before shifting

the keyboard. One of the following arrangements helps preventing the end jacks from
sliding down into the instrument. One glues two pieces of leather on both sides of the
jacks to keep them in their position above the register guide, or, on both sides, one prepares two surfaces on the key frame, level with the key ends and fitted with a similar bit
of cloth, to support the end jacks.

Key plate materials

Finally I will give a little inspiration for the key plating material. Like many of my colleagues, I find plastic unacceptable. Of course, ivory cannot be used any more, like tortoiseshell, which was used by the Hamburg harpsichord makers of the 18th century.
Plastic is not the only alternative to ivory. Ivory can be replaced by beef bones, there is
enough of these, and they have some advantages over ivory: bone is harder, more resistant to wearing out and it does not go yellow (if one does not oil it). During the 18th century, bone was therefore even preferred to ivory.
Snakewood appears remotely similar to tortoiseshell, but one should use for this only
scrap bits, which are useless otherwise: snakewood (piratinera guianensis) has become
very scarce, and for makers of historical bows it is irreplaceable. We do not want to waste
a material that is valuable for our colleagues. The same applies to true boxwood (buxus
sempewirens). Good, faultless boxwood is irreplaceable for woodwind builders, and it is
difficult to obtain. To cut this wood into thin keyplates will cause a woodwind builder to
cringe, as we do when we see, that wide boards of the finest, faultless, fine-grained soundboard wood are fragmented into moulded decorative bits, so that people can decorate their
rustic house bar.
There are pieces of boxwood, which are too faulty for use in woodwind instruments.
Even if it is an extra effort, this is the material that should be used for keyplates. Many
years ago, I bought some "Thai boxwood, which turned out to be less suited for woodwind instruments (for which I intended to use it). As far as I know, it is not related to
buxus sempewirens, even if it shares its hardness, density, colour and structure. Only it
is more brittle, which may be a problem in woodwind instruments, but not on keyboards.
Zapatero, which is sold as a boxwood substitute, is somewhat too soft for keyboards, and
it soils easily. The same applies to plum wood (prunus domestica), although it has sometimes been used for covering naturals in the 17th and 18th century. Generally, all species
that are too soft and too delicate to be used unvarnished, (i.e. only oiled and polished)
should be avoided. For instance I have seen naturals from walnut (juglans regia) in a
harpsichord, and sharps from maple (acer) in an organ. Such species need to be carefully sealed, which results, in spite of the optical impression, in a plastic touch. But at some
point, the sealing layer is worn off, and the remaining key looks horrible and feels even
worse. Some of the medium brown species are very hard and smooth. One was used in
Italy: olive wood (olea e~ropeana)~,
which has no lustre, but a beautiful, vivid grain.
Apart from the usual key plates from various ebony variants or from African blackwood,
some other tropical species, which sometimes appear in the trade, are very useful.
Muteneye (guibourtia arnoldiana) for instance is a coffee-brown, glossy and very decorative wood, which fits well as covering for naturals (to sharps either black or white) or
for the sharps (to white naturals). Muhuhu (brachylaena hutchinsii) is a smooth, dense
wood, which is used for parquet floors. I could not yet get hold of it, but it seems suitable.

On floors it looks very stable, wear-resistant and smooth. Try it if you can find it. Cut off
small pieces, polish and oil them and put them into your pockets, and handle them for
some time. This is a good test for the practice. In this way, you will also soon discover,
that some beautiful species unfortunately leave stains. Cocobolo (dalbergia retusa) for
instance, a toxic wood (and therefore only conditionally useful for wind instruments)
stains the fingers, and after some time, the neighbouring contrasting keys. Also Coralle
(trade name), a related but nicer wood, makes stains. Someone told me the same about
Rio jacaranda (dalbergia nigra) although I did not notice it; obviously individual factors,
like hand sweat, have an influence. Many tropical species are listed as endangered; these
lists are constantly updated. One should consult the wood supplier.
For the sharps, laburnum (laburnum vulgare) works fine. It is hard, and at first light
brown and very decorative, later it becomes an agreeable dark brown. If it is fumed (i.e.
exposed to ammoniac fumes), it turns darker and darker until almost black, which is less
attractive than the natural brown. For the naturals it is less suited, because it is fine
grained but ring porous which somewhat disturbs the surface. All Ruckers workshops
made their instruments with a combination of bone naturals and bog oak sharps. Here,
flat sawn wood must be used, so that the rough surfaces of the medullary rays, which in
oak (quercus) are big and clearly visible, lie on the sides of the blocks. Bog oak is the
wood of fossilized oak, of a colour ranging from brown to black, depending on its age.
Its structure can be anything from close to fresh oak to a brown coal-like brittleness. On
digging out, the logs are soaked with water and dry rather rapidly. During this process,
the wood shrinks substantially, and cracks. The best way to prevent this is to divide the
freshly found trunk in small sections as soon as possible. I do not know about all the
places where this material can be found, but they are not restricted to moors alone. Where
I live, many trunks lie hidden under the meadows. After lowering the ground water level,
the soil often sinks a little and the trunks appear on the surface, much to the annoyance
of the farmers, who's machines get jammed in the wood. The bog oak commonly used
in carpentry and in marquetry is industrially blackened fresh oak veneer - using iron salts
and imitating chemically the century-long process of its blackening through the iron in
the ground water. From fossilized oak, no veneer can be cut, and pieces of larger dimensions cannot be used.


Clavichords usually have built in balance rails and rear guides, and no keyboard frame.
Bedos de Celles, Dom Franqois 1766-1778. L'Art du facteur d'orgues, German translation, ed. Richard Rensch
(Lauffen: 1976).
For instance in a harpsichord by Francesco Nobili 1690.




he wrestplank is a hardwood plank, into which the tuning pins fit, so they can be
turned, yet sit tightly. The most used wood species are beech, oak and walnut.
Apart from this, especially stable maple, like some American varieties, can be
used, and I also found hornbeam mentioned in the catalogue of a collection1.Hornbeam
is not related to the beech but to the birch. A straight, quartered piece from a big trunk
may be suitable, if it has been allowed to dry for a long time, even though hornbeam
shrinks and expands much in changing humidity. It is hard and the tuning pins sit tightly; nevertheless it has a high bending strength. Of all these species, oak has the least
bending strength, and American oak tends to split. How important the latter is, can be
seen in many English harpsichords and fortepianos of the late 18th century: on most of
these instruments, the straight line of the tuning pins has wedged the wrestplanks apart
in spite of the thick top layer of maple cross grain veneer. So one can directly conclude,
in which English instruments American oak was used. Oak wrestplanks should be combined with rustproof tuning pins, since the tannin afflicts iron.
Otherwise, this can only be amended by putting chalk or lye into the wrestpin holes.
Beech has sometimes a tendency to change much with the humidity, and steamed beech
occasionally is very soft. In Italy, walnut was used fairly often for wrestplanks. This is a
good choice as walnut has a great bending strength and a low tendency to split; but it
should be used quartered as well. The flat-grain original Italian wrestplanks do not seem
very functional to me. Walnut holds the tuning pin tightly, yet it can be turned quite easily, which facilitates the tuning. In a Viennese fortepiano from the late 18th century, I
found a wrestplank from service tree (sorbus torminalis). This was no success: the holes
were considerably widened, and the old wood so rigid, that it was quite a task to re-string
the instrument.
Usually, the wrestplank is veneered across the grain on top; in Flemish and French instruments usually with quartered spruce. This looks like if the soundboard extends to the
nameboard. But maple, walnut or pear veneer of about 3 mm thickness can also be found.
If only the top is cross-grain veneered, the wrestplank can become convex when drying.
So it is better to add a lower cross-grain layer as well; the French did this using lOmm
poplar or limewood. It is advisable to plane about 4mm off the middle of the wrestplank
back edge, where the registers are positioned, to prevent the registers from jamming,
should the plank bend as a result of the string load. This is especially important, if block
guides are used, and there is no space for gap spacers.
Special ready-glued wrestplanks, a kind of plywood block, do not appeal to me. First of
all, I have doubts about every glue joint which I have not made myself, especially at
structurally important points. Also, I cannot believe that such a block is nearly as bending resistant as a solid piece of hardwood (in modern pianos the iron frame prevents the
block from bending, but in harpsichords and fortepianos the wrestplank resembles a
bridge with fixed ends, so it should be as stable as possible). Finally, the wrestplank does
have some influence on the sound; you can test how much by applying a heavy weight
exactly where the sounding string crosses the bridge.
Gap spacers are useful. At two places, I glue four or five small planks of 3-4mm thickness
into the gap, so that the jacks have room to move in between. They are fitted a little into
the wrestplank, usually their hard end grain also depresses a little into the softer belly rail.


The pressure on the bellyrail is compensated inside the instrument by two braces, which
rest diagonally against the bentside liner, to counteract the string pressure. At their front
ends, these braces go almost to the upper edge of the bellyrail and the soundboard; in the
middle, they are cut out to stay clear of the 4' hitchpin rail. These braces are very effective, and together with a lower bellyrail, which is - in the treble corner - extended upwards to meet the wrest plank block (simultaneously: liner), this prevents the treble corner from bending downward. If the braces run downward to the bottom, as in late English
harpsichords, this seems in contrast to increase the sinking of the corner (which accounts
for the term 'English accent' for this phenomenon). This arrangement is so effective, that
I build it into all my instruments, even - un-historically - into German and Italian ones,
although lighter and subtler than in French instruments.

I keep being careful about the wood indications in such catalogues; often they are wrong. For instance, when the
wood of a case of a Ruckers muselaer is called birch wood. So I don't know if hornbeam is correct.


he slides and guides belong to the parts, which can intimidate a beginner. The necessary precision of the single slots as well as their equal distance gives the impression of great difficulties and much boring labour. Probably for this reason,
there are so many modern designs: slides of metal, plastic or a combination of different
materials. When looking at historical slides, one must admit, that nothing can be improved
with them. Provided they are made with some perfection they work excellently. Their production by hand is not difficult but very laborious and time consuming. With the help of
a few preparations however one can produce them very exactly and rather quickly.
I cut slots into a board wide enough for all slides and guides at the same time. You need
a small very exact circular saw. There may nowhere be any greater tolerance, and the
ruler at the side may not bend. Helpful, but not necessary, is a mortising jig for a circular saw, an instrument to saw tenons or dovetails.
Almost all slides are assembled from two, the box slides of the Christian Zell of 1728
even from four parts. Very rarely one finds slides cut out of one piece of wood. The normal process is to cut the slots into one side of a strip of wood and to glue on a thin stripe
to close them. I will here present my working process including some necessary alterations at my tools, for a time saving alternative.
For cutting the slots I use a circular groove-saw, about 0,5mm thinner than the slots will
be (for instance 3mm for slots of 3,5mm). A saw equipped with hard metal works best.
Hard metal tools, as the saying goes, are never really sharp but also never totally blunt. In
this case this is to be preferred, because any repeated sharpening, which would alter the
dimensions permanently, is avoided. Besides, the blades of these saws are always thinner
than the cutting edge. They do not jam so easily and the shavings have a place to go.
The groove-saw, especially the hard metal equipped one, tends to tear off fibres or even
splinters when leaving the workpiece. This does not happen if the saw blade fits very
closely into the wooden insert in the centre of the saw table. Some circular saws have a
metal insert in the table; these are unsuited for our purpose. It is best to prepare a piece
of hard wood exactly the size of the insert of the saw but without a slot. This must be fitted and secured very carefully in the corresponding openingin the table. The blade must
be lowered completely beneath the table before operation. Now you start the saw and
wind up the running saw very slowly from below into the wood. Caution! You only can
pegorm this incorrect operation if everything is fixed safely. Do not forget the safetygoggles! Incidentally, t h s process only works with a hard metal equipped blade. A regular blade would overheat at once and produce more smoke than shavings; afterwards it
is annealed and spoilt. Now you wind up the blade until it extends about 1 mm further
above the table than your jacks are wide. Take care to stop in time or the whole labour is
lost, and you have to prepare a new insert.
One millimetre is necessary as spare space. If only a little dust collects under the work,
or (which is to be expected) a fine ridge develops at the rim of the grooves, the slides
would be too small without it. 1mm tolerance between the width of the jack and the length
of the slot is the maximum for a safe function.


The mortising jig is a similar device to the traverse-ruler, which runs in a prismatic guide
in the saw table. In contrast the jig is fixed to 90" and the ruler is longer, and has a gap
in the middle for the blade. It also has a small adjustable pin for the equal distance between the slots. If you cannot decide to buy and alter such a jig in the way described below, a longer strip of wood screwed to the ruler, with a gap cut into the middle (for the
saw blade), will do as well. The ruler of the jig must be detached from the prismatic guide
and fixed anew at 70" (left side, 110" at the right; instead of the original 90"). You have
to drill some holes and to rivet the ruler in the new angle. Finally the small guiding pin
must be bent to the same angle and filed, so it fits exactly into the slide slots.
Apart from these preparations at your circular saw, you prepare a board about 2cm thick
and 12-15cm wide (for three registers). This board must be about 20cm longer than the
slides will be. It must be straight-grained and carefully planed. The side to be grooved is
planed with a smoother. A dense, not too hard wood is most suitable: like the wood for
the jacks it should not "sound", that is, tend to rattle later on. You can for instance use
pear. The Ruckers used beech, but I consider it not well suited; it warps more, tends to
fray out and gets hot when cutting it. Of the 'classic' woods for slides, limewood is (besides the above mentioned and the rarely used walnut or maple) also well suited, but only
if it is straight-grained. Of the exotic woods mansonia (mansonia altissima) would be
very well suited, but it smells horribly when worked and irritates the mucous membranes.
If you do not use a mortising jig you must mark all slots at the edge of the board. The
disadvantage is that the distances between the slots can become slightly irregular from
marking and cutting mistakes. On the other hand, if a number of slides are prepared together using this method, the irregularities are identical in all slides and therefore not
very disturbing. However I prefer the jig. The guiding pin is fixed at the desired distance
to the saw-blade (equivalent to the wood remaining between the slots). Then you take
several stripes of scrap wood and try and correct until the distance is exact. This is necessary because - a disadvantage of this method - minute mistakes add up. The distances
between the slots however will be very equal. You should make it a habit to press the object and the guide always in the same direction. So you minimize mistakes, which are the
result of unavoidable tolerances. To be able to sort the separated strips after cutting according to direction and sequence, two V-shaped pencil-marks are made on the not
grooved side. Thus you can later identify the bass- and treble ends and the sequence in
which they have been sawn off from the board. I prefer to take 'neighbours' for the corresponding slides and guides.
For the first cut, a parallel stripe of wood must be cut together with the board, so it rests
flat on the table in front of the guiding pin. Afterwards the pin always runs in the slot previously cut. Be careful that the work piece always rests flat on the table or the slot will
be not deep enough.

With all the concentration never forget where yourfingers are! The running saw comes
free at the back of the work piece after every cut. The best way is to hold the workpiece
onto the guiding rail tightly with both hands right and left, so nothing can tilt and your
hands are safelyfixed farfrom the running saw. Of course you must lift up the workpiece
after each cut and not go back through the running saw.
For slides, which - like in an Italian harpsichord - are not positioned at right angles, the
saw table must be set slightly sloped in the correct angle, so the slots will later run parallel


2 10


to the strings. At the later closed side the slots don't end right-angled. This has no negative effect and can be ignored. As a result you have a board with as many grooves at 70"
as there will be slots in your slides.

Sawing off the slides

Why indeed an angle of 70? Because the slots in the slides must be undercut, there is no
reason not to do this on one side already during the first operation. But there is another
advantage: as you have seen above, minimal mistakes sum up. If you count from one
groove to the next sixty times, a tenth of a rnillimetre sums up to 6mm all over. In case
of such a mistake, during the next process - the sawing off of the strips which will become slides - corrections still are possible: if you now start by cutting off a narrow triangle from the front-edge of your grooved board, instead of cutting strips parallel to the
edge, you can alter the distances and so the whole dimension depending on the cutting
direction with or against the angle.



The alteration of the undercut is so minimal that it can be neglected. Starting from this
new edge - or from the unaltered one, if everything was correct - you cut off strips of
8-10mm thickness with a very fine-toothed and sharp saw-blade; depending on how
thick you want your slides. The ruler must be well fixed and the saw freshly sharpened,
so you can safely cut parallel strips. If no diagonal correction-cut is necessary, you will
get enough slides and guides for six registers - two harpsichords. You should at least
keep one strip more than needed, first as a reserve in case something unforeseen happens
(it is very complicated to make a single slide that fits a whole set exactly). Second, you
need a strip for marking the bridge pins.
Undercutting the other side is more time-consuming, because now each strip has to be
cut separately. You now use the ordinary ruler slide of the saw, set at 70' to the opposite
side, and a fine saw-blade wound exactly as high as the slots are deep. Bear in mind that
on the running saw one can only see the blade but not the cutting edge of the teeth (which
usually also are somewhat set). So approach carefully until you have found the correct


position for the cut. The spare strip must not be undercut; also the surplus ones for the
next instrument can be stored without undercutting. It is also possible to fix a whole bundle together in the correct angle and cut them in one run, but I do not recommend it. The
preparation takes up some of the saved time and the danger of imperfections and mistakes is so obvious, that more time must be invested for corrections and touch up. The
remaining small prismatic pieces of wood can be clipped off between thumb and forefinger and then cleaned with a carving knife.

The next process is gluing strips of the same wood to the slides. It is advisable to go as
far as to make the thin wooden strips to be glued on from the same board and, if possible, even in the same direction. The first measure minimizes the danger of warping; the
latter looks nicer. For the gluing process it is worthwhile to make a device. A straight
piece of wood about 40 x 40mm is prepared with two grooves, in which the slides fit correctly but without jamming. Now two strips are placed (open side up) into the grooves,
glue is spread on their tops, and then a thin, sufficiently wide strip is placed on top of
both, above that a well-planed board, and then everything is clamped carefully.

Spreading the glue must happen quickly and the glue must be ample because it is only
applied to one side. That asks for attention and a steady hand. The combination of
"quick" and "ample" bears the risk of making a mess and dripping glue in places, where
it is difficult to remove later on. And of course the strip must in no case slide to and fro,
or the glue is pushed from the surface into the gaps where it does not belong, whilst the
glue-line becomes too meagre. The easiest way is to make the whole process with the
help of a heated rail, which is set at 60C only after everything has been installed at
leisure. Unfortunately the slides warmed thus on one side tend to bend later on.
After drying, the two slides are sawn apart, the surplus wood is cut flush and finally they
are carefully planed on both sides with a finely adjusted smoother. Special care is necessary on top, because if too much is planed off, the slots become too wide. The lower

2 11

2 12


guides normally are glued together in one piece. Of course they are glued together without an additional strip. Only the remaining open side is closed in addition.

Of course the back of one strip has to be sawn and planed to the exactly identical width
of the intended distance between the rows of slots in the guides. All other widths are cut
at the very last. The surplus glue has to be removed and cut away carefully when dry.
The resulting slides and guides differ from historical models only in some modern tool
traces. Now only a few minor details need attention.
To make the slots exactly equal, you choose a not too fine file exactly as thick as the slots
are intended. There are files 3,5 x 12mm. It is best to grind the cut off the small edge. With
this file you slide carefully at right angles through the slot. Be careful to touch all corners
and not to tilt the file. It has to be a file that fits exactly, which makes no additional manipulations necessary. One even can make ones jacks after an existing file, which is then
kept exclusively for this purpose, a combination of measuring and cutting tool.

Final touch up
The slides and guides are usable now, but I will suggest some more refinements: in most
cases the slots are also cut out in the middle to give room for the movement of the tongue.
This can be done with a small chisel (like early craftsmen did), but also with a 8mm drill
with side cutting edges. For drilling, the slide must be fixed (or held) on a rail-like guide
on the foot of the drill-stand, to keep the centre-line. The centre of the slot is found by a
guiding pin. Best suited is a so-called keyboard-drill, a 8mm side cutting drill, in which
a thin spoon-drill is inserted. The spoon must be replaced with a rounded 3,5mm pin that
fits exactly into the slots and prevents mistakes lengthwise.



You can keep the keyboard-drill for this purpose alone; it is not usable for harpsichord
keyboards anyway. Take care to remove all shavings at once so they do not enter between
slide and working base, or the holes will be drilled in a wrong position.
I discovered a little trick when restoring a Broadwood harpsichord: the slots of the guides
can be cut back in all four corners, so that the jacks are guided only in the middle and at
the narrow sides. In case a jack should twist slightly it will not jam at once.

Before being installed the slides must be cut to the correct width, correspondingly to the
width of the gap between wrest-plank and belly-rail. Together the slides should be at least
1,5rnm narrower than the gap, in the middle even more. If there are no gap-spacers you
should leave at least 4mm extra space; the wrestplank can bend that much under the
stress of the strings (see wrestplank). Jammed slides are not encountered infrequently,
and to correct this mistake is a troublesome job. In two-manual instruments with a shiftcoupler it is suitable to make slides of varying width, so that the rows of slots between
lower and upper manual have a greater distance than those on the lower manual. For this
purpose the back of one slide and the glued on strip of the other have to be wider.


wider 4

Thus more room is created for the movement of the coupler so the upper key-ends do not
come too near the lower guides or even the jacks, or contrarily, when detaching the coupler, the key-ends don't reach far enough under the jacks.

Installation of the slides and guides

During the last process the slides and guides are shortened. This must be done very carefully, and exactly corresponding to the position of the strings. With threads provisionally stretched over the bridge pins, the exact position is marked. For the last fine adjustment I fit a screw (M3 x 16) horizontally into each end of the slides. That allows for final
corrections when inserting the jacks and voicing. This is more exact and easier than a
correction with pieces of wood or cardboard. But afterwards these screws should better
be hidden and forgotten, because screws which can easily be turned, inevitably cry out
to be tinkered with. It is therefore an advantage, that normal M3 screws with cylindrical


heads in this position only can be turned with a pointed pair of pliers. Also they are later
covered up with the fixing plates.
The guides are installed permanently (glued, screwed or nailed as you prefer). The slides
should be supported somehow in the middle; the gap spacers are useful for this. Right
and left they should rest so that their surface is level with the wrestplank and the soundboard. Sometimes they rest under the protruding edge of the soundboard (Ruckers), and
sometimes, small mouldings are glued on top of the soundboard/wrestplank edges and
the slides rest between them about 3 mrn higher than the soundboard.
The limit of the lateral movement must be tried out very exactly. Whether you use screws
as I do or variable adjustment pieces between the end of the slide and the case-sides, is
technically spoken unimportant. Historical slides often have a longish hole through
which a wrestpin is driven.

A very important question is the attachment of the slides at the sides. In some antique
harpsichords they are held down only by the register-levers. They move very easily. It is
a riddle to me how they were supposed to stay in the "on"- position unfixed. During playing, the jacks are pushed permanently away from the strings, or after putting the register
on; the dampers immediately push back the whole slide. This problem is not unknown
with some new instruments, where folded paper, wooden wedges or India-rubbers are inserted as a remedy. In Kirkman harpsichords where this problem arises with the machinestop disengaged, the screw heads of the register levers are formed like wrestpins, so that
they can be tightened with the tuning hammer.
Instead I recommend a pad of leather right and left under the end of the slides and a
leather-padded bar screwed crosswise over it. There are several other solutions in the
same spirit. An elastic layer further down can help to neutralize the alteration with changing humidity understand the problem, and will find a solution.
Everything works best if you feel a certain friction when engaging a register and recognize clearly when you have 'arrived' at either position. Whether this is done directly with
a draw-stop or by a register-lever is unimportant, only the feeling for the completed
movement must always be clear.

General considerations
will discuss in short and subjectively the question whether plastic or wooden jacks
are preferable: I decided to use wooden jacks more than 40 years ago. Plastic jacks
have several disadvantages, which, depending on make or model, can be avoided or
minimized with varying success. Wooden jacks can have disadvantages which can be
avoided with certainty through thinking and little effort: wooden jacks and slides are unreliable, jam or rattle only if they


Are made from wrongly chosen or fresh wood.

Made too exact with too little tolerances.
Contrarily sit too slack, with too much clearance in the slides and guides.
Have wrong dimensions and leverage.

It will be unnecessary to warn explicitly from fresh or crooked wood. But it is also ill
considered to use the wrong kind of wood. Too hard wood rattles (and is often too
heavy), too soft wood in contrast is unfit to keep the axle or the bristle in exactly drilled
holes, and the jacks bend or break easily. Also the dampers can hardly be fastened satisfactorily. Species, which warp a lot, are absolutely unsuited. Boxwood for instance is a
wonderfully smooth and well workable wood, but even 40 years old pieces warp easily
(only for tongues has it been used in English harpsichords). On the other hand, the use
of a wood species, which in the specialist's books is described as low crimping, gives no
guarantee for a perfectly functioning jack. Moderate crimping is sufficient if the wood is
fine and straight grained. But if for instance you try to make jacks from robinia (locust)
because it is low crimping and also otherwise a beautiful and useable wood, you will be
disappointed to find among your prepared jack blanks a number that become twisted like
propeller-blades. The same is the case with some tropic woods: About Iroko it says: "in
greater dimensions a good standing ability", that means: very little warping. But in small
dimensions many wood species, especially those with changing grain - because of the
deviations of the grain - tend to the wildest deformations even if they keep straight in
bigger pieces.
The classic wood species for jacks are service-tree (or other sorbis kinds), pear, beech
and less often maple, walnut or hornbeam. The latter crimps very much on drying, but
straight, well-seasoned pieces are usable. It is better suited for tongues. In German instruments, beech jacks are often combined with hornbeam tongues. Most of the wood
species used for the jacks are too soft for the tongues, and so these are made of harder
wood, mostly holly. In English harpsichords, they sometimes are made of boxwood, but
only in the treble of the main 8' register, and only if the register was originally quilled
with feathers. This, and the little groove at the back at the height of the quill, indicate
whether the register originally was meant for quill, even if big holes were cut later, to accommodate leather plectra. English jacks designed for leather have tongues of holly
throughout and no grooves.
The second reason for possible malfunction: too exactly made and too perfectly fitting
parts. The tongue in the jack - and on the axle - and the jack in the slide all need to have
some loose play. Too exact parts easily jam with changing weather. Too loose parts in

contrast rattle and work inaccurately. In the width the tolerance can be greater; here
0,5mm is a good amount, and even 1mm is still harmless. In the thickness tolerances of
one or two tenths of a millimetre are correct, but three tenths should not be exceeded.
The last point concerns the dimensions and leverage: especially important is the distance
from the axle to the slot for the quill. But also the angle and strength of the bristle and
the length of the groove for the bristle at the back are vital. I do not give exact measurements, although I have made my choice - measurements to which I have grown accustomed. But they are not necessarily the only correct ones. Do measure as many old jacks
as possible and make your own experiments; in this way you will find usable dimensions
especially suited for you. Note that the distance between axle and quill often is smaller
in the 4', which prevents the jacks from hanging on the strings.



Preparing the blanks

The blanks for the jacks can be made in various ways: The boards can be planed down to
the exact thickness of the jacks, if a precise planing machine with slow forward movement
is available. The planed boards then are shortened to the length of the jacks. From these
the jacks are sawn off in their correct width. It is advisable to plane the edge every time
before sawing off the jack. The jack then will be rough from the saw only on one side.

The second possibility: You plane down the boards exactly to the width of the jacks and
go on as above, only you saw off the thickness of the jack now. This is the historical
process, only with a handsaw instead of a circular saw. The blanks are smooth on three
sides; only one is rough and still incorrect. In a planing jig, the fourth side is planed to
its correct size.
This planing jig is simple and easy to make: You plane a piece of wood of at least 3cm
thickness and a length of about 60cm, and 2mm wider than the hand plane you want to
use (best is a panel plane of about 35cm. A bigger one is unwieldy and a smaller one is
not guided as well in the jig). Onto this block of wood, a wooden strip is fixed on each
side. These borders shall be about 1cm higher, to form a rail in which the plane runs. Into
the surface of this jig several grooves are cut (see below); some to accommodate the
jacks exactly flat, others where they fit on their sides. The depth must be cut very exactly; the width may be at most 1,5mm wider than the ready jack. The jacks are put into the
grooves and planed over until no more shavings come off. Pay attention to the direction
of the wood-grain of the jacks, if it runs inwards, the jack is pulled towards the iron, and
it is planed too thin. Also the grooves must always be perfectly free from shavings and
other particles, or the jack lies too high and will be planed too thin.
These grooves are easiest cut with a special circular saw all over and closed afterwards
to the wanted length with strips of wood, which are then planed down level with the jig.
Corrections of the depth can be made with paper.
Historical jacks often are a few tenths of a millimetre thinner and narrower at the bottom
than at the top. This is not necessary, but if you want to imitate it, you can easily use the
jig. In this case, the grooves must be made shallower on one side.
As a last option for preparing the blanks, strips of wood can be routed in a special machine exactly into the dimensions of the jacks.

Slots for the tongues and dampers

The slots for fitting the tongues are easily cut with a special groove circular saw. The
blade must protrude just as far above the table to form a correct angle at the end of the
slot without any further manipulation. A groove saw, equipped with 5mm or 4,5mm
hard-metal teeth, is prepared as described in the chapter "guides and slides". To the side
rail or ruler on the table, a back stopper is fixed. Each jack is shoved into the running
blade against the stopper. In this manner all the slots will be made exactly equally deep.
If you intend to make only one set of jacks you also can work according to the historical
process: the width and depth of the slot are marked (or scored) with a gauge; the depth
differently in front and back. Two exact cuts with a fine hacksaw are made on the scored
The slots for the dampers can be sawn with a fine circular- or band saw or, of course, by
hand. I prefer to close the slots on top or to punch them out of the jack so they remain
closed on top. I do this to prevent the jacks from breaking during the renewal of dampers.
Also the dampers stay better in place. In historical jacks this method is rather uncommon
(but for instance the Ruckers used it). Whether you prefer one or two dampers is your decision; both are historical. Single dampers initiate a flageolet-like aftersound, if the
damper exactly hits a node. In the lower area this phenomenon can be clearly and disturbingly heard. Double dampers in contrast do not only suppress this echo of partials but

also the sympathetic vibrations. These soft echo-effects then get lost. In jacks with only
one damper, the slot for the tongue is not cut in the centre but a little to the side, to have
more wood for the damper-slot at the other.

For drilling the axle-holes it is worthwhile to make a drill-jig, which guarantees the right
position and right angle of the hole. The jig can be made of wood but must be equipped
with two steel-bushings, one above the jack and one in the slot for the tongue. The holes
for the bristle can be drilled freehand1.
The drill for these holes is easily made from 0,6mm steel-wire. It is filed flat at one end,
like a screwdriver, and then sharpened like an ordinary drill. The drilling is best begun
from the sloped surface. Here the position of the hole is most important, and here the position of the hole can first be punched in with a sharp pointed tool. If one holds the jack
in the correct angle against the running drill the punch mark "catches" the drill, which
drills the hole within tolerable limits. Where the drill leaves the wood, one "catches" it
again, and drills at an obtuse angle back through the jack. In English jacks, a lengthwise
small groove of about 1x 2mm and 1mm depth is punched into the back. The first hole
hits the upper end of this groove, and from the lower end, the second is drilled. This is
one manipulation more, but it looks nicer and prevents the bristle from sticking out of the
jack at the bend, and so the danger of sticking in the guide is minimized.

The tongues
The tongues must not only be made from hard, but chiefly from non-fissile wood. An extreme example for the latter: tongues of ebony would splinter already during the production. Holly, the classic wood for tongues, is not easily available and rarely so in bigger pieces (of course the tiny tongues can be made from small pieces, but that is very
laborious and only reasonable for restorations). Easier accessible is hornbeam, one of the
hardest and toughest European woods. The following production method is one possibility with little machinery but certainly not the only one: First you cut thin boards as
large as possible (for easier handling not much longer than l m and as wide as can be
planed). These boards are planed on a planing machine exactly to a thickness of 2,5 mm
(or if you prefer to 3mm at most). Such thin boards are best planed as "hitchhiker" on a
bigger board planed to exact thickness on the same machine. If you own no power-planer, or only have access to a worn out wood-chopping machine from the 1920s at the next
carpenter's, the planing can also be done by hand; you do not need a very large board for
the tongues. From these boards, strips as long as the tongues are sawn off at right angles
(the wider your boards the larger these cross-grain strips will be).

On a circular saw protruding less than lmm you cut a groove exactly where the quill
shall be. Better still is a groove-saw, which - on the slightly sloped table - cuts the little
step at the back in one procedure.

This small step (already mentioned when discussing whether the jacks are meant for quill
or leather) is not absolutely necessary, but it exactly marks the position of the slot for the
quill and it makes it easier to remove broken quills. Next the surface above this step is
chamfered somewhat, to make the tops of the tongues thinner to create enough distance
to the opposite string.

Next the bottom-slope is cut or planed, best in a prepared jig, which determines the angle
for all tongues. The result is a cross-grained strip of wood with the profile of the tongues.

From these strips the tongues can be sawn off. If you take a fine, almost not set sawblade, which only just sticks out of the saw table, possibly the cuts are already clean
enough. The tongues should be 0,5 to maximally 1mm smaller than the slot in the jack;
that much loose play has no disadvantage, it is safer than exactly fitting tongues. It is advisable to chamfer also the sides above the quill (the back is already chamfered)
The groove at the back in which the bristle slides can be cut by hand
with a V-shaped carving tool or a tool for linocut. For a greater
number a fine circular-saw is prepared as follows: with the saw running, you very carefully round the teeth with a grinding stone (never
without safety-goggles!), then you remove the blade and file each of
the rounded teeth sharp in the round shape. To saw the groove you
best make a sledge with a slot for the saw blade and a groove cut
exactly for the tongue.

This sledge can be guided by the side ruler and limited by a stopper (like when making
the slots of the jacks). Without such a sledge the work at the tiny tongues is too inaccurate
and, if you hold them down with your fingers instead of using pieces of wood, highly
dangerous. The axle-holes are drilled like the jacks with the help of a jig with a hardened
steel bushing.
The outwardly most difficult process is the production of the slots for the quill. It seems
most complicated to the professional craftsman striving for precision. Admittedly,
punching the slots simply from back to front with a thin steel punch (easily made from a
knitting-needle or something similar) looks as unserious to an expert as to extend the balance holes of keys with a wedge shaped iron. But still it is the simplest and probably the
only practicable method. Of course even the following is possible: the jacks in the 1728
Christian Zell harpsichord are from about 1900. Into the tongues two tiny holes were
drilled (at first even at a wrong position, which has caused some to rack their brains for
what purpose the holes were drilled). With a very fine fretsaw-cut these holes then were
Now and then a tongue cracks during the punching. The loss is about 1%;if it approaches
the 5% limit, something is wrong with the tool or the working process. For instance, the
tool may at no point be wider than the cutting edge, better even noticeably smaller; otherwise the tongue will split. If too many tongues are breaking, the reason may be a too
blunt angle of the edge, or the tool is altogether blunt or the working base may be wrong.
Hardwood end grain (often renewed) is best suited. With feeling and skill, the slots can
be punched freehand with a little hammer. A more controlled punching is possible using
a drill stand with a stopper; the punching is done by depressing the drill, like when
drilling holes (for safety: pull out the plug!). Finally one can try to copy a contraption
depicted in Diderot, called "Languetoir" (which could be translated "tonguer"), which
probably was designed for punching the slots2.

Helpful is a piece of wood fixed to the drill stand. The punching tool passes a hole in this
piece, and on withdrawing after the punching, the tongue slips off the tool.
About the measurement of the slot (which you best derive from as many historical jacks,
as possible) only this much: Do not punch the slots too high (in original jacks they are
often worn out from frequent re-quilling). If you find out that all slots are too high only
when you start quilling, it is hard to say what to do. In most cases a little water helps, because - like in the balance rail holes - the wood is only pressed to the side. The best way
is to insert a wet quill, which will fit perfectly after drying. If this trick is overdone the
slots will swell and close completely.
To subdue the minute "clack" from the tongue snapping back, a piece of leather can be
glued on the sloped part where the end of the tongue rests. This is not essential; there are
many old jacks without such padding. If you decide to do it, you should choose extremely thin leather (for instance a kind used by bookbinders), because a thicker one is
compressed easily and may change in thickness and elasticity with changing humidity,
thus making the function unreliable. For the same reason textile pads are unsuited, because mostly the material is too thick and soft, or it has no effect at all.

After all the described preparations follows the assembly of the parts. Brass-wire or cloth
pins (0,6mm - 1mm) are suited for the axles. I use 0,7mm tin plated brass pins. Of course
their head, but also the point is cut off. I prefer the historical principle, where the axle
does not go through the whole jack but ends inside the wood at one side. The disadvantage is, that the tongue cannot be removed without breaking it, before pushing out the axle
with a pointed pair of pliers. As advantages I consider that the axle sits tighter, and that in
case of the jack drying down, the axle juts out only on one side. If you correspondingly

drill the axle hole not quite through the jack, this can best be done from the right (seen
from the side of the plectrum) if you are right-handed. The assembly will be much more
comfortable. If the tongue fits perfectly and moves freely, the axle is pinched off and
filed level.
After assembling it might be necessary to adjust the tongue by cutting the bottom slope
till it fits perfectly level in the jack. Now the bristle is pushed from the back (or from the
1x2rnm groove, if you made one) with the thick end through the hole towards the
tongue. Now you check that its springiness is neither too high nor too low (a matter of
experience). Choose a thinner or thicker bristle if necessary. The chosen one you push
further up until you can easily push the thin end with the help of a pair of pliers or tweezers through the second hole. There you take hold of it and pull it so far that the top ends
exactly with the top end of the groove in the tongue. Finally you cut the thin end protruding in front level with the jack surface. With this cut off piece you can usually repeat
the operation with another jack, rarely even a third time.
Finally I glue a thread at the back of the jack (at a point where it disturbs least) to limit
the movement of the tongue to the required minimum for a safe function. There are not
many historical jacks with such a stop-device and if so, these mostly are made from wire.
How the other jacks are supposed to function, is a riddle to me. If the tongue is not limited within the slide instead, which is rarely the case, it will, on releasing the key (or even
already during the plucking), rattle against the neighbouring string. It can even get caught
there. Of course the wide and uncontrolled movement takes more time and hinders the
If you made the key frame supported (see chapter keyboards) you can now shorten the
jacks to the required length. But it is advisable to leave the quill-string distance small until everything is ready, and if possible, the instrument has been played for some time.
First, you have thus the possibility of fine adjusting everything again, and second, the
textile bushings tend to set somewhat, which makes the plucking and the whole key-dip


But also here I use a little drill-jig, which I hold together with the jack in my hand while drilling.
Diderot, Denis 1751-1758. Encyclop6die, picture part P1. XVII, reproduction of the original print.

bout voicing, innumerable instructions and advice have been spread, ranging
from production-compatible strategies from single manufacturers, via the erroneous illusion that by applying a limited repertoire of manipulations a whole instrument can be 'improved', to the timesaving minimal solutions which are typical for
many professional harpsichordists. It would go beyond the scope of this book, should I
try to discuss in detail all these partly contradictory recipes. The conviction of knowing
the only correct trick and to consider everything else wrong is a characteristic shared by
almost all of the circulated recommendations. Of all the propagated and contradicted Dos
and Don'ts of voicing I only can get used to two:


I think that all plectra made noticeably wedge shaped are unfavourable, because
they preserve the rigidity and unreliability of the modern sole-leather plectra.
A wedge shaped plectrum is stiff all over and only gives way at the very tip.
I consider the idea wrong that one could realize one's own notions of tonal
quality through voicing.

One learns from mistakes, and most successfully so, when experimenting freely in trial and error without the limitation of strict advice. If I now nevertheless try to save you
from some mistakes, I do not want to disturb your learning process. But some mistakes
have the tendency to bring about wrong corrections. And these can lead so far into a
wrong direction that one goes hopelessly astray.
To prevent such errors it is advisable to make a survey: what do I want to attain? What
means are at hand? What can be done by these means and what cannot? Especially the
latter spares unnecessary effort and the resulting frustration. It is not possible to realize
ones idea of a particular beautiful harpsichord sound by a specially cut Delrin plectrum.
Everything that can lead to such a result must be present in the instrument itself. During
the voicing, when its yet silent properties are to be wakened, a creative impulse pressing
for action is definitely obstructive, because it comes too late. More promising is to restrict one's own imagination and to listen only to the will of the instrument, to feel how
it wants to be voiced to develop optimally. This is the easier, the more determined the
still hidden qualities of the harpsichord are. With old instruments these qualities are so
obvious, quasi rubbed in by the long use, that voicing a well-restored antique can be a
heartening and enriching experience1.A string-player, who has the privilege to play an
old master-instrument will feel in the same way. And indeed voicing requires part of what
string-instrumentalists do with their bow: the effort of a tone-production as beautiful as
possible, flawless and with carrying power. This will succeed easier when keeping in mind
that the "rigid harpsichord action, contrary to the "dynamic" piano, establishes a direct
contact with the string. But like the best violinist cannot produce a Stradivarius sound
from a cheap box - in spite of all anecdotes - it is impossible to voice a sound 'out of' a
harpsichord that does not have the capacity for it. Unfortunately the reverse is easily done:
as it is possible to bungle and squeak on a Stradivarius, it is possible to voice past the qualities of a harpsichord. A sonorous harpsichord can be reduced to chirping whispers, and
with very little extra effort it is possible to make a brilliant instrument bawl like a tramp's
guitar in the rain. But mostly a warm and vocal sounding instrument is forced through a
hard voicing to clatter and jingle and to produce a lot of noise. A harpsichord is not a loud

instrument and the attempt to make it fit for a big hall by stiff quills is doomed to failure.
Each single harpsichord has its individual limit above which it is impossible to produce a
higher sound volume; merely the level of mechanical noises is amplified. It is advisable
to keep enough safe distance within this limit, amongst other reasons because the current
material for plectra, Delrin, work-hardens with playing.
The well-balanced and coordinated jack dimensions, the leverage, as well as the strength
of the bristle (as mentioned in the chapter "jacks") are equally important as the materials
feather, Delrin, leather and the way they are cut.

According to my taste feather quills are the best material for plectra, not mainly because
they are historical, but above all because, of all materials, they are the easiest to use, in
terms of attaining a powerful, beautiful sound together with an easy touch and general
reliability. Because it is easy and establishes a good standard, I recommend to start voicing
with real quills and to repeat it now and then. Delrin is an acceptable, sometimes unavoidable substitute, which does not equal the model. I will deal with the differences later.
With a quill it is sufficient to put a strip of the correct thickness into the tongue and to
cut it neatly to the required length.

This is made with a sharp woodcarving knife or a knife used by violinmakers2,on a small
wooden block or - historically - on the left thumbnail, holding the jack upside down between thumb and index finger (even though this might be comfortable, it is not advisable
to voice a whole register in this manner). The cut should not run perpendicular from
above but sloping towards the tip. The smooth chamfer from this cut enables the quill to
slide back easier. But the front edge must not be too thin, because it might bend in that
case and unavoidably will hang on the string. Exactly the same applies to Delrin - as
much can be said already here. This sloped cut is - to my knowledge - not historically
recorded, it is just the result of experience. Whether you make the quills (seen from
above) pointed or wide is a matter of taste. In any case it has to be a little narrower at the
tip to make it possible to wedge it into the slot of the tongue at the sides.
Of course it must never be too sharply pointed to prevent the tip from bending to a small
hook, which will hopelessly will on the string (the same happens with a too sharply
pointed Delrin plectrum). The following rule of thumb may serve as a very rough orientation: the more pointed the quill, the sharper the sound. I hope I put this as vaguely as I
want you to understand it. I would prefer to avoid such theorems but it is not always possible. Take this sentence as an encouragement to find out for yourself if this is approximately correct.

With a wide, right-angled cut you also can cause a sharp, harsh sound. The wide quill is
deceptive in this case, because you will hardly succeed to cut it exactly parallel to the
string. The quill does not pass the string in one movement but inaccurately, which causes
the sharp edge detaching last from the string to give exactly the harshness you wanted to
avoid through a wide quill. The uneven scraping can in extreme cases even cause a nasal
sound with a high proportion of noise. It will be better to cut off the edges or to round the
quill. The "thumbnail curve", recommended by Adlung3 for a Lautenclavicimbel, is a
good suggestion also for wire-harpsichords.

seen from the side

seen from above

For the position of the quill there is another general rule: the quill should protrude under
the string less than 1mm but not much less than 0,5 mm. If the quill is altogether rather
long, this measurement should be rather at the long side. A long quill slides back over the
string easily through the longer lever, but the distances covered by plucking and sliding
back become longer, the more the quill protrudes under the string. The result is a tough
touch, bad repetition, a high noise level and insufficient reliability. Try to shorten a too
long quill in small steps; you will gain much sensitivity for the function of the harpsichord action. Perhaps you will make the paradox experience of attaining a louder tone by
shortening the quill.
The length of the quill, that is the distance to the string, shall be kept to a good medium.
I will not give exact measurements, only describe the disadvantages of both extremes:
too long quills need to be rather strong. That is no disadvantage in itself, but they must
travel a long way, they must bend much before plucking. All this together gives no especially comfortable touch - it becomes tough and indifferent - but the greater strength
and spring-load of the quill, combined with the greater length, produce a rather loud
clicking noise. Another disadvantage arises from the position of the jacks because for
long quills they have to stand far back. As a consequence, there is only little room for
disengaging the register, or the neighbouring string will rattle against the jacks. This disadvantage can be observed with some late English harpsichords; also some modern harpsichords, especially with a 16' register, have this fault. The advantages of a long quill
need not be kept secret: they are insensitive to a changing distance to the string, so they
always speak almost equally loudly, no matter how far they protrude under the string.
And they fall back easily, as mentioned, because the lever relationships are more advantageous.
With this information in mind, the disadvantages of a short quill can be easily understood: the point where the quill touches the string when falling back lies in a narrow angle
almost above the axle of the tongue. So its sliding back over the string is more difficult.
The tangents to the circular movement of the tongue become more and more horizontal
the nearer they are to the jack, and finally get perfectly horizontal exactly above the axle.

In this position a force working perpendicularly (namely the weight of the jack hanging
with the quill on the string) has no effect at all. The second disadvantage of a short quill
is the reverse of everything said above: it has to be very thin to be flexible enough. It may
only protrude under the string very little, or it will easily hang on the string. The first
must not necessarily be a disadvantage, but from my experience, quills under a certain
thickness are less durable. Delrin lasts longer, especially if very thin. But it has to be thin
all over and not wedge shaped. Thin Delrin however can be fixed very uncomfortably in
the often too wide slot of the tongue. In short: the touch is inflexible and hard with short
quills, even if they pluck easily; the voicing is susceptible to alterations and the falling
back problematic. You realize how quick the vocabulary is exchangeable: what was
'flexible' becomes 'indifferent' or 'wobbly' in the next moment, what was just now 'precise' and distinct' becomes 'hard' and without lively charm. There is no definite direction where the 'Good' is to be found, where every following step automatically brings
improvement. The quality is a result only from the correct balance of all properties.

So far we have spoken of feathers only. Let us now take up the popular topic which
feathers are the correct ones: also here exists a great number of recommendations (condemning others as wrong). Raven it must be, no, turkey, but only from free-range ones;
condor but not from the zoo, only from the Andean etc. What wonder that after a concert, a harpsichordist once answered to the respective question with a poker face "Birds
feathers. But the birds have been fed on Delrin all the time."
Many kinds of feathers are usable for harpsichords-quills; very many are not. A feather
is principally suited if a strip cut like a plectrum springs powerfully back into the initial
position and if, on sharper bending, it does not stay in the bent position (like the feathers
of tame geese do). Important is not the strength (goose feathers are strong) but the
springing power. From the poultry indeed only turkeys are suitable, not because they are
the strongest but because of their springing power. All the rest, whether strong (geese) or
weak (ducks, hens) are too soft and bend. The feathers of wild geese work well. Probably
the tame cousins, not flying, are too degenerated. Swan feathers and those from herons
or stork, eagles, vultures and similar are well suited. Try out everything you can lay
hands on; let the people mock at you. I cannot imagine an instrument maker without an
investigating curiosity and a wide-awake open-mindedness.
To give some guidance I will describe the characteristics of some feathers I have tried:
according to my experience, raven feathers are indeed the most beautiful but not the
strongest as sometimes is claimed. They are rather soft but still have enough "spring".
With little effort they can give a slightly veiled, medium brilliant bell sound. The rather
soft material also makes little noise. Similar, only weaker are crow quills. These can be
used for the 4' and sometimes also for the upper 8'. Their main disadvantage besides
their rareness is their shorter durability. Also with other feather quills such a timbre can
be produced, but not so effortless. With Delrin a similar result is difficult to obtain, an
identical result not at all (about this matter later). Turkey feathers are similar to raven
only a little stronger and harder. To make first experiences I consider them less suitable
because they often must be cut thinner. The same is the case with swan feathers of which
only few can be used in the natural thickness. Swan feathers are easy to work with and

they are durable. Also heron feathers are suitable. One finds them under the trees where
they have their nests or - like swan - in the debris along a lakeshore. All big zoo birds
(where else can you normally find eagle or vulture) give usable feathers. From the little
experience I have with them their durability varies a lot. Very durable however is condor, but I do not recommend it. First such feathers are not easy to get and I find it unnecessary to pay a lot of money to special dealers just for the feathers. Also, it is a very
thick and hard material, so it has to be cut thinner, and the main advantage of feathers is
given away. Instead I could also recommend a cow's horn. This is no joke. But to clarify this first: condor feathers, correctly cut, are a suitable, durable but dispensable material for quills. Concerning the cow's horn: I have tried it out and found it usable if need
be. A plectrum made of it lasted about half-a-year including a summer course where all
day, every day for a week, different players overtaxed the harpsichord.
My first experiments I made with seagull. During a holiday at the North Sea I saw many
big feathers scattered about the beach and snipped at them; they were very elastic and
had a powerful springiness. That was in 1953 and ever since I again and again made good
experiences with them. They are extremely durable. Many quills kept working for 5, 10,
some even for 20 years. At the North- and Baltic-Sea one can find amongst the seagull
feathers little brown or black rather curved feathers. They come from diving ducks (I do
not know which species) and they are, in spite of their insignificant appearance, very
strong and durable. With the seagulls they share one disadvantage: they tend to split
lengthwise, especially pieces cut from the upper rib of the feather.
With that the question arises, which part of the feather can be used. The answer is simple: any smooth and faultless part wide and strong enough. Quill strictly speaking means
the grown-in base, but everything else is usable, especially the upper rib, as long as it is
wide enough. Even the lower rib can be used but the feathers have to be very big since
the lower rib is divided into two sections.

To say something about the durability of the different parts of the feather will be possible only from long, careful observation, it depends on more factors than the kind of feathers and the spot from where the plectrum is cut. For improving the durability it is often
recommended to treat the quills with fat or oil. Adlung recommends "Baumol" (olive
oil)4.Perhaps the durability is improved indeed - how to find out the difference? In any
case the function will be better. The greatest disadvantage of quills is not that they slacken and break, but that occasionally some of them become too loud or hook on the string.
The reason is this: quill is softer than Delrin. How advantageous this may be for the

sound, there is one drawback: on top, exactly where the quill hits the string, it can develop a small dent, which lifts up the string more than a smooth quill. The touch becomes
tough and the sound much too loud. This fault is easily amended: with a fingertip one
collects just a trace of fat from ones nose or forehead and rubs it onto the quill. This restores the function for some time. So here may be the practical merit of an oiled quill.
Some warnings however are appropriate: the quill must not be soaked so much with oil
that the tongue is soaked as well. The oil must not be aggressive or sour and affect the
strings (a clockmakers' oil might be better than Adlung's olive oil). Of course all drying
oils must be excluded. The greatest supposed mistake will be to smear the quill amply
with linseed oil, which makes it sticky and breakable, soaks in, and lets the tongue stick
to the axle.
By the way: it will never happen that a quill breaks without pre-warning, like Delrin. You
therefore will practically never meet with the situation where you have to replace a quill
during a concert. Such an operation might establish a certain personal contact with the listeners, but it should better be avoided anyway. A quill normally tires slowly; a considerable time before breaking it starts getting slightly weaker, yet it plays on for many hours.

A final remark about how the pieces of feather are put into the tongue: I think it is irrelevant whether the plectrum is cut in the direction of the feather's end or towards the
(originally grown in) quill-side. With reference to the convex and concave side, the convex outside is normally taken on top, the concave side down. Thus, the quill is much
more flexible and there is less danger for the dent on top mentioned above. Very rarely,
jacks can be found in some unrestored originals, with quills or quill remnants, which
have the concave side on top. I cannot see any purpose in this and think they must be old,
but later replacements.
Let us now turn to Delrin. Some differences between quills and Delrin have already been
mentioned. The fundamental difference is this: a feather is a grown material with a strong
lengthwise structure; Delrin is - at least theoretically - homogenous. To attain the same
bending strength from a homogenous material as from one naturally grown and "designed" for elasticity and a high bending strength, the former must be harder. One might
think it only needs to be thicker instead, but here I have my doubts. I made the first experiments with plastic with unbreakable combs - new in the 1950's. The parts of a cut
up comb, as well as nylon- or perlon- string, turned out to be inadequate because it returned to the initial position too slowly, and after some time not at all completely. Many
repetitions, like in a long trill were problematic. Possibly a soft, fibre- reinforced material may be better suited. I did not find anything else other than glass fibre reinforced nylon, but it was much more difficult to work than Delrin. I also tried polycarbonate; it
works and sounds rather well, but unfortunately it does not last long. Remains Delrin as
the best substitute for feather quills.
Many harpsichord makers -owners or -amateurs have already tried to "hide" Delrin
amongst feathers or feathers amongst Delrin, and nobody was able to find them out. Of
course I made such little jokes also. I spite of this experience, it is a mistake to assume
that quills and Delrin sound and feel identical. Delrin is a much harder material than
feather. The advantage is that one must not expect the mentioned dent on top. Delrin is

more resistant to undisciplined tinkling and hard hammering. On the other hand it can
break without warning. Beyond that, other consequences of the harder material are imaginable. When the plectrum hits the string (before plucking) it causes a noise, or even a
soft tone like in a clavichord. Naturally, this phenomenon is stronger with a hard material. With leather it is absent, metal plectra in contrast are unusable, as Adlung writes: "But
it has not produced [lit: "promoted"] the sound as purely as the feathers, because the
string starts singing at the touch, even before the plucking happen^."^ Also the noise
when releasing the key is louder. A trick to find out Delrin among mixed plectra is to listen to the noise when releasing the key. Everybody ushered in front of a harpsichord to
find out "wrong" plectra will listen to the pluck and aftersound, but not to the noise when
releasing the key. Less so will he, by feeling carefully and by making a "clavichordsound test", investigate the hardness of the plectrum.
The harder material has an effect on the sound as well. Imagine the following model:
each material has its special voicing range. The ranges of feather and Delrin are not nearly congruent, yet they partly overlap and here are the possibilities for an exchange. I
imagine that Delrin covers about three quarters of the properties of feathers. I have said
above that certain qualities of raven quills are unattainable with Delrin. No wonder, because they are the softest of the usable feathers. You also cannot replace a leather plectrum with Delrin. In contrast I think that feathers cover only about a third of the possibilities of Delrin. And right here is the difficulty, or the temptation. Supposedly the
easiest, most natural way to voice is around the 'centre' of the range of each respective
material. As long as one takes Delrin as a substitute for feathers, the difficulty is that one
has to voice past its natural 'centre' because it lies outside the possibilities of feathers.
The temptation (or taking it positively the progress) is to voice - without any thought of
feathers - according to the 'Delrin centre' or even to the other side: hard, sharp, and brilliant. I leave it to your judgement which option you prefer. Besides the mentioned reasons I also recommend to start voicing with feathers to enable you to make well informed
decisions and not to avoid feathers like sour grapes. With this knowledge you are free in
your work and immune against secret recipes.
The harder material Delrin has yet another inevitable consequence: here the limit, above
which a sound gets forced or overvoiced, and the noise-proportion rises unbearably, is
definitely lower. With feathers you can voice louder before the sound gets overvoiced
and bawls and jangles. Fortunately this possibility goes not so far as with sole leather
plectra. There is not the danger of a "tadpole sound" with a thick initial plop and a thin
tail. Likewise small is the risk of voicing a well-made harpsichord with feather-quills so
it sounds like a heap of broken glass, which can be done rather easily with Delrin.

Working with Delrin

With some experience with feather quills you will easily find the correct form for Delrin
plectra: flat and thin, depending on your taste wide or more pointed, and rounded at the
tip. The prefabricated cast Delrin pieces like comb teeth are difficult to bring to the correct shape. The ones punched "ready to use" are awkward to work with: they hardly can
be treated before they are fixed in the tongue, because they are too small to hold. Better
is Delrin rolled to a film, available in 0,3 mm to 0,5 mm thickness. One cuts strips ca.
2mm- 2,5 mm wide, which, with a cabinet scraper, are scraped down to 0,3mm (or less

for the 4') on both sides equally. Before cutting the strips you will have to break a few
pieces to make sure in which direction the strips must be cut. Above I wrote "at least theoretically" Delrin is homogenous. The rolled Delrin actually has a direction. In one direction it breaks rather easily but in the other direction you must bend it back and forth
for a considerable time before it starts to tire. Choosing the correct direction - in my experience lengthwise to the rolling-direction - spares a lot of trouble with broken plectra.
I do not know whether the cast "comb-teeth" plectra have a structure, I have no experience with them. Probably also the scraping on both sides helps the durability, because
possible hairline-cracks from the rolling process are scraped off.
The strips thus prepared can be handled like feathers: a strip is cut slightly tapered towards the tip (seen from above) and pressed into the slot of the tongue from the back until it is wedged in at the sides. Only now the whole strip is cut off at the back, and if necessary shortened to its exact length at the tip. If the slot is not too wide, but too high, only
a wooden wedge under the plectrum helps, which may not be longer than the thickness
of the tongue (but first try the water-trick, see chapter "jacks"). Fitting plastic plectra into
plastic tongues is principally problematic. Here attention must be paid that all tapered
surfaces that fit into the tongue are almost straight. But the strip may not be parallel either, or it will slip from the back through the slot with the first cut. But it must not be cut
too wedge-shaped and pressed forcibly into the slot: the plastic of the tongue gives way
and the quill seems to be fixed perfectly, but only until it loosens a little and then it will
be catapulted out through the inner pressure of the material. In the frequent cases where
the slots are too high, the Delrin must be chosen thicker than described above, and the
plectrum must later be scraped precisely into the correct dimension. Avoiding the unwanted wedge-shape requires a lot of unnecessary and annoying caution; the designers
of such tongues deserve some criticism. Here the preparing scraping of the strips must
be restricted to a minimum, but cannot be avoided altogether. With older Delrin, a harder outside layer is scraped off together with the hairline-cracks or damages; this makes
the surface also somewhat matt, which helps attachment to a plastic tongue be more secure. Naturally, when touching up an already fixed plectrum, it is difficult to avoid unevenness, crosswise dents and notches, exactly where the plectrum sticks out of tongue.
The prejudice about the generally poor durability of harpsichord-quills is mainly a result
of this working method; often (and unobserved) plectra are prepared for later breaking
already when making them. Here a few measures may help:

The used knife must be absolutely sharp, the applied force rather little. With more
experience one learns when more material can be removed with more force.
One should only work with good light, and check the quill often with sidelight or
against the light.
One should, with one finger, control the flexibility, and work always at the least
flexible spot.
Crosswise notches can be avoided by altering the scraping angle - seen from
above - very often.
Of course Delrin can be cut with a pointed knife, instead of being scraped. The
disadvantage is the difficulty in controlling the movement. Even with much
experience a plectrum can be spoiled in no time.
Flexible blades are taboo when scraping, they start to chatter, and hit (rather than
scrape) notches into the material; Delrin is in spite of its wear-resistance sensitive
to quick, hard blows.

I have an aversion against plastic jacks out of simple prejudice; plastic tongues 1 consider
unsuitable for the mentioned reason, in spite of the diverse attempts of different makers
to amend their shortcomings.
When the plectrum is fixed, try out the jack. Naturally, first the length of the plectrum is
controlled once more and adjusted if necessary. If the quill is still too hard it has to be
scraped down over its entire length or filed with a very fine file (a contact file is suited).
Avoid in any case the development of notches; they are unavoidable predetermined
breaking points. Besides that, a notched plectrum hangs easier on the string. As said
above, a sharp edge on a feather quill produces a sharp sound. But since the harder Delrin
already tends to a harsher sound, it is particularly important to round it off as smoothly
as possible, unless you intend to produce an especially sharp sound. In that case however
you should stand up for it and claim no similarity with feather quills or historic models.
For the sake of completeness I will mention two experiments I have made: first, I have
cut a Delrin plectrum convex on top and concave below, like most feather quills. Second,
I tried to imitate a lengthwise structure by scraping the underside of a Delrin plectrum
with the help of a grooved iron. Both experiments made no noticeable difference.

To conclude this topic, I will once again describe the remaining difference between feathers and Delrin when both are adjusted to each other as much as possible. Doubtless it is
possible to adjust single quills in a way that the above-mentioned tricks for distinguishing between the two are uncertain. The result in a complete instrument however is clearly different. Because it is difficult to observe in single plectra, and very laborious to requill a whole harpsichord (which I did several times) I will describe my observations:
besides the differences listed above, I noticed a warmer and mellower sound. The sound
is pleasantly veiled or better shrouded without any loss of clear brightness. Delrin in contrast produces a clear, simple, somewhat less singing, but above all clearly defined, unveiled sound, a sound a little less resembling a beautiful human voice and hence a little
less touching. This "little" is one of very many possibilities of influencing the sound in
an instrument, and therefore by itself not of great importance. No raven quill can create
such a sound in a harpsichord without this vocal quality. On the other hand, if there are
reasons (unfortunately there are enough) one can do without this "little" if many other elements already contribute to a good sound. You should know the difference as precisely
as possible, but not overrate it. It is important to keep in mind that feathers, as well as
Delrin, become softer in high humidity and that Delrin work hardens during the first time
of playing.
Since the 18th century leather was also used as plectra material apart from feather quills.
I could find no source for the claim, that leather was used much earlier in Italy. The hard
sole-leather is a practice of the 20th century. The French peau de bufle was made of
thick, fluffy or spongy leather, which rather rubs than plucks. The sound of it is mellow
and dark and is hardly reminiscent of a harpsichord; the dynamics are easily influenced
through the touch. Late English harpsichords occasionally have leather plectra. The
tongues show clearly if these are original or altered later. All tongues for leather plectra
are made from holly and have no groove at the back. For quills the tongues in the treble

are from boxwood and all have the typical groove at the back. The leather of the original English plectra (observed in the John Broadwood 1778 in the Norsk Folke Museum
Oslo) is made of two parts: a slim wedge out of soft leather is topped with a thin layer of
red dyed harder leather (the glue used is not water resistant). These plectra are flexible
and not stiff like the modern sole-leather wedges.


Franz Mohr, chief technician of Steinway's, says more or less the same in his memoirs: "I teach my technicians
always to get into the spirit of the instrument: >>Theinstrument must tell for itself what it needs, try to listen to it.<"
Mohr, Franz 1992. My life with the Great Pianists (Grand Rapids: Baker), German transl. 1995 (Basel: Brunnen),
p. 139.
Scalpels, especially those with replacement-blades are too thin and springy. This leads to notches or waves when
scraping. Also cutting with flexible blades is unsure.
Adlung, Jakob 1768. Muszca Mechanica Organoedi (Berlin: Friedrich Wilhelm Birnstiel), facs. ed. Christhard
Marenholz 1931. (Kassel: Beenreiter), p. 138.
Ibid. p. 106.
Ibid, p. 107.


he reader who has followed me this far will certainly not expect the revelation of
secrets to avoid all effort. There are no cheap tricks or secret recipes in harpsichord making. After all, the purpose of the preceding chapters was to sharpen the
awareness of minor details and seeming trifles, and to give an idea of the conscientiousness required during the whole work process. I must disappoint those who start reading
here. I will not reveal any secrets like "Stradivarius' varnish recipe" or similar things.
Instead I will give a few suggestions about details of the work, and for facilitating certain processes.
Apart from certain quick recipes, handed around by would-be experts, you will certainly
have encountered various forms of secret keeping. There are instrument makers who, for
varying reasons, are fond of this. One thinks one has found out something helpful, and
wants to prevent others from participating. This will often be a technical trick in the production, or some general manipulation to 'improve' the sound. The latter can be disregarded, because it involves a one-track attitude, which is not only unhelpful in instrument
making, but also downright harmful. You have seen how often a specific result - be it
good or bad - has its cause in the interaction of many factors, or in the lack of such an
interaction. A manipulation in one direction can always only alter, but never "improve"
an instrument. A good-sounding result can only be expected after exactly governed and
well aimed alterations. If, for instance, I made the experience that thicker strings in a certain area of one instrument sound better (already a subjective judgement), I certainly cannot conclude, that thicker strings sound better. Quite the contrary could be the case in the
next harpsichord, because of different characteristics of the soundboard and the bridge,
even if their dimensions should be the same. The only valid conclusion, or the only applicable "trick" is to make use of the possibility of later corrections, which might include
changes in string diameter at certain spots; the "secret" is a musical ear, good taste and concentration. Again and again over the years I have met people, who did not understand this,
who were not prepared to believe me, and persisted in trying to pester my secret out of me.
Individual solutions for certain technical problems on the other hand can be helpful, like
the trick of the key frame suspended at the back', which keeps the distance between the
key ends and the strings almost constant, making regulation screws at the ends of the
jacks superfluous. To keep such helpful details secret or not is a matter of personal taste.
In my opinion, a historically made harpsichord, which does not work well, is not only a
nuisance to the owner and the builder, but concerns everyone who builds historically:
negative expectations of the public about the reliability of our instruments afflict us all.
So I prefer to pass on such solutions.
Other workshop secrets might concern production methods, and this is understandable.
If a firm has invested time and money into labour-saving devices and methods, of course
they want to harvest the profit from their preparations. The working steps I described refer to individual production; therefore I made no secret of any of them.
A further reason for "secrets" may be found in the character of the master. An expert, lost
in the fog of secrecy, reveals no longer where his expertise ends and his belief starts. It
easily happens that he goes astray among all his secrets.

One last cause for concealment remains: the greatest workshop secret is occasionally the
ignorance of the master. Nobody is omniscient, but some have unacceptable gaps in their
knowledge (which nevertheless remain undetected in examinations for the master craftsmen's diploma). Any profession knows this phenomenon, be it craftsmen, academicians
or politicians, and each profession has its own methods of concealing deficiencies. In instrument making, secrecy plays a welcome part. The community of fans and aficionados
eagerly takes in the element of mystery and extracts its secret 'knowledge' (Umberto
Eco: "Believe in a secret and you feel initiated. Costs nothing") from fragmentary information (perhaps even misunderstood). A typical characteristic of such "secret knowledge"
is the undue overestimation of one, or a few details as the indispensable condition for
making a good harpsichord. But instead of boring my readers with polemic, I had better
reveal some helpful tricks.

About gluing
For understanding the gluing process, you should read a specialist book, for instance
~ . book gives a survey of the most imporWilliam Tandy Young's "The Glue B o ~ k "This
tant glues and adhesives, their chemical grounds, properties, and explains their use.
Another book is Erich Plath's "Die Hol~verleimung"~.
This booklet dates from 1951, and
is certainly not up to date with modern products, but we work almost exclusively with
glutin (animal) glue, and on this issue you can find many interesting facts. There are several reasons why I recommend animal - that is hide-, bone- or rabbit-skin glue. There are
also other reasons why many craftsmen are against it and why it has almost disappeared
in carpentry workshops. To begin with these: the working process with warm glue, as it
is called, is more complicated and time-consuming than using synthetic resin-glues,
which are offered in many varieties for different purposes. Glutin glue is not waterproof,
which sometimes is a drawback. Many woodworkers are afraid of working with hide
glue, like some housewives are afraid of yeast dough. And indeed, in both cases everything can end in disaster, when something is made in the wrong way. But in both cases,
the result is unsurpassed if done correctly. This brings me to the advantages of hide glue:
its reversibility, with water, is an advantage; everything can be dissolved and re-glued,
which is an advantage, especially when restoring old instruments. But also a failed glue
job can either be touched up in time by adding heat, or taken apart and glued anew. We
have the experience: correct joints made with hide glue last centuries. For the synthetic
glues, we only have producer's promises. Once, a wooden box glued with Kaurit (ureaformaldehyde) just fell apart in my home, 30 years after being assembled - all the joints
at the same time. It is well known, that, on using Kaurit, the joints have to be especially
carefully prepared. A thick glue-layer crumbles after a very short time, because Kaurit
becomes glass-hard. But how does an exact joint behave after a long time? I don't know
whether something went wrong during making this box, I cannot judge it afterwards either;
but this uncertainty makes me exclude Kaurit for my production.
Occasionally I use white glue for gluing cloth (in spite of the difficulties of removing
stains and old glue layers), and for minor, acoustically unimportant parts. I have the feeling that glutin glue makes a good bond even acoustically, well suited for wood; white
glue (at least most kinds) remains rubbery-soft even after setting completely. From the
mentioned booklet you can learn, that glutin has the best capacity for filling too wide
\gaps while still clinging reasonably well. Even if one wants to avoid botching together

things with unfitting joints out of laziness or incompetence, this certainty is comforting.
The mistakes one can make with glutin glue are understandable and easy to grasp; the
difficulties are manageable after good planning. Above all: mistakes made here are in
most cases easily corrected, and with synthetic glue almost never. The gluing in of a
soundboard is for instance an exiting event, but I'd rather not recall the times when I did
this with white glue. Assembly time 10-15 minutes, one could read on the pot. I do not
know whether this applies to a glass plate test; on wood the assembly time - the time during which the glue stays sticky - is much shorter, in extreme cases only about one
minute. What a resulting stress during the soundboard gluing and how excessively thick
the layers of glue must be to prevent them drying up! If for some reason the glue is not
properly squeezed out, or tacks in the wrong position, everything is lost. I still see it as a
lucky chance that such accidents never happened to me. The snifter afterwards, for my
wife (who always helps with such operation) and me was not merely deserved but indispensable.
The worst enemy of glutin glue is the same as for yeast dough: cold. If you spread warm
glue onto cold wood, it gels at once. It does not adhere, and it is almost impossible to
press the joint properly. The wood has to be warmed up first, and also the air temperature in the workshop should not be too low. For some gluing jobs, you can use electric
heating rails. This makes the work really convenient: you spread the glue - don't worry
if it gels - and then calmly assemble the joint, then fasten the necessary amount of
clamps and finally, if everything is checked for correctness, the thermostat is set to 70C.
As soon as the glue starts squeezing out of the glue line, it is switched off. Unfortunately,
the possibilities for using heat rails are limited. They work well for gluing edge joints and
the like, but are not suited for joining wide surfaces like the lid, the bottom or the soundboard. In many cases, a 'cold' sort of glue would be the easier choice. Certainly there exists modified hide glue that stays fluid at room temperature, but usually there is no information on how this has been accomplished, and how the glue strength has be
influenced by the modification. Neither do occasional warnings about their toxic content
do inspire a relaxed working attitude.
Under the heading 'modified glutin glue', Erich Plath4writes: "By addition of suitable
acids, or organic or inorganic salts, the melting point can be reduced to below room temperature. Such glue not only swells, but remains fluid in room temperature." The
Encyclopaedia of Chemistry5mentions as additives, besides nitric acid and acetic acid
(see below), also zinc chloride, together with the remark "hygroscopic". And here is my
most important reservation against commercial modified glue: usually, this indication is
missing. But for woodworkers who use these products, it is utterly important, so they can
avoid frustrating experiences; an organ builder told me that pipes, made using this kind
of glue can attract so much water in a cold, humid church, that they fall apart by the
My own trick is old. The following recipe was my inspiration:

Recipe Nr: 600: Glue that stays fluid. Equal parts of wate~cleargelatine or good
Cologne glue and strong vinegal; a quarter of alcohol and a little alum are dissolved in
a water bath. The vinegar causes the glue to stay fluid at a normal temperature. It remains usable for an unlimited amount of time and is especially suited for gluing small
objects, like pearl imitation, gluing mother of pearl, horn etc. on wood or metal6.

The effective additive here is acetic acid; alum tans the glue and makes it slows down its
ability to soak, and hence is more stable under humid conditions (so, alum must be added
completely dissolved, to the fluid glue). Alcohol is not strictly necessary; apparently it is
used to dilute the glue, but, since it evaporates quicker than water, it speeds up the drying. It might also work as a detergent. The amount and the strength of the vinegar depend
on the glue quality and the room temperature. Hide glue, which usually is considered
best, needs more vinegar than bone glue. The right amount must be found through experiments, and then one should keep using the same glue brand. According to my experience, it is best to let the glue soak in water (not too much) and to add vinegar essence
(25%, or go%), as much as needed, only just before warming up. If you prefer to use ordinary vinegar (5%) for soaking, you need to stir very frequently, since the glue particles
(crumbs, pearls or pieces) immediately become sticky at their surfaces and tend to lump
together. I guess that the necessary concentration in the prepared glue lies between 3%
and 5%. For easy working, it is not necessary to add as much vinegar to keep the glue
permanently fluid at room temperature. Depending on the job at hand, the fluid time can
vary between 15 and 30 minutes. It can easily be warmed up again for the next task. An
astonishing advantage of glue prepared in this manner is that it does not perish. Whether
fluid or gelled, it literally remains useable for "unlimited time", even during thunderstorms or other conditions, where ordinary warm glue starts to decompose within hours.
The important question remains, whether glue modified with vinegar has the same
strength, or if it is hygroscopic or not. Glue tests in workshop experiments show no difference. Even if a glue joint should be a little weaker, this is in my opinion more than
compensated by the certainty of a good, correct gluing. Glue, modified in this way, is absolutely foolproof in its use. Even after the glue has started to gel, it remains "open", that
is, it does not lose its tack. Swelled, or gelled glue without vinegar does not tack at all.
This is why glue soaked in vinegar lumps at once, and glue soaked in water doesn't. The
boiling point of acetic acid is 118"C, not far above water. As vinegar, as well as vinegarglue smell distinctly sour, one can assume that most of the acid evaporates during the
drying process. To test this, I dissolved a bit of gelatine (cleaned edible glutin) in strong
vinegar and let it dry on a saucer. The dried thin layer tasted not sour at all, but neutral
like ordinary gelatine. Even if this experiment lacks precision, it shows that a large part
of the acetic acid evaporates together with the water. First of all, naturally the vinegar
and the water will penetrate the surrounding wood, before they evaporate slowly (and not
Many instructions say that glue should not be heated above 60C, and not repeatedly, because it will lose its strength. One should keep this in mind. The Encyclopaedia of
Chemistry teaches us, that long cooking turns glutin partly into glucose, which has less
bonding strength. Strangely enough, some old recipes recommend cooking the glue several times to improve it. Apparently this is another experience like the one named above:
a slightly weaker glue, which is easier worked, reduces the chance of mistakes and therefore is better than a strong one, which is tricky to use and a potential cause of undetected faults. The material tests at those times were perhaps insufficient to meet exacting
standards, but workshop-oriented and practical. Too easily, one could confuse a weaker
glue in a good joint, with a stronger one, inappropriately applied. The strength of warm
glue almost always surpasses the stability of the wood. But one should never cook the
glue in excess, or it will certainly become inferior - the vinegar trick can be exactly balanced, and is therefore more effective.

Another old practice is the "toothing" of the glue joints. The surface to be glued is scored
using a so-called toothing plane. Modern laboratory tests have unambiguously demonstrated, that a glue line is strongest (even if I am discussing glutin glue, this applies to almost any glue) if the glued surface is planed smooth. Now, were all the carpenters, instrument makers and woodworkers in general up to the 20th century idiots? Has, in the
unknown past, someone toothed his joints, and started a tradition, followed stubbornly
through the centuries? I rather think that the pre-industrial craftsmen worked attentively
and intelligently. So I decided to make some workshop experiments. The results seemed
to confirm the old method: various tests with different species of wood gave the impression that toothed joints were stronger. Obviously the reason is the same as mentioned
above: toothed gluing surfaces neutralize mistakes in the working process - mistakes that
cannot be completely avoided. For instance, if the pressure does not match the surface, a
smooth surface is much more sensitive. Too much pressure causes a meagre glue line because all of the glue is squeezed out; too low pressure leaves the glue layer thick and
hence weaker and more disposed to moisture. In a toothed surface, the glue creeps into
the grooves already at low pressure, and the surfaces fit well. Too high pressure does not
drive the entire glue out of the joint. In the grooves and at the transitions, the glue is still
strong enough, even if it should be completely pressed off the highest points. But who
would be able to calculate the exact required pressure in a workshop, using ordinary
clamps? Even here, I think that one principle which gives a slightly weaker bond but
works safely under varying conditions stands opposite a principle which gives a stronger
result under ideal conditions, but bears the risk of inconsistency or even failure. For hammer veneering, when the veneer is rubbed on instead of being pressed, toothing is a necessity. But there is yet another advantage: there is no annoying sliding of the joint while
clamping. Even the scarf joint of the front bottom of Ruckers instruments can be clamped
without any supporting clamps to prevent sliding.

The secrets of the soundboard

The soundboard is the most important part of the whole harpsichord. So important and
effective, that a good soundboard in a modern back post case construction might give a
better result than an inferior one in a historical case. I have found this, for the purist perhaps a heretical statement, confirmed in two instruments, which in spite of their modern
inner structure could be taken for a strictly historical construction, judged from the
sound7.Because the soundboard is so crucial for the quality of the instrument, the large
amount of whispered secrets and tricks is not surprising. As already said in the chapter
on voicing, everybody should try out any suggestion for an "improvement" for himself,
and should principally be suspicious about simple patent solutions. Reject any cheap
trick that promises to give a "better" result by simple means. Amongst these I count various manipulations to "improve" the soundboard wood. These range from boiling the
wood (Adlung) via 'toasting' it in a baker's oven to the modern variant of radioactive ray
treatment. This is certainly only my subjective opinion, but one cannot exclude that these
ripening treatments also shorten the overall lifetime of a piece of wood.
Another such trick - the circulating suggestion about improving kit instruments by shaving the soundboard thinner, can only be correct in those cases where the soundboard is
too thick from the beginning. Most kit soundboards I have seen however were already at
their thinnest - here, such a manipulation would be harmful. Occasionally, even tapering

towards the edges can be too much. Actually, there is no reason to assume that a "readysanded" soundboard, which accompanies a kit, has not the correct dimensions all over.
A very remarkable trick is the insider's practice of scratching the underside of a soundboard with the help of a rasp, knife or similar weapon, because the Ruckers did this also.
Perhaps the intention here is to imitate the anti-noise coating in car parts or under stainless sinks; not such a brilliant idea for a soundboard. Concerning the alleged example,
harpsichords of the Ruckers family, this is an instructive example of bad observation. It is
utter nonsense to claim that Ruckers soundboards are scratched from below. I have seen
a number of them and I can assure you that this is not true. Most of them are smoothly
planed, but often the underside is planed across the grain (see chapter "Soundboards").
Planing across the grain does not give a totally smooth surface, and the work traces across
the grain are clearly visible.
Apart from this, one can, in very rare cases, imagine one can make out single scores at
right angles to the grain (occasionally even on top, covered by painted flowers). On the
old wood it is very difficult to decide whether these are intentional 'disturbances' or
whether the plane iron merely had a notch. Anyway, here we are talking about only a few
single scratches, and not about systematic roughening with a rasp. I do not dare to decide, whether these scratches are intentional, so if I now try to find an explanation, this
is a hypothesis and nothing more. In Flemish harpsichords (as also later in French and
English ones) it is possible to glue in the bottom board after the soundboard. To me it
seems possible to make at least one stop playable in this state (I would not dare more than
this, because the bottom plays an important role in the static of the instrument. Now a
very experienced maker is able to draw his conclusions, even from such a distorted sound
(without a bottom) and to make small improvements. So he might, by means of wellaimed cuts or scores (with a knife or a sharp needle), detach a few fibres in soundboard
areas that seem too stiff, to enhance its flexibility. In any case, the whole action can only
be regarded as makeshift. The soundboard ought to have been thinner at the areas in
question from the start. With such outstanding makers as the Ruckers, such corrections
will have happened rather rarely. So one could see the very rareness of those cases, where
a deliberate correction cannot be excluded, as an argument for my hypothesis. This assumption is supported by another specialty: a wooden block glued and nailed from below between soundboard and bentside, for which there is no other explanation than that
of a later correction (I will come back to this further below).
Let us look at another issue surrounded by mystery:

The thickness of the soundboard

Often the opinion is uttered 'the thinner the better'. Of course one would never say this
as flatly and plainly. But reduced to their basic content, many of the seemingly complicated instructions mean just this, or at least, that the soundboard should be made thinner
at the rim than under the bridge. The result of this philosophy, i.e. the existence of many
new harpsichords with an extremely thin soundboard, shows how well established this
theory is. There have been extremely thin soundboards in some antique instruments.
Especially the middle-German makers built such harpsichords; but these often have
many irregularly positioned ribs as compensation, and it is difficult to judge, which of
these are original and which are results of later restorations.

On the other hand one can find a soundboard thickness of 5 - 6mm in some old harpsichords, something that many 'experts' would consider as normal for the so called 'factory
harpsichord'. In historical harpsichords however, such dimensions only occur in certain
areas, and not throughout the whole surface, or combined with a piano-like ribbing: such
soundboards are always much thinner at the rim. Their thickest spot is not under their
bridge, but around the middle. There are Italian harpsichords with a soundboard of 1.8 to
3.5mm at the rim and up to almost 6mm in the middle. Others are 2.5 - 3mm all over.
The soundboard of the Vaudry harpsichord in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London
is even thinner under the bridge than at the rim. There are really a great number of variations. Everyone is free to distil his own secret out of an abundance of historical facts.
Let us first ask what criteria the old harpsichord makers had, when planing down their
soundboards? In spite of all our admiration for The Old, we must state soberly: just as
today, there were good, lesser and decidedly lousy instrument builders in the past. So not
everything that is old, is automatically well planned, and properly done. But as a beautiful patina can raise a crude piece of furniture to the status of lovely craftwork, the inimitable 'something' in the sound of old instruments elevates these above our standard of
comparison. Let us not be deceived, and remain critical in all our admiration. Even then,
there certainly were many who just made their things 'as it has always been done'. But
if we want to follow the footsteps of the best, it cannot be sufficient just to imitate their
exact dimensions. It is more promising to try to understand their way of thinking and
working. So I will spend some more time with the soundboard.
Only rarely, can the qualities of old instruments be so clearly related to the varying thickness of a soundboard, as in the Vaudry harpsichord already mentioned. The soundboard
dimensions and the ribbing of this instrument are the direct reason for the result 'short
and thin'. It is certainly possible to interpret this sound as intended, and the unusual ribbing as superior mastery. But I doubt, that any harpsichord maker ever had the unfavourable combination of a thin and a short tone as an ideal.
For the soundboard applies the same as for mechanical parts: only a conscious and wellgoverned combination of compatible structures and measurements leads to good results,
and not the imitation of certain fixed dimensions. So the mentioned dictum 'the thinner
the better' might be understandable as a reaction to the thick and overly stiff soundboards
of modem harpsichords, but apart from that it is pointless and harmful. There exist new
'historically built' harpsichords with soundboards so thin that they react more like a drum
skin. Some builders carry out manipulations to 'tighten' or stretch their soundboards.
This might indeed be needed because the wood is much too thin and slack for the intended purpose of giving power to the string vibrations. Of course these 'tightened'
soundboards are better than not-tightened ones, but only because the starting point was
wrong in any case. The sound of such instruments is reminiscent of the treble of a banjo
and in the bass of timpani. Both can comfortably be interpreted as a 'speaking' tone quality and a fundamental sound.
As a criterion for the thickness, the function and cooperation of several factors - apart
from the thickness - have to be taken into account. The wood properties are best felt
when planing the soundboard by hand, and here one can simultaneously react without a
detour during the working process. The interaction of string, bridge, width and thickness

of the soundboard is best imagined three-dimensionally, to understand it and to come to

well aimed decisions. If for instance the stripe between the bentside and the bridge - or
between the 4' hitchpin rail and the cutoff bar - is narrow, a thinner soundboard will be
better; if these areas are wide, especially between bentside and 8' bridge, there is a danger that the surface subdivides into too many partially vibrating areas. This danger increases, the thinner a soundboard is made. The sound emission of subdivided vibrating
areas will largely be extinguished through interference. A very weak (thin) soundboard,
especially a wide one, has no power to take up the vibrations of the string and to amplify
it. The plucked string releases its energy in a sudden short impulse on to the slack soundboard; the sound has almost no sustain (banjo effect). A certain amount of resistance is
necessary for a good soundboard.
This resistance is called impedance - a term better known from the self-induced resistance of a choke coil. An example for missing impedance: it is impossible to use a sheet
of paper for noticeably amplifying a knocking or the vibrations of a tuning fork. The other extreme is an overly stiff, and perhaps too narrow, soundboard: after hitting the inflexible sound structure (soundboard and bridge) in a hard impulse, the string vibrations
cannot radiate freely. The sound becomes extremely sustained and thin, and unfortunately not in the least warm and fundamental. But this is only the start. String length and
thickness, plucking point, height and thickness of the bridge, depth of the case (because
of the interior resonance) and further factors have their co-effect and need to be balanced
with the soundboard properties. If you additionally try to influence the case vibration by
means of specially designed structure members, the whole matter becomes hopelessly
confusing. Fortunately, not all these factors are equally important. This list, incomplete
as it certainly is, may serve as an encouragement not to look at one isolated item (because
all the factors influence each other), but also not to disregard any detail. Many minute
steps lead to success.
There remains the Ruckers wood block: I think it might possibly be a correction of a too
flexible (too thin) area of the soundboard. In some of the Ruckers instruments, a poplar
block is glued and nailed somewhere around the middle of the bentside onto the soundboard and the liner. Such a block can be seen in the drawing of a Ruckers harpsichord,
which was sold by the Vleeshuis in Antwerp, and in table 38 in R. Russell's "The
On the photograph on the left, between the first upper
Harpsichord and Cla~ichord"~.
brace and the last lower brace, a small longish block is visible. The effect on the sound
can - at least roughly -be tested by carefully pressing a heavy object (for instance a hammer) on to the corresponding spot on the soundboard. This results in amazing alterations
of the sound even in completely different areas. Often a whole register sounds darker and
more distinct. On other spots, there is no effect at all, or sometimes it inhibits the sound
in an unpleasant way. In no case is this an improvement trick to be used thoughtlessly;
this is only a means for a later well-aimed alteration.

Soundboard wood
The wood species suitable for soundboards are primarily spruce (picea), fir (abies), and
also cypress (cupressus) and cedar (cedrus). Apart from these, there are some types
which can be used, if treated correctly, or rather used in the correct thickness; for instance
port orford cedar (chamaecyparis) or western red cedar (thuja plicata). The latter is very


light and less stable than all the other species, therefore it needs to be substantially thicker
when used in a soundboard. Its sound is bright and brilliant. But I will limit my considerations to European spruce in order to keep the issue under control.
Almost all Ruckers instruments have fine-grained soundboard wood. But this does not
imply that fine-grained wood is the best in every case. The effective properties of a piece
of wood, i.e. its bending strength, elasticity, interior sound speed (lengthwise and across
the grain) and the specific weight depend only very little on the amount of growth rings
per centimetre. There are very good French, German or English harpsichords with rather
coarse-grained soundboards. Many of these properties are being investigated, especially
on behalf of violinmakers. This is interesting and profitable even for us; do read everything you can find about these issues, it will help to develop your feeling for wood. But
the present methods of measuring have their limits, and I doubt that they can ever replace
a good understanding and feeling for wood - especially soundwood.
If one calculates a curve from the different bending strengths lengthwise and crosswise,
it may give some basic understanding. But such a collection of figures could, for instance, easily lead to the conclusion, that especially developed plywood with similar
properties would be the ideal soundboard material. On one hand, I prefer such considerations to thoughtless copying, but one should not be tempted to put them into action. I
will remain a little with my plywood example - it serves as a good example for the limitations of a selective view: the bending strength of every wood is greater lengthwise than
crosswise. The bending strength across the grain however must not be too low, and therefore (and because wood warps least radially) the soundboard wood is quartered. The
medullary rays (which can be seen on the surface of quartered spruce) increase the lateral stability. Yet the bending strength across the grain should not be too great either.
Otherwise, any material with equal strength in both directions would be better for soundboards than wood. Possibly there is an optimum, which in a graph could be shown as an
ellipse. But for what is it an optimum? Other important wood properties, like its specific
weight, interior sound speed, elasticity and inner damping - to name but a few - remain
unconsidered. A piece of plywood can be produced with such an optimal strength lengthwise and crosswise, but what characteristics are added by the glue layers, how the inner
sound transmission will work undisturbed through several perpendicular wood layers and
much else remains open.
Instead of searching for the ideal soundboard wood, it seems more sensible to learn to
judge wood properties practically, and workshop oriented. To take a strip of wood, to
bend it and to knock on it will help more than all ever so sophisticated analyses. You feel
how the wood reacts, what it wants. The figures of an analysis only help to recognize the
properties felt in this way. Now this feeling seems to be a real secret to me - not because
I want to keep it for myself, or because I see in it anything mystic or supernatural, but
because through this feeling, and the resulting creative impulse, something personal is
expressed, which cannot be passed on. Here you have to make your own experience, and
to strive for your own self established goal.
But I will not leave you without some support, so I will try to write down some general
advice: soundwood should be as light as possible. But already here, we get a "but": there
is also good, but harder and heavier soundwood, which consequently must be planed
thinner. When knocked on, it should sound well, and come easily into vibration. But - and

I think this is rather important - it should not reproduce a single tone, like a xylophone,
but rather react diffusely, to many frequencies alike. It should not sound too brilliant. A
good precondition for the ability to radiate all frequencies evenly later on seems to me an
indifferent characteristic, reminding one somewhat of cardboard. You will now certainly
not choose sick and fluffy wood. It still needs to sound well, but just not too jingling. I
think that such brilliant wood has a too strong will of its own, which might conflict with
your intentions.
The following anecdote belongs also to this chapter: it is said, that Stradivarius climbed
the mountains, and knocked on the trees with a small hammer when choosing his wood.
I considered this a nice little fairy tale until I learned from a forest specialist that is does
make some sense. One certainly cannot judge by knocking with a hammer, whether the
wood is suited for violins or harpsichord soundboards. But it is absolutely possible to
hear, whether the tree is fault free and has no rotten core, and if one can spare the effort
of cutting it down.

4' hitchpinrail
The wide, stable 4' hitchpin rail is an unchanging part of all Ruckers and Flemish instruments of the same period. It is not found earlier, and about 100 years later, it had become a model for all northern European harpsichords. Its dimensions only allow for very
few alternative ways to saw a whole rail from a board. The construction has two disadvantages: 1. At several points, the grain runs out of the curved sides. This reduces the stability, and holds the danger of cracks. 2. The crimping and swelling of the total width of
the board can cause tensions and alterations at various humidity levels. Therefore, the
English (Kirkman and also Shudi) made their 4' hitchpinrail joined from two parts with
a different grain direction. This is no real success, because the stepped end-grain joint is
rather weak.
A better result is achieved by making the hitchpinrail about lOmm too narrow, and gluing strips of about 5mm to both sides. These strips cover the open grain areas, and thus
reduce the risk of movement.
It is better still to join the hitchpin rail from 5 strips in the desired form. In this example,
the grain runs exactly along shape of the rail, and the result is a much greater bending
strength and form stability9. The sound of a part glued up from several strips of solid
wood will hardly differ from a sawn out one.
For this principle, the best way is to prepare flat sawn strips of the chosen wood species,
thinner at the treble, and left longer than necessary. They are roughly pre-bent, for instance with a bending iron for double basses. This is especially important when using
pinewood. These strips should be at least 10cm wide - it is easier to bend these than
smaller strips, and also in case a strip slides sideways during the gluing, enough material is left to make about 4 hitchpin rails. By choosing flat sawn wood for the strips, the
resulting rails will be rather precisely edge-grained.
And finally a "trick" found in some later French harpsichords: the 4' hitchpinrail is
fixed on to one or two of the upper braces with a wooden block glued in between, and
a forged iron nail. The improvement in tuning stability of the 4' register and in soundboard stability is significant. There is little risk for negative consequences in the sound,

since the braces are anyway lighter and more flexible than the 4' hitchpin rail. I wanted
to investigate this exactly, so I made two almost identical harpsichords, one with a fixed,
and one with a free hitchpinrail. The difference between these instruments was not more,
than could be expected from near-identical harpsichords. I could not hear any drawbacks
of the fixed rail. In German harpsichords, where the bottom lies between the sides, and
hence cannot be glued in later, this operation is more complicated, but not impossible, if
there are flowers painted on the soundboard. A wooden block is fitted exactly between
hitchpinrail and the brace. Then one drills a 4mm hole from above through the soundboard, rail and block. When the soundboard is glued in, the block is also glued in, and
afterwards pressed down using a screw and a wide, hard support against pressure marks.
Later a wooden nail or a dowel can replace the screw. This is cut level, and painted over
with a flower, a leaf or a beetle.

Sizing and varnishing the soundboard

These are two different treatments, which are carried out either separately or in combination. First we need to ask, whether a soundboard ought to be varnished at all. Of all
antique instruments, I only know two, where an original varnish cannot be excluded with
certainty: a Christian Zell harpsichord from 1741, and a John Broadwood harpsichord
from 1778. The varnish on the Zell harpsichord is thin, evenly spread and brownish dark.
It extends until under the supports of the jackrail, glued on to the sides, which seems to
confirm its authenticity. But the history of this instrument leaves some room for doubt.
Made in 1741, for the last prince of Ostfriesland (Eastern Frisia became a part of Prussia
after his death), it came into possession of the merchant Peter von Colomb in 1789, who
initiated a thorough revision and complete repainting. His name and the date were found
on the bare wood of the cheekpiece. Of the original Chinoiserie, only a few traces remain
on the lid. Also the much too thick strings, undoubtedly old, must origin from this time.
Who wants to decide, if the soundboard varnish perhaps also was applied in 1789? The
1728 Zell harpsichord in Hamburg in any case has an unvarnished soundboard.
The John Broadwood harpsichord is located in the Norsk Folke Museum in Oslo. Its varnish is thin spread, the wood underneath rather light. It seems improbable, that this varnish is original, as the Shudi and Broadwood soundboards usually are not varnished. But
one cannot exclude, that John Broadwood (working without his partner Shudi in 1778)
in this case chose for a protection against the extremely dry Norwegian winter climate1'.
Other varnished soundboards have darkened wood, stains or scratches under the varnish,
which therefore cannot be original.
Almost all other plucked instruments, lutes, guitars etc., of the baroque period have unvarnished bellies. The acoustical properties required here differ from bowed string instruments. With the latter, sustaining after the impact is unimportant, since the string is
bowed as long as the tone shall sound. Instead, the instrument should respond easily to
the bowing. This is achieved amongst others by a higher inner damping. With a plucked
string, such damping would shorten the aftersound. Therefore, I am convinced that it is
not a good idea to varnish a harpsichord soundboard.
Quite another question is, if they have been sized in some way. With Ruckers instruments, it is rather plain that they have been treated. I will give a suggestion for this
treatment in the next chapter. It is not certain, whether other old soundboards have been

treated - some sizing leaves no visible trace even on new wood after soaking and drying.
Two statements at the beginning: first, gouache flowers can be easily painted on to untreated planed soundboard wood. No sizing is necessary. Second, it should be considered,
that every medium brought into the soundboard increases the weight and might interfere
with the sound properties. Therefore,Adlung warns not to bring the soundboard into contact with oily substances. Nevertheless, I dared to rub some linseed oil thinly and quickly onto a soundboard - primarily for optical reasons; the wood simply looks nicer. I did
not find it harmful, and did it several times. In no case the oil should soak into the wood,
and it should be raw linseed oil - best the variety sold in health stores. Only this oil dries
without sticking and leaves no glossy spots. After drying, this treatment can practically
not be seen any more.
Propolis, popular as a secret substance, is alcohol soluble (at least most of it) as well as
in lavender oil and some other essential oils (less so in turpentine oil). An alcohol solution causes irregular stains and spots on soundboard wood. Dissolved in essential oil, it
can be spread very evenly. In spite of my reservations because of the uncertain hardness
(or softness) depending from its origin, I have treated some soundboards with propolis.
This rather soft resin seems to increase the inner damping, so that the single note speaks
with less noise, but supposedly also dies away earlier. For a really secret trick, this substance has just a too distinct, honey-like smell.
Another possible sizing medium is glue water. Here, the sensitivity of the glue to climatic
changes, due to its ability to take up water, is a problem. Besides, it might be the only
one of all the mentioned substances, which not only fills the wood and adds weight, but
also alters its mechanical properties.
Some experiments with casein and with water glass on scrap wood were so unconvincing that I did not try them out on a soundboard. Also incense and myrrh, I only tried on
pieces of wood.
All sizing fits under the rule 'little and thin'. Too much will rather harm than help.
Glue sizing is discussed in the next chapter, which was written in 1998 as a contribution
to the book "Hans Ruckers" by Jeannine Lambrechts-Douillezn.


See chapter "Keyboards".

Tandy Young, William 1998. The Glue Book (Newtown, CT: Taunton Press).
Plath, Erich 1951. Die Holzverleimung (Stuttgart: WissenschaftlicheVerlagsgesellschaft).
Rompp, Hermann 1953. Das Chemielexikon Dritte Auflage (Stuttgart: Franck'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung).
6 Damrner, Otto Hrsg. 1863. Technisch-chemische Recepte, 2100 Vorschriften und Mitteilungen aus dem Gebiete der
technischen Chemie und Gewerbskunde (Glogau: Carl Flemrning), p. 103.
7 One of these I made myself in 1955, not knowing better at that time, the other one was made by the late restorer
Hartmann (who died in 1943) and is part of the Neumeyer collection.
8 Russell The Harpsichord and Clavichord.
9 This was the usual practice in Scandinavian harpsichords.
10 Only little later, the soundboards of Broadwood's pianos are varnished lightly from both sides. The varnish smells
strongly of colophon when rubbed.
11 Lambrechts-Douillez, Jeannine 1998. Hans Ruckers (Peer: Alamire).

An Attempt to answer a yet open question1

he surface structure of Ruckers soundboards shows beyond doubt, that they have
been sized with some medium. This fact should not be connected to the fatty gloss
of those soundboards, which long ago in the museums or collections have been
treated with floor wax or similar 'care'-products. The original surface shows a mild
gloss, which hardly surpasses the natural gloss of untreated, carefully planed quartered
spruce. The difference between treated and untreated wood is even less visible with
poplar. Therefore it is uncertain, but likely, that the parts of the case were treated in the
same way2. Grant O'Brien correctly concludes that it must be a medium with low viscosity, which penetrates the wood and impregnates it rather than building a film on the
surface. He writes3:

Ajler the final tapering to thickness, the upper suq4ace of the soundboard was sized as a
preparation for the soundboard painting. The material or materials used to size the
soundboard have become a rich golden-brown colour and have produced a fairly shiny
suq4ace. The coloration is probably the result of the degradation of the organic matter in
the size of preparation. It seems likely that the material used was a simple, easily accessible material commonly found in the workshop, and not a complex special preparation.
Gum arabic, egg white (glair), or varnish might have been used, but the most likely and
readily available materials were thinned shellac, or a glue size made by thinning down
the glue used for gluing the instrument together. Since the suq4ace of the soundboard is
not sticky when touched by a moistenedfinger, it seems likely that the final size was not
glue or gum arabic, although the ribbed texture of the sutj6ace seems to indicate that a
water-based size was applied initially. Perhaps the board was first glue-sized and then,
when this had dried, it was given a final coat of thinned shellac.
In the following, I will make a suggestion. As O'Brien rightly assumes, it must be 1. a
simple and 2. a watery medium. The sizing of soundboards with glue-water was not uncommon even in piano making of the 19th century. Even if there exist almost no written
sources about this practice, an obvious working step would be to combine the removing
of glue drops at the bridges with wiping over the whole soundboard with glue-water.
Alternatively, the surplus glue would have been removed mechanically, since washing
off with water would unavoidably leave a visible rim. Wood treated this way does not
stick when tested with a moistened finger. In contrast to gummi arabicum, the glue does
not dissolve, but merely swells without stickiness.
Glue sizing was a well-known practice during a long period, and very common before
varnishing stringed instruments or furniture. In organ building, one of the activities of the
Ruckers, it was (and still is) common practice to size the insides of wooden pipes and
windpipes with glue. But also the painter colleagues of the Ruckers - also members of
the St. Lukas guild - sized with glue in two ways: for impregnating linen or wood, and
for the glue-chalk ground. This process is described by Jean-Fklix Watin4, even if the addition of half a handful of salt is somewhat puzzling:

Soaking wood with glue

1 ) One puts two heads of garlic and a handful of vermouth leaves into 1%pots of water

and lets it boil down to one pot, filters it and mixes it with % pot of good strong parchment-glue, % handfil of salt and % "Nosel" vinegar and lets it boil together:
2) One takes a short brush of wild boars bristles and paints the cooking mass onto the
cawed and smooth wood. One pays attention that at no place the glue lies thickly, but
the suqace becomes fine and smooth.
The addition of vinegar reduces the gelling temperature of the glue. But salt is not compatible with glue. Probably, this is a mistake in the German translation from 1774. Garlic
and vermouth is used to make the wood repellent for woodworms. Watin's description of
sizing canvas - this time without salt - reads like this:

2) Using a specially-made wooden spatula, one spreads medium-strong glove-glue, beaten to proper thickness or mushiness, evenly all over the suqace, until it has soaked in
3 ) One scrapes the surplus together with the spatula, so that nothing remains on the canvas except what has soaked in. the glue must be so thick that it does not penetrate to the
backside. This glue water has the finction of pulling down all small fibres on to the linen and offilling all of its small holes to prevent the following paint from penetrating.
Watin mentions various kinds of glue, but especially points out glue from Flanders:

The Flanders glue is much used for decorating and it is mixed with the colours, which are
used for painting floor bricks. It is made from the waste of sheep and lambs hide or other animal's hide, and should have a pale colour and be transparent. Some put it directly
into the boiling watel; others first soak it in water for one day and dissolve it afterwards
in boiling water: It is filtered before use.
The same glue is described in Die Kunst verschiedene Arten von Leim zu machen by
Henri-Louis du Hamel du Monceau5:

On the so-called Flanders glue.

This glue does not differ from rough, strong glue regarding the way it is made; but because it is only used by the painters working with water-colours and for other purposes,
which do not require strong glue, and because it's main merit is, that it is white and transparent, it is not, like the rough, so-called English glue, made from the sinews, ears and
hide scraps of old animals, not even from hides form hares, rabbits or beavers, which
would dye it red, but only of the scraps of sheep or lambskin, and other young animals.
Du Hamel du Monceau mentions yet another reason for using garlic:
Some claim, that it [the glue] clings better to the wood, ifthe parts to be glued are rubbed
with garlick.
Let us return to the 17th century and the St. Lukas guild. Those painters knew something
else: they knew how to tan the glue. They certainly could not make it waterproof, as some
sources claim. Still, it could be made so slow in taking up water, that it remained stable
indoors. Having no access to older sources, I will cite three more recent ones:
Otto Darnrner Technisch-chemische Recepte6:


Waterproof glue paint. First one paints with ordinary glue and lets it dry thoroughly. This
is painted over with a concoction of one Loth (old measure unit) of oak-apple powder in
12 Loth of watel; boiled down to two thirds. This makes the glue paint as hard and insoluble as oil paint. Cheaper than oak apple would be tan, because only tannic acid is
required to form the insoluble bond with the glue.
Max Doerner7:
Tanning the glue (hardening the ground). By adding good alum, '/lo of the glue-weight,
the ability to soak and swell is taken from the glue. The ground becomes waterprooj
which is important if one wants to paint with watery mediums (tempera). Otherwise, the
chalk ground would dissolve. But the ground does not become absolutely water tight.
Tannic acid has the same effect, as well as spraying with a 4% formalin solution, or
painting with formalin. The formalin solution can also be added directly to the glue water, except i f one wants to keep it. Alum has the capacity to enhance the brushstrokes. On
the paintings of the Italian high-renaissance, one sometimes can observe distinct brushstrokes, which are probably the result of added alum. Alum has the disadvantage of discolouring ultramarine. Therefore, the formalin treatment is to be preferred.
Kurt Wehlte Werkstoffe und Techniken der Malerei8:
Pre-hardening the glue with alum.
Every glutin glue swells anew, when a new, watery layer is painted on top. This can be
disturbing when sizing larger suqaces. This phenomenon can be limited by pre-hardening the glue through adding alum. This also enhances the consistency of the glue during
the gelling, which is helpful when sizing fabrics. Crystallized alum may never be added
to the glue solution directly, but must first be dissolved in water. Before adding the
measured amount of glue to the water, we first take ' / 2 litre aside to dissolve the alum,
10% related to the dry-weight of the glue [...I
Usually,for practical reasons, the glue is soaked the evening before. This makes sure that
the glue has soaked thoroughly. I f meanwhile the alum has not dissolved completely, one
must help a little with heat. It must form a clear solution in any case.
Only two of the tanning substances need to be considered here: alum and tannic acid. The
formalin tanning is a rather modern method. Alum can be added to the glue without any
problem (Wehlte). The tanning effect is so weak, that the glue is not afflicted at once. Yet
its capacity for absorbing water after drying is reduced. So alum can be added to glue
water, but also to strong glue for woodworking. Only a complicated analysis will later
reveal its traces.
Tannic acid works very differently (mentioned for instance as: oak-apple extract, or extracts of oak bark or spruce bark, and "Gerberlohe", i.e. tan): it tans the glue much
stronger. If one tries to add one of these substances to the glue solution, it will coagulate
at once. So here, the glue sizing can only be tanned after drying.
It seems scarcely probable that the harpsichord makers in the St. Lukas guild did not
know about this practice. There are more indications for assuming that tanned glue was
what the Ruckers used for sizing their instruments: for instance, O'Brien writes9, that
around 1644, Andreas I lived in the Huidevetterstraat (huidevetters, i.e. oil tanners would
also have known vegetable tanning), and that this street was very close to the Jodenstraat,
where the other Ruckers workshop was situated. The masters in a Ruckers workshop
only needed to send an apprentice with a bucket for some tan, the glue was already in the

workshop. I admit that this is a mere assumption, which nevertheless fits well with the
rich dark-brown colour of all soundboards of Ruckers instruments. After some time,
tannic acid (a combination of similar organic compounds of vegetable origin) oxidizes
and turns, depending on its origin, to brown, grey or blackish. In a basic environment, this
happens very quickly. Commonly, for instance, oak is fumed, i.e. exposed to ammoniac
fumes, to anticipate its natural browning.
Other wood species with high tannin content, or those treated with tannic acid react in
the same way. In inhabited rooms, and especially under the hygienic conditions reported
from former times (even in the castles), or if there were animals in the house, a certain
ammonia content in the air would have been the rule. So even without fuming, or other'
alkaline treatment, antique oak furniture usually is very dark, as well as the Ruckers
It seems well possible, that the cause of the dark Ruckers soundboards or poplar bottom
boards was tannic acid. The underside of the soundboards is lighter. The lack of light-exposure was certainly not the only reason for this difference; also the soundboards were
not sized from the inside. Incidentally, sizing would not have been necessary for flower
painting. Gouache painting is perfectly possible on carefully planed spruce, if the paint
is not diluted to aquarelle consistence.
For completeness, I will quote here the only source I know about the treatment of harpsichord soundboards. Here, a very different principle is described. But it is rather doubtful, whether this is a description of standard practice. The book Verhandeling over de
Muziek von Jan Abraham Bouivink, 17721)is a work on music theory, and not about instrument making. It deals with the intervals and scaling proportions "welke by de beste
Meesters in gebruik is, en overeenkommt met die van den beroemden Rukkers." (Which
are in use by the best masters, in accordance with the famous ruckers). A whole chapter
is dedicated to "een nieuw uitgevonden Klavesimbel, waer op alle moogelyke klanken
zuiver syn" (a newly invented harpsichord with only pure intervals), which was a harpsichord with many subsemitones, like the 1606 (so much about "newly invented" in
1772) "Archichembalo" by Vito Trasuntino. In 5 82, the case construction is described.
Sides and bottom, outside and inside, are treated two times with "ongekookten lynoli"
(raw linseed oil), and finally painted with "gemeen amber vernis" (ordinary amber varnish). Then it says: "The soundboard, which is the part most subject to warping, swelling
and shrinking; to prevent this, it is varnished from both sides, when being well dry", but
one has to take care not to varnish it where it is to be glued on to the liner; "This varnishing even improves the sound, and is therefore very useful."
It is not quite clear, but apparently the soundboard is treated with linseed oil and amber
varnish like the case. Also linseed oil would produce a beautiful brown colour. All the
same, I would never recommend such a heavy coating.


First published in: Lambrechts-DouillezHans Ruckers, p. 91-94

O'Brien Ruckers, p. 68 und 88
Ibid. p. 101.
Watin, Jean-F6lix 1773. Der Staffirmaler, oder die Kunst anzustreichen, zu vergolden und zu lackieren, German
translation 1774 (Leipzig: Cmsius), facs. ed. Kremer (Aichstetten: Kremer).


Du Hamel du Monceau, Henri-Louis 18th century. Die Kunst verschiedene Arten Leim zu machen (no publisher
known). Fragment of a bigger work, beginning at page 141.
6 Dammer Technisch-chemische Rezepte.
7 Doerner, Max 1928. Malmaterial und seine Verwendung im Bilde (Berlin-Wien: Verlag fiir Praktische
8 Wehlte Kurt 1967. Werkstoffe und Techniken der Malerei (Ravensburg: Maier).
9 O'Brien Ruckers, p. 59
10 Bouvink, Jan Abraham 1772. Verhandeling over de Muziek ('s Gravenhage: Bouvink).

odern chemistry provides a wealth of products for finishing wooden surfaces.

Therefore, principally the painting, spraying, coating or polishing of an instrument presents no problem. The only trouble is to choose the most suitable
product amongst the enormous variety. On the other hand there is a lively interest in historical recipes. But in spite of certain specialist tips with an air of exclusive authenticity
and quality - using all kinds of ingredients from the most exotic down to eggs and buttermilk - the basic aim of any finishing procedure is to provide a protection coat as perfect as possible. With historical means, this aim was hardly achievable. Instead, the nearest possible approach to an unattainable ideal gave the inspiration for the work and was
the criterion for the workman's skill. Today, it is possible to achieve faultless, mirror-like
and scratch-free surfaces simply by choosing the right product and following the instructions. From their highly polished black surface one can certainly not tell a Steinway
from a Yamaha or a Rolls Royce. Some coloured, flawlessly sprayed modern harpsichords resemble the outsides of automobiles. On such a surface, ornaments and leaf gold
look like imitations, like a print instead of a painting. Chinoiserie resembles the plastic
decorations of a China restaurant.
So one of the motives to study old recipes may be the search for the touching human imperfection - far above any clumsy patchiness, yet miles apart from that dead plastic perfection.
Another reason for looking for historical procedures might be our uncertainty about the
risks of working with some modem products. I like to know exactly, with what I am
painting, and how soft or hard my varnish is going to be. Not to speak of the harmful ingredients like PCB, asbestos or toxic solvent agents.
I will try to demystify the old recipes and to show the problems of the modern ones. To
start with the unusual: of course, I have also made some odd experiments. I once risked
our supper by using up the only egg left in the larder for my colours.
As touching as this story may sound, in all the historical information I have seen, eggs
(as tempera or as egg-clear) were used exclusively for painting pictures, books, or afterglass-painting, but not for finishing surfaces. Watinl shortly mentions milk, together with
wax, soap etc.: "These materials were soon forgotten, especially the milk because of the
repellent smell it leaves behind. The latterfound all the more approval, as it was believed
that this was the method of the Old, of which Plinius talks in his 11th chapter of the 35th
book." (So already then, in 1774, there was a predilection for old recipes!)
About the use of such recipes, which are as complicated as possible, and which need lots
of ingredients I will also quote Watin:

The true secret of an artist in all his enterprises is to proceed as simply as possible. This
simplicity cannot be learned except through long experience, although the ignorant considers it ignorance in the art. He fancies that he only can succeed in his work if his
recipes are very complex and his actions mannered; but this is the very thing, which
makes him fail. He thinks that he cannot achieve the highest degree of perfection, except
by using many and piled-up materials, yet he can only reach [that perfection] by reducing and simplifying them.'

In past times, painting and varnishing was more laborious and costly, so there was no reason to make it even more expensive by complicated manipulations and by using expensive ingredients. In fact, apart from a few exceptions, there seem to have been no true secrets in this craft. Such exceptions either had their grounds in some exceptional skill as
in the case of the famous Vernis Martin (see below), or they were mere pomposity or deception. The awareness about the materials, and how they could be combined, was common knowledge. In spite of the hundreds recipes that were handed down, the amount of
serviceable ones is rather small, most of the others are merely variations.
The raw materials mentioned (but not always distinguished correctly) in the old sources
are a few copals, resins and gums. For instance, although gums are water-soluble substances, some sources mistakenly count certain alcohol-soluble resins among the gums.
The solvents mentioned are oils, essential oils, spirit of wine or water. The old artists
were spared having to handle the partly toxic, partly carcinogenic hydrocarbons and their
aromatic descendents, but instead, they had to deal with some highly toxic pigments. We
find exact descriptions of the appropriate solvents for these various gums, resins and copals, and of the suitable procedures. Amber for instance, the hardest and most durable of
these substances, dissolves in oil; but only with difficultly and at high temperatures,
which makes amber varnish rather dark, unsuitable for a light finish. The mysterious
Vernis Martin is probably a rather light amber varnish. The secret consists in the skill to
use as little heat as possible and to add just enough of a brighter (yet softer) resin, so that
it becomes as bright as possible but still strong enough. Oil varnish almost always is dissolved with turpentine oil, no matter whether it is based on copals or easier soluble
resins, and which oil (linseed, walnut or poppy oil) has been used. "Linseed oil," Watin
writes, "is most suited for making varnish ("FirniJ"); instead one can use nut- or poppy
oil, but they are far less ~uitable.~"
A little excursion into German terminology seems advisable here. Like in art painting today, the historical term FirniJ means a solution of resin in oil, essential oil or alcohol.
This is what a painter today would call Lack. But linseed oil treated with driers today is
called FirniJ as well, a modem and, strictly seen, incorrect use of the word. Historically,
the word Lack or even Lacc was used for shellac or the other form of the raw material,
seedlac. For completeness I need to mention that, in art painting, the term Lack means a
sap dye, which only can be used as a pigment in combination with a carrier like chalk.
For clear coatings for wood, but also for paper (prints and drawings) there is plenty of
choice, ranging from hard, dark amber varnish to the almost colourless alcohol solutions
of sandarac or mastic. Strangely enough, I could never find any necessary warnings in
the sources: for instance, multiple layers of sandarac tend to peel off. Also, a hard layer
never should follow a soft one, if one does not intend a craquele', which will be the inevitable consequence. This is remarkable, since we do meet all kinds of explicit wamings: to avoid cold and wet air during painting, to avoid weak spirit, short drying times,
impatience and haste, and open fire in the vicinity of alcohol, because - so Stalker and
Parker in 168S4:

...this Etna is forc'd to throw out itsfiery eruptions, which for certain consume the admiring Empedocles, who expires a foolish and negligent Martyr; and it would almost excite ones pity to see a forward and ingenious entrepreneur perish thus in the beginning
of his enterprise; who might have justly promised to erect a noble and inimitable piece

of Art, as lasting monument of his fame and memory: but (unhappy man) his beginning
and his end are of the same date; his hopes vanish, and his mischance shall be registered
in doggerel Ballad, or be frighelly represented in a Puppet-shew, or on a Sign-post.
To prevent a clear varnish soaking into the wood, one can prime the workpiece with
thinned glue. Of course, outdoor finishes are never primed with glue, or based on spirit,
but on oil. Distemper can be finished with spirit-varnish or - for the darker shades - with
oil varnish. For oil paint, an oil-varnish is suitable; coloured varnish is finished using the
same varnish without pigments. Here, one can reduce the amount of pigment layer by
layer, finishing with none.
"Layer by layer"! Here, the main problem of the old methods in our hectic times becomes
obvious. An old recipe could for instance advise: 'paint eight times, sand between every
layer, let it rest for a week, then add six to eight layers of paint - with sanding.' - the
finishing, after a long time of rest, would then involve a similar time-consuming process.
Let us take a closer look at some of the old sources, starting with Stalker and Parker
(1688; there are earlier sources, but they have less relevance for musical instruments):
the book starts systematically listing all the necessary equipment; pots, glasses, paint
brushes etc. Then the materials follow, together with suggestions for choosing the right
ones, and information about their price. All this starts with a warning against the use of
too weak spirit; some producers or dealers are lazy or fraudulent:
Therefore the best way to prove your spirits, is to make some in a spoon, and put a little
Gun-powder in it, and then set the spirit on fire with a little paper or candle, as you do
Brandy, and if it bums so long till itfire the Gun-powder before it go out, it isfit for use,
and will dissolve your gums5.
This is followed by the resins: "Gum-lac called Seed-lac", "Gum-Sandrick", "Sandarak".
Here I want to mention, that Watin, Croker (see below) and other sources make no distinction between sandarac and juniper-resin, because sandarac is the resin of a tropical
juniper variety6. The next substance is "Gum Aulmae", which probably is misspelled
from gummi animae. After "Venice-Turpentine", a description about how to discolour
resin by boiling - which results in "White Rosin" - follows. Its price is almost twice as
much as for common "Rosine". I will return to the boiling further below.
Under "Shell-lacc" (according to the description shellac in flakes) the observation that it
comes from the same raw material as seedlac, is missing. The next substance is not a
resin at all: "Bole-Armoniak" - red bole - is used as a pigment. "Gum Arabic" is indeed
a gum, according to the current definition. Now more resins follow: "Gum Capall" is an
alcohol-soluble copal; "Gum elemni" is elemi-resin, the following "Rosine" has already
been mentioned. "Isingglass", next on the list, belongs to none of the previous categories;
it is a special fish glue. The list of resins closes with "Gambogium", "Benjamin or
Benzoine" (benzoin-resin) and "Dragons Blood".
This book deals only with spirit varnishes; therefore, the hard copals are not mentioned.
None of the resins mentioned by the other authors is omitted here, except mastic, which
is forgotten in the initial listing; in the text, however, "Gum Mastick" is brought up.
There are, according to this source, two manners of preparing "Venice-Turpentine" for use.
One is, to boil it until the oily part has evaporated. The result is rosin, "But be cautious
that it boil not over, thereby to prevent thefiring your Turpentine and your ChimneyH7.

The second recipe results in white resin:

That necessary and serviceable friend, Venice-Turpentine, here also gives his attendence: who in the quantity of one pound, to three pints of water, takes up his lodging in
a clean, earthen, Pipkin, almost as large again as the Inhabitants. These Guests so disposed o j with their house of clay the Pipkin, place over a gentle fire, and by degrees
warm them, till they being pleased with their habitation begin to simper, and dance a little; then do you promote their pastime by stirring with a stick. [...] But they finding the
place too hot for them, should endeavour to escape by boiling over, which you'll soon
discover by the rout and bustle, and rising of the water; release them, not from the
Vessels, but fix the Pipkin in a cooler place; yet so, that they may always dance, and boil
leisurely. Ifyou find that a little of this liquor being poured on the ground, if cold, is willing by your fingers to be reduced to powder, you may conclude that the operation has
succeeded well, and ought now to be concluded. Having stood long enough to lose its acquired heat, and will suffer you to handle it; part these fellow-sufferers, by taking the
Venice-Turpentineinto your wet hands and therewith squeeze from it its friend the water;
as clean as possibly; roll it into fine powder; and in a fit place set it to dry, but not too
near the fire, which will melt it; and lastly, imprison it in a Gallipot.
The last sounds confusing: Galipot (one '1') is, in the translation of my dictionary
"Fichtenharz" (spruce-resin), which, in spite of its similarity to the material discussed
here, must be wrong. Judging from the descriptions, Gallipot (also written in two words,
and with 'y') means a narrow, high pot, especially suitable here, because it prevents the
varnish from thickening too quickly. I quoted the whole paragraph to give an impression
of the stimulating style, rich in imagery, and foolproof at the same time. H.F.A. Stockel's
"Handbuch from 17999,gives the same recipe "to take the yellow from turpentine".

I will quote another of the recipes from Stalker and Parker, which is important for harpsichord makers. The result of this procedure can be found on the 1728 Christian Zell
harpsichord in Hamburg (Museum fiir Kunst und Gewerbe). "To make blew Japan":
This task calls for several ingredients, and those too diversely prepared, before they can
be admitted to the Composition. In the front white-lead appears, which must be ground
with Gum-water very finely on a Marble-stone. The next in rank is some of the best and
,finest Smalt, (to be met with in the Colour-shops,) which you mix with Isinglass-size;
Both are mixed in the desired shade, and the object painted with the mixture. [...I when
peqectly dry, do the like three or four times, until you observe your blew lies with a good
fair body; if it should so fall out, that the Blew should be too pale and weak, put more
Smalt and not white-lead into your size. Having rush'd it very smooth, strike it over
again with this stronger Blew: soon after, yet not till it is very dry, with a clean pencil
give it, at two several times, as many washings with the clearest Isinglass-size alone; and
lay it aside for two days carefully covered, to preserve it from dust; The same diligence
forget not in making White Japan, which does as absolutely require a covering, until either of them is secured by a proper mantle of their own, varnish, which is sufficient to
guard 'em against all injuries of dust or dirt. But to proceed: When you have warmed it
by the fire, imploy again your cleanest pencil, dipt in a small portion of white varnish,
anointing your work seven or eight times; desist then for one day or two, after which
wash it again as often as before. Lay it aside for the same space of time, which being expired, repeat your washes the third and last time, as often as formerly. So many operations

certainly deserve some leisure minuts, and a week at least must be pass'd ovel; before you
dare presume to polish it. When that is done, with Lampblack and oyl clear it up and lend
it a glissening, smooth, and pleasant countenance.
Two issues deserve some further comment: the Zell harpsichord and the polishing procedure: at the chipped-off places of the Zell decoration, the water soluble, sandy blue
colour has become visible. Smalte is a cobalt-glass, which feels sandy even if finely
ground. It cannot be used in oil paint, because it would become translucent, unsightly and
dark. The Zell decoration is finished with a layer of spirit-solublevarnish. The dark green
shade is caused by this varnish turning yellow or brown during the years.
Before ca. 1815, polishing is always what we today would call 'polishing off', i.e. sanding at ever finer grades, in the same way as metal, ivory, bone, horn or modern polyester
coatings are polished. The final treatment was lampblack and oil, which, naturally, was
removed afterwards. This last treatment removes last sanding traces, which otherwise
would look lighter, and it takes off last traces of the various polishing media like Tripoli
or Viennese chalk. All the sources describe this process identi~ally.'~
The book by Stalker and Parker seems to have been widespread in its days. Its special
importance lies first and foremost in the picture part, which contains "Above an Hundred
distinct Patterns for JAPAN-work, in Imitation of the INDIANS, for Tables, Stands,
Frames, Cabinetts, Boxes &c. Curiously Engraven on 24 large Copper-Plates." Indeed
there still exists furniture in collections, which has been decorated after these patterns.
Another book with recipes was written by Johann Melchior Croker (1743)". The raw materials mentioned here are almost the same as in Stalker and Parker: "Finally, one uses
various gums for the 'Lac-Firnisse'". The first to be described is "Gummi Copal", which
comes from New Spain or West-India and "is said to grow on a tree, which has long and
rather wide leaves and carries fruit that look like cucumbers. " Nowadays, various hard
resins are called Copals; some of them are fossil like amber. Only some can be dissolved
in alcohol. Croker's "Gummi Copal" belongs to the spirit soluble resins. But he adds that
it is "dificult to dissolve" and offers several methods which all use "Spikol", a substance
similar to lavender oil.
Croker gives also recipes, where other resins are dissolved in 'Spikol', and not in alcohol or in fat oils. Spikol, lavender oil, rosemary oil and eucalyptus oil are compatible
with alcohol, and can be mixed with it. Apart from this, Croker lists varnish from turpentine and fat oil. Ground glass and calcined bones occur frequently in the text.
Apparently, the main purpose of the glass is to prevent the resin particles from clogging
during the dissolving. In other instances, however, the glass powder has to give the varnish body, working as colourless filler. The calcined bones possibly had to bind the water content of the alcohol. How to 'calcine glass' something also mentioned, remains a
mystery. Certain of these recipes do not really encourage imitation, as for instance to
soak copal in urine for three hours.
For a long time, the most important work on finishing was Watin's "Staffiialer" (German
translation 1774). Watin distinguishes between gums, resins and earth-resins and adds:

One should in fact never use gums, but only resins or earth-resins. If the material to be
used dissolves completely in watel; it is a so-called gum, which certainly is not fit for refining varnish, which is made of such solid materials, that water has no efSect on them.

Zf the chosen material dissolves completely in alcohol, it is a resin; if it dissolves half in

water and half in alcohol, it is a gum-resin or a combination of both substances.
Certain resins or earth-resins dissolve in oil instead of alcohol; but there are those,
which resist both spirit and oil"
This proceeds for a while, until at last this abstract system is completed with names: thickened sap of certain trees belongs to the gums: plum, cherry, apricot or olive tree. Arabic
gum comes from an Egyptian acacia; he also mentions tragant, acajou "and others".
Gamlogium (gummigutt), gummi ammoniacum, and myrrh are ranked as gum-resins, the
other listed names are not important. In aquarelle and gouache painting, cherry-gum,
gummi arabicum and tragant are well known. Soundboard flowers, many of which are
easily dissolved with water, were probably painted using one of these substances.
Sometimes, gum-resins appear as additives in varnish, like gambogium which is used as
"yellow ground or added to violin varnish. But Watin writes: "according to our accepted principles, they never can give a good varnish."
Somewhat fussily, Watin now lists all the resins, including the syrupy balsams. He also
points out that some of these were "falsely counted among the gums, but in fact belong
here. So for instance gummi-elemi, shellac, guajac, anime, tacamahac etc. " There follows
a long list of resins never used for varnish until at last the suitable resins appear: elemi
resin (a very soft resin, suitable only as additive; "softener" would be the modern term);
now follows gambogium (gummigutt). Disregarding his principal refusal of gum-resins
earlier on he writes: "it gives the varnish consistence, gloss and a lemon-colour." Next
come benzoin, camphor, sandarac, mastic, dragon-blood, lac and shellac, all painfully
described. Now turpentine is brought up:

The Venetian is most suited for varnishes; but because it is too expensive, one can manage using good white turpentine from the larch-tree. Turpentine is one of the most sophisticated ingredients in varnishes made with spirit and oil. It makes them glossy, transparent and it combines the parts. The varnishes get their beauty from the turpentine and
their strength and durability from the other resinsI3.
Through distillation, turpentine can be split into turpentine oil and colophony (violin
resin). The first is an important solvent and thinner, the other is dismissed by Watin as
being unfit for varnish. In 20th-century books on painting, colophony is seen as a cheap
additive to spirit or oil varnishes, which makes the varnish brittle and liable to scratching. So one should perhaps use also turpentine sparely, because after a shorter or longer
period, only a sort of colophony will be left. The last group discussed by Watin is that of
the earth-resins, which contains asphalt, copal and amber:

Copal is the most beautiful resinfor varnish. Because of its transparency and colour it is
a pity, that one needs to add some sort of oil to keep it fluid, which also darkens it a little.
Z j by chemical experiments, a liquid could be found that can be mixed in without reducing its gloss and whiteness, one would have found the long sought secret to produce a
varnish superior in per$ection and beauty to thefamous Chinese and Japanese varnishesz4.
I will only quote one recipe from the book by Stockel mentioned above: "Ein FiirniJ
welcher zu musikalischen Instrumenten anwendbar ist" (a varnish for musical instruments): Zf one puts 4 Unzen (old German ounces) sandarac, 2 Unzen seedlac, 2 Unzen

mastic and 1 Unze gummi elemi into a jug with spirit, and lets it boil up in a "Marienbad"
(bain-marie; double-boiler), adds 2 Unzen pure turpentine and lets everything dissolve
and blend; sifs it and keeps it for use, this varnish can be used for all musical instrument~'~.
Besides, this book contains - compared to Watin - nothing new, apart from a different
organisation of the text.
Exactly the same recipe can be found back in William Thomson (German translation
184316).Under the heading "varnishes for violins and other musical instruments" it says:

For instruments, which are handled frequently, a hard spirit-based resin varnish is required,for which those made from sandarac and copal or amber are useful. Except from
these, one can use the following with benefit:

4 Lth
2 "
1 "
2 "
2 "
1 Pfd

(Loth, another old measure unit) cleaned sandarac

elemi, or instead: white benzoin
stamped glass
Venetien turpentine
(pound) spirit"

Apart from the stamped glass, this recipe is identical with Stockel's; even here, the turpentine is added later on.
The "Praktische Anweisung" (1843 18) partly refers to Watin. Schulze adds also
"Kautschuk (India rubber) to the already mentioned raw materials. The varnishes are
classified as follows:


A linseed oil varnishes B turpentine oil varnishes, essential oil varnishes C

poppy seed oil varnishes D walnut oil varnishes E rosemary oil varnishes F
lavender oil varnishes
alcohol varnishes, spirit varnishes

The distinction between these groups is incorrect insofar as the transition from rosemary
oil varnishes to lavender oil and alcohol based ones is gradual. In only very few recipes,
an essential oil is used as the only solvent. Usual is a spirit varnish with added rosemaryor lavender oil or 'Spikol'.
My next source, the "Technisch-Chemische Rezepte" edited by Otto Darnrner (186319),
brings, amongst an abundance of recipes of all categories (including even such dubious
things like artificial wine or beer made from potatoes and beet-roots), also many varnish
recipes. They scarcely differ from the preceding ones. Only a few substances are new:
India rubber - already mentioned by Schulz, gutta-percha, and more applications of asphalt. New solvents are sulphuric ether, ether or benzine.
One substance however, which has been mentioned in several modern articles on Italian
violin varnishes - propolis - cannot be found in any historical recipe. Even if this soft
resin might be useful as an additive for violin varnishes or as a primer, but there is not
the least hint of its ever being used for varnish making. It is also not true, that the German
term Geigenharz (violin-resin) ever had a different meaning from colophony. All cited

sources equal Geigenharz with colophony, except Stalker and Parker, who indiscriminately uses the term "rosine".
In the "Lehrbuch der Apothekerkunst" by Karl Gottfried Hagen (1797), we can read
about propolis:

As a medicine, the "Stopfwachs", "Vorwachs" or "Bienenharz" (propolis), is already

now no longer in use. This is a yellowish-brown substance, which smells like "Storax"
(styrax), and with which the bees fill all openings and gaps of their housing except the
entrance hole. They collect it from the buds and twigs of young resinous trees, like firs,
spruces, alders and ashes, and use it raw, unlike wax or honey, which has come into their
Therefore propolis is, depending from its origin, an uneven, sometimes soft and sticky,
sometimes harder resin, which therefore should be used with care and consideration, if
at all. The "Apotekerkunst" also describes how "Geigenharz" (colophony) is produced
from spruce- or pine resin, and how, by cooking, it can be discoloured to white resin. The
old sources refute another recurring claim: that shellac had come into use only after the
heyday of Italian violin building. This is evidently not so: in all the old recipes, shellac
appears in its various forms: as sticklac, seedlac or shellac in flakes.
Watin's prophetic view about the yet unknown solvent for copal, "the most beautiful
resin for varnish", leads over to the modern varnishes. Today, of all the mentioned raw
materials, only copals and shellac have survived, next to the many synthetic resins in
modem recipes (only in the specialized field of violin varnishing the traditional ingredients still have a function).
Even a short overview over the modern finishing techniques would go too far here, so I
will restrict myself to describing a few of my own experiences with modern materials.
The increasing awareness about the risks for our health and the environment of some
modern materials has led to an increasing availability of so-called 'natural' painting materials. This principally positive trend leads to some other hazards: some firms seem to
trust natural materials rather too much, and by combining incompatible substances, bad
results, such as coatings that remain for ever sticky, may occur. For a long period, matt,
or satin-gloss varnish was made by adding beeswax. This is a perfectly reliable method,
but one needs to know, that on such surfaces no other paint will stay. So repairing or repainting will be impossible without completely removing the old coating, which hardly
can be done without harm for health or environment. Even more problematic is paint designed for priming, which contains beeswax - no exception today.
For achieving matt varnish, zinc-resinate is normally used today; in this function a safe
substance. One producer obtains the same result with simple filling powder, if I remember correctly, marble powder. To achieve an even satin-gloss, one needs to spread this
kind of varnish very carefully and evenly indeed.
But on the whole, the collections of 'natural' resins by the various firms are convincing
enough: non-toxic pigments, only linseed oil, and as thinner turpentine oil or citrus oil
(that is: turpentine oil with added orange or lemon oil). Turpentine oil is certainly not
completely harmless, but being a natural product it is still less problematic than benzine,

toluene, or benzole. The resins are usually non-toxic and environment-compatible synthetic resins, because the desired viscosity, toughness and hardness are easier obtained
by their use, than with natural resins. Small containers with lead-free driers are supplied
separated from the varnish, and must be added in exact amounts before use. This helps
to preserve half empty pots of paint or varnish. Normal industrial products contain dryer and also some chemicals to prevent the forming of a dried-up film in opened tins alas often in vain.
So many of the so-called natural-colours represent a successful middle path between
foolproof modernity and nostalgic old fashion. Perhaps they require a little more care in
their use, and a longer drying time, but they are pleasant to work, and if one works with
consideration, the results can be very good.
Apart from the health risk of certain modem products, another thing should be considered:
nobody has any long-term experience with these materials; we only have the manufacturers' promises that their products are stable and durable. There is no reason for simply believing such propaganda: for instance, I possess a once opened bottle of "Nitrohartgrund
(a sanding sealer), which I ceased to use because of its disgusting odour. During ten
years, although remaining fluid, the stuff changed from being almost colourless to a dark
brown. One of the most horrible examples was related during a restorer's conference: a
Viennese museum had the task to preserve some Egyptian papyri from imminent decomposition. The solution was to cast them into clear synthetic resin, which resulted in clear
bricks of resin, which allowed for handling and reading the papyri from both sides. Fifteen
years later, the now opaque and dark brown bricks contained the papyri as safely as ever,
yet lost forever.
In order to avoid the vapours of solvents, an increasing amount of water-based dispersion paint has appeared on the market, which is also called acrylic paint after the resin
used here. Like 'white glue', the dispersion principle uses the ability of certain synthetic resins, to remain fluid when dispersed in water even at temperature far below their
melting point, but to harden once the water has evaporated.
The same principle applies to the cheap paint sold in plastic containers in almost every
DIY department of the larger supermarkets. They have a matt, but extraordinarily durable
finish, are waterproof and therefore easy to clean. If one wants to paint an instrument or
a stand with a matt finish, this cheap paint is very suitable. It is astonishingly scratchand mark proof and remains good in appearance for a long time. For a satin finish, one
could treat the paint with wax; but because of my reservations against wax mentioned
above, I would never do this. A disadvantage is, that this paint, due to its toughness, can
almost not be sanded. A second one: the paint lies on the surface as it is brushed on, and
does not spread at all. Many dispersion paints or varnishes have some of this characteristic. A wide brush with soft hairs, or one of the unprofessional looking but useful rubber foam brushes helps to manage this sort of paint. This paint is easily covered with a
clear dispersion varnish; both can even be mixed, as I have tried. Primers and fillers
based on dispersion are also available.
Like many modem materials, the dispersion- or water-based varnish has the tendency to
become electrostatically charged, attracting dust most annoyingly - only a special dusting-cloth helps here.

Watin Der Stafirmalel:

Ibid. p. 205.
Ibid. p. 45.
Stalker and Parker 1688. The Art ofJapanning and Varnishing (London: Alec Tiranti), 1971.
Ibid. p. 3.
In some books on the secrets of violin varnish juniper-resin is described as something else, unavailable today. The
crumbly reddish-brown substance sold as juniper-resin today seems -judging from the colour - to come from
juniperus virgineana.
Stalker and Parker The Art, p. 9.
Ibid. p. 13.
Stockel, H.EA. 1799. Handbuchfur Kiinstlel; Lackirliebhaber und Oelfarben-Anstreicher (Niirnberg: Stein), ed.
Kremer (Aichstetten: Kremer).
The so-called French polishing with a pad was invented only around 1810-1815, initially by wood turners.
Baroque veneered furniture, French polished to utmost glossiness, as can be seen in many collections, give therefore a wrong impression.
Croker, Johann Melchior 1743. Der wohl anfuhrende Mahler (Jena: Croker), ed. Kremer 1982 (Aichstetten: Kremer).
Watin Der Staffirmaler, p. 18617.
Ibid. p. 194.
Ibid. p. 196.
Stockel Handbuch, p. 123, $ 164.
Schulze, August Ed. 1843. William Thomson's Kunst alle Arten Fimisse und Lac&rnisse, als Weingeist=, copal=,
Terpentinol=,Bemstein= und Leinolfirnisse, auf das Beste und nach neuesten Zusammensetzungen zu bereiten
(Quedlinburg und Leipzig: Basse).
Ibid. p. 94.
Which is added to the German translation of Thomson.
Dammer Technisch-chemischeRecepte.
Hagen, Karl Gottfned 1797. Lehrbuch der Apothekerkunst ( Konigsberg: Nicolovius), part I, p. 105.


hen did it start? There are different beginnings. It is a temptation to start with
Adam and Eve, with my boyhood production of model gliders, battleships
and models of sailing yachts. These, and a course in woodturning at the age
of twelve were my first experiences with wood and tools. Or should I perhaps begin with
my early enthusiasm for the harpsichord c h q i n g I heard on the radio. Today I can hardly
understand this; looking back from the later development, it should rather have repelled
me. But still, an unpleasant, even dramatic event has clung to my memory: in February
1945, as an 18-year-old Oberkanonier, I was summoned to the detachment command to
answer questions about a seemingly dubious incident. I was interviewed severely in a
villa, several miles behind the frontline, whilst simultaneously hearing a Hiindel concerto
grosso broadcasted by the Reichsrundfink.
So I better start with music and instruments. In 1947, I began to study music; my main
instrument was the flute. To the disgust of my teacher, I also wanted to play recorder in
a serious way (he considered this rubbish). As easy as "playing recorder" may sound today, at that time it was almost impossible to put into practice. There were no recorders
available in Germany that could in any way be used for making music. One could only
buy some sort of chair legs with "German fingering". So I was overwhelmed with joy
when my father managed to buy a turning lathe in 1949. A toolmaker had assembled this
machine from parts of seven disused US Army lathes. A bundle of baseball bats made
from very hard American maple came together with this lathe as material. After some experimenting, my results became soon better than any available recorder. This is no special merit, since these were practically unusable. As initial models, I had access to a few
high-standard pre-war Biirenreiter recorders: the widow of Manfred Ruetz, who had developed these recorders, was our lecturer in rhythm at the conservatory. She helped me
a lot in the beginning phase, even though, after comparing with museum instruments, I
soon started moving away from the Biirenreiter model.
Within a short time, I was urgently asked to make more recorders for music teachers and
fellow students. Recorders were absurdly cheap at that time. Even if I asked more than
the usual price, it was only enough to keep the work going without earning any money.
The first thing I had to do was to pay tax. The little money that was left I spent on timber, tools, books and a visit to the Berlin collection of instruments. But these activities
on top of my studies brought a rich harvest of experience. Even if I spoiled an instrument
during my experiments (which did not happen too often) this helped to enhance my understanding. Could I have bought, say, a Dolmetsch recorder in 1948 or 1949, perhaps
never in my life would I have started making musical instruments.
In 1950 I received my teacher's diploma. I also started to participate in cantatas and concerts, mostly in churches. Often, my colleague for the second part would also play on a
recorder from my production. My wish for a harpsichord was fulfilled just a week before
the so-called Wahrungsrefornz, the introduction of the Deutschmark in June 1948. These
times were so extreme, that it is worthwhile to give a detailed description. An inquiry
with an established manufacturer resulted in the condition, that, for buying a harpsichord
in Reichsmark, it was required to offer a piano, or better a grand piano in part-exchange.
Fortunately we had inherited two pianos. Moreover, 3.500 Reichsmark had to be paid.


This money was taken from RM 5.000,- received for an old typewriter, which my father
sold to a margarine factory. As a young engineer, he had purchased this discarded typewriter for 1 Reichsmark in 1931.
During the nineteen-fifties I was a regular visitor of the Berlin instrument collection
(then in Schloss Charlottenburg), due to trips to my grandparents, who lived in
Charlottenburg. Here they were most helpful and obliging, beginning with the "Chef ',
Dr. Alfred Berner, via the restorer Friedrich Ernst to the whole staff. The collection was
open to the public only on Saturdays between 1la.m. and 1p.m. for a guided tour. But I
was allowed to move freely amongst the collection during the whole week to handle and
measure everything. I am still thankful for this.
My primary interests were recorders and flutes, but soon, I became involved in keyboard
instruments as well, and this is how it happened: in 1951, a lady asked me to repair a
clavichord made by Merzdorf, that had been damaged during the war. I refused, because
I knew nothing of this kind of instrument. But she was reluctant to let a piano technician
do this job and insisted that I should at least have a look at it. It was not too difficult to
persuade me, as I was really curious; I never had seen or played a clavichord. I succeeded in restoring this instrument, but now, I also wanted to have such an instrument. From
the income from selling recorders I could not afford to buy it, even though this activity
had grown such as to make it advisable to register it as a trade. In 1952, this was relatively easy in the "Bremen-enclave", which belonged to the free-trade American zone.
On May 24th, 1952, I went to the Stadt- und Polizeiamt and received a Gewerbeschein
for DM lo,-. I wanted to register as a maker of historical woodwind instruments (meanwhile, I had made copies from the Hotteterre traverse flute in the Berlin collection for own
use, and soon afterwards for Prof. Gustav Scheck in Freiburg), but the official determined:
"What sort of instruments, is of no importance"; so it became "manufacture of musical instruments". I did not know, how practical this decision would soon turn out to be.
In short, I considered the single strung clavichord with a straight bridge (and consequently an impossible scaling, which I did not know then) a simple but attractive device,
simple enough to build one for myself. Thus started the big adventure of building two
primitive clavichords, one for myself and one for my sister. During my next visit to
Charlottenburg, I started looking more closely at the stringed keyboard instruments, and
realized immediately, that such strange clavichords like I had built never existed in former times. But also about our harpsichord, regarding the construction and the musical result, particular thoughts began to arise. So, after two more clavichords in 1952 and 1953,
my desire to build a harpsichord took shape. In the spring of 1953, I had made up my
mind. Being modest, I first thought about a single manual Instrument. But a concert with
Gustav Scheck, August Wenzinger and Fritz Neumeyer stirred me up thoroughly. After a
sleepless night (very untypical for me), I decided: If once in my life I was going to build
a harpsichord, it might as well be a great effort. So I made a two manual instrument with
four sets of strings including a 16' register. It was based largely on the Berlin no.316, but
as I disliked its clumsy form, I mixed in elements of No.5 (probably Silbermann).
Not much of my first harpsichord - which still exists - can be called historical. It has
strong backposts of ash wood, ribs under the bridge and a thin 4' hitchpin rail. Today it
seems difficult to believe, that only from my fifth instrument in 1955, I could make a
strong 4' hitchpin rail, no bridge-crossing ribs and a correct cutoff bar, because before, I


knew nothing about all this. I could not know it, because it was impossible to look inside
the instruments. The small sketch which Friedrich Ernst gave me, showed in Nr.316 a
modern soundboard layout with eleven ribs across the entire soundboard, and bits of
wood fitted in between, serving as a 4' hitchpin rail. How could I know better? Journeys
to foreign countries were - not only for financial reasons - very difficult. Only in 1955,
I travelled to The Hague for the first time. Yet, in any case the scaling and the soundboard
thickness were chosen differently from the usual standard of the time. Already this gave
a better result. Now I had tasted blood. For the first time I had an experience, which
would become decisive for my whole professional life: I knew what I wanted to improve
in my next harpsichord. The matter of a second instrument came up by mere chance. A
friend - an organist - wanted to buy our harpsichord as soon as I had finished my new
one. But my father, unaware of this agreement, sold it to someone else. So suddenly, I
was one harpsichord short. I promised my friend a new one for the same price. I calculated that a good furniture factory could make the case after my design better, quicker
and consequently cheaper. This applies certainly to the modern backpost construction,
which I did not dare to abandon; this is more furniture making than building instruments.
So the cases for no.2 to no.6 were made by the "Vereinigte Werkstattten fiir Kunst und
Handwerk". From no.7, an Italian model, onward, the case construction is historical, and
external fabrication of the case was no longer possible. Harpsichord no.5 was very important, because I made, for the first time, a Ruckers construction with a correct soundboard layout. The resulting sound gave me an important impetus; in spite of the backpost
construction, it resembled a historical instrument. There is an illustration of it in the book
"Kielklaviere" by the "Staatliches Institut fiir Musikforschung Preuljischer Kulturbesitz"
(Berlin 1991). It has its home now in Baltimore, is well cared for and frequently played.
The acoustical difference compared to a historical case construction is much less than
compared to a modern soundboard ribbing.
In 1955, Fritz Neumeyer asked me to make him an Italian harpsichord with two 8' registers. This fascinating task was never carried out, because the chosen model (Francesco
Nobili, Rome 1690) in the Museum fiir Hamburgische Geschichte was on loan only, and
Neumeyer succeeded in purchasing this original. It is now part of his collection in Bad
Krotzingen. Unfortunately it received a new, dirty-dark stained soundboard during a
restoration between 1953 and 1955. I had seen it before, and was very disappointed afterwards. The responsible museum staff were neither asked before nor informed after the
I have to explain how it was possible for an amateur simply to begin making a clavichord
or a harpsichord. There were no kits with prepared parts to be ("build your own harpsichord!") simply assembled. And there were certainly no plans of historical instruments
from the collections available. In this respect, it was incomparably more difficult than today. But on the other hand it was also much easier. I could simply go to a wood dealer and
choose a plank of dry (!) timber. Carrying this for a quarter of an hour on my shoulder, I
arrived at the "Holzbearbeitungsbetrieb Jonny Bokenkroger" (today a private carpentry
museum). This was a meeting place of many carpenters with small workshops, who could
use the machines, which they could not afford themselves, against payment. Here I prepared my plank and carried it in another long walk to my little basement workshop. For me
all this was rather exciting. I was awe-struck at the sight of these heavy, dangerous machines, and I did not want the workmen to realize that I did not know anything about woodworking with machines. Later I had my boards prepared at the "Vereinigte Werkstatten".


Today all this has disappeared. The few wood dealers left have moved out of town, and
nobody sells single planks, but rather cubic metres, or better still, whole wagonloads.
Dried timber today means artificially dried. Small workshops or machine pools have
vanished altogether. The ironmonger's and tool shops have - if they did not close - also
moved out of the centres and became big firms. At that time, I could order 5.000 brass
pins made in four weeks according to my wishes, at a moderate price. And today? A few
years ago I asked how many piano centre-pins one needed to order, if one wanted them
12mm long instead of 17rnm. The answer was: 50kg. Once, buying string wire in small
quantities was no problem; today one must order unbelievable quantities of certain special materials.
Apart from the excitement of something new, my tinkering about in the basement had
some other thrilling facets. Before beginning a new harpsichord for instance, I had to
make a frame of its outer dimensions to rehearse its final delivery around all the narrow
corners of the former air-raid shelter. There was a real chance of ending up with a stationary harpsichord, which only could be moved out by literally tearing down the walls.
Another serious problem was having to conceal my entire building activity from the
house owner, an elderly lady, who would have banned any such thing. But I did succeed
until we could move to our own house in 1961 - which 30 years later finally 'belonged'
to us without a mortgage.
The first harpsichord was made for myself. Since then, apart from a very short time, there
was always an instrument at home, after a few years usually two. If I make a harpsichord
today, I usually know the customer, and this influences me during the building. But, at the
same time, it always feels as if I am making the instrument for myself. So it just happened
that the idea of only temporarily making harpsichords disappeared into thin air.
Of course, I had a lot of luck as well. In 1956, a Dutch recorder player Kees Otten wanted to meet me and announced his visit, asking if he could come together with a harpsichordist, who liked to drive the new car of his mother. "Yes certainly", I answered, "I
also have two harpsichords here". This 28-year-old harpsichordist was Gustav Leonhardt.
He told me about his friend in Vienna, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who had just founded an
ensemble for old music, and was quite unhappy with the prospect of having to buy a
harpsichord. He hated the sound of the modern harpsichord. It was my No.5 that convinced Leonhardt; No.6 he only accepted as being "quite nice". So with No.7, for the
Concentus Musicus, the first truly historically-built harpsichord, I finally was on my
way. Yet another thing that was easier needs mentioning: my first harpsichords before
No.5, would impress nobody today. Furthermore, my amateur background showed itself
clearly in certain details. Nevertheless, the different design contrasted in such a way with
the then common, that whereas some players disapproved of the unusual sound, others
were attracted.
I do not claim to have been the first to aim at the historical harpsichord. Fritz Neumeyer
owned a harpsichord, which had been begun by the Berlin restorer Hartmann and was
finished after his death in 1943 by Martin Scholz. This instrument stimulated my No.5,
which is made after the same original, No.2230 in Berlin. In 1954, in the home of Dr.
Rubart, then chairman of the Leipzig collection, I saw a harpsichord "after Ruckers" built
by Neupert - I think in 1937. And Manfred Ruetz owned a Ruckers copy, built in the
Merzdorf workshop by Johannes Koch, a trained harpsichord maker, who later became


known as a viola da Gamba player. Around 1954 or 1955, the workshop of Dr. Ulrich
Ruck of Nuremberg made a copy after Grabner for the Amsterdam Conservatory. But to
build exclusively in the historical manner, as Rainer Schiitze and I did, was new and
somewhat suspect. Rainer Schiitze not only built after these principles, but propagated
them also in lectures and articles. The established firms did not take this too seriously
and reacted with a lame defence and mockery. Only much later I learned, that simultaneously, Frank Hubbard and William Dowd in Boston had started to make historical
harpsichords as well.
In 1962, I was allowed to make a harpsichord "after Dulcken" for Gustav Leonhardt. As
a basis, I had a few freehand sketches with measurements of the Dulcken harpsichord in
Washington and some measurements of the Vienna Dulcken. I could only look at the
Vienna instrument from the outside, and it was not playable. The Dulcken in Washington
I did not see before 1988. My little sketch contained some details of the inner construction, but I had no idea about the typical double case of Dulcken. In Washington, the double wall on the inside had erroneously been removed as being not original. This is only
an indication of how little we knew at that time, and how laborious it was to obtain the
correct information. Some details of the original did not convince me, and I altered them.
For instance, for my taste the 8' bridge was a little too close to the bentside in both instruments. So I altered the form of the case somewhat. The result was, as I had to repeat
far too often, an instrument close to Dulcken, but far from a copy. It did not help much:
the more this instrument became known through the recordings, the more in vain was my
defence against the word "copy". I had to learn that apparently many people knew the
facts better than I did, and also, that my work was misused by others as a means to discriminate the so- called factory harpsichord. In a similar manner, many performing musicians suffered from the rhetoric and the activities of their fans.
In 1967 I was asked to write an article about historical and modern harpsichord building
principles. This article was published in three parts in 1968 in the German magazine
"Hifi Stereophonie" under the heading "Cembalobau aus historischer Sicht" (harpsichord making in a historical perspective - I would have preferred 'historical and modern
harpsichord making'). I took considerable pains to be fair to the makers of modern harpsichords; also I was anxious to prevent being sued. So my aim was utmost objectivity.
Yet, already the facts that had to be listed had enough explosive force. Additionally I was
forced to contradict Hanns Neupert, who was the only one of the manufacturers who
wrote serious articles about harpsichords, instead of mere advertising material. Whoever
publishes is in danger of making mistakes, so it was no wonder that I found fault with
some of his statements, and considered some sources incorrectly interpreted.
With this article I started an avalanche. Suddenly countless other writers popped up,
whose primary task seemed to be to undermine my attempt at an objective approach. So
I could read in one article "Skowroneck writes:" preceding a long quotation of my text.
After the quotation marks, it said, "one could a d d , and on goes my article, now without
being identified as a citation. A remarkable practice, and the more annoying, as many of
the neutralizing passages were not quoted. For instance, I never used the discriminating
term "factory harpsichord", because I am convinced of its pointlessness. Even in the
Steinway factories many important working steps still are done by hand. It was damaging for the discussion that such secondary gossips disturbed the scene with their irrelevant clamour. Not surprisingly, the established firms reacted aggressively and nervously.


It is rather astonishing to read back the arguments and retorts of the 'modern' fraction
after many years. Many an author of these sharp attacks, and even mockery poems, did
later not tire to claim his importance in the revival of historically-oriented harpsichord
The change in harpsichord making, the re-orientation after the historical sources, is an
example of Schopenhauer's description of the steps a problem has to run through; first,
it is neglected or ridiculed, then it is fought against, and finally it is a matter of course.




uring the last decades of the past century, historical sources have become accepted as a basis for musical performance practice and for instrument making
(not only stringed keyboards). Even into the seventies, certain narrow-minded
purists stuck to the formula 'a historical approach is good, a traditional approach (whatever that means) is bad'. This formula confronted many excellent musicians and serious
instrument makers with the impossible choice either to confess ruefully that they had
done something, or even everything, 'wrong' during their whole life, or to stamp stubbornly onward, blocking out any possibility of a change or of gentle learning. Fortunately,
this belongs to the past. How thoroughly this has been overcome is shown by the fact that
for performances of 20th century works (like Hugo Distler's harpsichord concerto) a
modern harpsichord is chosen as adequate, and this decision is explicitly mentioned.
At this stage, the quality discussion finally has become free of ideologies and can be considered unbiased. The transition between good and bad lies elsewhere and is not as clean
cut at all.
In the present book, the question of quality is only dealt with through a few single aspects. So for instance, when I put thorough reflection, unbiased judgement and even experiments forward as promising, and when I warn against prejudice, secret tricks or a
concentration on a few overestimated details. Only a level balance of all the factors can
lead to good results. Who understands this is immune against secret formulas.
Some of the working steps described in the preceding chapters are more important for
the quality than others, even though this is not pointed out explicitly. For instance, if I
contrast an elaborately hand-planed soundboard, made from selected timber, with a
ready-made one, a glance at the neighbouring violin making is revealing: nobody would
compare a master violin with an instrument with router-cut belly and back, made in division of labour. But on the other hand, handwork is no success guarantee; it only offers
more possibilities to put one's ideas into practice. And this requires effort, patience and
reflection. He, who only pays attention to the clock, will, at best, succeed in a sportsman's feats.
In the Art World of today, everything needs to be elaborately explained. No 'installation'
of cobblestones, scrap metal, TV sets or whatever else is thinkable without a long-winded clarification. This is necessary enough: the layman needs preparation before being
confronted with objects which he in his normal life would evade. The same applies to
some works of Musica Nova that produce sounds of the kind, which I normally eliminate
with ear protectors during work. Here, an explanation is very necessary.
Not so with our work: what we produce has a direct effect on players and listeners alike
without the need of an explanation. Therefore, it would be desirable to get rid of the bad
habit of explaining away the quality of one's product. A fruitful discussion between musicians and instrument makers is something altogether different from this advertising
through the back gate.

Like an echo from those times, when the above-mentioned formula was used as a weapon,
the popular term "copy after.. ." still follows the instruments as a kind of quality guarantee. This matter found no place in the previous chapters, but I consider it important
enough to be discussed at the end. In no other field, whether in the Arts, mechanics,
economics or any other subject, the term copy is thought of as highly as in instrument
making. Quite on the contrary, a copy usually is considered something minor or secondary, or even dishonest or criminal (like pirate copies or forged bank notes).
In harpsichord making, copies have a long tradition, but originally, the fact was bashfully
kept secret because of the dishonourable motives: many a maker copied secretly the work
of a more successful colleague, and sometimes even sold his things under the name of
the other. In 1771, Kirkman sued Robert Falconer for selling his instruments under the
name of Kirkman, who probably realized higher prices. Many 18th-century Ruckers
copies were intentionally made as forgeries.
What motivates the instrument makers of today to employ this slightly suspect term so
proudly, as if it were a special symbol for quality? The main reason is the insufficient
number of originals that can be used for daily musical practice. So the new-built instruments have to be as "authentic" as possible. To live up to this overstressed term leads to
the deceptive logic to copy as "correctly" as possible. But this "as correctly as possible"
not only hinders the creativity necessary for good results, it also restricts one's power of
observation and judgement. Thus, faults in an original (and these exist!) might be copied
along with the rest. The resulting loss of quality will not be compensated by some special qualities of the original, because these either were not observed, or they cannot be
copied anyway, because they are a personal attribute of the old master. More successful,
and authentic in a higher meaning, would be a new instrument in which the maker expresses himself, fulfilling this task with all his knowledge, and supported by his judgement instead of depending on given measurements. In this case it is irrelevant how
closely he works after a certain model, or if he works more freely. Only when leaving the
historical scope will he go astray, as the harpsichord building from the beginning of the
20th century shows.
But there are certainly good reasons for copying: to revive an interrupted tradition in instrument making, the easiest and most promising way is to copy an original. As any
learning process sensibly enough starts with imitation, copying is the best way, in any
case better than painful experiences after aimless experiments. But this phase of imitating should not be extended unduly, and never should it become the basis for normal production, out of mere laziness.
In some of the preceding chapters I have given several reasons against the making of literal copies. Here for instance can be named faulty scalings, static weakness or simple
mistakes in originals. The Ruckers harpsichords enlarged (raval4 during the 18th century
have an exceptional position. Even if such an instrument, say "Ruckers-Taskin", sounds
marvellous, I consider it of no use to copy it if one does not want to copy the patchwork
caused by the enlargement as well. The scaling of these instruments has become faulty
through the alteration, and mainly because of the smaller French octave span. It is much
better to reconstruct this type of instrument, which indeed has a good musical potential,
with a correct scaling. The best procedure is perhaps to start from an unaltered original

with transposing keyboards, and to search for the cleverest and most economical change
necessary for the greater compass. Similar reservations apply to other originals which
have been altered in the course of their history.
Finally, I will explain why I consider exact copying impracticable. Again, a look at violin building might help: countless violins are made after the Stradivarius model, but not
a single one has any similarity with their prototype. There are excellent masterpieces
amongst them, but these owe their quality to the master, and not to the prototype. How
could a copy of a comparatively much more complex instrument like a harpsichord
succeed better? Already the many various physical parameters of the wood (see
"Soundboards") cannot be measured, at least not without nearly destroying the original.
But how can we make a copy of something that has not been thoroughly analysed?
Another obstacle is the 'handwriting' of the old master, his use of the tools, the succession
of his working steps and much else. Certain details can be concluded from the traces, for
instance the planing across the grain (see "Soundboards"). Other things we only can
guess, such as the purpose of the burn marks and burned wood shavings in many Italian
Finally, the use of power tools should consequently be excluded when making a copy. So
indeed, what does "copy after.. ." really mean?

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