Large theorbo update; combining old and new….

Last week Sandra and I took a little break. We went to the Taizé community in France, one of the most beautiful places we know. Time to reflect and get some rest, meeting the most interesting people and getting new ideas and inspiration. But more on that later.

Making the Schelle theorbo is like a journey. It was commissioned by Punto Bawono, a young lutenist studying at the conservatory in The Hague. He was looking for a theorbo in D-minor tuning for late baroque music. Over the last months we have both been researching these instruments, exchanging ideas and information. It became clear that there still is a large field of research open, both in playing, as in organologic knowledge about these theorbos. They often get overlooked and misplaced in museums and publications.

We also started to investigate the life and work of Sebastian Schelle, and his heir Leopold Widhalm. A couple of weeks ago Punto said he found a Schelle lute in the collection of the Municipal Museum (Gemeentemuseum) in The Hague. It would be great to examine this instrument as a reference for our own version…

There was one problem: the instrument collection has been in storage for the last ten years. The focus of the museum is on arts of the last two centuries, not musical instruments. It’s inaccesability a wellknown complaint among instrument makers and researchers. But Punto managed to make an appointment to examine the instrument.

So at a sunny tuesday two lute nerds cycled through The Hague, armed with calipers, rulers, pencil and paper.

Visiting the Gemeentemuseum is an experience in itself. The building was designed by the well known H.P. Berlage. He was one of the last architects who made “gesamtkunstwerken”, designing everything from corridors and staircases to door handles and cutlery.

We were led through a side door into the library of the museum where the Schelle lute already was resting on a pillow.

Like most lutes this one also had a very intensive life. The only thing we could be sure was made by Schelle was the bowl, the top is a thick replacement, more resembling a ‘wandervogellaute’ than a baroque lute. The pegbox is clearly a replacement, probably made somewhere around the middle of the 20th century. Perhaps the neck is original, but the inlay seems a little bit unrefined compared to other instruments by Schelle, and even the bowl it is attached to.

Besides taking measurements and photographs there was something extra. A large part is getting a sense of the instrument. Looking at the details, feeling the shapes and structures. There is simply now way to put that kind of information into words or measurement tables.

Our first aim was to get a reference to the work we had already done. And surprisingly it came very close, even the wide inlays between te ribs seemed a perfect match. Also the ‘fluting’ of the ribs (the paper linings on the inside of the bowl cause the ribs to bend a little bit inwards).


After we examined the lute there was a second mission; visiting the large Mondrian exhibition. A thing I always ask customers is whether there is something personal they would like on their instrument; a special piece of material, text or decoration.

After a while Punto came up with a great suggestion: why not put a Mondrian painting on the back of the neck extension? Still seen as one of the epitoms and archetypes of modern art. And even more appropriate: this year it is the centennial of the foundation of the Stijl movement. This group contained artists like Vilmos Huszar (who invented the characteristic color scheme), Theo van Doesburg, Bart van der Leck, Gerrit Rietveld and Piet Mondrian.

The Gemeentemuseum has one of the largest Mondrian collections in the world. Drawings, studies, paintings, but also personal letters and materials.

There are a lot of misconceptions about Mondrian: One is that he couldn’t paint and therefore just made simple paintings. To get a grasp of his work you should see the development. He learned the basics of panting from his uncle, and only over time started to make his work more abstract.

Another misconception is that the spacing of the lines and colored squares was done according to the golden ratio. There are no indications that Mondrian used any theoretical system to set up his paintings. Investigations into the layers of the paintings show that the setup was more associative. He arranged and re-arranged the lines and squares until they formed a harmonical composition. One inspiration for this was the jazz he heard in the cafe’s and dancings around Paris.

Parts of this process can still be seen in his unfinished “Victory Boogie Woogie”, made just before his death in New York.

A thing often heard when people talk about Mondrian (or any modern painter) is “Yes, my little niece can do that too…” I always congratulate them that they have such a talented niece. And it seems there are a lots of artistically gifted children out there. Sorry but no, your children don’t make art like this by nature. It might look simple, but that doesn’t automatically mean it is.


After some searching and sparring we settled on three of the ‘diagonal’ paintings. Made in the late twenties, Mondrian they broke with the traditional way of orientating the canvas.

At first sight the paintings appear very sober and often people are recreating them using solid colors. But when you look at the real canvases you will discover that they have structure, the paint isn’t flat, but there is a certain amount of reliëf. Wether intentional or not, it does give an extra dynamic and dimension to the paintings. But how to recreate this on the theorbo? One way to give it some “depth” is to make them into inlays instead of painting them on.

What materials to use? White, black and yellow were easy to find: bone, blackwood tek (or ebony), and maple. But what to do with the blue and red? I started some experiments with various inks and stains. Ecoline, Clou and vintage Gimborn ink.

The Gimborn ink has a special connection to the place where I live. Its manufacturer, mister Gimborn had a peculiar hobby; collecting trees. At first in his hometown of Zevenaar, but in the first half of the 20th century he bought 30 acres of land in Doorn, where he started his arboretum. One of the day laborers he hired to create the park was my great-grandfather. Later it became property of the Utrecht University, and is now owned by a local foundation.

To get the ink all the way through the wood (scraps of maple), the pieces were put under vacuum. Those little wine stoppers are ideal for that…

After a couple of days soaking in ink, the pieces could be taken out. As you can see there is a difference in the colors. While the Gimborn ink gave a deep red, the Ecoline is more like fuchsia. The Clou mahogany stain didn’t penetrate the wood at all, so it also fell off.

And then the fun part started…

I know some people will regard it blasphemous to put something “so modern” on an historical instrument. But let’s keep in mind that the instrument is made NOW. I like to put little winks and jokes in instruments, not because I don’t take them seriously. No, because I take them serious enough to do so. It might be a bad habit, but I tend to joke about things I care for. In order to have a laugh with the people I care for.

In my work I always try to combine different fields; head and hands, past and present, arts and technology. Seriousness and humor if you will. In the focal point where all these fields come together you will find my instruments. To me it is a way to make the instrument unique, not to make the 100.000th soulless copy without thinking. It is a tribute and sign of respect to the original maker, to investigate their working methods and style. Keeping their tradition, but also adding something to it.

Like this case in the Gemeentemuseum. Between old ceramics there is one new figure…


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Educating the heart and mind

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Finding the Element: how finding your passion changes everything

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Pretstudies afschaffen? De wereld heeft alle soorten mensen nodig

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Another standard to measure by…

Adding another standard to my measurements… 😃

This is the most frustrating one to do. Sebastian Schelle probably used the “Neuremberger Stadtfuß” which is 304 mm in lengt, broken up in 12 “Zoll” of 25,333333333333mm.

So the foot is just 1 mm shorter than a “normal” Imperial Foot, making the inches roughly 0,07 mm shorter than a normal inch…

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The Theorbo Saga continues…

It has been a rather busy week here, no time for an update.

The tops of both lutes have been thicknessed. Here we find the differences between baroque and renaissance lutes. In short: renaissance lutes are slightly thinner in the middle and thicker at the edges, while baroque lutes have a “backbone”, thicker in the middle and thinner at the sides.

Here we can also see how much the two instruments differ in size.

When the soundboard is brought to the desired thickness, a piece of paper is glued to the inside of the rosette. In order to strengthen the small pieces of wood left over when the rose is cut.

As told before I use original 18th century paper for this purpose, cut from an old religious book. I am absolutely opposed to the destruction of books and artifacts, but this book was literally saved from the recycle bin. There are more than enough copies available, in better condition than this one.

The reason I use this old paper is its strength and structure. And the fact that it is exactly the same material as the old masters used. And sometimes the texts are quite funny

It is also glued over the seams in the bowl. To strengthen the rib joints.

The water in the glue causes the paper to swell, but when it dries the water evaporates and the paper shrinks again. Tightening the joint and even making the ribs to bend inwards a little. An effect we also observe in old lutes.

A big bowl like this calls for a rather large amount of paper…

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Brook Guitars

A documentary about Brook Guitars, a company founded by the legendary Andy Manson.

One of the things I really like is that they choose to use local woods for their instruments. Also their notion about making guitars for a living is very accurate.

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Woodworking: a transformative moment

Today I found these two TED-Talks. I like to watch these short lectures, because people tell about simple things that changed their lives.

The first one is by guitar maker Jim Fleeting;

The feeling of epiphany when working on the first guitar is very familiar to me. It immediately felt right, like everything suddenly made sense. All things I had done before fell into place like the pieces of a puzzle, while outlines of the big picture appeared.

The other one is by E.J. Osborne

You might perceive this as some millenial-hipster-woodworking-extentialist-bullshit; “Ah, cute, the girl has nothing better to do than carving spoons… Put on a lumberjack shirt and call yourself a maker while drinking a macchiato” Was the reaction of a friend of mine. But what he missed was the whole point of her talk. That it isn’t about the spoon itself, but the process. How people discover something about themselves, that they have HANDS and are able to USE them. Quite a revelation for people who grew up with the notion that they should use their heads instead of their hands.

Both talks are wonderful examples of the fact that our culture has somehow lost or devalued manual capabilities in favor of intellectual work. But as I have said so many times before, one can’t do without the other. We have split them up into two different fields. The ‘brains’ and the ‘work force’. The first is supposed to think and design, occupy offices and not get their hands or ties dirty. The others are supposed to do the opposite; get their hands dirty, execute orders from the ‘brains’ and not think more than absolutely .

But this system has given a lot of problems, especially when something doesn’t work, both parties point to the others to blame. This is something almost completely unknown to the craftsmen or -women who design and make something themselves. There is no question of responsibility, because they control all. The work becomes a symbiotic process between the two fields; the mind controls the hands while the hands and eyes give new information to the mind. A constant and very efficient feedback loop, without whole inboxes full of memos.

Our society is educating children out of natural impulses of craftsmanship. This way we are hollowing out our culture. Dutch comedian Pieter Derks said in one of his radio-columns that “we have millions of communications advisors, but no one who can repair a faucet”. The results of this disdain for manual work are already visible. And in the near future they will only grow worse. Especially with the baby-boom generation now retiring. A lot of knowledge goes along with them.

We even see it in politics, people listen to what a politician promisses, bit don’t look at what they do or have done in the past.  And they love the far fetched ideas, but never give it a thought about the practical implementation or wether they are possible at all. Making another country pay for your campain promisses sounds great, but nobody seems to ask “HOW?”.

The irony is that the idea of a knowledge based economy will lead to a great loss of knowledge in the long run. Practically a dumbing down of society.

It’s the question whether we can change this tendency. And not by the hipster-style   caricature of overpriced and hyped stuff. But by a true re-evaluation of our priorities and values. It is possible, I have seen a lot of people who were stuck in the demands of the current society getting alive again when they started working with their hands. Instead of wasting energy and letting off steam in the gym, use this energy to make something tangible. Making furniture, instruments, knives, swords, utensils, clothes, etc. For some it will be a great hobby, for others the long lost career…

But it starts with us, by having the courage to follow our real passions. But even more by letting children choose for themselves. By not talking them out of their creativity and giving them a chance to combine head and hands if they like. This might give us a true knowledge based future.

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Purfling between your ribs..

Between the ribs of both theorbos there is a small band of a contrasting color.  Walnut for the ash bowl of the Sellas, and vice versa on the Schelle. They are almost a photo negative of each other.

The 1,5 mm lines are a bit wide, but on such large instruments it gives a great visual effect. The light white lines between the dark walnut ribs of the big Schelle bowl (yes it is really big, I’m considering making another one and rent it out as an airplane hangar or use it as a garden shed), make it appear a bit smaller. And the small bowl of the Sellas  (the smallest ‘normal’ theorbo) appears a bit larger. So both instruments are getting more in proportion.

For the Schelle this was partly inspired by the instruments of Joachim Tielke, whose workshop produced a lot of extremely decorated instruments, which had either ivory-in-ebony or ebony-in-ivory inlay. And sometimes the ebony was even substituted for tortoiseshell.

Tielke is especially known for his guitars and gamba’s, but he also made baroque lutes and angelique’s. Tielke lived and worked a little earlier than Schelle, but the shape of their bowls looks a bit similar. His lutes often have dark ribs with an ivory inlay.

Making the purfling.

There are a couple of methods to make these lines. You can cut them to size before or after bending. For these lutes I have chosen for the latter.

Because they are made of the same material I have taken one of the spare-ribs (sorry) and bent them to shape of the other lute.

To make cutting easier a little saw table with a horizontal blade would be great. But I have never found anything like this. So that sounds like a great excuse for some macguyvering…

The ingredients:

-One old Bosch drill
-One drill clamp, unknown origin
-Some scraps of wood
-A multiplex top
-Small circular saw blades (found at Banggood or for the Dutch: at the Action)
-30 min of spare time

This whole bunch is stirred for 5 minutes and then baked at 180 C for 25 min. Then you clamp it in the bench vise, plug it in and cut your purflings…

And it works…

Another way is simply buying some pre-made b/w/b violin inlay… Which can be nice, but much too fine for a large theorbo.

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