Building the Pharaoh’s Chariot

Inspiration can be found everywhere. In my opinion a luthier shouldn’t only look at his or here own field of knowledge, but broaden the scope. We’re essentially making air pumps, constructed of a tightened piece of material over a box. When set in motion, the string brings the box in motion, which moves the air around it. This moving air moves the parts in our ears, which translate them into in electric pulses, which our brains interpret as sound. This process can be adjusted in various places, but we’re concerned with the first part. We tweak the shape and materials of the boxes and strings, looking for an optimum in both.

This process is quite universal and is also found in other places and times. Often a result of a lengthy development over time by various makers. All pitching in something of their knowledge and expertise. Experimenting (risking failure) to improve their field.

One very interesting example can be observed in the design of the Ancient Egyptian Chariot.

Just look at the technical sophistication, disguised as a simple construction. This is using wood at the very edges of what it can withstand. The use of bent pieces of wood leaves the long fibres of the material intact, so it’s full strength remains. While there is optimal utilization of the elastic properties.

The v-design of the spokes for the wheel is just plain genius. Lighter and stronger than any other way of wooden wheel construction. The force doesn’t focus on one point (like in later cart wheels), but is distributed over a larger area of the hub and also both nearby spokes.

Same thing for using the central pole for a leaf spring. When you would just nail it to the rear axle the joint will wear out and break, due to the torsion and movement of both pieces during a ride.

This whole chariot design is very clever. There is literally no superfluous part, everything has a function, combining an optimal ratio of strength and weight. It shows the Ancient Egyptian chariot builders had a keen knowledge of the strengths and limits of their materials.  Like engineers who make today’s high performance modes of transportation, from race cars to airplanes and rockets. Something I also observe in other places where we have high expectations and demands from our materials: tennis rackets, motorcycles, bows, skateboards, surfboards, bullet proof vests, kites, mountain bikes, – and yes – lutes and guitars. Working towards that sweet spot, where the ratio of strength and performance is optimal. A symbiosis between material properties and clever engineering, the ultimate relation between head and hands, object and ratio.

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Spring cleaning…

The last months have been ridiculously busy. Reenactment events, koningsdag, building guitars, teaching courses and giving lectures.

All beside the normal days at the shop. With so many things going on it was almost impossible to find time to write blogs.

But I am trying to better my life and get back to my normal pace of three blog posts a week. So here is another sign of life from the workshop.

Rise of the machines

My workshop is divided in two sections: a “clean” workshop with workbenches in the back, and a machine shop in the front. Both sections are roughly 4×5 m².

In the machine shop we find a variety of tools. Beside an old table and miter saw with their dust collector (all Elektra Beckum, about 30 years old), small drill press and lathe we find a couple of home-brew finger cutters; the IKEA-router table and a small rolling-pin thickness sander. The Elektra Beckum tools aren’t mine, but belong to the shop building.

In February the dust collector ceased its activities. After a couple of replaced capacitors over the years, the motor finally gave up and burned out. There is absolutely no blame, because it has worked as hard as two machines, for a double amount of time. So it needed replacement. But perhaps you know how things like these go, it always takes a while, too many other things on hand.

I had to use the saws without dust collection and simply swept the floor afterwards. This works for a while, until it gets busier and there is no time for cleaning. So the shop slowly started to look like a hamster cage.

IMG_6948Another tool I desperately needed was a bandsaw. Initially decided to make one myself, but there are only 24 hours in a day, even though I still try to squeeze a couple more in. These attempts fail miserably, but it’s a good thing to strive for.

So an affordable, medium-sized bandsaw would do the trick. Mainly to cut lute ribs, guitar sides and rough cutting stock. Some of my fellow Dutch guitar makers advised to get the HBM 350, made in China and imported under a variety of brand names. HBM stands for “Herman Buitelaar Machines” the distributor for the Netherlands. With 14″ wheels, it’s just up to size for small shops like mine.

The third tool I needed was a thickness sander. Or needed… it is possible to do without, but it certainly makes the life of a luthier a little bit easier. We had one at school, and it’s especially well suited to bring curly woods to the desired thickness. Last year I made a little one myself, from an IKEA bar stool, rolling-pin and the motor from an old centrifuge. It works, but that’s all I can say about it. You need to push the pieces through by hand. No problem if it’s one piece, but when doing the ribs for several lute bowls, your hands start to cramp. After some deliberation and advise from fellow guitar makers I also got one from HBM.

Going to Gouda

imageSo a lot of stuff to clean and to get. The tool store is near Gouda (you probably know them from the cheese that originates there) about 60 km from here. A friend graciously helped by driving there with a van, because the packages are rather large and heavy. Along the way we visited Joës, to pick up an old anvil (yes, I will start blacksmithing soon), have look at his shop and drink some coffee. More on that later…

Cleaning

Since the last cleaning (around october) a lot of clutter collected in the shop. Especially woods and board materials, all covered with a fine layer of sawdust. So everything is taken outside and brushed off, or given some treatment with the vacuum cleaner.

IMG_6612imageSoon it started to look like there was an empty space hidden under all the rubble. After everything was cleaned up and out the machines could be brought in. Starting with the new dust collector. This model is a bit larger and stronger than the last one.

 

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The Theorbo – Making lute forms

A lage part of the construction process of a lute is making the mould or form on which it is made. There are multiple ways to construct these, all with their own pros and cons.

Solid or skeleton

We don’t know how historical lute makers made their forms. Other than guitar and violin forms (Stradivari) none of them remain. Probably because they are rather bulky and take up quite a bit of space. When the lute went out of fashion, many of them probably got a new career as firewood.

Although one description survives, by Henri Arnaud de Zwolle (ca. 1440). In his works about music he made a drawing of a medieval lute and its mould. Very rudimentary, but clearly a form of the “skeleton”-type: a base plate on which multiple segments rest, dictating the form of the lute ribs.
The advantages of this type of mould are that it is fairly quick and cheap to make, lighter than solid models and you can reach within the instrument during construction. Main disadvantage is that you can’t see the complete inner shape directly and have to apply a vast amount of abstract thinking to visualize the shape.

Another form is the solid mould, described in Robert Lundberg’s lute making bible “Historical Lute Construction”. The core is formed by solid wooden blocks, shaped to the form of the lute. An advantage of this type is that you can adjust the inner shape of the lute bowl (the “air chamber”) directly. During the fiting of ribs you can rest a plane directly on the form, almost impossible on skeleton models. Disadvantages are weight, costs, the longer construction time and lack of possibility to reach inside of the lute during construction.

Making a mould

The construction always starts with drawing. I prefer to make a start on the computer and work it out by hand. At this moment it’s very convenient to know the system of measurement used by the original builder. It is a key that unlocks the underlying structure. A touchstone to find the original radii of the compass arcs and things like body and string dimensions. This is like making a puzzle without a draft, recreating
the design process of the initial builder, literally a re-construction.

With this found design I make a couple of templates. A hardboard (masonite) or plexiglass template of the body outline (inner mould, without the side thickness) to route the base plate.  And a paper model to lay out the rib structure. I like to make these simply with a  compass, scribe and ruler,
just like the old masters did. Why? Because it is less precise than something computer generated. In the virtual world you can get an almost infinite precision. But 17th century builders didn’t have that technology. By using these simple hand tools you get a sense of the scale, dimensions and proportions they had to work with.

The paper template is used to transfer the rib layout onto the segments. Both sides of the segment, because the facets are angled to follow the shape of the ribs. When you use a scribe to mark out the form, you have a clear line to work towards. Pencil lines fade or get wiped out during work, but when scratched in the surface it will stay no matter what.

Colleague guitar maker Joës van Went in my workshop. Working on his first lute form

Cutting and filing

The base plate is cut out and shaped with a router. A quick and easy way to make forms is to make a routing template for one half, put two screws along the centerline and move it over after you’ve shaped one side. This gives a smooth form that’s perfectly symmetrical.

The segments are cut out at an angle with an electric jigsaw or on the bandsaw. Then starts the rather laborious process of cleaning them up. Filing, filing, filing and… filing.

When the segments are ready they are fastened to the base plate and the spine of the form with a halving joint. This way the parts of the form keep each other secured.

The hardest segment to shape is the one on the lower end of the body. It’s rounded to the shape of the bow. Here the layers of the multiplex are an advantage, because they nicely show the shape of the segment.

There are multiple ways to fasten the form to your workbench while making the bowl. The simplest is just one piece of timber under the form to clamp it in the bench vise. But this way you can only move it one way. Another extreme is a system of lockable hinges, a bit like a stative. Pretty handy at first glance, but after working with it for some years I do think there are some disadvantages. So I have settled now for a simple wooden cross at the bottom. It can be clamped in your bench vise at any direction you like. And the best part, removed quickly to make room for another lute you are working on.

I have made these segmented forms in a variety of woods. And must say that I prefer (birch) multiplex for the segments and MDF for the base plate. It’s dimensionally the most stable and easy to work with. You can use MDF for the segments, but they are easily damaged because the material is quite soft on the sharp corners. But use whatever you like or have at hand, these forms are ideal to get rid of leftover pieces of wood and board.

If you want to get started with lute making I have plans available for a renaissance lute and its form. It’s a 7-course renaissance lute in G, based on the 1581 Georg Gerle example. You can also use this model to make a 6 course model (dimensions for the neck, head and bridge also on the plan). An ideal lute to start with!

It’s possible to follow a lute or guitar making course at my workshop (in the beautiful center of the Netherlands). Please send me a mail through the contact form at this site for details.

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Cigarboxes: a good way to start…

When you want to start making instruments, cigar box guitars are a great first project. Made with simple, recycled materials and lots of fun. And the best thing: there are no rules! So let your creativity roam free!

 

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The plague doctor

Since long I wanted to do something with the plague. Yes, that sounded weird, I know. One of the most influential pandemics in the middle ages. The various outbreaks changed the course of history. Subsequently killing one fourth to half of the population.

Humors and miasma

Medical knowledge was limited at best, and largely based on the ideas of the ancient Greek and Roman writers. Balancing the four humors, astrology, miasma etc.

The cities hired special “plague doctors” to treat the victims of the black death. Often these people weren’t real doctors, but people who were paid to take the risk of dealing with the sick . Beside treating people they recorded the number of deaths due to the plague.

These doctors didn’t know real cures for the disease. But experimented a lot, from steaming in mercury to ointments made with faeces. In the 17th century one of these doctors came up with a method to protect himself against miasma, the foul air that was supposed to be a cause. A heavy waxed coat and a mask with a beak and glass eyes. The beak was filled with scented herbs and spices.

When you saw one of these ‘birds of death’ at your bed, you could be sure that your chances of survival were slim at best.

To incorporate this into our reenactment, the idea came up to make a costume and write a sketch around it. A couple of weeks ago (right before the Baburen event) the costume was ready to be tested.

An advantage of this ‘plague doctor’ character is that we can take it along quite easily. A costume and a couple of accessories (body chart, walking stick, skull and a plush rat) that fit in a small space. The robe can be worn over other clothes. So it can be put on and off fairly quick.

The sketch is short and entertaining, telling about the various forms of plague, causes and proposed solutions. It can be given a couple of times a day, beside our normal activities.

You will probably find “Dr. Schnabel” at various Dutch reenactment events. So be prepared to meet your end…

Continue reading

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Schieten of Schrijven?

Vandaag viert Nederland 72 jaar bevrijding. Twee jaar geleden gaf ik deze lezing en speech in het Dorpshuis van Langbroek.

Na veel vraag hebben we besloten deze lezing nog eens te geven. Vanavond, 20.00u in het Dorpshuis, Prinsenplein 3 in Langbroek. Zaal open om 19.30u.

The Dutch Luthier

Eerder dit jaar werd in Langbroek een bescheiden tentoonstelling georganiseerd, ter gelegenheid van zeventig jaar bevrijding. Een een samenwerking waarvoor verschillende lokale organisaties en verzamelaars van oorlogsmemorabilia de handen ineensloegen. Mijn vader en ik werden gevraagd mee te doen omdat we wat van de dorpsgeschiedenis weten en er oude foto’s van verzamelen.

Langbroek Dorpshuis

Het werd al snel duidelijk dat er veel meer was dan we aanvankelijk dachten. De verzamelaars brachten hun pronkstukken en er kwam een stroom van locale anekdotes en verhalen op gang. Maar toen we begonnen met inrichten leek het meer op een magazijn met militaria en oorlogssouvenirs dan op een tentoonstelling.

My father working on one of the exhibits Mijn vader bezig met het inrichten van een vitrine.

We hadden een paar dagen nodig om er een lijn in aan te brengen. Objecten werden verplaatst, foto’s in lijsten gedaan en bijschriften geschreven. Alles werd in chronologische volgorde geplaatst om de geschiedenis van de oorlog te vertellen, vanuit…

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To fight or to write?

Today the Netherlands celebrate 72 years of freedom since WWII.
Two years ago I held this lecture and speech at our local community center. But it’s still as viable as ever.

After great demand we give this lecture again, tonight at the same community center.

The Dutch Luthier

Earlier this year I helped to set up an exhibition about the Second World War in my old hometown Langbroek. On occasion of the 70th anniversary of liberation. It was a co-operation of multiple local organisations and collectors of WWII memorabilia. My father and I were asked to help because we know a little about the local history.

Langbroek Dorpshuis

While compiling the exhibition it soon became apparent that there was more than we thought. The collectors brought their best pieces and a lot of local anecdotes and stories came forth. But when we started to compile it together it was more like a warehouse of militaria and memorabilia than an exhibition.

My father working on one of the exhibits My father working on one of the exhibits

We spend a couple of days to re-arrange the objects, make frames and write captions, and put the stories in chronological order; to tell the story of WWII in Langbroek. But…

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A token of friendship: the “Cubacaster”

May I present to you my latest creation: the “Cubacaster”…

One of my side-projects. This guitar was entirely made of repurposed materials. The neck and tuners once were part of a Yamaha ‘tourgear’ beginner strat. Hardboard plates for the Danelectro-style body come from old cupboards, while the green leather binding was sourced by skinning a couch.

Form and design were inspired by two of my favorite guitars. The body shape is that of the Harmony Stratotone H44, but the scratchplate was designed after that of the H42 “Newport”. To keep it light and resonant the body was made in Danelectro-fashion, like presented in Making Masonite Guitars.

Cuba

Our church in Utrecht (a baptist church, named Silo) is friends with another church in Matanzas, Cuba. On a regular basis we have people over and vise versa. Often gifts exchange, we get a lot of lovely quilts and stolas made by the people over there. This gave me the idea also to send something self-made by people in our church.

A couple of months ago I found some old hardboard panels in the back of the church. Other than the usual white or brown, these had a green surface. They had been part of an old cupboard and stood there to be thrown away. I asked wether I could have them to make a guitar. “Well, do whatever you like, we’re glad to get rid of them”  was the reaction.

So I took the plates to my shop and cut them up in 40×60 cm sheets. This size is ideal to make guitars. Large enough even to make basses.

It’s fairly easy to make a guitar body out of them. Take two sheets and glue them over a softwood (pine or tulipifera poplar) frame, cut it to shape and rout out the neck pocket and pickup holes. Bolt the whole thing together, add strings, some setup and ready is your guitar…

Or isn’t it?

Not really… I wanted this guitar to be a bit different. Perhaps you know about the guestbook in my shop. A cheap Fender dreadnought where visitors are supposed to write or carve there name on.

It’s a cherished document, because a lot of my friends have signed it. Some of which unfortunately have passed away. So it’s also a reminder.


To finish this guitar before it was send to Cuba, I asked the people of Silo to write their name or leave a message on it. As a small token of community and friendship.

 

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Recording ’50s Style…

I find it hard to describe how cool this project is. A documentary about a recording studio where they only use fifties and sixties equipment. Modelled after the famous Sun studios.

A world of ribbon microphones, band-recorders, and tube compressors. This is a real walhalla for those interested in vintage gear and sounds. I think it can be both educational and inspirational.

I am quite fond of apparatuses and tools made in this era. It’s all very well designed and engineered. Made to last for decades and to be serviceable when it breaks down. Often, fifty to sixty years later, it still works fine. Try that with a television from the nineties or more recent… Most contemporary electronics and consumer goods are made to be thrown away and replaced within three to five years.

And they often have their own character. A photographer I know swears by his old fifties Voigtlander and Zeiss lenses. They are a part of his personal very distinctive style, and he uses them like different brushes. The same with cameras, amplifiers and other audio.

I think this documentary can be a great inspiration and starting point for musicians and sound engineers.

 

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The Opel Blitz

IMG_6878One of my personal quirks is that I am interested in almost everything. Especially when it has to do with history, technology, crafts, science or arts. And even better; a combination of these. It sometimes brings me to the most curious and unusual places. From measuring instruments in the top of the local village church, or reenactment, to giving lectures on a variety of subjects. So when a friend calls to help restoring an historical fire engine…

The Opel Blitz

As you know, I live in a small village called Doorn. Located in the middle of the Netherlands, its only claim to fame is that the German Kaiser fled there after the first world war. For the rest it’s pretty standard; a couple of churches, bars, stores, banks, a town house, police and… fire brigade.

Established about 90 years ago, the volunteer force was responsible for extinguishing fires and trying to save people and animals. Quite important in a village surrounded by forests.  In the early fifties they got a new fire engine. Because no readily available models fitted their needs the fire chief and local body shop owner designed a special model, suited for the woods. Instead of one bench placed lengthwise in the middle, they placed two benches on both sides, faced inwards.
This way you don’t luse  any personnel on a bumpy forest road. To keep it light and practical, the pump was left separate from the truck. An “M.S.A.” (“motorspuitaanhanger” – motor pump tender). This way you could put the pump close to the water, and still use the truck to move materials and personnel.

They bought a new Opel Blitz truck and a local garage built up the back. The village painter made it a nice bright red. In 1953 the engine was put to work. Equipped with everything a fire brigade needed It was used for countless fires, accidents and interventions.

After more than 30 years of service, longer than any modern fire car today, the little fire engine retired and was replaced by more modern equipment. But instead of sending it to the scrapyard, volunteers of the fire department restored the wagon and kept it running. As a reminder of the past, occasionally used for parades, publicity and ceremonies.

Non-profit

A couple of years ago the old fire engine was taken over by a non-profit foundation. The aim of which is to preserve the local fire fighting heritage and share it with the public. Alongside of the board (dealing with official matters like insurance and finances) there is a work-group who keep the material running. This group is formed by members of my friend circle, all who have a technical background. Electricians, mechanics, and – yes – a weird woodworker who doubles as a guide and historian.

The M.S.A. before restoration…

Together we do the maintenance, restorations and repairs. Two years ago we acquired a new old M.S.A.. The original unfortunately got lost in history, but we managed to get hold of a similar model, of almost the same age. One minor detail: it needed a complete restoration…

So a couple of friends set out to do the motor and bodywork. After almost a year she was ready to pump again. To keep it in good condition we take it out regularly to do some light work. Like emptying ponds and cellars, and… GAMES!

Last year we used the pump to provide a water ballet during a laser show on the night before Koningsdag, our national holiday. This was received so well that we were asked to organize it again this year.

Koningsdag

The next day we traditionally drive around with the public. (During these little tours I stand on the back and tell something about the engine’s history). But when the weather is bad we have to do something else… We hang two ropes over the moat of the local castle, on which there are two bouncing balls. Everybody who likes to give it a try may use the water jets to send the balls across the water. When succeeding an alarm goes off and you get a lottery ticket.  With this you can win a private fire engine drive across the village on your birthday…

Days like these always take a lot of preparation, especially because on a classic a classic car like this there always some work to do. So last week the M.S.A. resided in front of the shop. After two years I finally finished the leather belts to strap the hoses and tools to the tender.

And last weekend we had to replaced a leaking membrane in one of the breaks on the rear axle. Half a nights work to replace two small rubber buttons of € 3,- …

But the nice thing about these cars is that you can do things like these yourself. The car was made to be taken apart and serviced. And you only need “normal” tools, you can take apart the whole thing with a couple of spanners, hammer and screwdriver. It’s great to keep this little piece of local heritage running, and preserve the history that goes along with it.

The next three days we will be filled with preparations and setup for these festivities. Wednesday evening we have the laser-show and at koningsdag de game and tours. Hope to see you there!

Follow the adventures of the Opel Blitz at facebook; BHBD…

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