Tattooing a lyre and chisel

When you think about the Trossingen Lyre, often the first thing that comes to mind are the rich engravings on the instrument. “Are you going to cut those too?” was the first thing people asked me when told about the lyre project. After confirming I would, the general reactions were in the “You ARE crazy”-region. Being used to that assessment, I took to work on two lyres…


The figures on the lyre consist of a multitude of images and scenes. There are twelve warriors with shields, weapons and sassy shoes, a giant spear, and an abundance of snakes, crawling around in strange, but intricate knot patterns.

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Rather than just making a ‘print’ of the original artwork, I thought it would be more appropriate to re-construct the scene. To make a ‘perfect’ rendering of the engravings in CAD; with straight, sharp lines. To grasp the underlying idea, the intention if you will, of the original maker. Without the imperfections of the human hand. This gave the basic design to work from, while cutting by hand gives it the natural feel the original has.

Tattooing wood

The technique used to decorate the lyre is known as ‘kolrosing’. An old method that’s still practiced in Scandinavia today. Sometimes people compare it to tattooing. You cut lines in the wood. Afterwards the slits are filled up with a dark powder (traditionally charcoal, but you can also use cinnamon or coffee grounds) and fixed in place with linseed oil or wax.


I started out with scalpels and Xacto knives, but soon they began to hurt my fingers. This custom knife was made out of an HSS drill bit and an old paintbrush.


Tattooing a chisel

But for actual tattoos you need another craftsman/artist. It’s an art form that has always appealed to me. For years I have thought to get one myself, but never found an artist whose work spoke to me.

DamyUntil two years ago I met Damy van der Waal a.k.a. “Mr Staalbad”. He is an all-round artist: woodworker, re-enactor, graphic artist, who also casts bronzes and… specializes in traditional hand poke tattoos!

Besides his own studio, he also works live at living history events. After seeing the tattoos he did on a couple of friends I was convinced.

The technique of handpoking (also known as stick-and-poke) is different from the modern tattoo method. Instead of using oe of those buzzing machines, the tattoo is entirely done by hand. While a machine rips up the skin with a high frequency needle, the process is much more gentle. Resulting in less noise, less trauma and quick healing.

You can see the process in action in this video (enjoy the Dutch language).


The handle for the needle he uses is based on a find from Denmark. The original has a single bronze tip, but that wouldn’t be advisable to use, so a modern sterilized needle is attached to the handle.

A copy was made by Roodbaert, a genius blacksmith and living history veteran. 

But what to get? My favorite Nooitgedagt Chisel off course!!!


Say for yourself; what is better for a luthier than to have a chisel with him at all times?

Having this tattoo was a great experience, for me it’s also a mark in time. Closure of the hard times of burn-out, depression and recovery over the last years. I am very thankful to Damy for his patience, skills and enthusiasm while working on this project.

If you want to get a tattoo from Damy, contact him at Facebook.

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Iron Smelting in Africa

Another documentary about iron making. This time from West Africa.

You can see how similar the process is to the one shown in the documentary about early medieval iron production, I posted last week. A family of smiths shows how their ancestors made iron for centuries. The whole process, from digging up ore and clay to making charcoal and bellows.

It shows very good how valuable iron was before the industrial revolution made mass production possible. A sword must almost had the same value as a luxury car these days.  Iron tools were the most expensive possessions of a craftsman.

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Making Iron the hard historical way…

This little movie has fascinated me ever since finding it a couple of years ago.

It’s about recreating historical methods of iron production as used in the Netherlands from te iron age until the middle ages.

Last July I’ve had the privilege to work along with some members of this group, at an event of Archaeological Center “Huis van Hilde” in Castricum. In three days, we made and fired a cob oven, like in the movie, but alongside of three other teams.


Making cob by treading the loam and straw


Making the base of the oven


Drying (photo shamelessly stolen from the HVH twitter feed)


Hammers and bellows


Firing the oven (Photo HVH)


Showing materials and results (photo also HVH)

To keep in style, we worked in historical clothes. And believe it or not, at 35°C in the shade, and with ovens that reach a 1200+ degrees, thick woolen clothes are comfortable. Especially when you’ve got to open up that burning oven to release the bloom.

It is a fascinating process to work on. How you can use simple materials (clay, straw, sand, charcoal) to make something that produces iron. And although it seems crude, inefficient and unsophisticated (especially when compared to the modern iron factories), this is how most iron was produced up until the 19th century. Archaeologists estimate that Dutch iron production in the viking age must have been hundreds of tons, that was traded all over Europe.

For me as a woodworker, iron is a magical material; no grain, plastic and moldable, almost plastic like clay. It demands a completely different approach to work with.

I’ve learned a lot from working with this group. Being compiled of an archaeologist, metal restorers, blacksmiths, and people with lots of experience, amount of knowledge they have between them is gigantic. It’s very inspiring to work with them, all open to share their knowledge in a combination of love for the process and passion for the material.

If you want to see this process for yourself. The group is working at the Viking Festival in Eindhoven in June (Whitsun) and at the Iron Symposium in October (also in Eindhoven). More info to follow in due time.

This event was organized by Jaap Hoogendoorn of “Springlevend Verleden”, who does a lot of these (often international) productions and living history events. Always a blast to work with him. Check out his website (Dutch).

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Guestblog: The Lyre of Trossingen – pt. 1

Luit van der Tuuk is a Dutch author and independent researcher, specialized in the early middle ages. He is also the curator of Museum Dorestad in Wijk bij Duurstede.

In 2001 en 2002 twelve graves were discovered in an early medieval grave field in the South-German town of Trossingen. In the largest and also richest grave a burial chamber was found, with a bed, covered by a richly decorated lid. Beside the bed were pieces of furniture and other artifacts. The grave goods were unmistakable of an important man, buried in 580 with valuable clothes and armor. In his left arm was a plucked six-string instrument, a lyre.


The original lyre in the Archäologischen Landesmuseum Baden-Württemberg in Konstanz.

This lyre is subject of a project I’ve started together with luthier (maker of stringed instruments) Jan van Cappelle. We’re working on this project from different angles. A faithful replica of the instrument will be made, to be tried out by a couple of lyre players. Their experiences, together with the results of acoustic measurements, will be published in the book. This book will not only deal about the history, construction, practice and other musical aspects of the lyre, but also about the social and cultural context.

The lyre was the most important instrument of the Germanic aristocracy in the early middle ages. It was used to accompany the verses recited during gatherings of warlords and their following in the mead hall. The lyre was in the focal point of the heroic world that characterizes the period of great migrations. This makes the instrument one of the best symbols of its time, and makes it clear why it was chosen for this project.

Remains and parts of early medieval lyres were excavated over the whole Germanic area. We have chosen for the find of Trossingen, because at present day this instrument is the best preserved lyre they discovered. The instrument is almost complete, and moreover discovered rather recently, where they used the last and most innovative technology archaeologists have at their disposal. On top of that the lyre of Trossingen is covered in engraved decorations, as a cherry on the pie. The most important of them depicts twelve armed fighters, seemingly taking an oath on a banner. This fits seamlessly into the martial society that brought forth this lyre.

Preparations for the book and construction of the instrument are in full force. That’s why I will give periodical updates on multiple aspects of this project. So keep following my blogs…

A Dutch version of this blog was posted at on April 29, 2018. English translation by JAVACA – © Luit van der Tuuk – 2018

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A lyre delivered…

It’s always a special moment when instruments are delivered to the players. As a maker you can only do so much, it only becomes complete when it is played by someone who really knows what to do.


The plan for the Trossingen Lyre project was to make two replica instruments. One model was intended for the collection of Museum Dorestad, the other would remain with me and become a demo piece at historical events and expositions.

trossingen nagelsI made two versions of the lyre; one how it must have looked when it was brand new, the other how it was put in the grave around 580 A.D. . The latter involved replicating a couple of repairs with little iron nails and replacing two ash pegs by models of hazel. We also decided to take the reconstruction a step further and even make our own gut strings (more on that later).

Tspikehe process was followed by a couple of our friends, Spike and Ilja. Two fervent lyre players and active Merovingian musicians and storytellers. They bought one of my first lyres about two years ago. Ever since then we’ve been in contact. When Spike asked if he could buy the second Trossingen Lyre from me, I had to think for a moment. But I rather see an instruments in the hands of a good player who uses it, than hanging on a wall for decoration and occasional string plucking.

Today they came by to pick it up. A lot of people have asked for a soundsample of these lyres, so here are the first notes Spike played…

Knowing Spike and Ilja, more soundclips are sure to follow. I wish them a very good journey on a road filled with epic adventures and heroic songs!




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The Trossingen Lyre Project


Making photographs for the book

Last year author and museum curator Luit van der Tuuk, asked me to help on one of his  book projects. He was commissioned by his publisher to write a part in a series called “Tastbaar Verleden” (tangible past). Dealing about a single artefact its (hi)story.


Luit said that during his meeting with the publisher, he saw two pieces in his livingroom that would make a good subject; one was his model of the “Utrecht Ship”, the other a reconstruction of an early medieval lyre I made a year before. Would it be possible to find enough information to write a book about these instruments?

When we started our journey, it soon became apparent that there was never a complete and extensive study published about these instruments. All that we could find were snippets of information. Articles, excavation and conservation reports, dissertations about early medieval music, sometimes even a chapter in a book.
But nothing complete and conclusive. And a couple of major discoveries were done in the last two decades. Even when we were working on the subject, a yoke of a lyre was found in Ribe.
I went into the vaults of my digital library and found the first articles to get us on the road. We searched museum collections and libraries. Made inventories, time tables, drawings and mapped the finds of instruments and their parts. We tried to make distinctions between, or group together different styles and models of lyres. Often reflecting and (dis-)agreeing on the various aspects we found.

Luit also investigated the social and cultural context in which lyres were played. The societies of the Merovingians and Anglo-Saxons, their music and musical traditions.


One of the finished lyres on the bench

As a part of the project we decided to make a couple of lyres. Two close reconstructions of the most complete (and also earliest) example found: The so called Trossingen Lyre. We decided to try to make it as authentic as possible, use all the original wood species, reconstruct decorations and experiment with strings and setups.

Another handicap I adopted was to experiment with period tools and techniques, in order to find out what consequences they have for the form, function and building methods of the instrument. This meant making most of the tools myself.

During the process Luit has published a series of blogs on the Trossingen lyre. For those who speaks Dutch they are available on his blog Vikinglanghuis. And for who still haven’t learned the darned lingo, I will make an English translation and publish them here.

trossingen lyres

For now, here are some pictures of the results. I’ve made two versions; a reconstruction of the lyre how it must have looked when it was new, and one how it looked when it was left in the grave.

The release of the book is planned for June, 2019. It will be presented at the Viking Festival in Prehistorisch Dorp Eindhoven.

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Some busy days at the project we call life

making the trossingen

Working on two copies of the Trossingen Lyre

To my regret this blog isn’t updated as much as I would like. The reason? There are too many things to do and to few hours in a day…

Another factor was that I had no computer or tablet to work with. Reading and browsing work fine on an old Iphone 4, but writing blogs and answering e-mails is quite frustrating. Especially when you want to add pictures and other content. Today I got a small laptop (Acer Spin 1) to resolve that problem. So over the next weeks I will give some updates on the projects I’ve been working on over the last months.

Over the last months I have completed a second theorbo and started a third, worked on a lot of research projects and attended a whole bunch of living history events. So please stay tuned for the stories of these recent adventures…

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Life as a Professional Time Traveller

Last week a friend called me a “Professional Time Traveller”. A joke, but I think in a sense he is right…

I tend to take leapfrogs trough history one day measuring an original guitar from 1760, the next adjusting a replica of an Ancient Egyptian lyre while the yew ribs of a renaissance theorbo are are glued together.

Today it was time to hollow out two Trossingen Lyre bodies, and tonight some more stitches will be added to my new lyre banner (made in the Bayeux technique).

The last months have been a frenzy of historical events, travels, work and research.

It’s a beautiful journey, across time and cultures, tools, techniques and instruments. Along the way I’ve met the most fantastic people. Musicians and magicians, craftspeople and fellow crazies, re-enactors restorers and researchers, teachers, students and writers, old and new friends I feel very privileged to know. Having the opportunity to bring people and ideas together. Learning and teaching along the way, a natural synthesis.

Lately journey has been so busy and intensive, there was no time to write records from the road. Life has been better than ever since my burn-out 7 years ago. I finally have the idea that I am alive again.

I feel very grateful for all of this. For all of you, who take this journey.

As we make up for the winter, I hope to find some time to give you an update of everything going on.









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Printing for Copernicus

About a week ago my friends of The Paper Unicorn asked me whether I would like to bring out the Minion Press, for the official opening of an exhibition about Copernicus.

Location? The St. Walburgis church in Zutphen…

Where did we hear that name before? It must have been last May, when I made this portable version of a chained library…

The Walburgis church is home to one of the few chained libraries left in the world. Sacred ground for a book maniac like me…

Would I like to go there to demonstrate the Minion Press? – Hell yeah!

So we travelled to Zutphen, set up the press (under the most impressive chandelier I’ve ever seen) and waited for the events to start. Well, not quite. We took our time to explore the massive and beautiful church. And pay a visit to its intellectual heart: the Librije. A 16th century chained library, one of the first public libraries in the world.

It isn’t allowed to take pictures inside the library, but it was a fantastic experience to see the lecterns with rows of books. The intricate woodcarvings on the stands and benches. Loads of inspiration.

We found out that our attempt at making a small reconstruction for living history events and exhibitions is almost spot on. Especially when we look at how the chains are fastened.

In the middle of the library was a very special book; Nicolas Copernicus’ “Revolutionibus orbium coelestium”, about the tracks of the planets in our solar system. Copernicus was the first in our modern age to propose heliocentrism instead of geocentrism. Or to say that the sun is in the middle of the solar system, not earth. This could have brought him in great trouble with the church, were it not that he got the first print of his book on his death bed… But the Catholic church did place it on the index of prohibited books.

Standing under the most impressive chandelier I have ever seen: made in 1398!

The Librije is in posession of a beautiful first edition copy, which is regarded the best preserved example in the world.

It’s very special to stand so close to one of the most important scientific works in history. Even though it wasn’t completely right yet, (Kepler would correct some of the flaws), it was  one of the products of the enlightenment. A force of curiosity and exploration that went through Europe at the end of the middle ages, and eventually stopped them. It speaks to me in a sense that I have always been advocating science and the use of reason, rather than preconceived notions and teachings of doubtful origins, like the church. Believing can be fine, but knowing something for sure is better… We’ve come a long way since the times of Copernicus. But even now we have crazy idiots like the flat earth society and other regressive intellectual groups. It even seems they gained in popularity over the last years. Something causing a lot of face-palm moments, but also showing the relevance of the exhibition.

Opening the exhibit

The opening festivities of the exhibition was a true celebration of science. With lectures and speeches. After which the ambassador of Poland made the official opening gesture by printing a Copernicus quote on the press…

After which all visitors could make their own print of this quote…

Ter Apel

It was a wonderful evening. And a very nice preamble for next weekend, when we will attend the Medieval festival at Ter Apel in Groningen. Again with the Paper Unicorn. We will help people to make their own book. Printing the pages at the press, folding the quires and binding it, to make a complete book about book making.

We hope to meet you there on the 1st and 2nd of September!


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FREE Vihuela plans!

Yes you read it correctly. As a summer surprise I’m giving away one of my plans for free…

Javaca Vihuela Plan

Click here to download the plans

A year ago some of my students at the Bouwerskontakt lutherie course asked whether they could make some historical instruments. A baroque lute (plans to follow) and a Vihuela de Mano.

For the vihuela we decided on a smaller version of the Chambure model, kept in the Cité de la Musique in Paris. The reason is that a vihuela in G is very practical for players, especially in a 7-course version; it’s tuned the same way as an alto lute. You can make both 6- and 7-course models with this set of plans.

vihuela mini

This is an ideal instrument to start with. You don’t need huge amount of woods, and is rather simple to build. The construction is quite similar to a classical guitar. In a way it is a more basic version.

vihuela rose

The first built is well under way, and we hope to complete it in a couple of months.

You can download the plans here in PDF format and print them at your local print shop.

These plans are offered with a Creative Commons License. You may use them for non-commercial and educational purposes.


Posted in Guitar, Guitar Plans, Lute, Music, Projects, Research, Uncategorized, Woodworking, Workshop | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments