King David and his pretty little lyres

When researching the old European lyres there are two pictures that always keep surfacing:

The Vespasian Lyre

Probably the most famous is the one of King David in the Vespasian Psalter (Southern England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 8th century). In it we see David on his throne, surrounded by musicians, four horn players, two people clapping on the lower end of the page. He is flanked by two scribes, ready to write down the psalm lines. On his lap we see our focal point; a lyre.

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Vespasian Lyre (detail)

The model seems to be consistent with archaeological finds from the British isles, like the Sutton Hoo, Prittlewell and Morning Thorpe examples. Upon closer look we see a couple of things. The picture is a bit vague, because the lyre originally was covered with a layer of silver leaf, now corroded. But we can still distinguish 6 strings. David’s hands are in a normal playing position, the left touching the strings from the back of the lyre, the right plucking the strings from the front.

The Durham Lyre

The second one that often comes up in literature is found in the Durham Cassiodorus. This copy of Cassiodorus’ 6th century psalm explanations, was made in Northumbria around 730. One of only two illuminations showing David as Victor and Musician. We see David, again sitting on his throne, playing a lyre.

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Durham Lyre (detail)

We only see this lyre from the back. The model seems to be a bit more rounded, with a prominent trapezoid hole through which we see an indication of strings. But, even more surprising, there is a double line between the arms, crossing David’s left wrist. This seems to be a strap to keep the lyre in position. On the back of the yoke we see five (!) pegs, other than the usual six.

Why a lyre?

It seems a bit odd to depict David with a lyre, while the bible says he played on the harp. Perhaps it is because the Anglo-Saxon word for the lyre was “Hearpe“. Later this word would also be used for the triangular harps that came into fashion around the 10th century.

It is a rather nice exercise to look at all te different instruments and instrument forms David was depicted with through the centuries. This certainly holds some pleasant and confusing surprises…

Making reconstructions

I know what critics are going to say; these pictures were never meant to represent reality. And I agree with them. It is clear these are not naturalistic or realistic. They are made in a manner typical for their time, close to the Byzantine tradition. The thrones, for example, look very close to the ones depicted in the icons of “Christ Pantocrator”. And it would be quite a challenge to reconstruct a throne based on these illustrations.

Because we have no real objects on which we can rely for the scale I decided to use the width of one hand span (around 8″) to which all surviving lyres more or less adhere. As you know from my research into early measurement systems this varied between different areas. To my knowledge there isn’t a standardized system found for the Anglo-Saxon era, so I settled the modern Inch.

When I started to draw the outlines in my CAD program it dawned on me how small these lyres really are. With 47 cm body length the Vespasian lyre is the smallest example we know.

The lost lyre of st. Severin

Reconstruction of the st. Severin lyre

One article about historical lyres dismisses these examples based on their small size. But archaeological evidence shows there were small models of lyre in existence. The “St. Severin”  lyre was found in Cologne, Germany. Even though it was pretty far gone (it lay partly under the body of its owner), the length could be established at 51,3 cm. The original was lost in WWII, another victim of the bombings. But a copy and some pictures survive.

The two reconstructions
Vespasian (L) and Durham (R)

At 54,5cm the Durham lyre is slightly larger than the St. Severin. These smaller sizes demand for a higher tuning. So I opted for D (Durham) and C (Vespasian) to keep them compatible with the G lyre. This seems to work well.

The two lyres next to my “standard model” (in G).

On the back of these prototypes I made two laser engravings of the drawings. These are available on custom order…

I hope to make a short video with sound samples soon. Or come over to the shop (or a re-enactment event) to try them for yourself…

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A Dutch Tool Chest

During the days at the Batavia Shipyard it became clear to me that I want two new toolboxes, destined for the re-enactment events.

The reason is that some of my tools are simply too dear to me to expose them to the risks of the road (like my Nooitgedagt chisels) and being handled by the public (at their own risk). But also because they are not all that period-correct.

Last reason is that getting everything together every time becomes somewhat of a drag. A ready-to-roll tool chest is much more practical.

Why would you make two chests?

Because my re-enactment activities cover two time periods: the late middle ages/renaissance and early middle ages/viking age. Also the activities in both periods are quite different. For t renaissance I need a specialized tools for a luthier. For the viking age this is much more general. Also the shape of tools in both time frames is different. And last but not least; a viking with a renaissance tool chest looks like Adolf Hitler with an Iphone. It’s just a weird sight.

What to make?

For the viking age I want to make a slightly smaller version of the  “Mastermyr-Chest”. A bit like the viking chests I made for the Dorestad museum.

For the renaissance chest I have got a couple of options, but the so-called “Dutch Tool Chest” is most practical.

The Dutch Tool Chest

I first came across this type of chest on Christopher Schwartz’s Lost Art Press-blog and in his article for Popular Woodworking. Only none of the articles clearly states what is so typically “Dutch” about them. Perhaps because they are cheaper to make than English or “Anarchist” tool chests?

As all my re-enactment materials these chests will be made on a budget, from left-over materials and in  spare time.

It started with a design: what tools do I need to fit in the box, and at what size is it still transportable. Because of lack of a drivers license, I travel to a lot of events by bus and train. So it needs to fit on a lorry, along with a selection of lutes and guitars.

The result is this small table top version of the chest.

The chest will be filled with home-grown reconstructions of historical tools. Check it out at one of the medieval and renaissance re-enactment events we will attend…

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We have a theorbo!

Work continues on Jannemieke’s Sellas theorbo. We’re very close to completion…

The bracing glued and shaped

Time to close the box…

Installing the fingerboard points…

And time to attach the neck extention…

(Click to enlarge)

The instrument is finally at its full length. Even though it isn’t the largest theorbo I’ve built (that honor is bestowed on the large Schelle Dm theorbo) the size is still impressive. Moving theorbos in a shop with a low ceiling is quite a challenge.

I hope to complete this instrument over the following weeks. Even though it is quite busy in the re-enactment and lectures department:

May 16th – lecture about instrument making for the local library

May 19-21 – Viking event Eindhoven (lyre and rope making)

May 25-27 – Slag bij Heiligerlee (Minion Press, together with The Paper Unicorn)


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A chained library

During the weekends at the Batavia shipyard Paper Unicorn’s bookbinder Astrid spoke about the idea of making a portable chained library.

For many people this is one of the first things they think about when the subject of medieval books comes up: writing monks, calligraphy, parchment and books on a chain…

One of three chained libraries still in existence is located at the st. Walpurgis Church in Zutphen. The oldest public library in the Netherlands.

The chained library at the st. Walburgis Church in Zuthpen. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

To avoid theft, the books are secured to the desks by chains.

The idea ligered in the back of my mind, and returned when I came across this blog by Ercc Glaison. In a 3-part series he makes a table top book stand and the books too go along with it. Because it’s always better to steal a good idea than re-invent the wheel (better known as ‘inspiration’), I followed his basic design.

Stripping and cutting

A couple of months ago a friend gave me a couple of solid Parana Pine boards, left over from a closet in his house. At first I destined them to make chests, but this will be more useful…

So last friday I stripped the boards of their paint and started cutting. No real plans, just go along with what the boards tell me. A length of 1 meter seems fine, img_4068it will fit most of the tables at the castles and events we visit. Longer is impractical for transport, shorter makes them too small to hold the books.

img_4069The endboard triangles are cut at 60 degrees. In the middle a trefold clover, just for decoration. Inspired by some pictorial sources.

Unlike Ercc I didn’t make the chain myself. Perhaps in the future, but for now we first try a simple decorative chain from the hardware store.

To keep it a bit more transport friendly the library is foldable.

The whole chest was finished with a simple brown beeswax.

We will bring the library to the “Slag bij Heijligerlee” event at the end of may. Details soon to follow…


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A home-made drawknife

Another addition to my historical toolboxes just has to be a drawknife.

A tool that has been around since Roman times, it survived the ages very well.

I am always looking for suitable stock materials to make edge tools. Old saw blades are ideal to recycle. Chisels, knives and other special purpose cutters. 

This old 10″ circular saw blade can be cut up into multiple tools. A drawknife is shaped like an upside down Salvador Dali moustache.

After a little bit of forging, cleaning up, shaping, sharpening, hardening, quelching and fitting a couple of yew handles it looks like this…

A small model, ideal for a portable toolchest…

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Demodag at Baptist Tools

Last Saturday I attended the “demo-day” at Baptist Toolshop in Arnhem.

They invited three other woodworkers and toolmakers like Tormek, Record Power and Mafell to show their goods and innovations…

Baptist demodag

My neighbour was bowyer Simon van der Heijden, who makes long-and horsebows in various woods and materials…


My other neighbor was graphic artist Titia Sibson, who brought pyrographics.


Another craftsmen was woodturner Peter de Klein, allias “Peter Peer“.


He makes some of the most beautiful wooden bowls you have ever seen.
But also magic wands (Olivanders eat your heart out)…


And his “365-spinning tops challenge” in which he makes one whirl every day for a year.


This little bowl especially spoke to me, its simplicity, but also the ultrathin construction.


It reminded me of this maple pot found in Wijk bij Duurstede. One of my dearest pieces in the Dorestad museum.


I brought my trusty trolley, filled with a variety of tools and instruments…


 It was lovely to meet so many other woodworkers with a broad range of activities.

Walking trough the store is like being a kid in a toy or candy store again… Too many high-quality tools to mention. You have to take a look for yourself…


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Forging ahead

It’s a craft that always captivated me: blacksmithing. The art of working and shaping metal into useable objects.

I was always fond of the “Skippers of the Kameleon“, a Dutch series of childrens books, written by Hotze de Roos. In the books the twin sons of a Frisian blacksmith have all kinds of adventures with their boat “The Cameleon”. De Roos, a carpenter by trade, knew the activities of a village blacksmith well, and describes them in detail when the twins help their father in the shop.

The books spoke of the idea that it is possible to make and repair stuff yourself. Regardless of the material, the boys were always tinkering. In 2016 I wrote this blog post about it…

For years I have wanted to try this craft myself. To make some of my own woodworking tools; chisels, gouges, knives etc.

But where to start? Buying a forge and the tools was far too expensive, so I had to make and collect them over time. Making a small break drum forge, getting a couple of thongs, hammers and an anvil…

My forge: an old break drum on a foot. A ventilator pushes air through the orange pipe.

Three weeks ago the moment was there. I gathered a couple of basic tools, charcoal, far too few information but enough hubris to have a go. A first day of trying this new craft was planned.

Started with four hooks for the rope walk. Heating up the ends, and bending it to shape. Then on with a small gouge, made from an old spade bit. Flattening out, and bending it to shape only took a couple of minutes. So three other examples followed…

On with two small hacksaws after the Mastermyr example. Two hammer heads and finally starting a set of hinges (just before running out of charcoal).

It mighy sound crazy but it went a lot better and easier than I expected. In my mind it always had been one of those impossible tasks. A secret and sacred art, only to be learned by the sacrificing years of dedication and at least a couple of virgin unicorns to Vulcan. At least not something giving reasonable results at the first try… The biggest sacrifice was a couple of very sore and painfull muscles which nagged on for a couple of days.

The Mastermyr-style hacksaws.

Working metal this way is completely different than wood. Metal is a very plastic material which becomes malleable by heath. You can always add to it and undo mistakes. While wool is less forgiving and worked mostly by substraction. Like the difference between sculpting in marble  or clay.

The iron I use is sourced from waste materials. Some old leaf springs and drills for knives, and chisels. Other pieces of scrap for the hinges and saw frames. The hammer heads were a cold chisel in their previous life…

One of the finished hammers.

And the approach is different. Metal has a deadline. When you take it from the fire you have got to know what steps you will take. While wood gives you all the time you need to work, look and measure between steps.

I would to learn more and expand this new craft. Not to do anything professional with it, but as a step towards that ultimate goal of making an entire instrument with home-forged tools…

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A 17th century “Dutch Plane” – (free plans!)

In 1628 the Swedish warship Vasa set out for its maiden voyage. With 64 canons on 2 decks it was the pride of the Swedish marine. But this was shortlived; after only one mile she keeled over, water poored trough the lower gunports and sank to the bottom of the Stockholm harbor.

Due to low oxygen conditions the hull was preserved, and 333 years later Vasa was lifted from her watery grave. After a long preservation process with a PEG (Polyethylene Glycol) solution the ship was brought over to a new museum where it can be seen today.

Along with the ship many of the objects it carried were preserved. Tableware, casks, weapons coins, carvings and…

The shipwright’s tool chest!

Inside this rectangular wooden box we find everything a shipwright needed to maintain a ship during its voyages. (But perhaps we might say that it was asking a bit much to do this on a 1 mile maiden voyage?)

(These photos were maliciously stolen from our friends of the St. Thomas Guild)

All kidding aside, inside the chest were also a couple of planes. One of them is classified as “Den Holländska Hyvel” (The Dutch Plane).

The form is closely related to that of the so called “gerfschaaf” another Dutch plane type.

I really like the design of this plane, smooth lines, and even a little decorative touch… So it wasn’t hard to figure a reconstruction had to be made for my re-enactment tool chest.

The plane is made from beech (like the original and most Dutch planes). For the blade I took some tool steel from Dictum.

Because I already was making one, it was fairly easy to put a piece of carbon paper under it and make a couple…

And you can make your own! 

Download these free plans, get a piece of beech, sharpen your chisels and whack away!

(Click here to download these plans in PDF)

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Sellas theorbo update…

While the re-enactment season has started, work in the shop continues as normal. Jannemieke’s Sellas theorbo is getting along fine. Time for an update…

The carvings on the back of the neck are finished. We were a little bit in doubt about the colors: make it full color like the old cart? Or only gold?. After some contemplation we decided not to color them further, but keep them only in gold. This will give a more neo-classicist look to the whole instrument, when the background is painted black.

To reflect this decoration on the rest of the instrument we decided to do the same thing to the rose. There are a couple of historical examples with gilded roses, like this example by Basilio Smit (left).

I always wanted to try this, but never dared to. Thinking it would be too much. But somehow on this theorbo it makes sense.

The diamond border around the soundholes is treated with a dark shellac, to emulate the effect on the Basilio Smit example.

Time for bracing and bridge…

The Sellas soundboard is just braced like a “normal” lute or theorbo. Albeit being only a little bit heavier on a couple of bars, and having more finger braces on the treble side.

While the soundboard is glued, the bridge can be made. This is one of my personal favorite tasks. Don’t ask me wby, but I think it is because of its sculptural aspect. A bit like a scroll on a violin. There is much character and style added to the instrument. It’s one of the places where a builder can leave his individual mark.

I decided to deviate from the design by Sellas and make it more in line with the rest of the theorbo’s decoration, The leaves, found in the carvings and rose adorn the ends of the bridge.

And to keep it in style: the ends are painted gold as well…

When the bracing is ready, the bars can be ‘tuned’ (shaping them to give the board an optimal resonance). And the whole lute can be assembled and set up…

Stay tuned for more updates…


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Renaissance chisels

It’s virtually impossible to make a 100% accurate re-enactment kit. Especially on a low budget. Sandra and I decided to start with a basic set and improve it over time.

Replace, add and remove materials, clothes, cutlery, tools and accessories.

High on my list were my chisels. Some of my most important and valued tools. The old set of Nooitgedagts inherited from grandpa is very dear to me. So dear that it felt uncomfortable to bring my most precious chisel to events, losing it would devastate me.

Fleamarket finds

I am always on the lookout for tools. Especially old chisels and gouges by Nooitgedagt, E.A.Bergh, John Bull and Kirschen. No matter in what state they are in, it’s always possible to derust and upholster them.

Like these two sorry pieces. One is by Nooitgedagt, but saw a lot of abuse over its life. It was grinded until there was almost nothing left. And their last function seems to have been the opening of paint cans. The handles were split and beyond repair.

So after a though cleaning with vinegar (they were too far gone for just elbow grease).

I wanted the handles to be correct for my time period. The planes in my kit are modelled after a woodcut “Der Lautenmacher” by Jost Amman (ca. 1550). The chisels would also be a good candidate.
At the workbench we see a couple of chisels/gouges with hexagonal handles. Much like modern Pfeil carving tools, but with a wider end.

Last week I saw some fine examples at Batavialand in Lelystad. They were found in the remains of a ship that sunk in the Zuyderzee (now IJssellake). It came up when parts of the lake were made dry to create new land.

I have made handles like this before and prefer them to be irregular in shape. It helps to steer them while working. You never have to guess how you hold them.

Wagon wheel

Like the ones in the woodcut and the Zuyderzee examples, these chisels need a ferrule at the top. But every woodworker knows the phenomenon of loose ferrules. The handle dries and shrinks, causing the ferrule to fall off.

To counter this I decided to try something different. The end of the handle is turned on a lathe. Slightly larger than the inner diameter of the ferrule. Then I heated the ferrule (a piece of iron pipe) with a propane torch. This causes the metal to expand. The hot ring is placed over the handle and quickly cooled down. The metal shrinks back to its original dimension, fitting the ring snugly to the handle.

I stole this technique from a cartwright.  They use it to fit the metal band around a wheel.

A hole is cut in the center with a tapered drillbit and the blade hammered into place.

A light coat of beeswax completes the chisels. All that’s left to do is sharpening…

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