Workshop News: December 2001

I have begun making a five-octave unfretted clavichord. The model this time is an instrument attributed to Johann Heinrich Silbermann (nephew of the more famous Gottfried). It is more compact than the Hoffmann type described on my main web-page, but not in any way inferior in tone or touch: just different.

When starting a new instrument, a lot of time is spent selecting wood for each part and cutting it roughly to size. The maker has to balance several aims. First of all, the selected piece must be suited for its function; so, for example, a load-bearing part ought not to be cross-grained or too full of knots. Then there is the appearance: adjacent parts should match, but the maker aims to take advantage of the natural variation in the wood surfaces to create a pleasing composition. Last, but not least, there is economy. To be fit for instrument-making, wood must not only be grown by a skilled forester, and air- or kiln-dried by a skilled and conscientious timber merchant; it must then be conditioned by the maker himself, which generally means keeping it for several years in a snug, humidity-controlled environment. At the end of all this, it has acquired considerable value, so the maker will try very hard to cut out the various pieces in a way which avoids unnecessary waste.

All these considerations apply doubly when the wood, as in the present case, is beautiful English walnut, a comparatively rare (and expensive) wood with a famously irregular grain.

You can see from all this that the selection of timber requires a good deal of thought and judgment. But in this it is no different from any other process in the making of an instrument, which is at least as much an intellectual process as it is a question of the physical skill of hand and eye. What the hand and eye can do can usually be done better by a well-adjusted machine, but there is no substitute for the human judgment part; which is perhaps why it is worth paying for a hand-made instrument, even though the cost may be several times that of a mass-produced one.

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