WORKSHOP AND WORKING METHODS
This page briefly describes the workshop practices as they were when operations were in full swing. I was extremely lucky to have the use of a spacious, well lit, and well equipped workshop within easy reach of Central London (for picture, click here).
The process of making an instrument starts with selection of timbers. People often ask what woods we use, and whether they are difficult to obtain: the answer is that mostly we use temperate hardwoods and softwoods, grown here in Great Britain or on the continent of Europe. For many years, I had a most valuable relationship with a specialist timber yard who supplied me with oak, pine and walnut for the cases; lime for the keyboards; and smaller quantities of beech, pear, boxwood and ebony for wrestplanks, keyboards etc. Of these, only the ebony comes from outside Europe.
The wood was supplied 'air-dry', which means that it had a moisture content of 12 to 15%. The really vital conditioning then had to be done by me. Boards were kept for at least three years – preferably more – in the dry atmosphere of the workshop, initially laid horizontally and separated by spacers or sticks. This further reduces the moisture content, and is vital for avoiding warping and movement later on when the wood is incorporated into the instrument.
Soundboard wood is a special case: that comes from trees of the species picea abies, grown in high altitudes in Switzerland, Austria and Rumania, and I had to import it directly from specialist suppliers in those countries. You can imagine the difficulties that arose: somewhat alleviated when Austria became a member of the EU. (No doubt future instrument makers in the UK will find themselves hampered by having to obtain cutoms clearance and the various certificates that used to be required in the name of biological security not to mention the obligation to pay import VAT.) A small amount of my soundboard wood came from stocks dating from before World War II, originally held by a (now-defunct) piano firm: that was all used up in the last century.
Machines were used in the initial preparation of the wood, but most of the actual joinery was done by hand, including dovetails at the corners of clavichords, and mouldings, which were made with specially-made moulding planes. People are sometimes surprised that so much is done by hand: however, hand work is more flexible (e.g. through dovetails can be made to any desired size and shape) and gives a better surface finish (e.g. a moulding plane does not leave 'lawnmower' marks like a spindle moulder sometimes does). Even wrestpins were made by hand from round steel stock: they are simply not available on the market in the range of sizes I needed. The same goes for hinges, in most cases. Tangents were cut from brass sheet of various thicknesses. Bridge pins were made from various gauges of stainless steel wire.
Most gluing was done using hot animal glue. The reason I prefer this to modern synthetics is not at all sentimental. Animal glue is extremely serviceable: we know for certain that the joints it makes will last for hundreds of years. On the other hand, if necessary, it is comparatively easy to dismantle them, and cleaning up unwanted traces is simple.
In smoothing the wood I tried to avoid sandpaper as much as possible; with sharp tools you can usually get a decent finish with a block plane and, if necessary, a cabinet scraper. I preferred not to stain wood if I could avoid it: for a final coat I usually used two coats of linseed or tung oil. Soundboards got a thin coat of egg-white which helps keep them clean.
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