Toronto, Ontario, Canada


Photo documentary of building a Flemish single harpsichord, from amateur builder Annie B of Montreal.

  • Getting started
  • Keyboard
  • Preparing and installing the soundboard
  • Painting the soundboard (in preparation)
  • Jacks and voicing (in preparation)
  • Family portraits (in preparation)

Phase 1 -- Getting started:

Annie began e-mailing us when she was first thinking of building her own harpsichord. She was taking harpsichord lessons and wanted her own instrument but didn't have a lot of money. She felt she could get better value by building her own instrument than by buying used (this is generally true), and she liked the idea of actually doing the work herself. After a lot of correspondence she made her decision -- a Flemish single, a good choice for a beginning builder -- and mailed us a cheque.

[before] The kit arrived in March of 1998. Den and I picked it up from the airport and delivered it to her home in Montreal -- we were more than a little surprised to find a high school student!

The upstairs apartment was vacant, so it became the harpsichord workshop. Annie opened the box and taped the drawing up on the wall -- good idea. Being of an organized and scientific turn of mind, Annie has documented her project with the photos you see here.

[after] December 1998. This is Annie's harpsichord all finished, including Ruckers-style decoration complete with soundboard painting.

Annie started by checking off the various items and packets against the packing list and reading through the instruction manual. The packets of small parts are all labeled, but a meansuring tape is useful to identify otherwise similar-looking pieces of wood.

A reading through the manual got her familiar with the terms, helped her to identify the parts and allowed her to plan her work.

Annie decided to assemble the stand right away. It was a safe and convenient place to store the carton, which still contained soundboard and other fragile parts. Bonus! The carton with its lid put back on also served as an auxiliary work surface.

She used the lid and flap to keep dust and the family cat off her harpsichord. She glued the battens on to keep things from warping. Here she has clamped the lid and the batten together to a worktable to keep them both flat while the glue sets up.

Phase 2 -- Working on the keyboard:

Annie was finishing her second-last year of high school when she started her harpsichord project.. Since she was aiming for a career in medicine she didn't want to take time away from her studies, but on the other hand, she didn't want to just let her harpsichord sit there, either. So she decided to start with the keyboard and other projects that can be done in small bits of time, and to leave the "big" stuff for summer vacation.

1.) Here Annie has already assembled the the rails and stiles which make up the keyframe and she is now hammering the balance pins into pre-drilled holes. The keys will pivot on these balance pins.

2.) The balance pins are now installed and the red balance felts are on, ready for the keys. Annie has also put the black felt strips on the upper and lower touch rails preparatory to gluing them in place. In a Flemish instrument the keys are stopped when the key ends strike the touchrail, on a French instrument they are stopped when the top of the jack hits the jackrail. If you were wondering, the keys of our kits are already cut apart.

3.) The keys can balanced for a quick, sure return by either adding lead weights to the tails or by removing wood from the fronts. This photo shows the undersides of some keys which have been lightened by carving, the method preferred by professionals and which we recommend.

4.) The keyboard, all ready to go into the case. The red felt on the ends of the keys will muffle the sound of the jacks falling back down on the keys. All the sides and edges have been sanded, the keys balanced, eased, straightened and leveled, and the ebony keytops have been sanded, oiled and polished.
Phase 3 -- Preparing and installing the soundboard:

1.) [below] School's out and the work can start in earnest. All the kits come with a thin piece of Sitka spruce which is to be veneered onto the wrestplank so that it looks the same as the soundboard. Annie's first step was to glue the veneer to the wrestplank. She weighted it with books while the glue set. Note the hygrometer -- weather conditions, especially humidity, are very important when bulding a harpsichord, especially for soundboard and veneer installation. People who are building harpsichords find themselves checking the weather reports frequently, like our farming and sea-faring forebears. Sort of a return to nature!

3.) [right] The veneer is on and the holes for the tuning pins can be drilled. Annie has already marked the places according to the plan -- you lay the plan over the veneer before the nut is glued on and make pinpricks right through the plan. The piece of tape on the drill bit lets Annie know when she has drilled deep enough. A 1/4" variable speed reversing drill is absolutely indispensible. Tip: run the drill in reverse for a few revolutions when starting each hole, it reduces tear-out and makes for a neater job.

2.) [above] Once the wrestplank veneer is on the nut can be glued in place. Annie has used the method suggested in the manual to hold the nut in place while the glue sets, small nails (supplied) pounded through small cardboard pads (supplied). The nails and pads are removed once the glue is set and the holes can be filled using toothpicks, if desired.

4.) Annie wanted to thin her soundboard but neither she or her dad felt comfortable using a plane, the recommended tool. Sharpening a plane is a skill, and a plane that isn't properly sharpened can gouge and tear. A neighbour who owns an autobody shop offered the loan of his sander, so they thinned it by sanding rather than risk a chewed-up soundboard. The thinning is done on the underside, by the way, so it won't show.

5.) Soundbars are glued onto the underside of the soundboard to stiffen it in specific places so that the soundboard responds to both high and low notes equally. The ends are cut away in a curve with a chisel so that their effect ends gradually rather than abruptly. This also reduces the chance of a crack in the soundboard starting at the end of a soundbar.

6.) The best way to get a curve into a piece of wood is to steam it. Here is the steaming rig Annie made with an electric teakettle and a length of PVC tubing. The bridge is held in place in the tubing by a rag stuffed into the end of the pipe.

7.) The bridge is glued in place following the exact curve shown on the plan. You can see the nails with their little cardboard pads holding the bridge in place while the glue sets, they'll be removed and filled later.

8.) The soundboard gets glued in place, Annie has used her books again, this time sitting on a piece of plexiglass to distribute the weight. The interesting wood-handled tool is a brad pusher (comes with the kit), which is used to drive tiny nails into the edge of the soundboard to hold it tight while the glue sets. These nails will be later covered by a moulding. Along the gap you can see nails with pads, they will be removed and the holes filled.

9.) One of the distinctive features of the Ruckers' Flemish harpsichords is their exuberant decoration, especially the soundboard painting. Painted flowers, birds and insects are scattered around the soundboard and the edges are bordered with bands of lacy arabesques. Annie decided that she would like to have a painted soundboard, although she had not done any 'art' stuff previously.

Her father told me that she went to the library and got books, first of harpsichord decoration, and then of flowers and birds of North America. She made photocopies of the pictures she liked, shrinking or enlarging them to the size she wanted. When she knew what flowers and birds she wanted on her soundboard she started painting them, first on paper, then on cardboard. Her father told me, "We did not know she could do that." Annie told me, "The most frightening moment I have ever had was the first time I put a paintbrush to the soundboard."
Phase 4-- Painting the soundboard
Phase 5-- Stringing, installing the jacks and voicing:
Phase 6-- Family portraits:


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