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CLAVIERS BAROQUES -- how to check out a cheap (under $1,000) used harpsichord

People are always asking us if they can get a good used harpsichord for cheap. Price is not always a good indication of quality, especially with a used instrument. I have seen acceptable instruments priced in the hundreds range, I have even seen quite good harpsichords "free to good home", but generally anything under $1,000 will need a fair bit of work to make it playable, which takes it back up over the hundreds figure, even if you do the work yourself. On the other hand, I have seen horrendously bad instruments offered for sale at astronomical prices. E-bay, of course, is famous for this, but I have seen it happen on private sales, including those brokered by harpsichord technicians and builders who should know better.

Ideally you find out if it's a good instrument by playing it, but there are lots of times when you can't, or when it isn't much help. If you don't have access to the instrument, if you are not a keyboard player, if you do not have experience with what a good harpsichord should sound and feel like you will need other ways to tell. Also, a used instrument being sold privately will probably be out of regulation. If nothing else is wrong regulation is a fairly easy fix, but how to tell if it just needs regulation or if it's disastrously bad? And since we are considering "cheap" harpsichords, for the sake of argument anything under $1,000 / $2,000 USD or CAD, we are not really expecting a *fabulous* instrument anyway, but it should be servicable. In that range I would expect you'd mostly be encountering instruments built from kits, small scratch-built instruments, and German factory-built harpsichords from the 60's.

Things to check out when buying such a harpsichord:

Design and workmanship: A recognized design is a big help. A Z-box is any harpsichord made from a Zuckermann kit and having the distinctive straight side running diagonally between the cheek and the tail instead of the traditional bent side, was prevalent in the 1960's and 1970's. It is also called a slab-side. There were 15,000 of these kits made in the late '50's and early 60's and many factories and scratch-builders of the period (LeSage, Albarda, etc.) copied the design as well, so you are likely to see instruments of this shape turning up a lot, often at church auctions and such. Later on, starting the the 1970's, Zuckermann and Hubbard Harpsichords provided well-designed kits, plans, and instruments in various stages to many amateur and professional harpsichord builders. In general the later the design the better, and a well-built kit, especially of the later, more historical designs, can be quite a good instrument. It is usual for the builder of a kit instrument (Zuckermann, Burton, Hubbard, etc.) to put their own name on the nameboard so it will say Smith or Brown or José Gezortenblätt and you will have to go by the design rather than the name on it. Oh, I should probably mention that the workmanship on both kits and 'professionally'-built harpsichords varies wildly. Look for neat workmanship and a tidy string layout, general cleanliness of the instrument. Beware of partially-built kits, unless you have experience and can fabricate missing parts. Well-known factory-made instruments you might encounter in the bargain bin include Sperrhake, Sassman, Wittmayer, Neupert, Sabathil. These will usually be what are known as 'revival' instruments, built like pianos (or tanks). They are not considered serious professional instruments, but they are harpsichords, of a sort.

Case integrity: all the joints should be tight and straight. The most commonly used glues of the 60's were white or yellow carpenter's glues, and we now know that they will very slowly "creep". A critical point is the hitchpin rail because the strings are always trying to pull it off. Check to see that the joint between the hitchpin rail and the case-side is tight; if painted there should be no crack in the paint where they join, if natural finish try to slip a piece of paper into the space -- you should not be able to do so. Another common problem with harpsichords is cheek-droop, which signals impending failure of the joint between the cheek (short side next to the treble end of the keyboard) and the bentside, or straight-side, if it is a Z-box. Check for cheek-droop by placing a straight-edge along the bottom edge of the bentside (or straight-side, as the case may be) near where it joins the cheek, or just sight along the bottom of the bent-side from tail to cheek. It should all be level; if the cheek angles up from the joint there is a problem. It may not be fatal immediately, but it cannot be repaired, it will get worse, and eventually the instrument will self-destruct. You can still buy the harpsichord if you want, but at least get something knocked off the price as it has a limited remaining life. Attempts to repair failed case-joints are usually unsuccessful due to the fact that modern glues (ie, anything except hide glue) can't be re-glued -- they can't be adequately removed and they won't stick to themselves.

Action in working order: Play each note twice in fairly quick succession. The key should go down, play the note, and return on its own both times. Ideally you want the jack to re-set and be ready to play again as fast as you can play two notes in a row. If all or at least most (say 90%) of the notes are playing $1,000 USD/CAD is a fair price, I'd be willing to go up to $2000 USD/CAD if they are all playing and repeating well and the thing is in tune (shows it has been looked after). While we're on the subject, you should like the sound it makes, too. Get the seller to include the builder's or owner's manual, if they have one, and any spare wire and plectra. And, oh yes, a tuning wrench or hammer. If these things are missing you can usually get them elsewhere (eg, here), but the manuals or a copy of the Harpsichord Owners' Guide are $30-$50 and tuning hammers cost $25 or more, so a price reduction would be appropriate.

Plectra and jacks: *Warning* On a Z-box or any 60's harpsichord (Sperrhake, Wittmayer, LeSage, Butrton, etc.) check to see whether the plectra (things that pluck the strings) are plastic or leather. The leather is, well, leather-colored and looks not unlike a bit of bootlace stuffed into a square hole approx 1/8" square near the top of each jack. A bit of the leather sticks out of one side of the jack and plucks the string as it goes up. Leather is a pain, it breaks easily and is tedious to replace, which should be done every two or three years. How tedious? Well, we charge $1,000 per rank to re-quill in leather. The plastic plectra will be small, like fingernail clippings, and either white, which will be Delrin, or black, which will be Celcon. What you want is plastic plectra, either sort, and what you really really want is the jacks with small openings exactly the right size for the plastic plectra, they will be approx 1/32" and usually T-shaped -- I will try to attach some photos. What you don't want is either leather plectra or the quick-and-dirty conversion, which is plastic plectra wedged into the big holes for leather plectra with something, either the leather plectrum or maybe a bit of wood, I've seen epoxy used to fill the holes, too. This does *not* work, the plastic plectra are at the wrong angle, you can't satisfactorily voice them, it feels like a trampoline and sounds like a banjo. If the plectra are leather or if the holes are the big squaries for leather, all is not lost. Zuckermann sells kits to upgrade to the plastic-plectra jacks, -- new jacks, plectra, instructions, everything you need -- for around $175 USD, but plan on maybe 50 hours work. The guy to talk to there is Steve Salvatore, tell him we sent you. So, if the instrument otherwise seems OK, and it has the *bad* jacks, you can still get buy it if you want, but get a hefty price reduction.

Another problem with 60's harpsichords of various styles is that many of them used plastic for all or part of the jack mechanism and the plastic is now brittle and failing. This can be a real pain if it is the tongues that are failing (the hinged bit that holds the plectrum), but that can be fixed for a price -- sometimes jack upgrades or new jacks from Zuckermann or elsewhere will do the trick, and new wooden jacks or tongues can be custom-made. Expect to pay $2.00 to $5 each for plastic jacks, $5 and up for wood, then they have to be installed. Oh, and you'll need new plectra, too that's only $8 - $10 per register, but they'll have to be voiced, if you are new at this it'll be 20 to 40 hours per rank, we have it down to one register/day, but we charge $500 USD for that... ask yourself, is this instrument worth it?

Bottom line: Still in? Well, you now have an instrument that may do well enough for you, if you are a beginner, or if you want to try the harpsichord without making a big $ committment, but this is probably not an instrument you would want to play publicly. You will probably not be able to move this instrument around easily, either -- these little guys are very heavy for their size due to lots of plywood or even particleboard in the cases. One good point is that they keep their value fairly well if you maintain them decently, which you should do anyway -- basic tuning and regulation is all that is needed, a good book to help you with this is the Harpsichord Owners' Guide. So if later on you decide to take up the bagpipes instead, or want to trade up to a better harpsichord (which, of course, is my hope), you should be able to sell this one for at least what you paid for it or we will take it in trade, because somebody always looking for a cheap harpsichord.

An afterthought:

Do you have a specific question? Perhaps we can help via a phone call or private e-mail, feel free to contact us.

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last updated August 24, 2010