Microscopic Views of Real Silk Strings

Last month I bought a 2000X endoscope camera to look more closely at my Silk strings.  I find it very interesting to compare some of the fibers from different sources. To the left is a Chinese Bombyx Mori silk that was originally 3-plied and approximately .002 mm.


The fibers are said to be 7.84 microns more or less. (A micron is .000785 mm) A 1680 thread would come to about 10.34 mm, and we know this to not be the case. In fact, the way the fibers pack together is partly affected by their pentagonal shape.

You can see a single fiber of silk in the foreground here










         Here is a small section of a set of wrapped strings. They are very neatly packed, while you can see the plies in the wrapping.

                                                                                                                                                              Here you can see a few stray fibers, too, that give a sense of scale to the wrapping.




This is what, until the addition of the 2000x endoscopic camera view I was able to offer as a closeup of my strings.



Saturniid moth     -Photo by Jean-Pierre Hamon






A closer look at burnished strings at .62 mm. These are of a wild silk, called Tussah, from Saturniid moths (see Antheraea paphia). I prefer this silk for Lyre strings.

Tussah is stronger than silk from Bombyx mori, the more standard silk for garments and Damask weaving. Tussah is a little creamier in tone and sometimes varies a bit in thread diameter so creating specific gauges is a little trickier. It does, however, look a little more “authentic” to some people when strung on instruments of antiquity.

You can see that the surface has been burnished to make them much smoother than they would be otherwise.

These are .62 mm:





                                                                                            Real Silk strings can be purchased in my Etsy store

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Gourd Resonator Lute

I acquired several medium sized gourds a few years back, and slowy discovered how to best use them as I intended, to make musical instruments.  Gourds have traditionally served as resonating bodies in musical instruments, either as the main body, or in the case of some Classical Indian instruments, such as the “Veena”, as a secondary resonator.

Classical Indian "Veena"

After the side has been removed from gourd

I must admit that as the instrument took shape it was difficult to limit the intention to one specific idea. I wanted to primarily make a standard Lute length instrument so I may test strings intended for Renaissance lute.

But soon after I began, a host of other possibilities came to mind, including sympathetic strings, which have always intrigued me, maybe an additional Bass string.

After the soundboard was glued on, I carved the sound hole to an appropriate diameter.          I also carved a place for the Cherry wood fingerboard to be inset, an “ogee” or lotus petal shape. I have been aging that Cherry for nearly a quarter century, in fact!  It was a section removed from rabbet of a large picture frame I made in the early 70s.

I was trying out this little “rosette” and found it muffled the sound a bit too much, so  am playing round with the whole idea of making other rosettes from parchment.

The current arrangement of frets are equally spaced, not unprecedented but an anachronistic holdover by some accounts.  The adhesive I used is quite easy to reverse if I change my mind later.

Equally spaced frets

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Spinning in Texas

You might remember my electronic  music, including Theremin from some years back. Some might notice I stopped recording about 5 years ago.

I have been focusing on an acoustic interest that goes back decades before I built my Theremin. I just didn’t have enough information. Or time.
Circumstances led me back to Chinese antiquities, and with a kickstart of information from a generous aquaintance or two, launched me toward some ancient traditional crafts. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution most of this silk tradition was wiped out. The pollution in China and lost memories makes it possible for me, and just a few others, to revive what was lost on a viable commercial basis.

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Traditional Medicine for Silk Strings

BAI JI…for treating silk strings for Asian instruments

Available here.

A Bletilla striata rhizome

Even the very best silk strings after more than a few years, will become a little hairy.

This is in fact the process that creates rich sound and subtlety. But too much does dampen the vibration to an extent that treating the string with the right substance will maintain and extend their best sound qualities.

These strings have been played almost daily for two years.

The same strings have been treated with one of the pads infused with the extract of Bletilla striata- the Chinese medicinal,  Bai ji.

Bai ji Pad

Stroke the individual strings in one direction; with the direction of twist-  most often toward the Yueh-shan, or “bridge” where the strings are knotted, but this might not always be the case. Observe closely how the tiny hairs begin to reincorporate. If they pull further away, you are stroking the wrong direction. The inner layer of the pad will gently remove loose hairs.  Regularly treating your strings will make them last longer and maintain their sound.

Sericin glue mixture with Baiji

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Yao Stave Box Construction

Making boxes …by hand begins with scoring the folds.

I use the tip of a burnising tool. This makes it easier to make sharp folds exactly in place.

I fold the tabs backward:

They will be inserted later.

The sides are folded upward:

A length of poplar wood is cut to the exact width of the box, and glued in place.

Glue is spread on 3 sides. 

The end tab is folded in, and glued in place under the wood. The end piece is rolled over twice.

Then everything is held in place with pins until dry.

The Sleeve is a simple rectangle with a series of folds.

The Sleeve is folded around the tray to be sure it fits, then it is glued.

Though the concept is simple enough, to adjust the correct size of everything and print it exactly the first time, required several hours of adjustments. I print both sides of the tray.

The background pattern is a silk pattern from the Mawangdui archaeological find.

As you see. It is a perfect container for the Yao Staves as I described several months ago.

Yao Staves in boxes

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Tying a Bundle of Yarrow

A customer contacted me recently and asked me to post a description of the way I tie my bundles of Yarrow. I was a little surprised, but it soon occurred that it may not be as obvious a sort of thing as I had assumed.

I thought for some time, that at least when someone received a set of Yarrow from me, they would simply reverse the steps of untying a bundle. But I soon realized that many would probably just slip the cord off the end, and leave a pile of cord on the table in front of them. If one had a sleeve, this tying, again, would be unnecessary of course.

It simply starts with a slipknot or lasso,


several turns; then a spiral to the other end.

Wrap around

Several turns then spiral back to the loose end and tie. -Bow knot, if you want to

easily untie it,

You can tighten it all by sliding the ends outward. (Sort of like a Chinese finger-trap)

Chinese “finger trap”

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Ramala or “ilm Al-ramal” Divination Dice


The practice of Geomancy originated with Middle Eastern shaman. One practice was to draw patterns in the sand to invoke earth energies. From these patterns a range of meanings became standardized. To this day there are practitioners in many parts of Africa. Translated from ancient Greek, Geomancy literally means divination by earth.

In Syria, in the thirteenth century, Muhammad ibn Khutlukh al-Mawsili constructed several instruments to aid Magi in divination. One of these was the Ilm Al-ramal, or later know as Ramala.

buy Ramala

This interesting item is a set of dice on an axle. Traditional Ramala could be made of wood or metal. Each die has the numbered ‘pips’ from 1 to 4 and they spin freely on a brass shaft. I like to work with wood, primarily, so the only metals are in the fittings.

The cast determines either an odd or even number that generates the associated mystical symbol. One die has pips colored in red to be the root # for the cast.

One of my customers asked me to make a Ramala for him to match the Shaizi he purchased. As far as I could tell, no one else on the planet makes these to sell at this time.

So I set about finding the best way to make Ramala and within a couple of weeks I have made several in Ebony, and Olive wood

Some Geomancers like to use Ramala in pairs, so there will be two of each available. Or one might like to have a light colored Olive wood and an Ebony set as a pair.


In medieval Europe, a well-known magician and astrologer named Cornelius Agrippa developed sixteen mystical symbols from ancient shamanic patterns. Similar to the Taoist oracle, the I Ching, Agrippa’s geomancy symbols corresponded to the astrological elements, planets, and their associated crystals. You can access the meaning of the symbols through several Modern texts.

The Art and Practice of Geomancy: Divination, Magic, and Earth Wisdom of the Renaissance

Geomancy for Beginners: Simple Techniques for Earth Divination

Geomancy in Theory & Practice

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Moon Lute (Yueqin)


How complex a musical instrument is! Once I started this project, it loomed forth with so many steps I had never taken. New ideas about how to approach each detail came to me in my waking dreams.

I had been making strings for a customer who was restoring a Nykelharp and wanted to match some existing diameters and lengths. I was a little skeptical about how such large diameters and lengths might sound, but after I put them on my testing bench my eyes got big and I played them shorter and they rang sweetly. So, I said “I need an instrument with short strings, and what better than a nice, round Yueqin for that!”

It really began with some beautiful cedar boards that were intended for barbecue; used once and then discarded. They were in the Outdoor section of a local hardware store, being sold at a huge discount because it was the end of Summer. When I picked them up and strarted tapping on them I was very excited. They rang like bells! Or at least SOME did; others were better, some less. So I bought a whole stack of boards bundled in 3’s to sort through until I found the best of ’em.

Drawing the back plate

Drawing the faces

Then I traced the biggest circle I could make using a length of wood as a compass as I have done for many years on canvas to make circle paintings. This would also determine the proportion for everything else.

This is from a beautiful old instrument made with boards much wider than might be available now. A beautiful restoration project:


It was probably this instrument that inspired me to make my own version’ with materials at hand.

The body of the instrument is built in much the same manner as a barrel; a series of bevelled staves are glued edge to edge and bound with a rope around the roughed out faceplates. Once the glue is set up, the rope is removed and any gaps filled and sanded. The wood is actually some wonderfully dried shim stock I bought.

This is how I carved the back. I left it thicker in the center, to allow more flexibility in the edges. When I shape the outside, the edges are thinned even further.

Once attached to the round box, it is carved to thin it and shape the sound. I like to think of the soundboards as something like the skin of a drum.

The face is carved a little differently.

The sound holes are reinforced by leaving some extra thickness, and the edges of the board joints act as sound bars. They are connected to an area that will support the bridge.

The neck is a piece of found wood, selected from the edge of White Rock Lake. It suggested it would be ideal for the purpose. I appreciated the irregular shape while it is still utilitarian.

I use a carbonized finish I learned years ago from Ben Hunt. His illustrated books were published in the 1950s and were a Boy Scout’s go-to source. He suggested the finish could be applied by campfire with a little wax and elbow grease. I include the use of shellac to my own approach, and the combination of French Polish with carbon creates a hard and satisfying tactile surface.

The pegs I made have an extreme taper. At first, it was suggested they were a little small. In fact, this makes it possible to make tiny adjustments to the silk strings on this small instrument.

Neck attached to body

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New sets of Long Dice

A new source of exotic woods has brought me renewed interest in the Zhang Shaizi that introduced last year.

I found some really fine Ebony and a nice little box to present them.


They were unique in that the ‘pips’ were not filled with red clay and wax that I had used in the past. It seemed to me a contemporary, minimalist approach with some appeal.

I also found some Kingwood with wonderful grain patterns. Kingwood is a form of Rosewood that is known particularly for this distinctive characteristic. It seems every appearance of Dalbergia has a different name!


Kingwood Shaizi

There are also some Olive wood pieces on which I burned the pips to create a better contrast.  I’m still making little felt bags for them.


The more of these I make, the better they have become in terms of the polish and proportions, the variety of woods and markings.


There is also a small set in Cocobolo, another kind of wood in the Rosewood family. I kept them simple and small to fit in small hands.

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Real Silk Strings: Advice

Someone wrote while addressing me, and suggested they might like to attempt to make some Silk strings for their own use. I replied:

I would recommend, if you haven’t already, that you get a copy of the Yu-ku-chai-ch’in-pu translated by Jim Binkley and read the description of how to make silk strings. Then set it aside! As interesting as I found the construction notes, the playing techniques and tablature are the most useful parts of this book.


Available in my Etsy store

An engineer might have some ideas about how to work with silk, but one would do better to learn spinning techniques with other fibers and apply what you have learned to silk, as I have. To make musical strings is not the same as spinning yarn, but you will be possibly informed by your experience with other fibers.

Sources of the most appropriate silk for your strings might be the most challenging problem. I have several sources at this point, but keep leaning toward raising my own tiny makers. There is a wonderful little report about the possibility of a small industrial program of silk production, with tables and measurements that I found a couple of years ago. It is, however, specific to Texas soil and weather.

The next area of interest touched upon in the Yu-ku-chai-ch’in-pu concerns glue. As an artist for 50 years I had explored resins, glues and mediums and found Alexander Raykov’s application of materials I am already familiar with to be brilliant. He was, however, not making strings for qin, which I found to be a different kind of instrument altogether. The homespun notes in the qinpu of Chu Feng-chieh will also not avail you!

The reason for this is that, of all the available adhesives and resins available from Nature, cooked rice starch is great for low-duty joining of porous materials, but there are much better kinds of glue that are compatible with the Fibroin in silk. What I developed is very close to Sericin, the glue that holds cocoons together. I reasoned that millions of years of insect development would arrive at the most perfect glue, while the common rice starch left over from cooking food was simply a matter of human convenience! What I have developed is a glue substance that is applied to the long fibers as they are tightly wound together, and a cayslyst is then introduced to harden it just before it dries. In a matter of hours the glue shrinks the string considerably, and with the addition of DRY heat, at the melting point of the adhesive, the whole network is permanently bound. 

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