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.
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.
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.