Part I: The Case
This page is about how we built a single manual harpsichord modelled after the famous instruments constructed by the Ruckers family in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is important to say that we didn’t do this from scratch—there are kits available from different harpsichord makers around the world, and we chose one designed by The Paris Workshop. If you live in Asia/Oceania and are interested in doing what we did, you should get in touch with Carey Beebe in Sydney. Carey is a harpsichord maker and technician, as well as the agent for TPW in this part of the world. He is very knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful.
Once ordered, the kit took about a week to arrive in Malaysia. The box measures 217cm X 93cm X 24 and weighs about 80kg, so if you’re thinking of clearing it through Customs and transporting it yourself, you’ll need a suitable vehicle and stamina and patience for bureaucracy—the procedure of getting the box cleared and transported took a whole day.
Many people who embark on a project like this have a workshop of some kind. In our case, U-En’s dining room would have to do. With enough clamps, we found that a dining table measuring about 200cm X 100cm could serve as a decent workbench—it would get scratched and banged up, but this added a bit of ‘character’ to the table :)
On first opening the box, we found yet more boxes, and long pieces of wood at the bottom. There was a temptation to take everything out right away and see how it all fits… but no. Every part has a vital and specific purpose, and there are hundreds of them. It’s very easy to get them mixed up and lost. We needed to check that everything arrived safely, and the best way to do that was to keep everything in its appropriate box, and even label the parts.
Two extremely important things were: the full-sized drawing and the bound A4 manual, shown here together with the largest pieces of the instrument (there's also a PDF manual and other online resources but the hardcopy is the first port of call). The manual contains a list of all the parts together with dimensions for the structural pieces. We found it a very good idea to spend all the time we needed to check that everything was present, and identify all the listed pieces because it’s quite easy to glue or cut the wrong piece.
The first of the two larger internal boxes contained seemingly random pieces of wood that looked the same. If you have a general idea about what a harpsichord should look like, it's easy to identify the large pieces of wood in the previous photo (the bentside, spine, bridge, etc) simply by looking at them. However, it’s impossible to do that for these smaller pieces. We used a measuring tape and identify them against the list of parts in the manual.
The second of the larger boxes contained the legs for the stand as well as medium sized pieces such as the fallboard. For this photo, we emptied one of the smaller boxes to show the small parts: strings, felt for the dampers and buff stop, screws, nails, brass hinges, and bottles of glue on the left.
It’s good now to shed any preconceived ideas one might have that constructing a harpsichord is like assembling an IKEA cupboard… it really isn’t. It is difficult, frustrating, even terrifying at times, but more than that, it would also be extremely joyful and rewarding.
We’ve left the largest pieces: Lid, flap, bottom—and the soundboard—untouched in the main box.
Assembling the case
The first task is to prepare the spine (the long straight side of the harpsichord) and the cheek (the small straight piece on the opposite side) to accept the wrestplank. The wrestplank is located near the keyboard and it’s made out of solid oak. It’s where we will eventually drive in the tuning pins, and all the strings will be wound to these. (If this is confusing, don’t worry—it’ll become clearer in the subsequent photos.
The first thing to do is to square off the wrestplank housing in the spine and cheek, and also the cut for the jackrail (seen at the bottom of this photo). These and all the other mortises are accurately cut at the workshop but their corners are unfinished (you can see the rounded corners in the mortise at the top right, for the lower bellyrail)—so we need a very sharp chisel (they are never sharp enough out of the box—the edges need to be ground, rough and fine, on a regular stone for a kitchen knife) and should be razor-sharp.
Once this initial work is done, we can do a dry run of the parts. Here you can see the spine flat on the table, the oak wrestplank vertically inserted into the spine housing, with the cheek at the top. The flat piece of wood perpendicular to the wrestplank is the nameboard—it is very easy to install this back to front, so we had to be careful. The narrow piece that’s parallel to the wrestplank is the jackrail. We won’t be dealing with this till the very end, but we’ve inserted it here to make sure the mortises for it are properly cut.
Next, we’ll need to glue the nameboard cap moulding to the nameboard, then cut the correct 45-degree angles out of the spine and cheek mouldings so it all fits (they ship from the workshop with just a groove for the tongue on the nameboard side). There are two important things to remember at this stage:
1. Always do a dry run before applying glue. This is very similar to saying “measure twice, cut once”—which is also true. In other words: before committing to any permanent action, make sure it’s the action you want.
2. Always measure the locations of parts against the full-sized drawing. It is very easy to install things back to front—nameboard, nameboard moulding, wrestplank—these can easily go the wrong way easily, so always measure things like the distance of the nameboard from the front edge of the spine and cheek.
When you’re satisfied that everything is as it should be, you can start gluing these parts together. Here you can see the nameboard and moulding at the front, and, parallel at the rear is the lower belly rail, which is the first of several lower structural pieces that support the instrument (we’ll see these more clearly in the next photo).
Some long F-clamps are absolutely crucial. We bought four 10” ones, which we used constantly throughout the construction. We also used four 5” C clamps for smaller work.
You’ll also need some material to pad the instrument against the clamps (you don’t want the clamps to leave nasty marks)—in this case, a piece of pine from an old crate at the bottom, a drinks coaster the top.
In this next dry run, the nameboard, wrestplank and lower bellyrail are already glued to the cheek and spine. What we see here are the bentside (i.e. the long… distinctively bendy… piece) and the tail (the short piece at the rear) connected to the spine and cheek and supported by three lower frames. It’s starting to look like an actual harpsichord…
Another angle: beware… the cat will think it’s a gigantic toy. The bentside joins to the cheek and tail (and the tail joins to the spine) by way of splines and rabbets that must be fitted and glued together. The top must line up nicely (there might be some unevenness along the bottom), and it’s important to not that the bend in the bentside might not (and probably will not) match that of the drawing. Even the humidity in the Malaysian air can affect the shape of a piece that was cut and fashioned in Paris, but what really matters is the joinery—joints must be snug and secure.
The mortises for the lower frames are accurate but may need some easing. The pieces should fit firmly—not extremely tightly. Again, as always, a dry run is crucial prior to gluing. We found a rubber mallet (and some scrap wood to cushion the blows) very handy in disassembling parts after the dry run.
A note about the glue: you must work very quickly. The glue starts to set within a few minutes and the wood absorbs moisture and swells. What worked snugly in the dry run can quickly become impossibly tight in the actual gluing. Always work with at least one friend when doing this kind of thing.
Once that’s done, it’s time to put in the liners. These are relatively narrow pieces of wood that run along the spine, tail, bentside, and cheek, meeting at the lower bellyrail. Their purpose is to support the soundboard, which is the next thing to be installed, and eventually they will serve to secure the hitchpins at the tail and bentside.
The liners go in a specific order (tail, spine, bentside, cheek) because they are cut at angles that fit very precisely. We determine the distance they are from the top by means of several small jigs the Workshop sent for this purpose (in the photo above, there’s one at the tail, held by a C-clamp), and it’s a reasonably straightforward matter of spreading enough glue and moving quickly to get it all in place accurately with the jigs.
The bentside liner (lying across the top of the instrument) has been part-sawn along the bend to help it… bend. Bending it into seems quite scary but actually isn’t. Per the manual, we spread glue into the kerfs with a piece of card and, besides clamping it conventionally with the long F-clamps, we also pre-drilled holes all along the liner and then screwed it into place.
We decided to leave the screws in place even after glue tried—and we actually did this for the other liners as well. The reason is that we intend to move this harpsichord frequently and there is a chance that, over time, things will weaken as a result of the movement and changes in humidity, and the liner can come away from the bentside, taking the soundboard with it. (This has, in fact, happened to a double manual belonging to one of our friends.)
Once this is done, we will put in the upper bracers and various smaller support blocks which stabilise the instrument and will stop it crumpling inwards from all the tension from the strings.
But first, we need to sort out a tricky problem…