Materials

A couple of words about materials

Of the 141 lutes listed in the Raymond Fugger inventory (1566) we  know the materials from which the shells of 101 were made  and  only 38 of these are of European origin. The various  imported  materials used (whalebone and cane, ebony and ivory,  snake-  king- brazil- guaiac- and sandalwood) are almost all to be  found in surviving instruments from throughout the lute’s long history, and  well reflect the taste for the exotic of one of the  richest and most  powerful families in Europe.

But the use of  European woods speaks  a different language and reflects a  solidly established tradition  which only occasionally allowed some  exceptions: maple and yew, together with the spruce  employed for soundboards,  were the  basic materials of alpine  origin for generations of lutemakers who  themselves stemmed  from a well defined alpine area, plus, south of the Alps, cypress, which for a long time was the  most widely used wood for Italian plucked  string  instruments – lutes and guitars, psalteries, harps and harpsichords.
Cypress, by the way, is the best wood for making ‘uds, according to Ibn-at-Tahhan, 11th century, confirmed by an anonymous source from the 14th century, from the Isfahan region. 

Beyond these, we know that Lucas Maler used ash, and walnut  occasionally appears in guitars and Neapolitan mandolins. That in  spite of the wide variety of available suitable materials the old  masters stuck to these few (we, modern lutemakers, are obviously  more prone to experimentation) may partly be due to  conservative traditionalism, but this praxis was definitely justified  by the fact that they well knew which materials would give constant  high quality results. Bird’s eye maple seems somehow to find a  place between two tendencies, satisfying at once aesthetic  and acoustical needs. All in all, the feeling is that a  distinction was made between instruments for playing and for  exhibiting, where the workmanship quality was, indeed, constant,  but the discriminating factor for the lute player was not necessarily  the rarity or the exoticism of the materials employed.

I always employed top quality materials that kept me good  company in the workshop for at least 4-5 years, but often much  longer, and the ingredients of glues, waxes and  varnishes have always been exclusively of natural origin. The right place for ivory is in the mouths of elephants, and I never used any of it. Likewise, I always tried and limit the use of tropical woods to the absolute minimum. Used with due understanding, the traditional European woods always had only advantages to offer in meeting all our demands, today as in the past.