Lute making for lute players
Ideally there are some basic operations that players should be able to carry out on their own, which can come in very handy especially when busy touring or far from access to professional help.
The areas involved are: a. pegs, b. nut, c. frets, d. bridge, e. action.
Basic, easily accessible tools: rat tail needle files (the bird tongue is somewhat less efficient – nut files thought specifically for guitar makers are marketed, too (I never got to really liking them, but they may be the better option for the amateur), smooth cut; medium fine sanding paper (220-240); solid lubricant for pegs, my favourite is Hill’s peg paste (lipstick sort), but can be very dry soap, graphite, talcum &c.
a. Pegs – the peg should ‘bite’ only at the thick end. If the thin end jams in the hole the peg will twist along the shaft, but the peg will not turn, until a. the accumulated torque will cause it to jerk in an uncontrollable manner, or twist back to original position once you release the peg’s ahead. In both cases quick, accurate tuning is very difficult to obtain. If the tip of the peg is too thick you can simply hold a strip of sanding paper between thumb and one or two opposite fingers of one hand, wrap it around the tip of the peg and turn to and fro with the other hand. Work more on the high spots (the more shiny ones, revealing points of stronger friction). Do it a bit at a time and try and avoid making it thinner than necessary. The same procedure also apply in case a shaft becomes oval – they almost invariably do over time, more or less depending on grain structure and how dry the wood was at the time when the peg was turned. Just apply the same procedure, concentrating on the high spots as described above, very carefully.
For the rest simply make sure that pegs and holes remain reasonably clean, lubricate when necessary, and do make sure you do not wind too much string on the peg shaft, i.e. keep just the minimum necessary length of string sticking out through the shaft as necessary to comfortably handle it when tying it on the peg. Excess length may cause it to go out of tune even when wound around the peg – the material will always want to stretch – and it will certainly pile up and jam against the peg box side, sooner or later, making tuning more difficult, completely jamming the peg especially by raising humidity, and result in breakage of string or peg or peg box side in the worst of cases.
b. Nut – there are a few things a player might wish to change on the nut, to fit it exactly to personal needs, such as height, spacing between strings and courses, groove characteristics.
If you need to raise the height of the nut (because you want to use a thicker first fret, for instance, all you need do is put a sliver of the right thickness and stable enough material (hard wood, plastic, paper) shaped to size, under it – the nut should never be glued in place. If you want to lower it simply clamp a piece of sandpaper on a flat surface and take as many passes with the underside of the nut on it as necessary to reach the right height, simply being careful to do it with steady hands and avoid rocking it from side to side so that the bottom stays as flat as possible. To make new grooves, first mark the correct position with a sharp pencil or, better still, score it with a sharp knife, which will ‘invite’ the file to keep in the right place. Then file carefully the groove with a rat’s tail or, as make do, almond shaped, needle file, not too deep, just enough to keep the string into place, and of a width just a little proud of the diameter of the string. Make sure you do not cut into the front edge of the nut, it would only make things more complicated than need be.
Never use saw blades for the job, nor triangular files: the groove will always tend to choke the string, often cause breakage, and will never work properly.
Then make the grooves as smooth as you can – Mace, in 1676, recommended chalk powder and spittle, but a thin cord and a dab of brasso, or similar polishing stuff, will do just as well today. If necessary you can lubricate the grooves with pencil lead, or wax – only wound strings require that, normally.
c. Frets – Keep a good selection of fret gut of diameters from, say, .70 (or less, if you feel that you may want anything so fine) to 1.20 mm, in store. Do not use nylon, it never sits tightly enough around the edge of the neck. It may feel like a waste, but a small initial investment will last you a fairly long time and give you a chance to help control the action along the neck to a fine degree. Frets must be tied tightly and be renewed when they start showing obvious signs of wear. Even if they still work in giving you the right tone the sound will get more and more dampened. Temporary frets (some funny pieces like the Battaglia may require up an 18th fret) can created with a piece of gut of the required length taped on the soundboard and then removed when no more necessary, and likewise on the fingerboard when some particular mean tone adjustment is required. In this case you must choose the diameter carefully, so that the string does not buzz against the adjacent main fret. You may also use a bit of bamboo of appropriate thickness and length: a fine bamboo mat you normally use with your tea set will make an inexhaustible source of frets.
d. Bridge – There are two features you can change on the bridge, i.e. height and hole spacing.
You can raise the height by placing a plate of reasonably hard material (wood, bone, plastic) of appropriate thickness and dimensions on top of it. The length should be the same as, but the width slightly narrower than, the top plate, to allow some ‘escapement’ for the string at the backside.
Clean the top of the bridge, put two or three drops of glue, depending on the le length of the bridge, on it and place the plate on it, the front flush with the front of the bridge, keep it firmly in position for a minute or two, to make sure it has ‘bitten’ and then let it dry. You have to do this to prevent the strings from pulling it forward when you put them under tension.
To drill new holes you have to first mark the exact new position with a sharp point, deep enough in the wood to ensure that the bit will not stray when you start turning. If the new hole is going to be very close to an old one you’ll have to close the latter tightly or the bit will find its way into it. You can close it permanently (the better option in any case) or simply stick a drill bit or whatever kind of rod and keep it in place until you’re finished with drilling. Then take drill bits of the appropriate diameter to fit string thickness, fit it into a handle with mandrel (the ones used by watch makers and goldsmiths are best, but any x-acto knife type will do, as long as they can tightly hold the bit) and drill by hand, gently but firmly. All this is better done from the front, even if it is a bit more difficult and requires more patience, since it is essential that the correct distance be kept between the strings where they leave the bridge; if the holes don’t come out perfectly aligned and are not the exact distance at the back of the bridge it won’t really matter.
e. Action – Simplifying a fairly complex system to a minimum description, by action we mean the distance between the string and what lies below it, i.e. the fret. The ideal action is the lowest possible, as far as lightness of playing is concerned, but high enough to avoid the strings buzzing against the frets (or soundboard, in extreme cases). To control action you can intervene on:
1. Nut – you may raise it or lower it, as per point b., depending on how clear the strings should be of the first fret.
2. Frets – Here is where that famous collection of fret gut may come in handy. You may want to make the odd fret lower, or higher, to avoid buzzing, maybe, or to make it easier to fret some notes, and you may end up changing a few frets above or below as a consequence. Reckoning and tables aside, the best is always to find your ideal fretting in a pragmatical way. Personally I prefer fairly thick frets in first position, which is helpful in getting clean octaves on the one hand and in securely gripping barrés on the other hand, whereas thick frets in high positions may lead to intonation problems. Just look for the ideal setup for your hands and playing technique.
3. Bridge – strings under tension will tend to sit just about halfway between hole and top edge. Provided that the latter part is thick enough (if not, you can raise it as per point d.) you have the possibility of adjusting the string higher or lower (you may wish to regulate the height of the octave in relation to the fundament, for instance). You just pull the string up or down, as close to the bridge as possible – don’t be too shy! – and retune the string. Basically you can pull it as high up as the top surface of the bridge or as low as the centre of the hole.
This is easy to do with gut and wound strings, since they have enough natural grip. Nylon and other synthetic materials will tend to slip back to somewhere halfway. In this case make a knot at the string end, or burn it until you get a little pip, to make sure it won’t slip off the bridge altogether, then tie the string to the bridge with two or three twists and operate as above until it stays in place.