16th Century Pochette (Kit Fiddle)

Description

A small instrument strung and played like a violin.  Body of English walnut.  Sound board of sitka spruce.  Fingerboard, bridge, pegs, and tailpiece of rosewood.  Top nut of mammoth ivory.  Finished with varnish oil.  Gut strings.

History and Use

The name for this instrument comes from the French “la pochette”, which means small bag.   In English it is also known as a kit violin or pochette fiddle, in German a “tanzmeistergeige”, and in Italian a “violino piccolo”.  Travelling dance masters of the 16th C. would carry the pochette, along with its bow, in a small protective case that could be stored in an inside coat pocket or small bag, hence its name.  While not providing sufficient volume of sound for actual performances, it would provide more than enough for the dance master during his lessons.

The pochette is an evolution of the earlier rebec, having a similar construction utilizing a body, neck, and pegbox carved from a single piece of wood.  The body is much more streamlined, rather than pear shaped, and has the four strings of a standard violin rather than the three strings of a rebec.

There are numerous extant examples of pochettes in various museums, as well as some illustrations from period instrument books.  Most examples are very small, being between 14-18” in length and around 2.5-3” in width/height.

Construction

The starting point for the pochette was a limb that I collected from an English walnut tree that came down at my parent’s house in Pennsylvania that then sat drying in my shed for over two years.

I used a large frame saw to cut the log to the basic dimensions I wanted to work with – approximately 16” long by 3” square.  I then used smaller hand saws and chisels to remove portions of the block and get the basic shape of the pochette.  This took approximately three hours.

Hand saws, chisels, and wood rasps were used to further refine the shape.

Once the basic shape was properly roughed out, it was time to start hollowing out the body of the pochette.  For this step, I used a brace and bit to drill out the majority of the wood, and then used a mallet and chisels to remove the bulk of the remaining material.

I then switched to using chisels by hand only in order to finish the hollowing out of the body.  I then repeated the same process for hollowing out the peg box.

Rough in of peg box

Once all of the rough shaping was completed, I started to refine the shape using wood rasps, files, and scrapers to achieve the final shape and finish of the body of the instrument.

The next steps were to produce the sound board, finger board, and other assorted accessories.  I had some instrument grade sitka spruce left over from a previous project which I utilized for the sound board.  Ideally, German spruce would be used as was done in period, but this is extremely expensive and Sitka spruce is an acceptable, more economical alternative.  For the finger board and other pieces, I chose to use rosewood.  Rosewood was used for musical instrument components, for stringed instruments in particular, from at least the early 15th century.

The sound board was cut to cover approximately 2/3 of the carved out area of the body of the pochette, with the finger board covering approximately the remaining 1/3.  For the sound board, I tried a technique which I have never attempted before.  The sound boards of violins start as a thicker piece of wood.  The underside is then carved out and the top shaved down to create the curved surface.  I used chisels and wood rasps to carve out the underside of the sound board, and wood rasps and scrapers to shape the top surface.  I then used a deep-throat fret saw to cut out the sound holes in the sound board.  I chose to use outward-facing “C” shapes, similar to ones I had seen on period examples.  Wood rasps and scrapers were also used to provide rough shaping for the finger board.

The other accessories I constructed out of rosewood were the pegs, the bridge, and the tailpiece.  I used a peg shaper to provide the pegs with a proper taper, and a peg hole reamer with matching taper to open the holes for the pegs in the peg box.  The later period design for the bridge and tailpiece were also a new experience for me, as most of my previous instruments were earlier period and utilized much simpler forms.

Assembly – Gluing and Finishing

It was now time to assemble the pieces.  I used hide glue for the assembly as this is what would have been used in period.  The finish I have used is Tried and True Varnish Oil.  This is a combination of varnish and linseed oil that closely approximates the finishes used in period.

The first step was to apply finish to the interior of the body, soundboard, and fingerboard, except where the glue was to be applied.  I also applied finish to the heads of the pegs, the bridge, and the tailpiece.  No finish was applied to the bodies of the pegs so that it would not affect their ability to hold tension.  Once the finish was dry, the soundboard and fingerboard were glued to the body.

Once the glue was dry, I installed a small pin at the base of the instrument to hold the string used to mount the tailpiece, and glued a small piece of mammoth ivory at the top of the fingerboard for use as a top nut.  I then proceeded to do the final finishing, and began to apply varnish oil to the entire piece.  Once the finish was dry, it was time to install the strings and complete the instrument.

Bibliography

Bessaraboff, Nicholas.  Ancient European Musical Instruments.  Boston, MA:  Harvard University Press for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1941

Pratorius, Michael.  Syntagma Musicum Vol II – De Organographia, 1618

Encyclopedia Britannica Online:

http://www.britannica.com/art/kit-musical-instrument