Soprano Rebec Project

This will be the page where I blog about my attempt to create a soprano rebec starting from scratch – i.e. starting with a log and going forward.  I am also attempting to do this entirely with hand tools – no power tools allowed.

DESCRIPTION

A Renaissance style rebec: body and neck carved from English walnut; soundboard made from Sitka spruce; pegs and fingerboard carved from ebony; tailpiece, bridge, nut, and peg box made from white oak; gut strings.  Instrument constructed using only hand tools that would be appropriate to a Renaissance period luthier.

HISTORY

A rebec is a small stringed instrument, with anywhere from two to five strings, having a pear-shaped bowl narrowing down to a neck, and having either an integral peg head or a separately attached peg head or peg box.  The rebec is a precursor to the modern violin, but has its own origins from an early Middle Eastern instrument called a rabab, and a Byzantine instrument called a lyra.

The earliest depiction of a rebec or rebec-like instrument is from about 1000 CE.  They were a very popular instrument, and can be seen in paintings and carvings throughout the medieval and renaissance period.

Spanish, Catalan Psalter, c.1050

Spanish Rebec - 1050 CE

Polish, 14th C. Extant Example

Rebec - 1400 CE

“Mary and Child with Two Music Making Angels” c. 1520

Rebec Painting - 1500 CE

Typically, the body and neck (and sometimes the peg head) of the rebec are carved from a single piece of wood. A separate sound board covers the hollowed out bowl, and a separate fingerboard covers the neck.  Any fine-grained, easily carved hardwood would be acceptable for making a rebec.  In my case, I used using English walnut, which is appropriate for this period. I have created a early renaissance period rebec, with a separate peg box attached to the neck.

The rebec is tuned and fingered similar to a modern violin or viola, but is not tucked under the chin.   Most depictions of people playing the rebec show one of two methods for holding the instrument.  If the player were standing, the bowl of the rebec would be tucked into the shoulder, similar to a how some modern fiddle players hold their instrument.  If seated, the rebec could be tucked into the shoulder, or the instrument could be held upright, with the bowl supported on the leg.

Construction

Here is my starting point – a log of English walnut cut from a tree that came down on my parent’s property.  It was drying in my shed for over a year before I began working with it.

Rebec - Starting from Scratch

I first used a bow saw to cut out the straightest section of the trunk.  I then used a hammer and froe to split that section of trunk in half lengthwise.  Once the log was split, I used a draw knife to remove the outer bark and softer sap wood areas, and to start leveling the flat inner surface.  After about three hours, lots of cursing, and only a little blood, I ended up with this:

Rebec - Splitting and Bark Removal Complete

The next step was to rough out the shape of the rebec in the vertical dimension.  I made a paper template of the shape I wanted the rebec to be and traced it onto the flat surface of the log.  I then used a series of large and small hand saws to cut away the unwanted wood.

Rough shaping in the vertical

Rough shaping in the vertical

As you can see from the above picture, shaping the neck took some time.  I made a series of small cuts along the length of the neck to the depth I wanted with a small hand saw, then used a hammer and chisel to remove the slats of wood that remained.

Rough shaping in vertical dimension complete

Once the rough shaping in the vertical was complete, I started on rough shaping the back and neck.  I again used saws, as well as a rough wood rasp, to achieve the shape I wanted.

Rough shaping of back and neck complete.  Starting with fine shaping.

Rough shaping of back and neck

Once the rough shaping of the back and neck was completed, it was time to start carving out the bowl.  To speed up the carving process, I used a brace and bit to remove a good portion of the deepest section of the bowl.  I was then able to use chisels to remove a large portion of the bowl material quickly.

Starting to carve the bowl.

Starting to carve the bowl.

Once the majority of the wood from the bowl had been removed, I started working my way out towards the edges using finer, less aggressive chisels.  Eventually I had to stop using the mallet and just chisel by hand in order to maintain the control I needed.

Bowl carving almost complete.

Bowl carving almost complete.

To do the fine shaping of the back and neck, I used a fine wood rasp and a metal scraper.  A scraper is basically a piece of metal that has a burr added to one edge.  By dragging this burr across the wood surface, very fine shavings are removed. Various types of scrapers were used in period.  Scrapers could be anything from metal as I have used, to pieces of glass and ceramic.  Such scrapers are described in Cennino Cennini’s “The Craftsman’s Handbook”.

Fine shaping of back and neck complete.

Fine shaping of back and neck complete.

The next step was to fit the fingerboard to the neck.  I used ebony for the fingerboard.  Ebony is still used today for fingerboards on instruments due to its durability.  There are numerous extant examples of musical instruments with both ebony fingerboards and pegs.  At the same time I also took some white oak I had left over from a previous project and cut out the tailpiece, which will hold the strings at the bowl end of the instrument.  The tailpieces from period examples are usually of wood, although bone, ivory, and leather were also used.

Rough fit fingerboard and tailpiece

Rough fit fingerboard and tailpiece

I was able to use a cut off section of the ebony from the fingerboard to make blanks for the three pegs.  I am using a diamond shape for the heads of the pegs, which was quite popular in period.  I used a fret saw, files, and the scraper to shape the pegs.

Ebony blank for peg, and finished peg.

Ebony blank for peg, and finished peg.

For the attached peg box, I again used some of the white oak from a previous project.  The shape of the peg box is fairly typical for later period, although it is not as elaborately carved as some were.  I used saws, wood rasp, files, and the scraper to shape the peg box.  I used the brace and bit to drill out the holes for the pegs, and to remove some of the wood from the center of the peg box.  I then used chisels to remove the remainder of the rectangular opening.

Roughed out peg box.

Roughed out peg box.

The small tab at the top of the peg box is a tenon that is inserted into a mortise at the top of the neck.  The fingerboard covers this, giving a very strong attachment for the peg box.

The next to be cut out was the soundboard.  I purchased some Sitka spruce blanks normally used for making guitars from an online retailer, because I wanted an instrument quality wood for the soundboard.  In period, German spruce would have been used as it was the preferred wood for luthiers when crafting soundboards, but Sitka spruce is a very good alternate and much less costly.  I traced the shape of the bowl of the rebec on the spruce, including a little overage to make sure I fully covered the opening.  I then used saws to cut out the soundboard.  Rebecs typically have two small sound holes cut into the soundboard.  These vary quite widely, from simple circles to more elaborate scroll work, and even elaborately carved rosettes in some of the later period pieces.  I chose a fairly common design of two crescents, facing in towards the center.  I measured out the center of the sound board, and then laid out the crescents.  I based the proportions of the openings to the overall size of the sound board on a number of the images I have seen.  I then used a knife to cut out the crescents, and some fine files to clean up the openings.

Now that all the pieces were cut out, I did a dry fit to make sure that everything would go together properly.  I also drilled a shallow hole in the end of the bowl to accept the “nut” – a small section of hardwood dowel – that the tailpiece would be tied to.

Rebec - Dry fitting pieces

Once I was sure that all the pieces would fit together as I intended, it was time to start assembly.  I used hide glue for the assembly of the instrument as was done in period.  Hide glue is still used today for assembly of musical instruments, as it has a fairly forgiving working time and can actually be softened with heat to remove and adjust parts.

The first step was the glue the peg box to the neck.  In addition to the glue, I added a small wooden peg down through the tenon and into the neck of the instrument, to give some added strength.  This is the weakest point on the instrument, but it also carries a lot of stress, so I wanted to make sure the joint would not fail.  The second step was gluing the sound board to the bowl.  I made sure to seal the inside of the bowl and the inside of the sound board before gluing them together.  The tricky part here was being able to apply even pressure across the curved surface of the bowl back to make sure I had proper adhesion around the entire joint.  I achieved this with a combination of large clamps and boards.

Rebec  - Sound Board and Peg Box Glued On

The final step in gluing process put on the fingerboard and top nut.  The top nut is a small vertical piece of material (wood, bone, ivory, etc) at the peg end of the fingerboard that holds the strings just slightly above the fingerboard itself.  In this case, I used white oak to match the peg box.

After all of the glue was completely dry, I began the fine shaping of the instrument.  This consisted of using the fine files, wood rasps, and scrapers to even up all the edges, remove any excess glue, and create a slight curvature to the finger board.

Rebec - fine finishing complete

The final piece that needed to be created was the bridge.  There are almost as many variations of bridge design as there are instrument makers.  I went with a fairly simple arched bridge made from the white oak, as I felt it would help bring a cohesive feel to the piece.  It took some trial and error before I was finally able to construct a bridge that had the proper height above the sound board, was not too thin/fragile, and had a proper curvature across the top to make bowing the strings easy.

After finally getting a bridge I was satisfied with, I tied the tailpiece to the bottom nut with sinew.  I put a small piece of leather at the end of the bowl where the sinew passes over the edge of the soundboard to try and minimize any damage to the soft spruce from the sinew.  I then used some gut strings from a previous project to do a mock up.

Rebec - Test fit before finish

Now that I was certain everything fit properly, I sealed the piece with a varnish oil.  This is a combination of varnish and linseed oil that closely approximates the finish that would have been used in period.  The finish made the colors and graining of both the walnut body and the white oak pieces really stand out beautifully.  After applying several coats of varnish oil and letting them cure, I re-strung the instrument.  The tuning of a rebec is very close to that used on a modern violin.  There are two tunings typically used.  The first, lower tuning is G/D/a, which corresponds to the lowest three violin strings.  The alternate, higher tuning is D/a/e, which corresponds to the highest three violin strings.  I tried both tunings and chose to go with the lower tuning as I felt is sounded better.

Rebec - Finished!

Finally, here is a short video of the rebec being played by Cambria van der Vaarst.

Lessons Learned

The gut strings I had on hand for the test fit were much too heavy for this instrument, and I actually damaged two of the three ebony pegs while trying to tune the instrument, to the point where they could no longer maintain proper tension.  That is the reason there are currently two temporary walnut pegs in place.  I will make new ebony pegs to replace the walnut ones once I obtain some suitable ebony.

I also need to be much more careful during the assembly process, as the peg box is slightly out of alignment with the rest of the instrument.

Resources

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

Bachmann, Werner. The Origins of Bowing. trans Norma Deane. Oxford University Press: London, 1969

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