WORKSHOP AND WORKING METHODS
I am extremely lucky to have the use of a spacious, well lit, and well equipped workshop within easy reach of Central London (for picture, click here).
The process of making an instrument starts with selection of timbers. People often ask what woods we use, and whether they are difficult to obtain: the answer is that mostly we use temperate hardwoods and softwoods, grown here in Great Britain or on the continent of Europe. I have a most valuable relationship with a specialist timber yard who supplies me with oak, pine and walnut for the cases; lime for the keyboards; and smaller quantities of beech, pear, boxwood and ebony for wrestplanks, keyboards etc. Of these, only the ebony comes from outside Europe.
The wood is supplied 'air-dry', which means that it has a moisture content of 12 to 15%. The really vital conditioning then has to be done by me. Boards are kept for at least three years – preferably more – in the dry atmosphere of the workshop, initially laid horizontally and separated by spacers or sticks. This further reduces the moisture content, and is vital for avoiding warping and movement later on when the wood is incorporated into the instrument.
Soundboard wood is a special case: that comes from trees of the species picea abies, grown in high altitudes in Switzerland, Austria and Rumania, and I have to import it directly from specialist suppliers in those countries (you can imagine the difficulties that arise: somewhat alleviated now that Austria is a member of the EU). A small amount of my soundboard wood comes from stocks dating from before World War II, originally held by a (now-defunct) piano firm: this will be used for small clavichords – while it lasts.
Machines are used in the initial preparation of the wood, but most of the actual joinery is done by hand, including dovetails at the corners of clavichords, and mouldings, which are made with specially-made moulding planes. People are sometimes surprised that so much is done by hand: however, hand work is more flexible (e.g. through dovetails can be made to any desired size and shape) and gives a better surface finish (e.g. a moulding plane does not leave 'lawnmower' marks like a spindle moulder sometimes does). Even wrestpins are made by hand from round steel stock: they are simply not available on the market in the range of sizes I require. The same goes for hinges, in most cases. Tangents are cut from brass sheet of various thicknesses. Bridge pins are made from various gauges of stainless steel wire.
Most gluing is done using hot animal glue. The reason I prefer this to modern synthetics is not at all sentimental. Animal glue is extremely serviceable: we know for certain that the joints it makes will last for hundreds of years. On the other hand, if necessary, it is comparatively easy to dismantle them, and cleaning up unwanted traces is simple.
In smoothing the wood I try to avoid sandpaper as much as possible; with sharp tools you can usually get a decent finish with a block plane and, if necessary, a cabinet scraper. I prefer not to stain wood if I can avoid it: for a final coat I prefer two coats of linseed or tung oil. Soundboards get a thin coat of egg-white which helps keep them clean.
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