About my instruments
• The sound quality of each individual note that, in my conception of sound, translates into a broad spectrum of low, middle and high harmonics. This is perceived as a rich full sound to the ear.
• The balance between registers.
•Uniformity of timbre between each individual course. This makes possible to play a musical phrase that carries into different courses with no audible difference in tone colour.
•A singing quality to the sound with good sustain.
My main approach to early plucked instrument making is closely linked to my experience as a professional lute player. Many years of studying different repertoires on different instruments have allowed me to develop a very clear mental image of the ideal sound I am aiming for and translate it into my instruments. When an instrument even slightly deviates from that ideal sound I make subtle changes until I am completely satisfied (more on that below). This kind of work is very time-consuming but very much worth the extra effort in the interest of the best possible quality of sound. I do not make any so-called "student" instruments since I take no joy in working below my skills. All my production consists of professional concert grade instruments.
Although the business side of the trade is important in order to make it viable, I am more interested in creating instruments with no compromises that satisfy me and my customers in all respects.
As a consequence of this personal approach, all my instruments are tried and tested by myself during a period of some days in order to ensure their highest sound quality as well as their excellent playability.
I have travelled to many important museums in Europe with the aim of studying most of the models in my catalogue. There are many subtle clues on those instruments that represent a great source of inspiration and that cannot be reflected and fully understood from a drawing. It has always been clear to me that one cannot fully capture the fundamental nature of an instrument from a contemporary attitude and methodology. Consequently, I constantly study and research the techniques that those old craftsmen used and how they translated into the essence of the instruments they produced.
About my current catalogue
I believe that every historical model has its hidden secrets that are difficult to uncover without plenty of experience and insight into its particularities. For this reason, I keep my instrument catalogue to the minimum necessary, making sure to bring out the best sound out of each model and its true potential.
Relation with customers
Since I have been a customer myself many years ago when still a lute student at the conservatory, I perfectly know what is like to be “on the other side”. The experience of commissioning an instrument comes with a lot of expectation and hope. Both professionals and amateurs expect that instrument to be a source of intense musical pleasure (hopefully for a lifetime) as well as a tool that helps them bring out their best musicianship. Being aware of all this, I take enormous efforts for it to be true and try to accommodate individual wishes, tailoring each commission to their expectations within the historical background of each instrument.
On first approach, I try to inform my customers about the best instrument for their needs. A couple of months before starting their instrument a further, more detailed discussion is maintained until we both agree upon the finer details. At this stage, I send pictures of various suitable timber choices for their instrument. Obviously, this last stage is always better carried out personally by visiting my workshop and it is the choice I enjoy the most since I always appreciate a personal contact with the future owner of one of my instruments.
Once the customer has chosen the timbers and I start construction I also send very frequent updates of the building process and so that he/she can see how the instrument is developing. One the instrument is finished and has passed all the tests of sound and playability I keep it for some time in the workshop to make sure it is stable and ready for delivery.
By the time the instrument is in one piece and before polishing and applying the finish I put the strings on and evaluate the sound it produces for a while. At this stage and once the strings have settled, I play different styles of music within the repertoire of the instrument in order to evaluate some parameters that to my view are essential for a top professional instrument. Some of these aspects are:
All this is done not only by trusting my own ears but also with the help of technology. Two high-quality Neumann microphones are connected to the computer in order to analyse those parameters and keep records of them for future reference.
Setup and playability
As important as the quality of sound are the physical aspects that will create the perfect playability and easiness of tune of the instrument. The height of the strings (usually measured from the fingerboard to the upper part of both the 1st and last strings at the 8th fret) has a tremendous influence on how much effort the player has to make to fret the notes. This is generally called “action” and, if too great the instrument will be very uncomfortable to play and, if too low buzzes on many notes will occur. This balance between the two extremes is one of the most difficult aspects to adjust correctly and requires some trial and error to get it just right. An adequate choice of fret gauges and the height of the nut are also very important. I have found that in order to make these adjustments right one needs to use a trial and error procedure until a perfect playability is achieved.
Smooth turning pegs
Another aspect that is too often overlooked is the perfect and smooth turning of the pegs. This is even more important for professional players that need to be able to tune their instruments quickly and effectively in all kind of situations. This is another aspect that as a professional I am very aware of. In order to achieve smoothly turning pegs, I subject them to a special treatment to make them more resistant to humidity changes.
I also have developed a proprietary formula for a peg compound that is much more efficient than the commercial one that is usually sold for violin family instruments. This peg compound is included with each of my instruments.
Construction & Materials
European and American tonewood dealers have developed a marketing strategy that has for a long time not only misled instrument buyers but also luthiers. It consists in categorising their spruce soundboards into grades (Master, AAA, AA, etc.) that do not have a relation to sound quality in any respect and are exclusively based on aesthetical grounds. This attitude has made believe the majority of people involved with making, selling and buying instruments that a narrow ringed, even coloured piece of spruce is the absolute best and will sound superior to any other. This cannot be further from the truth. Those are only exterior characteristics that have no relation to sound. The aesthetical superiority of narrow grained spruce may be discussed but its superiority in terms of sound are indefensible. If we take the work of the great lute and violin family makers of the golden age as an example, we will observe precisely a tendency to the contrary, using medium to wide grained spruce almost on every instance.
Of great importance to sound is the straightness of the fibres (no to be confused with growth rings), the precision on the cutting to the quarter, the weight to mass ratio and some other factors that are quite complex to explain briefly. Should tonewood spruce producers cut the wood properly to obtain the best sound, the percentage of waste would be much higher resulting in a less profitable bussines.
Thanks to the extensive testing and experimenting a have done in the past I am able to discern the right kind of spruce for the kind of sound I want for a certain instrument. My soundboards for smaller instruments are split and processed by myself from a big billet of the highest quality, very straight spruce, in order to be completely in control of the process. For bigger instruments, I rely on a couple of very knowledgeable dealers that know exactly what I am looking for and sometimes are able to find a few pieces for me that could meet my rigorous requirements. In spite of that, I still send back about 75 per cent of what they offer me!
Luckily the constant searching gives its fruits and I have managed to build enough stock for a few years use, but I always continue to search that scarce and primordial resource that will be the prime base and most important element towards a magnificent sound.
Hot hide glue is my main glue and it is used for the majority of joints on my instruments. This is the oldest glue known to man and still superior in many respects to modern alternatives. It can create as strong a joint as modern glues with the advantage of being completely reversible. One of its drawbacks is that in order for it to work correctly it should be applied hot and the joints should be assembled very quickly lest the glue may lose its strength. Another disadvantage is its susceptibility to fail in extreme high and low humidity conditions. Fish glue is the other glue I use and, as its name indicates, it is made from fish skin and bones. It is basically the same as hide glue but it can be applied at room temperature. According to the tests I have conducted, it is as strong as hot hide glue with the advantage of being less sensitive to humidity. In spite of this, I am presently only using it for joints that do not require the highest tensile strength.
Certain tropical timbers are best left without varnishing due to their high content of natural oils and extractives. These timbers usually produce a very appealing look just by polishing them and applying linseed oil and some sort of natural wax like carnuaba or beeswax. This simple finish provides enough protection and can be easily refreshed by the owner of the instrument himself by applying a new thin layer of fresh wax (included with all my instruments made with these timbers) to the surface.
The process of finding the highest quality tonewoods for my instruments is a constant and oftentimes an arduous one. Every part requires specific characteristics that will contribute to the sound, stability and longevity of the instrument. Not only the beauty of a certain piece of wood will be of importance but also the intrinsic physical characteristics of each species, the part of the three it was cut from and most important of all the way it was cut, which is paramount I terms of stability.
I feel naturally attracted to wood and therefore this constant search for the most suitable and beautiful pieces is, instead of a chore, a very pleasant activity that has taken me to many parts of Europe looking for the highest quality timber. I have been stockpiling wood since my beginnings as a luthier and as a result, I now have an ample stock of beautiful, rare and well-seasoned European and tropical tonewoods for use on my instruments for many years to come.
Although I strive to use the most suitable wood spices for each instrument based on historical examples, since having discovered and studied the inventory of musical instruments of Raymund Fugger junior (1528-1569) from the year 1566, I have come to the conclusion that our ideas and perceptions about the materials used for instruments in the XVI Century are still very limited and conservative. This inventory lists the hundreds of instruments in his possession, amongst which, 141 lutes were listed. These come in all shapes and sizes and are made from a great diversity of materials, both European and exotic. Among the latter category, we find lutes made with sandalwood, ebony, pernambuco, whalebone and bamboo (Canna d'India) to name a few. This demonstrates that instrument makers of the time were quite open to experimenting with what at the time were considered very exotic materials and that they probably used whatever timbers and materials had available in order to make precious instruments for their wealthy customers.
The discovery of these facts has radically changed my mind about the scope of timbers I am presently using on my instruments and that I am willing to use in the future. If the old lutemakers were open-minded and innovative regarding materials, I should have no problem in imitating this attitude five centuries later.
The importance of soundboard spruce
Varnishing and finishing
I use traditional linseed oil varnish for the bodies and backs of my instruments. It is made mixing linseed oil with various resins and it is the kind of varnish that lutes (and violin family instruments) used from the Renaissance all through the Baroque periods. Due to classical guitar construction influence, the much more modern technique of French polishing is too often applied to modern lutes, vihuelas and baroque guitars. This technique of spirit varnishing has no place or meaning in the context of historical Renaissance and Baroque instruments.
The reason for its use comes from the fact that its application is much less labor intensive whilst oil varnish takes much more time to dry and both produce quite similar visual results. The great advantage of oil varnish is that it produces a much harder and resilient surface if applied in numerous very thin coats over a long period of time.
Instruments that develop varnish problems after only a few years of use are generally varnished in 2 to 3 thick layers that never really dry completely. In order to avoid this, I apply a number of 15 to 20 very thin coats of traditional oil varnish (made from an early XVII Century recipe), letting each one dry thoroughly before applying the next one. This process can take from one week to 14 days depending on weather conditions. It is a very labor intensive process but the only one that will assure the maximum transparency and toughness of the finish.
Workshop, tools & machines
In December 2014 I moved my workshop from Amsterdam to Leipzig where I have since been building instruments in the beautiful jugendstil neighbourhood of Sttöteritz. The city of Leipzig has an exceptional musical tradition. It was here where Johann Sebastian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Robert and Clara Schumann all worked, and where Richard Wagner was born and received his musical training. It is also an exceptional centre for fine arts and crafts with many prominent contemporary painters and sculptors living and working in the various neighbourhoods of the city. The Grassi Museum of musical Instruments is of special interest to the lute enthusiast for its vast collection of baroque lutes and theorbos, many of them by the Hoffman family who worked in the city in the XVII Century.
Hand tools for making musical instruments have changed little over the centuries. The tools used by the great Mahler, Tieffenbrucker, Frei, Stradivari and Amati are indeed very similar than the ones we use today. I enjoy working with quality hand tools, taking good care of them, understanding their peculiarities. They help me reach a high level of precision impossible to achieve with electric tools. The most important hand tools are handplanes of many kinds and sizes, chisels and scrapers. I have also made some of those tools myself for very specific tasks related to lute building.
I only make use of the most basic machines to help build my instruments and only in the first stages of construction. They are basically used to process big planks or slabs of wood into smaller more manageable pieces that will be the rough parts of the instruments. For this task, a bandsaw is generally used. Another very important machine is the lathe with which the pegs are made.