Aislinn's Fretted Zither (her second instrument)

Neat thing lesson of the day - The fretted zither was an almost universally used instrument throughout central and northern Europe from at least the early 1400's.  Only one instrument from period is known to still exist - it is from 1547 and is Icelandic.  The fretted zither is known by many names - Epinette (France), Langspil or Langeliek (Iceland), Hommel (the Netherlands and low Dutch), Scheitholz (Alpine and German) and even in this country as the Mountain Dulcimer, but it is generically known as 'zitter'.  It is a descendant of the monochord, a device used to teach music theory in ancient times.  The Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer is a direct descendant of the German settlers zitters.

I have been talking about making a langspil for months now, since I saw the short video by Michael King on YouTube.  It is one of those projects that I love to think about, and one day I will do. 

Now if you know my daughters, you know they have to try to outdo one another, and everything has to be fair and equal.  Which is why I expected to be supervising the building of 2 jouhikko in this go-around.  It was a surprise, then, that my youngest decided to pursue something so different from her sister's project.  She wanted a fretted zither.

Now I am used to helping them build something that I have already learned a bit about - not the 'blind teaching the blind' as it were.  But I got this request over the phone while Aislinn was visiting Camp Grandma - she said "Dad, could you not build one before me?  I never get to be the first at anything..."

So here we are, leading each other into the deepest ditches.  But it is fun, and with each step I think I see a more and more functional instrument emerging.  After all, what is a stringed instrument except a box with some strings stretched over a bridge set on top, right?  So here is the adventure in it's entirety.  I hope it works out...

We know nothing about zitters, except like so many other instruments they were built by their owners and were made to whatever wood was available and the size that was comfortable.  So we started with what we knew.  We knew the length of the spruce we had for a soundboard.  24 inches.  Thus we made plans...

Planing one face of the purpleheart in preparation for resawing.  Purple and gold - it had to be purple and gold.  Doesn't hurt that she has this natural affinity to the great Calontir colors.  But it does mean that we use woods that are less than friendly in dust form, so we are careful.  You can do almost everything if you are careful.  Pretty colored wood shouldn't stop you from making what you want to make.

On to the jointer, and edging one side.  Just to make the job easier when it is resawn.

And back to the planer to plane down the planks for the sides and the bottom.  3/16 inch purpleheart.  Still plenty strong, and resonant.

And what wood for the gold?  Certainly not that most vile of woods - Osage orange.  That wood, especially the rare straight logs, should be thrown away, never to darken you front stoop again (here, I'll arrange to get that for you, no really, it's no bother.  I just need practice splitting hard woods, and I figure by the time I get that long straight log split into 8 sticks, I should be pretty well practiced.).  But no, nothing so base as hedge for this project.  A royal wood.  Yellowheart.  A word that inspires, strikes awe and respect into men.  OK, well maybe not, but it is pretty.

One of the new tools for this project - the electric bandfile.  Sands in those spots where other sanders wont.  And it is something a 7 year old can handle.

Hogging away the recess in the tuning peg scroll with a little forstner bit.  24 holes.  "Hey dad, why didn't we just use the bigger bit and make 3 holes?"   He, he, he...anything worth doing is worth working a bit for, right?  After all, what good is teaching taking ALL the shortcuts.

Now using the miter fence to square up the sides of the instrument prior to gluing.  Again purpleheart, and again the mask and the hearing protection (no, the sander isn't that loud.  Acey just thinks they are a fashion statement.

The sides, tail and head after gluing.  Now it is time to add the binding and close up the box.

Attaching the bindings for the bottom.  I always seem to have to remind her to use enough glue - a 14 ounce bottle of Titebond per glue joint is never enough...

Pressing and gluing the bottom to the box after the bindings dry.  Clamps and more clamps.  Didn't have the violin clamps made yet, so spring clamps had to work.

Now the bindings for the soundboard.  These are made of lightweight and strong redwood. 

OK, Acey got brave and decided to cut out the whole soundhole by herself.  She drew a sort of impressionist shooting star on a piece of paper, and with a spiral cut blade in the jigsaw, she went at it.  And she followed the lines pretty well, and was happy with the result.  Not the way dad would have done it, but dad is just too grown up to appreciate certain things, and it is her instrument.   And it doesn't look bad, but it is not dad's taste.  But again, it is Acey's instrument

Violin body clamps to the rescue!.  Both the girls helped me make all the clamps, and so they got to use tools they made themselves - that is a really cool part of any project.

Here's where things turn from "Gee, dad, do I have to go out and work?" to "I can't wait to hear what it sounds like!  Come on, dad, what do I do next!!!"  But with rib-built instruments, there is more glue-drying time than with solid body instruments.

After a quick pass over the oscillating sander to smooth up the edges of the soundboard, it is time for hand sanding.  But the instrument is starting to take shape.  Actually at this point a bridge, a nut, 3 pegs and 3 hitch pins, and some frets, and we are ready to fly.  OK, not fly.  And OK, needs wax.  But you get the picture - it's in the home stretch.

Turning the purpleheart tuning pegs at the lathe.  I have the machine set up like any good machinist would, with the dials set to proper 0s and the cross slide set at the proper taper and the bed stopped.  It is simply a repetitive mechanical operation of working to the numbers and following a sequence of instructions in order.  Just like a professional CNC machine, except a human at the controls.

The frets are bent out of soft brass brazing rod, to the exact width of a pair of lineman's pliers, and then trimmed like staples.  The material and the tools were chosen for both authenticity and ease of use for a 7 year old.

A set of holes drilled according to a template printed out from the "Musical Instrument Makers Forum" fret calculator program, and we are ready to insert the frets.  They had to be pushed in hard, an a small dot of glue was put in on one of the legs.  They will hold, but they can be removed and changed.

3 recesses were created with forstner bits in the bottom of the instruments, and holes were drilled for brass pins.  The strings attach on the bottom of the instrument, and wrap around the tail end, over the bridge, and to the tuning pegs.

The bridge is maple, supported on both the tailpiece and the soundboard.  This is the third bridge we made, the action is not easy to set on one of these things.

The nut shaped and glued into place.  This is a hard piece to get right, the action is hard to set, but it worked out OK.  A replacement will probably be installed after all the messing around with the action is finished and some hard numbers are determined for the depth of the slots.

Aislinn at Kingdom Arts and Sciences Championships, Calontir Shire of Crystal Mines, July 12, 2008.  She received a 28.5 out of 30, in intermediate (an outstanding, almost unheard of score for a 7 year old.)  She is happy.

Aislinn and I sometimes don't seem to mesh as well as Ceilidh and I, but projects like this make up for a lot.  I really love working with my girls to create things and to teach them (and learn myself) during the process, and I love to see their creativity at play.  She has already picked out her next instrument - a 16/17 hammered dulcimer.  You can bet it will be there on the table next year, and with her score this year, it will be entered in advanced category.  We have time.