The Trossingen lyre is an instrument found in a
6th century warrior’s grave in Trossingen, Germany. It is one of
the most complete, if not the most complete, medieval lyre found to
date. This page is meant to document my attempt to recreate as
closely as possible the original instrument. Call it
“Experimental Archeology in Action”.
Here is a sound clip in pentatonic (g, b-flat, c, d, f, g)
Before the process was actually started, my woodworking instructor and
friend Chris and I decided that what we were really going to need was a
template or pattern. It’s happened once or twice that when we
make something really nifty and cool, there always seems to be a couple
of people who want that same nifty and cool toy, too. Rather than
go through the process of marking out each and every pattern
individually when another instrument is needed, I laid out the pattern
of the lyre on a sheet of masonite using the measurements of the extant
instrument. The pattern was then cut out with a scroll saw.
Next, I needed to select the appropriate kind of wood. The
original was made of European maple. Although this maple is
different than the North American hard maple most woodworkers are
familiar with, I believed that hard maple would still be an acceptable
The board that I purchased was about twice the thickness I was going to
need, even after planing. So using the band saw, the board was
re-sawn to about 3.5 cm. The Trossingen wasn’t a flat instrument;
rather, it increased in thickness from the head (1.1 cm) to the tail
(2.0 cm). So we marked out this increase, and again using the
band saw, re-cut the board. This left me with two boards that
were approximately the same size with the same increase in thickness.
The pattern was then marked out on the board. Unfortunately, at
this point, I made my first, and thankfully only, MAJOR MISTAKE.
(On this project, that is. I make no promises about something
similar not happening again down the road with something else.)
If you notice, the thick end of the lyre is being used for the head of
the instrument. This wasn’t right. (Why did I do
that? I was excited, there was an eclipse, the fairies influenced
me… Insert whatever excuse here. The truth is, I didn’t pay
attention. And not paying attention is a bad thing, making
for more work later. And causing profanity. Lots and lots
The next picture shows the board ready for rough cutting. Well,
it would be ready for rough cutting if it wasn’t still laid out
This would have been the perfect opportunity to catch my mistake… But,
no. I didn’t.
Using a modified forstner bit on the drill press, I began the rough
stock removal of the sound box. I prefer using the bit because I
can set the drill press and keep the bottom of the body the same
the majority of the hollowing was done, I began the clean up of the
wood I wasn’t able to remove with the forstner bit.
chisel I chipped away at the excess stock until I had sides that were
.7 cm thick and nearly perfectly
It was at this point I discovered my mistake. I was able to make
use of the second piece of graduated thickness wood I had cut. I
didn’t have to go all the way back to the beginning of the project,
only most of the way.
After the second body was hollowed and cleaned up, I used a sanding
disc and the drill press to smooth out the bottom. This is
actually a pretty important step, because if the bottom is rough, sound
waves won’t resonate as well in the body, and the instrument can end up
sounding muted. I then cut the body away from the excess wood,
and did some rough sanding to shape the instrument. I set the
fence of the band bad saw and cut a slight indentation for the sound
board to fit.
Going back to the band saw, I cut a thin .8 cm slice of maple from
another piece of wood. The original sound board was .7 cm that
thinned to .1 cm along the outside of the instrument. The extra
.01 cm gave me a slight bit of wiggle room for clean up.
Using the template, the pattern was drawn out on the wood, and then cut
with the scroll saw.
I evened up
the sides of the body to ensure I had a flat, even surface for gluing
on the sound board. Working with a long sanding block and a
cabinet scraper. Once they were as even as I could get them, it
was on to the next step.
To get the edges of the sound board down to the appropriate thickness,
the edges were worked over with a plane and several cabinet scrapers,
and occasionally sandpaper. I found that although it was more
work, I really preferred the way that the cabinet scrapers handled
compared to the plane. I felt I had much more control over the
found that although it was more work, I really preferred the way that
the cabinet scrapers handled compared to the plane. I felt I had
more control over the wood.
The sound holes needed to be drilled before gluing the two pieces
together, so they were marked out on the bottom of the instrument, and
then pilot holes were drilled from the bottom. The sound holes
were then drilled from the top, to avoid tear-out on the exposed
the pieces needed to be glued together. I decided rather than
using any commercially available modern glue, I wanted to use hide
glue. The hide glue was heated to the proper
temperature (140 degrees F.), and the clamps were made ready.
When using hide glue one needs to brush the glue on really quickly slap
the pieces together and clamp it while the glue is still warm.
What we failed to take into account was that the ambient air
temperature in the shop that night was 40 degrees F. A one
hundred degree temperature difference will affect hide glue’s
adhesion. Not in a good way, either. The next night, the
lyre was brought from the shop into Chris’ living room and the clamps
were removed. The wood warmed to room temperature, and then there
was a loud crack… and the soundboard went flying. Thankfully, it
was undamaged, and I was able to scrape off the glue and reattach the
pieces… inside the house in a more hospitable environment this
time. When the clamps came off, it held.
Hide glue also has the advantage in that it’s much easier to clean up
after making a mistake. It doesn't block the wood, making
blemishes in any finish you choose.
The soundboard was the scraped with what was fast becoming my favorite
tool, the cabinet scraper.
I started sanding down the joint where the soundboard met the indent of
the arms. I wanted the joint to feel almost invisible to my
I worked the heel of the hand hole down to get a nice curve. For
this we made a rounded sanding block, covered with 80 grit emery paper,
and worked for about an hour and a half, finishing the process with the
next part to work on was the bridge. The Trossingen’s bridge was
willow. Being the obsessive person that I am, Chris knew I really
wasn’t going to be happy with any other type of wood. We scouted
around for about a month, but were finally able to locate a man who had
taken down a willow tree last fall. This nice man was kind enough
let Chris take a few pieces. The branch was stripped of bark, and
with one face parallel to the grain. Flat grain planks were
Those planks were cut into strips, and then into bridge-sized
blocks. A couple of other pieces of
branch were also cut to the proper shape and height, just in case we
needed them. Turns out that wasn't such a bad idea either.
The rough shape of the bridge was drawn out in pencil, which was then
sanded into roughly the proper shape.
The shaping was done with an exacto knife and sandpaper.
Because of the curve of the soundboard, I needed to sand the bridge to
get a good fit between the top of the lyre and the feet of the
bridge. In order to get an exact fit as possible, I used the
soundboard itself as a sanding block. I positioned the sanding
paper on top of the instrument and ran the bridge up and down until the
Trossingen also had two beech wood dowels that protruded up from the
soundboard at the bottom of the instrument and also at the curve
between the two arms. No one is quite sure what purpose the
dowels served, but I wanted the reproduction to be as accurate as
possible. The dowels were turned down on the lathe, glued and
inserted into holes that were drilled with a forster bit.
only part of the lyre that wasn’t, to anyone’s knowledge, found in the
grave was the tailpiece. There are theories that the tailpiece
might be nothing more than a dowel that was tied with tail gut, and
looped around the endpin. While looking at drawings of the wooden
dowel in the bottom of the instrument, Chris and I noticed that there
was quite a bit of wear on it. We both believed that if a dowel
had been used for the tailpiece, the wear marks wouldn’t have been
quite so deep. The angle of the wear wouldn’t have been the same,
either. I decided rather than use such a dowel; I wanted to make
a flat wooden tailpiece instead. I tried to decide on a shape
that would echo that of the lyre but with slightly more exaggerated
curves. The design, which was sort of axe shaped, was carved out
of a flat bit of maple, probably about .3 cm thick.
proved to be much too thin for a strong tailpiece, or at least one made
of maple. After the lyre was completed, I was sitting in my
living room, trying to tighten the strings. I knew it was going
to take a bit to get the instrument in tune. There was a sharp
popping sound, followed by a TWANG as the tail gut pulled through the
maple. The tailpiece flew through the air, and when it reached
the limit of the strings, reversed direction and hit me in the
temple. So I figured out three things: First, the tailpiece
needed to be thicker. Second, that maple is capable of becoming
airborne in an instant and moving with killing velocity, which I should
have figured out the when the soundboard launched itself in Chris’
living room. And thirdly, the reason why the tailpiece wasn’t
found in the grave was that the warrior hadn’t been killed in battle,
or died of sickness or old age… Instead, he was slain when his
tailpiece came off, struck him in the head, and ricocheted into the
bushes, carrying the strings with it. (It’s my theory, and I’m
happy with it.)
final pieces I needed to create were the tuning pins. There are
two types that were found with the lyre. The first pins are made
of ash wood, with pyramid shaped heads that would need a tuning wrench
to turn them. There are only two of these. The second group
of pins was made of beech wood. These pins are carved with a
flat, paddle shaped head. It’s thought that the ash pins are
original to the instrument, and the beech pins are the
replacements. People theorize that someone wouldn’t have replaced
broken pins with ones that would require a special tool to turn
them. I wanted my replica to have pins made of ash as well, but I
much preferred the practicality of the paddle shaped pins that I could
turn with my fingers.
The resulting pins were turned on the lathe, and then sanded into
shape. The pins were inserted into the head of the instrument
from the back, so that I could tune it with my left hand without
shifting the position of the instrument too much. The strings are
inserted through slits that are cut in the end of each pin, and then
the string is wrapped around the loose end.
My lyre was strung with nyl-gut. After searching
for a while we determined that this material would be more cost
effective and durable than real gut strings would be, at least until I
teach myself to play. Later on I’m planning to switch to real gut.
The Trossingen replica has really surprised me. I
didn’t really expect such a deep, full sound from an instrument with
such a thin body, such small sound holes, and a softwood bridge.
It’s almost as loud as an acoustic guitar. Now that the strings
have stretched, it’s also been staying in tune for longer as well.
All in all, I’m very, very pleased with this
project, and I know it won’t be the last lyre that I make.
Many thanks to Chris for his help, my long suffering
husband Dave, who put up with me hanging out in a 30 degree shop until
midnight playing with power tools, Dr. Ainn Haas, and the members of
the Anglo Saxon lyre list, all of whom answered my questions so kindly.