Fionnuala's Trossingen Lyre

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)

Construction stuff

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 choice.

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 of profanity.) 

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 wrong. 

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 thickness throughout.

Once 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. 

Using the 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 wood.

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 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 surface.

Then 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 fingertips. 

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 scraper.

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 to let Chris take a few pieces.  The branch was stripped of bark, and cut with one face parallel to the grain.   Flat grain planks were then cut

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 fit matched.

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.

The 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.

This 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.)

The 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.