For I long time I have had an aspiration to make stringed instruments, but the tools and time required to carve the headstock and neck from solid timber, or steam, set and glue the body in complicated curves has always put me off. Not to mention cutting and setting of frets or the chemistry and mechanics of fixing a bridge to a sound board.
So I was very excited when I was doing some research for my recording of the terrifying Icelandic song Móðir Mín í Kví Kví and I came across this version played by Sheila Wright (Norse Singer) on an Anglo-Saxon Lyre.
After watching a few youtube videos and reading a detailed description of making a replica of the Sutton Hoo Lyre on this site, I figured it would be possible to give it a go. You can hear Paul Butler playing one of his replica instruments here.
My goal was to make the lyre out of what I had already lying around in my shed. With the idea that I might be able to make these to sell, they need to be made without needing to spend $40-50 on prefabricated parts. The cost on ebay to buy 6 zither/harp tuning pins and a tuning handle is already close to US$30.
Rather than try and find a thick piece of wood to carve the whole shape out of (seems wasteful), I chose to cut and glue five smaller pieces of pre-cut pine to make the frame. Because I was trying to use some left-over cheap MDF flooring as the soundboard, I was limited in the size of soundboard by the width of this wood.
I had bought some second hand chairs which have since fallen apart, but were made of what is possibly Rosewood. The grain is very dense and I had a tough time getting through it with a saw. I made the tail-piece, tail-pin, headstock and tuning pegs out of this wood.
Turning the tuning pegs on the lathe was easier that I expected, however, the wood that I had was too narrow to make a large enough size grip on the peg to turn it without a tool of some sort. I suspect that pegs big enough to turn with your hands easily would be too large to space closely enough together. They could possibly be staggered, to allow space for a larger peg.
The cavity for the soundboard and backboard was routed into the edge of the pine frame. A piece of cord was used to connect the tail piece to the tail pin and I used the same thick gauge of fishing line for all of the strings. The bridge was roughly made out of a piece of pine.
I finished the whole instrument in two days, with the first day being just an hour or so cutting and gluing the frame. After leaving the strings for a few days to stretch, I recorded this video.
Some key lessons for the future:
- The soundboard needs to be made of much thinner material, the MDF is too thick and doesn’t resonate.
- Wooden tuning pegs need to have a smaller pin radius and larger head if they are going to be tuneable by hand. This is both because of the mechanical advantage required to turn the peg, and also the fact that a larger pin size makes it very difficult to get the pitch right.
- The prototype was not made to be beautiful, or as a faithful replica of period lyres. The experiment was to see if a functioning instrument could be made from spare wood in the garage with existing tools.
I am surprised to see that this type of instrument goes for AUS$300-$500 on etsy. The comparative complexity in construction and manufacturing of parts with respect to a steel string guitar, student violin or bouzouki doesn’t seem to match the asking price. I suspect that the niche market is allowing the higher price.
One of the key things that interested me about the process of making this instrument is that the tools required to build it would have been within reach of many people during the time frame that this instrument was in use among Nordic, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon people (5-13th Centuries).