In the first of an occasional series looking at the people that make the instruments that make the music, we hear from George Stevens about what it takes to become a luthier and how much time and effort goes into becoming a creator of beautiful instruments as well as the time taken to make hand crafted instruments.
I have been making lutes and related early instruments since 1989 when I enrolled at the London College of Furniture (now part of the London Metropolitan University). By the summer of 1994 had successfully completed five years of instrument making, study and research into the subject and attained a BSc. Hons.
Since leaving LCF I have continued instrument making to the high standard demanded by professional musicians and serious amateurs alike. After some time spent in the West Country I set up a permanent workshop in Kent in 1998 ~ still specializing in early instruments, though I have also made classical guitars and members of the mandolin family and have carried out numerous repairs to various types of stringed instruments. At the time of writing this I have made over 200 instruments and since the turn of the century I have really become most known for making members of the lute family and similar, and for my harps.
As the lute may be an instrument unfamiliar to many, here follows a brief description: Lutes can have between 5 and 14 strings or courses (pairs) of strings and during their Renaissance heyday lutes were played in families (as well as solo) of up to 4 or 5 different sizes which together covered a tonal range of several octaves, in much the same way as does the violin family of today. Lutenists currently commonly play instruments with between 6 and 8 courses and of a scale length similar to the modern guitar, although they are usually pitched at G rather than E. Lutes have a characteristic profile of rounded back made up of a number of individual ribs; short neck which typically carries 8 frets made from gut tied around it; curiously bent back pegbox, or head, which carries the tuning pegs; soundboard with intricately decorated soundhole, or 'rose'. The finished instrument is very light-weight and its tone more delicate, but in no way less refined, than that of the modern guitar.
Great care is taken in selecting materials. The best instruments require the best timber. I usually have at least five or six woods available for lute backs ~ for example: Walnut, cherry, pear, plum, maple, ash, yew and laburnum. Please note timber in stock may vary. Of course if there is a particular wood you would like for your commission which I don't have, I will do my best to obtain it for you, but there will be an additional charge for this. Soundboards for fingerboard instruments are of well seasoned, first quality spruce. Though for some instruments I have also used cedar which makes excellent soundboards when carefully selected. The majority of my harps are made from sycamore but poplar, willow and lime are also used; sometimes other woods may also be available.
Every effort is made to ensure the stability of my timber stock. Some of the stock I have, has been sawn by myself straight from the tree. It is then left to season for some time before re-sawing to smaller dimensions and leaving to season once again ~ and so on until it is ready for use. The workshop is kept at a constant humidity level creating the perfect environment in which to keep wood and build instruments. This is the only way to eliminate or minimize movement in service of materials as different woods are hygroscopic to different degrees and season at different rates. For most of the early harps I make the original construction method of hollowing out a soundbox from hardwood is employed, it's a lot of hard work but again, this cannot be done directly with wood that is too fresh, you never quite know what you will get. It may seem like a shortcut but one soon learns that this can lead to adverse drying reactions from being done too quickly, which can result in twisting or cracking and thus rendering the timber unusable
Wood however, is a fascinating medium with which to work but it can also be frustrating. As a natural material it is infinitely different with no two pieces necessarily the same, even from the same tree. There are many books on the subject of instrument making but you can only really learn the basics from these, in my opinion. The only way to progress beyond scratching the surface is hands on at the work bench. The process is essentially, like furniture making, high end joinery but what sets it apart is that the finished product must not only perform ergonomically and be pleasing aesthically, it must also sound good . There is always so much more to learn.
With early instruments in particular, the challenges can be greater still as much initial research has to be done by studying extant originals for example, but in many cases this is not possible so clues have to be gained from contemporary iconography and literature and drawn from an on-going reservoir of previous design and construction experience.
My usual and preferred way of working is to commission; this is particularly pertinent to fingerboard instruments, e.g. lutes, where scale length and neck size can be varied to suit the customer. Also, I offer quite an extensive range in general and it is simply not practical to have many instruments pre-made on spec. - there are too many potential variations. However, I do often have some instruments available for immediate sale, should you wish to view these please visit the 'new instruments available now' page on my website at www.gstevensluthier.co.uk or do not hesitate to contact me to discuss your requirements.
George PJ Stevens
We're keen to feature other instrument makers in this series. If you're an instrument maker or a fan of one get in touch with some contact details and we'll do our best to put a feature together
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