Harpsichord #2: I begin again!

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Blog entry by GaryK posted 12-03-2007 05:57 PM 2527 reads 0 times favorited 12 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 1: I started it 10 years ago Part 2 of Harpsichord series Part 3: Final entry and the surprise! »

Well, after a 10+ year hiatus, I am back at work on my harpsichord.

This is where I ended work and where I started again. Viewed from the underside. Notice the Fixed lower register. The part with all the holes.

Here it is with the stand, lid, and a fresh coat of paint. There will be a piece of wood called the “Fallboard” to enclose it entirely.

Here is the completed keyboard. If you remember this is why I quit 10 years ago. In my next installment I will have the keyboard out of the instrument so that you can get a better look at it.

The keyboards are made out ot the correct wood this time. Basswood. The natural keys are covered with Gabon ebony, the sharps are topped with Holly and the key fronts from Swiss Pear. The reverse keyboard was traditional with most harpsichords.

Also a note here: Notice the two brass pieces sticking out above and on both ends of the keyboard. These are levers to move the registers. More about that later.

This is the view from the other end. Notice the two bridges. Most harpsichords have more than one string per key. This one has two 8 foot and one 4 foot set for each key. (The 8 foot comes from the 8 foot long middle C pipe on a pipe organ) So for each key there are three strings.

Here is a closeup of the 8 foot bridge. The strings basically run straight from the hitch pins to the tuning pins.
To make sure that the are pressed tightly against the bridge pins, you do what is called back pinning. This makes the string zig-zag to keep it tightly against the bridge pins

Here is a closeup of the 4 foot bridge and the hitch pins which the strings are attached to. They are at an angle so they don’t need back pinning.

Here you can see the other end of the strings passing over the nuts. The small 4 foot nut has the pins for the 4 foot strings, and the larger 8 foot nut has the pins for the two 8 foot strings.

Precision is critical for the position of the nut pins and the tuning pins. A 1/16” off and it won’t work. All the strings must be parallel to each other and not touch anything else.

This is the point at which I quit 10 years ago. I messed up all the holes and pins in the nuts. I re-drilled all the holes over sized and and plugged them, re-veneered and made new nuts. Then started all over again.

You will notice the staggering of the tuning pins. This is to prevent the oak plank from splitting, which it would if they were all lined up.
Again notice the brass lever on the left.

Here are all the tools I am using for the next stage of the project. Stringing and installing the jacks. The jacks are the parts the the move up to pluck the string when a key is pressed on the keyboard.

Notice the electronic tuner. I don’t know what I would do without it. Look to the left and you can see that I have an octave of strings completed and playable. There a 3 jacks per string. Each set of 57 jacks is in it’s own register. These registers are what the brass lever are connected to and slide it to the left or right. This allows you to “turn off” a set of strings by moving the part ther plucks the strings (the plectrum) away from touching the string. The bottom of the jacks goes through the lower register which aligns with each key.

Here is a closeup showing the completed section. There are 171 jacks. The bodies are made of Swiss Pear and the tongue (the white part that holds the plectrum) is made of holly. These are the most time consuming parts to make. About 10 minutes each. Almost 30 hours! The tongue has a small piece of wire that makes it spring back after it passes by the string on the way down. The white cloth part is a damper that stops the string from vibrating when you let go of the key.

The front set of jacks is played by the upper keyboard. It plays an 8 foot set of strings and plucks the strings close to the nut which gives it a tinny sound. The middle jacks play the 4 foot strings and the rear jacks plays the other 8 foot set of strings. It plucks the strings farther away from the nut giving it a deeper tone. They are both played by the lower keyboard. The levers also control these two registers to shut them off and on.

Another feature is that the upper keyboard slides in and out about 1/4”. When pushed in it is played by the lower keyboard. This allows you the option to pluck all three strings with a single key press.


To get a better idea of how everything works go to:

It always amazes me that this was all worked out hundreds of years ago.

In the next installment I will have the keyboard out and installing something VERY unique. So stay tuned.

-- Gary - Never pass up the opportunity to make a mistake look like you planned it that way - Tyler, TX

12 comments so far

View Thos. Angle's profile

Thos. Angle

4441 posts in 2777 days

#1 posted 12-03-2007 06:10 PM

Holy Cow!!!

-- Thos. Angle, Jordan Valley, Oregon

View Russel's profile


2199 posts in 2754 days

#2 posted 12-03-2007 06:14 PM

That is one ambitious project. I can only admire your craftmanship and your patience. Very, very impressive, and I’m looking forward to more.

-- Working at Woodworking

View mot's profile


4911 posts in 2851 days

#3 posted 12-03-2007 07:15 PM

I’m overwhelmed just looking at it. I need a coffee.

-- You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. (Plato)

View John Gray's profile

John Gray

2370 posts in 2700 days

#4 posted 12-03-2007 07:19 PM


-- Only the Shadow knows....................

View YorkshireStewart's profile


1118 posts in 2716 days

#5 posted 12-03-2007 09:31 PM

That really is a task! Just great that you’ve got it back on the stocks though. What can this forthcoming unique aspect be… a pickup so you can blast it through a fuzz box & a wah-wah pedal? Surely not! My only experience of a harpsichord was at a concert when, between each piece of music, a technician went on stage to do a re-tune. They must be temperamental.

-- Res severa verum gaudium - True pleasure is a serious business.

View Brad_Nailor's profile


2534 posts in 2772 days

#6 posted 12-03-2007 09:43 PM

Now thats a project! Makes my projects look like snap together kids models! Nice work…


View JonJ's profile


163 posts in 2655 days

#7 posted 12-03-2007 10:33 PM

That is awesome! Looks like you have been very busy. I have a million questions, but I guess I’ll have to wait for the book? I am really interested in harpsichord construction, mostly the internal bracing and soundboard issues, as well as string length and size. It looks like your strings are monofilament… If you have a long enough soundboard, is it better to use monofilament vs. a shorter soundbard with a thicker wound string?
Oops…I’m starting to ask questions, ain’t I?
Well, once again that is an awesome piece of work, and can’t wait to hear it. I suspect the next installment will be something from the high tech end of the spectrum?

-- Jon

View GaryK's profile


10262 posts in 2803 days

#8 posted 12-04-2007 04:25 AM

YorkshireStewart – You’ll just have to wait to see what the surprise it.
They aren’t that temperamental and can go for months without tuning. Temperature and humidity are the culprits, so tuning is usually seasonal, and with the electronic tuner it only takes maybe 10 minutes.
Pros are the temperamental ones.

Jon – No book on this project, that’s the clavichord. The strings are brass for the longer strings, and iron for everything else. From thick to thin strings. No wound strings are ever used. Just thicker. The thickest string I used is .022, and the thinnest is .008.

Go ahead and ask away. That’s the purpose of this blog.


-- Gary - Never pass up the opportunity to make a mistake look like you planned it that way - Tyler, TX

View Karson's profile


34929 posts in 3215 days

#9 posted 12-04-2007 04:46 AM

Great Job Gary. This is some piece of workmanship. But I guess Steinway got started with one grand piano.

You have got a lot of interested sidewalk superintendents.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Southern Delaware †

View GaryK's profile


10262 posts in 2803 days

#10 posted 12-05-2007 02:47 AM

Karson – This will be my last harpsichord. I just can’t see putting this much time into a project again!

My next project will be nice and simple.


-- Gary - Never pass up the opportunity to make a mistake look like you planned it that way - Tyler, TX

View Thos. Angle's profile

Thos. Angle

4441 posts in 2777 days

#11 posted 12-05-2007 04:31 AM

Yeah, sure it will be. Maybe a baby grand??

-- Thos. Angle, Jordan Valley, Oregon

View Scott Bryan's profile

Scott Bryan

27251 posts in 2637 days

#12 posted 03-19-2008 01:35 AM

I was already impressed in the first installment. Little did I realize how much effort actually went into this.

Out of curiosity how did you manage the drilling precision for the nut and tuning pins?

On to the next blog.

By the way if you read my comment on the first blog I can now well understand why you threw the form away.

-- Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful- Joshua Marine

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