My primary goal in describing my efforts at making a Psaltery is to help encourage other members to build one. In my case, I learned a few things about music, as well as a few others about woodworking using thin materials and a bit of precision. No other project I’ve built has provided the ongoing satisfaction and fun I have had with this one following it’s completion.
This project began when I became curious about the musical instrument “psaltery” which is mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament. On the Internet, I found that the Biblical psaltery (pronounced as it appears – except that the “p” is silent) was a hand-held, plucked instrument – somewhat like a small harp. Before WWII, a teacher came up with a version of the psaltery that was played with a bow. Following the war that version became popular (among other things) as a beginning musical instrument for children. In searching for further information on the bowed psaltery, I ran across a web site by Eric Meier called “A Psimple Psaltery – Building a Bowed Psaltery from Start to Finish”. The author describes in great detail his version of a ‘psimple psaltery’ – not only how to go about building one, but he also included extensive information about the tools needed, wood selection, finishing, tuning, sound and musical considerations, and many other related topics. He subsequently published that information (with additional detail) in a book of the same title. For anyone interested in making one, it can be obtained through Amazon.com, and I highly recommend it..
There are bowed psalteries with both narrower and wider musical ranges, slightly different shapes, and with different tones. Eric Meier’s ‘psimple psaltery’ is a twenty five string (two-octave) instrument. Each string of a psaltery produces a different sound with the ‘natural notes’ (white keys of a piano) along one side of the instrument and sharps and flats (the black piano keys) along the other. A single string is played at a time by bowing between the pins along the edges of the instrument, with the bow held at an angle. There is no fingering, no chords, etc., however the sound made by playing one string resonates for some time and, melds into the sounds of the next several strings played, creating what I think is a most unusual and beautiful sound.
I knew nothing at all about music when I began the project – and only a bit more now – but I decided I would enjoy learning a little about music and musical instruments – and about working with thin solid woods. After getting the instrument constructed and the wipe-on Poly finish applied, I discovered that stringing a psaltery with piano wire was something akin to being tortured by ‘pin-pricking’. I wrote Eric Meier and told him that he left out the part about the transfusion. Having to learn to tune the instrument using a computer and a downloaded ‘tuner’ cast me into the hitherto strange world of musical sounds – octaves, primary notes, sharps, flats, cents, etc.
The finished size of my psaltery is about 22-1/2” long, 8-1/2” wide, and 1-3/4” in depth. I made the sides, bottom, center strip, rosette, bridge base, and bow from Honduras Mahogany. The top is ‘bear-scratch’ fir (or spruce – I’m unsure which). Not visible, at the base of the instrument beneath the tuning pins, is a hard maple block (with a thin Mahogany surfacing piece on the base of the psaltery for appearance). The Hard Maple block is necessary to withstand the combined pull of the strings on the twenty-five tuning pins. The top and bottom are approximately 1/8” thick, and the sides are 1/2” thick. Note that in the photo the top appears to be much thicker. This is the result of the 45 deg camber. The remainder of the psaltery is hollow.
I found the wood from which I made the top (see pictures below) among some pieces I bought from the shop of another woodworker. The “bear scratch” face-grain pattern is unusual, and was originally thought to have been caused by animal damage to the tree. That theory has now been discarded, but the cause is still unknown. Whatever does cause the unusual face-grain, also causes an even more unusual end-grain known as an “indented ring” pattern. The picture of the end grain shows something of its three dimensional look, but when looking at the actual surface, it is difficult to believe that the surface is flat.
As noted above, the bridge saddle shown above is made of Mahogany, and the bridge itself is a piece of 1/8” aluminum rod, polished with fine sandpaper.
Eric’s Meier’s plans call for a simple round sound hole of a specific square inch size, but I decided to design a simple geometric pattern for a rosette with the same amount of opening, that could be made with a router. My rosette is about 3/16” thick with a small offset at the bottom for gluing and to help align it with the top. A wiser (and much less costly) option would have been to buy one from one of the several suppliers on the Internet. I wanted something of my own design in the project, though, so considerable time, effort, expense – and frustration, went into its making.
First, I had to decide on the simple geometric design of the proper opening size, that could be made with my Bosch Colt router. Next I had to make the precision base for the router shown below, and finally, I had to make a pattern that would create as nearly as possible uniform holes.
I made the router base from a piece of UHMW I already had. For this project (and for other arcs and circles up to about 8” radius) I made the guide rods from bolts with the heads removed. I’ve subsequently added another longer pair of rods, so that now I can use the base to cut arcs or circles up to a radius of about 34”.
The rotating pattern of tempered hardboard I came up with has a single cutout pattern (so that all cutouts will be identical), and it is used with an inlay guide and a 1/8” router bit. To use it, I temporarily fasten a thin piece of the rosette wood to a piece of scrap. Then a hole is drilled through the rosette wood near it’s center, and a ‘pivot’ pin is inserted in that hole that does not extend above the pattern face – the center hole of which is placed on the pin. An ‘indexing’ hole is then drilled through any one of the outer holes, and a removable pin holds the pattern in place while the first cutout is made. After making a cutout – the indexing pin is removed – the jig rotated to the next indexing hole – that cutout routed, etc. After all cuts are made, the heretofore square rosette piece is adhered to the scrap with tape and the router base pivot is inserted in the center hole to make the two perimeter cuts – completing the rosette. Getting ready to make the rosettes was tedious to say the least – actually making the rosettes was a snap.
I had a few difficulties relative to the hitch pins and the tuning pins that I hadn’t properly anticipated. The hitch pins (along the sides of the instrument) need to be carefully located for two reasons. One is related to the note produced and the tension of the string required to produce that note. The other relates to clearance of the string from other pins. These hitch pins are vertical, however and, with a little care in placement, are not that difficult. I found the tuning pins to be another matter. Not only is the placement critical from the string clearance standpoint, but these pins are installed at a 15 degree angle. I tried both brad point and regular twist bits for these 3/16” holes, but found both had a slight tendency to bend and to slightly ‘skate’ on the psaltery surface before starting their cut. I overcame this by carefully cutting a drilling template in a piece of hardboard. The zither pins that are used have a very fine thread on their lower part, and I found no difficulty in screwing them into place once the holes were cut.
The final problem I had with the hitch pins is that they have a smooth, slightly rounded top that has to be notched in order for the strings to hold on the top of the pins. These can be cut in several ways. I used Eric Meier’s method with a Dremel tool, but he made it sound much more simple than I found it to be.
As noted above, the bridge base shown below is made of Mahogany, and the bridge rod is a piece of 1/8” aluminum rod, polished with fine sandpaper.
As I said before, I’m know little about music, but even I can play a few recognizable hymns and other tunes, and I find it very relaxing and enjoyable (note that I said “recognizable” – not “well”).
This description became a great deal longer than I originally intended, but even so, I’m sure anyone interested in making a psaltery will have questions about mine that I haven’t addressed. If so, please ask them, and I’ll answer to the best of my ability.
-- Dave O.