Vihuela Building part 2


The bridge blanks are first drilled on an angled jig, then the blanks are tapered, marked and carved. The faces are carved slightly concave with a gouge to make for better string knots. I like to leave some knife-marks on the finials, a long-standing tradition of lutherie. The big 25 mm mortise chisel is used to remove most of the waste material, then the scalpel knife does the fine work.

The soundboard ready to glue.

The block on the neck marks the position of the 8th fret. First the soundboard is glued to the neck, blocks and sides with thinned hide glue, then the carcass is turned over and the glue block are applied to the joint between the sides and top.

The soundboard is fitted to a block clamped to the neck on a line scribed on the neck where the eighth fret will be, The bars are cut slightly short, and the top is glued on with thinned hide glue.

The top is clamped on the neck first, then the bottom block. The glue is heated with cloth and iron, and the joint is checked, then it is taped down. Spool clamps make sure that the top is closed down all around as it dries. Since vihuelas have no binding (a purfling piece around the soundboard), it is very important that the soundboard joint has a barely noticeable glue-line. After the clamps and tape are removed, the top is trimmed bevelled or rounded with a spokeshave and files to finish.

Having finished the soundboard glueing (but not the dressing of the edge) the fingerboard is glued using a cork-lined caul. The sounboard is wetted on the top to counteract the tendency to curl away from the neck when hide glue is applied.

The fingerboard is planed with small plane and scraped to the exact thickness of the soundboard, then beards are cut out of the same material and inlaid from the eighth fret down to the body joint. This prevents the frets from cutting into the soft soundboard. The fingerboard is trimmed with a spokeshave and scraped and planed to slightly covex curvature and rounded edge,to ensure that the frets lie perfectly flat.

Having glued the top to the sides, end-block and neck-block, the instrument is turned upside down, mounted on the neck-angle board and the small triangular blocks called “tentelones” (glue blocks) are fitted, one at a time, held in place by finger pressure. These blocks have been a feature of Iberian lutherie for many centuries.

The bars of the top have been cut slightly short, then a shim is inserted and glued in, taking care not to change the verticality of the sides in relation to the mould.

Linings are bent to the shape and glued in with as many clamps as can be fitted. The lining material must bend easily but cut cleanly for the mortises. I find mahogany (old growth Honduras) is best for this purpose, but willow is traditional for both guitars and violins.

When the linings have been glued and trimmed to the back, they are mortised on marks made when fitting the back. The depth is marked with a marking gauge.

A 4mm mortising chisel does this job more exactly than a bevel chisel.

Here you may also observe the shims glued the bar ends to make them tight to the side. They have not been pared, but left full height, a common practice in early lutherie Some early guitar have a tuning-fork shaped prop here Torres and later luthiers used a specially made wooden bracket.


The back is fitted with the internal mould inside the carcass to ensure that the bars do not distort the shape. Then they are pared and the lining mortised to accept the bars.

It’s crucial to check the neck angle by taping the back in place temporarily. The workboard is mounted on a plank that has been planed to a 1 degree negative oblique angle (that is, greater than 180 degrees), then surfaced with cork. The angle can be adjusted with paper shims. Shims are inserted under the waist to prevent clamping pressure from distorting the shape. Particular attention is payed to the fitting of the heel onto the back.

Because of the degree of vaulting,this is one of the most difficult phases of assembly. Springback and internal tensions can result in unpredictable distortions. Trial and error is the only solution.

The chaos of clamps conceals a careful order. First the heel-block and end-block are clamped, then spool clamps are put in the middle, then supplementary clamps are used to fill in. This must be done quickly, before the glue gels.Even so, there are frequently small places which need attention. If so, the glue is reheated with an iron and cloth.

After a few minutes, all clamps are removed and the action is checked, then the clamps are re-applied.

The back is trimmed with the spokeshave, filed flush and cleaned up. The work board has been lined with cork to prevent marring the top or fingerboard.

A planing jig is used to thin the head blanks to the correct thickness. A rabbet is cut, and the tiles are inlaid and planed flush with a block plane (since the tiles are end-grain). The heads are carfully scraped and any missing elements are carefully filled with the appropriate material (holly, pear, ebony).

The tiles are about 1 mm thick, cut from an assembled log made of triangular-shaped battens produced with a table saw. The battens are put into a mould made from easily-split cedar, then the mould is chiselled away, leaving the log.

The design of these tiles are taken from traditional patterns found in architecture, weaving and textiles of the period.

The heads are all completed with inlay, marked with a template, drilled, reamed (the ball is beeswax lubricant) and mitred at 14 degrees before they are sawn out and the edges finished with files and scrapers.

After the heads are glued to the neck, they are pared down to slightly greater than the neck’s width at the joint.


A softwood block is tacked (weakly glued) to the finished and polished head. The other block is fitted to the exact contour of the neck, lined with cork and sandpaper, then both blocks are cut to an angle which exactly bisects the neck angle.

Hide glue is used, in case the head ever needs to be remove for repair, such as planing the neck to lower the action.

Unlike lutes, it’s impractical to remove the soundboard and remove material from the body to lower the action. At this point the nut has already been fitted to the notch between the neck and fingerboard.

After the pegs have been turned and before they are tapered, a sandpaper-lined jig holds them for making the faces. A large chisel and brass journeyman’s mallet precisely remove the wood. The dimension is checked with a mullet (the toothed block of softwood. The taper is cut with the oversized shop-made pencil sharpeners.

The pegheads are finished with a drill-mounted drum sander and scrapers, then they are oiled and waxed before final fitting to the head with the reamer. None of the pegs is interchangeable, they are all individually fitted. Finally they are drilled for the strings and put into the finished and polished heads.

This parchment rose is crafted by Elena dal Cortivo ( and is a copy of the rose in the Chambure vihuela. It combines the traditional quirk and quoin of Gothic tracery with the six-fold symmetry of lute roses.

The parchment rose is a traditional feature of guitars, while the carved rose is traditional for lutes.

The finished instrument from the back.

For wide pieces of figured maple, less figured wood is more desirable, as more figured pieces will be prone to greater distortion.

Without the visual confusion of the tiles and rose, it is possible to see the shape more clearly. This shape has been carefully designed to emulate the Chambure vihuela and the Milan image, without copying them.

The head is the final addition before finishing. After the head is sawn out, the soundboard and back are installed and the body mostly finished, the head is attached, the pegs are drilled and lubricated, the nut is made and fitted, the strings and frets are installed.

I usually play the instrument for a few weeks to make sure its action and feel are right, and that its musical finishing standard is high.

The completed instrument.

There are a variety of finishes: The body is oiled and polished (not varnished) on a buffing wheel with wax; the head is polished, the fingerboard and neck are oiled, but not polished; the top is sealed with thinned shellac and waxed. The owner is instructed to maintain the finish with beeswax applied with burlap and polished with silk. If this is done regularly, the instrument will look clean and last for centuries.

The finished instrument.



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