Early Guitars and Vihuela

A network for historic guitars and vihuelas

Just out of curiousity, does anyone know how they steam-bended vihuela sides and lute backs during the renaissance?  I know today most people use a box setup with a series of hoses and a kettle, but I am having a really hard time finding any sources talking about how they did the process originally.  Any leads for sources, thoughts/insights on the topic, etc? 



Adam C.

Views: 1279

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion


I think the term "steam bending" is really kind of a misnomer. As far as I know, the traditional method of bending guitar/vihuela sides, lute ribs, and viol/violin, etc sides is over a hot pipe. It is still used today. Consisting of a simple metal pipe heated with glowing embers in the old days, propane or an electric element today. Depending on the wood, it can be either soaked in water, spritzed with water from a spray bottle, or bent dry. Sometimes a wet rag is also placed between the pipe and the wood. Steam is indeed produced, but no special apparatus is needed to generate the steam beyond wet wood and a hot pipe. The thicknesses of these pieces used in luthiery are such that a "steam box" isn't necessary. I guess these are used for other types of woodworking when bending wood that is much thicker.

I built a vihuela last year and made a "Fox-style" bender out of scrap wood and aluminum sheeting. I only did this because I'm a beginner and my pipe-bending skills are not very good yet. The concept is still the same. Wet wood, heated form, pressure, and patience, resulting in sides bent to the shape you want.

Here is a link to pictures of my vihuela build. Crude and done very cheaply, but it plays and sounds quite nice.

Hot pipe filled with coal, and I would imagine they had some kind of bellow to keep it hot.

Wow, thanks guys for the very quick responses!  Mark,  thank you especially for the links to the pictures!  They are inspirational for this fellow beginner.  I had a feeling that it probably involved fire and a metal pipe, but wanted to ask anyway to make sure.  Somewhere around here I have a piece of pipe and some scrap wood, so will have to try out the traditional method. 


My first vihuela is not destined to be a master work, so it gives me a bit of leeway for experimenting and gaining experience with the old ways. It is intentionally being designed to be functional but cheap and replaceable as it will be heavily exposed to the elements when in use....being for the most part a "prop" in living history programs, and NOT doing professional early music performances in a concert hall and requiring that quality of an instrument.  Besides, as a student I can't afford to drop circa $3000 to replace it if it gets smashed, rained on, etc.  Some day I want to buy a professional quality vihuela, but my needs right now are just to make a very simple one that I can play some period music on while doing presentations (mostly for my 1595-1702 Franciscan friar presentations if anyone cares). 


Thanks again guys!






You're welcome, Adam. I have to warn you though that building becomes addictive! Not only does your first instrument not have to be a masterwork ( most builders will tell you their first instruments were not either), but in keeping with a 1595-1702 Franciscan friar, a more humble, and less ornamented vihuela is probably actually more historically accurate anyway. The very few vihuelas that have survived belonged to people who had the means to afford fancy instruments that were pretty enough to be preserved for centuries. Countless workhorse lutes, vihuelas, guitar, etc were built, and played, and have since biodegraded back into the soil or burned up!

A Franciscan friar may also have built his own instrument from locally available materials as well.

Research, read, read, read, ask questions and try it. You learn by doing and your results may pleasantly surprise you. Good luck!

For more building information, check out:







I am aware how addictive instrument building is....I'm also working on a baroque violin for my 1740s programs, a gourd banjo for my early 19th century stuff, and am toying around with trying to make a pandoura if I get back into doing ancient roman again...and am going through my Grand-dad's books on organ building and trying to decide just how crazy I am.  My goal is to get all the hard stuff done while I have access to the tools, and then do the finishing touches when I move to Michigan for grad school here in a few months.  The Vihuela is the important one out of the bunch though, as it looks like I will be using the friar kit more frequently than the others over the next couple of years (bouncing between doing Spanish friar presentations down here and French while up in Michigan). 


I will have to go through my notes again, but I want to say it was 1573-5 when the first vihuelas are recorded as being here in Spanish Florida, and we know they were a common instrument down here up through the first spanish period (1763).  During Christmas eve of 1702 the whole town of St. Augustine had been besieged inside the castillo by the English, and they actually celebrated by playing a mix of secular and religious music on Jew's harps and vihuelas.  I also have pictures of original tuning pegs found down here (one of the perks of having worked as an archaeologist in the area) and am hoping to replicate the pegs for my vihuela...then keep everything else pretty simple, and if I do any decorations I am going to paint them on instead of doing fancy inlay work.


Thanks for the links, I will tour around and see what knowledge I can cull from them. 


And it's funny you mentioned the vihuelas being burned up....I had already decided that if anything happens to this one (smashed, destroyed by rain, canoe flips over, whatever), I was going to salvage the tuning pegs and strings...then use it to cook a nice stew that evening....




Please post a picture of one of those pegs! Original pegs are really difficult to come by - especially from that period and on American soil, no less. Very, very cool indeed! Keep us posted on the progress.



I don't have a digitized copy of the pictures, but I am pretty sure they were photographed and included in Kathleen Deagan's Artifacts of the Spanish Colonies: Florida and the Caribbean, 1500-1800 (Vol. II: Portable, personal possessions) if your inter-library loan can beat me in being able to digitize the pictures. 


The one tuner is bone and is assumed to be locally made in St. Augustine sometime in the 18th century (unfortunately the context for dating it couldn't be tighter), and the other two are ivory tuning pegs that were found on the 1733 San Jose shipwreck.  The local ones were 5.5cm long and the San Jose ones were 7.5 cm.  It should be noted that there is no way to tell 100% that these are vihuela tuners...they could have been guitar tuners....but all that have survived are the pegs. 


I am planning to replicate the locally made tuning peg as, despite the wide date range, it is the closest I can get to a local tuning peg for the 1702 Christmas performance....and I hope to use the tuning peg in educational programs with local school kids, as I used to work for the Florida Public Archaeology Network and I still volunteer with them periodically when I can do so.  I figured being able to show the kids the artifact we pulled out of the ground, and then comparing it to a fullsize vihuela opens up all kinds of learning points from "what on this vihuela would survive versus decompose" to "how can we take such a small artifact and learn about the lives of the individuals who played it."  As far as St. Augustine was concerned, the Vihuela players were the local rock stars because there wasn't much music otherwise until the Spanish returned in the 1780s with more of the romantic tradition. 


I'll see what I can do about getting a picture on here.




I just remembered my laptop has a webcam built into it, so I tried holding the paper up and take a picture at the same time....sorry it appears fuzzy and there's contrast from the "blue light" from the computer screen bouncing off the white paper. 


The picture above is the locally made 18th century St. Augustine bone tuning peg.  Because the picture was fuzzy and what not, I put it into microsoft paint and put some red dots on it for the 2nd picture so as to make the 4 grooves stand out more.  There's a chip off of the bone in the lower right corner leaving just a little bit of the lower groove left on the bottom edge in the pic. 


I'll see what I can do about the 1733 San Jose ivory pegs on here, but with how the webcam pic worked for the St. Augustine one I am not expecting much out of another try....


Oh, and the San Jose shipwreck is down in the Keys and was part of the 1733 Treasure fleet for anyone who isn't familiar with it...






Here's the two ivory pegs from the 1733 San Jose wreck...they came out a tad better, but not by much....do note that both of them have 2 grooves right at the swollen part of the upper shaft of the peg.



-Adam C.

It's interesting that the talk of burning ones vihuela has come up. During a discussion with a Spanish luthier friend of mine we were lamenting the serious lack of extant vihuelas and possible reasons for this.


The most likely reason that he put forward is the Spanish penchant for burning objects that are considered old and of no further value. It seems many a good stew was cooked over a fine vihuela fueled fire. Adam, you would be carrying on a time honored and respected tradition...good on you for keeping the "old ways" alive.


Pipe bending of wood is a very old method and there were other ways, I'm sure, that the ancients had developed to bend wood that are now lost and we may one day rediscover. An interesting instrument (s) that has intreged me as to how they bent the wood is the Belchior Dias 1581 vihuela/guitar and the so called "Chambre" vihuela. These instruments had arched and fluted ribs of the back.


Our fellow EG&V member Alexander Batov has written about these instruments on his website and has discovered a method that works very well to do these ribs. I wonder how close his method is to the original. It would be interesting to go back in time to find out. I bet he's not far off.



Yeah I wish I could spend an afternoon in Batov's shop to watch him work. I saw a thread somewhere where a guy came up with a jig for making that compound bend by using a bent piece of fence pipe and a pulley from a gate. The pipe acted as the "male" part of the mold, as it were, and the pulley acted as the female, with the slat of wood in between. The pipe was of course heated, and the pulley rolled across. Almost a cross between a Fox-style bender and a hot pipe!

Adam, I forgot to mention to not scrimp on the soundboard. You can make the back and sides out of many, many hardwoods that are available and affordable to you. It doesn't have to be Brazilian rosewood! For the soundboard though, by a real soundboard from one of the many luthier suppliers. You can by a small guitar top, and also you don't need AAAAAAAAA grade European spruce. Larry Stamm in British Columbia sells very affordable tonewood that would suit your project. Engleman spruce, or even Western red cedar or Douglas fir would work and be in keeping with the spirit of a friar's vihuela. Western red cedar is supposed to be less suseptible to changes due to humidity too from what I hear, which may help considering this instrument will spend a lot of time outdoors. It is softer than spruce, though and needs careful handling during building.

Just read up. There is (thankfully) a ton of information available about building guitars and many luthiers who are willing to share their wisdom. Bless them all! Scott, who just replied, is the guy who drew up the plan of the guitar that I used as a base the vihuela that I built. He and Alexander Batov have both answered questions I have had. These Ning groups and builders forums are invaluable resources for information for those of us not lucky enough to live within close access to luthiers, museums, and schools where one can more easily study these things.



Don't skimp on soundboard.....Check!  I will probably give the cedar a go, as cedar was a pretty common wood down here (and ironically one of the Franciscan mission sites I worked at is today called "cedar point" and was a visita for a doctrina I helped excavate the year before across the river...and was the location where the first European/Indigenous dictionary was composed in the New World).  I have actually been talking about doing this project for about a year now, but between recovering from a severe back injury and my uncertainty about trying wood bending I kept convincing myself to put it off.  Though finally I have hit the point where I just want to give it a go and see what happens. 





© 2023   Created by Jelma van Amersfoort.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service