Early Guitars and Vihuela

A network for historic guitars and vihuelas

Hello everyone. I'm new to the forum and the site, and was very happy to find it.

I've built a few instruments, currently finishing up a Tzouras.

I'm going to be starting my next project within the next month (coming to the end of the current project), and would like to build a 60 cm scale, 6-course vihuela next. (The alternative would be to build a 6-course renaissance lute). I was intrigued by the idea of building the vihuela with ribs for both the back and sides, (alternating maple and walnut, with ebony spacers), and wanted to attempt a domed back (both front to back and side to side). I haven't decided about whether to attempt a scalloped back. This will all really stretch my current skills, but ... it's a hobby. I've seen pictures of vihuelas similar to what I'm describing, and I think they're really beautiful.

I've found the DVD from the Romanillos museum site (but haven't seen or ordered it yet, so don't really know what's on it, or even what sort of vihuela he builds). Are there other resources out there that discuss traditional construction methods?

I've found one very old discussion here about the challenges of ribbed sides, and a double-domed back. I think those features make the construction more like building a lute - my intuition is that I could build it on a form, like a lute or a bouzouki. That's just a guess, though. I'd love to hear from anyone who has actually built a vihuela, particularly one of these "complicated" ones.

Thanks in advance for any replies!

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Hi Dino

I am not a vihuela expert, can you give some links to pictures (museum instruments or historical iconography) or some references of 6-course vihuela with a domed back ? This would clarify for me which type of instruments you intend to build

Kind regards

Nicolas

Hi Nicolas,

Thanks for responding! Since posting, I've continued to poke around, and found some information that both helps and confuses.

This talk was presented to the lute society in 2005: http://www.vihuelademano.com/rcmdi

It highlights that the distinction between the vihuela da mano and the baroque guitar is sort of blurred, to the point where it can be difficult to determine whether a particular instrument is one or the other. Some of the things he points out are that many earlier vihuelas were made with very long scale lengths - as much as 700mm or more, but that, as time went on, scale lengths between 500mm and 600mm became more common (more like a baroque guitar). Most vihuelas were 6 courses, but some were 5 (like the baroque guitar). Most vihuelas had 10 tied on frets (similar to the baroque guitar). Both vihuelas and baroque guitars were made with either flat or vaulted backs. And finally, typical vihuelas had a larger ratio of string length to body volume than the baroque guitar (where the bodies started having more volume to give a richer bass response), but, as the scale lengths of vihuelas decreased, that ratio started to become more like the guitar (because doing otherwise would have shrunk the vihuela body to a point where projection would have been impacted.). (At least that's what I got from the article.)

Here's a link to an article by a more modern builder who built a vaulted/domed back vihuela, coming from a lute-building background. He tried to infer as much historical information as he could, but ultimately adopted (what seems to me) the approach that a lute-builder would take to a number of aspects of the construction including the method for joining the ribs, making the mold, and the neck attachment: http://luteshop.co.uk/projects/violadamano/

This last article is pretty detailed and was very helpful. I'll probably take a similar approach, but would love to hear about other more detailed information.

All the best,
- Dino

Hello Dino,

This is a very timely question and, I hope, discussion as I am also embarking upon making a vihuela next month. I have been scouring the internet for more information regarding construction techniques, plans, etc. My inclination at this point is to make a vihuela based on the Dias instrument as I particularly like the shape and proportions. Here are some links I have found useful.

Great information from Clive Titmus on his webpage: http://www.thisisclassicalguitar.com/vihuela-history-and-style/

My best find is this thesis paper by Marco Kaiser Mori on historical vihuela building techinique:

https://www.academia.edu/22699224/Reconstruction_of_a_Sixteenth-cen...

It would be interesting to know if his building techniques have changed over time. 

Looking forward to more discussion,

Steven

Hi Steven,

Thanks for the links! I'm now a couple of weeks into the process - had to take a detour to make a stand for a benchtop bandsaw that I got for Christmas, and then was away for a week. What I wound up doing is finding a commercial website with a vihuela modeled after a 16th Century Spanish woodcut that appeared in a book of vihuela music. The maker had several good shots, including a top view. Since he gave the scale length, I was able to derive all the rest of the measurements.

The one I'm making will have (about) a 620mm scale length, and will have a mostly flat back made of alternating maple and walnut staves, with a spruce top. The sides may be made of staves as well, but will be more or less perpendicular to the top and the back. (The reason they'd be made of staves is that I'm not sure if my bandsaw will resaw 4 1/2" wide maple - it's a small benchtop model...)

I would love to compare notes with you, as I'm pretty much flying blind here ...

I decided to go with an outside mold rather than an inside one. I've just finished making the mold and clamps based on my drawings.

I decided that, in the absence of better information, I'd go with some construction techniques borrowed from guitarmaking, e.g., kerfed linings around the top and back joints instead of the triangular glueblocks that are more traditional for vihuelas (I think).

I have many questions that I hope to find answers to. One is about radiusing the top. Are the tops supposed to be dead flat? Or have some radius? Ditto the back (that's why I said "mostly flat"...). I'm also in the dark about making the rose - whether to carve directly into the soundboard, lute style, or go with an attached rose. Also on the fence about parchment vs. wood.

It would be wonderful if there were a reference like the Lundberg book for vihuelas. But ...

In any case, I'd love to compare notes and stay synced up about this. Would also love to hear from any forum members who have actually made a vihuela...

- Dino

Hi Dino,

Perhaps our discussion will spur some of our makers to put together a method for building vihuelas although the possible paucity of extant instruments would make it difficult to have a definitive method. I say "possible" because there is some thought that many of the surviving baroque guitars are actually vihuelas that were converted to guitars when popularity of the vihuela and it's music waned (e.g. the Diaz instrument). This brings up the possibility that guitar and vihuela building technique overlap significantly. Mori's thesis on vihuela construction (linked above) is a great resource and discusses many of the finer points including the rose. He relates: 

According to extant examples, the roses of guitars and vihuelas are mainly cut in parchment; but it is striking how the proposal of ordinancetwice mention that they should be made of boxwood and not of parchment.

So I would imagine that either is acceptable. These can be made using several methods that are discussed elsewhere in the forum or purchased from luthiers or rose makers (like myself). I read somewhere, perhaps it was Clive's post, that it is thought that many makers bought there roses instead of making them themselves. However, there was some evidence that Stradivarius's shop could have made their own (?).

Regarding the radius, I would say it is common for luthiers to carve a "dip" into their instruments so the soundboard and the strings have greater clearance for the fingers of the right hand. I don't know about the back. I, unfortunately, do not have much more information although Lundberg's book on historical lute making might have the pertinent details.

Another point is the joining of the neck and headstock which in the Chambure vihuela is a faux joint. Luthiers are welcomed to add more details!

Mori has some interesting takes on how to join the back and top using a lot less pressure than I have seen. It would be interesting to know if he has continued building this way or if his technique has evolved. 

Would love to hear comments from experienced luthiers.

Regards,

Steven

I found an older discussion on this forum about the muting effects of the rose - how partially closing up the soundhole boosts the bass and high-frequency response, and attenuates the midrange, resulting in less loudness overall. That, coupled with the fact that the soundboard itself has to be thicker to support the inlays, makes me wonder a little. I would love to hear someone who's made vihuelas chime in with advice on keeping the instrument bright and loud enough.

One thing that seems to be true is that some of these instruments were meant as showpiecee, so that sound may not have been too important. But another thing that seems to be obvious is that, given that there will be some necessary details that will tend to mute the instrument, it's probably a good idea to keep everything that can be controlled as light as possible.

I may be rethinking my idea about using kerfed linings. The first article you linked talked about using glue-soaked cloth around the top and back joints, with intermittently spaced glue blocks, to keep the mass down. That sounds like a good idea. Ditto on the joins between the staves on the back (and on the sides, if I use staves on the sides...). Probably keeping the thickness of the back and side staves as small as possible would also be a good idea for responsiveness. Lots of experiments ... :)
Sorry for the multiple replies to the same post, but I just wanted to comment on the "false v-joint" referred to on (I believe) two instruments in Mori's paper. It appears that neck materials were all over the map, with one neck being made up of many layers of boxwood and ebony (THAT must have weighed a ton!), while others - and I believe these others had the false joint - were mostly cypress. A cypress headstock would be very soft to use with pegs, so the headstock veneers were probably ebony or some other very hard wood that wouldn't get totally deformed by the pegs. These veneers were probably cut to look like a v-joint for aesthetic reasons. (My theory, anyway - can't think of another good explanation...)

Why not just make a v-joint? I guess one of the main motivations for a v-joint or a scarf joint is that it gets past the problem of short grain at the neck to headstock transition, so it's supposed to be stronger than a one piece neck+headstock. But lots of modern guitars don't use either the scarf joint or v-joint - even with steel strings. The typical low tension of the vihuela would probably make a one piece neck-headstock practical, even with a wood like cypress. Maybe?
I'm not sure whether to add to this thread or start a new one, but I'll take a shot at putting this here.

The instrument I'm building will have the back and the sides formed from ribs, basiically alternating maple and walnut. (I've set myself the challenge of building from local woods). I'm pretty much done cutting out the ribs and doing the prliminary planing/scraping them to initial thickness for glueing up the plates for the back and sides..

The question now becomes what method to use to strengthen the plates. The options are: transverse braces (like in a modern guitar), wood strips running lengthwise along the length of the joints (also like a modern guitar), glue soaked linen or silk along the joints, completely lining the back and sides with glue soaked cloth (or paper), or some combination. For the sides, which will be three "stripes", I've pretty much settled on lining the inside with glue soaked linen or silk.

Any thoughts about the back? Using cloth or paper would sort of carry forth the lute-making tradition - which might not apply to vihuelas at all. Transverse braces or longitudinal wood strips would be more guitar-like. I'm trying to keep the weight of the instrument down by using very thin strips - on the order of 1.8 - 2mm, so adding more wood seems counter-productive. At the same time, I don't want the instrument to self-destruct.

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