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A Review of Three Old Lutherie Books

A Review of Three Old Lutherie Books

with an Emphasis on Their Guitar Sections

by Jan Tulacek, Alain Bieber, and James Buckland

Originally published in American Lutherie #104, 2010



As we undertake this overview of three 19th-century lutherie texts, we recognize that much older documents were circulating from late medieval times. Some, such as the manuscript of Henri Arnault de Zwolle written in Dijon in 1440, already contained good descriptions of instruments, but to our knowledge, none had the goal to become a comprehensive “how to” lutherie handbook.

From the Baroque era there are the important musical treatises of Michael Praetorius (1620) in Germany and Marin Mersenne (1635/36) in France, with good descriptions of our Western European string instruments. We also have a few fascinating descriptions of particular aspects of lutherie such as the Antonio Bagatella violin booklet of 1782, or the lesser-known Pierre Trichet viol making manuscript of 1640. And while the encyclopedia format of the Enlightenment Period of the middle 18th century never allowed extensive coverage of the topic, the French Diderot and D’Alembert books had wonderful drawings and interesting lutherie information.

But in the late 1820s and early 1830s, still considered by many as the apex of the classical guitar in written music, we see two real lutherie “how-to” books appear, describing all the steps in the fabrication of the guitar. The first writer was Wettengel in Germany, followed a few years later by Maugin in France. In spite of many imperfections, they give a good understanding of the methods used in the two main centers of lutherie at that time, i.e., Neukirchen (now Markneukirchen) in Saxony and Mirecourt in Lorraine. A third important how-to book, by Hasluck, was published in the United States in 1907, but was likely written in the last decade of the 19th century. It is a very important work since it represents the first attempt to write a “how-to” lutherie book in English.

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Cutting Michigan Maple

Cutting Michigan Maple

by Elon Howe

Originally published in American Lutherie #37, 1994



In 1983, I had the guts to try to repair my dad’s old fiddle. I reglued it, sanded it, sprayed on a varnish — it looked great. I was later advised that I had spoiled the fiddle by doing the wrong things.

Later on, I bought a fiddle kit. It had the wood, a machine cut scroll, four ounces of varnish, and a half-pound of glue. About six months later I turned out my first fiddle and of course it sounded great. Dan Erlewine, who ran a shop north of us at that time, had to admit that it looked pretty fair. He later admitted he was afraid to see what I might turn out because he knew he would have to be honest. He seemed to be relieved that it didn’t look like a shoe box.

At first, information was hard to come by. Finally, we found an address for Hammond Ashley. He recommended a book called The Techniques of Violin Making by Harry Wake. I got to meet Harry at the Arizona Violin Makers’ Association Competition in Tucson — he even bought some willow wood from me.

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The Well-Unpublished Luthier

The Well-Unpublished Luthier

by William R. Cumpiano

Originally published in American Lutherie #6, 1986 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie, Volume One, 2000



Gather around and listen to a strange tale; a saga of oppression and self-imprisonment and of unending, grueling effort; of frustrated expectations and missed opportunities. But it is a sad story with a happy ending.

My story begins ten years ago when I, a budding young luthier, hired a booth in a large Northeastern crafts fair. It was the dawn of my career: I was green and I was anxious and I could not have known then that craft fairs are worthwhile for makers of multiples, such as ceramic pots and leather bags, but a waste of time for guitar makers. But I had to learn that for myself. Think of the exposure, I was told. Just think of the exposure...

Yes, I was to learn. There I stood, an innocent with a hopeful smile on my face, my shiny wares hanging on a makeshift masonite wall behind me, each one of my little babies stamped with the mute evidence of all the care, sacrifice, and painful experience that had brought them into the world.

“Wow!” a voice in the crowd exclaimed, “what are you asking for one of those?” Haltingly, I responded, a little tongue-tied: “Sev... six... five... five hundred and fifty dollars.”

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Quick Cuts: The Boujmaa Brothers’ Moroccan Lutherie Shop

Quick Cuts

The Boujmaa Brothers’ Moroccan Lutherie Shop

by Bruce Calder

Originally published in American Lutherie #82, 2005



While in Marrakech recently, my wife and I discovered the “Ensemble Artisanal,” a government-sponsored complex of shops located outside the medina in the Ville Nouvelle. Here you can watch artisans at work as well as buy their products. These range from carpet makers to makers of babouche (the typical Moroccan leather slippers) to jewelry makers to woodworkers of several types. It’s a great alternative to the heavy sales pressure to be found in the souks, and if you’re not the haggling type (an art form taken to its highest expression here in Morocco), so much the better — prices are fixed, and the things you buy are always of the best quality. Even better, the money goes directly to the artisans.

It was a most pleasant surprise while in the Ensemble Artisanal to discover brothers Benaddi and Blad Boujmaa’s lutherie shop. Makers of both traditional Berber and Arabic instruments (“We make both, since we are half Berber and half Arabic, just like most Moroccans,” Blad told me), their atelier has been in its present location for about ten years.

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Whence Tree Names

Whence Tree Names

by Nicholas Von Robison

Originally published in American Lutherie #31, 1992 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie, Volume Three, 2004



What’s in a name?” cries Juliet; “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Yet Shakespeare might admit that a rose is not less sweet because we know its name. The system of binomial nomenclature is one of the best inventions. It is effective; it is beautiful in its simplicity. A luthier in New York may talk of trees and wood to a luthier in Faroffistan with precision and mutual understanding. Centuries are tied together between us and the many careful observers hundreds of years ago who left good records in aristocratic Latin, when the common vernacular language was considered not to be a sufficient medium for such learning. To know the names of the forms of life is one of the keenest satisfactions; it brings us into relationship with our materials in another facet of our fascinating occupation. Every binomial has meaning; it is uniquely significant. Consider...

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