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Clavichord Kit Building
Having built two harpsichords some thirty-five years ago, but still unable to read music and determined to enhance my musical skills, I found retirement a perfect opportunity. I decided to learn how to play the saxophone and to build a clavichord for my musical wife. An article in the New York Times (August 19, 2001) last year discussing the resurgence of clavichord music, including the "re-discovery" of the expressive vibrato [Bebung] feature of the instrument, motivated me to proceed with enthusiasm. One year later I would like to share with you the joys of clavichord kit building.
Many kits are available on the Internet. I decided to build the small fretted [gebunden] model available from Zuckermann Harpsichords International (ZHI). The number of kits offered was large and my remarks pertain to this model.
The dimensions of the fretted model [4"x40"x 12"], combined with its light weight and portability, were features which helped me to decide to make this my first clavichord kit. Will there be a second one? More on that point at the end of this article.
The building of a clavichord is not extremely difficult. That said, building an instrument that is pleasing to the eye and ear requires a modest amount of planning.
Space, tools, and time are major considerations. Space and spouse must be spared months of disruption. Once the kit is shipped and unpacked it becomes apparent that the dining room table is not adequate to accommodate the plans, parts, tools and woodworking debris. Best to find a comfortable, out-of-the-way quiet area, play J. S. Bach's Well Tempered Clavier and enjoy some private time.
A well-equipped shop is a luxury, but not a requirement. Ordinary hand tools that can be found in the garage or that can be purchased from the.local hardware store will suffice. Anything above that should be considered "creature comforts." The one exception is clamps. There never seem to be enough C-clamps. If you have no prior wood-refinishing experience you will need a friendly neighbor or wood finishing shop to help with this phase of the construction. A power drill is indispensable.
The construction process has only two major aspects: cabinet joinery and working on the action - which includes voicing, easing the keys, tangent placement, stringing, and bridgework.
Cabinet joinery was interesting; however, the parts were well-cut and prefitted and required only minor fitting and sanding. Occasionally an extra pair of hands was welcome. This phase required about one-third of the total construction time.
Working on the action was time consuming, but most rewarding. However, it required patience. During this phase of the construction, I utilized the telephone technical advice of ZHI, and found them most responsive and helpful. Tasks such as easing and balancing the keys, placing tangents, stringing, adjusting listing cloth tension, and producing keys that did not stick all required time and perseverance.
The harpsichord is loud compared to the clavichord and tuning this pianissimo instrument was challenging. I managed to break many strings while tuning. This was somewhat frustrating, as restringing through the listing cloth was difficult. My despair was relieved by another call for technical help. I was tuning an octave too high!
Finally, will it play? Of course. I am now on my second unbound [bundfrei], five-octave, sixty-one note clavichord kit; bigger, more keys, more fun carving key levers, and naturally needing a larger work area. (This has taken time away from my saxophone lessons.)
Clavichord kit building is a rewarding project. It not only provides interesting music and a conversation piece, but is also a means of personal artistic expression.
The Boston Clavichord Society Newsletter, Fall 2002
Used with permission