Bowed Psaltery

Comments (0)

This article is from Issue 94 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Coaxing music from inside the grain

Not only is making a psaltery a great gateway into the craft of instrument making, it is also an easy instrument to learn to play. So if you’re a bit musically challenged, as I am, building one may open doors for you. The instrument, which features 25 distinctly tuned strings, is typically played one note at a time, making a psaltery perfect for noodling out the melody of many traditional songs. 

The build is quite straightforward. The only tricky parts are cutting accurate angles and laying out the pin holes precisely. Start by making the triangular frame, then prepare the bookmatched soundboard and back, and glue them to the frame. Rout for the binding strips, install them, lay out and drill for the pin holes, and apply a finish. Finally, make the bridge, add the pins and strings, and then tune up for your first recital. 

You’ll need to acquire a few special supplies, including zither pins and music wire. (See Buyer’s Guide on p. 70). Also, consider ordering special wood for the soundboard. (See sidebar on p. 38). I used Peruvian walnut for the sides and back, but you can make them from nearly any hardwood. However, use a clear piece of hard maple for the pin block in order to firmly secure the tuning pins. 

Psubtle angles make it work

The psaltery’s frame pieces are simply butt-joined and sandwiched between the soundboard and back. Make sure the joints are tight and glued well because the tensioned strings will place a lot of strain on the assembly. Also, the holes for the hitch pins along the sides need to be carefully laid out and drilled to prevent problems tuning the instrument.

Find out more

Type “Bowed Psaltery” into your web browser to discover a wide variety of tunes that demonstrate the instrument’s wonderful sound. 

Order of Work

  • Make the frame
  • Prepare the panels
  • Assemble the body
  • Lay out and drill the holes
  • Install the binding
  • Finish and string up

Play the angles for a strong frame

Mill the sides and pin block to thickness and width (see drawing, p. 36), but leave them oversized in length for now. Taper one end of each side at the table saw using a jig as shown. Clamp the sides together to get an actual measurement for the pin block, then cut the block to fit. Take care to get the angles just right, as this is critical for frame strength. Once the pin block fits, bandsaw the curve along its outer edge.

Trustworthy tapers. Making the severely acute miter cuts on the ends of the sides can be tricky. This task-specific tapering sled makes the process easy and accurate. Save the taper offcuts to use as glue-up pads later. After tapering the frame sides, cut them to length. 

Draw from the source. Dry-clamp the tapers face-to-face and use the opposite ends of the sides to mark off the length and matching angles on the pin block (left). After registering the angle with a bevel gauge, use it to set a table saw miter gauge for cutting the ends of the pin block (above). 

Musical Woods

If this is your first foray into instrument making, you may want to save yourself some time and money by using 1⁄8" Baltic birch plywood instead of solid wood for both the soundboard and back. Your psaltery will sound okay and you won’t have invested a lot of time and effort into its construction, making it perfect for a child’s instrument. On the other hand, if you want an instrument that truly sings, it’s worth seeking out good soundboard material. Traditionally, stringed instrument soundboards are made from quartersawn softwoods, with Sitka spruce enjoying a reputation for producing a particularly sweet sound. There are many online sources for soundboard material, but most pieces are cut at about 20" long for guitar builders. Here, you’ll need pieces at least 24" long. I got my spruce from Stewart MacDonald, which sells it for making dulcimers. (See Buyer’s Guide on p. 70).

Glue up the body with angled clamping blocks

Glue the frame together using hide glue or epoxy, as noted in the sidebar at right. (Keep in mind that hide glue is repairable, but epoxy isn’t.) Make the necessary clamping blocks to ensure a hassle-free glue up, as the angled pieces are sure to slip out of position if you try to wing it. Once the glue is dry, fair the rounded part of the pin block with a stationary sander to remove the saw marks and flush the ends of the sides with the outer edge of the pin block. Cut a 3/32"-thick slice of the same wood as the psaltery sides, and use it to veneer the curved end.

Make your point first. Use the wedged offcuts from tapering the sides to create parallel clamping surfaces for gluing the point together. Use double-sided tape to affix them to thicker clamping blocks for manageability when applying the clamps. 
Then attach the pin block. Again using your wedged offcuts, glue the pin block between the sides. Then, using a clothespin-shaped clamping block to protect the point, add a clamp length-wise to keep the pin block from slipping outward under clamp pressure.

Tape and cover. After fairing the curve, use masking tape to clamp the shop-made veneer in place across the curved end of the psaltery.

Eschew Creepy Glues

Instrument strings can exert a lot of tension on glued-up parts. For this reason, it’s best to use hide glue or epoxy, and to avoid yellow (aliphatic resin) glues, which tend to “creep” under constant pressure. If you must use yellow glue, stick with the original formulas (e.g. regular Titebond or Elmer’s), as additives in the more advanced formulas make those versions even more susceptible to creep. 

Prepare the soundboard and back

Traditionally, the soundboard and the back of a stringed instrument are made from thin, bookmatched panels. Unless you have purchased thin stock for the purpose, resaw two 4-1/2 × 24" boards to make the panel halves. Clean up the saw marks, but allow for a bit of extra thickness to be removed later when cleaning up the glue joints. Joint the adjacent edges (see p. 26), and then glue up the panels as shown. (Note that I tapered my pieces so the grain would echo the triangular shape of the instrument.) After the glue cures, a stationary drum sander will make short work of bringing the panels to final thickness. Alternatively, scrape and sand the panels to flatten the seam. Trace the frame onto the panels and cut them to shape, staying about 1/8" outside the lines to allow a little play when gluing them to the frame.

Look, Ma, no clamps! Edge-gluing thin stock with bar clamps can be tricky. Instead, “spring” the joint together. Begin by placing a 3⁄32" × 1" strip of scrap under the joint, with the pieces lying on a scrap plywood panel. Then drive 4d finish nails every 4" along the edges. 
Spring ‘em together. Slide the strip out, and the pieces should snap flat with enough pressure for glue up. When satisfied with the dry-fit, pop the pieces free, apply glue, and spring them together again. Weight down the assembly as the glue sets. It’s wise to run a strip of tape underneath to act as a glue resist.

A rose is a rose. Glue the rose pattern to scrap from the psaltery’s back. (See “Easy pattern removal” tip on page 22.) I don’t have a scrollsaw, so I cut the rose using a fret saw, supporting the work with a birds mouth block clamped to my workbench.

Create the sound hole

There is quite a bit of physics behind determining the ideal size for instrument sound holes. For this psaltery, suffice it to say that a simple 1-3/8"-diameter unadorned hole would do the trick. However, I like to add a decorative rose, which I glue to the underside of a 1-3/4"-diameter soundboard hole as shown. The bigger hole makes up for the area lost to the rose. (See onlineExtras for additional rose designs.) Before gluing the psaltery together, you may also want to include a makers label that will be visible through the sound hole. I print mine on heavy cover stock that I glue to the inside surface of the back. 

Sound target. Mark the center of the sound hole on the top side of the soundboard, and drill through it with a 1⁄16" bit. Then draw a 21⁄8"-diameter circle on the opposite side, pivoting on the hole as shown to provide a target for attaching the rose. Finally, drill the 13⁄4"-diameter sound hole from the top side. 

Plant the rose. Apply glue to just the outside edges of the rose to avoid visible squeezeout, and then clamp it to the underside of the soundboard. A circular clamp pad with a recessed center puts pressure just where you need it. 

Give credit where credit is due. A lot of luthiers add a maker’s label inside their instruments that is visible through the sound hole. Print your own on some cover stock and glue it to the inside surface of the back. For more information on maker’s marks, see the Dec/Jan 2020 issue.

Psaltery psandwich. Prepare for final glue-up by making two triangular pieces of 3⁄4" sheet material to serve as clamping cauls. Apply glue to the edges of the frame, and sandwich it between the soundboard and back, bolstered by the cauls. Locate clamps about 2" apart all around the edges.

Assembly and decorative binding

To wrap up construction of the body, glue the soundboard and back to the frame, and then rout away any overhang with a flush-trim bit. Next, rout a rabbet around the edge of the soundboard to accept the binding, which is a thin, decorative strip of material that also protects the edges of the soundboard against chipping or other damage. For this project, I used a .080"-thick ebony binding with a white stripe, but many other types are available in various thicknesses and materials. I cut the rabbet using a simple shop-made fence at the router table.

Rout the binding rabbet. Chuck a 1"-dia. straight bit in your router table and set the cutting depth to match the width of the binding. Clamp one end of a sacrificial auxiliary fence to the table. Pivot the fence’s free end into the spinning bit to cut a recess that buries the majority of the bit. Using scrap to test the cut, clamp both ends of the fence so the bit projects a distance equal to the binding’s thickness. Then cut a rabbet into the edges of the sound board. When routing the curved end, take care to keep it pressed against a bit centerline drawn on the fence (inset). 

Stick ‘em up. Saw the binding strips to length, and chisel miters at their ends to meet at the psaltery’s corners. Glue the pieces in place, stretching short lengths of masking over them to serve as clamps.

Digital layout. Draw a layout line 1⁄4" in from each side, then mark for the initial hole at the point where the lines intersect. Lay out the remaining holes using a digital caliper, measuring each from the center of the initial hole location. When you reach the end of your caliper’s range, clamp a ruler to the soundboard aligned with the initial hole to continue your layout.

Precision drilling sets the tone

It’s time to drill for the hitch pins in the sides and the tuning pins in the pin block. First, mask off the sound hole and the areas to be drilled. Then lay out the hole locations as per the Pin Layout drawing on page 37. Precision spacing of the hitch pins is critical for an instrument that plays in tune, so work carefully. It’s also very important to outfit your drill press with a fresh, sharp 3/16" brad point bit, as the zither pins have very shallow threads that may not seat well in roughly drilled holes. Bore all the holes 1-1/4" deep, beginning with the hitch pin holes, which sit square to the top. Then use wedges as shown to set up for drilling the angled pin block holes, remembering to reset your depth stop. Angling these holes helps the strings wind neater. Afterward, sand and finish the body. For best sound transmission, use a surface finish like shellac or lacquer rather than a penetrating finish such as oil. (I used aerosol lacquer.) Avoid getting finish in the sound hole. 

Ramp up for angled holes. Set up to drill the angled tuning pin holes in the pin block by making two 10"-long wedges that taper from 1" to 3⁄16"-thick. Fasten these to the back of the psaltery with double-sided tape, and then drill the holes, keeping the body oriented 180° to the front of the drill press column. 

Inlay for better play. Many luthiers inlay dots between the hitch pins to indicate certain notes. I usually mark the “C”s and “F”s using 1⁄4"-dia. plugs cut from a contrasting wood such as the redheart shown here.

Fast fifty. Buy an extra tuning key and detach its “ears” to make a driver for quickly installing the 50 zither pins. Drive in the hitch pins so their holes rest just above the soundboard surface while pointing toward the mating tuning pin. For the tuning pins, set the hole about 3⁄8" above the surface.

String it up

All that’s left is to make the bridge, install the pins, and string up your psaltery. Cut the bridge to the size indicated in the drawing on page 36. Note that its ends should rest atop the sides to help withstand string pressure. Cut a 1/16" deep × 1/8" wide groove centered in the top surface to hold your 1/8"-diameter shop-made brass rod saddle. The bridge doesn’t need to be glued down; the string pressure will keep it in place. However, its position is important. It should sit parallel to the rows of tuning pins, with a distance of 5-3/4" between the center of the shortest G-string hitch pin and the midpoint across the saddle’s diameter. (See “Pin hole and bridge layout” drawing on p. 37.) Attach the shortest strings and lightly tighten them. Double check the 5-3/4" dimension before adding and tuning the remaining strings. 

Notch and conquer. The strings run over the tops of the hitch pins. To keep them in place, file a shallow notch in each pin with the corner of a triangular file. Orient the notches parallel to the string holes.

Tune ‘er up. There is a number of digital tuner apps available for your smart phone, including gStrings, shown here. To use the program, simply dial in the desired note, pluck the string, and the meter will indicate how close you are. Tighten the pin for a higher note, loosen it to go lower.


Write Comment

Write Comment

You must be logged in to write a comment. Log In

Top of Page