Bowed Psaltery

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Coaxing music from inside the grain

By Ken Burton

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.

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