Design Philosophy

How Sabathil & Son Harpsichords Are Made

fancy letter tThe greatest masters of harpsichord making were craftsmen who worked diligently to make their instruments more perfect. They were not satisfied merely to copy earlier makers, but also used their own abilities, and the creativity and resources of their own time, to improve the harpsichord. If they were living today, they would wholeheartedly employ the very best materials and methods available. Authentic harpsichord making means to work in the same spirit as the old masters: to preserve the unique character of the harpsichord and its music, to use the very best materials and methods known today and to make it still more beautiful sounding and reliable. This brings satisfaction to the maker and lasting enjoyment to the owner of this wonderful instrument.

The old harpsichord makers had only the wooden case to rely upon, adding more and more braces as they gathered experience. The tendency toward a stable case and frame construction and a sensitive soundboard is very clear, and makers like Ruckers, Taskin, Kirkman and Hass developed this art as far as they could (see Hubbard’s “Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making”). Had they ever had the possibility to use metal frames – conscientious as they were – they would have used them. Today, the instruments of the earlier makers would be like new, instead of standing sadly in museums with wavy and broken soundboards, with warped and bent pin blocks and cases, with hardly any tone at all.

The Frame

The frame is to the harpsichord what the ring is to the diamond, like the frame to a rare painting: the harpsichord is such a beautiful, unique, precious instrument – it must be protected, enhanced and preserved! The only design that will fulfill this task is a strong, light metal frame. The advantage of the metal frame is threefold, and cannot be emphasized enough:

1) It assures better sound quality and preserves it indefinitely. The total tension of the strings (a) in a harpsichord amounts to 1,000 to 6,000 lbs. depending on the number of strings. In a wood frame harpsichord this considerable pressure has to be carried partly by the soundboard (b). Even the layman will recognize that it cannot be the function of the soundboard to carry part of that load, as this is not its purpose. The result is that it will often warp and split as in the old instruments (even touching the strings!), and certainly not give the sound that it should give. The metal frame (c) , on the other hand, easily carries the total tension of the strings and leaves the carefully balanced soundboard free from outside pressure, free to project a beautiful, rich, generous sound. We know that our instruments will have the same beautiful timbre and volume in ten, one hundred, or even three hundred years.

Sabathil & Son harpsichords - metal frame diagram

2) The metal frame keeps the instrument in tune. It is designed to be light and strong and to carry the tension of the strings all by itself. It is much more stable than any wood frame, because it is made all in one piece and because metal does not change. Wood expands and contracts constantly, increasing or lowering the tension of the strings, thereby putting the instrument out of tune. While many wood frame harpsichords need almost daily tuning, a metal frame instrument will stay in tune for much longer periods. Many Sabathil owners report that their instruments arrive in tune even after thousands of miles of shipping.

3) The metal frame preserves the precision and adjustment of the action. The action of a harpsichord consists of the keyboard, the jacks, the jack slides and the pedals. The jacks pluck the strings with great precision and any variation in their position affects the volume and evenness of the notes. The jack slides in turn depend in their exact position upon the case of the instrument. A wood frame instrument expands and contracts slightly but significantly with the change of moisture and temperature of the air, thereby changing the stop adjustment every time. Furthermore, the pin-block, by expanding and shrinking and warping will change the position of the strings relative to the jacks within the whole range, making constant adjustments necessary. A metal frame remains stable and constant in its dimensions, keeping the instrument in good playing order in any kind of climate, even through moving and shipping.

The Pinblock

Sabathil & Son harpsichords - pin block diagramThis is the most important member of the frame. It grips the tuning pins (d) that hold the strings (e), and in turn keeps the strings in position on the nut (f). In antique and present-day unframed harpsichords the pinblock often warps and bends which makes them go out of tune and adjustment. In our instruments the pinblock is so designed that it can do neither. The tuning pins themselves pass through a precise hole in the metal frame (g), and then are firmly gripped by the underlying hardwood (h). Through this combination it is virtually impossible that the tuning pins could ever become loose – in any climate.

The Soundboard

…is the very “soul” of the harpsichord. It alone transforms the light vibrations of the strings into the beautiful, magnificent, rich sound that makes the harpsichord such a unique instrument. The building of a responsive soundboard is an art, just like making a good violin, and has grown from the experience of many generations of instrument makers.

One important reason for our location in British Columbia, Canada, is that the most valuable soundboard wood grows here in the Pacific Northwest. In the mild climate of the coastal mountain region the giants of the forest grow to enormous heights and to a circumference of up to twenty feet. The wood is very fine grained, even and free of knots in boards up to three feet wide and thirty feet long – an instrument maker’s dream! From this wood we pick the finest 300-year-old Western Red Cedar, according to grain, color, lightness, and resonance. It is quartersawn (a), then dried and seasoned for Sabathil & Son harpsichords - cedar soundboard quarteringyears before it is planed and jointed to soundboard size. Then we build a slight “crown” into the soundboard that gives the instrument its generous, long-singing quality. The whole soundboard is then carefully fitted and glued to a hardwood frame, and finally the bridges are placed into position. The important final touches are applied individually with chisel, using hand and ear, and like a sculptor, the maker will shape and form the sound until it is just right. The “soul” of the harpsichord has been created, ready to be placed into the instrument.

The Bridges

…gracefully curved and laid out, transmit the vibrations of the strings to the soundboard. In our instruments the bridges are made of hard maple, laminated in several layers on a special press. This assures an even, stable shape, in which the grain runs lengthwise without interruption, without cross grain or joints, transmitting the sound waves evenly over a large area of the soundboard. Sabathil & Son harpsichords - soundboard bridgesThe bridges (j) carry double rows of pins (k) that hold the strings firmly, so that all of the precious string frequencies are captured. The strings run over the bridge in a straight line to the metal frame (l) exerting no pull in any direction. This again leaves the soundboard free from outside forces. It can respond to the lightest impulse from the strings and produce a long, sustained sound. In poorly designed harpsichords – new or old – the strings run off the bridge at a steep angle, pulling the bridge to the side or off the soundboard altogether and warping the soundboard into an s-curve, destroying its resonating ability.

The Strings

…are made of the finest music wire available today. The old builders had to rely on hand drawn wire which was rather uneven in thickness, not round, and had a low breaking point. These imperfections resulted in an unclean sound, full of internal disharmonic vibrations, and creating a wiry, thin, metallic sound that is often found in museum instruments. Since the old makers’ time, the manufacture of music wire has been perfected to a fine art. Today’s string wire (m) is perfectly round and concentric, even in diameter and has a smooth surface. The thinnest wire of .0055″ has a minimum tensile strength of 400,000 Ibs per square inch. On a sensitive soundboard (n) and at the proper tension it produces a pure, clean sound with a well-balanced proportion of harmonic overtones, all of which is perceived by the human ear as beautiful sound. We also use brass wire in the lower regions of the scale and on some 16′ stops. A few of the lowest notes have copper wound strings made on our own string winding machine.

The Jacks

…have basically the same ingenious, simple design as three centuries ago. But today, instead of pear wood (which can warp, wear and stick) we use Delrin. This is an extremely smooth and strong material, impervious to moisture or wear. It makes the jacks (o) slide up and down very quickly, plucking the strings (p) precisely and almost without friction. It gives the keyboard the light, responsive touch that makes the most demanding music easy to play. It also reduces any noise to a minimum, which is very important for concert performances and recordings. The plectrum (q) – that tiny tongue that actually plucks the string – is also made of delrin, and produces a tone that is beautifully balanced in its harmonics; not as soft as leather and not as harsh as quill. This plectrum hardly wears (unlike leather or quill), and is not influenced by atmospheric conditions. It can be quickly replaced, without glue, should this ever be necessary. The volume of each note can be adjusted without even taking the jack out; a slight turn of the screw on the top (r) will do. A further adjustment is possible with the bottom screw (s). Sabathil & Son harpsichords - plectra diagram The jacks in old instruments did not have any possibility of adjustment;  one had to either shave off the end of the jack or glue something to it. The plectrum could only be shortened by cutting or had to be replaced. Another small but important part on the jack is the little spring (t) that is responsible for the fast repetition of the note. Most of the old masters had only pigs’ bristle available, whereas today we use tiny brass spring wire that assures quick and reliable repetition. The damper (u) that stops the sounding string is also adjustable.

The Jackslide

…is the rack (v) that keeps the jacks in their precisely spaced positions relative to the strings. In the old instruments and their present-day copies it is almost impossible to keep this adjustment accurate, because of the ever expanding and contracting wooden case. We fit the jacks into their slots with a tolerance down to 1/10,000 of an inch. The top and lower halt of the jack slide are rigidly joined into one unit, which in turn is directly suspended to the metal frame with a unique sliding and adjustment rod. This arrangement holds the jack slide in position in every direction, but lets it slide freely into its on or off position. Precise adjustment of the jack slide to 1/1000 of an inch is done right on this sliding rod with a normal wrench. Exact and permanent adjustment of the jack slide is essential for the instrument to play properly.

The Keyboards

…for our instruments are made by Europe’s finest keyboard makers. Jelutong is used for the keylevers and alder for the keyboard frames, all meticulously fitted, sanded, and finished. The sharps are of maple, and the keys are covered with genuine rosewood, finished to a satin smooth surface which gives the keyboard a very pleasant feel. Proper felt padding and back weighting assure quiet and effortless playing.

The Sound of the Harpsichord

We have described just a few of the many features that make a good instrument. We mention the sound last because it is the very Sabathil & Son harpsichords - man playingend and purpose of all the detail, effort and workmanship involved. The beauty of this sound cannot be described in words, but must be experienced. When the sound of an instrument brings this enjoyment and satisfaction to the owner, player or listener, then the work of the harpsichord maker is happily completed.