The lute was widely played during the Middle Ages and reached its apogee in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries before falling out of fashion by the mid eighteenth century. During its long period of popularity the lute underwent a number of changes, the most noticeable of these was the the addition of more strings in order to meet the different musical requirements of each period.In the early 1500's a typical lute would have had eleven strings, in 1620 nineteen and by the baroque period twenty, twenty-two or twenty-four strings. Each model of lute was made in different sizes, alto, tenor ,bass,etc.
So today's lutemaker is obliged to make a wide range of instruments.
The top of the lute, the soundboard or belly, is crucial in determining the the sound of the instrument. It is made of spruce, a resonant wood which is also used for the violin family and the guitar. The soundboard is cut from trees which are 200 or 300 years old which have grown in the Alps above 1000m. This means that the trees grow slowly and produce very fine grained wood making the soundboard more resonant and stable.The soundboard is extremely thin, between 1 and 2 mm thick. It is strengthened by a system of internal cross bars, also in spruce.
A decorative rose is carved in the middle of the belly with a geometric or floral pattern.
The back or body of the lute is made of thin strips of wood only a millimetre and a half thick called ribs or staves.There can be anything from 9 to 37 ribs or even more depending on the different models, usually in hardwoods such as yew, sycamore, ebony, fruitwoods or even, in the past, ivory.
The neck is glued to the body and is made of spruce, lime or some other light wood and is often veneered in ebony.
The peg-box holds the wooden pegs used to tighten the strings. The strings are tied to a bridge which is glued to the sounboard.
The frets are made of gut and are tied round the neck, dividing it into semitones.
The back is usually varnished with several coats of colour varnish which can be alcohol or oil based. The varnish protects the back and enhances the beauty of the instrument. The top , on the other hand, has very little or no finish at all, as a thick varnish would stifle the sound.
The strings can be in gut, as in the sixteenth century, or of nylon, or copper wire wound over a nylon core for the basses.
Stephen MURPHY, Lutemaker.