The idea

Well, I like wood and I like music. I don't really remember when I first got into thinking about building a keyboard instrument. Somewhere between high school and the first years at University. But I do rememeber listening to a German LP record by Edgar Krapp, of which I have lost all references except for the publisher (Eurodisc) and a tape copy. He was playing Haendel on a small instrment, the 'Virginal', which was quite clearly of the harpsichord family. The result was stunning. Here is a short extract, in MP3 format (Prelude in F major IV/25).

Some time later I came by chance into the book "Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making" (Frank Hubbard, Harvard U.P., ISBN 0-674-88845-6) and, there it was, lots and lots of details on harpsichords and, again, the Virginal, in all its forms and variants. And the information seemed just enough to build something which could resemble the real thing, at a cost affordable also to a university student, and so I set out.

I realised some years later that I had been extremely lucky. The recording had been made by an excellent performer on one of the best instruments available, a 1620 Ruckers which is now in Bruxelles, and the book was the reference for serious harpsichord building. I had, however, made a major error. I thought that a virginal, being smaller than a harpsichord and having no bentside, would also have been simpler, faster and cheaper to build. It probably is not. But, anyway, this is how it went on.

The design

Pretty much like a harpsichord, a virginal works by plucking strings using little woodden contraptions called jacks, driven by the keys.

Diagram showing how jacks work
How jacks work

The jack is a stick on which a woodden tongue (grey) can pivot in one direction only. The tongue is held in position by a weak spring, and a quill plectrum (black) is inserted into it. When the jack is at rest (1), a felt damper (the red "flag") damps the string (blue), and the plectrum hangs below the string. As a key is pressed, the corresponding jack is pushed upwards by the key tail, it touches the string, catches into it (2) and clicks past it (3). The string has been plucked, is now free to vibrate, and plays a note. When the key is released, the jack falls back on the string (4). The tongue, pushed away by the string, pivots backwards and does not pluck again. Finally, the jack falls back into its rest position, and the damper damps off the note.

In a virginal, the strings are more or less parallel to the keyboard. Unlike a harpsichord, where the tuning end of the strings lies on the massive woodden block where the tuning pins are (the wrestplank), in a virginal both ends of the string (both bridges, blue) lie on active soundboard area. The strings are plucked by the jacks (red line) quite away from their ends, and this makes them quite more "flimsy" to the plucking. The overall result is a full and round sound (heard the recording?), but gives a slow action. This problem is structural, and cannot be solved.

Diagram showing the layout of the soundboad, strings, and bridges of a virginal
virginal layout

Some "extras" add to the magic. A rose (a decorated hole) is cut into the soundboard. It adds little to the sound, but the instrument looks naked without it. The case decoration can range from bare wood, to block-printed paper, to rich paintings. Where does the name "Virginal" come from? Many ideas (latin "virga" = "stick" -virginal, the instrument with jacks-, or "virgo" = "maiden" -virginal, the maiden's instrument-), but nobody knows for sure.

From a first look, in Hubbard's book the information is not enough to build a full working instrument. But, to a closer examination, by putting together all the bits and pieces given in the chapter dedicated to the Italian building tradition, the numbers are just enough to perfom a full calculation of the necessary elements.

I decided the keyboard size I wanted. The individual key size was calculated from the Dom Bedos formulas, given in an appendix of the book. I took the size of the jacks I could reasonably build, and fitted them in a straight line on the key tails. The book gave the string lengths, the thicknesses, and the plucking points. As I had the jack positions, I could derive the shape of the two bridges. Judging by eye what angles were necessary in order to have a sufficient string tension on the bridges, I fitted a soundboard around the bridges, and I had the instrument. Or more or less so, as I still needed some museum observations (and a big, big dose of luck) to get the soundboard thickness and the bridge cross section right enough to work.

But, first of all, what was the jack size I could reasonably build? The jacks seemed the real nightmare. There were hoards of them, they had all to work smoothly, without tongues jamming, springs bending, plectra breaking... I spent most of the design time making prototypes of jacks. Round jacks (how to avoid all the dreaded little mortices in the soundboard?), square jacks, plastic jacks. How about an aluminium 'U' cross section, metal tongue, metal spring, three regulating screws and a counterweight? Done that...

The first working prototype was, finally, a wooden jack with a wooden tongue, of rectangular cross section. The traditional way was by far the best! It had a ramin body and a ramin tongue with a plectrum cut out from the plastic top of an old shirt box. But it managed to get a few "plunks" out of a fishing line tied between two chairs. How nice did that sound seem! Of the first prototype, the jack design used in the virginal maintained the fulcrum and plectrum position, and the bit of fishing line as a spring. It seems to work fine, even if the original spring material (hog's bristle) would probably be better on the long run. But I haven't yet had the chance to shave a hog, and shaving a paintbrush does not seem to give the same satisfaction. Anyway, I had learnt the lesson. Traditional is best. A few centuries ago these instruments were built quickly and efficiently using hand tools. Of course, power tools do help, but there seems no real need for them, especially for a one-off job. And, definitely, there is no need for design improvement, as there are instruments over 300 years old, that are still in perfect working order and in regular use today.

Photograph of virginal jack prototypes
The 1991 prototype and three virginal jacks

For the rest, the design followed the lines of a traditional Italian virginal. The instrument was going to have a rectangular case, with the far right corner cut away and used as a box. The keyboard stuck out from the front, and had two "fancy" sides inside two plain ones, so that it could resemble a decorated instrument inside an outer case (a technique known as false inner-outer). The jacks ran into a guide (the register) placed under the soundboard.

The keyboard extension was going to be from C to f''', with no sharps or flats on the lowest octave (i.e, E used as C, F# as D and G# as E, on a layout known as short octave). This meant a total of 50 keys. Not knowing how to cut all the rectangular mortices for the 50 jacks into a solid register (I knew nothing of the block construction, well described by John Barnes in his "Making a Spinet by Traditional Methods", Mac & Me Ltd, U.K., ISBN 0-9507782-4-9), I decided for an "English style" register, built as a long box with mortices in the top and bottom. For the bridges, I did not have, or thought about building, a molding scraper or plane. I planned therefore bridges with a truncated triangular cross section, as in Flemish instruments. I could cut those with an ordinary plane and rasp, and I hoped that the sound would not suffer too much.

By late 1991 I had drawn the full plan, side view, and keyboard. I had actually planned the geometries only, and had no idea of many important points. What should the case materials be? Where could I buy the strange woods required? And the quill for the plectra? and the strings, and the tuning pins? How would I decorate it, paint? Or veneer? Or varnish? And how about a stand, or legs?

I started buliding, waiting for the ideas to come as I went on.


For a start, I had to find the materials. In that I was lucky again. The brother of a friend of mine was studying as a professional luthier, and he took me on a trip to his wood supplier who, in turn, had just brought back from an exhibition the best soundboard wood I could possibly dream of. Alpine spruce from a single tree in Val di Fiemme, enough for the virginal, a clavichord and a few leftovers, in which I will fit another clavichord and a mandolin or a lute.

I did not drive yet, and my brother took me to get the wood. The wood cutting technician was the most skilled worker I ever met. He cut, freehand and unaided on a huge bandsaw, 1.5 mm thin ebony for the keyboard naturals, boxwood for the sharps, pearwood for the jacks. He quartererd another fir blank large just enough to get out the wood for the whole case. A case of soundboard wood was definitely going to be loud! He spent a good two hours explaining us how to make good use of the expensive wood he was cutting. How to cut it, glue it, salvage the little bits and pieces for repairs. He showed us the best rare woods he had as if they had been a work of art and, in a sense, they were.

That was the first of many a day spent on hunting for materials. Or better, hunting for materials, information, ideas, and often just for the fun of meeting people. It would start off by adding a little piece to the instrument, realising that I had an interesting point to discuss with someone, spending weeks sleeping over it, and talking it over, and then feeling like I could just add another bit. In fact, the building has been a sort of background to my last years at University, to all my Ph.D. studies, and finished a month or two after my first permanent job. It lived a life of its own, and did not interfere with any of the other building projects I worked on in the same period of time. I normally worked alone. My sister helped me in gluing the soundboard planks together, and my father in applying the hot glue and moving the soundboard in the light-speed process of fitting the soundboard in the instrument. A few times a close friend called in while I was working. He sat by the kitchen door, letting me go on, and we spent our time chatting away. A couple of times I needed to stop almost completely for a few months, as I needed some surgery and I had to avoid breathing sawdust.

It took me a few years to reach the point in the photograph, which was taken around 1996 or 1997. I was using as workshop the second kitchen in my parents' flat. By that time I had fully built the jacks, the keyboard, the case and the soundboard, that is sadly lying upside-down on the case, showing the register, three ribs and the underside of the rose.

Photograph of the virginal being built
The case and the soundboard

Here a few details of the soundboard, taken just before gluing it into the instrument. In order to avoid cutting 50 mortices in the fragile soundboard wood, the register is glued under a long longitudinal cut in the soundboard, as in some Zuckermann virginals. A very poor idea, I soon realised, as it weakens the instrument and does not really save much work. However, even if I would never do it again, it does not spoil the sound.

Photo of the front of the soundboardPhoto of the back of the soundboard
Soundboard, front and back

Photo of a seam under the soundboard
A strengthening seam, just under a bridge end

Photo of the paper rose
The paper rose

At that time, I had already built the keyboard. It has ebony naturals and boxwood sharps. The key levers are made of beech which, in being historically correct, is actually quite too hard for the job. I devised tools for pivot hole ovalization, and a couple of keys broke during the process and had to be repaired. Following the advice of an expert harpsichord builder, the felt at the back of the keys is kept in place by nails. This will allow slipping a bit of cardboard under the felt, if it will ever be necessary to increase the felt thickness in order to raise the jacks. I feel however that, on a well regulated instrument, this is not necessary at all, and that glued felt would be much more stable and reliable. The keys are guided at the back by metal pins which run into a wooden rail. This allows for some regulation. Again, the keyboard guiding method described in the John Barnes booklet - that I later used on a clavichord - is simpler, faster and alltogether more efficient, but cannot be applied to beech keys, as beech tends to warp after cutting and therefore the key spacing needs some form of adjustment. As in the Italian tradition, keys are stopped from the front. This gives a harsh, noisy stop, which however is not a problem if the instrument is played with the proper technique, which calls for an accurate finger control of the key dip.

Photograph of the keyboardPhotograph of the keys
The keyboard

Decorating the instrument

On the final instrument, the only exception to the traditional materials is the paint. As I could not manage to find suitable oil-based paints based on natural pigments, I resorted to acrylics. The instrument is decorated using the best artist's acrylic I could find, on an accurately thinned titanium oxide primer. The type of paint is 'pure' acrylic, rather than the kind meant to imitate oil paint or tempera. The paint has been thinned much below the ordinary working dilution, and over 10 coats have been necessary in order to achieve a full colouring. The only drawback I have found in the method is in the light stability of the red pigment, which tends to become subtly more purple as the years go by, adding a synthetic feel which was not there when the instrument was painted. Just after having completed the virginal, I made a few test panels with other acrylic pigments, and I now feel that the light stability problems can be totally avoided by a proper choice of the colours.

The soundboard surround has been lined by decorated paper. The decoration, that comes from a 16th century book, has been traced on an appropriate computer program and laser-printed on straw-coloured paper bands about 20 cm long. Block-printing on hand-made paper would have been more suitable, but very time-consuming for a one-off job. The bands have been butt-jointed in place using diluted PVA adhesive. The same PVA solution covers the paper and protects it from dust and oxidation. Contact of the wet paper and of the glue with metals has been carefully avoided in order to prevent premature yellowing.

Photograph of the decorated instrument

The instrument has been finished off by thin bands and lettering, oil-gilt in true gold. The Italian sentence on the jack cover comes from a spinet in Castello Sforzesco (Milano, Italy), and scans 'Musica Lieta Dono Divino', which means 'Happy Music is a Gift from God'.

A very basic stand and a music desk, that should be considered useful complements, rather than parts of the instrument, allow me to play in the modern sense, using printed music.

The finished instrument

A datasheet for the finished instrument may be summarized as:

Photograph of the finished instrument

ITALIAN VIRGINAL by Mario Ettore Giardini (1999)
Signature: "MARIO ETTORE GIARDINI - MCMXCIX" oil-gilt on the namebatten
Dimensions: 170 x 45 x 22 cm
Keyboard: C/F to f''', 50 notes, 3-octave span: 470 mm. Natural head length: 40 mm, Sharp length: 55 mm.
Disposition and pitch: 1x8', a = 370 Hz
Materials: Case, soundboard: Alpine spruce. Wrestplank: beech ply. Jacks: pear. Tongues: ramin. Key levers: beech. Keyframe: ramin. Naturals: ebony. Sharps: boxwood.
Decoration: Acrylic paint, paper lining, gold oil-gilt bandings and lettering. 'Musica Lieta Dono Divino' gilt on jack cover.

And here is a recording of the actual sound, from a concert held by Paola Barbieri and myself on 27 November 2004 in Rosate, in Northern Italy. The piece is Girolamo Frescobaldi's wonderful Toccata X from the Libro II, in d minor (Courtesy of Paola Barbieri).

Let me indulge...

... to memories. I regard the construction of the virginal as ne of the richest experiences in my life. With the excuse of a complex technical study, it has opened a view on a world made, first of all, by people. Music and musical instruments are merely ways for people to share a rich and passionate approach to life. In this, I feel the need to thank the many people who, in these years, have allowed me to intense, unforgettable moments of their time.


If you like this "direct" approach to musical instrument construction, here you can find a description of the construction of a pipe organ, homebuilt by Matthias Wandel.