"Harpsichord - To Build or Buy" by Peter Foster

British Harpsichord Society

Articles from Woodworker Magazine

In this article we look at ways of obtaining a harpsichord-either by buying an instrument, building one from scratch or using a kit. The first option can mean buying an original instrument, assuming one is available or buying a reproduction. The former is expensive. For example, in 1996, a double manual Kirckmann, seven foot, eight inches long was sold for nearly £100 000. At the other end of the scale, a bentside spinet might be available at around £10 000.

There are a number of very good makers who reproduce copies of original instruments or ones derived from originals. This means that the cost will be less than that of an original and the instrument will be in first-class playing order. If there are problems the maker will be available to handle them, something which may not be possible with an historic original instrument.

Building an instrument from scratch can be a challenge and requires a degree of skill. Probably the simplest is a bentside spinet but a large double manual harpsichord is possible providing one has the room in which to make it. There are number of sources of instrument drawings both in this country and abroad. The Victoria & Albert Museum supply drawings of a range of instruments as well as the Royal College of Music. Some drawings are on paper, others on plastic which does not change shape with temperature and humidity.

Before embarking on an instrument, it is worthwhile actually seeing some actual instruments. Fenton House in London (National Trust Property) has a number of keyboard instruments and it is possible to play them with permission. Another fine display is at Finchcocks in Kent where there are regular demonstrations of the collections-usually at weekends and public holidays.

A number of articles have been written about instrument making. Some are in magazines (see appendix) and others in books. One book is by the late John Barnes and is entitled “ Making a Spinet by Traditional Methods.” The booklet is specifically about Keene’s practice as revealed by his detailed inspection of a spinet made about 1715 by Stephen Keene and Charles Brackley. In his booklet he states:

“ If you copy the design you will be benefiting from the mature experience of one of the finest makers of the English spinet who worked at a period when the instrument reached one of its high-points. This experience was not only directed to producing a good design, but also to the efficient production in a small workshop.”

Areas which probably require the most skill in making is the keyboard and the jack guides because of the accuracy needed to produce a satisfactory product. For those attempting to make a keyboard it would be worthwhile referring to Barnes’ book and to an article by William Groom in the ‘Woodworker Magazine.’

Building an instrument is undoubtedly very satisfying- starting with pieces of timber and producing a fine, playable instrument of which one is very proud. A friend of mine who produced a very fine double-manual instrument which has been used professionally remarked the if he were building another, he would make one from a kit where all the hard work had been done!

Building an instrument from a kit is not quite like making a cake from a packet. Some woodworking skills are needed but it is often possible to purchase the maker’s manual ahead of purchasing the kit. You will then learn what skills you are expected to have. Some kits require you to put screws into pre-drilled holes and glue together pieces of wood. Others will expect you to mark out, cut to size, trim, etc. The more work you are expected to do, the less the cost of the kit.

In the 1950’s Zuckermann offered two kits: a clavichord for $100 and a small, single manual straight sided harpsichord for $150. The instrument was 62” long by 34” wide and fitted into a medium sized room. The kit comprised the keyboard, jacks & jack guide, and the soundboard. The builder provided the casework, wrest plank and stand. A paper drawing and 10-page manual was provided. I played two of these instruments and found them quite satisfactory.

From 1961-63 the late John Feldberg produced a schools harpsichord for £75. It was a single manual instrument with a straight side and as I recall, had 8’ and 4’ strings. I had some correspondence with the maker, but because I was not associated with a school at the time, he refused to sell me one. He felt that there was a significant risk when supplying kits to ‘all and sundry’ that both good and bad instruments would result, thus reflecting on the reputation of the manufacture of the kit.

In 1974 The Early Music Shop produced a single manual straight sided instrument for £174 + VAT! This was a special price because it was the last batch and the EM shop was then committed to Zuckermann kits which had changed considerably since the original 1950’s kits mentioned above. The instrument was called the Tardini, had 4 octaves plus one note and measured about 55” long by 30” wide. A detailed drawing was provided with a 4-page manual. It fitted well into a small room. A friend of mine built one and I felt that it made a good continuo instrument.

The number of suppliers of kits is somewhat limited in this country; suppliers in other countries can be found on the Internet. One company which supplies a wide range of musical instruments in kit form is The Early Music Shop. The shop in Bradford contains a bewildering display of instruments of all types by makers from all quarters of the globe and is well worth a visit. The photographs show the range of keyboard instruments. These include an octavino spinet based on an original in the Victoria & Albert Museum C 1595; a small Italian instrument called a cembalino based on compact virginals design of the 16th century maker Dominicus Pisaurensis; a bentside spinet after an instrument by Keene & Brackley, c1715 with walnut case work and a marquetry veneer panel; and a Delin harpsichord. Two versions are shown: a single manual 2 x 8 ‘ + buff and a double manual 2 x8’ +4’+ buff. All the kits come with comprehensive manuals. For example, the bentside spinet comes with a 40-page manual which includes a list of parts and contacts in case of difficulty.

Zuckermann kits come in four different versions. Stage 1 is a kit with the parts of the case cut to dimensions, ready to be assembled. In stage 2 the case is already assembled with its wrestplank, liners and braces. Stage 3 is similar to stage 2, but with the soundboard, hitchpin rails wrestplank veneer and nuts already assembled. With stage 4 there is no woodworking to be done with the exception of the keyboard which in all cases needs to be finished and balanced. The assembled instrument needs to be strung, voiced, regulated and perhaps decorated. The level of complexity and stages are shown in appendix C. Price range from £2097 for a single 8’ to £5395 for a French Double, half finished.

David Bolton in Middlesborough not only supplies harpsichord kits and parts but also runs harpsichord building and repair courses. These are held at Dovecott in the picturesque stone built village of Kirkbymoor on the edge of the North York Moors National Park.

Bolton’s kits include an Italian single manual instrument, a spinet and a French double after Taskin. It 2 x8’ + 4’registers and buff. A recent addition to his range is a drop-leaf spinet ( see photograph) which meets the needs for an easily portable instrument the takes up the absolute minimum of space, thanks to the “ drop-leaf” feature. It has a range of 4 octaves and changing form modern pitch to baroque is very simple, thus making it a highly practical continuo instrument. Bolton feels that his kits are reasonably priced and enable one to build a fine keyboard instrument. Basically one builds the case from the drawings and instructions provided, and the kit contains all the special parts that go into the case, plus any parts which may be hard to get. The kits come with a comprehensive manual and an accurate drawing on polyester film which does not shrink or expand. The manual covers the wood that one needs to buy and concludes with the tuning and care of the finished instrument. It is suggested the Italian harpsichord would take 125-175 hours to complete and a French double between 200 and 250 hours. If you wanted to build an instrument ‘from scratch’ Bolton provides a range of parts, such as the keyboard and jacks.

David Bolton’s background was chemistry with ICI. He is a keen musician and chamber music player. He tells me that his interest in instruments in kit form stared when he built a Zuckermann harpsichord while working in Holland in the 1980’s. He produces some 20 kits a year and a demonstration CD of his instruments being played is available.

Prices of kits range from £600 for a basic spinet to £1750 for the French Double

While some makers emphasis their adherence to what can be described as ‘traditional ‘ methods, John Storrs feels that modern techniques can be used in construction of instruments. I met John a number of years ago at an Early Music Exhibition and he showed me his computer controlled drill. This was followed by computer controlled woodworking machinery that can saw, mill and drill. A parallel project automated the sanding of timber to the required thickness. The result is that little further cutting or drilling is required to assemble his kits. All parts are accurately shaped and drilled and assembly can be done with hand tools. A relatively unskilled person will be able to assemble an instrument as all the precision work is down, especially the pin holes in the soundboard bridges. Currently I am building a Storrs bentside spinet, which I bought a number of years ago and I was impressed by the way parts fitted together. Clamps were supplied to assist with construction. The casework was held by small plastic 8-shaped pieces, which pulled the corners together. These were then concealed by small pieces of wood. An very comprehensive and well illustrated manual is provided which is worth reading carefully. As another builder remarked: ” Storrs only tells you once!”

The timber is selected and seasoned by Storrs and poplar is one of the woods used for the casework. Walnut, sweet chestnut and cherry are also used.

Storrs’ designs of single and double manual instruments are based on those made by Ruckers of Antwerp. The five-octave bentside spinet is based on typical 18th century instruments and there is a smaller, triangular four and a half octave instrument available. He has produced some 2000 instruments, many going overseas.

John Storrs trained as a structural engineer and he quotes the high point of his career was his responsibility for the analysis of the National Westminster Bank tower in the City of London.

The result is a marriage of high technology and woodworking expertise producing fine instruments by an engineer. Storrs tells me that the control systems are being up-dated and he would be interested in contacting people with technical expertise and enthusiasm to be involved with the enterprise

Prices of instruments in kit form range from 1870 for the triangular spinet to 4880 for a double manual harpsichord. These prices are in Euros and do not include delivery or VAT.


John Barnes, Making a spinet by Traditional Methods, published by Mac & me Ltd, 1985

Donald Bloach, Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord, 1440- 1840, OUP 1956

Jean Denis, Treatise on Harpsichord Tuning, Translated & Edited by Vincent J. Pannello, Cambridge Musical texts & monographs, 1987, ( This book has a large bibliography)

Charles Ford, (Ed), Making Musical Instruments, Faber & Faber, London,1979

Francis Galpin, A textbook on European Musical Instruments, Revised with supplementary note by Thurston Dart, Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1965

Cynthia Hoover, Harpsichords and Clavichords, Smithsonian Institute Press, Washington, DC, 1969

Frank Hubbard, Three Centuries of Harpsichord making, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1965

Frank Hubbard, Harpsichord Regulating and Repairing, Tuners Supply, Inc. Boston, Mass. 1963

Philip James, Early Keyboard Instruments from their beginnings to the year 1820, The Tabard Press, London, 1970

Evan Kern, Harpsichord Design & Construction, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1980

Edward L. Kottick, The Harpsichord Owner’s Guide,. The University of North Caroline Press, Chapel Hill and London, 1987

Laurence Libin, American Musical Instruments, The Metropolitan Museum Of Art, NY, 1985

Hans Neupert, Harpsichord Manual, an Historical and Technical Discussion, translated from the German by F.E.Kitby, Barenteiter, New York, 1960

New Grove Musical Instrument Series: Early Keyboard Instruments, MacMillan

Grant O’Brian, A Harpsichord and Virginal building Tradition, CUP, 1990

John Paul, Modern Harpsichord Makers, Victor Gollancz, London

Trevor Pinnock, , Buying a harpsichord, Early Music April 1975 OUP

Edwin Ripin (Ed.) Keyboard Instruments, Studies in Keyboard Organology, 1000- 1800, University Press, Edinburgh, 1971.

Raymond Russell, The Harpsichord and Clavichord, Faber & Faber, London 1975, Revised Howard Scott, 1973

Christopher Ruegur, Musical Instruments and their Decoration, David & Charles, 1982

Howard Scott, Catalogue of Musical Instruments, Vol.1. Keyboard Instruments, V & A Museum, HMSO, 1985

Howard Scott, (Ed.) The Historical Harpsichord, A monograph series in honour of Frank Hubbard, Pendragon Press, 1984

Michael Thomas, Making a Harpsichord, Music & Musicians, XVIII, 6, Feb 1970

Wagner, G, Harpsichord & clavichord construction, bibliography 1830-1985, Frits Knuf, Buren, The Netherlands 1989

W.J Zuckermann, The Modern Harpsichord: Twentieth Century Instruments and their Makers, October House, NY, 1969


Articles in the ‘Woodworker ‘ magazine

Spinet, Geoffrey Gilbert, March 1970. (4 Parts) The article concerns the building of an instrument at Seven Oaks School. The author hoped that the instructions would enable anyone to build such an instrument.

Single Manual Harpsichord, Donald Garrod, April 1973 ( 5 Parts) The instrument described has two 8-foot strings.

Two manual harpsichord, S.G Dixon, March /April/ May 1975. This instrument is broadly based on the work of Kirckman, and has 2 x 8’ + 4’+ lute stop

English Virginal, Donald Garrod, October 1976 (3 {Parts)

Harpsichord: Method of keyboard construction, William Groom, September 1979.

Photocopies of these articles can be obtained from:

The Woodworker
Nexus Special Interests Ltd
Nexus House
Boundary Way
Hemel Hempstead
Herts HP2 7ST


I am grateful to various people who have provided me with information to write this article. These include:

David Bolton
44 Church Lane

Jonathan Askey
The Early Music Shop
38 Manningham Lane
Bradford BD1 3EA

John Storrs Workshop

Peter Barnes
46 Church Street
Rode, Frome,
BA11 6PN

Peter Barnes makes keyboard instruments and completes kits provided by the EMS