Woodcraft Magazine|April - May 2020

Coaxing music from inside the grain
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 book matched 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.

Psubtle angles make it work

The psaltery’s frame pieces are simply butt joined and sandwiched between the soundboard and back. Make sure the joints are tight and glued well because the tensioned strings will place a lot of strain on the assembly. Also, the holes for the hitch pins along the sides need to be carefully laid out and drilled to prevent problems tuning the instrument.

Order of Work

• Make the frame

• Prepare the panels

• Assemble the body

• Lay out and drill the holes

• Install the binding

• Finish and string up

Play the angles for a strong frame

Mill the sides and pin block to thickness and width (see drawing, p. 36), but leave them oversized in length for now. Taper one end of each side at the table saw using a jig as shown. Clamp the sides together to get an actual measurement for the pin block, then cut the block to fit. Take care to get the angles just right, as this is critical for frame strength. Once the pin block fits, bandsaw the curve along its outer edge.

Musical Woods


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April - May 2020