Harpsichord repairs

As many people know, my harpsichord has always been a bit of a fixer-upper. When I got it, about 8 years ago now, it was completely unplayable, with erratically positioned strings, unusable plectra, and a huge crack running the length of the soundboard, which also caused the belly rail to bulge out, completely seizing up the registers, and blocked all the back register’s bass jacks with the edge of the sliding soundboard.

The first work to get done after I bought it was done by Eric Thulin in New Brunswick. He put in some gap spacers and secured the soundboard somewhat, so that the registers could move again, and the bass jacks wouldn’t hit the bottom of the soundboard. Then I spent a fun summer redrilling the nut to get its pins in the right place (they’re still not that accurately spaced, but it’s an improvement!) and doing a lot of restringing and revoicing. I had to adjust the length of many jacks too. At the end of this Summer though, I had a harpsichord that could be tuned and played! Not a wonderful instrument, to be sure, but it was usable.

After bringing it to Montreal a year or so later, I did more work on it, refining the touch, tidying up the voicing and that sort of thing. Two years ago, Yves Beaupré had a look at it, and offered to tidy up the crack, and fix the structural issues that were the underlying cause of it. It’s a good thing that he did — as soon as he got the bottom open, he discovered that all the glue inside was coming apart! Pieces were literally falling off! It could have been a real disaster if he hadn’t fixed it when he did. In any case, the rescued harpsichord was returned to me and more work could continue!

At that point, I decided to switch the jacks around so that they were more like a typical 3-register instrument, with the back 8′ being the main sound, and plucking left. Previously, it had been set up with the front 8′, plucking left, being the main one, more like a 1×8,1×4 flemish. I still didn’t set up the other two registers though – mostly out of laziness, but partly because there were other things I wanted to deal with first.

One very annoying thing was that the keys all thumped horribly. Part of the noise came from the keys hitting the name batten when they were released, because the keyboard had been lifted up to compensate for the jacks all being too short. The other problem was that the jackrail had to be put on backwards – turned around properly, the back 8′ jacks bumped up against the ridge down the middle of the jackrail for the 4′ jacks (they’re shorter, so the jackrail is shaped accordingly). Turning it around fixed that problem, but then, because the back register’s jacks move more, they would bump against the bottom of the jackrail, causing the whole thing to jump around. I sort of fixed that by adding more padding at the ends of the jackrail to lift it, but it meant that the front jacks then travelled too much, and the whole jackrail was too high, so the lid didn’t close very well.

New tools to the rescue! I got a chisel for Christmas, and attempted to use it a few days ago, with happy results. I just trimmed the edge of the 4′ ridge on the jackrail, so that the 8′ jacks don’t hit it any more, and the sounds have vanished! A huge improvement.

With that under my belt, I quickly headed to Lee Valley and ordered a little plane which arrived in a couple of days. Using that, I was able to trim the bottom of the name batten mercifully easily to eliminate the other thumping! My harpsichord now makes far less noise (of a non-musical sort, anyway).

It’s all gone very well, so I’m keen to start on the next big step: getting another register working! I think I’ll work back to front, so the 4′ will be next. I need to trim most of the jacks somewhat – they’re all quite uneven, and most of them don’t even pluck. Then a lot of revoicing will be needed, but that’s nothing I haven’t done already. Then that can be repeated for the front 8′. The part I’m worried about is getting the stagger working properly – before, when I sort of had all three registers working, this was always a problem. I’ve been told by people with far more experience than me that it’s very hard to get the stagger adjusted nicely on single manual, 3-register instruments, so it may be that the front 8′ just functions as an alternative to the back 8′, if I give up on it. I’ll see what I can do, in any case!

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