When it comes to building a psaltery, there are a few simple tricks and tips you should make sure your new instrument will give you the exceptional sound that you want! Luckily, building a psaltery doesn’t need to be difficult.
Materials to Build Your Own Psaltery
You’ll need the right materials if your aim is to build your own psaltery! As well as wood glue, wood finish, and sandpaper to give your psaltery a great finish, you’ll need a variety of different types of wood. These include quarter sawn softwood for the soundboard, hardwood for the back, bridge, bow, and sides of the psaltery, and hard maple for the pinblock. You’ll also need a selection of sheet and dimensioned lumber for the gluing jigs, which are used during the creation of the frame.
Looking away from the wooden materials, you will also need 50 zither pins, approximately 50ft of music wire (for the strings) and a 7 ¼“ plastic or metal rod of diameter 1/8”. These are largely used in the fitting of the strings for your psaltery.
Don’t Forget About the Tools!
When making your psaltery, it’s also highly advisable that you have the following tools to hand: a high-quality, accurate 3/16” brad-point drill bit for drilling zither pin holes; a band saw/table saw for cutting the frame; a drill press; a high-speed rotary tool with a cut off wheel or, less ideally, a hand file; an Exacto knife, scrollsaw, jigsaw, or 3/8” holesaw for cutting a sound hole; clamps; metric and imperial measuring equipment; a tuning wrench; a bow and rosin; a digital tuner; locking pliers; wire cutters; and needle-nose pliers.
Step One: Making the Frame
So, you’ve gathered all of the materials that you’ll need to make your brand new psaltery – what next? Well, next up is the frame for your psaltery. It’s worth noting that building the frame is arguably the trickiest part of making your own psaltery; if you are a novice at woodwork, you can get a custom-made one made by a professional which could save you a lot of stress.
Working Out Frame Sizes
To start with, think about the shape of a psaltery – it’s triangular, and this plays a big role in how you’ll be designing the psaltery and the measurements you will need to follow. We recommend making a psaltery that measures at 8 1/16” at the base and 22 15/16” height. However, before we go any further, you’ll need to make sure you’ve refreshed your memory of how triangle measurements work.
The 22 15/16” measurement is not the length of the long, diagonal side of the psaltery. If maths isn’t your thing, you may want to skip directly to the end of this section where we tell you the final dimensions, but sometimes, knowing why can help you when it comes to making your instrument. So, if you can follow the maths, that’s great! If not, just jump right to the end of this section to find the final dimensions of your new psaltery.
The length of the long side of your triangular psaltery is calculated using a simple mathematical equation: a2 + b2 = hyp2, where hyp stands for the hypotenuse – the long side of the triangle – and a and b are the straight base and height of the triangle. As such, in this instance, the calculation is as follows:
8.062 + 22.92 = hyp2
64.96 + 525.3 = hyp2
Therefore, we can state that since hyp2 is 533.3, the length of the hypotenuse for our psaltery frame will be the square root of this, giving us a final length of 23 and 3/32” for the hypotenuse.
So, after all of that, the dimensions of our hypotenuse are 8 1/16” for the base, 22 15/16” for the height, and 23 3/32” for the length. Easy, right? (Well, perhaps not, but we got there in the end!)
Building the Sides
So, first of all you’ll need to build the sides of your psaltery. In all honesty, it doesn’t hugely matter what wood you use to create the sides of your new psaltery due to the minor role that they actually play in the acoustics of the instrument; however, they can be bulky so unless you fancy a weightlifting session every time you use your new instrument, we recommend you stick to half inch sides.
This serves to help dampen and deaden the vibrations from the instrument, but without being too bulky that you can’t ever move it! Because of this relative thinness, though, it’s imperative that you seal and secure the sides carefully so that the psaltery’s final durability isn’t compromised – don’t worry, we’ll cover this in a bit.
You can use a thicker wood for the sides of your psaltery, if you so want – but just be aware that this will impact on the final weight of your instrument. Hardwoods such as poplar, cherry, and soft maple are common materials for their lightweight nature; however, hickory, oak, walnut, hard maple, and birch are also suitable alternatives but pack a slightly heavier weight. So, it’s a case of finding the right option for you, really!
Arranging and Measuring the Sides
In order to process the side pieces, you’ll need to arrange your hypotenuse and height sides with a ten degree angle between them – arguably this is the most fiddly part of the entire build. Furthermore, there’s no room for error here as even a degree either side would stop the base side of your psaltery from fitting. So, always take care with this stage to get the angle right. Check and double check, for sure, and creating a 10-degree miter can help make the process of fitting the sides easier. Alternatively, a twenty degree butt joint can be another good alternative; we recommend getting a professional to cut these if you’ve never done so yourself, again owing to the importance of getting this step right!
Now that you’ve built the hypotenuse and height of your psaltery frame, you’ll need to move on to the pin block – the base of the psaltery. Hard maple should be used for the pin block as it needs to be able to support the pins being threaded into it; again, we recommend that this is cut to a total width of half an inch.
The pin block should also be trimmed to size, depending on the width of wood that you used for the other two sides of the frame; if you used half inch wood as we suggest, you’ll have lost a total of an inch from the length of the base, so your pin block should be trimmed down to 7 1/16” (instead of the previously quoted 8 1/16” that makes up the total base). If you used, for example, 1-inch thickness wood for your frame, you would need to cut this further down to 6 1/16”, and so on.
Securing the Sides
So, at long last you’ve got all of the sides for your psaltery – now it’s time to crack out the wood glue and secure them all together! Always try to make sure that the join between the wood is clean – as clean as you can possibly get it – as a messily glued frame will likely be too weak or otherwise under too much pressure if you’ve used too much glue! A 2-part woodworker’s epoxy glue is generally a good option for use with psaltery building.
While gluing your psaltery, make sure you have a plan for holding all three sides together. Gluing the hypotenuse and height sides together isn’t too difficult with a clamp, but if you try to clamp the pinblock to the other two sides, it’ll probably just slip out. So, always have a plan and some sort of structure in place to keep it all together until the glue has dried and the seals are secure.
Attaching the Back
We’re finally past the frame making stage – next up is attaching the back of your psaltery to the frame. This step is, fortunately, a lot easier than making the frame. The trickiest bit is potentially finding wood of the right thickness!
For the back of your psaltery, you’ll want a sheep of wood that is between 3/16” and 1/8” in thickness. The wood should be measured to the size of your finished frame; giving yourself a little extra margin around the frame before attaching and then sanding down the overlap to fit perfectly is the most effective and easiest way of attaching the back, in our opinion.
Thin wood for the back of your psaltery may not be available in hardware stores, so you may need to head to a dedicated woodworking shop to find it. Baltic birch plywood is usually the most common type, but any thin plywood of high quality will do the job. You may also be able to find wood for guitar backs online – this is a good option, although may need gluing together depending on the width of the wood and your psaltery frame. Craft wood can also be used, although this likely won’t be wide enough so you may need to glue the edges of a few pieces together the get the right width – not ideal, but a good solution nonetheless if you can’t find any other thin plywood options! As a final alternative, if you really can’t find any wood thin enough, a bandsaw or thickness sander can allow you to shave down some of the extra unneeded thickness until your wood is of an appropriate measurement.
Why Thickness is Important
Why is the thickness of the back so important? The thickness of your psaltery’s back will impact on how much sound is muffled, and the vibrations will be absorbed and muffled if you choose a thick material. Even a thin material will still have this impact to a degree – however, it will be less noticeable, and your instrument invariably needs a back after all!
The role of the back is to reverberate the sounds, which is a similar effect to how a tuning fork works; solid wood does this better than plywood, which is why we recommend using solid wood for the back.
Attaching the Back and the Frame
Attaching the back of your new psaltery to the frame is easy; invest in good quality wood glues and, once you’ve traced and cut the shape of the frame – leaving a little overhang for simplicity – you can simply glue the back in place. Make sure you use an appropriate level of force to adhere the two together; once the glue has sealed, you can then trim down the edges with a grinder or sandpaper so that it’s flush with the frame and there’s no surplus, leaked glue making your psaltery look messy. Et voila – the back is secured!
Making the Soundboard
Now that the frame is made and the back has been secured, you can begin thinking about making and attaching the soundboard to your homemade psaltery. Soundboards are made from quartersawn softwoods and are just as easy to fit to the frame of your psaltery as the back, meaning that this step is easy and quick – especially now that you’ve already cut out the back of the instrument and know how to do it!
The material that you use for your soundboard will vary depending on your budget, the quality of acoustics you hope to achieve, and the materials that you have available to you. A 1/8” thick piece of plywood can be used as a decent soundboard if that is all you can get hold of – this is the same as was used for the back of your psaltery. However, it can slightly interfere with the vibrations of the instrument, despite providing good support and strength due to the cross plies in the plywood.
A better option, if you can get hold of it, is an appropriate solid-wood top; arguably the best option for most people would be a good acoustic guitar top material. However, always check the dimensions of the materials that you order to check that it will be big enough for your psalter; indeed, 23” boards can be harder to find. Always make sure that any soundboard you’re using is of the right thickness for the best results.
Cutting the Soundboard
Once you’ve found the right material to make your soundboard from – and checked that the piece will be large enough – then it’s time to cut the soundboard. Luckily, this is incredibly easy as it simply needs to be the same size as you cut for the back of the psaltery!
Once again, we recommend that you are ever so slightly generous with your measurements for your soundboard; it’s easier to fit a soundboard that’s slightly too large and can then be ground down later on – if you cut the soundboard too small, you won’t be able to add any extra material, so getting the size right is crucial!
Consider the Soundhole
Once you have traced the shape of your psaltery frame and cut the psaltery to size, you then need to think about cutting the soundhole before securing the soundboard to the frame. The soundhole, at its very simplest, is where the sound escapes from the instrument – like the mouth of the psaltery, if you will.
A simple and neat soundhole design is a smaller version of the overall psaltery design, at a lower size ratio; this will give a neat and effective soundhole design that also looks appealing for your final instrument! It can be cut out using an Exacto knife or a scrollsaw/jigsaw, or even a variety of small holes drilled using a drill. Alternatively, for a more decorative soundhole for your instrument, you can actually buy designed soundhole templates that can add an extra level of decorative appeal to your finished instrument; soundhole roses and other such designs can be sourced widely online.
It is important to consider the strength of your instrument when cutting the soundhole; cutting a hole in the wood can interfere with the wood grain, which is what gives the wood its strength. As a result of this, you may want to reinforce the wood if you’re using a large circular soundhole as can be seen with guitars; alternatively, a triangular or s-shaped soundhole will be less damaging for the soundboard’s structure and help prevent it from getting broken over time.
Attaching the Soundboard
At last, you have finished cutting out your soundboard and it is ready to attach to your psaltery frame. As with the back, you should use a strong wood glue to secure the soundboard to the frame; a clamp can then secure the soundboard in place until the glue has dried and sealed the board in place.
Finally, all that’s left to do for this step is to neaten up the overhanging ridges of the soundboard and file away any extra glue residue. Really, it’s not too difficult a step to complete, and you can now begin thinking about the pin layout for your psaltery design.
Thinking about Tuning Pins
At this stage, we have the frame of the psaltery secured and covered with a back and a soundboard, meaning that we are ready to move onto assembling the tuning pins for your psaltery. Tuning pins are arranged in two rows, with a total of 13 pins on the bottom and 12 pins on the top. These pins should be spaced equally apart, with about 10.5mm between each of the pins.
First, you’ll need to divide the pinblock. The pinblock should be split into three sections horizontally for the rows; the lowest row should be 3/8” from the base, and the upper row should be 5/8” from the top of the pinblock. Between the two dividers, the middle row should be half an inch in height. We highly advise that you split the pinblock with gentle pencil lines at this stage, as trying to do so without having drawn lines can be incredibly tedious and challenge to keep the pin positioning accurate.
Placing the Pins
The first pin should be positioned about one inch from the edge of your pin block, so make sure you consider this when working out where to lay the pins – this will end up being 1 inch from the inner edge of your psaltery’s frame. Once you have marked the positioning for all of the pins, make sure you check this, too – a 10.5mm spacing can be hard to measure, and little discrepancies can potentially accumulate over the entire pinboard. So, visually check that the spacing looks neat before actually attaching the pins.
Adding the Hitch Pins
Once you’ve added the tuning pins to your up-and-coming psaltery, you’ll then need to think about adding the hitch pins. The hitch pins are incredibly important for your psaltery and it is vital that you get the measurements right for these, so take extra time and care during this section of crafting to ensure that the hitch pins are placed in the right place. This is because the hitch pins are responsible for how long the vibrating strings are and the overall tension of the strings; if they are incorrectly placed, your psaltery may not sound as good as it should or the strings could even snap under high pressure!
Measuring the Hitch Pins
So, to begin with, we’ll measure where the hitch pins need to go. Again, we cannot stress enough how important it is to mark this gently with a pencil line – trying to judge it by eye alone will likely result in mistakes being made.
To start with, you want to draw two lines that are spaced ¼” from the edge of the psaltery; in order to make sure that the line remains accurate, we recommend drawing three or more dots at different points along the length of each side and connect these; this will keep the lines you draw perfectly straight, if measured correctly.
The two lines you draw will intersect close toward the tip of the psaltery; this will be where you position the final hitch pin hole. Once you have drilled this hole, you can then begin measuring the next holes for hitch pins – this is where things start getting a little more complicated, so take some time to make sure you’re completely aware of how to lay out the hitch pins before giving it a go!
Right Hand Side
The right side is easier to lay out than the left, so we’ll begin with this side for measuring the hitch pins. Your first pin should be positioned 361.2mm from the final hitch pin (where the lines intersect).
The first six pins (from the base of the psaltery) on the right side should have an equal spacing of 17.5mm between them. The seventh pin should be 18.4mm from the sixth, and from here, the remaining pins increase in spacing by 3mm each time. This means that the ninth pin is 21.4mm, tenth is 24.4 mm, eleventh is 27.4mm, twelfth is 30.4mm, thirteenth is 33.4mm, fourteenth is 36.4mm, fifteenth is 39.4mm, and finally, the sixteenth is 42.4mm. This spacing is important, because evenly spaced hitch pins don’t work well for creating a great sounding psaltery.
Left Hand Side
The left side is decidedly more complicated to drill holes for than the right side of your psaltery. As such, it’s important that you measure each interval as accurately as you possibly can to avoid mistakes being made. The first pin hole should be drilled a total of 352.4mm from the final intersecting hitch pin.
The gap between the first hitch pin should be 35.0mm. Following this, the gaps between each respective pin and the one before should be 17.5mm, 35.5mm, 19.9mm, 22.9mm, 54.8mm, 31.9mm, 72.8mm, 40.9mm, and 21.2mm. This layout follows the two-three, two-three pattern that one would see with sharps and flats for a piano, with the only exceptions being the first sharp and the final two sharps that follow a slightly different range.
Always Check and Double Check!
Once you’ve drilled a hole for a pin, it’s impossible to refill the hole – obviously – so always make sure that the hole you’ve picked is the right one! The holes can be drilled using a high quality brad point drill bit, which helps to ensure that the bit doesn’t move during drilling so that the hole is accurate – you don’t want any mistakes when drilling, so be extra careful! A premium quality drill bit rarely costs more than $5, so you should be able to find an affordable one – it’s much easier to get hold of than replacing the board!
As a final tip for drilling the holes for your pins, drilling at an angle of 15 degrees sideways can make it a lot easier to wrap the wire downwards; however, attempting this with a handheld drill would likely only result in an accident happening. So, it’s only really a good option if you have access to a drill press table; with a handheld drill, a vertical drill is fine.
Finally, all that needs to be done for the drilled holes is to sand them off to finish them neatly, and then the time has come to apply a finish to your work in progress psaltery!
Finishing the Psaltery
The psaltery can be finished at a time that best suits you, and everyone has a different favorite time to finish their psalteries. However, we recommend that you do it after drilling and filing the pin holes but before adding the bridge to your psaltery; this makes it easier to apply the finish without having the bridge in the way that would make it more complicated. Some people choose to finish their models prior to drilling the holes, but this can easily cause scratches and damage that might lower the overall quality of the finished instrument.
What to Use to Finish Your Psaltery
You can use a number of different types of finish for your psaltery, depending on what you have available and your favorite choice. A simple oil finish is used most commonly by psaltery builders both professional and DIY alike, although a thicker film building finish can also be used. Thicker finishes can leave residue in the holes you’ve just drilled if you apply it after, so if you’re planning on using thicker finishes then it might be a good idea to drill the holes after applying the finish to prevent this. The choice is yours; if you use a thick finish after drilling the pin holes, always check that you clean the holes out fully so there is no leftover debris or residue.
Some of the most common finishing materials are shown below:
· Lacquer: lacquer is one of the most commonly used finishing materials for musical instruments for a number of reasons. It is practical to use as it can be sprayed onto the surface of materials and dries rapidly. Lacquer is also widely available in many hardware, woodworking, and general stores, making it easy to get hold of. The only real downside of lacquer finishes is that it can age and slightly discolor over time; this is good for use with darker woods as it can actually add an extra layer of color, but on lighter colored wood it can appear tacky and unprofessional after a while.
· Shellac: shellac is a popular choice of finishing material for musical instruments as it provides a durable and hard finish with an exceptional shine, and is unlikely to discolor, however, there is a catch. Shellac can rapidly lose its strength once mixed and so needs to be used very quickly, or it may not fully harden and will remain a little soft. As such, if you’re considering shellac, make sure you buy a non-mixed version; the pre-mixed options have often been sat around on a shelf for quite some time and may give you a disappointing result compared to what you’re hoping for.
· Tung oil: tung oil is another popular finishing material that is widely used with instruments and can offer excellent finish for your new psaltery. It is incredibly easy to apply, which is the biggest benefit of this material; however, 100% raw tung oil is often slow to harden and may not solidify as well as other finishing materials. Instead, you wipe the excess oil that hasn’t dried off and leave any solidified residue behind to provide the finish. With that being said, cooked tung oil (a process which is called polymerization) can provide an exceptional finish and level of protection for your psaltery. Over time, the oil can darken a little, although this may not always be a negative.
Adding the Bridge
We’ve made huge progress at this point, and our psalteries are starting to actually resemble what they should end up like – but they’re not going to be making any beautiful music until the strings are added. There is one vital step that we need to carry out before we can add the strings and finally finish our psalteries, and that is to add the bridge.
The bridge of an instrument serves to transfer the strings’ vibrations to the soundboard – remember how we mentioned that the body of these vibrations were important, and this is why getting the wood thickness right is so important? Well, this is where that comes into play!
There are two parts to the bridge. The bridge itself is just a simple piece of wood, however, it has a rod added to the top of it that protects the bridge wood from the strings (and vice versa). Fortunately, the bridge is actually very easy to make; just about any type of wood can be used to make a bridge, although from an aesthetics perspective, using the same type of wood as was used for the back and soundboard can keep the design of your psaltery neat. The bridge can also be finished after it’s been added to the instrument or left unfinished, if desired – with that being said, finishing can help to protect the wood so it can be a good idea to finish the bridge to keep it in good condition and prevent it from breaking.
The Importance of Bridges
One thing that is hugely important to consider is that of the strength of your chosen bridge. A bridge has to support an immense amount of pressure – the strings of your psaltery can exert anywhere up to 1000 pounds of pressure when taut, and this pressure can easily damage the thin soundboard if not properly supported with a sturdy bridge. A lower bridge also further helps alleviate the pressure exerted on the soundboard by the strings, so is usually preferable compared to a high bridge.
What to Use for the Saddle?
The saddle sits atop the bridge and serves to support the pressure of the strings, meaning that an incredibly strong material is needed! To meet this need, most people use an aluminum metal rod for the saddle, although some psaltery builders opt for brass instead or even black plastic. The choice is yours, although an aluminum saddle does have the added benefit of being the same color as the pins which can keep the psaltery looking neater and more impressive.
Cutting the Saddle Slot
Before you can install the bridge onto your soundboard, you’ll need to cut a slot into the bridge for the saddle to sit in. There are many different ways to go about it, but all you really need is a tool that is capable of making a slot to the same width as your chosen saddle and half as high – you want half of the saddle to be exposed above the bridge so that the strings can sit atop the saddle comfortably. After all, the saddle serves to protect the bridge while also passing the vibrations along to the soundboard, so it’s vital that the strings can rest comfortably atop it without snagging on the bridge.
If the saddle is cut to the right size and diameter, there’s really no need to glue the saddle in place; furthermore, because the saddle isn’t glued in place, you can also replace it down the line if you ever need to. Best of all, not gluing the saddle means that it can be turned around to ensure the strings have fresh, unused surfaces upon which to lay if the surface of the saddle should ever begin to get worn out.
The saddle slot isn’t difficult to cut out; a file or handsaw can be used to cut the hole if you have the patience, or a Dremel and cut off wheel can also be used for carving the indent. Or, better yet, a table-mounted router can provide the easiest and fastest solution for cutting out the indent.
Placing the Bridge
Once the bridge has had the indent drilled out of it for the saddle, it is time to install it! This is fortunately an easy process, but it’s vital that it’s done correctly as this will impact on how the strings vibrate. With that being said, measurements don’t need to be exactly on point, but if you’re a few millimetres out you might find that the sound your instrument produces is ever so slightly different. So, it’s vital that you do your best to get it as accurate as possible; once again, these small changes may not seem major on their own, but the cumulative effect of lots of little errors can be more notable.
When it comes to placing your bridge, you should consider the following rule to work out where the bridge should sit. The vibrating length of the shortest string on the right of your psaltery should be 5 ¾ inches in length; this is easy to calculate by looking at the hitch pin holes you’ve already drilled.
First, locate the hitch pin hole that’s furthest from the tip (i.e. that will be closest to your bridge). From this hole, measure 5 ¾ inches from the hole, making sure that your ruler is positioned at a 90 degree angle to the edge of the psaltery (i.e. facing directly downward toward the base of the psaltery). This is where the first short string will run.
Using this measurement as a guide, the middle of the saddle should be located at the 5 ¾ inches mark from the hitch pin hole. In other words, the middle point of the hole you’ve drilled in the bridge should be in line with this 5 ¾ inches point. At this point, you’ll likely want to use a little glue to secure the bridge in place; with that being said, the pressure from the strings will keep the bridge and saddle in place anyway, so only a very minimalist amount of glue is needed to prevent the bridge from slipping while you fit the first strings.
What If the Psaltery Is Too Long or Too Short?
In some cases, your psaltery might be a little too long or a little too short for the bridge, depending on the dimensions that you’ve picked. However, there are still options available for you to try in order to complete your psaltery construction. While the psaltery likely won’t be quite as amazing as it would be if it was the right length, not all hope is lost for your new instrument!
If the psaltery is too long, the bridge may be positioned a little too far from the pinblock and this could cause the bridge to bow. If this is the case for you, you could either choose to use a longer bridge that reaches the edge of the psaltery and so is supported by the frame of the instrument. Otherwise, you could reduce the height of the bridge ever so slightly to help make it a little stronger and less likely to bow – even a seemingly minute reduction of 1/16th of an inch could help prevent the bridge from bowing under the pressure of the strings.
Alternatively, your psaltery could be too short so that the appropriate positioning of the bridge might cover the tuning pin holes – that’s no good, of course! In this case, you’ll just need to compromise; make sure that there is at least 3/8” between the tuning pin holes and the bridge, or ideally ½ an inch if you can spare this much. Higher strings may not sound great if this is the case for your psaltery, but most middle and low notes should barely be affected by the different positioning.
Stringing the Psaltery
The stage we’ve all been waiting for – actually making your psaltery into a functional, working string instrument! Stringing an instrument for the first time can be a fiddly process, and many people spend quarter of an hour easily trying to get the string to fit in the right place. However, your patience will certainly pay off once you get to grips with stringing the instrument in the first place.
Materials to Use for Stringing Your Psaltery
So, what materials will you need to string your psaltery? Plain steel music wire is the most commonly used material for string instruments such as psalteries. It is also advisable that you choose a steel wire that has been coated with tin so as to prevent the wire from rusting and corroding over time. The high tensile strength of the wire means that it can produce great sounds when played and by choosing a tin coated string as well, you won’t have to worry about it being unsightly due to rusting.
You’ll need about 50 feet of wire to make your psaltery, although this will vary slightly depending on the dimensions you have used for your instrument. Wire of approximately 0.012 inches in diameter is the best suited one for psalteries; different sizes are available, however, for a small 2 octaves instrument such as this, it’s not really necessary and won’t contribute any particular difference to your finished instrument’s acoustics. A finer wire of 0.010 inches in diameter can alternatively be used if you’re not sure about whether the instrument was well glued together, especially in terms of the frame, because a finer string will place less tension on the frame of the instrument; however, it won’t give quite as much fullness or volume.
Luckily, sourcing high quality string for your psaltery isn’t too difficult; most music shops will stock it either for instrument builders or as a replacement. Alternatively, a budget option for your psaltery strings is a clothesline made by the Lehigh group which is braided and coated in green vinyl to provide strength and durability. Admittedly, though this is a slightly more hassle intensive method of getting good quality music wire, by stripping the vinyl coating and untwisting the steel wire inside, it does provide an excellent solution if you don’t have music wire readily to hand, want a budget solution, or otherwise can’t find a seller of good quality music wire. Furthermore, the steel wires inside are exactly 0.012 inches in diameter, making them the perfect solution if you want to give it a try!
Inserting the Pins
Now that you’ve found a suitable type of wire to use with your psaltery, it’s time to insert the pins. It’s worth noting there are any many different ways to string your new instrument and the best method for you will suit your preferences – this is just one of the methods that you might want to try, but other options are also available that might suit your preferences. So, if you think that a particular tweak might make the method easier for you, feel free to give it a try!
To start with, you’ll want to put all of the pins in their respective holes prior to stringing up the instrument. This is something that isn’t always agreed on and depends heavily on personal preference as many builders will try stringing just a few pins at a time, or potentially even a single pin; it depends on what you find easiest!
To start with, you’ll want to drive in the pins at the base of the psaltery, using any tool that best suits you – whichever you prefer. Power tools can make the process faster, although it should be noted that you could risk burning the wood with these so sometimes, manual tools are a safer (if slightly slower) bet.
You’ll want to drive the tuning pins in so that they aren’t fully in the holes; this will allow room for the string to be wound onto the pin. You’ll need to wind the string around the tuning pin three or four times, so always make sure there’s plenty of room for this. You may need to try few times to find the right height for the pins, but once you’ve worked out what works best for you, it should be a lot easier.
Next up is the hitch pins; when inserting the hitch pins, it’s important that you do so carefully so that they are oriented towards the tuning pins you’ve just fitted. Hitch pins can easily be driven lower than the tuning pins, so feel free to turn the hitch pins low enough that the holes in the pins are only barely showing above the surface of the wood.
At this point, you’ll want to notch the pins. Some people prefer to notch them when they’re not fitted into the dulcimer, however, having them fitted in place makes things easier as the frame of the psaltery is supporting the pins and keeping them upright, which should make this easier. In order to notch the hitch pins, all you need to do is cut a small groove in the back center corner of the pin which will serve to support the music string once it’s threaded and brought to tension; this ensures that the string is curved slightly and isn’t placed under too much pressure. A notch can be added incredibly easily with a triangular hand file or a small, thin rotary tool.
It’s probably felt like a long time coming by now, but at long last we are ready to string the psaltery. It can be quite difficult to do when you’ve never done so before; if this is the case for you, we recommend that you clamp the psaltery to your workbench so as to prevent damaging the body of your instrument – accidents can easily happen at this point. Clamp gently on a small number of the hitch pins as opposed to the wood of the instrument in order to prevent the wood finish from getting scratched or damaged.
This is where things can get a little tricky – it’s always best at this stage to have all the tools you’ll need to hand and ready to use. You’ll need a pair of good quality wire cutters (that won’t wear out from the toughness of music string); a pair of needle-nose pliers (to bend the end of the wire); a pair of vise grip pliers for tightening the knots on your hitch pin (vise grip pliers are easier and safer to use in these scenarios); and a digital tuner.
To start with, you’ll need to tie your string onto a hitch pin. This is done by threading a length ofsix inches of music string through the hitch pin’s hole and then wrap once around the hitch pin to secure the string. Bring the string back out through the hole, making sure that you leave a little to grip onto later on down the threading process. If one rotation doesn’t seem to be enough to hold the string tight, you may need to do a second.
Now, take the string you’ve just threaded and run it through the groove you made in the hitch pin earlier. Gently ease the string down over the bridge and saddle and then thread it through the corresponding tuning pin at the base of the psaltery. To do this, stretch the string slightly further than it would normally reach, about two inches beyond the tuning pin, and then cut the wire off; this two inches spare will usually be enough to wrap three or four times around your tuning pins.
Now, you’ll need to secure the string in place. Make a small, ninety degree bend in the music string using your needle nose pliers, about 1/8 an inch from the end of the wire that you just cut. This will ensure that the music string remains in place and the wire doesn’t slip! Now, after checking that the music string is resting comfortably in the hitch pin’s groove, you can then gently pull the wire until it becomes taut – don’t pull too roughly or you might unbend the 90 degree bend you just made.
Now, you can begin to wind the music string around the tuning pin three or four times, in order to secure the tightness of the string. As a final recap, it’s also important to try and be as neat when threading and winding the string as possible, as this will prevent the string from accidentally riding up the pin when the instrument is played (and let’s face it – it also looks a lot nicer when the strings are wound neatly and uniformly). You need to keep the string taut at all times while doing this for it to be effective.
To finish off the string, you’ll lastly need to trim the wire. This is, fortunately, an easy thing to do; just pull it tight and trim it back. The vise grip pliers are useful at this stage, although don’t use them on any part of the string that will be left touching the instrument as they may snag the wire and cause scratches to your instrument. They can also permanently bend the wire, which could ruin the aesthetic you’ve been working to achieve for your psaltery!
Tuning the Wires
It’s a long process, but you should now be finished with wiring your instrument. Now you can look at tuning the strings so that they are able to produce the iconic psaltery sounds you know and love!
So, how do you go about this? Well, you can tune your psaltery by comparing the notes to that of a piano, but many people won’t have a handy piano around to rely on – and even if you do, comparing a piano to a psaltery can be quite difficult. There is another option here, though, and that is to use a digital tuner. Digital tuners have a built in microphone that can tell you what note you’re playing. Indeed, this is one of the easiest and most reliable ways to tune up your psaltery, and arguably the easiest too.
Digital tuners can be sourced locally or online. If you have a smartphone, there are also digital tuners available as applications which can be an affordable and easy to use option, too!
However, it’s important to give your psaltery a bit of TLC to begin with – it needs to be broken in over a week or two before it will sound perfect, as the strings can fluctuate to a degree to begin with as a result of the immense pressure. However, if you’ve tightened the knots effectively during the stringing section, the break in period will be quicker and easier.
Final Thoughts – What Next?
So, it’s probably taken a lot of love, sweat, and tears to get to this point, but at long last your new psaltery is finished! But what next? At present, the psaltery is just a plucked psaltery – you’ll need to buy or make a bow in order to use it as a bowed psaltery. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that you’ll likely need to retune your psaltery within a week or so once the strings have been broken in and stopped shifting in terms of their tension. However, this process is incredibly easy, especially if you’ve invested in a digital toner!
Now, then, all that’s left to do is enjoy your new psaltery, and good luck with it! If you’ve made it well and secured the pieces together carefully, the psaltery should be able to last for many years – making this time you’ve spent making it a great investment that should bring you, and those around you, immeasurable joy in times to come!