Build your own Renaissance Lute!

Following the passage of the amendment to the Lacey Act in the USA and some equivalent legislation that will follow in the EU, the movement of wood across national borders has become much more controlled. The aim is admirable; it is to reduce the amount of illegal logging that goes on round the world, however the result is a great increase in bureaucracy and some really draconan penalties for infringement.

From April 1, 2010, all shipments of imported pianos and other stringed instruments (including lutes and guitars) will have to be accompanied by a declaration listing, among other things, the scientific name (genus and species) of all wood and other plant material used in the imported product, as well as the country of origin of the wood. Specifically, any imported product subject to Harmonized Tariff Schedule Chapters 9201 and 9202 ( is subject to the new disclosure requirement. More information about the Lacey Act.

The net effect is that it will be much easier to buy wood inside your own national borders rather than importing wood from abroad because small woodyards are very unwilling to do the necessary paperwork and are very worried about the penalties for non-compliance. If you are exporting or importing the completed lute you too will be liable for any failure to comply and theoretically at least it could result in the seizure and/or destruction of your instrument if you get caught.

This page will give more details
This direct link to a “webinar” will give you some advice.


I have listed these in roughly the order in which they will be needed. If cash-flow is a problem, spread the cost by buying the soundboard after finishing the back of the lute.


MDF [medium density fibreboard] To be clear about this: it is a smoothfaced board a bit like a thick hardboard but with both sides smooth, it behaves as if made out of extremely compressed paper. The dust from it is irritating and a mask should be worn while sanding or cutting it with a bandsaw. In fact ALL hardwood dust is now thought to be somewhat carcinogenic and you should take reasonable precautions when creating dust.
You need 90cm x 60cm x 12mm.


120mm x 55mm x 75mm. The grain should run along the longest side.

Sycamore [Acer pseudoplatanus]
Mahogany [Swietenia spp.]
Limewood, known as basswood in the USA [Tilia spp]
Cedar of Lebanon [Cedrus]
Yellow cedar [Chamaecyparis nootkatensis]
Poplar [Populus spp.] or [Liriodendron tulipifera]!!

Limewood is the easiest to carve, personally I use Brazilian mahogany or poplar. (Nb. The names of common woods vary a lot from country to country so never take anything for granted without checking the Latin species name. In the case of poplar the several European poplars [Populus spp.] are not related at all to the wood commonly called poplar in the USA and Canada [Liriodendron tulipifera] while populus is usually called cottonwood. In this particular case both Populus and Liriodendron tulipifera would be suitable for this part of the lute)

[these are the separate strips of wood that make up the back]

This is my order of preference for this lute for a first-time builder:

  • Rosewood [Dalbergia spp.]
  • Indian Rosewood [Dalbergia latifolia.]
  • Kingwood [Dalbergia caerensis]
  • Ash [Fraxinus spp.] You can sometimes find ash with a nice fiddleback figure.
  • Yew [Taxus baccata]
  • Plumwood [Prunus]
  • Cherrywood [this is also a Prunus and bends well but I find it very boring in appearance.]
  • Hornbeam [Carpinus betulus]
  • Goncalo alves [Astronium spp.]
  • Walnut [Juglans regia or Juglans nigra]
  • Cocobolo [Dalbergia retusa]
  • Padauk [Pterocarpus spp.]
  • Ebony [Diospyros spp.]
  • Plane [Platanus spp.]
  • Sycamore [Acer pseudoplatanus] The fiddleback figure is much harder to plane evenly
  • Maple [Acer saccharinum]
  • Birds eye maple [Acer saccharum]
  • Holly [Ilex]

The original is made out of ivory with ebony spacing lines between the ribs. This is obviously not possible nowadays, but if you like the effect of a white lute, you should try hornbeam which is readily available in straight grained pieces, at least in Europe. Or holly, which is even whiter if cut to thickness when still wet and dried very quickly, but is almost impossible to find in sufficient size without some twist or spiral growth.

There are some original renaissance lutes made of exotic rosewoods and there is the famous inventory of Raymond Fugger from 1566 which lists lutes made from a very wide range of materials including several of ivory. But for those of you new to instrument making I would particularly recommend yew for this lute. It was one of the most commonly used woods, apart from sycamore, for surviving lutes of this period and is much easier than figured sycamore to bend without breaking. Yew also, being coloured, needs far less skill when varnishing. Putting coloured varnish evenly onto light woods is one of the hardest and most dispiriting jobs of all. For this reason alone I would STRONGLY recommend you to choose a nicely coloured wood for the back. Or you could also use plumwood or one of the rosewoods, [particularly kingwood or cocobolo] These also bend easily and are nicely coloured. This list is not at all exhaustive and there are a lot of timbers native to your different counties which would work well. Have a look at: for an account of some Australian possibilities.

The tone of the lute will be SLIGHTLY affected by your choice of wood for the back, but the existing renaissance lutes come in all sorts of different woods and any of these should be appropriate. In general the harder and heavier the wood the louder and more projecting the lute, but it is only a slight effect.

You will need enough to cut out 14 consecutive slices of wood 54mm wide, 640mm long and 2.5mm thick. The finished thickness is 1.5mm but you will need to allow for saw marks and wanderings to be planed and sanded off so be careful, if you are having it sawn by a huge sawmill machine you may need to increase the thickness to ensure 1.5mm of useable wood. Make sure that you number the slices consecutively as the natural markings of the wood will vary through the piece and the finished lute will look much nicer if these changes are gradual and regular. The 14 pieces are to allow for 11 ribs, the endclasp and a couple of spares!

The wood for the neck, soundboard and bars should be quarter-sawn for stability. But the ribs on old lutes were quite often "slab-sawn" and in some cases, like birdseye maple, they *have* to be slab-sawn for the figure to appear properly. More or less any grain orientation can be used for the ribs, but the quarter-sawn will be the most stable and predictable in bending. By quarter-sawn I mean the growth rings vertical to the wide surface of the wood, just like the soundboard.

There is one important contra-indication to the use of the rosewoods, cocobolo and kingwood: for some sensitive individuals these woods cause significant allergic reactions. If you have the opportunity, please try working some sample wood before committing yourself to working for a long time with them

Also, you may feel that the use of tropical rainforest woods, such as these, is against the spirit of ecological conservation. This is not an absolute matter since one argument for allowing the use of such woods is that trading in them might create an economic value for the forests, leading to their greater survival. I'm not certain this actually holds true in practice, but I do use these woods myself for some lutes because of their acoustic qualities.

Rib Spacers

These are the thin strips of wood between each rib. In the original they are ebony, but that is because the ribs are ivory, the point is to have as strong a contrast in colour as possible. Don’t think these make the construction more difficult, they make it much easier! The contrast makes it harder for the eye to pick up imperfections in the joints, and managing the extra bit of wood is really not a problem. I strongly advise the use of these strips, and anyway they improve the appearance! If you are using a dark wood for your ribs get strips in holly or sycamore or boxwood; if you are using light ribs get strips of ebony or rosewood or even sycamore stained black. You need about a dozen and the best measurement is 0.8mm thick x 2.5mm wide and 640mm long. You will need two ebony strips of the same size for the edges to the soundboard when the lute is nearly finished, I’d order these at the same time and also get some spares, they are easily broken!


This is the little bent piece of pine or spruce that goes round the bottom of the lute inside where the endclasp is. You need a piece 300mm x 30mm x 8mm.


For the six course version: 270mm x 65mm x 37mm
For the seven course version: 270mm x 75mm x 27mm
sycamore [NOT figured], maple, beech, mahogany. This should be strong, stable and not inclined to warp. The grain should run along the longest measurement and if possible the growth rings should run vertically. This is not utterly essential but is the most stable configuration.

Neck Veneer

I will be basing my design on veneering the neck with decorative stripes like the original lute, but it is quite in the character of the period to have a simple plain neck made out of the same wood as the ribs. This cuts out quite a few complications and would be well worth doing if you a first-time maker. You can veneer with any hardwood, but do note that this is saw-cut veneer about 1mm thick it is NOT modern knife-cut veneer, which is MUCH too thin. You will need to veneer it in strips because of the tight radius of the cross-section of the neck and particularly its hollow curved profile. If you are veneering, you will need a total of about 260mm x 110mm x 1mm of hardwood.


For the six course version you need two pieces 160mm x 20mm x 10mm, one piece 65mm x 25mm x 25mm, one piece 25mm x 25mm x 25mm and one small thin sheet 160mm x 60mm x 2mm. (In the original this is a piece of ivory.)
For the seven course version you need two pieces 180mm x 20mm x 10mm, one piece 65mm x 25mm x 25mm, one piece 25mm x 25mm x 25mm and one small thin sheet 180mm x 70mm x 2mm. (In the original this is a piece of ivory.)
This is made up just like a little box of the simplest construction. Use sycamore or beech or walnut.


A normal small guitar sized soundboard set, to make up 490mm x 320mm. This is the single most important piece of wood for the sound of the lute. The grain should be dead straight and even, the growth rings vertical through the board and, if you can judge it, the hidden splitting grain should run exactly parallel to the surface of the front. This is sometimes called “run-out” and there should be as little run-out as possible. This is very difficult to judge! Try to get your front from a real instrument supplier who knows about this matter and ask for this specifically. There are several different kinds of spruce / pine and a lot has been written about the various types. I believe the best is so-called Swiss pine, picea abies or, picea excelsa , however some people swear by picea engelmannii , I have not used it myself and didn’t like the feel of the sample I was sent, but, if you do use this, I would recommend making the front SLIGHTLY thicker. I would NOT recommend sitka spruce picea sitchensis , it is very clean and attractive but I don’t like the sound it gives and don’t believe it is right for lutes.


These are the cross-pieces under the soundboard which support it, and their size and position determine in large measure the quality of the sound of the instrument. They should be made of the same wood as the soundboard and also quarter-sawn, like the front. This is important, the year-rings should run parallel to the surface of the soundboard, not vertical like guitar bracing. You need enough to make 8 braces across the front 25mm deep x 6mm wide. [This is enough for spares, sometimes you can get enough off the sides of the soundboard pieces to make the braces, so if you have the chance, buy the thickest and widest soundboard pieces possible to cover the braces as well. However choose the soundboard first of all for grain quality, size for bars is just a secondary consideration!]


Usually ebony, but you could use any hard dark wood, perhaps Jarrah would be good for the Australian party. 260mm x 65mm x 2mm for the six course and 260mm x 75mm x 2mm for the seven course version.


Plumwood is the best for this but walnut, pearwood, sycamore or maple would do. Should be a nice straight even grained piece 230mm x 25mm x 12mm


Again, plumwood is excellent and used in a lot of surviving instruments, personally I like making my pegs out of cocobolo, it’s slightly poisonous I’m told, but has the most wonderful smoothness and stability in use. Do NOT use ebony, it is dreadful and gives no end of trouble as the humidity changes. All those black pegs you see on historic instruments are fruitwoods stained black! Violins sometimes use ebony, but they’ve only got four chunky pegs and then they use fine tuners anyway, so take no nonsense from them, luteplayers know far more about pegs!

For the six course version you need enough to cut 11 pieces 100mm x 12mm x 20mm tapering to 10mm, plus how ever many spares you think you might need.

For the seven course version you need enough to cut 13 pieces 100mm x 12mm x 20mm tapering to 10mm, plus how ever many spares you think you might need.

I shall be teaching the basics of turning the pegs in the course and if you can do it I will be giving all the dimensions of the finished pegs and describing the ways of shaping the tapers and fitting them to the pegbox.


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