Build your own Baroque 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.

A piece of sycamore, mahogany, limewood, basswood, cedar of Lebanon, poplar, 130mm x 52mm x 77mm. Limewood is the easiest to carve, personally I use Brazilian mahogany.

Ribs, [these are the separate strips of wood that make up the back]
Sycamore, maple,[not rock maple], birds eye maple, plumwood, rosewood, kingwood, ebony, walnut, yew, cocobolo, ciracote, padauk, ash, macassar ebony,

The original is made out of figured sycamore [fiddleback] this looks very attractive but the figure is, in structural terms, a weakness and it makes it MUCH harder to bend without breaking. I would not recommend it for the first-time maker. The same is true of birds eye maple.

For those of you new to instrument making I would recommend one of the rosewoods, [particularly kingwood or cocobolo or ciracote] or plumwood. Not only do these bend more easily, they also, being coloured, need 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. 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 baroque 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 53mm wide, 760mm 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, but I do use these woods myself 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 sycamore, 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 760mm 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 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 360mm x 30mm x 8mm.

360mm x 115mm x 35mm sycamore [NOT figured], maple, beech, Brazilian mahogany. This should be strong and stable, not inclined to warp. The original is believed by some people to be in solid ebony but I wouldn’t recommend this. The grain should run along the longest measurement and if possible the growth rings should run vertically through the widest face. This is not utterly essential but is the most stable configuration.

Neck Veneer
I will be basing my design on veneering the neck with ebony as was most common in the baroque period. You can veneer with any hard dark wood, 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 either to veneer it in strips or one sheet bent to shape, either way you will need 360mm x 130mm x 1mm

This is made up just like a little box of the simplest construction. Use sycamore or beech. You need two pieces 305mm x 25mm x 10mm, one piece 65mm x 25mm x 25mm, one piece 25mm x 25mm x 25mm and one small thin sheet 300mm x 90mm x 2mm In the original this is a pierced carved piece of ebony and I will be giving designs and instructions for this but it is perfectly normal to have a plain ebony veneered back to the pegbox. In which case I would make the pegbox with a sycamore or beechwood back and then an extra veneer of ebony.

Bass Rider
Use the same wood to match the pegbox, you need a piece 150mm x 100mm x 25mm.

A normal guitar sized soundboard set, to make up 560mm x 360mm. 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. 360mm x 100mm x 2mm

Plumwood is the best for this but pearwood or 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 suviving 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!

You need enough to cut 24 pieces 130mm 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 doing the tapers and fitting them.


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