Tuesday, September 8, 2015

What Matt Makes With Our Vises

There are moments here at Benchcrafted that make all our shortcomings and errors melt away like the morning dew. We're about to share with you one of those moments.

A few weeks ago we were contacted by a long time local customer Matt Sullenbrand asking if we'd like to stop by and see some of his handiwork.We knew Matt from several years ago when we delivered a set of vises to his shop, located at that time in the attic space of an old coach house attached to a Victorian-era brick Bed and Breakfast his in-laws were operating. Matt was working exclusively with hand tools, and had nearly finished a Roubo-style bench and was also putting the finishing touches on a very well-detailed treadle lathe. I was shocked that someone in this area was following the lead of Underhill and Follansbee. Iowa is the home of the Kreg Jig after all. (I do use my Kreg Jig, by the way!)

We knew from sporadic email contact that Matt had been dabbling in making keyboard instruments, but that was a few years ago, and most of our conversations were about tools and old machinery.

What we saw at Matt's simply stunned us. In just a few years, Matt had become a full-fledged Harpsichord maker.

This particular example was jaw dropping. We have a soft spot for musical instruments, and this one didn't disappoint.

The lower keys are made from boxwood, topped with gabon ebony, with bone caps on the upper keys. Hand printed paper decorates the key well.

The main case is made from poplar, and is pinned together with oak pegs. The underside is plainly finished, as is the outside of the rest of the instrument, which is finished with a traditional process using gesso and natural pigments. The outside is not finished to a high level of refinement, but possesses a more "working" look. It balances nicely with the highly refined key well and area of the soundboard, which is made of spruce.

Matt makes every aspect of the instrument except the jacks (the parts that hold the plectra) which are made by specialists using pear and holly wood. Traditionally, the plectra were made of horn, but nowadays acetal plastic (Delrin) is used. Unlike a piano, which uses felt-covered hammers to strike the strings, on a  Harpsichord depressing a key plucks the string, much like a lute or guitar. There is no dynamic control on a Harpsichord, you get one volume level from each key. So playing more keys sounds louder (since more strings are getting plucked.) Complex pieces generate a cacophonous, yet ordered sound from the instrument. It's a sounds that will put a smile on anyone's face.

Regrettably, I didn't take notes during our visit, so I don't remember a lot of the construction details. But if you have questions, ask them below and I'm sure Matt would be happy to answer.

Hopefully we'll make it back to see Matt's shop sometime in the future. The craft of luthiery is always a fascinating one, and there are many workholding lessons us furniture makers can learn from those who practice the craft.

Thanks Matt for the wonderful opportunity to see your work.


  1. Absolutely STUNNING in both appearance and sound! Incredibly well done Matt.

    Vivaldi didn't like them, but he didn't get to see or hear Matt's.

  2. I've heard harpsichords played in the past and while I can't say I'm a keyed instrument aficionado, they always seemed a bit "twangy" or "tinny" to my ears. Not so with yours Matt! What a fantastic, full, deep sound your instrument makes! I was not aware that these were still being made. Keep up the GREAT work!

  3. Thanks so much for the post, Jameel. It was great to see you. Next time, bring one of your ouds along!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.