Introduction: Lessons Learned in Making a Medieval Vielle

This is my replica of a medieval vielle, an ancestor of the modern violin. It was played by troubadours from the 13th to the 15th centuries.

This is not meant to be a complete guide to making a vielle, nor is my vielle particularly authentic. I made it because I wanted to see if I could and because I thought it would be easier than a violin (yes on both counts).

Tools used were:

bandsaw

planer

scrollsaw (for the c-holes)

curved planes (for shaping the arched belly)

chutzpah

Step 1: Basic Measurements

As stated, my vielle is not exactly authentic.

I made it quite small so it was more comfortable for a violin player. A traditional vielle is closer to a viola in size.

The main differences between the vielle and the modern violin (apart from the body shape) are that the fretboard and bridge are at a much lower angle, the fretboard is almost flat, and the vielle has tied frets, made of catgut (or nylon in my case).

I followed basic lutherie technique making the body. The ribs were steam bent around a mold and reinforced with thin strips of wood along the edges where they are glued to the body and back. The same mold was used as a template for cutting out the belly and back, with an overlap of about 2mm all around. The ribs are very thin, about 2mm.

My vielle has a soundpost, which is not traditional. Mostly I just wanted to see if I could do it. I set it in place with a bent length of stiff wire, sharpened at one end.

Step 2: Neck and Pegboard

The vielle has a less steep neck angle than a modern violin. Additionally, the neck is traditionally attached with a screw or nails to the body, but I used a mortise and tenon joint like a violin. After a few years, this joint came loose, as you can see in the close up. Resetting it would involve removing the belly and reglueing.

You can also see the top pegs are set at an angle. This I highly recommend NOT doing, as the strings are wont to slip off. The neck is left unvarnished, as with a violin, to reduce friction with the hand. The pegboard is a separate piece, attached with a dovetail joint to the neck.

The frets are made from a nylon guitar string, and positioned with a fret calculator and a bit of trial and error.

Step 3: Belly and Back

The belly is made of bookmatched Sitka Spruce. I arched the belly very slightly using curved planes, but a traditional vielle has a bent belly. I arched it because a) I wanted to use my planes and b) it meant the ribs were easier to make, since they could be the same height all around. The back is one piece and flat.The belly was reinforced with a couple of thin ribs across the widest parts. Both belly and back are about 4mm thick.

Step 4: Tailpiece and Bridge

The tailpiece is a simple piece of wood, held in place by the tension of the strings, as with a violin. The peg is a violin peg, the strap is a shoelace. The bridge is a standard violin bridge, cut short (because of the flatter neck angle) and flattened on top a bit. The fretboard of the vielle is almost flat, which makes playing chords easier and melodies harder except on the top and bottom string.

The vielle plays nicely, though it sounds quite thin and reedy due mostly to the lower neck angle. I actually preferred plucking it, like a mandolin. It stays in tune very well.

All in all, making this vielle was a fun experience, but if you are after something more authentic for your Early Music group, I would recommend buying a kit from a real luthier.

Comments

author
TerryA24 made it!(author)2016-01-28

Thank you for doing that sir!

author
TerryA24 made it!(author)2016-01-25

any chance I could get a plan of that instrument? or maybe a spec drawing at lease.. I ant to make a Vielle but cant find plans anywhere on the web?

author
spookylean made it!(author)2016-01-26

Hi, happy to help but I never had a plan, I just winged it based on photographs. If you like I can send you detailed photos of the construction, along with some basic measurements. Feel free to msg me.

author
bwells2 made it!(author)2011-12-19

Could you make a vielle out of a cigar box?

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spookylean made it!(author)2011-12-20

I think that would be just the same as a cigar box violin... except for the tied frets?

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zzoe made it!(author)2012-04-07

Beautiful.

Does it have a sound-post? Is that low string meant for plucking? I've heard that that is sometimes done. How did you choose to tune the strings?

Found your work while searching for something quite unrelated - i must say i'm impressed. Good work.

N.B. Perhaps one could make a cigar box vielle, along the lines of the square type (Mary Rose) . I must say that as a junk instrument maker, and a musician with an interest in Medieval music, i love the idea of a cigar-box vielle.

author
spookylean made it!(author)2012-04-07

It does have a sound post. And sometimes I plucked it, sometimes I bowed it. The bridge is much flatter than a violin bridge which means it plays chords well but melodies not so well. I tuned it to GDAE but it also worked in AEAE. I think. It's been a while. thanks!

author
zzoe made it!(author)2012-04-08

Cool. You're welcome. I've played similar things, and you might try letting the bulk of the strings function as drones and play more 'linear' style melodies on the high string (s). easier than the more complex fingerings, in some ways, but the fingers have to be pretty nimble on the neck!
Cheers, and thanks again!

author
bwells2 made it!(author)2012-01-04

Does it have a flat bridge or a violin styled bridge on your masterpiece?

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bwells2 made it!(author)2012-01-04

at $8 for a baritone ukulele set of nylguts at amazon, it might be a steal compare to natural gut.

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bwells2 made it!(author)2012-01-04

What about nylgut from Aquila as strings? It also comes in a natural color, It is made for ukuleles, banjos, guitars.

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bwells2 made it!(author)2011-12-20

Fretted bowed instruments sound awesome!

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bwells2 made it!(author)2011-12-08

You have created a masterpiece of a musical genious.

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bwells2 made it!(author)2011-11-19

What strings do you have on it?

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spookylean made it!(author)2011-11-21

I don't honestly remember, but probably standard D'Addario light violin strings. Would be more authentic with gut, of course!

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bwells2 made it!(author)2011-11-26

Gut strings are rare, and expensive, though.

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bwells2 made it!(author)2011-06-30

Can you either, upload a youtube vid or a mp3 file of the instrument? thanx

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spookylean made it!(author)2011-10-26

I tried to do this today and found out my bow has sprung (I don't play anymore). If I get it re-haired I'll give it a shot.

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bwells2 made it!(author)2011-09-15

What strings did you use on your masterpiece

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jamiec53 made it!(author)2011-04-10

Nice!

Does it play?

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spookylean made it!(author)2011-04-10

It plays, if a bit reedily. It also sounds good plucked as a mandolin.

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bwells2 made it!(author)2011-09-15

I like it reedy, that might make it sound authentic.

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jamiec53 made it!(author)2011-04-10

Great! Now for a step by step!

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bwells2 made it!(author)2011-09-14

I want to hear this baby sing!

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bwells2 made it!(author)2011-09-10

I bet it sounds beautiful.

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