Sutton-Hoo Lyre or a Saxon Lyre

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Introduction: Sutton-Hoo Lyre or a Saxon Lyre

About: I'm a guy from Hungary. Musician, amateur astronomer, DIY-fan, airplane-fan, etc. My hobbies are important for me. In my home country the DIY-concept is an old tradition, so I became a fan in my early years.

On the saxon lyre:
The lyre is maybe the ancestor of all the plucked instruments. Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, but, before them the people of the cultures in the iron and copper age used instruments like this. The architecture of it is very simple, but efficient - take a solid frame to hang and hold the strings, attact a soundbox to it, and connect the strings onto it to amplify the sound, when you pluck it. You can play mono- or poliphonic music, chords or glissandos, and more. The saxon lyre is a well known lyre-form, since was found in a burial site in Sutton Hoo, in a grave of its owner, a saxon military man. After them we can know this instrument from the legends of the bards, who became an iconic idols of the lonely, wandering musicians of the age of tales.

Step 1: Tools & Materials

I want to show you how I reconstructed this ancient instrument to play mediaeval music on it. I didn't use any special tools.

Here is the list of the tools you need: Sandpaper, saw (I used a motorized decopir saw to work easy), drill, clamps, cutter, files, and a round-cutter. To draw get a pencil, a liner or perhaps a pair of compasses for the circles and rounds. You should have some glue for wooden parts, and paintbrushes and a varnish ball. The surface ending is optional, I varnished and polished, but the ancestors didn' polished the original ones, as even in the medieval or renaissance instruments were uncovered.

The materials you need: a block of pinewood for the frame and soundbox. Yes, it is enough, never mind this is not hardwood, the architecture is so solid you don't need any harder material for this. But you won't miss the works with hardwood, because you will need a smaller block of it for the tune pegs. This can be beech or oak, or any solid, hardwood. Then get a small block of nice hard- or semi hardwood to carve the string ending - I used mahogany, which is very good for this. And find a short, but strong, 2 mm diameter metal string or wire for the string end support. The varnishing method is your business, but maybe it is useful, more aesthetical and is saves the surface when you grab the instrument during the play. The glue must be a rapid, synthetical liquid one, forget the glue gun, and don't use glue which made of animal bones, and must be hot when used (sorry, I'm not a native speaker, and don't know its proper name, but this glue was the only glue before, very stinky and doesn't resist the air humidity, difficult to work with it, and may cause a lot of confusions. Rather use that white glue for wooden works you can find in any diy shop for cheap).

Step 2: ‚ÄčThe Plans and the Beginnings

I made some sophisticated drawings, but I wasn't satisfied with them, so made a very puritane blueprint without any pomposity. The frame is a normal frame made of pine, the cover and the back of the soundbox made of 2 mm pure pine board, but not plywood, because the plywood is to hard to transmit the whole sound spectrum to amplify. The thinner pine soundbox cover the better and louder sound - but be careful, don't go under 1,5 mm, because your instrument will be too vulnerable, and the cover may be damaged by the tension of strings. First cut the frame after your plans; the deep of the lyre is about 4-5 cm, the height is about 50-60 cm, and the soundbox begins at the half of it - as you can see on the images. There's no more rules, just imagine and plan it after your imaginations. But don't decrease nor the size of the top part, neither the soundbox - the cca 50-50 percent ratio is the ideal. You can see the thickness of the wall of the soundbox; it's enough to be 2 cm - if much more, the sound may be weaker. But the material must be enough statically to resist the tension; if too small, the lyre may collapse or deform.

Then form the back and the cover board. The correct way is to cut two half parts symmetrically, and glue them to a whole cover (and back). This is for two reasons; first is the visual symmetry, but the other is more important: the filaments in the wood may be inhomogen in the full material, but with this trick we can give an extra homogenity to this very important instrument part, and this make the sound better. When glueing, strenghten the parts with a small cardboard or canvas stripe at the hidden sides of the back and cover as seen.

Step 3: The Next Steps

Well. Now try to cut the center of the cover. Be careful - make a hole at the desired point, and carefully cut a 4 cm diameter disk. DON'T use low speed to avoid the random damages on the edges. Draw around the frame at the soundbox on the back and cover, and cut them. After it you can assemble and glue them. (I carved a rosette into the soundhole, but this was not a tradition at saxon lyres. But if you make one, first glue it on the cover from backward, an assemble the cover onto the frame after it. ) Now the lyre is pretty enough, but the main part is missing. This is the string tune peg block - but, since I have already written the method in a comment, I can easily paste those sentences here:-) See the next title:

Step 4: The Head of the Lyre

How many strings you may use? Originally te saxons used 5-6, but I planned 9 to be able also to non-pentatonic music. The choice is yours,but more then 9 is too much - in my opinion.
Now cut a block from the head of the frame, until the half of the upper part of it. (see the pics). After it cut a corresponding size block from hardwood, to fit it into the empty place you've cut off - glue it, and use clamps to push the parts to each other firmly. This strenghtened part will grab the tuning pegs at the head of the lyre. Here you will drill the holes for tuning pegs, but, please, read carefully the instructions, because this part of the lyre making is very sophisticated, and may contain some traps. I have a good friend, who builds harpsichords, that's why I could get some pegs for harpsichord, but you can use zither pegs, too. First, when you drill the hole for steel pegs (zither or other), remember you should make a hole with lesser diameter than the pegs have. I used pegs with 4 mm, and the hole was 3,8 mm. This proportion (0,9) is very important, otherwise the pegs won't fit strongly, and can't resist the tension of the strings. (I hardly found a drill in the given size, but I didn't give up:-)) Never use other wood than hardwood - the drilling into it will be more problematic, but the pegs must fit safely. Over 6 strings plan the holes in 'W' line, to spare place, and to increase the distance between the holes; the holes with too short distances between one another threaten the block to rip when you insert the peg. And how to insert the pegs into the drilled holes: take a soap (not liquid, but solid), and coat with it the part of the peg you will bury into the hole, before insert it. This is important too, otherwise the pegs will cry when turned. And how to insert? Try it with a rubber hammer, but attach a small hardwood block between the head of the peg and the rubber hammer, and be sure you hold the peg in the proper angle. Be careful, this is the most dangerous part of the building, and that's why you must use the correct size; the larger diameter won't grip as it needed, but, if the hole is too narrow, this is the point, (the hammering) when the hardwood pegblock will rip. Be careful!

The pegs are difficult to get, but you may try to ask a metal turner to make some 4 mm diameter, 3-4 cm long pegs from iron. (No steel needed) You would flatten the top a little bit, and drill the neck with 1-1,5 mm, and curve the butts with a normal hand metal file. Or the turner could use even proper sized bolts (screws) with six side head, removing the screwing surface to be flat (I'm sorry, but I don't know the correct word for this operation:-) ) - and, perhaps this may be more easy...

Step 5: The Bridge and the String Support

I made a trapezoid block, drilled out the inner corners, cut an inner block from it, and carved the frame. You can see this part on the pictures. I used mahogany, because that is a very carveable and interesting reddish-brownish color wood. Never use any woods with larger, inhomogenic filament, unless you want to rip the support when tuning the strings. And you don't need to use harder wood, because the carving will be too hard on it. If you are not sure in the resistance against the tension, don't carve out the inner window, or plan it smaller. Be creative, and try to get a small block of the mahogany, because that won't cause any unwanted surprises... When finished, drill 2 holes at the bottom of the support frame, and insert a 1-1.5 mm diameter brass or copper wire and make a knot to hang it at the butt of lyre; here start the strings running to the tuning pegs. For the proper hanging you should glue a thick stick there - like a leg of a cello. Drill a hole into the butt of the frame, and fit a stick into it with a 1-2 cm outer part - that's all. Then take some hardwood, and carve the bridge. Originally the lyre often made with amber (yes, that yellow mineral which sometimes contains insect fossils). I had not any of this material, but wanted to make a bridge from bone - haven't managed. I was not able to get any legbones of a cow, perhaps, because I live in a capital in Europe, and I unfortunately can see much more cars than cows on the roads:-) But the bone is the ideal. I used a special wood which has some oriental name - I can't recall it:-) It's like the bamboo, but is harder. Works, but I've been chaseing bones for years.

Step 6: Finishing

Polishing, varnishing is not necessary, but recommended. Be creative, you may carve the surface, or may paint, or anything else you can imagine.

And you will need a tuner key or handle. I made mine by a T-shaped screwdriver, fitting a small metal 'grabber' into its nut - sorry again, as a non native speaker I don't the proper name of this small, special thing, but I made it from a nut which was fitting into the larger nut...
Strings and tuning system: I've tried some systems, and strings, and here is my opinion: use plastic, classical guitar strings, and, depending of the free string lenght try to tune them like this: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-c-d. You may tune scordature if needed, for example #F, # C, or bB, bE, e.t.c. depending on the keys or sequences.

I made my lyre at 2008, and I like it very much, I have already on recordings, cd-s, on stages and in the radio, too. Never failed, and the people often ask me about it, because they find it very interesting, exotic instrument. I think, it's easy and worthy of build.

Here is the sound of it:

http://tabulatura.hu/blasius/lira/lyra.mp3

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    1 Questions

    Have you seen the supplier of C. B. Gitty.com...? They are the cigar box nation, and have TONS of supplies for your instruments...and I mean a ton...strings, tuning pegs, even the small amplifiers, tuning keys, fret wires, decorations AND THE BONE you are looking for...bridges of all kinds of materials and very reasonable cost! And they ship internationally! YEAH>..check them out for those more perfect creations of yours, or add to what you are doing:) Still working on mine, coming along great!! Thank you for your instructable!:)

    Yeah, I've just noticed your question, sorry. Thanks, and, if you look for 'Bwana' on the 'cigarboxnation.com', well, it's me. I've made a CBG for a lot of years before, then registered there, so I may claim I' a cigar box guy, too:-)

    By the way, thanks for this help, the bone is o.k. for me now, a friend of mine gave one to me, but now I'm too lazy for bone carving:-)

    Small amps - my favourite project, I used to build a lot of them for CBG-s or other instruments, and, as the other beloved DIY-hobby, I often make fuzz boxes and overdrives, mixers, amps too.

    Unfortunately I play rock and blues rarely, because of my medieval ensemble. But thanx for the ideas.

    Fhtang:-)

    25 Comments

    Hello, Tangski, and thanks for your honourable mention of my work. I'm trying to answer your questions.
    Yo can see a block of pine at the beginning of my issue; the dimensions are cca.: 20x50x4 in centimeters. When cutting the frame try to plan a 2 cms frame side, but perhaps this may seem too thick, but never forget the pinewood is a very light wooden material, think about the deformatons of it when gets humidity from the air, and other influences; so don't let the sides too thin - although this frame will decrease the sound of the lyre. To make it louder use thin cover and back - 1,5-2 millimeters thin - and try to put a 2 mm diameter hardwood stick between the cover and back to connect them, under the point where the bridge presses the cover. This idea was not mentioned in the ible, because it is not a tradition at lyres (but some similar part is seen on a celtic "crwth", although it starts from the upper leg of the bridge and goes throught the cover to reach the back. The method itself is used at violins at cellos; In Hungarian we call this hardwood stick "soul of the violin", and is a very good, but modern way to increase the loudnes of a stringed instrument. Luthiers use it from 16. century, so it was not available in he 7. c. when our lyre dated from:-)
    The antler. Thank you, very interesting, I have never worked with antler, I don't know anything of it: hardness, tools to work on it, density, others... but, if you made your own bridge, I'll honestly interested your experience, and I'd try it, if you can send me a small one - thanks for it. Anyway, you mention Nord; are you from there somewhere?
    The soundhole is locate above the bridge, but not to touch the soundbox upper edge, I didn't use any math, but 'm sure there would be formula for that (my good friend, the old instrument maker master uses formulae for everything, but in my opinion a saxonian soldier, who owned the original SuttonHoo lyre, didn't when made his instrument. So nor did I.)
    The tuner key is a hexagonal nut driver, including a proper size nut, with a gap in it. I cut it with a metal saw, the size is equal to the inner diameter of the nut. Cut it only the one side, and stress apart a bit before push it into the hollow, not to fall out when using.
    Well, I'm glad to see your interest about my lyre, thanks for offering the antler, and I hope you will make a lyre much better than mine.

    Fhtang:-)

    2 replies

    Sorry for the many notes below!LOL I am doing an experimental one from oak...so the frame part is going to be much thinner...just to see what happens...:) Since it is all hardwood, I am doing a mahogany thin plywood back and front. Again, just to see what happens. I am experimenting so I can also make one from clay and glass. I am interested in instruments and am experimenting with mediums:) Did you mention the size for the mahogany you carved out? and spacing between the pegs at top and bottom..:) that will help with placement. I am in Canada. I will be using your project for a few experiments:) Thank you for your quick answer too...I appreciate it. Will see about a picture when I am finished with this trial. I am also thinking of making pegs from Aluminium rod since I have some of that and not steel...LOL Cheers buddy!...

    I think, the oak frame with a thin wall will be stable enough, being it is hardwood, just perhaps if the thinness is too small, the instrument will not keep the correct tuning when using more strings (the authentical saxon lyre has five, I use nine), so you will tune it more times than normally would. But the mahogany cover and back is interesting a bit; as I've learned, at least the cover must be soft, light wooden material, like pinewood, to be able to react well the string sound energy via the bridge. That's why lutes (my main instruments between guitars and other plucked instruments on stage) have very light cover made of 1,5 mms pinewood. If you use plywood and mahogany, it may be too big mass because of its density to transmit enough energy from the string to sound loudly. But - of course - it's an interesting project to do experiments. The clay and glass is funny:-) Although there are instruments made of clay - ocarina, its sound is pale, but nice. I think these high density and non-elastic materials absorb too many energy from the string when plucked.
    But an idea for some experiments: try the harder polyurethane foil sheet (people use it as floor-tiles, so it must resist the footsteps) covered 0,5 mm plywood on the both sides; with this plus material you gain a very light, very homogenous and friendly sheet to use as cover, the sound transmitting rate is excellent, and it is only your business what kind of plywood you use. This "composite" sheet may be thinner, about 4-6 mms, and is surprisingly elastic and stable. I don't say this without experiences - I've have had a renaissance guitar (vihuela) made of this experimental material, by my old luthiers master, its face was perfectly wooden look, and the sound was a dream! He made more instruments with this method, guitars and lutes, and the theory works. Just an idea...
    Won't the aluminium pegs be deformed when you tune? The string forces in it try to twist it; if the peg is not stable enough, you always will fight with the tuning and the correct frequencies. Use hardwood (as at violins or lutes), or iron screws removed the spiral from it, perhaps larger nails. The only part on my own lyre I didn't make myself was the peg; I was lucky , because my harpsichord maker friend gave me a dozen of harpsichord tuning pegs. These pegs are perfect, made of steel, with a hole and a flattened part on the outer end, and a rounded part on the inner. Its installing was not easy - it needed correct and accurate holes, and some soap on the pegs, and a hammer to fix them (the whole procedure is written above with measures and technics).
    The mahogany part is cca 1 cm thin - this is important for the stable inserting of the pegs. With hardwood frame you won't need any, just make holes into the oak, it is more better than mahogany - anyway, the original saxon lyre frames were made of hardwood, as I've mentioned it was my idea to make it by pinewood, because of my tools and the materials I had.
    The images about the finished one will make me happy. And the sound, too, please.
    Have nice days when you are building, and after, too, when playing on it.

    Very nice project! I have a couple of questions. How thick and wide is the pine board, and how thick is the side sections after you cut out the centre part? I don't seem to see the dimentions there for that, and that helps to know how much material I need for the back and top part. I have some antler which I am going to use for the bridge, and can send you some if you like! Cheers!

    Very nice project, but I have a couple of questions:) How big is the block of pine (width, thickness) ...and how thick are the sides that you left after cutting out the centre? Where did you place the hole...how far down? Does it matter? The peg tuner is made from a hollow metal tube and a nut...so, how did you cut the nut to fit the tuning pegs? Just a few things I could not find...which do matter:) I am thinking of making the bridge from antler...which I could send you some if you like, since bone is hard for you to find:) Cheers!

    Very nice project that does sound wonderful. I do have a couple of questions. How thick are the sides of the main frame? And if you would like bone...what about using antler..that was very common for Nords to be able to use and many may have used that as well, in place of bone? I have some, and am thinking of cutting that for the bridge part. I could send some antler to you if you like. Not sure how you made the peg turner for tuning...looks like you cut and end out of the bolt so it would fit the peg? Thank you and great project.!

    Thank you, Daraen, I'm very glad to read this. I've seen your deviant page, but how to jump forward?

    Unfortunately, I can only read the page with those paper templates. Or is this project in progress with continuous advance, as a blog?

    I'm really interested of your work! And thanks for the post it here!

    2 replies

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YqQQ6edK6K8 If you're still interested in my project, I share you the video of the first recording (with the last picture i took of my lyre)

    It's a work in progress, I still need to do the sound boards to purchase the bridge, tuning pegs ans string, then to make the tail piece.

    Sorry it took me so long to find this, I have been hit hard lately with school, sports, commission work, and band. You did a MUCH better job writing this than I did! I hope to one day be able to revisit the lyre, and this will definetely help me!

    Ah, well, I've just seen, you mean the string support - I'm sorry! But never mind, it was my old promise to take those close pics about the head, at least I have published it, too.

    So I run on it again: The support (that trapezoid frame, you mean, I hope:-) ). You can see the 2 holes at the shorter end of the support, these are 3 mm diameter holes, to fix a strong double bass string with a knot on it. The attaching is similar like violins: take a 20 cm double bass string (or copper wire) piece, put its ends into the holes, make a knot (or wrap it around when using wire) to get a loop, and attach it on the small peg at the butt of the lyre. No gluing needed.

    I used a piece of double bass string first, being a traditional way at these instruments, but one night I waked up by a loud noise - this was the moment, when the string died, and slingshoted all the strings with the support. To fix this problem, I took a piece of wire (2 mm minimum diameter), and changed the double bass string to it.

    Perhaps the most efficient way to get some thick string that is not gut-string, but plastic, damyl, or some hardcore fishing line. The tension is minimum 50 kg, but the stronger your string is, the better stability of the tuning will be guaranteed.

    I'll update the step with a photo immediately.

    Cthulhu Fthang

    Thank you, Cryadis! I hope you are asking me because you want to build a lyre like this:-) Good idea!
    I have already updated the step "The head of the lyre" with 2 close pics I have taken today. Unfortunately I haven't any pics about the drilled but not pegged phase, because I have made this lyre 5-6 years ago, and I haven't taken more pics when I originally documented it:-(

    As I mention on the new pictures, first glue the body and the mahogany block together, press them firmly, and after this procedure you can drill holes, but not only into the mahogany block, but together with the body. The hardwood holes will keep firmly the pegs against the unwanted turns, while the holes toward the body will only fix them to avoid any loosenings whihch are caused by the tension of the strings.

    Cthulhu Fthang

    Looks and sounds great! Could you add couple of photos of the mahogany string support, specifically where the holes are drilled for the strings? Also, was this glued to the sound board?

    Thanks, I'll edit a short vid to show it on stages...

    Love it. I live not to far from Sutton hoo as well

    Oh, that looks lovely - could we hear it?

    1 reply

    Thanks, of course, I have just posted a link to listen at the end of this instructable. But I will make a sound collection of it using some radio and cd- recordings, and I'll try find some vids about its usage - coming soon, I hope...:-)