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How Did They Do It?
Musical Instrument Making Tools at the NMM

by Arian Sheets, Curator of Stringed Instruments
With Contributions by John Koster, Conservator

The galleries at the NMM are filled with musical instruments made with many kinds of materials, in all sorts of forms, shapes, and sizes, comprising everything from a “cello” made out of a humble barrel to an exquisite, gold-and-silver trumpet constructed in Nuremberg almost three-hundred years ago. For many of us, this begs the question, “How did they do it?” Behind the scenes, the NMM holds wonderful collections (primarily in the study-storage areas) of the tools, patterns, forms, plans, and related materials required to make musical instruments. These sometimes odd assortments of objects—remnants of historic instrument making workshops—leave us with a glimpse of the working practices of instrument makers past. Every craftsperson possesses his/her own working style, even if they were rigorously trained in a particular, long-standing tradition. In addition, in the course of spending many hours performing repetitive tasks, makers often derive new methods and tools for solving old problems. In the case of commercial factory instrument production, the partially completed components, tools, and plans can provide insight into how the company operated and why their products perform the way they do.

Violin Maker’s Clamps Bearing
Antonio Stradivari’s Brand

Antonio Stradivari brand
Violin clamps bearing Antonio Stradivari brand

Perhaps the earliest tools in the NMM’s collections—a set of violin maker’s clamps—may also have the loftiest pedigree. These clamps, which came to the NMM as part of the Witten-Rawlins Collection, are made from two square blocks of wood threaded onto a wooden screw, which could be tightened to hold components of violins together as the glue dried. They bear the brand of the famed Antonio Stradivari: a cross and the initials A and S enclosed within a circle. Laurence Witten had also acquired other early violin makers’s tools, including a specific type of cutting device (on display in the Witten-Rawlins Gallery) for creating the grooves around the edge of a violin for the distinctive light and dark inlay strip known as purfling. While today most violin makers acquire such tools through companies based in Germany and Japan, in the past, they had to be made by local tool makers to the specifications of individual violin makers.

Violin-Making Tools, Workshops, and Related Archives at the NMM

Three generations of the Meisel family

Lothar and Kurt Meisel
Owatonna, Minnesota

Kurt and Lothar Meisel

Earlier in the year (2010), I had the opportunity to spend a week with Lothar Meisel, who is the ninth and last continuous generation of the Meisel family to construct violins in the tradition of their native Klingenthal, located in the German Vogtland. We spent several days labelling and cataloging the tools in his workshop, which will one day be donated and installed at the NMM. Meisel, who immigrated to the United States in 1954, remembers the origins of many of the oldest tools, some of which were passed down through several generations of his family; others were made to order in Klingenthal by local individuals whose names will be preserved in the collection’s documentation.

Stanley Newton in his workshop in Ottumwa, Iowa

Several other smaller collections of violin maker’s tools and patterns are also preserved at the NMM, including those of George Chanot, London; Stanley Newton, Ottumwa, Iowa; Willis Gault, Bethesda, Maryland; Gotfrey Yatskevich, Chicago; Nils Aspaas and John Watne, Baltic, South Dakota; and Harold Shafer, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Left: Stanley Newton works on a violin in his Ottumwa, Iowa, workshop.

Early Harpsichord and Piano Tuning Hammers

Piano tuning hammer, mid- to late 19th century, No. 8

Other particularly early tools preserved at the NMM include several harpsichord and piano tuning hammers from the 17th to late 19th centuries, two of which were associated with early Neapolitan instruments (NMM 14408 and 6041). These devices were used to turn the tuning pins, hammer in the pins to reduce slippage, and twist the ends of new harpsichord strings.

Harpsichord tuning hammer, No. 1
Harpsichord tuning hammer, No. 2
Harpsichord tuning hammer, No. 3
Harpsichord tuning hammer, No. 4
Harpsichord tuning hammer, No. 5
Harpsichord tuning hammer, No. 6
Piano tuning hammer, mid- to late 19th-century, No. 7

Tuning tools for early stringed-keyboard instruments typically have the versatility of Swiss Army knives. The socket is internally tapered so that it will fit wrest pins of different sizes; if a string breaks, the hook is used to twist the hitch-pin loop of the new string; and, the ends of the handle serve to hammer the wrest pin back into place after the new string has been wound around it. Hence the tool’s traditional name, tuning hammer. (There is also a theory that the hammer can also serve as a standard of pitch, similar to a tuning fork, if one holds it by the hook and strikes the stem.)

Lit.:  John Koster, "Hammers, Cones, and Tomes," The Shrine to Music Museum Newsletter 22, No. 4 (August 1995): 6-7.

Mid-19th Century Organ Tuning Cones

Organ tuning tools, early 19th century

A group of English pipe organ tuning cones, dating from the mid-19th century, are preserved at the NMM. These tools were used to flay the ends of individual metal pipes outward (to reduce the functional length), thereby raising the pitch, or inward, to lower the pitch. Because the size of organ pipes varies considerably, tuning cones are made in sets. The larger, single cones are used both to sharpen and flatten, while, for convenience in handling, the smaller sizes are made as "horns," consisting mainly of a handle with a "female" cone on one end and a "male" on the other. All the horns are stamped W.H. AYRES and the smallest is stamped E. HOLT / WALSALL / 1. Neither Ayres nor Holt has yet been identified, but the inscription indicates that the set of tools was made in Walsall, Staffordshire, England. The workmanship, decorative style, and lettering suggest a mid-19th-century date.

Lit.:  John Koster, "Hammers, Cones, and Tomes," The Shrine to Music Museum Newsletter 22, No. 4 (August 1995): 6-7.

The D’Angelico, D’Aquisto, Gudelsky Workshop

Reconstruction of D'Angelico/D'Aquisto/Gudelsky Workshop

A reconstruction of the workshop of the John D’Angelico and James D’Aquisto, two of the most celebrated Italian-American makers of archtop guitars, can be seen in the NMM’s Lillibridge Gallery. The most complete of the NMM’s archival workshops, the D’Angelico and D’Aquisto Collection includes everything from a custom buffing machine (made by D’Aquisto’s father for D’Angelico), to chisels, patterns, partially completed instruments, a finishing spray both, and numerous patterns for guitar components. By studying these artifacts, it is possible to gain special insight into the working styles of these makers, an opportunity that is irretrievably lost for many of their contemporaries whose tools have long-since been dispersed.

Harmony Guitar Company Tools

Harmony company tools, patterns, and related items on exhibit at the NMM

Also on view in the Lillibridge Gallery is a small workstation preserved when Harmony, the great 20th century, Chicago-based, mass-producer of stringed instruments, was dismantled after closing in 1975. The company, bought early on in its history by Sears for the purpose of supplying many of the musical instruments advertised in its catalog, made millions of inexpensive guitars and mandolins between the 1890s and 1970s. This merger afforded Americans of all means the opportunity to own a professionally constructed musical instrument. The dramatic, cast-iron, rib-bending machines (seen at left) are popular artifacts among both general visitors and musical instrument makers alike.

Gibson Company Forms and Patterns

In 2010, the NMM acquired some materials used by Gibson, the famous company founded as a producer of guitars and mandolins in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Future gallery plans include sharing with our visitors the hulking forms used to construct double basses in the 1930s and 1940s (right), as well as an extensive collection of patterns and forms used in the 1950s-1970s that set the standard specifications for components of some famous models such as the Les Paul electric guitar, and the Hummingbird, Dove, and J-200 acoustic guitars.

Gibson bass mold
A second Gibson bass mold

Holton and Leblanc Factory Collections

Leblanc mouthpiece-making machine

In some ways, the most intriguing workshop byproducts to grace our collections in recent years are certain segments of the Leblanc and Holton Archives, donated by parent company Conn-Selmer in 2008. From Leblanc, the NMM acquired a classic carving machine used to sculpt the complex form of a modern clarinet mouthpiece (left), as well as numerous drawings and instrument specifications. A sampling of the numerous engineering models produced in Holton’s widely respected product development department are also preserved at the NMM. As research into these and other great American instrument manufacturers continues, materials such as these will provide remarkable insight into the development of many instruments in use by musicians today.

Return to NMM Newsletter Index (December 2010)

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©National Music Museum, 2010
Most recent update: January 3, 2011

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