Why Harpsichords in a Cabinet Shop?

A regular question we get from visitors is: why do we have a harpsichord maker? 

Fair enough, so to introduce what hopefully will be regular and useful contributions to this site, I’ll answer this question and justify my existence here at the same time.

Take a quick look at our shop ads from the 18th century Virginia Gazette.  Among them is one placed by Benjamin Bucktrout when he took over the shop from Anthony Hay in 1767.  While the ad emphasizes the continuation of the cabinetmaking under new management, Bucktrout notes at its end that he could make and repair spinets and harpsichords. 

It remains the only documented offer of this kind of work in Tidewater Virginia before the Revolution.  Amazing, but there it is.

Did Bucktrout make any instruments?  We have no way of fully knowing, since we lack all of the internal shop daybooks, ledgers and accounts.   Isolated references to work performed by the shop over its 25-year operation survive in individual private and business accounts, but that is not nearly as good as having running, day by day accounts over the period.

We can say that it was not a frivolous offer.  Among those isolated charges are Bucktrout’s making a packing case for shipping a harpsichord for Robert Carter III, one of the wealthiest planters in Virginia, when Carter moved out of Williamsburg back to his estate on the Virginia Northern Neck in 1772.  Even better are three recently discovered receipts written by Bucktrout, charging Williamsburg attorney St. George Tucker for spinet and harpsichord maintenance work.   The two 1792 receipts detail the making and installing of 37 spinet tongues for jacks.  These are the little pivot pieces that actually hold the plectra inside the instrument, as in these photos. 

Spinet Mechanism

Detail of jack showing plectra

The third receipt, from 1799, records Bucktrout “unpacking & fixing up an Organized Harpsichord.”  Suffice right now to say that this may have been an interesting combination of organ and harpsichord, not unheard of in the history of keyboard instruments.  More on that perhaps in a later posting.

Granted, these receipts are some thirty years after Bucktrout’s ad about spinet work.  But it all tells me that Bucktrout himself may have had some background in instrument work in England before he emigrated to Virginia.  A cabinetmaker offering keyboard instrument work?  It is not without precedent, that skills in one branch of woodworking opened the door to employment in another.  Both of the leading 18th century London harpsichord makers, Burkat Shudi and Jacob Kirckmann, began their careers initially trained as joiner and cabinetmaker, respectively.  Their skills led them to London where they found work in an established harpsichord shop where they learned a new trade on-the-job.  They went on to professional and financial successes in their second careers.

In colonial Virginia, it paid to be a versatile tradesman and offer a variety of services.  So while a cabinet shop offering spinet and harpsichord services might seem an odd combination at first thought (and indeed they normally were not connected like this, but practiced separately), history tells us that they may not have been as remote from each other as we previously thought.

So that is the history that makes my presence possible here in the Hay shop site.  I have inherited the mantle of good work and artisanship from George Wilson and Marcus Hansen, my former masters who served Colonial Williamsburg for decades in the old Musical Instrument Makers Shop (anybody out there remember that place?) and in the development of our current spinet work.  I hope my work proves worthy of their legacy.

Below is a picture of my current spinet, in the assembly stages.  It is based on a 1726 spinet made by Cawton Aston, in Colonial Williamsburg’s collections.  I’ll keep everyone updated as it comes together.  I hope to share, as I can, the successes and pitfalls of the processes.  I’ve already got a couple of ideas.  See you all soon.


Current spinet in progress

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11 Responses to Why Harpsichords in a Cabinet Shop?

  1. Margaret says:

    Our favorite place in Colonial Williamsburg was the musical instrument shop! We wanted to purchase an instrument but couldn’t afford to. Thanks for the interesting article! I look forward to watching the spinet progress.

  2. Shannon says:

    How common was it for the harpsichord maker to also be able to play his instruments? What was the typical wood used for the sound board?

    • Hello Shannon,
      To your questions: historically, I know of very few, if any, historical makers who were also players of their instruments. Some 18th century musicians say in ads that they could do maintenance on instruments, but that’s the closest connection I’ve found between the two, playing and building. Today many builders enter the trade because they play and got curious about the building aspects. That’s not just for harpsichords, but guitars and violins and others as well. As to soundboards, the wood of choice has always been spruce, with a long tradition in European instrument traditions. Some other woods enter the historical picture and today Pacific Northwest spruces certainly play a role. My batch is European.
      Soundboards are a whole area of great debate and opinion. The stuff of many, many future posts. Hope this helps.
      Ed Wright

  3. Sean FitzGerald says:

    Thank you for doing this blog!

  4. JC says:

    I don’t do blog entries. Adam Cherubini’s “Arts & Mysteries” got me here. He said yall were worth a look and deserved encouragement.
    I came and looked because once upon a time — way back in 19and 57 when I was the new kid in school, my 4th grade class our Spring class trip got us to Colonial Williamsburg.

    Funny thing about that trip… I was just a country boy from West Virgina, new to all things “VIRGINIA” but most of the tools and skills and stuff demonstrated to my class that day were old friends. I had done a lot of them or watched the adults in my family and around do them. That put me in the “can I try it” bunch as opposed to the “mouth open golly” bunch.

    That experience set me up to always have an eye on Colonial Williamsburg — mostly from afar — but always with interest. All of that contributed to the fuel that has helped me along the way as a life-long Maker-of-Things and Doer-of-Deeds.

    I have enjoyed my visit today. I took a copy of the bench — I expect I’ll find good use for it. I have a young Cousin who needs a bigger bench. Thanks for that.


    Thanks for one more thing that yall have in commmon with Adam Cherubini, you didn’t waste my time. So, I hope you’ll keep this crack in your door open and I look forward to it.

  5. Charles N. says:

    Wonderful to see the blog!

    Having grown up in the area, I spent my youthful days hanging around the shop. What an influence in my life it has been! Have been trying to contact Ed, but keep missing him on my visits to the shop. But alas,…carry on the good work gentlemen!

  6. Jim Tolpin says:

    Adam got me here too! Thank you for deciding to expand your insights and knowledge into the ether/internet/cyber-whatever. In any case, it does reach real eyes and real people like me who are enormously curious about life before the light switch. Especially the work life of trade folk. I consider the work you all do in Hay’s shop to be crucial to us moderns coming to an understanding about this. So I’m really pleased you will be sharing some of this in this particular venue. Even the smallest revelations about working without power and only under natural lighting conditions would be gems to me! Keep up the good work, and keep in touch!

  7. Jim Brilhart says:

    A long time resident of Arlington, VA, I live near Kansas City, MO, now, but was once a member of P.A.T.I.N.A. in DC and got a behind-the-scenes tour of the cabinet shop, the instrument shop and out-of-public-view drawers full of antique tools. I’ve always loved Williamsburg and am sorry that retirement has taken me so far afield. But thanks to the WEB and this blog it has been made accessible again. One thing remains true – that there are woodworkers interested in historic woodworking processes in every corner of this country. Keep up the good work. It matters to lots more of us than you will ever meet. Thanks again.

  8. Barbara Anderson says:

    I most definitely remember the Musical Instrument Makers Shop – I loved that place! Marcus Hansen did some repairs to one of my guitars in the mid-70’s. Why/when did the shop close and do you know where George and Marcus are now?

    • Thanks for the memory, Barbara. The shop closed in 1988 in order better represent the true history of the Hay site. Early harpsichord work done in the early 1970s shifted toward stringed instruments, but we have no historical justification for that kind of work in this part of Tidewater Virginia. The shop continued despite that, but finally came the decision to refocus on harpsichords solely and unite the cabinet shop and instrument shop into one facility. George Wilson became the toolmaker for CW at that time, Marcus Hansen led the harpsichord work in the shop. Both retired in 2008, doing well.

      • Barbara Anderson says:

        Thank you so much for the info – it’s a wonderful memory for me and I’m glad they are doing well!

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