Further Info on Spinets

The spinet displayed in the Hay Shop ware room.

A few months ago we had a question regarding a small book on early English spinet harpsichords.  We’ve also had some visitors to the shop desire more info on them. Given that I am banished from my tools to let my hands heal from tendonitis, I’ve been catching up on the recent literature that’s out there.

The little book in question is Making a Spinet By Traditional Methods by the late John Barnes (Mac and Me Publishers, Welwyn, England, 1985).  It covers aspects of building an early 1710s style spinet based on the residual evidence from an original instrument by Stephen Keene and Charles Brackley.  It was intended to introduce woodworkers to the process of analyzing an old spinet for its historical construction methods and offer options for recreating them in a modern shop.  We do the same study here in the Hay shop, both for furniture and spinets, except that we try to reproduce those same historical methods.  I still refer to Barnes frequently, especially since my current project is based on the 1726 Cawton Aston spinet in CW’s collections.  It’s less useful for relating to the later, post-1750 spinet models.

I thought it was out of print but apparently it is available from the Friends of St. Cecilia’s Hall and Museum at Edinburgh University.  Barnes worked as curator and historian there for many years.  If that’s too complicated, scour the Web and good old-fashioned interlibrary loans.  Check out the main St. Cecilia’s Hall site for a look at one of the great collections of early keyboard instruments.  The museum also has technical drawings for several of them, if you’re interested in more details.

Speaking of Edinburgh University, I have been carefully reading a recent dissertation by Peter Mole on the late Stuart and early Georgian spinets.  I understand Mole is an attorney by training but recently turned his attention to the study of early keyboards, with emphasis on spinets.  Having access to records and instruments not previously studied, he has uncovered new biographical material on these early spinet makers such as Keene and Brackley and has personally examined many of the surviving spinets where he was allowed to do so.   This work will not provide enough information on which to build a spinet (that’s not the intention here), but his wide research, data sheets, detailed photos and comparative analysis have expanded our knowledge considerably.  He has made it all publicly available for download through the Edinburgh Research Archive.

A warning:  Mole’s is a two volume academic work and not a quick read.  But if you want a deeper understanding of the world of early spinets in England, look no further.  And read the footnotes.  I’m not kidding!  They have lots of information with excellent links.

Yeah, I’ve pecked this posting out in pieces over several days. But I wanted to share this during my continued forced rest.  It’s good stuff:  history, wood and music.


This entry was posted in Books and Readings, Drawing & Design, Harpsichords and Spinets, Joinery, Miscellaneous Forms, Sundry Historical Matters, Uncategorized, Veneer. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Further Info on Spinets

  1. Dave Ray says:

    Thank you for the info despite painful hands. Hope and pray you are well soon.

  2. Robert Zaccardi says:

    Hope that you are able to get back to your bench soon.

    I talked to you during this past Woodworking Conference on spinet construction. Many of the references that you mention, I have already been able to track down. One more point of interest is that John Barnes son, Peter is also in the Harpsichord repair business and has the plans for the spinet that is being constructed in Building a Spinet by Traditional Means. By the way, as you know there is a Keene spinet in Dewitt Wallace which is very similiar to both the book and plans.

    I’m getting ready to start by spinet project. Look forward to talkin to you next January.


    • Hello Robert: Glad you are up on this. Yes, I had heard about Peter Barnes but was not sure about the plans mentioned in the book. Thanks for that confirmation. Peter Mole now owns the Keene spinet that once belonged to Barnes and was the basis for the book. The spinet is featured in the section on Keene instruments in Mole’s dissertation. So is the Williamsburg Keene spinet, in one of the appendices. Small world. Thanks for the support, everyone. Recovering, Ed

  3. Lapinbizarre says:

    There is a YouTube video of a Keene spinet that I believe is the instrument now owned by Peter Mole – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8tBYCJQVos. How do string your spinets – brass throughout, or iron in the middle and upper registers? I have a fairly large instrument (spine about 80″ in length) completely strung in brass. It sounds attractive enough, but I believe that an instrument of this size should be strung in iron or low-tensile steel above the first octave and a half.

    • We have done both, depending on scale, pitch and period of the pattern. The earlier spinets tend to shorter string scales, so brass goes throughout the compass. The later ones tend longer and can use the iron trebles and brass basses, though sometimes you see later ones that will handle the full brass treatment. Ultimately the ear is the final judge and if the lighter brass stringing satisfies you, stay with it. These smaller instruments were intended for more intimate spaces anyway, so I believe one does not always have to go for the maximum punch. Sounding good is the bottom line, just an opinion. Thanks for the video tip.

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