I Made It Myself

By James Gollin

The year was 1958. Needs were jostling one another in my fretful mind. My chief concern was measuring up to the promise of a marvelous marriage. This was all tangled up with making things. We loved making things together, partly because we were too broke to buy them, but mostly because the making was fun. Linoleum-block Christmas cards. Gift wrappings from the Florentine book papers we bought by the sheet in a neighborhood two decades away from being SoHo. Letterhead designs. We even manufactured our own coffee, roasting green beans in a pot on the stove, until one day the doorman rang our bell to ask if the acrid smoke pouring out of our kitchen window meant that he had to call the fire department.

My wife of a year had painted since she was nine or ten. She also owned real art. On our walls hung the three graphics she had acquired before we were married. And the abstract oil, mostly blue and less than fine, a wedding present from a wealthy family friend we’d never met.

In grad school, too poor to afford a piano, I took up the smallest, cheapest instrument I could find…

For music, we had our WebCor, a portable phonograph. It came in a durable green fiber suitcase which housed its one loudspeaker (stereo, like SoHo, had yet to be invented) and a turntable that could play all three record formats, 33’s, 45’s and 78’s. The WebCor lived in a closet. On weekends, we dragged it out and played to death the classical LP’s we’d collected in college and for our Saturday-night candlelight suppers, triste-gai French pop music, some of it on the old Odéon singles, some on ten-inch LP’s, for which I’d paid extortionate prices at the only French record store in New York.

But I didn’t want only to listen to music, I wanted to make it.

I’d started piano lessons at nine. At thirteen, I’d made the discovery that if I could play the current pop hits even passably, girls, moths to a flame, would sit next to me on the piano bench and make a fuss over my artistry and, most important, over me.

There were no girls at my college, so I’d gone back to being an indifferent but enthusiastic classical pianist, sporadically attacking Bach on the piano in the student lounge. In grad school, too poor to afford a piano, I took up the smallest, cheapest instrument I could find, the recorder, and started a slog down the long, dismal road to proficiency.

Sometime in the Dark Ages between graduate school and the wonderful day I proposed to my one and only and was accepted, I’d gone to a party. There was a piano in the house and I’d sat down to play it. I was sure that my Just One of Those Things would wipe out the memory of the afternoon I’d spent at the Career Blazers Employment Agency office, awaiting my turn to be interviewed for a lifetime employment opportunity. But I hadn’t been near a piano for months. Just One of Those Things turned out to be no more a trip to the moon on gossamer wings than my Career Blazer afternoon had been. My playing was so awful that my hostess asked me through politely clenched jaws if I wouldn’t like to please take a long break and have another gin and tonic. Well, I thought, that’s what happens when you grow up in the Eisenhower era. You give up books and music and conversation about anything other than the lifetime employment opportunities in the brave world of American business

But now I was married to a woman who thought as little of Eisenhower as she did of the painter-president’s favorite Norman Rockwell. My wife took for granted that you could — indeed, you should — make art and music at home as readily as you baked your brownies. In early November 1958, when the Dry Dock Savings Bank ran an ad in The New York Times about a harpsichord that could be bought for $750, we were intrigued. We wrote for more information, but the price, $750 — the equivalent of about $5,200 in today’s dollars — was light years beyond our means.

There matters stuck until a few days before Christmas in 1963.

By then, our family had grown by one nearly four-year-old son and one male toddler. My successful struggles with the recorder had edged me down the socioeconomic ladder from responsible businessman to near-professional recorder-player with a day job. A few more weeks and I might have slipped into the category of near-professional recorder-player without a day job. I was thirty-one, and musical fun playing the recorder did not add up to adult responsibility. My wife and I had started to write a book about contemporary art. We were barely in first-draft mode, but we were hopeful that the book would sell. There was a little money in the house. And we knew that the same man, Wolfgang Zuckermann, who had been selling finished harpsichords for $750 was now selling harpsichords in kit form for $150.

“The kit,” ran Zuckermann’s ad in the old Saturday Review of Literature, “is the very same instrument we made for the Philadelphia Symphony [sic] Orchestra.”

Wolfgang Joachim Zuckermann, whose American friends call him Wallace — Wally for short — was a child psychologist living in Greenwich Village. He came from a musical family and he liked the pleasing, logical structure and crisp sonorities of Baroque music. He especially liked the sound of the harpsichord, and in 1954 he decided that he’d like to have one of his own. Being German and methodical, Wally won permission to examine the old harpsichords at the Metropolitan Museum of Art He measured the lengths and gauges of their strings and the geometry of their layouts, calipered their soundboards and peered inside to see how their key actions functioned. He learned; and then he sat down and designed a harpsichord that he could build using hand tools in a city apartment. It was a much-simplified version of the early instruments. Wally had no easy way to bend wood to shape, so his harpsichord had no graceful curve on its long side. Its innards, put together from items he could buy from piano and organ supply houses, were less than ideal for harpsichords.

Nevertheless, Wally built his harpsichord, fitting its playing parts inside a neatly carpentered walnut outer case. He was happy with the sound and the look, and so were his friends. Still practicing child psychology, he found himself with commissions to build three or four more. In 1960 had come a triple breakthrough. First, Wally sensed a growing market for harpsichords. Second, being methodical and German, he figured out how to break down the building process into simple steps and how to squeeze his suppliers for bulk prices. Finally, he found a way to mass-produce the most complicated and expensive parts of a harpsichord’s action. These are the jacks, the four-inch vertical pieces that slide up and down as keys are pressed and released, and hold the tiny bits of material that actually pluck the strings. (Wally abandoned wood for plastic, which can be molded and is more stable than wood, but it took him three years to get the molding process right.) The results was the 1963 Zuckermann kit.

If I could build my own harpsichord, I reasoned, I’d have a keyboard instrument small enough to fit into our apartment and quiet enough to play without driving the neighbors crazy. Better yet, I could play — try to play — Bach and Handel and Rameau and Scarlatti all by myself. No more midnight rehearsals with people who either didn’t have wives and kids or, if they did, didn’t mind leaving them. My life, which had scudded much too close to the seacoast of Bohemia, would sail back into sensible waters.

So on a cold December day in 1963, I went down to Christopher Street and put down a ten-dollar deposit on a harpsichord kit. Sometime later — the invoice is missing — I paid another $75. And then, at the end of March 1964 I paid the balance and started to build. I followed the instruction manual as faithfully as I could. It told me that had no business cutting odd-angled mitre corners with a handsaw and by eye, especially not in rock-hard maple planking. But I couldn’t afford to have the cuts done for me, let alone buy a table saw. Luckily, Zuckermann’s design was so forgiving that the inexactitudes turned out not to matter.

Precision did matter in working on the jacks. Each jack had to be fitted with small adjustment screws and a little spring. The screws were not much of a problem, but for the springs I needed a red-hot soldering-iron to melt the plastic of the jacks. Not too much — just enough to set each spring, about an inch and a half of .010-gauge wire, to stay firmly in place when the sticky warm plastic cooled Holding a little length of wiggily steel wire by one end while trying to embed the other end in hot plastic, and getting it in exactly right fifty-seven times, was no job for an impatient non-solderer. Especially one with a tendency to put down the hot soldering iron on the nearest available surface, flammable or not (for instance, our dining table).

To balance the keys so they’d go smoothly up and down, they had to be weighted. A nice impersonal instruction. But Wally Zuckermann didn’t have to to melt his lead pellets, in a pot borrowed from our kitchen, and melt them on our kitchen stove. That was my issue. And then I had to pour the molton lead from the pot into the half-inch holes I’d already drilled in the shafts of the wood keys. My wife came to my rescue. She knew which of our pots was old and battered enough to be sacrificed. Nor did she think it a disgrace to her sex to be skilled in cookery, to the extent of having the steady touch it took to spoon the hot lead into the little holes in the keys. But at this point, my wife’s patience, theretofore saintly, began to fray. A harpsichord was a fine idea, but were not the deaths of our two innocent children by lead poisoning, or perhaps fire, too high a price to pay for their Daddy’s amusement? (So as not to have to answer, I hurried out to buy us a replacement pot.)

The instruction manual contained a chart showing how the harpsichord should be strung: with spring wire, heavy brass wire at the bass end, with lighter-gauge brass toward the center and with progressively finer steel wire for the upper strings. The wire came in separate coils, each coil held in shape by baggie ties. For each string, I had to make a little loop in a free end of the coil, hook it over a pin on the far edge of the instrument, then gradually unroll the coil — without letting it come unhooked — until a length of it was long enough to reach the keyboard end. Then I was supposed to cut the wire to a little longer that, stick the cut end through a tiny hole in a steel tuning pin, wind the excess wire tightly on the pin and hammer down the pin into the correct predrilled hole in the slab of hardwood in the frame called a pinblock. The pin can be tightened or loosened with a wrench to tune the string to the proper pitch.

It was a credit to Wallace Zuckermann’s skill at writing instructions that I was able to do this at all; and even so, there were certain hazards. Coils of spring wire are springy. If even one or two rounds escape from the coil, I had a problem recapturing them. If I let go of the coil — to answer the phone, for example — wire would burst free in all directions. Man is infinitely adaptible. I developed the patience to untangle even the worst of these bird’s nests. But if in the process I put even one kink in the wire, the chances were good that the whole coil would have to be abandoned. As sure as morning sunrise, a string with a kink in it will break.

At a certain point in making almost anything, the goal, the reason why, the end result, vanishes in a fog. So it was with me. I became a disembodied spirit, an automaton, mechanically making loops in wire, hammering, sandpapering, fiddling with tiny screws — all with no sense that anything was going to emerge from all this effort. And with the abiding terror that when all was done, the thing wouldn’t sound right. But there did come a day when all the strings were strung and tuned to pitch, all the keys weighted, all the springs set in all the jacks, all the little plastic pluckers trimmed. The sun shone in the windows of my workshop, also known as the living-room. There was sawdust on the floor. It didn’t seem possible that I had, with my own awkward hands, built a harpsichord.

Well, I hadn’t. Not quite.

What I had built sat on a card table. It looked like what it was, a strangely-shaped wooden box. It did have sides and a bottom; strings and jacks; a soundboard and a keyboard. And it would make plinking noises not unlike those of a harpsichord. But certain things were missing. Legs, for example. And a thing called a jackrail that is meant to keep the jacks from jumping clear out of the instrument when you depress the keys. And a rack on which to prop music. And a hinged lid. And so on.

This time, a woman not my wife was my rescuer. One of my grandmothers sent me thirty-five dollars for my birthday. With this in hand, I could go rejoicing to a lumberyard and order the cherrywood I needed to build the cabinet around the guts of the instrument. Most of this involved simple measuring, sawing, drilling, nailing, screwdriving and rubbing down the cabinet with a mixture of linseed oil and turpentine. And one day, the whole project was finished. The angles weren’t quite true. The tuning-pins on the pinblock, instead of standing straight and proud like Prussian soldiery, bristled undisciplinedly like the coat of a porcupine. But the pins held the strings, and the strings held their pitch and the new legs held up the whole apparatus. Nobody could quite believe it, including me, but when I sat down at the keyboard and struck the keys, the result really did sound like a harpsichord.

By 1965, when my harpsichord celebrated its first anniversary, Wallace Zuckermann was selling more than fifteen hundred kits a year. He was branching off into designs more in keeping with the practices of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Golden Age of harpsichord- building. In 1969, in despair over the Vietnam War, Wally left New York, at first for a country house in Pennsylvania and then, after selling the business, for England and later for France. (He kept for himself the European agency for Zuckermann instruments.) Zuckermann Harpsichords is still going strong in an era where the harpsichord is no longer such an oddball item. But Zuckermann today primarily supplies the secondary market. That is, the numerous professional builders who buy Zuckermann kits, expertly put them together and sell the finished products for much more than the kits themselves would fetch from do-it-yourself buyers.

As a young man in New York today — fifty years later — I could hardly imagine building my own harpsichord. Where would I find the time or, for that matter, the space? What would be my motivation? Apart from professional musicians and a few music students, who would want a harpsichord at all? If I were a hedge fund manager with a taste for Baroque music, I might. But I’d simply go on line and buy myself a readymade instrument. (You can get a top-of-the-line harpsichord for about sixty thousand dollars and have it delivered the same day.) If at the other extreme I simply wanted something small and quiet on which to play, I’d buy a digital piano and a set of earphones.

Zuckermann has written that he started producing his kits because “some [people] actually looked forward to the kind of meaningful experience associated with building an instrument.” Meaningful? There is a special satisfaction, I admit, in being able to play music on an instrument you’ve built yourself. And gratification of a different sort when you’re able to boast to friends about your nailing and jack-making prowess. But let’s be candid. For me, there was nothing meaningful about stabbing my fingertips on the stiff ends of stringing wire, searing the same fingers on hot lead or getting the spacing between strings wrong and, at ten o’clock at night, after two more hours of sweat equity, getting it wrong again.

But something much better than sore fingers came out of my experience. Call it a validation of a way of life. I’ve now heard it twice, in slightly different versions, from each of our sons, now married men in their forties with children of their own. It goes like this. “After dinner, after one of you had read me a story, after both of you had sung me a song, I would lie in bed and listen to you play the harpsichord. I could even tell in advance where you’d get the notes wrong. And I knew that you and my mother were out there, and everything was okay, just the way it always was, and I could go to sleep.”

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About James Gollin

Bio to come.


  1. Eve Richardson
    Posted January 2009 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    A lovely, refreshing essay, as well-put-together as a $175,000.00 harpsichord.

  2. Carroll Benoit
    Posted December 2015 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    I’ve built acoustic guitars, a Concert Harp, and over 200 musical instruments.
    I retired this past March at 81 years old. Still with a passion for building, I ordered a kit. Looking forward to building it.
    Enjoyed your article very much.
    Thank you
    Carroll Benoit

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