Sutton Hoo Cithara

by Sir Andras Salamandra

The Cithara (a form of lyre) discovered at the Sutton Hoo burial site is quite easy and inexpensive to make. It has been dated at circa 650 A.D. in eastern England, with similar models found in Germany. I used maple boards, Baltic birch plywood, and olive wood, as well as bone for the bridge. This will not give you an exact reproduction of the Sutton Hoo cithara, I have adapted the design to make it easier to build by a novice woodworker. A router is ideal for this kind of project, although a set of chisels and a Sur-foam rasp or drill press would work for hollowing out the main piece.

The back of the main piece is hollowed out to form a sound-board 1/8" thick. Hollow out the main piece, then cut it out. The end piece is butted and glued, then the baltic birch 1/8" thick plywood is glued onto the assembly. Seal any joints with wood filler. Sand, sand, sand! Make sure that all the glue which seeped out of the joints is sanded/filed away.

The tuning peg holes are not standard holes, they are conical in shape, with the larger diameter on the front of the cithara. The best way to drill the holes is with a peg-hole reamer. As it is an expensive tool, I borrowed one from a local folk-instrument craftsman. Take along your workmanship and notes, and be charming when you ask for assistance. (If you cant be charming, take someone along with you who is!) Take along a two scrap pieces the same thickness as your cithara, about 3/4" wide, and 2" long, and make your peg holes in one end off each of them. These two pieces are your "fitters", and will become your tuners as well.

The pegs are much easier to make than you would expect. Make about ten peg blanks about 2" long and 3/8" square. I used olive wood, but any very hard, dense wood will do. Avoid using the heart-wood of the piece, as it will break under the stress of tuning. Fasten the peg blank in a vise. Using a rasp or bastard file, trim off the corners, making the peg somewhat conical. Be sure to leave a square end on the process until the peg fits snugly into the "fitter". Make all ten pegs this way. You will then need to trim each peg to fit its specific hole in the cithara. Save the extra pegs. A small hole will have to be drilled into each peg for the string.

The end piece is basically a knob attached to a dowel, which is glued into a hole at the end of the main assembly. I used a wooden wheel and axle off my daughter's old wooden train set! The tail piece is of the same wood as the pegs. The bridge can be out of bone (see earlier issues for working with bone) or the same wood chosen for the pegs and tail piece. The bridge is glued onto the main assembly. The easiest way to learn how to fasten the strings is to study several guitars, violins, mandolins, etc. Again, your local music craftsman or music store can help here.

The tail piece is not glued to the cithara, it is suspended by the six strings on one side and a loop or string going from one hole on its narrow end around the knob on the end of the main assembly, and back to its other hole.

The final step is to make a tuning tool. Pick up your 'fitters' and drill a 1/4" hole in the other end of each of them. Use a narrow chisel and turn the circular hole into a square one, just over 1/4" on a side. After making all the pegs, when placed in their respective holes, the same height, used the square "fitter' and your file to make all peg tops the same size. Your square fitter now becomes your tuning tool. Use it to twist the pegs in their holes. Put the extra tuner with your spare pegs.

Here are some optional, but highly decorative touches. Carve small designs on the pegs (being careful not to ruin the fit of the tuning tool). while you are carving, add some designs to the tuning tool. Use a decorative lanyard thru the peg-fitting hole to fasten the tuning tool to your belt. The original instrument had metal plates to support the joint between the main piece and the arm. Make or find appropriate metal panels and affix them. The bridge can be a combination of bone and wood, look at some modern ones for inspiration.

Sand, sand, sand! Yes, again. Stain scrap pieces of each type of wood and filler. If some are noticeably darker than the rest, put a light coat of polyurethane on the darkest type, sand most of it off and stain. Experimenting with the scrap wood will enable you to even out the color. The mistake most novice woodworkers make is to get impatient to finish when 'just sanding and staining' is left to do.

Please refer to Master Orrick's article "Tuning the Sutton Hoo Instrument" elsewhere in this issue for details on stringing, tuning, and playing this instrument.

Back to Early Period #3 | Back to Early Period Index | Back to PastTimes