voicing V

Part five of six.

Making plectra

The following text begins with a description of how a bird’s feather is prepared before cutting the plectra. Delrin users may read on nevertheless: the description further below of how the strips of material are transformed into individual plectra and the way these plectra are shaped are both largely the same for delrin and quill.

The drawings that accompany the following section were made for my original published articles on this subject. Three of them also appear in the voicing chapter (Chapter X) of Martin Skowroneck’s book Cembalobau (Bochinsky 2003). If you want to display the drawings separately, just click on the picture.

I have scaled down the drawings so they will display more or less correctly in most browser settings. Click on the picture to get a full view. The much more detailed original line graphs will be part of the pdf version of this article, which will soon be available.


The first step is to discard all those parts that cannot be used for plectra. We are only interested in the parts with an oval cross section (the shaft, Fig. 1, left) or half an oval (the back of the feather, Fig. 1, below right). The crossed-out parts are all discarded.

kiel1down.gifFig. 1

Detaching the feather’s back from the to-be-discarded opposite side is sometimes difficult and potentially hazardous. This is work for a patient moment. The back of the feather is sometimes very hard, and needs to be scraped or cut much thinner. This might show up a second disadvantage of this part of the feather, namely its tendency to split lengthwise. The use of a sharp knife and a careful approach usually prevent these properties from becoming problems.

The cross-section of the oval shaft usually looks as shown in Fig. 2a.


Fig. 2

This shaft can either be cut into four lengthwise strips (b), if its diameter is large or (in most cases) be halved (c). In the case of four strips, the rather thin sides can be used for the 4′ register.

Now we have created a number of strips of quill. One of the misunderstandings of plectrum making is the idea that one would have to cut the plectra before inserting them into the tongue of the jack – that one, in other words, needs to prepare the pre-fabricated plectra-shaped bits of quill (or delrin) before the real work starts. In contrast, it is much more practical to keep the strips as strips and to cut off each plectrum after inserting it into the tongue.

(As an aside, I should here describe the proper manner of removing a broken plectrum from the jack tongue. A delrin plectrum will normally break so that about half a millimetre sticks out from the front of the tongue. Usually the only thing needed is a medium-sized screwdriver to push the remaining material back into the mortise. Now the end can be grabbed with a pair of pliers at the back ot the tongue and the old plectrum can be pulled out.

Removing a quill plectrum that has become too weak requires a different approach, since normally, the whole plectrum is still in place, while it is in a weakened state where it tends to bend uncontrollably. One grabs the whole plectrum with a pair of pointy pliers from its front, leaving about half a millimetre (not more!) of space between the plier tips and the jack tongue. Grabbing the plectrum firmly, one now pushes it back into the mortise. Sometimes this action needs to be repeated for the end of the plectrum to emerge at the back of the tongue. Now the end can be grabbed and extracted as described above.

If one has the misfortune that the quill plectrum bends and twists and cannot be pushed back into the tongue, one cuts it completely flush with the tongue surface, puts a very small screwdriver right on top of its cross-section and tries to push the plectrum out. Move to a good light source so you don’t damage the tongue instead of pushing out the plectrum.)

The first preparation, both for quill and for delrin, is to adjust the width of the strip so it actually will fit through the mortise in the tongue. Seen from above, one has to taper one end of the strip slightly, as shown in Fig. 3. I use a pair of small, sharp and pointy scissors for this job.


Fig. 3

If, after tapering, the tip is still too thick, one can – if one uses quill – cut the hollow side thinner with a sharp knife (if the tongue has curved mortises, one should first find out at which point of the curve the quill is still too thick, and scrape precisely there).

To make a strip of delrin thinner, one puts it flat on a small cutting plank and, either by using a cabinet scraper or the knife blade (held perpendicularly to the strip), scrapes fluffy curls off the surface in a smooth and regular manner until the strip can be inserted into the jack. Often, the mortises in the tongue will be rather on the large side and one will not need much scraping or cutting.

Now the prepared strip is pushed from behind into the mortise of the jack tongue (Fig. 4).


Fig. 4

Quill plectra have, naturally, their convex side on top. Delrin plectra should have the smoothest of the two sides (if there is any difference at all) on top. Push until the strip sits tightly, but don’t use too much force. If you are lucky, the tip that emerges at the front of the jack already has the proper length (this never happens to me).

Using the scissors again, one now cuts off the remaining strip close to the back of the tongue, allowing for about half a millimetre of material to stick out for future adjustments. After this, one presses the plectrum safely in place once more. Check the length of the plectrum in the instrument and cut it roughly to the required length with the scissors. If the plectrum still is too thick, that is, if it sounds noticeably too loud, one can cut or scrape with the knife along its lower side, taking care to take away the material regularly and not to cut any part too thin by accident. Very often, one now needs to fine-tune the length once more.

Using the knife and a small block of wood as support (actually, I rest the plectrum on my thumbnail instead), one now cuts the tip off at an angle, seen from the side (Fig. 5, left).


Fig. 5

The very last thing to do is to cut off the corners of the plectra as seen in Fig. 5, right. For a long time I used scissors for this work, but occasionally, one cuts off too much in this manner. I now usually use a fingernail file made of hardened glass. With this practical tool, I can smoothly round off the corners rather than just cutting them off.

When using quill, the cut-off corners are a must. Straight-cut quill plectra will – after some time – inevitably stop slipping back under the string upon release.

In delrin, the technique of cutting off the corners results in a noticeable improvement of the sound – so noticeable, in fact, that it is unfathomable for me why so many harpsichords lack this refinement. It takes the edge and sharpness off the tone without making it dull and indistinct, and it enhances whatever ‘vocal’ qualities an instrument might possess.

To be continued

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