View Full Version : Waldzither tale with pictures

Jan-03-2008, 4:06pm
Hello....Just acquired this a month ago. I was looking for a mandola to play Irish style. I had done some reading on these instruments, they were reputed to play and sound well in mandola setup, so took a stab at this one on the auction. I've been lucky on eBay in the past, wasn't so sure this time.
The pics looked great, flowery description, reputable seller, but when it arrived, it seemed more like a handsome wall decoration for a folkloric restaurant. Although solidly made, it had big crude brass frets that stood up about 1/8", the glass bridge was chipped and over-tall, and it seemed to have a very generous, if not craftsman-like re-coating of shellac, which appeared to have been applied with an old Schwartzwald ski-mitten. Graced with brand new strings, though!
Well, I tensed them up to pitch, just to hear the voice. In standard Waldzither tuning, it sounded weak and tinny, and the strings seemed light and flabby. Also, when fretting these soft strings, they would naturally go sharp because of the tall frets. A look inside revealed very stout timbers (like below decks on an old schooner)supporting the top, and the entire area around the soundhole was re-enforced with yet more layers of wood. I was wondering if this instrument was capable of any resonant output at all, due to the robust construction. I then had to decide whether I was up for a project or hide it under the bed for a few months and seek again.
My tinkering spirit won out in the end. First I stripped off the strings, tuning machines, tailpeice, etc. and sent the Waldzither out to the local luthier, who planed and leveled the frets, and then crowned and polished them. When it came back, I was became solidly engaged in the resurrection of this thing.

Jan-03-2008, 4:22pm
First, a complete going over the whole instrument with 400 grit paper, just enough to remove the extra finish gloobs and globs, but trying not to cut into the patina below. Then an inspection to find and glue small separations on edges and purfling. It was looking better. Meanwhile, I needed a bridge. I found an ebony one with a bone saddle and set about fitting it to the top. After the sanding, I gave the body and neck a good rubdown with 0000 steel fur, followed by a thorough massage with Howard's Burnishing Cream (Extra Fine), which is a kind of rubbing compound for antique furniture. This was a great improvement over the way I received it, it now looked like a well cared-for relic from a renaissance museum. But would it play?
I had to abandon most of the supplied strings, and picked a strategy that I read about on various websites for setup, namely using G for the single bass string, then dd,aa,ee,bb.
This puts the double courses one step higher than a mandola, but still in the ballpark. So this plays much like my octave mandolin, with the extended range on the first course. Gauge selection was interesting, I followed suggestions posted by others, and went a bit conservative, opting for lighter strings at first, until I was sure that this thing wouldn't implode. So I chose .09 for bb, .12 for ee, .22 for aa, .32 for dd, and .42 for the g bass. This involved learning to wind string loops as this style of Waldzither uses strings with double loop ends. BTW, I would be grateful for any advice regarding winding string loops!
After fitting the bridge and notching the saddle, I ran the strings carefully up to tension. It sounded very sweet, but a little tinny at first. I was delighted to notice that the intonation of the frets was very accurate. The tone and volume slowly improved over time. As the pressure on the bridge seated it more firmly to the top, and the top found its 'belly', the tone became quite rich and had a silvery, ringing sustain, like a hammered dulcimer. In fact, I now recall the praises some people had for the tone and sustain of their instruments, and it seems that these were crafted to ring like a bell, despite the rather robust construction.Next set of strings might be slightly heavier, although fortunately the ones I started with have enough tension to ring well and not sound squirrely when fretted.
To sum up, the effort paid off in that I have a very handsome and unusual instrument with a very distinctive sound, and a bit of fun working on it.

All the best and Happy New Year!!............Forrest

first string
Jan-03-2008, 4:41pm
That's really cool. There's some great footage on Youtube somewhere of Andy Irvine playing one of those. A neat instrument for sure.

Jan-03-2008, 4:54pm
Way to go. Creativity instead of rejection.
A nice instrument has been re-born.

Martin Jonas
Jan-05-2008, 8:33am
Congratulations on your waldzither! Is there a maker's label? Your variant is known as the "Hamburger Waldzither", because this design was introduced by the large Hamburg maker Boehm in the 1890s. They took what was then an obscure and near-obsolute regional folk instrument, the Thueringer Waldzither (from the mid-German region of Thuringia), made some minor changes (most prominently changing the tuners from a conventional headstock to fan tuners and changing the metal or wood bridge to a glass one) and launched a huge marketing campaign. They were very successful indeed until the 1920s, and were really Germany's equivalent in many ways of Gibson. Boehm instruments came in various levels of decoration, not unlike the Gibson A models of the same, varying in soundhole surround, binding and scratchplate design. Eventually (again like Gibson) other makers espqcially in Saxony copied their design, either identically or with various modifications (often returning to a conventional headstock).

Yours may be a Boehm, or an identical copy. Boehms were very well made and have a good reputation for tone. I have got two waldzithers, both with conventional headstock, which I find easier to deal with than the fan tuners. My favourite one is tuned like yours, except with the top string dropped from B down to A, i.e. GDDAAEEAA. I use much heavier gauges than you: J74 for the four double courses, plus a single 0.056" for the bass string. Mine has a 17" scale, though, which is shorter than most Hamburg models which have 18".

A while ago I made some recordings of mine. Does yours sound similar?

Cowboy Waltz (http://www.martin.jonas.dsl.pipex.com/Waldzither/Waldzither-Cowboy-Waltz.mp3)

Bouree (http://www.martin.jonas.dsl.pipex.com/Waldzither/Waldzither-Bouree.mp3)

Battle of the Somme (http://www.martin.jonas.dsl.pipex.com/Waldzither/Waldzither-Battle-of-the-Somme.mp3)


Jason Kessler
Jan-05-2008, 12:11pm
That's a beaut, Forrest. Love the rosette. If that instrument had fallen into my hands, with my meager (i.e., non-existent) woodworking skills, it would've remained a wall hanger. Instead, you've brought it back to life; a wonderful story.

And thanks, Martin, for the great and detailed history.

I love this site.

Jan-05-2008, 11:19pm
Thanks Jason, and Martin, for the comments.
The rosette is pretty spectacular, all those triangles are some type of shell, probably MOP.
The seller of this instrument declared it to be a Boehm of early make, but the label must have vanished sometime ago.
The Preston-style tuners are interesting to mess with, they are very linear and accurate, and hold tension well. Main problem is calculating the length of the string when winding the end loop. (This instrument requires a loop on the tuner end as well as the tailpiece end). Since the travel of the tuner hook is limited to a couple of inches, one must compensate for the travel needed to stretch the string to proper tension. This is not a problem for the Thuringer style, as it has the more modern capstan style tuners. I'm hoping someone can help me out on loop winding techniques.
And Martin, thank you for posting the sound clips of your instrument. Mine sounds quite similar.
Also, I thought I should post a pic of the back, interesting in that it is a single large slab of maple..........................Forrest