This page describes my ongoing attempt to build a virginal from scratch. First things first, a "virginal" (sometimes called "virginals" even in the singular) is a small rectangular (or polygonal) harpsichord where the keys are roughly perpendicular to the strings, with the keyboard on one of the long sides, very much like a clavichord but with a harpsichord action. This is as opposed to a regular wing-shaped harpsichord where the keyboard is on the end with the keys in line with the strings.
I've always wanted to build my own harpsichord, and I could really use something portable but not too nice, so I don't mind throwing it in the back of the car and bringing it to chamber music practices. A virginal seems to fill the bill -- it's much smaller and lighter than a regular harpsichord, and anything I build myself will be a bit crappy no matter how hard I try. Also it's single-strung (just one choir of strings instead of two or three) and doesn't have a bentside, so I'm hoping it will be relatively easy for a klutz like me to build. There are kits available, but that seems like cheating, anyway they're expensive and there isn't much variety available.
Generally, virginals have a plucking point which much farther from the end of the string than in a regular harpsichord. This gives a much more "plunky" sound than a harpsichord. A lot of people like that, but I don't. So I wanted something which is "spinett" style, i.e. with the keyboard (and therefore the jacks) left of center so that the jacks are close to the left-hand bridge (virginals usually have bridges at both ends of the string, unlike harpsichords where the jacks are next to the "nut" which is mounted on the wrestplank, which is thick oak and so it's acoustically dead). This is as opposed to the more popular Flemish "muselaar" style where the keyboard is on the right and the plucking point is closer to the center of the strings.
Also, just to make the thing easy to carry around without catching on things, I wanted a recessed keyboard. Which is to say, the keyboard is set into the instrument, so that it doesn't project out of the side of the case. A lot of virginals (including the Zuckermann Italian Virginal kit) have keyboards which protrude partially or entirely out of the side of the case, which gives the entire instrument a non-rectangular footprint, which makes it a little harder to move, not to mention build. IMHO the Zuckermann has a ridiculous number of strings for a virginal (56!), so avoiding a recessed keywell is probably a design necessity for them whether they want it or not, just because it would intrude into the space needed inside for the giant string band. Mine will just be a practice instrument for chamber music so I'm perfectly happy with the more old-time standard of 45 notes with a short-octave bass (i.e. four octaves total with the lowest C# and E# omitted), so things won't be nearly as tight for me as for the Zuckermann.
So I asked around, and came up dry when it comes to actual dimensioned plans of the kind of virginal I want. But R. K. Lee, who's well-known for making drawings of antique harpsichords, sent me some JPEGs of antique virginals he knows of that might be similar to what I want, and one of them was a Domenico (Venice, 1556) which looks like exactly what I have in mind. Unfortunately he doesn't have drawings of it, it's in the collection of Yale University (which is less than two hours away from me) but unfortunately it's currently (winter 2002-2003) in storage. So even if Yale wouldn't mind some schmuck off the street poking and probing their precious antique, which is a pretty long shot, it's not possible. I can't even hear what it sounds like to find out whether I would like what I got if I could do an exact copy, which I can't anyway.
But I figure I have to start somewhere, and basing my crude overall dimensions on an instrument which has somehow survived almost half a milennium without anyone breaking it up for firewood seems like a good idea. Someone must like the thing.
I don't have actual dimensions, so I cheated horribly and assumed that the keyboard is roughly 24" wide, and figured out the other measurements from that. So I figure it's about 60" wide, 17.5" deep, and the keywell is about 4" deep and starts 10" from the left side. I'm making the whole thing 7.5" tall for no particular reason (really that's just what size my wood ended up). I have no idea what's inside it, so I'm pretty much doing what I want, based on the sketches of Italian and English virginals from Frank Hubbard's book, with lots of help from the drawings from Zuckermann's Italian Harpsichord kit (which they sell separately), and even more help from poking around inside my harpsichord teacher's (Jim Nicolson) mother and child virginal, which was built by Lynette Tsiang and is based on a Ruckers (dang, I forget the year, 1620 maybe?) virginal in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
OK so let's get started. The biggest pain is getting materials. Here are the sources I've used so far:
I've separated each part of the project into its own page. So click away: