waldzither

The Waldzither Page


Table of Contents

Why This Web Page?
General Waldzither Information
So Just What is a Waldzither Anyway?
Photo Gallery
Audio Samples
Videos
Books
User Experience Report
First Impressions
Initial Steps
A New Bridge and Some More New Strings
First Outings, and a Pickup
Playability
A Complete Revamp
Putting the Picture Back
So how much did it all cost?
Links
Contact

When I first started looking for an octave mandolin / mandola / cittern I fairly quickly came across the waldzither as a possible cheap alternative. Unfortunately what I couldn't find was much first hand information on the instrument - or even any youtube videos or sound samples - so after buying one almost on a whim (and now being hooked!) I decided to put up this page to detail my experiences, both good and bad, as a guide for anyone contemplating following the same path.

I've divided this web page into two sections: the first contains some general information about waldzithers, the second is a more personal take on how I've faired with my particular instrument, and in particular some of the pitfalls of taking on an old instrument.

The Waldzither is a 9 string German folk instrument, with many similarities to modern citterns and mandolas.. The instrument has 4 pairs of strings plus a single bass string: traditionally these instruments had a scale length of either 43 or 46cm and were tuned to open C (c g c' e' g'), but of course many other tunings are possible. Likewise there are variants of the Waldzither with either longer or shorter scale lengths.

Traditionally these instruments come from the Thüringen part of Germany, and appear to be virtually unchanged throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. However, it should be noted that modern steel strings render these instruments sounding completely different from the cittern's of the renaissance period.

Around 1900, instrument manufacturer C. H. Böhm started manufacturing waldzithers in large quantities, the instruments were given Preston style tuners (similar to those used on the Portuguese guitarra today) along with bridges made from glass, and marketed widely causing something of a craze for these instruments in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. Consequently many other luthiers - large and small - in the Vogtland region of Saxony began making waldzithers also. These copied instruments were often made using whatever techniques and materials the luthiers were most used to, and consequently vary greatly in construction and tone etc.

waldzither2
My 50cm scale waldzither: manufactured by Plückthun & Co in either the 20's or 30's.

david_hynds_3
Left and centre are Böhm waldzithers, on the right is a Thüringen waldzither. All have been restored by luthier David Hynds (thanks to David for permission to use the images).

david_hynds_1
A particularly fine example of a waldzither restored by luthier David Hynds (thanks to David for permission to use the images). This one looks to be typical of the instruments made during the GDR period.

david_hynds_2
This crazy looking beast is a 14-string Heym waldzither restored by luthier David Hynds (thanks to David for permission to use the images). The instrument has triple strings on the upper four courses, and a pair of strings on the low bass course.

martin_jonas
Left: 41cm scale 10-string waldzither, Right: 43cm scale 1925 waldzither. In the centre is a 1921 Ajr mandolin for comparison. All these instruments are owned and played by Martin Jonas - many thanks to Martin for the image.

norbert
A selection of restored Waldzithers owned by Norbert Feinendegen - many thanks to Norbert for the images.

david_hynds_4
A long-scale Becker watch-key waldzither restored by luthier David Hynds (thanks to David for permission to use the images).

If you have an instrument you would like here then please contact me.

The following clips are courtesy of Martin Jonas, played on a 1925, 43cm scale waldzither tuned GDAEA:

Of the instrument Martin says: The Zimmermann isn't necessarily very typical of the waldzither tone -- most of them had larger soundholes and a much more trebly tone with relatively little sustain, closely similar to a renaissance cittern (which is really what they are). Acoustic recordings using a hand-held MP3 recorder with no post-processing -- this was a quick and dirty recording done slumped on the sofa.

The following clips are courtesy of Martina Rosenberger, both tunes are her own compositions, more information about these and other waldzither related things can be found at http:/www.etcetra.eu. Martina's instruments are tuned to the traditional waldzither open C tuning, and so give a rather more authentic sound than my "modernised" instrument in mandolin tuning:

If you have a sound sample you would like here then please contact me.

Only two that I know of so far:

"Die Waldzither Puzzle I and II" by Martina Rosenberger, see http:/www.etcetra.eu.

The best thing you can do with that is throw it in the bin - My father on first seeing the instrument.

In the summer of 2008 I took the plunge and purchased my waldzither from an ebay auction. Mine was atypical in many ways, not least because it had a longer than normal scale length (50cm, this was one of the main reasons for buying it actually), and was made by a luthier in Hamm, well away from the usual centre of German instrument making. I knew the instrument would need some serious TLC, so before it even arrived I ordered a set of octave mandolin strings (D'Addario J80's), some guitar care products (cleaner and lem oil), and contacted a luthier about a replacement bridge.

It has to be said that when the instrument did arrive, first impressions weren't that good:

  • It was filthy dirty.
  • Most of the strings were missing, those that were left were pretty much rusted in place.
  • There was an old and badly done repair down the centre of the top.
  • There was a new crack starting from one corner of the bridge.
  • Most of the finish was missing from the back and sides, in addition the neck was badly crazed.
  • The front was badly scratched: from what you could see of it under the dirt!

neck
There was lots of bad crazing on the back of the neck.

The first steps were fairly obvious, with the aid of a stout pair of pliers the tuners were wound down and the remaining strings removed. The instrument was then thoroughly cleaned using a regular guitar spray on "polish" (although described as polish, these are actually cleaning products that are excellent at degreasing all the parts of the instrument).

It took me the best part of a full can of the guitar cleaner just to get the horrible muck off the fingerboard - down to point where you could actually tell it was made of wood (rather nice rosewood as it happens), the rest of the body cleaned up reasonably easily, although that only made the dings, scratches and missing varnish look even more obvious! A little dilute PVA in the new crack on the top, and the whole thing clamped up overnight quickly fixed that issue though - thankfully without adding any new marks to the top.

The next job was to tackle the tuning mechanism. Removal of the screws at the top of the assembly allowed the whole block to be removed and disassembled. The hooks were in good condition and cleaned up well, but the threaded tuning-bolts were bent out of shape and badly gummed up with a mix of corrosion and dirt. A polish with a stout wire brush cleaned up the threads OK, and after an abortive attempt to source a couple of new bolts to replace the bent ones (they're all non standard sizes apparently), some firm finger pressure managed to bend the troublesome bolts back to something approximating straight. With the tuners reassembled everything moved freely so it was time to put some strings on and find out what I'd bought...

tuners
Preston style tuners: named after late 18th century English guitar maker John Preston, who's credited with introducing this style of tuner. It was later taken up by Portuguese guitar makers, and by waldzither manufacturer C. H. Böhm.

Which brings a whole other problem: these kinds of tuners require strings with loops on both ends which basically means you have to wind your own loop ends on at least one end of the string, and also get the distance between the two loops just right or else the string either won't go on, or will be too long to be tightened up to pitch. You can wind your own loops with nothing but a pair of pliers, but having done that before on a broken mandolin string, I can tell you that it's really not much fun, so I cheated and bought myself a John Pearse String Wizard, which thankfully makes the whole process really easy:

string_wizard
Top Left: the string wizard in action, small strings like this .011 tend to warp out of shape a bit when the loop is wound (bottom left), but once the string is attached to the tailpiece and stretched up to tension they're hard to tell apart from conventional machine made loops (right).

At this stage my replacement bridge hadn't arrived, so I strung up using the old bridge as a temporary measure. This first stringing up took me three hours in total, including winding the string loops, breaking a string, and winding one string too short to go on (wasted a whole hour fiddling with that string!). Thankfully you'll be pleased to know that once you have the knack of putting strings on these unfamiliar tuners, it's probably easier than using regular guitar tuners - but more on that later.

It became pretty clear at this stage that my decision to order a replacement bridge from luthier David Hynds was a wise one: the existing bridge was way too low, with fretting at #5 causing the strings to fowl the frets at #14 and above. In addition the base of the bridge had been carved to the wrong shape - with too much of an arch - causing it to dig into the top at the corners (hence the crack on the top emanating from one corner of the bridge), and to "pinch" the two halves of the book-matched top together which was no doubt the cause of the old repair down the centre of the top. However, the old bridge did allow me to experiment with setup - by adding some cork shims underneath - definitely not a recommended material but it was easy for a novice like me to work with - and let's be honest I wasn't expecting a great sound at this stage anyway!

Initial impressions was that this was one very loud instrument: with a capital 'L' ! The rest of the family didn't seem too impressed with sound quality either, although they did think that my attempts at playing tunes on it didn't sound quite so bad. More particularly it was apparent that the strings I had on the instrument were too floppy to get the job done giving a very stringy/twangy sound with no real definition to the notes. Tuning the strings up two semitones, so that their tension roughly matched D'Addario's recommended tensions for those strings on an Octave Mandolin improved things quite a bit though, albeit at the expense of ease of playing.

Once David's lovely new bridge arrived I got straight to work in fitting it to the top. At this stage my experiments with the old bridge really paid off since I now knew exactly how high the new bridge should be. Even so I took material off quite slowly, putting the slight arch in the base by using an old telephone directory with some course grit on top draped over one knee as a sanding block: this actually makes for quite a comfortable sanding position, and with a little care you can get quite close to the arch of the instrument before resorting to placing the grit on the instrument top and using the "sandpaper method" of fitting. Given that this was an old instrument with an uncertain amount of strength in the top I just felt more comfortable not stressing the top too much at this stage.

At this stage I also ordered a new set of strings - D'Addario's again - and now that I knew from the old strings what kind of tension I needed to get a decent sound, I used a web based tension calculator to calculate the gauges required so I could order a custom set. I also decided to stick with my experimental tuning - as an octave mandolin, plus an extra bass string - in spite of plenty of good advice to the contrary from the good folks on the mandolin cafe message board. My final tensions and gauges ended up looking like this:

Table 1. My "Experimental" Waldzither Tuning and String Gauges (50cm scale length)

String

Gauge (inches)

Type

tension (Pounds)

E

.014

Plain

18.94

E

.014

Plain

18.94

A

.024

Phosphor Bronze

22.7

A

.024

Phosphor Bronze

22.7

D

.036

Phosphor Bronze

23.22

D

.036

Phosphor Bronze

23.22

G,,

.054

Phosphor Bronze

22.8

G,,

.054

Phosphor Bronze

22.8

D,,

.070

Phosphor Bronze

20.65

total

195.98


For comparison, it's interesting to compare with the corresponding tables for some related instruments:

Table 2. D'Addario J80's on a 22" scale Octave Mandolin

String

Gauge (inches)

Type

tension (Pounds)

E

.012

plain

17.38

E

.012

plain

17.38

A,

.022

plain

26.02

A,

.022

plain

26.02

D,

.032

Phosphor Bronze

22.72

D,

.032

Phosphor Bronze

22.72

G,,

.046

Phosphor Bronze

20.96

G,,

.046

Phosphor Bronze

20.96

total

174.18


Table 3. D'Addario J80's on a 17" scale Mandola

String

Gauge (inches)

Type

tension (Pounds)

A

.012

plain

18.49

A

.012

plain

18.49

D

.022

plain

27.69

D

.022

plain

27.69

G,

.032

Phosphor Bronze

24.18

G,

.032

Phosphor Bronze

24.18

C,

.046

Phosphor Bronze

22.3

C,

.046

Phosphor Bronze

22.3

total

185.32


So as you can see, my individual string tensions are broadly in the same ballpark as an octave mandolin or mandola, albeit with a higher total due to the extra string.

However, as the following table shows waldzither strings are another matter entirely as they run at rather lower tension - but having tried strings in that tension range previously - I can tell you they don't sound that great on my instrument! Perhaps in future I'll try a different string manufacturer, one that offers specialist strings for older instruments, but for now the current strings appear not to be overly stressing the top.

Table 4. 47cm scale Waldzither With Open C Tuning and Pyramid Waldzither Strings

String

Gauge (inches)

Type

tension (Pounds)

G

.011

PL

14.61

G

.011

PL

14.61

E

.015

PL

19.21

E

.015

PL

19.21

C

.019

PB

17.53

C

.019

PB

17.53

G,

.028

PB

21.95

G,

.028

PB

21.95

C,

.040

PB

20.03

total

166.64


The really good news is that at this stage the instrument finally started to sound good: even my sceptical family members seemed to be impressed. I think there's a whole confluence of factors here:

  • The new solid ebony bridge toned down the sound a bit, and introduced less volume but noticeably better tone.
  • The new bridge was a much better fit on the top, and for the first time in about 80 years the top was now actually the right shape!
  • I think it took some time for the instrument to settle into being strung up again: the initial stringing up with way under tension strings caused the top to move quite a bit - largely I suspect as a result of it having been bent out shape previously - now however I can take all the strings off and refit them without any noticeable movement in the top which seems to be a good sign.
  • The instrument's owner has adapted to the instrument!

I can't overstate the importance of the last point, in fact I'm not greatly convinced that instruments improve with playing: there may be a small change on an instrument that hasn't been strung up for a time while everything settles down, but mostly I believe the player changes and adapts to the instrument far more than the instrument ever changes.

old_bridge
This picture compares the old and new bridges - the old bridge was cut so low it slides straight under the strings with the new bridge in place. Notice the poor fit on the base too: no wonder the top was cracked and warped out of shape! You can also see where the ends of the old bridge have damaged the top.

Now that I was pleased with the way the instrument was sounding I actually made the mistake of comparing it to some of the octave mandolins and cellos on the folk of the wood video samplers pages.

Oh boy, those high end Webbers sound just astounding!

I, on the other hand was feeling a lot less smug about the sound of my instrument now. Of course it's a completely different kind of instrument, it's not supposed to sound like an arch top mandocello, but I guy can hope can't he? On the other hand, I thought it sounded better than the Trinity College octave mandolins, so for something that was a third of the price of those (and a tenth of the price of a Webber) that can't be that bad.

Thinking it was time for a second opinion, I took the instrument to a couple of local sessions. After the initial "what on earth is that" reactions, the response to the sound was pretty positive so I decided to push on and fit a pickup.

In the end choice of pickup came down to two:

Some of the more exotic choices (K&K twin spots and Pick-up-the-World transducers) suggested by members of the mandolin cafe's messages board had to be discarded as I couldn't find a source here in the UK (and contacting the manufacturers directly didn't help either). In the end I settled on the Fishman product largely because it had volume and tone controls, and appeared (to this novice at least) to have the better fitting instructions.

As things turned out, I needn't have worried about fitting: the pickup slotted into the bridge slot just fine, and fitting the endpin jack and controls was a breeze. I got everything wired up and quickly tested by plugging into the computer just in time to head off to a local "open mic" night and give the instrument a proper testing.

pickup
You can just see the bridge pickup sticking out either side of the saddle in this image, it also shows the poor state of the top.

First impressions were that the plugged in sound was much "brighter" than when played acoustic. However, the strings all gave a good even response and the bass strings in particular (both the low D and the double G course) really shook the windows! There was no sign of the dreaded "piezo-quack" either which was a relief. The response from the local multi-instrumentalist was "I want one of those", and indeed generally the response was very positive.

So at least now I knew I was on to a viable instrument with regards to the sound, that just left playability to deal with...

Clearly there's no point in having a great sounding instrument if it's terrible to play, and I have to be honest this one wasn't a whole lot of fun. There are two main issues:

  • The fingerboard isn't flat: rather than have an adjustable truss rod to add relief, the relief has been milled into the profile of the fingerboard. That means that a really low setup isn't possible without either replacing or reshaping the fingerboard. I decided that this one was probably beyond my skills for now.
  • I was experiencing a great deal of trouble getting cleanly fretted notes: if I mashed the strings into the fingerboard then the notes came out mostly OK, but there were a few positions where even that wasn't enough to get clean notes.

For the moment I decided to leave the relatively high action - about 3mm at fret 12 - and concentrate on the frets. Interestingly the frets weren't worn all that low at all. However, they did have board flat tops, crinkly edges, and rather rough looking tops. I picked up a cheap fret crowning file on ebay, and set to work. Taking care to leave a narrow strip down the centre of each fret untouched (as the frets were all about the same height as far as I could tell) I started by using the fret file to clean up the crinkly edges to the frets and start to put the crown back in place. After that I used some very fine grit to clean up any file marks, and smooth off the tops of the frets. At this stage they certainly looked the part - much better than before - and stringing up again the result was much more consistent than before. No more problem frets, and no more fret buzzing. Don't get me wrong, the instrument still requires an awful lot more finger pressure than my mandolin thanks to that high action and big thick strings, but at least it's not rattling and buzzing anymore.

frets
Compare the untouched zero fret with the first fret and you can see what I had to deal with here.

The changes I made up to this point kept me happy for 9 months or so, but I became increasingly dissatisfied with the high action and scruffy finish, so I decided to strip the instrument down and carry out a full refret and refinish.

I'm not going to describe the refret in any detail, except to say that it was essential to level the fingerboard off prior to fitting the new frets, so I could get a good low action. If your interested, frets.com has more than enough information for anyone on this subject.

small-final-finish-100_3500
Cleaned up tuners and some nice new stainless steel frets along with a new fret wire nut

For the refinish, I used the cabinet scraper method to remove the old finish. Once that was done, I found that most of the old colour had come off with the varnish, so I had to sand down until I got a consistent wood colour all over. I then dyed with Liberon wood dye, using a mix of colours to more or less match the original finish. Unfortunately, I was unable to get a consistent colour on the soundboard: the area under the old picture was lighter than the rest of the top, and since the tops on these were pretty thin to begin with I didn't want to sand more material off in a vain attempt to get down to a consistent colour! So I would have to replace the old picture: more on that saga later.

Once I had a smooth surface to work on, I refinished in Tru Oil: there's lots of discussion about applying this on the Mandolin Cafe, the only trouble I had was getting an acceptable finish on the top. Basically there were too many "age related wrinkles" in the surface to get a good finish. Coupled with some nasty dents and dings, and grain the size of potholes, it took a lot of layers and sanding back before I came up with a decent finish.

compare-final-finish-100_3495
The finish on the back, before and after.

This part of the restoration probably took longer than the rest put together. Since I'm well aware that I'm no artist I completely ruled out painting the picture on and looked to transfers/decals for an answer. I started out trying to get a decent result from water-slide transfers, but could never get an acceptable finish, so I changed to inkjet dry rub transfers, and pretty much instantly got better results on my test strip. In the end the procedure went something like this:

  • Produce a high resolution image of the picture: I used the trace facility in Inkscape to convert the most of the picture to vector format, and then rendered as a high resolution bitmap and touched up in the Gimp.
  • I used transparent Inkjet Dry rub decals and printed the image onto the decal in reverse: you seem to get better results the more ink your printer deposits, so I set the paper type to "Premium glossy photo paper", "Best Photo", and then turned off both the printer's gloss optimiser and high speed settings (this is on an Epson R800 photo printer).
  • At this stage you have an image which is back to front and has no white parts: the final image needs a white background in some places, and a transparent background in others, so I simply painted in the white areas, with a couple of coats of white enamel - you're actually painting on the back of the image so there's no need to be ultra-careful at this point - as long as you don't run over the black borders.
  • It's important to get the decal nice and smooth at this point: I used 1200 grit wet and dry paper to gently smooth off the paint layer. If you don't do this then the decal won't lie flat on the surface, it's important to keep the abrasive on the paint only though, as the ink layer is much thinner and more delicate. Also don't use the paper wet: it destroys the decal!!
  • At this point I added the glue layer of the decal, and rubbed it into place using a smooth rounded tool handle: take your time with this, and make sure every last bit is well pressed down.
  • One thing I found from my test strip was that these decals go on much better to a smooth glossy surface: I prepared the top of the instrument with 0000 wire wool and then polished with Maguires "Step 2" product to a nice gleam before applying the decal.
  • Once the decal is in place on the instrument top you will not be able to move it, in fact once any part of the glue layer touches the top you won't be able to move it without ripping up your carefully prepared surface (and yes I speak from experience!). To help get the decal in the correct place first time I added some masking tape on the top and drew "cross hairs" on the tape to mark where the centre of the top and sides should be. Then I drew similar "cross hairs" on the top of the decal using an indellable marker pen (this is actually drawn on a layer that will get peeled off once the decal is in place), so that I could line up the decal with the top and then drop it down into the right location first time.
  • The next step is to press the decal down: I used my rounded tool handle again, taking care not to stray outside the decal and mark the top.
  • Once every last part of the decal is pressed well down, then the top layer can be peeled off and you can admire your handiwork for a while!
  • I then coated the top of the decal with model makers plastic solvent: this softens the plastic film on the top of the decal and helps everything to sink down a little into the surface.
  • Finally I topped off with four more coats of Tru Oil on the top, cut back with 0000 wire wool between layers, and polished the final layer with Maguire's again.

compare-final-finish-100_3501
The final picture back in place, compared to how it was before.

I thought it might be interesting to keep a log of how much I've ended up spending on the instrument: after all old instruments often look cheap compared to new ones, but there are often hidden costs that new instruments may not have. I've split the costs into two sections: "essentials" which is in effect everything that was required to bring the instrument up to a playable standard, and "extras" which includes things that often aren't found even on most new instruments. Shockingly, I could have almost bought a new octave mandolin, just based on the costs of the "essentials", which just shows how quickly those small purchases can add up. Then again I recently saw a model identical to mine up for sale for €650 - about £600 at Christmas 2008 exchange rates - so that makes me feel a lot better then!

Please note that all the costs below are at Summer 2008 UK prices.

Table 5. Essential Expenditure

Item

Cost / Pounds Sterling

Waldzither including international postage

129.00

Initial string set, plus cleaning products and lem oil

21.09

Replacement Bridge

17.00

John Pearce String Wizard

32.95

Clock key for the tuners

2.75

Small fret crowning file

26.98

Second set of heavier custom gauge D'Addario strings

19.70

Total

249.47


Table 6. Optional Extras

Item

Cost / Pounds Sterling

Kyser KGCB quick change capo for Classical guitar

12.80

Ritter Rjk315 Padded Keyboard Bag

22.09

Foam padding for case

10.00

Shadow pickup

114.00

Total

158.89


Table 7. Refinishing and refretting

Item

Cost / Pounds Sterling

Liberon wood dye (two bottles)

18.00

Tru Oil

8.00

Maguire's "Step 2" Polish

8.00

Wet and dry paper, various grades

5.00

Sponge applicators for Tru Oil

3.00

Fret Wire

10.00

Dry rub transfer (2 A4 sheets)

5.00

Total

55.00


You'll find me me at john @ johnmaddock.co.uk (just remove the spaces from the address).

Last revised: May 28, 2008 at 10:39:25 +0100