A Hurdy-Gurdy Experience

Today’s blog post comes from Michelle Kirk, a West Dean College student (MA Conservation of Furniture and Related Materials) who undertook a conservation placement with the CRC this Summer...

Although usually practising and training within the realms of furniture, this summer kicked off to a musical start with a work placement at the CRC, under direction of their musical instruments conservator Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet.

This was an especially exciting time due to the redevelopment of St Cecilia’s Hall, and I was presented with a number of objects to work with, one of which intrigued me more than anything else – a rather sorry looking late 18th century hurdy-gurdy (MIMEd 1052) made by ‘Ouvrard’ in Paris.

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The instrument before treatment. Photographed by Susan Pettigrew

The hurdy-gurdy is a stringed instrument where, instead of a bow, the player turns a wheel, which engages with the strings to create sound, much like the bow of a violin. Different notes are played when keys are pressed into the centre string(s) known as the chanterelle or melody string – gravity is utilised by the keys falling back, thus disengaging from the string.

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Inside the key-box before treatment

This continuous wheel action also plays one set of strings, called the drone strings, placed on both sides of the wheel creating a similar sound to that of the bagpipes.

Another distinct feature of the hurdy-gurdy is a buzzing sound effect is similar to the tromba marine or marine trumpet. If the wheel is turned fast enough, the left drone string vibrates more, causing a movable little bridge called the chien (French word for dog) to hammer onto the soundboard.

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Image from the article “Bagpipes and Hurdy-Gurdies in Their Social Setting.” By Emanuel Winternitz

Through investigation and research aided by the physical clues and Jonathan’s expertise, this instrument also embodies many layers of historical significance.

The decorative use of precious materials like ebony and ivory helps us understand the period and the social context in which this object was created – the tastes and trends of the French upper classes at the time, for rusticity and Arcadian life, led to the popularity of the playing the hurdy-gurdy in the French court. Known as Vielle a roué (old wheel), and also called ‘beggars lyre’, these names suggest its previous comparable social contexts. Hurdy-gurdies such as this one were adapted to suit the upper classes by refining the instrument mechanically and aesthetically.

There are historical references to the use of guitar and lute bodies for making hurdy-gurdies—when lutes and baroque guitars became less popular, these instruments were used to build others suiting the trends at the time. The body of this hurdy-gurdy bears many similarities with that of the baroque five course guitars made by makers such as Voboam. This was an exciting prospect, and another opportunity to learn about the evolution of musical instruments. We investigated the CRC archives and found drawing plans for Voboam guitars – when placing our hurdy-gurdy against these drawings the resemblances became even more apparent.

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Guitar by Alexander Voboam, Paris, 1670. National Music Museum, Vermillion South Dakota

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Comparing the hurdy-gurdy shape and design to that of the guitar by Voboam

The aim of the treatment was to clean and stabilise the surfaces, a structural consolidation, and reinstate the missing components – this was to enable the instruments mechanical operations to be more clearly interpreted – since each component is significant of a musical function, and reflects historical developments.

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Description of missing parts

The surfaces were cleaned, first mechanically and then using aqueous methods for the more ingrained dirt, taking care to immediately dry the surface after – this is important due to the hygroscopic nature of both wood and ivory, where unwanted condition changes such as swelling, and detachment from substrate could occur.

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Section of the soundboard before cleaning

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During mechanical cleaning with rubber erasers and smoke sponges

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Cotton swabs during the cleaning process

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Area after cleaning

A previous repair on the base was loose and structurally unsound. Consisting of two nails hammered into deteriorated wooden fills, this was removed and replaced with a poplar block that was carefully shaped to fit the void. Losses in the sides were filled by fitting the same thickness of ebony into these areas. All pieces were adhered using retreatable hide glue.

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Bottom area before treatment

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Bottom area after treatment

The replacement of missing components presented the opportunity to implement practical skills gained from furniture making and conservation studies, and also to build upon this with further whilst working with Jonathan.

Some of the decorative purfling was missing, and was replaced by shaping pieces of reclaimed ebony and ivory to match, and adhering with hide glue. A sandwich of these materials was made to create the striped pieces.

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Area with missing sections of purfling

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Replaced sections of purfling

Components as a missing button and the trompette-peg required the use of the woodturning lathe, where we problem solved a solution for a safe method to produce such small components. Replicating the missing ivory keys highlighted considerations like organising a production line for the pieces to be cut, shaped and drilled efficiently.

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Turning the peg

All the original bridges were also missing, in their place, the instrument had inaccurate crude replacements. These were substituted with newly made bridges made to resemble the originals with the advice of restorers Françoise and Daniel Sinier de Ridder. Sycamore was used for the main bridge, and cherry for the smaller drone string bridges situated at the head of the instrument, and on the soundboard. As before mentioned, one of these bridges was designed as a trompette system – the chien was shaped to fit loosely into the trompette bridge, and the one on the other side has an additional saddle to hold the sympathetic strings.

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Making the new bridges

The four weeks spent working on the hurdy-gurdy enabled me to develop existing skills and knowledge from the furniture conservation discipline, and also gain some musicology knowledge and further refine practical hand skills for the precision required when making components for musical instruments.

Here it is finished:

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Hurdy-gurdy after treatment

Recently, I had a go at actually playing a hurdy-gurdy, albeit a different and newly made model:

Special thanks to Jonathan and the rest of the CRC team!


[1] Winternitz, Emanuel (1943) “Bagpipes and Hurdy-Gurdies in Their Social Setting.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 2, no. 1 : p.5.

[2] NMM. “Images from the Pressler gallery” Available at http://collections.nmmusd.org/PluckedStrings/Guitars/Voboam/4143/VoboamGuitar.html

9 thoughts on “A Hurdy-Gurdy Experience

  1. Hi
    Do you have any drawings of Hurdy Gurdies?
    I have built a claviichord based on drawing from the Russel collection.
    Now it is time to try something else
    Thank you

    • Hi Keith, Thanks for your comment. I believe we do have some drawings of the Hurdy Gurdies. The best thing to do would be to get in touch with Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet, the Conservator for Musical Instruments Museums Edinburgh (MIMEd). His email address is Jonathan.SMB@ed.ac.uk. He should be able to point you in the right direction! Emily

  2. Very nice article on this great restoration! I’ve been playing a hurdy gurdy for 35+ years and am keenly interested in the instruments rich history!

  3. Hi I just visit a Christmas Market on Ingelheim Germany today and there was an old lady playing this same instrument. That was so amazing as I never saw something similar before. It sounds really good. Then I search on the web due to my curiosity and found this article. Thanks for publish.

  4. Fantastic restoration! I was led to the Hurdy Gurdy by a medieval illumination depicting a white cat, playing the Hurdy Gurdy, and wanted to know more.
    Thank you so much.

  5. Hi

    Please may I use the image of the finished hurdy gurdy on our early music festival Facebook and twitter accounts. It’s to promote the early music festival in Galway, Ireland May 25-27.

    Many thanks

    Lucy Hayward

    • Hi Lucy,
      Many thanks for your comment. I’m delighted that you would like to use one of our images. It is fine to use the photo of the finished hurdy gurdy, but any images with people in, or photos taken during the conservation process cannot be used.

      Hope your festival is a great success!
      Best wishes,

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