THE POCHETTE

The pochette, also known as the "kit" or dance-master's fiddle, is a slightly odd variation of the violin. Derived probably from the rebec, or as a combination of the rebec and the violin, it shows up at the end of the 16th century, and sees it's heyday in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Basically, it is a violin mostly used to play dance music in taverns or small halls, that is compact enough to literally fit in the pocket of a gentleman's great coat of the time (thus the name). There was no standard shape or size of the instrument, but most were simple sticks about 16-18 inches long, slightly hollowed and strung up. There are even some examples of gentleman's walking canes that were hollow, and could be opened up to reveal the bow, strings, tailpiece and pegs inside, and the cane quickly converted to a fiddle (one on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art music room). Some were shaped like minature violin bodies attached to a normal full-sized neck. Others were extravagantly scalloped, or even made of expensive materials like ivory or tortoiseshell. The dancemasters themselves were a semi-professional group of individuals that would travel to tavern or event in order to teach dance, call dance (kind of like modern square or contra-dancing), or select a set of dances appropriate to the event, and they were paid a small fee for their services. The small fiddle was shrill and not particularly rich or resonant sounding, but could pierce through the background noise of the dance hall or gathering and still be heard, and since many were simply hollowed sticks rather than elaborately assembled pieces, they were pretty sturdy and could withstand rather rough treatment.

As with most things, it is only the exceptional examples that tend to physically survive - those instruments owned either by nobles or made of more precious materials. Enough instruments have physically survived to give us some idea of how they were constructed and what they sounded like, including even some more "common" examples. Since a fair portion of the performance I do involves playing late Renaissance and Baroque English Country Dance music, I decided I'd like to make myself a pochette, as they are relatively hard and expensive to come by nowadays. Ultimately I'd like to make myself a nice, somewhat elegant one, but I wanted to try my hand at making a simpler one first to work out some of the issues, and also to see if I could get my fingers to fit on the things (I have rather large hands).

In casting around for examples from which to work, I stumbled upon the National Museum of Music at the University of South Dakota (hey, there actually IS a reason to go to South Dakota!). This remarkable resource has both a fabulous collection of historical instruments, and a very detailed and excellent website that showcases them extremely well (I guess not a lot of people get to South Dakota). They have a number of technical drawings of prize instruments in their collections. While they do have a wonderful selection of pochettes, unfortunately they do not have any published drawings of them. However, they do provide very clear front, top, side, and back photographs of them, and provide dimensions in millimeters, so it is not too difficult to create a set of plans from the images.

I decided to take what seemed the most representative and simplest of the instruments there - one atributed to Joachim Tielke (or possibly Jacque Regnau) dated 1671. The original is pictured below. It is a fluted stick with a carved figurehead and silver wire inlay, and has warped slightly with age.

For my first instrument, I decided to simplify the plan a bit. First I decided to remove the fluting and inlay on the body and just make the instrument a smooth boat shape. Next I chose to do a simple scroll for the peghead rather than do a carved head (I might do that on the more elaborate instrument). With those decisions, I drew up these plans:

The first instrument will have a body of cherry wood (easier and quicker to carve than the highly figured maple or purpleheart I otherwise have), soundboard will be spruce, and the fittings will be ebony (I have a lot of scrap ebony around). I intend to string it in natural gut, but more on that later.


Starting off with a spare block of cherry - this is the end cutoff from the piece I used for the cherry wood citoles (Citole 2 and 3). It has a number of splits in it, so I can't use it for anything large, but this little bitty instrument should be fine. The plans were sketched onto the block.


And the piece cut free from the block using handsaws.


Since I don't have a bandsaw to cut curves on the wood, I use a slotting method with chisels to shape the curves. Here I've slotted the stick to set the bottom curve of the instrument. My rabbit Peebs decided to help - and gives some idea of scale as to just how small this instrument is.


The block is shaped into a "pontoon boat" - shaped with the top and side views carved out using a combination of chisels, dremel and files.


The block is then marked to shape in the proper curve to the bottom in pencil to guide the curve.


The bottom of rounded into shape using a combination of chisels, dremel and files (I rough off the corners with the chisels for gross wood removal, round off the curve with the dremel drum sander bits, and then smooth and straighten everything out with files). The outer dimensions of the body block need to be pretty clean to start hollowing it out, as the walls of this piece are going to be very thin.


The body block has been chiseled out, down to where the walls and floor are now about 1/8 inch thick. The piece weighs practically nothing now. On to the scroll.


Starting with the scroll. The design for the scrool is sketched onto both sides of the end of the pegbox, and box carved down to the smooth lines.


The scroll is then shaped down on both sides, and the sides of the box cleaned up. You can also see here the pencil marks for the fluting.


The pegbox is then fluted all along the transverse length using the mini-chisels to carve it out, and then the files to clean it up.



After the fluting is done all the way around, the box itself is hollowed out using the mini-chisels in prep for fitting the pegs.



The pegs are set into the pegbox. For this particular instrument, I didn't want to go through the effort of making pegs, so I cast around for pegs that were small enough for the purpose. 1/16 size violin pegs in ebony seem to be about small enough (I did say this was a really small fiddle!), and were acquired from the International Violin Company, Ltd - which has good supplies. The holes were reams for the pegs, and the pegs cut to length.



The body block functionally now done, the top parts are next. First the soundboard. The soundboard will be carved from spruce, in this case a block of nicedly aged spruce I acquired from a violin luthier wood company. A thin slab (about 1/4 inch thick) will be sliced off, and gently curved and hollowed for the soundboard. Here I've marked the piece to be cut on the wood.



The soundboard is then thinned down and trimmed down to be flush with the shape of the body block.



The soundboard is then carved into a gentle arch, with the central area taller and thinning toward all the edges.



Once the top has been shaped, it's hollowed out from underneath, so that it's only about 2mm thick.



For the soundholes on the instrument, I decided to copy the Tielke instrument outward turned C's, and also decided to include the little heart cutout near the fingerboard, as the only ornament on this instrument. They were cut into the soundboard using a jeweler's saw, and then filed clean to shape using the microfiles. That pretty much finishes the soundboard.



For the fingerboard and tailpiece I'll be using some ebony scrap I have from other projects. The tailpiece is going to be particularly small, but the fingerboard may be fairly tall, and may require that I hollow it out as well from below to keep the overall weight down. I even thought about making a small lattice "window" for where the fingerboard overhangs the soundboard to close that space, but we'll worry about that a little later. Here I'm cutting out the fingerboard from a block (that originally was a fingerboard block for a bass).



The fingerboard is then rounded out on the top to match the arch of the soundboard.



Then also like the soundboard, the fingerboard is hollowed out from behind. It will be closed on the nut end by the nut, and on the soundboard end by a little lattice window.



The fingerboard is then sanded and polished smooth, as well as the soundboard, and the two are fitted closely so that they joint between them is clean.



Then both are glued to the body block, using the handweight clamping method. Here the fingerboard is already on, and the soundboard is going on.



The body is now cleaned up, all overhanging edges smoothed out, and the whole thing polished down to 800 grit sandpaper.



Several coats of an oil based violin lacquer are applied, with very fine grain sanding done inbetween layers.



The body is now done, and the fingerboard oiled. Now on to the other fittings.



The tailpiece and nut are roughed from the same piece as the fingerboard.



The tailpiece is slightly arched and hollowed from below to the same curve as the soundboard. Holes for the strings and tailgut are drilled with the finger drills, and the piece polished and oiled.



The bridge is cut from a fine piece of maple.



I take the pattern from the same instrument above, and carefully arch the piece to the curve of the soundboard. It's really small.



The finished pochette bridge next to a regular baroque violin bridge blank. It's a little narrower, and a LOT shorter.



The fittings all complete, all that remains is the set-up, which is done using nylon cord to get the height and positioning of the strings correctly before putting on the gut.

From what I've read, the normal tuning for a pochette is either a fourth or even a fifth above that of a violin. A fourth above sets the strings an octave over a viola (c g d' a"), with the low string set at middle C. I'm already used to that fingering (playing viola), so I'll probably use that tuning out of my own ease.



The completed instrument. It came out looking very nicely, and pretty much exactly like intended, as well as being pretty close to the model, minus ornaments. However the instrument itself is very quiet, and with the present position of the bridge, the string sounding length is so short that I actually cannot get my fingers close enough together to play it properly.

So I ended up moving the bridge back to BEHIND the C soundholes, and that actually both made it a little louder, and me able to play it. Video will follow shortly.

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