An Abridged Look at the Making of a Qin

During the design and construction of my qin, I was originally planning on documenting all the details to put together another guide to qin making. Unfortunately, I got a bit lazy with the picture taking, and stopped documenting the build as thoroughly as I wanted. Most of the time, I got lost in the work, since there were many detailed steps and long hours spent cutting, carving, and shaping the various parts. Though its not much of a guide, I would like to show some pictures that I did manage to take during the build process, to show some of the work involved in qin making, particularly with this qin, which combines some traditional and modern techniques and aspects.

The qin was built with a combination of both power tools and hand tools. Rough shaping and cutting of the qin profile, the gabon ebony accessories, and major drilling and routing operations were done with power tools to get very precise alignment, as well as get through bulk operations. However, the entire qin top curves, as well as inside the qin soundboard, was completely, and very carefully carved and shaped by hand. Other details along the qin were also carved and shaped by hand, and the qin was fully hand sanded and polished. Several coats of danish oil was applied to the qin after sanding to really bring out the color and grain of the wood to let it pop better under the french polished top coat.

For an instrument of this scale, planning ahead is absolutely critical for success. I spent over a month alone on the design work and planning for all of the parts, including several full-scale, exact-dimensional drawings for the top and bottom of the qin, as well as all of the major accessories. Parts definitely changed here and there throughout the build, but having a plan, and reviewing each step over and over between and during each phase of the build really helped minimizing disaster. Even with all this planning though, I still had to make a bunch of parts over several times, including the yueshen, the chenglu, the scholars caps, and the nut – it probably took me about three tries alone just to get the nut right, and at least three tries for the banana leaf style peg protector! However, if you are going to spend this much time to make an instrument, its best to stay patient and do everything right, even if it takes multiple attempts – and boy, does this instrument really try your patience!

One of the more interesting parts of the build was steam bending the scholars caps. There are several ways of approaching this issue: either making the qin without them, carving into the soundboard and inlaying them, or steam bending them to the profile and gluing them on the surface. I figured I would rather go through ruining a bunch of small pieces of ebony trying to bend them rather than screwing up the top by attempting a rather tricky inlay on a very sloped and non-uniform surface. Gabon ebony is extremely difficult to steam bend normally however, never mind steam bending it into a highly non-symmetric contour to fit the top! This was also my first attempt at steam bending, and I had to make sure I made LOTS of pairs of scholar caps since I would most likely be breaking them during the process. Fortunately, I only had to make a couple of tries to get it right, and the results were well worth the effort. This is a perfect example of making sure you have plenty of spare wood to complete a tricky part.

One thing that has definitely been of importance during the build is leaving excess: it’s always much easier to slowly shave back a part than filling in wood. This is especially true for when gluing the top and bottom boards together, and for such a large instrument such as this where a lot can go wrong during gluing. Chances are the wood will not align exactly, things shift or warp, and if you don’t leave excess wood after, it will make things more difficult to deal with. One of the keys to getting seamless joints in gluing wood pieces together I have found is that leaving excess wood on the edges, then going back and shaving/sanding beyond the joint will give you much better results than cutting pieces exact, trying to line them up side by side, and only sanding off the glue after. I made the dimensions for both the top and bottom with an excess space of atleast 1/4″ so that I would have plenty of room to sand and shape the seams back to result in a gapless joint. It’s a bit extra work, but the results are much better. Gluing the qin together is also a bit tricky because you need very wide clamps to get a good grip over the curved surface, or create some gluing jig. I found that a rather simple traditional approach works very effectively, by binding the instrument tightly with lots of rope and hammering in wedges to increase pressure. I used a couple of clamps on either end first to keep the boards aligned, then wrapped the rest in rope tightly. It is a good idea to put something over the top of the qin to protect the soft wood from potential dents and dings during the process.

Another thing to be weary of is planning for spacing during gluing. If you have a part that fit super snug into a routed channel, chances are when you add glue, it may no longer fit. That is exactly what happened with both the yueshen/chenglu and the nut: I spent so much time shaping them to fit super snug and exact in their slots that I did not account for the extra space required for gluing. Especially with a time-critical operation such as gluing, you definitely do not want to be putting a part into a slot only to find it gets stuck halfway. Fortunately for me, gabon ebony is extremely hard and strong (though brittle), and the parts could withstand the beating of being forced into place via hammering. There was much swearing that day…

I would say however, that perhaps the most time consuming and frustrating part of the process, at least for me, was the buzz-checking phase. This ended up taking me three weeks alone, stringing and unstringing the instrument dozens of times to slowly shape the various top curves to minimize buzzing. The qin top is essentially one giant, fretless soundboard, and getting the string to vibrate at all pressed points along its length with no-to-minimal buzzing is no trivial task. Finishing the qin itself is another whole process in itself, which I will dedicate a future post to exclusively.

You can click on the thumbnails to see the enlarged pictures. My next posts will be on design considerations for qin making, wood selection, and my experiences in using a french polished shellac finish for the qin (not as bad of an idea as you might originally think!), so stay tuned for more qin tips, experiences, and guides! And as always, if you are an aspiring or beginning qin maker, or are thinking about making a qin yourself, I am more than willing to provide whatever help I can for your qin endeavors!

To check out the completed qin, you can see the full detailed gallery in the Personal Qin page.



2 thoughts on “An Abridged Look at the Making of a Qin

  1. I find your site very helpful and informative. Do you make qin in the US. I happen to know a qin maker in China, who has recently published a book on qin making and qin culture, which will be translated into English. Longgen Chen

    1. Longgen Chen,

      Thank you very much for your compliment, I am glad you have found this information useful. I have currently made my own personal qin here in the US, as well as researched and developed my own synthetic qin strings, though I am not really a full time qin maker or plan on making more qin at this point. I am however interested in further developing synthetic strings for the qin, particularly the twisted core Kevlar strings I have developed, which I have found to be extraordinarily close in terms of timbre, look, and feel, much more so than any other string I have come across or tested yet, either my own or commercially available ones. My hopes are that this open research effort will help further the advancement of new strings and the understanding of the physics and engineering of these strings for the qin.

      That’s great that you know a qin maker who has published a book on qin making! There are few resources on the subject, and very little available in English. If you happen to know when the English version will be released, as well as the title of the book, I’d definitely be interested in knowing about it!



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