Musical instrument making – traditional stringed and keyboard instruments with Geoff Bowers and Andy Butterworth

Ref: SMI13292

About this course

Musical instrument making:
You will work in small groups (SMI13292–SMI13195 ), with an experienced maker as your tutor, selecting an instrument from the range offered according to your interests and woodworking experience. Instrument options include some which are suitable for complete beginners. Instruction is given in the principles of making, assembling and finishing the instrument, allowing you to start a new project or complete one already in progress. The tutor will contact you to discuss your choice and the materials required. Please note many instruments take more than one nine-day course to complete. This will be dependant on the complexity, your skill level and ability to continue at home beween courses .

Course Description

Select an instrument in advance from the list given below, and learn the principles of making, assembling and finishing your chosen instrument.

For complete beginners, this course gives the opportunity to experience the sense of satisfaction of making a musical instrument from scratch, using traditional methods. Instruction is given in the principles of making, assembling and finishing your chosen instrument to a state where it can be strung and played. However, please note that depending on the instrument chosen, and your making experience and skills, it may be necessary to return to subsequent courses to complete your instrument – please ask your tutor about this. Prior wood working experience, though not necessary, is an advantage.

Materials and techniques covered:

- The ability to choose woods suitable for musical instrument making

- Gain skills in the use of basic woodworking and some specialist tools relevant to instrument making, in the types of joints and glues, and in working with thin sections of wood

- Learn techniques of shaping wood by carving and bending, and adding simple decoration

- Theory and practice of stringed instrument set up, bridge and fret positions

If you have previous experience of instrument making, you will extend your skills in the making of musical instruments by traditional methods.

- Using an extended choice of suitable woods, you will increase your skills in the use of tools specific to lutherie.

- Thicknessing of wood down to one to two millimetres

- Complex bending and jointing, carving and applying decoration to the instrument

- Theory and practice of stringed instrument set-up, including: choice of strings, bridge and fret positions and adjustment of playing action

Teaching is generally on a one-to-one basis, catering for individual needs and dictated by ability, previous experience and knowledge. There are group demonstrations where appropriate. As the course takes place in a large workshop, adjacent to the other courses in this series, you will also gain knowledge by interaction with fellow students and other tutors. Instrument drawings are provided by the tutors.

West Dean College has run musical instrument making courses for more than 40 years. This nine-day course and supplementary five-day courses run in the Short Course Programme for amateur makers. It can provide an insight to those considering applying for full-time study on the College’s Foundation Degree in Arts – Musical Instruments.

TIMETABLE VARIATION: teaching ends at 12.30pm on the final day and the workshop is to be cleared by 3.30pm.


Arrival day

Residential students to arrive from 4pm, non-residential to arrive by 6.45pm

6.45pm Welcome followed by dinner (included)
8.00-9.00pm First teaching session, attendance is essential

Daily timetable

9.15-5.00pm Classes (lunch included)
From 6.30pm Dinner (included)

Evening working – Students may have access to workshops until 9pm, but only with their tutor’s permission and provided any health and safety guidelines are observed.

Last day

9.15am-12.30pm Classes (lunch included). Workshops must be cleared by 3.30pm.

Residential students to vacate rooms by10am.

Course Materials

What students need to bring

  • As soon as you receive confirmation of your place, please tell us which instrument you wish to work on by emailing: [email protected]
  • If you are new to the course, please give details of your past experience in instrument making and woodworking. We will pass this information to the tutor, who will contact you to discuss this and the materials required. Alternatively, if you are bringing a part-made instrument, please bring materials and information relating to this or inform the tutor of what you need.
  • If you play a musical instrument, please bring it with you for informal music making in the evenings.
  • The following is a basic list. It is not definitive, so you should bring as many tools as you think you will need. Please remember that if you don’t have any specific tools on the list, most basic tools can be borrowed at the College. Diamond sharpening stones are also available for use throughout the course.
  • Certain specialised tools may be borrowed from tutors, together with all necessary jigs, moulds and patterns.
  • Tool list:
  • Pencils* – white or yellow are useful if working with dark woods
  • Rulers* – all metal, and ideally 6", 12" flexible and 1 metre straight edge
  • Knives – marking out knife or violin maker’s knife*, scalpel with an assortment of blades*
  • Wood chisels, 1/8" to 1"
  • Wood gouges, 1/2" and 1"
  • Block plane – small, low cutting angle plane for end grain, etc.
  • Smoothing plane – general purpose
  • Wood rasps – a selection of profiles
  • Needle files – a selection of profiles
  • Cabinet scrapers – rectangular and swan neck
  • Saws – dovetail, small tenon, cross cut (Japanese double sided and backed saws are highly recommended.)
  • Fret saw with spare blades
  • Piercing saw* with spare blades
  • Small G clamps, 1" to 6" capacity (as many as possible)
  • Centre punch
  • Abrasives Garnet, Al-oxide, etc.
  • Glue – Aliphatic resin (Titebond)*, Resin W PVA are all suitable.
  • Animal (hot) glue* may be used if preferred, but please let tutors know in advance.
  • Artist’s brushes* for gluing, etc.
  • (* The College Shop may have a few of these items, but please don't rely on it. If you have queries on which tools you need, ask the tutor.)
  • Please remember to bring clothing which is safe and suitable for the workshop. It is also essential that you wear stout covered footwear (not sandals).

Available to buy

  • Available from tutor:
  • On this course, the tutor can supply most of the materials to individual students; the costs of specific instruments are given as an approximate guide on the list below. Please check the costs with your tutor when discussing your instrument choice as they are not included in the course fee. This cost should be paid to the tutor when requested.
  • Clavicytherium (D) £370–450
  • Hurdy gurdy: guitar shape (Lambert 1781) (D) £250–350
  • Hurdy gurdy: lute back (Decante & Cailhe 1865) (D) £250–350
  • Hurdy gurdy: type IV (16th C) (D) £250–350
  • Hurdy gurdy: (H Bosch) (D) £250–350
  • Steel strung folk guitar (D) £POA
  • Bouzouki (flat back) (C) £100–200
  • Rebec # (B) £100
  • Hammered dulcimer (B) £150
  • Appalachian dulcimer # (B) £80–£100
  • Mandola, octave/tenor (B) £100–200
  • Celtic harp (clarsach, 31 string) # (B) £170–250
  • Mandolin # (B) £100–200
  • Level of Ability: (D) advanced, (C) intermediate, (B) beginner or first instruments
  • The approximate timber costs listed are to give a guide only, and final costs will depend on individual choice of timber and other variables in the price of timber. Costs of strings, pegs, reeds and other accessories are not included. Please discuss this when the tutor contacts you about your requirements.
  • Instruments marked # are simpler to make and are suitable first instruments, while the aim is to complete these in one nine-day course, please be aware that this is not always possible and you may need to return for at least one subsequent course.

Additional information

Please note: Humidity levels in the workshop are variable to dry; whilst the College has addressed this, some factors are beyond our control, therefore instruments are brought and left in the workshop at your own risk. Each tutor will take a half-day break, in rotation with the other tutors, to be decided during the week. They will discuss suitable work for that session with you, if you wish to continue working. Please wear appropriate clothing/aprons for the workshop or studio. This includes stout covered footwear, i.e. no open-toes or sandals, and safety boots, if specified.


Geoff Bowers tutor picture

Andy Butterworth

Andy has been attending the West Dean Musical Instrument Making Course for over 35 years, firstly as a student and then as a tutor. His work as a restorer and maker in the horological and musical genres gives particular insight into technical aspects, especially for keyboard instruments and hurdy-gurdies, which have some "engineering" content.


Residential option available. Find out accommodation costs and how to book here.

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