The Wooden Economy

or Logistic solutions for Lutemakers

The very name of the lute comes from the Arabic Al’Ud, or the wood, and this paper deals with some historic aspects of the supply of the woods necessary and some ideas about the quantities involved.


It is evident from iconography and literary references that the lute was widely used across all of W. Europe very soon after its arrival as the ‘Ud in about 1250. This alone may cast some doubt on a single entry point in Moorish Spain, undoubtedly important as that was. Here it is in Seville in 1283

Alphonso el Sabio book of chess endgames 1283


By 1300 it was in England and common enough to be used prominently in this ecclesiastical cope.


Steeple Aston Cope c.1310-1340 (Opus Anglicanum) earliest known English representation of a lute. V&A London



In c. 1340 here it is in the Wenceslas Bible from Bohemia

Wenceslas IV bible (Czech 1387-1400) Vienna Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek MS 2759/64, fol. 81


At the same time, c.1340, here it is in Florence.

Andrea Pisano (c.1290-1348) successor to Giotto on Florence campanile Orpheus as luteplayer c.1340


Circa 1370 here is another more up-to-date looking lute also in Florence


Agnolo Gaddi, The Coronation of the Virgin, probably c. 1370

Samuel H. Kress Collection 1939.1.203


In 1375 it was in an explicitly Christian context in Spain


Circa 1400 we even have an idealised picture of a lutemaker’s workshop and sales showroom in France!


Boccaccio, Des cleres et nobles femmes (French after 1401) Bibliotheque nationale, MS fr. 12420, fol. 119



In 1440 here it is in Italy


And in 1450 in the Netherlands

Where were all these medieval lutes being made? We simply don’t know. Perhaps all locally, certainly there must have been some local lutemaking for Henri Arnault of Zwolle to find out enough general details to write his manuscript description in Dijon round about 1440, when he was employed as physician and astronomer for Phillip The Good, Duke of Burgundy.  But it is somewhat surprising that it is not until 1461 that we get the first mention of a lutemaker, Perchtold, in the Füssen area and the first lutemaker to acquire citizenship there is a certain Georg Wolf in 1493, because Füssen was to become such a dominant centre of lutemaking in the next century. Perhaps it already was, but we don’t know. (The director of the Museum in Füssen somewhat mischievously suggests the date 1493 and the name Wolf might suggest he was a jewish maker originally called Lopez expelled from Spain, Lopez-Lupo-Wolf.)


Certainly moving wood in the past was both difficult and expensive, so industries tended to grow up near to this natural resource and with onward transport links to a market. So it is perhaps no surprise that the first recorded major centre of lutemaking did establish itself in the area round Füssen, right on the edge of the heavily forested Alps with its abundant supplies of spruce [picea abies] for soundboards, yew [taxus baccata] and maple [acer platanoides & acer pseudoplatanus] for the backs and structural parts of lutes.  There was also plenty of plum [prunus spp.] for pegs and bridges.

Matthäus Merian copperplate 1643


The heavy, bulky wood needed only to be brought down the mountainsides which begin in the foreground of this view just across the river Lech from Füssen, while the river itself afforded easy and gentle transport for the delicate finished instruments towards their main markets in England, France, the Netherlands and Germany.

Situated on the Via Claudia, a former Roman road, Füssen was on a route, that until the 1950s, was the major connection between Augsburg and Venice.  Though shallow the River Lech is navigable by raft and joins the Danube providing a trading route to Vienna and Budapest.  By road or water merchants had easy - for the time - access to rich markets to the south-west and the north-east.


Michael Wening copperplate,1696


The best spruce for soundboards needs tight grain with narrow rings and a sharp division between summer and winter growth so the best are found at the higher altitudes. The trees themselves need to be very large to allow for the wide soundboards of lutes, plus the best time to harvest this wood is in the depths of winter when the sap is lowest. So the process of extracting these large logs across and down steep and rugged terrain was a real problem before the modern mechanical era shown in my first photograph. The system devised, called Sovenda,  was described by a parson Hans Rudolf Schintz in 1783 in his Beyträge zur näheren Kenntniss des Schweizerlandes as a  series of timber slides held together not by fastenings but simply by pouring water over the joints and allowing it to freeze.


J R Schellenberg 1782

He describes it as being peculiar to the Italian side of the Alps but it went on until the late 19th century all over the Alps into the era of photographs, such this from 1886 in Lower Engadin

And we have a highly romantic description of the process written  by H. Berlepsch, The Alps or Sketches of Life and Nature in the Mountains. (Trans. Leslie Stephen 1861) pp.372-5


But there is an even more interesting account of it in the 1884 Centralblatt für das gesamte Forstwesen, X. Jahrgand, März, p.155 which was quoted by Remy Gug in his wonderful article in FoHMRI comm 1101 Oct. 1990.

“Anyone who has ever been near to a timber slide while it is being used has noticed a remarkable difference in the sound of the sliding timber....There is no doubt about the fact that this “singing timber” has always been in demand and that it achieved a good price. .... If for example in Carinthia timber had been prepared for transport, an Italian gentleman would show up, settle himself nearby and listen attentively to the sound of the thundering timber. Whenever a timber passed by that caused the air to vibrate his face lighted and he told his servant to mark it. He recognised the sound from a great distance. Often he would sit there and wait for hundreds of timber to pass. As soon as the singing sound was heard he would be looking for the “singer” and found it at once. The higher and longer the sound, the more he liked it. Thus he would wait for his “singers” for many days.”


Remy Gug notes that all this machinery of transport involved hundreds of experienced men and would not be possible without well established traders with considerable capital. Just as today, the lute and other instrument makers relied on an existing logistical infrastructure designed to  provide large quantities of timber for other uses. Schintz estimates that 12,000 - 20,000 logs would be slid down the mountainside each winter season, and a later article in Forest History Today  2002 describes a similar 12 kilometer slide built in Alpnach 1810 which itself used 25,500 logs in its construction alone.


However all was not plain sailing for Füssen and its industry. In 1525 the Peasants War broke out in South Germany and although many were killed in its suppression and afterwards the survivors harshly taxed  in retribution, Füssen was not too badly affected. Dürer, as usual, has a humane and ironic eye for the situation.

“If someone wishes to erect a victory monument after vanquishing rebellious peasants,.........”

Albrecht Dürer, Underweysung der Messung, Nürnberg 1525, Monument to Commemorate a Victory over the Rebellious Peasants, 1525


Later in 1546  the catholic town of Füssen was caught on the wrong side of the religious Schmalkaldic War and was sacked by 15000 troops and 100 cartloads of loot was taken off to Augsburg. In addition there were outbreaks of plague in 1520, 1524, 1536 as well as in 1546 after the sack of the town. So the attractions of rich, relatively stable, catholic northern Italy just over the Alps along the well-established old Roman route Via Claudia Augusta must have been immense.



Certainly about this time there emerge other important centres of lutemaking in North Italy, Venice, Verona, Padua and Bologna, and ALL the makers have German names and strong links back to the Füssen area.

The most well-known maker is undoubtedly Laux Maler in Bologna and he seems to have been one of the earliest to arrive probably even as early as 1503 according to Sandro Pasquale & Roberto Regazzi who have produced a detailed study of the Bolognese lutemakers (Le radici del successo della liuteria a Bologna, Florenus Edizioni, 1998) Maler’s inventory taken a few days after his death in 1552 shows that he had an industrial scale workshop with about 1100 lutes of various sorts in his workshop. The only raw materials noted are 1354 lute soundboards in various stages of completion and unspecified numbers of lute ribs. but no large pieces of raw timber. As I have suggested the raw timber is too bulky for long distance transport so it is better to select higher up the chain and only transport the selected smaller pieces.


There is also another inventory of Christofolo Cocho from the really extensive researches of Stefano Pio whose three volumes of work on the lute and violin makers of Venice is a major contribution to our knowledge. But this inventory is from 1664 when lutemakers were beginning to turn over to making violins, in fact his workshop is called a violin bottega in the inventory.


So I shall concentrate on the third surviving inventory, that of Moises Tiefembruker son of Magno Tieffenbrucker, (This is a minefield of identification and it’s not entirely clear which of the Dieffopruchar labelled lutes can be attributed to which individual) another German with a name connecting him back to Tieffenbruck near Füssen.  I have worked on this with Francesco Conto and it is highly revealing of the industrial scale of the trade.

He lived here in Calle dei Stagneri [alley of the tinsmiths] shown in the Jacopo de Barbari map of 1500

Jacopo de’Barbari, Bird’s Eye View of Venice, 1500, British Museum.

And here it is today, recognisably the same.

Google image

This the building with the bridge leading from the calle dei Stagneri

Photo, David Van Edwards

with the water entrance, mentioned in the inventory

Photo, David Van Edwards


His inventory is dated 1581 There were two versions taken within days of each other by Loredan one of the most prestigious law firms in Venice, presumably there was some dispute. This is a summary of the lute related parts of the second more detailed version, translated by Francesco Contó.


140 lutes of yew and figured maple

12 lutes with ivory lines

100 cheap lutes

110 yew lutes and others

10 ivory and sandalwood lutes

(from the first inventory I include: 1 lute in black sandalwood and ivory with its own case.)

4 ivory lutes

Total 376 lutes of which 26 expensive and 100 cheap


36 unfinished lutes


150 yew lute backs

24 cheap lute backs

Total 174 lute backs of which 150 yew


8 guitars


1400 yew ribs

6100 yew ribs

1300 yew ribs

6000 yew ribs

Total 14,800 yew ribs


400 bad yew ribs

400 sandalwood ribs

1400 white wood ribs to be planed (poplar?)

Grand Total 17,000 ribs


2000 soundboards for lute and guitar

600 lute necks

300 bridges

150 fingerboards

160 ivory pegs


170 lute cases, lined and unlined



10,800 lute and violin strings

480 thin strings

1200 bad strings

Total 12,480 strings


10 cornetti


8 pieces of ebony

19 ivory tusks

40 lute and guitar moulds

90 locks for lute (cases)

Sharpening stone and some iron tools and some lute moulds


I want to flag up a few points:

1. Again a large number of finished lutes but virtually no tools, just the 40+ moulds, suggesting he was employing journeymen, Gazellen, who would have had their own tools.

2. The explicit distinction between cheap and expensive lutes.

3. The colossal number of yew ribs which were clearly already planed, in contrast to the 1400 white wood ribs which were unplaned. I think this suggests these were local wood, perhaps maple but perhaps poplar.

4. Again a huge number of soundboards identified as such, not logs of spruce.

5. Ivory both as tusks and as ribs. This and the ebony logs probably valuable enough to import in the lump.



There are two surviving lutes with his identical printed labels and, neatly, one is expensive and the other clearly cheap.


I’ll start at the bottom end of the market. This is the lute in Munich Stadt Museum, it has been sadly converted into a mandora


Photo, David Van Edwards

For the present purpose it is interesting that it is, unusually cheap and is made of poplar, a cheap white wood readily available in North Italy. It is also of the slightly older Maler type shape, long and pear shaped.

Photo, David Van Edwards

Moises side view


Maler side view


Now here is the up-market lute, this has a handwritten addition of HH and fecit suggesting it was actually made by a senior journeyman who was allowed some identity.

Moises side view

Florence Bardini Museum 144 Magno Dieffopruchar, Venice, 1609 side view

Moises front view

Florence Bardini Museum 144 Magno Dieffopruchar, Venice, 1609 front view

Musée de la Musique, Paris (E. 1560)

Again converted to a mandora but this one is made of ivory and Rio rosewood [Dalbergia nigra] and calls to mind the item:

 1 lute in black sandalwood and ivory with its own case.”

Now there is no such wood as black sandalwood. Sandalwood [santalum album] is a light, soft, fragrant wood rather yellowish. I notice that there are 400 sandalwood ribs in the inventory and indeed the famous 1566 Fugger inventory of lutes has four lutes of sandalwood and five lutes made of striped sandalwood and ivory so all these might indeed be what we know of as sandalwood, even though it does not strike me as a very suitable wood for a lute back. However the smell might well have appealed to a rich collector like Raymond Fugger.


But if you are a dealer or a maker in Venice encountering Rio rosewood [dalbergia nigra] for the first time you might well notice the smell as well as the colour and put the two together in the name black sandalwood. Similar things have happened when naming US woods. In fact there is another name for this wood, Palisander, This word can’t be traced back further than the 18th century and it first appears in Dutch. When I consult the etymology it is very much disputed, with several people suggesting it came from the Spanish, Palo Santo the holy wood or lignum vitae [Guaiacum] so called because it was widely used as a cure for the French pox - that is syphilis! However the Dutch knew this wood very well as pockhoudt or pox wood and were therefore very unlikely to confuse the two. In support of my supposition I have found that Corominas, Joan & Jose A Pascual 1980-3 in their Diccionario Critico Etimologico Castellano e Hispanico. Madrid: Editorial Gredos

(1981:4:354) suggest it comes from Palo sándal  ie. sandalwood, on account of the smell.


What is clear both from the inventory and surviving lutes in museums is that South American woods and other exotica like ivory and ebony were really in surprisingly common use for lutes, even allowing for the fact that obviously valuable instruemnts are more likely to survive through periods of disuse. In the Fugger inventory there are lutes of Indian cane, whalebone, sandalwood, lignum vitae, ebony, Brazil wood [possibly pernambuco] maple, cypress, and of course yew, and there are several surviving lutes of snakewood and kingwood. It is odd therefore that other instruments of the violin family did not seem to experiment with this huge range of woods. I suggest it is because the violin family was still mostly the preserve of the professional player whereas the lute was an aspirational instrument which appealed to rich collectors and amateurs as well as the few professionals. I very much doubt whether Dowland or Francesco da Milano played on ebony or snakewood lutes, though Piccinini reports that Caccini played an ivory lute. Acoustically too the back of a lute is not so intimately connected to the soundboard as in the violin with its soundpost, so the influence is more as a reflective surface and for this these harder, heavier woods do increase the volume without changing the character as they might in a violin.


But the vast preponderance of ribs in Moises’ inventory are yew. There are no surviving yew wood lutes by Moises but plenty by other makers, out of my database of 800 lutes I have information on the ribs of 539, of these 140 have yew ribs the second most common wood after the 173 of maple. And many of these use the contrast betwen the pale sapwood and the orange brown heartwood of yew to produce a striking striped effect that is not obtainable from any other wood. This theorbo by Buechenberg, made in 1614, has 41 ribs of heartwood/sapwood yew with ebony strips between the ribs.


Photo, David Van Edwards

This close-up shows the fine grain and you can clearly see how straight and blemish free such wood must be to have the full effect

Photo, David Van Edwards

And this monster by Giovanni Tesler made in 1615 has 65 ribs. They are in fact heartwood/sapwood but the filthy varnish has obscured the contrast. It is now in Dresden Museum and has been restored so if you visited the museum you’d be able to see the true effect.


Where were these yew ribs coming from? And here we go back to the Füssen family connections which so many of these German Venetian lutemakers maintained. Let us look at the Guild regulations drawn up in 1562 for regulating the Füssen lutemakers.

The first of its kind (the second is a Parisian guild of 1599) Amid the many detailed regulations about who can take apprentices and how long these apprenticeships shall last [5] and how many years [3] he must be a journeyman before becoming a master there is this last point:

   “Finally, a number of citizens who have not learned the trade here have dared to buy

lute staves and to plane them and sell and brand them independently. This, however,

is not only a burden for us and hinders us in competition with other towns, but also

damages our good name; therefore, in the future no one, no matter who, shall be

allowed to practice this branding. Rather, he shall be put out of business by the guild

and also punished according to the judgment of the guild, unless he has learned this

craft properly and honestly and has become a member of the guild.

   Wherewith Your Honors have heard in brief the summary of our craft customs.

Obediently requesting, Your Honors shall not only herein graciously approve, but

also ratify the guild regulations we have drawn up and support us in carrying them

out. Because we, in contrast to other craftsmen, do not earn money here, but rather

we spend here what we earn in other places, we do not doubt that it is in Your own

interest—as an experiment and subject to your revocation—to approve and empower

[ these regulations].

   Herewith obediently submitted,

   Your Honors' obedient fellow citizens,

   Masters of the lute maker's guild here

This was at a time when there were 20 workshops  in Füssen complete with masters, journeymen and apprentices all in a town of 2000 inhabitants. Adolf Layer in his book Die Allgäuer Lauten-und Geigenmacher, Augsburg 1978, even makes the point that these restrictive practices were another factor pushing some of the most enterprising makers to move and seek work abroad.


Then in 1606 these regulations were re-issued in a revised form which added the stipulation that only legitimate sons of subjects of the Augsburg bishopric could be taken as apprentices and that journeymen who had trained elsewhere (Italy??) had to work at least two years for a Füssen master before they could submit their “masterpiece” for approval.  Otherwise they could apply to become a master if they were able to marry either a daughter or a widow of a Füssen master.  All newly appointed masters had to offer their lutes for sale to the guild before they could be sold abroad.  And finally whoever remained unmarried was not allowed to sell lute ribs but must instead remain as a journeyman in the workshop of a master.


It seems clear that cutting and preparing lute ribs for export was actually a major part of these Füssen workshop’s activities. It also sounds, reading between the lines, as if they were becoming increasingly defensive and insular in relation to other centres of lutemaking that they perceived as a threat. Confirmation of this might be the regular printed labels of Raphael Mest:

Raphael Mest in Fiessen, Imperato // del Misier Michael Hartung in Pa- // dua me fecit, Anno 16[ms]33”

These make great play of having trained under Michael Hartung in Padua, surely as a selling point. Further confirmation are the customs duties payable in the port of London where “Cullen-made” lutes, that is lutes shipped through Cologne, predominantly Füssen lutes, are shown over a period of nearly 80 years from 1582 - 1660 to be worth a third to a quarter of the price of “Venice-made” lutes. And that both sorts were commonly shipped and taxed in units of a dozen, so a considerable trade.

1660 Port of London duty charges


No wonder the Füssen guild were defensive and Raphael Mest wanted some reflected Italian glory.


But there was a further, perhaps surprising, threat to the Füssen trade in lute ribs. That very contrast between yew sapwood and heartwood which was so attractive for the lutemakers had also a structural significance for making powerful longbows. The sapwood is very resistant to tension while the heartwood is very resistant to compression, so using the wood with the sapwood on the outer face of the bow effectively produces the equivalent of a modern composite bow. A bow of enormous power and rapid firepower that was still greatly superior to the available muskets at the time we are concerned with. The trouble was that Europe was running out of good straight yew, the Bavarian yew was renowned to be some of the best and so the wealthy arms trade was in direct competition with our lutemakers. England had been a major importer of yew bow staves for several centuries: in the time of Richard III no wine could be imported from Spain unless the ships also brought 10 staves of yew for every barrel of wine, and in 1514 HenryVIII “sent men of science into Spain who chose 10,000 yew staves which were marked with the Crown and Rose, and were the goodliest ever brought into England”  (Latham, Wood from Forest to Man 1964 p. 74). This demand created a market and the wood dealers had to put in bids to the various authorities in Bavaria, Tyrol and Austria for an Eibenmonopol, the yew monopoly.


From Fred Hageneder, Yew a History, Stroud 2011

It was a huge and lucrative trade, in 1510 Henry VIII, again, agreed to buy 40,000 bow staves from the Doge of Venice at £16 per hundred, and in 1521 the Austrian monarchy demanded 5 Rhineland guilders per 1000 staves and Balthasar Lurtsch bought 20,000 staves. The Nürnberg Fürer company, who held yew privileges in South Germany and Austria, are calculated to have exported 1,600,000 staves in the period 1512-1592. This map of the export transport routes for yew bowstaves reminds us of the infrastructure needed, and of course that it would be almost identical to the routes used for finished lutes.


However what it conspicuously left out was the Via Claudia Augusta route carrying finished lute ribs. So I have added this in green.


From Fred Hageneder, Yew a History, Stroud 2011

So it is not surprising that this rival, well-funded, demand should pose a threat to the Füssen lutemakers who were selling prepared lute ribs to their relatives in Venice. It came to a recorded head in the years 1609-12 with a long and complicated exchange of letters and pleas from the Füssen guild to the Duke of Bavaria and the Archduke of Tyrol  and the Prince Bishop of Augsburg, trying to prevent a Dutch dealer, Walthauser von Mühlheim, from repeating his felling and export of a large quantity of yew from the Ettal mountains for sale to England and even to the infidel Turks (who had a recent treaty with the Netherlands). They also complained of the sly dealings of two who had picked out the finest and longest of the lute ribs which had been made by the official day-workers in the previous years, and sent these to Venice, Verona and Padua, and then had sent the shorter ones to Füssen and even sold these at a higher price. One of the prime movers of the initial plea was a prominent Füssen maker Mang Hellmer, two of whose lutes have survived, both made of striped yew. This is the one in Darmstadt Museum




Lute by Mang Hellmer, 1609 Füssen Darmstadt, Hessisches Landesmuseum (Kg 67:104)

Photo, David Van Edwards

In brief the injunction was successful, but then Mang Hellmer himself went behind the backs of the other makers and paid 100 guilders to Duke Maximilian for a monopoly of yew felling for himself and in 1612 took 5 cartloads of yew bowstaves to the market in Frankfurt. He was betrayed by his own brother and the makers complained again, including the significant words “not only for us poor craftspeople and our children’s children, not only here in Füssen but also all the lute makers in Italy, where one sends the lute ribs...” (Layer, op cit. p.23)

The depredations of the arms trade and the lutemakers mean that there are now no significant stands of yew in the whole of Europe and it is a protected species over much of the continent.


Although I am happy to blame most of this on the arms trade, the numbers of lutes produced must have been quite staggering when we consider that just a one day snapshot of Laux Maler’s workshop shows over a thousand lutes while only six have survived and 360 Moises Tiefembruker lutes have come down to two.  And these are only two of hundreds of workshops producing lutes for at least 150 years. One would have to make far too many assumptions to calculate anything like a reliable figure, but just a back of envelope guess, using very conservative assumptions, suggest over 15 million lutes and, if the ratio of surviving lutes is applied, that makes 3,896,103 yew lutes, say 77 million yew ribs.