Return to Mark Hunter Profile

The Flemish Harpsichord Project

The project to redecorate my Flemish-single harpsichord in an authentic 17th century manner in the tradition of Hans Ruckers was daunting in several regards. General information about decorative style of this era is readily available, but as always it is the details that prove vexing. For example to know that the case lid would have a black band around the inside edge is one thing, but knowing the actual measurement of the band is another thing altogether. Looking at historical surviving examples is limited and when they do survive you are still left with making certain aesthetic decisions unique to your situation. So in the end you seek to make this a creative endeavor and not just a blind copy of a surviving instrument.

Such compromises between historical authenticity and today are best seen in mediums you choose. What type of paints and varnish do you choose to use? I don't think anyone suggest the use of lead based paint so as to be authentic. How and what type of glue will you use to attach the block-printed papers to the instrument? Is a hide glue to be used as the Baroque builders most likely used or is there a better alternative?

What follows is a detailed diary of how I went about decorating my harpsichord in the Baroque Flemish style. I make this available for anyone about to start their own decorating project in the hope you might benefit in some small way from my foray into historical decorative arts. I am of course aware of the absurdity given that of the half dozen or so people that might possibly care about such things, only one or two will actually read this. /sarcasm But, should you be one of these rare species of musical/artistic/historical/fanatics perhaps you will wean from this a bite or two of useful information.


Since I had built my instrument over a decade ago I was mostly roughing up the surface to remove the old varnish and making a sound surface for the new paint to adhere. If you are decorating a newly built instrument you will of course need to fill/smooth the imperfections and prime the wood. The first decision you will have to address is what type of paint you will use. Milk paint seems to be a popular choice for some these days. There are several reasons for this trend not least of which is its less toxic more (at least perceived) "environmentally friendly " aspect. I was not however convinced of its ability to produce a hard, lasting finish certainly when compared to a good oil paint. You will be spending money on this project and skimping on paint is not a good idea. I found Fine Paints of Europe to be the best paint currently available on the market. (Contrary to what the company's name implies, they are actually located in Vermont) From the richness of color to its extraordinary coverage, this paint was a joy to use. A liter will be more than enough for your primary color and 1/2 liters are available for secondary colors.


Flemish harpsichords traditionally would "marble" the case sides and outside lid. I put the word marble in quotes because though they referred to it this way, there truthfully was not great effort put into actually making this look like marble. In fact, this is where examination of surviving instruments leads to some surprising discovery. We take for granted today a precision of industrial and technological perfection that no historical artisans could have dreamed. In a sense, we hold ourselves to an impossible standard - certainly a standard the 17th century artisan did not. Keep this in mid when you are lettering the lid, or trying to paint that line with the precision of a laser printer! I chose to marble only the side of the case, but to keep the outside lid only painted the base color. This was done only as my personal decorative preference.

Marbling - Paint the case sides your base color (mine is whipple-blue). After it is well dried in, you will paint the foundation color of the marbling panel along the side. I have chosen a red marbling so the foundation is a good bright tulip red. Mask off the panel leaving about a 2 inch band going along the top and the bottom of the case side. Some might like it smaller (say 1.5 inches), that's a matter of taste. Remember, a portion of the band edge is going to have an accent stripe separating it from the marbling panel to imply modeling of an edge. More on that later. Do not try to leave the tape on, but rather remove the tape after while the paint is still wet. I would normally let the paint set up just a little so it did not spill over when the tape is removed. After about a week it's ready for the texturing glaze. Lightly sand the paint and tack cloth it clean. I can't emphasize enough the necessity of sanding between finishes to keep a good smooth finish. Don't worry if you take some of the satin finish off the paint (if that is the finish you are using) final varnishing will address that. I'm going to glaze over the red with a black that has been heavily thinned with mineral spirits. I call it a glaze because in traditional painting that is the effect you are going for, but in fact furniture paint does not give you the same translucence you would find with the oils painters use on canvases. Brush the liquefied black onto a portion of the case side and then immediately begin removing it with a rag by dabbing, rubbing, sometimes tapping and twisting the rag. Constantly change the portion of the rag you use so as to avoid a recurring pattern. What you are looking to create is an uneven texture of black with spots of the red showing through. Continue this all along the side melding the sections you work on into one another. Depending on your preference, you may want another color added to this texture later. I was content with black. After this has dried in well and you have sanded it lightly, you will do the veining. As I said before, there are lots of methods for doing this (some use a feather directly on wet paint), but I prefer a fine brush. Using a liquefied antique-white, lightly put down a few veins. You can smear the white at times to soften the edges, and even take a rag with spirits and dab over the veins to remove much of the color allowing the under-paint to show through. After as much as an hour when the paint begins to set, you can still take the mineral spirits and a rag and "erase" some of the veins to help them to lay naturally on the surface. You just don't want them to "pop" too much and look unnatural.

Foundation is a good bright tulip red

Apply the liquefied black onto a small section

Removing it with a rag

What it looks like after the 2nd color

Lightly put down a few veins

Case Bands - Above and below the marbled panel the Flemish would paint a strip to imply a modeled edge. Traditionally the top one was dark, and the lower one was light. Depending on your skill, preference and overall tolerance to anxiety you will either paint this freehand or by masking off the strip. I prefer 1/4 inch, but others may like 3/8 inch. Take a portion of your base color and add a degree of black to it so it is noticeably darker and paint the top strip. Similarly, take a portion of the base color and add white to raise its value. Paint this on the lower part between the marble and case edge. After the whole thing has dried well, give it a light sanding and wipe free with a tack cloth.

One final word about sand paper - 600 grit is typically the finest you will find in hardware stores, which is good for most of the project. But, as you get toward the top coat and final varnish you will want an even finer grit. I suggest you look at auto part stores since they will have 1500-2000 grit for very fine sanding finishes. At times I even wet sanded the paint. To do this, use a spray bottle that will spray a fine mist of water. Quickly sand a small portion and then wipe the area dry with a paper towel.

Case Edges and Keyboard Frame - The top edge of the case should be painted black. This includes the top of the jackrail. The keyboard end blocks, and name baten were done a variety of ways. Sometimes the wood was left unpainted ("bright") or a portion painted - often black - and only a bright decorative edge left unpainted. This could look quite striking especially with the Flemish bone keys and ebony accidentals. In my case (no pun intended) since I have a keyboard in the French style (ebony naturals and bone slipped accidentals) I thought the black would darken the well too much, so I went with the case color. All decorative beveled edges (case rim, jackrail, and name baton) were normally left unpainted. In my case, I chose to paint all edges traditionally left "bright" an antique white.

Papering Basics - The Flemish builders would decorate the keywell, inside the case rim, and inside lid with elaborate block-printed papers. This no doubt was easier than hand painting everything, but certainly not a easy or quick process just the same. You can find nice papers from a variety of sources ranging in price and quality depending on how authentic you want to be. The first key decision you will need to make is the type of glue you want to use. Research reveals the Baroque workshops probably used the glue they had in the shop which without question was a hide glue of some sort. You can still purchase this if you want, including the glue-pot necessary to melt the glue and keep it warm. Some use a traditional wheat-paste glue. I experimented with making this myself with distilled water on the stove and was quite happy with how it was to work with. In general you will coat the back and front of the surface to completely saturate the paper. This method lays very well, and I liked how it looked dried in. The down side is that the papers do expand and cutting and placing the papers once expanded is a tad tricky to get used to. But for me the bigger problem was that I had already painted the surface to be papered (remember, this was a redecorating project, since I had painted my harpsichord once a decade ago) and the starch glue didn't give me a bond I was comfortable with. It stuck - but not so good as I couldn't pop it off with a little effort. I assume this would not be a problem if you were gluing directly on wood grain. Some suggest a 50/50 mixture of a PVA glue and water. Do NOT do this since PVAs (such as common wood glue) will always shrink when drying and the creep will pull the papers apart and the edges away from the surface.

The solution I discovered is Perfect Paper Adhesive. This is an archival glue that is not sticky to touch, and being water solvable wipes easily from surface. Generously paint the back of the paper with the glue. The papers will curl as they begin the absorb the moisture. Wait a minute or two and you will literally see the papers begin the relax and flatten out. Again, paint the back of the papers making sure all areas are coated. The paper is now very easy to work with allowing repositioning and some sliding and slight stretching if necessary (more on that later when we talk about the inside of the lid).

Papering the Case Rim - The case rim will have a decorative strip of paper along the inside edge. The papers should run along the edge of the bevel inside the case sometimes leaving a gap at the bottom since the soundboard and wrest plank are lower than the papers are wide. Along the treble side of the bentside however the inverse will occur in that the soundboard will rise narrowing the width of the inside edge requiring you to cut the papers along their length. The easiest way to cut this to size is to flip the paper over so the bottom side is up and the decorative side is against the case (glue side out). With an X-Acto knife nick the paper at the top on both ends marking the amount to cut off. Then cut the paper to size using a ruler running along the two reference cuts you made. Remember, you are removing the bottom of the paper, not the top whose decoration should run continuous along the whole case rim. Use a credit card to press the glued paper against the case rim and carefully forcing the papers into the corners. Some people varnish the papers to protect them, but the 17th century builders did not. Perfect Paper Adhesive can also be used to seal the papers (use a matte finish) if you like. I chose not to do this.

Papering the Keywell- Most famous were the Rucker "seahorse" papers used to decorate the inside of the keywell. The most important thing to remember when doing this is to start from the middle. The pattern must be absolutely centered letting the design flow as it might from there. The papers will have excess decorate edges designed to be cut off based on the amount of wood you have to cover. Be aware that some instruments have a higher side than front of the keywell so plan accordingly since you are starting in the middle. Use a roller to flatten the papers and a credit card to force them into the crease of the corners. If you are careful you can make the pattern flow visibly seamless between papers, though sometimes you might have to trim a tad from the edges before gluing so the seam is invisible. If your instrument has the register levers protruding into the keywell you will have removed the levers and papered over the small opening. Once dry you can cut an "x" through the paper opening the holes and gluing the paper pieces down. If your registers adjust through the bentside you won't have this issue.


Outside Lid Painting - As I mentioned previously, the Flemish would marble the exterior of the instrument, including the lid, but I chose to only marble the case side. My lid exterior was painted the base color. The edges were also blue with the exception of the edge running the width of the instrument along the jackrail which I chose to paint a matching black (this included the flap edge). I consider this edge "inside" as opposed to "outside" when it is open and as such prefer it to match the inside design.

Inside Lid Painting - All painting of the inside lid should be completed before papering. A border along the inside edge of the lid would be painted black. This should be no less than an inch and as much as an inch and a half. I did mine about 1 1/8". The lower portion along the spine should be a tad thinner, say about 1 3/8". The next band should be bright natural wood if you are doing it that way, or an antique white in my case. This should be about an inch. Proportionally it needs to be a little smaller band than the black previously described. A thin red stripe will need to be painted separating these two bands. Paint it free hand or mask it off first as is so your wont! Continuing to move inward, the next thing will be the thin border paper which runs around the lid, however this border will also need to be framed on both sides with a thin red line which in fact is painted on the lid not the paper. To do this first determine the width of your border paper - for ease of the example say 1 inch. Let's say you want your red stripe on both sides to be 1/8". So you will paint on the lid a band of red 1 1/4" wide inside the bright band. When you glue the border paper over the red area it will only cover the 1" of the paper leaving a thin 1/8" stripe on either side. Pretty smart eh? You won't do the border papers until last, but you are preparing for them now. Do the same thing to the lid flap remembering to make the spine side black a tad thicker as you did the lid itself.

Inside Lid Papering - The ash grain papers have a distinct pattern and how you chose to flow the pattern is your first decision. Some like the pattern to repeat and as such match seams from sheet to sheet. I however, did not like the look of the regular repeating pattern since it made the sheets of paper more noticeable. By turning the papers in some arrangements you can eliminate the regular repeating pattern and carefully minimize the seams between paper sheets. Remember you will be writing Latin mottos on the papers so take that into consideration when making your decision.

The red band has not been painted yet

Showing the template I cut

Begin the gluing with the piece along the inside edge of the red band in the lower left corner. This will be a whole uncut sheet so it will be pretty straight forward. As I described previously, apply the glue and wait long enough for the paper to relax and then coat the paper a second time with glue. Position it on the lid and flatten it with a roller to remove all bubbles that may be trapped beneath. You also want to push out excess glue so work outward on the paper. The roller will minimize stretching, but you will still get some depending on how hard you press. Each remaining sheet will require cutting a curved edge to accommodate the bentside edge. You will discover that the method you used to mark out the band outlines with a ruler won't readily work in this case since you are cutting only a portion of the bentside at a time. I found it easiest to make a template of the full ash grain section. I could then lay the ash paper in place and put the template on top of it. After carefully marking the curve I simply cut it out with a pair of scissors. When gluing the paper down in the event it expanded slightly I could simply lift the curved edge and trim the paper back with the scissors. I worked from the bottom left corner upward moving to the right.

Once the ash grain papers are down you now have the "joy" of applying the border papers. (Did you note a tinge of sarcasm in that statement?) By placing the border papers in the middle of the red band the framing stripe is automatically done. Begin in the bottom left corner by cutting the edge in a 45 degree angle so as to miter the corner. Work up and around from there of course realizing that is your only "normal" angle. To get the same mitered effect at the other corners you will need to measure inside edge and outside edge of the border and cut it across the angel. This is especially important at the top point of the edge since this is the most noticeable point and to simply "square off" the corner to make it easier will look dreadful. You will be surprised how seamless the pattern will flow across the corners and in the instances it seems a little rough a little hand painted Indian Ink to smooth in the pattern works wonders.

Doing the bentside border paper is the "joy" I was referring to above. As you move along the bentside you can often stretch the paper to make a slight bend. This is particularly possible if your paper is not very wide. Mine was just under an inch. But eventually as you approach the harder part of the curve stretching is no longer an option. I found it most effective if you take a smaller section of border (5 or 6 inches) and cut across the paper from the outside edge but leaving a small portion of the inside edge attached. Do cuts like this every 3/4" or so. The more the curve the more the cuts. When you glue the paper you can slightly overlap the outside edge keeping the inside curve attached. I tried cutting slight bevels out altogether so the paper would not overlap on itself, but found this much more effective. Once again, when done you can use a touch of Indian Ink here or there to smooth the pattern if need be. Obviously the lid flap is easiest since it has only straight lines and right edges.

Lettering - The last thing to address is the Latin mottos painted on the lid and flap. After all this work choosing the right motto to make a statement on your instrument is a daunting task! I'm not convinced that you need to have only a motto that was used in the 17th century (unless one of those really speaks to your persona), but it should remain in the spirit of the project. It would take a very special person to use - Catapultam habeo. Nisi pecuniam omnem mihi dabis, ad caput tuum saxum immane mittam.* The lid should be in three lines each progressively longer to mirror the general shape of the lid. The flap is done one of two ways, personal preference again the final determination. Historically the most common was to display the lid flap fully extended when open so the lettering would be horizontally viewable. I never play with the flap extended since it makes me feel claustrophobic so I prefer the alternative where the lettering was done assuming the flap to be viewed lid shut, but flap folded back. In this case the words should face the player when seated.

"Art has no enemy but an ignorant man"


With the motto chosen now select a font you like and print the words to size. You will need to experiment with several point sizes and letter spacing. On the back of each cutout word rub the graphite from a pencil making it a carbon paper of sorts. After positioning each word on the lid you can trace around the letters and the graphite will mark onto the lid papers. The rest involves kindergarten skills of coloring in the letters. Indian Ink didn't work for me since the ash grain paper pattern was too strong and the ink too transparent. A liquefied black acrylic paint however worked very well. Just inside the red strip around the border paper you will need to add a black stripe about a half inch in on the grain papers. Ink worked well for this


The last thing you will do is put 2 coats of a good varnish on the cured paint. The varnish will introduce a richness and depth to the color as well as bring out a consistent satin finish. But probably most important is the hard protective shell the cured varnish will provide to your finish. I was very successful with an oil based varnish called Arm-R-Seal by General Finishes. I was pleased with both its hard finish as well as it clarity without much yellowing endemic with varnishes. There are two ways to go about your satin finish - You can either use the satin finish for both coats, or use the gloss for the first coat and then (after a light sanding of course) the satin for the top coat. There is a noticeable difference between the two approaches and as always which one you use comes down to personal preference. Using the gloss undercoat yields a deeper/rich final coat with a hint of translucence you may find appealing. For others it may be too "shiny." Another problem is the gloss finish has more of a yellowing effect than the satin and in my case I could note too much of a color shift as the blue base color began to shift toward green. Fanatic color people could take this into account when choosing their colors at the outset. In the end I used satin for both coats.

Deviations from History

Apart from the couple of references above I should mention a few things I did not do that historically would have been done. Around the edge of the grain papers they traditionally would paint red arabesques as an explosion of ornamentation and color. I didn't feel the need for this visually. Also, in every case the soundboard itself would have been elaborately decorated with flowers, butterflies, et al. Since this was a redecoration of a completed instrument this would have involved completely restringing the instrument and after much consideration involving shots of bourbon I decided a simpler soundboard was acceptable.

Final Thoughts

As I began this verbose essay I pondered the likely reality no one would actually come to read it. In the end I recalled the difficulty I had in gathering some of the information necessary. Instrument builders historically were not the ones to decorate the instruments in the first place and so modern workshops not surprisingly outsource this to artisans themselves. And secondly, instrument builders are understandably somewhat secretive of some of their techniques. I doubt Stradivarius would have shared the techniques of how he planed the wood of his violins with anyone but his apprentices. I welcome any thoughts you might like to share from your experiences, or even to ask me something so that I might help you in any small way as you approach your own project. You can reach me through the form mail provided through the main web site or directly - mhunter at HumanitiesResource

"Everyone has his own pleasures"

* I have a catapult. Give me all your money, or I will fling an enormous rock at your head.