Documenting the curious world of the hurdy-gurdy.

Henry III gurdy plans


Graeme McCormack of Antiquated Strings has uploaded another of his fabulous hurdy-gurdy construction plans.  Ideal for the home builder, or simply as a beautiful poster for your wall.  He writes:

I have just finished Drawing up the Henri 111 Renaissance Hurdy Gurdy. I have modelled it on an existing instrument from Paris circa 1750. The main deviation from the original is that it can play a chromatic 2 octaves, has adjustable bridges and string lifting mechanisms. I have also changed the internal frame to use smaller wood stock. The original has solid end blocks that needed large wood stock to cut them from. There are 9 x A1 size sheets to this plan. I will add more written information as I make this gurdy.

Full size PDF versions of the plans in 9 parts available on his website here.

Buying cotton

Cottoning is critical to the hurdy-gurdy, but where can you buy the right cotton for your instrument?  Normal cotton wool used for removing make-up is not appropriate.

A good UK supplier of suitable cotton is Texere Yarns.  They ship worldwide and a large 100g bag of cotton is only £3.90 (as of 4 April 2012).  You can order online from their website here.

Sticky keys

Hurdy-gurdies can suffer from keys that fail to fall back properly - so-called sticky keys.  This is usually due to changes in humidity and the unequal expansion of the wood of the key and the wood of the keybox through which the key passes.  The key is deliberately a tight fit on the instrument, to ensure that it doesn’t wobble and that the tangent consistently touches the string in the correct place.  However, this doesn’t leave much room for swelling in the damp.  Here are some common solutions mentioned online:

  • Just wait - when the humidity changes the instrument will be back to normal
  • Using a very soft, graphite pencil, rub a small amount of pencil lead around the key where it passes through the keybox.  This will lubricate the key and prevent it sticking.
  • Apply some form of teflon lubricant to the key where it passes through the keybox.  Various teflon sprays are available, or some luthiers (such as Neil Brook) sell a fluid comprising teflon suspended in an alcohol solution.
  • Apply candle wax (known as paraffin in the US, but not UK) to lubricate the key
  • Using a fine-grade sand paper, gently sand the key where it passes through the keybox.  Don’t over do it!

Remember, if using any kind of lubricant on the key, keep it well away from the wheel!

Hurdy-gurdy fault-finding guide

“gurdymaker” over at the Hurdy Gurdy Forum on Yahoo! Groups has posted some scans of a useful hurdy-gurdy fault-finding chart, originally contributed by Bill Molam (deceased) to the hurdy-gurdy society in 1983.

On the files section of the forum here.

Tunings for the Galician zanfona

Again, a dig into the archives of the hurdy-gurdy discussion list brings out an interesting post from Wolodymyr “Vlad”  Smishkewych on tunings for the Galician zanfona.  He writes {includes corrections from the thread following discussion with Simon Wascher):

The main difference between Galician zanfonas and other gurdies is that the instrument is exclusively built and played in what vielle-oriented gurdyists know as ‘en musette’, or without the mouche or trompette. The sound of the chanterelles is enhanced and made richer by adding a third chanterelle tuned an octave below the two unisons; the open tuning for the two standard Galician zanfonas would be:

G/C (DO):

  • 1st & 2nd cantantes (chanterelles):    g’
  • 3rd cantante:          g (one octave below c.1 & 2)
  • 1st bordon (bourdon):c
  • 2nd bordon:          G (one octave below c. 3)

D/G (SOL):

as above:

  • c. 1 & 2:d’
  • 3rd c.:d (one octave lower than c. 1 & 2)
  • bordon 1:g
  • b 2:D (one octave lower than c. 3

Standard G/C gurdy-gurdy tunings

From the archives of the hurdy-gurdy mailing list here, Simon Wascher posted a useful summary of the standard G/C hurdy-gurdy tunings:


  • G at 98 Hz (corresponds to second lowest string of cello)
  • c at 131 Hz (corresponds to lowest string of viola)
  • g at 196 Hz (corresponds to lowest string of violin)


  • c’/d’ at 262/294 Hz (d’ is the second lowest string of the violin)


  • g’ + g’ at 392Hz

Tuning a hurdy-gurdy’s tangents

A detailed article on tuning the hurdy-gurdy’s tangenets using pure intervals by Ernic Kamerich:

“On a hurdy gurdy playing alone there is no harmony apart from the combination of melody and drone, so the obvious perfect way for tuning the tangents is by making all intervals pure between chanterelle and bourdon: a natural harmonic scale. That works well and makes the instrument sound sweet and beautiful.

However, most hurdy gurdies can use more than one bourdon and then things get more complicated. Moreover, playing together with other instruments may ask for a different tuning. Here will be explained what can be done without losing the sweet character of natural harmonic tuning.”

Much, much more here.

Loose tangents

Sudden changes in humidity can result in loose tangents as the tangent expands more than the wooden shaft on which it sits.  Some quick fixes players have recommended for this in recent forum posts include:

  • Use a very thin, even layer of white PVA glue on the shaft, let it dry completely, and then refit the tangent.  Repeat as necessary.  This swells the tangent and provides the necessary friction.
  • Create a very thin wedge from, for example, a sliver from a bamboo skewer or a small strip of paper and insert this in the tangent’s hole before replacing on the shaft.
  • Wrap some hair or cotton around the shaft before replacing the tangent.
  • Remove the tangent, then put the tangent shaft in your mouth for a few seconds, lick it a little, then replace the tangent.  The shaft should expand slightly ensuring the tangent is now firm.
  • Apply a small amount of rosin (solid or liquid form) to the tangent shaft to increase the friction.  Take care that this doesn’t end up gluing the tangent permanently in place!

(Thanks to Geoff Turner, Scott Marshall, Neil Brook, Martyn Robinson, hurdygurdyguy, clarerosephd for postings on the UK Yahoo! hurdy-gurdy forum for these suggestions)

Humidity and the hurdy-gurdy

The hurdy-gurdy discussion groups often focus on the issues of the impact of humidity on the hurdy-gurdy and how this can be ameliorated.  Here are some of the key points that have arisen in these discussions:

  • As the hurdy-gurdy is a precision instrument, made from wood, the relative humidity can impact the instrument.  As the humidity changes, so does the water content of the wood itself, causing the instrument to expand or shrink.  This can cause keys to stick, tangents to come loose or, in extreme cases, seams to come unstuck or the wood to crack.  It is therefore worth being aware of.
  • The relative humidity is a measure of how much water can be held within the air.  It is a function of temperature and pressure.  If the temperature or pressure changes, the air will lose water (as condensation) or absorb more water (by drying things out).  This will impact the water content of the wood of the hurdy-gurdy and cause expansion or contraction.  Traveling to high altitudes or flying can cause significant changes in relative humidity because of the pressure changes.
  • An ideal relative humidity for the hurdy-gurdy and other wooden instruments is around 55%.  Sudden changes in relative humidity should be avoided. [See under “atmosphere” here].
  • The relative humidity can be measured with a device called a hygrometer.  You can buy devices for musical instruments, such as this.
  • Avoid storing your hurdy-gurdy near sources of heat - such as radiators in your house, or by placing them on floors with under-floor heating.
  • Use a device such as a DAMPITOasis or  Planet Waves humidifierwithin your instrument, or its case, to maintain humidity.  Take care that whatever you use does not leak water onto the wood though.
  • Humidity is a big issue for all players of stringed instruments.  You can find many articles online that discuss solutions for controlling the humidity of your instrument.  Here are some good ones:
  • Burgess violins
  • How to protect your violin from low humidity

Tirant adjustment for the hurdy-gurdy
A quick video showing how to adjust the tirant for proper coup technique. You will need to experiment to determine the best position for a proper coup on your instrument.

Hurdy-gurdy strings

Northern Renaissance Instruments, UK suppliers of strings for period instruments, has an article on hurdy-gurdy strings on its website - as well as a wide variety of string sets for sale.  

“Since the melody doesn’t cross strings In hurdy gurdies, choosing strings is a matter of finding the desired blend of sound, rather than balancing strings for equal output. Blend involves comparative loudness. The loudness of bowed strings is largely dependent on string tension. Different string tensions at the same pitch are achieved by different weights of the vibrating lengths of the strings.”

Worth a read here.

Online equal-temperament fret calculator

Need to calculate the correct positions for the tangents from the nut?  Try the free online fret calculator here!  This uses the equal temperament tuning - but you may prefer to use the just temperament described in a previous blog entry here.

Wheel, strings, dog

Useful website from Xavier Aime here in which he provides details of the functioning and adjustment of the wheel, strings and dog on the hurdy-gurdy.  Includes useful information on the Auvergnat and Bourbonnais tunings and the choice of strings.

Tuning and temperament

Although we’re all familiar with the idea that an A is defined (since 1939) as 440Hz, many people are less familiar with how the frequencies of all the other notes are defined.  Notes an octave higher are, by definition, twice the frequency.  However, this is where the simple definitions end.  To hear sweet sounding chords, the frequencies of the notes should be such that that their component harmonics coincide frequently.  However, it turns out that by simply choosing equally spaced frequency differences between every note in the scale, we end up with out of tune intervals (such as major thirds, minor thirds, perfect fifths, etc).  This is the best overall compromise that can be done on an instrument such as the piano, which must play in any key.  However, this paper by Graham Whyte (presented at the Over the Water festival in 2002) and hosted by luthier Chris Allen argues that the fact the gurdy generally only plays in a few keys allows it to be tuned in the just temperament, giving much sweeter sounding intervals.  An interesting read and useful advice for someone adjusting their tangents.  

Download the paper here.

Gotschy’s cottoning assistant

Yet another guide to applying cotton on the strings of the gurdy.  This time a step-by-step photographic guide by German luthier Helmut Gotschy.  Read more here.