Archive for the ‘Brittany’ Category

Gidget, a gurdy girl?

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

As I’ve said, I was excited to find the two antique postcards of the girl in Breton costume shown from the front and side, which I thought would help in carving.

She has one major problem, however – she looks anything but happy. Who wants a sad figurehead on their hurdy-gurdy? Her second, lesser problem is that she isn’t particularly beautiful. Nothing against that, she can’t help it. I’d be more than happy to be able to duplicate her face perfectly – but with more of a smile.

But me being such an amateur carver, I need all the inspiration I can get. I imagine if I aim for a real beauty, I may end up with some one more like on the antique postcards, which would be fine. But if I start out with that, I would likely end up with something not as good. The third issue is that the two old views do not have a lot of detail of the subtle shaping of the face, and there are only these two shots, no in-between ones.


Sandra Dee - “Gidget”

Could I find a prettier face with various angles to work with, showing more detail? Maybe an actress, as there would be plenty of pictures available online from different angles. I asked a movie buff friend of mine for suggestions, and he said “Sandra Dee.” I really didn’t know who she was, but found out she was known for playing “Gigdet” in the iconic 1959 surfing movie, and other ingénue roles. An ingénue is a young woman who is endearingly innocent and wholesome. The term comes from the French adjective ingénu meaning “ingenuous” or innocent, virtuous, and candid. Well, I thought she  had a very sweet, girl-next-door look, and I guess I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Of course, she would have to wear the costume of the Auray region of Brittany…

Auray head 3

Sandra Dee Photoshopped into costume: “Gidget goes French!”

Will my figurehead look like Sandra Dee? I doubt it. I just hope she comes out passably attractive.

A Ma Vie

Monday, October 31st, 2011

hermine1When I did the laser-etching on the keychest, I promised to do a post on what the phrase A Ma Vie meant. So, finally… voilà!

It is associated with Brittany and the ermine, which I also used on my hurdy-gurdy, especially for the soundholes. You can see the whole ermine to the left, as well as the symbolic fur tufts like I used for the soundholes, and the phrase A ma Vie.

More precisely, it is associated with Duchess Anne of Brittany. As the postcard says: “The ermine,  emblem of Anne of Brittany, wife of Louis XII.”



This postcard gives more clues, the French text explaining the “devise” [motto]: “As this emblem is also that of purity of manners, it is believed that the motto A ma vie signifies I will remain pure all my life.” [or ‘in my life’] So, A ma vie [“ my life”] is an abbreviated slogan for this larger concept of purity. But what’s this got to do with ermines?

As with the French fleur-de-lis [lily], these weasel-like animals are a symbol of purity.  Their winter coats are snow-white, except for the black tip of their tails.


Anne of Brittany, r. 1488-1514

There is a legend about them that explains the Breton motto. One version is that the Duchess Anne of Brittany was on a hunt with her court when an ermine was being chased by the hunting party. When the ermine came upon a swamp, it turned to face certain death from the hounds rather than escape and muddy its pure white coat. Anne was impressed by the creature’s courageous attitude and asked that it be spared. She adopted it for her emblem. It has been used widely as a symbol for Brittany on various coats of arms, and even on their modern flag.

A longer motto of the Duchy of Brittany was Plutôt la mort que la souillure. [“Rather death than defilement”] A ma vie is a variant of  this same sentiment, according to Wikipedia.


Ermines with “A ma vie” scrolls carved in stone on an old mantlepiece

I don’t  know why they had so much difficulty portraying ermines back then. They are rather cute, contrary to the old representations.


Lid design

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

Well, the lid of a hurdy-gurdy is ideal for decorating, I think. Time for some more marquetry! I have thought of all sorts of things over the months: more folk dancers, a breton landscape, different gothic cathedral designs, various symbols, and so on. But those all seemed too complicated or I wasn’t completely sold on the idea. Many just didn’t fit well in a narrow rectangle.

The one I kept coming back to was a floor design on a landing of the Golden Staircase in the Doges’ Palace in Venice, Italy. The picture is from a Newsweek book from the series Wonders of Man that I’ve had since 1973. Glad I hung on to it four almost four decades to help solve this design need.


Golden Staircase in the Doges’ Palace, Venice, Italy

Based upon the size, this is probably marble, not a parquetry wood floor, but it also would look great done in wood. I like the trompe l’oeil 3D effect. It is also a pattern that looks good extended horizontally in a narrow vertical space. And it looks equally good vertically, if the instrument is standing up.

I scanned the page and warped the perspective out of the floor until the edges were square again.


Floor section of picture all squared-up using Photoshop

Then I just had to repeat it to fit the lid and computerize it into a pattern. That was the hardest part, getting the angle right and the widths of the pieces to make it repeat correctly, ending at the proper place in the pattern at the sides.


Design created to the proportions needed for the lid using Corel DRAW

Lots of pieces, but at least they’re uniform strips. Yes, the ‘height’ of the 3D pattern is a little short. I may adjust that when cutting the veneer strips. On the ‘top’ pieces I decided to add a basketweave effect, which will require extra cutting. If the ‘bottom’ diamonds were a dark color, it would look like holes were were cut in the lid, but I think the contrast would be too glaring. I want it to be fairly subtle. To give it a little breton flair, I plan to inlay some black-white-black edging around it, as on the front of the keychest, and around the edge of the soundboard.

The next step is picking the veneers to use.

Keyshaft holes

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

While I’m procrastinating about carving the head, I thought I could at least file out the keyshaft holes. The holes are not originally big enough to insert the shafts. They have to be individually enlarged to custom fit each shaft.

I wasn’t sure how to go about this. If I used the little metal files I had, I was sure that I would have ended up with ugly, non-rectangular holes that didn’t have straight sides or 90-degree angles. Plus, the files aren’t long enough to do both sides of the keychest at once. It would have looked terrible.  My idea was to try cutting an emery board to the width of the holes, which would allow sanding an even, straight edge. But before I got around to try cutting one…


Home-made balsa wood sanding stick in action

I came up with the perfect solution last night. I had a nice assortment of balsa wood strips from the local hobby store for other projects. I thought, “Maybe some of them are the right width” and sure enough – I had some!

Bottom row of wenge shafts fitted, shown with sanding sticks

Bottom row of wenge shafts fitted, shown with sanding sticks

Two of the holes in the top row are 1/4″ square. The rest are 1/4″ x 3/8″. I had some 3/16″ thick balsa wood strips in widths of 1/4″ and 3/8″, perfect for precise enlarging of the keyshaft holes! All I had to do was cut 1/4″ and 3/8″ strips of 320-grit sandpaper and glue them on the edge of the two strips of balsa wood, which I did last night.

What’s-his-name’s wenge hatband

What’s-his-name’s wenge hatband

Then it was just a matter of lightly running my sanding sticks through the holes just enough to allow a shaft to slide in smoothly without binding or wobbling. At this point, the shafts need to be numbered so that they get put back into the same holes. 

Top maple shafts fitted, though they need trimming and beveling

Top maple shafts fitted, though they need trimming and beveling

What is ideal about the balsa wood is that it is softer than the mahogany, and will not affect the hole except where the sandpaper is glued on, which gives more control, unlike a metal file, which could gouge the wrong edge when working in a corner. Plus the same-sized balsa wood fit in the holes without a lot of play, ensuring good edges and sharp, square corners. And the 1/4″ one could be used on the vertical sides of the 3/8″ holes.

Button side – this is beginning to look like a complicated apparatus!

Button side – this is beginning to look like a complicated apparatus!

So, now we not only have a new category, we have 23 more pieces added to the puzzle, instead of sitting in a bag in the box! All this time, I’ve never been able to see how the keys looked in the keychest, since they didn’t fit, so this is an exciting step.

By the way, the kit comes with all wenge [black] shafts. When ordering, I asked for the white maple shafts for the top row, as I’ve seen on some old hurdy-gurdies. It also ties in with my black and white Brittany theme. Next, I need to get those white shafts trimmed to the proper length and beveled, then figure out drilling the holes for the tangents.

Ad Vielle Que Pourra

Friday, March 25th, 2011

Cover of the CD I bought last night

We went downtown last night to trade in some of our CDs. One nice thing about this store is you can listen to used CDs you are interested in. I came away with one that’s pretty nice. I’d seen Ad Vielle Que Pourra’s albums on ebay, but wasn’t sure what they were like. It has hurdy-gurdy, accordion, bagpipe and other folk instruments playing French and Breton music. What more could you want? Even their name refers to a hurdy-gurdy:

Ad Vielle Que Pourra is a Quebec group full of surprises. Its hallmark is traditional French instruments, but Ad Vielle plays music on them that, as the liner notes state, “is not indigenous to the regions where the instruments come from.” They intermix Parisian waltzes, Breton sea songs, bourrées, gavottes, schottisches, and original compositions with abandon. the name Ad Vielle Que Pourra is a pun–a play on the French expression advienne que pourra (“come what may”). The vielle is from vielle à roue, a French instrument commonly known as the hurdy-gurdy.

The founding members of Ad Vielle are Brussels-born Daniel Thonon, a luthier who plays an intricately carved hurdy-gurdy he built himself; Alain Leroux, born in Brittany and a fiddler specializing in traditional Breton, Scottish, and Irish melodies and songs; Clement Demers, an Ontario-born accordionist who learned Québécois tunes while living in Quebec and Cajun tunes while travelling through Louisiana; Luc Thonon, a multi-instrument musician who plays the rare Flemish bagpipes; and Gilles Plante, a Montréal-born flute, recorder, and bagpipe player who went to Brittany to study the music and culture of his ancestors.

The subtitle [of their first album] is “new French folk music”, but could easily read “some of the most stirring and emotional traditional music that you will ever hear”. With this, their debut album, Ad Vielle Que Pourra rocked the folk music scene with interpretations of French and Breton music with an intensity that is rarely heard. With combinations of diatonic accordion, bombarde, fiddle, hurdy-gurdy, Flemish bagpipes, etc., you cannot help but be moved by their bourees, polkas, waltzes, and so much more. A Gallic feast.

The second album from Montreal’s Ad Vielle Que Pourra [Come What may] transports you to another place and time. You’re in a Breton village, then in the heart of old Quebec, Cajun country, or a medieval court. There are waltzes, schottisches, polkas, and several French and Breton dances, all served on hurdy-gurdy, bombarde, accordion, Hungarian and Flemish bagpipes, flute, and various stringed instruments.

I’ll have to keep my eye out for their other albums. Below is a  sample: Andromadère, the last track on their Ménage à Quatre ablum. See what you think…

You have to use your imagination

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

This big block of mahogany is going to be the head of my hurdy-gurdy. I decided to try my hand at some carving, instead of using the ready-made head that normally came with the kit. So, Mel gave me this nice piece of wood instead. You have to use your imagination. I’m not sure where to begin!

The photos were sized in Photoshop to the same size, one that would fit the available space.


Block of mahogany that will become the instrument’s head

Of course, I wanted the head to match the Brittany theme and have the same costume as the girls on the keychest. There are many different costumes in Brittany, with their own headdress or coiffe. This one is from around the town of Auray on the southern coast.


MORBIHAN – Jeune fille d’Auray

Antique postcards of these Breton costumes were very popular. I was happy to find two images, on eBay or somewhere, of the same girl, one a front view and one a side view. This will be great for carving purposes, to be working with the same face.


Morbihan is one of the original 83 departments created during the French Revolution on March 4, 1790. It was created from a part of the Duchy of Brittany. It is the only French department which has no French name and which has kept its original name. Morbihan is Breton and means small sea, referring to the prominent gulf along its shores. [Wikipedia]


Auray is west of the Gulf of Morbihan between Vannes and Lorient, just above Carnac, where all the roads come together on the above map.

Being part of Brittany, Morbihan’s coat of arms [blason] naturally has ermine on it!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

This ermine, a symbol of Brittany —which is the Celtic part of France— has changed its coat to wish you a Happy St. Patrick’s Day.


Keychest etched

Friday, March 11th, 2011

We did it! Finally, the decorative side of the keychest is finished. I went over to the Texas Wood House Thursday. It was a bit of a drive in rush-hour traffic. Then some very tedious work getting set up. It was hard holding my breath for two hours. But it was worth it! Sherry was very careful in making sure everything was right.


Adjusting the height of the laser based on the wood thickness

First, we did the test exposures on a piece of the same veneer as the faces. We also exposed the text on an extra piece of holly that the scroll was made of. Then Sherry did all the careful alignment necessary to get the etching right. We got off to a slow start in our initial approach — things were not lining up as we expected them to. Once we changed our technique, things went smoothly. It was interesting seeing the process. The etching is done from Corel Draw, a program that I am very familiar with but have never seen used for something like this.


An “action” shot of the laser during a test for proper positioning

The original face artwork is a continuous tone grayscale image. But a laser cannot print continuous tone, because it is either On or Off. It has to print a halftone with dots, like in a  newspaper, to simulate gray by changes in dot size. At a normal distance, the dots aren’t noticeable. I wanted a very subtle image, not something too dark. Thankfully, the woman doesn’t look like she has a beard!


The happy couple on the left with their new faces

The guinea pigs were the couple on the left. The main concern here was making sure the shadow of the woman’s cheek near her ear where it meets the corner of her cap matched up correctly. I didn’t want any of the dark etching showing up on the white cap. It came out great. It probably could have been nudged down one click, since the shadow above the man’s collar is slightly high and runs onto his hat brim. But that is splitting hairs and it really isn’t noticeable at all, being a dark area already. What was important was getting the woman’s face correct.


The right-hand couple can finally look at each other

Because of the large separation between the couples, we naturally etched them individually to have greater control over the alignment. We experimented with different exposures for this couple, but ended up using the same setup. The  main concern here was getting the dark shadow on his forehead to match the edge of his hat. It would have looked unnatural with a lighter gap there. This side went much quicker, since we had the process smoothed out. And the alignment is perfect!

It would be interesting if the actual Breton people whose photos were used to do this artwork could see themselves immortalized on the side of my hurdy-gurdy! They are blissfully unaware of all that has transpired to make them so “famous.” [The couples were created from separate photos composited together. The men were not originally dancing with those women.]


Etching the French words “A Ma Vie” on the scroll went quickest of all, since there weren’t any critical edge alignments. The burning of  the wood creates a smoky brown residue on the surface. This wipes off nicely with a slightly damp cloth.

I probably should explain in a separate post what the story is with the Breton motto “A Ma Vie”…

The Spell of Brittany

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

This is the title of an attractive antique book I got from eBay at a decent price, including free shipping. The author is Francis Miltoun and the illustrations are by Blanche McManus. This edition was published in 1927, but it has a copyright date of 1905 because it first came out then under the title “Rambles in Brittany.” It was later incorporated into a “The Spell of…” travel series.

Note the ermine design on the cover and spine.


The Spell of Brittany by Francis Miltoun

I’m trying to read it when not hurdy-gurdy building. One interesting thing so far is a couple references to the hobnails on the breton peasants’ wooden shoes. They fall out and litter the streets. Because of this, the author says, there weren’t many tourists on bicycles or in motor cars at that time — the turn of the 20th century.

Keychest logo

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

Besides the dancers, I will likely also have something in the middle gap – normally the spot for the name and location of the maker. But I have no real interest in looking at my name all the time, so I’ve considered putting my name on the other side, underneath the key buttons. It’d be there, but not too prominent. I’ve seen pictures of a couple hurdy-gurdies done that way, though it is not as common. This would be probably done with laser etching. Thanks to Jerry, I have met someone locally who does this!


Another sample of old keychest artwork

One idea for between the dancers was a scroll with a Breton motto on it. I like the French motto and story behind it, but may use it elsewhere, like on the wheel or keychest cover. I might end up using my name, for lack of a better idea. It might be on an inlaid wood veneer scroll, instead of a drawn geometric shape, as on the old examples. I’ll pass on including where I live, since I’m not a professional manufacturer needing to advertize my business.


One initial idea for the name and scroll

Still thinking about what to put in this area.