The construction methods of the Bouzouki, as well as related instruments of the tamboura family are quite similar. We will therefore make reference to certain construction stages using the lauto as the model but it would be appropriate to apply it to the other instruments with certain specific variations. In Greece there exist countless Luthier shops usually small is size where the master Luthier and perhaps an apprentice assistant (usually a relative) produce their masterpieces. The art of instrument making then as well as now is carefully guarded and passed on from father to son. Rarely does a master release the “Tricks of the trade” to outsiders for their own reasons.
We believe however that the art of a Luthier is a dying art that may not be around in the future due to automation and computerization. We say this with sadness, as it is evident that many of us including my self are looking for ways to produce instruments with modern machines in order to be consistent and for reasons of great ease. I must admit however that many of the older instruments I had the privilege of repairing during my career may have had visible inconsistencies but they bared the maker’s soul, which is impossible to do with modern machines.
The sequence of constructing an instrument of the tamboura family is first the making of the sound box or SKAFOS, the making and installation of the neck or MBRATSO, the making, bracing and installation of the sound board or KAPAKI, all of which play an equally important part in the function, sound and stability of the instrument. For the construction of the SKAFOS (sound box) we use hard wood such as ebony, polysander, maple (aka SFENDAMOS in Greek, or Kelembek in Turkish), walnut and other hard woods of similar quality. Untraditional Luthiers of today are constantly experimenting with other woods that have a natural decorative appearance, such as the Australian Lacewood or purple heart wood both of which give an amazing and unusual effect once they are sanded and finished with lacquer.
The neck is made of soft wood such as lime-tree or linden tree wood, mahogany, basswood or other similar types of soft wood.
The soundboard is made of white wood with consistent and straight wood grain pattern from trees such as spruce (ELATO) or pine (PEFKO). We will now get into a step-by-step explanation of the construction of each one of the three main parts, starting with the Skafos. Like we discussed earlier many of the Skafi (Sound boxes) in the old days were carved out of one piece of wood. Today however, we use a wooden mould.
At the top end of the mould we attach a cone shape piece of soft wood, which will remain in the Skafos permanently once the strips are glued in and that is where the neck will be attached. The strips or douges will also be attached to the Dakos (Hill).
The first strip is placed in the middle and it is called the Dougomana or the mother-strip. The reason being is that that first strip would be the guide to the installation of the other strips which are placed one on the left one on the right side and so on and give the Skafos its symmetric shape. The glue used in the older days was fish or hide glue. Today we also use carpenters glue. Before the strips are glued on however we use a hot iron and we bend the strips to desired shape. It is worth noting that a misconception exists as to the number of strips. For example, people believe that a 60 strip instrument is better sounding than a 30 or a 45 strip and so on. My opinion is that the number of strips is not relevant to the quality of sound. It is merely pride of ownership. I have worked on 30 strip instruments that had an irreplaceable sound. So much for this theory.
Once the strips are glued and dried, the next step is to glue the back and sides where the strips meet. This in addition to being decorative, this serves as a form of reinforcing the strips and the Skafos in general. Once all of the glued parts are dried the Skafos is removed from the mould and a secondary hill (Dakos is placed at the back end of the Skafos. This hill is the support for the tailpiece (Hordiera), where the strings are attached. In addition, the interior rim of the skafos is lined with a thin strip of soft wood such as mahogany limewood etc, as additional support for of the kapaki.
The exterior of the Skafos as well as the interior is now ready to be cleaned of all excess glue ready for sanding. The interior of the Skafos is then lined with either strips of glue cloth or with thin metallic paper.
The reason for this is to further enforce the strength of the instrument. This material also plays an important role in the acoustic qualities. Particularly with the metallic paper as it reflects a brighter sound.
Now we set the Skafos aside, and we begin work on the neck. As we said earlier the neck is made up of soft wood as well as hard wood in the center for kondra. The hardwood used is almost always ebony and it runs the full length of the neck. This ebony strip would ensure that the neck and later the fret board would not warp or twist from the tension of the strings or climatic changes. A dovetail is cut at the end of the neck and the same size beveled mortise is carved on the dakos of the Skafos. This is one of the most critical operations, as it will dictate the precision of the neck fitting and the stability of the instrument in general.