Sounds of music

Woodworker builds classical European instrument in Eagle’s Trace woodshop

Created date

May 23rd, 2019
David McBrayer’s newly built harpsichord occupies a place of honor in his Brighton-style apartment home at Eagle’s Trace.

David McBrayer’s newly built harpsichord occupies a place of honor in his Brighton-style apartment home at Eagle’s Trace.

When David McBrayer moved to Eagle’s Trace in February 2018, he thoughtfully arranged the furniture in his one-bedroom Brighton-style apartment home.

“Everything I brought with me has meaning,” says David, a retired transportation planner whose apartment showcases his affinity for English antiques.

Only one item—a clavichord—didn’t fit as well as he’d hoped into the space.

“I’ve always liked music, and my wife did too,” says David. “She could play piano by ear. In 1976, I built her a clavichord [European stringed rectangular keyboard instrument used primarily during the Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical eras], but it had been in storage in recent years and some of the wood was rotted.”

When David moved to Eagle’s Trace, one of his first tasks was restoring the clavichord in the community’s on-site woodshop.

“I fixed it up, but its rectangular shape made it hard to place in the apartment,” says David. “I sold it to a doctoral student from the University of Houston Moores School of Music.”

A new instrument emerges

In October 2018, David set out to build an instrument that would fit nicely in his home and decided on a Troubadour Virginal harpsichord. He ordered a kit from Zuckermann Harpsichords International, a Connecticut-based company established in the 1960s.

“I had all the resources I needed to build the harpsichord in the woodshop, and it was helpful to work alongside the skilled members of the Woodworkers Club,” says David. “Their advice was the sine qua non [essential condition] of this project.”

“David’s woodworking ethic is meticulous, and he has this beautiful instrument to show for it,” says Jay Brooks, a fellow woodworker at Eagle’s Trace.

David finished the harpsichord in January 2019, after three months of steady work. He completed the instrument with a stand and bench of his original design. The soundboard and all working parts were built from Zuckermann kit parts.

Delighting the senses

Compared with a piano, a harpsichord is lightweight and has a smaller footprint.

“The case of a piano is made of cast iron, while a clavichord or harpsichord is made from wood,” says David, who used locally procured hard maple to fashion his instrument. “A piano has 88 keys, while a harpsichord has 55 keys spanning four-and-a-half octaves.”

David’s harpsichord weighs 48 pounds, making it relatively easy to move around Eagle’s Trace.

“Once I got the strings in place, I contacted the organist at my church to see if she could point me to someone who knows how to play music from the era when harpsichords were in regular use,” says David. “She gave me the name of a pianist, Pat Austin, and I was delighted to learn that Pat also lives at Eagle’s Trace.”

Pat has since been to David’s apartment, filling the space with ear-pleasing classical music.

David is also in touch with music students from the University of Houston.

“I’m hoping one of them will agree to give a concert at Eagle’s Trace on the harpsichord,” he says. “I’d enjoy that very much.”