Building a Hurdy-gurdy


Key fitting

Working in the Olympic Musical Instruments workshop:
Fitting the keys on a Volksgurdy
Photo by Tim Crosby

Can I build a hurdy-gurdy?

Before embarking on building a hurdy-gurdy from plans or a kit, here are some questions you need to ask yourself:

If you answered "no" to any of these, you should consider trying a kit instead of building from scratch, or finding a local metalworker to help you make and fit the shaft and bearings. For the kit, you will need fewer tools, but you will still need patience, persistance, and intelligence. Making a playable hurdy-gurdy is a task not to be taken lightly.

At the lathe

Turning a friction peg on the metal lathe
Photo by Tim Crosby

We built our very first instrument from a kit with very little woodworking experience, so we can assure you that it can be done. We had to do a fair amount of work just to get it to function, and it's still not a wonderful instrument. Let's be honest: we had to do an incredible amount of work, and we never show it to anyone. Some kits are better than others: ours wasn't. Look for a kit with clear instructions and really good quality wood. Regrettably, I'm not sure such a thing exists - we've certainly never seen one. Suffice to say we've never seen a kit instrument that we'd really recommend, though we haven't seen them all.

Whether you build from plans or a kit, you should read as much as you can about hurdy-gurdies before you start. While there's some room for interpretation in the plans, we suggest that you are careful to maintain the relationship of the wheel, the shaft, the bridges, the keys, and the nuts, assuming that it was correctly drawn to start with. These relationships are critical to the sound and operation of the instrument. Don't try to re-invent the wheel (yes, I know...).

One online resource of hurdy-gurdy builders is the Musical Instrument Makers Forum, at If there's not a hurdy-gurdy discussion going on, start one, or check the library for old conversations. We haven't hung out on MIMF for quite a while, so I can't vouch for the expertise of the current crowd there.

Dennis Havlena wrote a description of how to build a very low-budget hurdy-gurdy - $20 was his budget, though that was years ago. At one time I thought that it might be a good starting place for the challenges of building the instrument, but now I think it's an exercise in futility. You can't expect to get a playable instrument from this project, and it may frustrate you so much that you never want to see a hurdy-gurdy again. Certainly as a person who loves the hurdy-gurdy, I want as few of these low-tech screechers in the public eye as possible. See my rant about these instruments in the FAQ.

If you are interested in playing "historically authentic" instruments, please see my comments below on authenticity in building techniques.

Books and Websites

Most of the books listed here are also in the Hurdy-gurdy bibliography. Unfortunately, there is no book entitled How to Build a Hurdy-gurdy, at least not in English. Someday perhaps we'll write one, but it seems unlikely. Between them, these resources contain the beginnings of the knowledge you'll need.


The first caveat of plans is whether they show how a particular instrument (in a museum or collection, for example) was built, or whether they show you how you should build an instrument that looks like that original instrument. The distinction is important: often the wheel and shaft are shown as the 18th century originals, which is not the way you want to build them now. In most cases (with some notable exceptions) you'll need to modify or update the plans to account for modern technology and techniques.

Many plans of older instruments show a permanently mounted wheel. We strongly recommend that you substitute a removable wheel, as there is considerable trouble in store for you if you use the traditional method and then suffer any wheel damage. (Ask us about gruesome shaft and wheel removal stories...) I didn't think anyone was still building hurdy-gurdies with non-removable wheels, but we encountered one last year, and it was an enormous pain to work on.

Marcello Bono drew a set of plans for a 15th century hurdy-gurdy, as depicted in Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights. This is a very nice set of plans, and they don't involve the use of a bending form, though you'll need to do some hand bending and make an inner form. The keybox is diatonic with an extra key to allow the use of several other modes, as depicted in a number of medieval sources including Quomodo organistrum constuctuar. These plans are available from Olympic Musical Instruments. This instrument is not a very good candidate for conversion to a fully chromatic keybox with a double row of keys. Marcello's plans are the only ones we know of where the modern shaft and wheel are shown. A beautiful website following the construction of such an instrument is Nick Nourse's, listed above in Books and Websites.

A set of plans can be extracted from the book by Botermans, Dewit, and Goddefroy, listed above in Books and Websites.

Plans are available from MUSIKMUSEET , Stockholm, Sweden. They have plans for Ukrainian, Hungarian, and Swedish style hurdy-gurdies (including the Grodda Lira) and 2 nyckelharpan. The prices seem very reasonable (100-220 Swedish Kronar, about US$ 12-27). The Hungarian plans include building instructions. Ben Grossman gave this review of the plans in December 1996:

"I obtained three plans from them and I am very pleased with them. They are full-scale with as much internal detail as possible. A helpful supplement to the plans is Per-Ulf Allmo and Jan Winter's book on the lira; each of the models is shown in photographs with some explanatory paragraphs. Per-Ulf is also extremely helpful with information, etc. via email."

We saw the three Swedish plans when we visited Ben in Toronto in March of 1998 for the Toronto Hurdy-gurdy Day. They're nice plans: well drawn and detailed. We haven't seen the Ukrainian or Hungarian plans or instructions.

There are a number of sets of plans available from Michael Muskett in England. We have two sets of these, the Pimpard and the Lambert. There is a high level of detail shown, especially on the Pimpard, but the sizes of the parts don't always match up. The Lambert plans are missing some details and parts, such as the dog and the wheel cover. The sets we have are full scale line drawings of the parts, with labels in French and a translation sheet to English. A booklet of building information is available, which is a collection of articles about building, but not direct instructions for any particular set of plans.

The Checklist of Technical Drawings of Musical Instruments in Public Collections of the World by Rob Van Acht (ISBN 3-87549-054-1) of the Haags Gemeentemuseum lists several sets of hurdy-gurdy plans which are available from museums. As noted in a 1995 review in American Lutherie, the usefulness of these plans to a builder may be limited because they often don't show internal details, which is of particular importance to hurdy-gurdy builders. Addresses for these sources are given in the Checklist.

There are several sets of plans for simpler instruments: Musicmaker's Kits has a set, and we got one from Luthier's Mercantile.

The Musicmaker's plans (which are the same as for their kit) are well drawn and clear, with extensive instructions. With considerable effort, this design should yield a vaguely playable instrument, certainly not a concert-level model. Musicmaker's has improved their design significantly from what they used to sell, but that's not saying a lot. This 12-key instrument with 2 drones and 2 chanters is diatonic and has no dog. Suggestions are included about modifying the plans to make it chromatic, as well as a brief (and thoroughly uninformative) discussion of the dog. The instrument might serve as a vehicle for medieval and renaissance music, but is totally unsuited for French dance music or the classical pieces written for hurdy-gurdy. We haven't made this instrument, but we made a similar one as our first attempt. The one we made is very quiet with a subdued and somewhat thin tone, and that only after extensive modifications. It also suffers from some instability: the bridge is thin to start with, and is not supported, so the bridge will bend over time and eventually fall off or break. This problem is discussed in the FAQ. This article isn't really the place to describe all the instrument's shortcomings - let it suffice that it has many of them.

The plans we have from Luthier's Mercantile were obtained several years ago, and I see them come up for sale occasionally on eBay. They were drawn by H.E. Brown. The instrument shown is less traditional, and doesn't have a particularly practical shaft and bearing system, which is the heart of the instrument. It's got some regrettable flaws: a very long scale length, a rounded wheel surface, no movable nut, and no method of stabilizing the chanter bridge. It also doesn't have a dog. We haven't made this one either. Some people we know who used these plans had some trouble with them, perhaps because they had never built a hurdy-gurdy before, perhaps because it's a poor design.

A friend in New Zealand sent me a copy of plans for an 18th or 19th century anonymous Dutch instrument, or else a French instrument as drawn by a Dutch draftsman. It's a single sheet, full size, no measurements, three views, with labels in old Dutch handwriting. The peghead and binding look French, but it's a simpler instrument than the standard French design, though it has the decorations typical of 18th century instruments. He bought the plans from a shop in London that was selling them as a piece of art. We have them hanging on the wall of our workshop. It's nice art, but I don't think it would make a good-sounding instrument.



We started with a kit, and had to do much more work than we expected just to get it to function. We've had varied reviews of the kits that are available. Some people have good results with them, and some don't, somewhat dependent on the builder's expectations. One frequent shortcoming of kit instruments is the handle, which should be large enough to hold comfortably in the palm of the hand.

A lot of people set out to make a kit instrument with the thought that they'll save a lot of money and get a high quality hurdy-gurdy. It's a nice thought, but not very realistic. It's true that most kits are significantly cheaper than a completed instrument. A parallel might be a guitar kit: you can make a guitar from a Martin guitar kit, but it's very unlikely that you will end up with a guitar that's comparable in quality to a Martin, unless you've already made a whole bunch of guitars and already have the skills to make a really good guitar.

The hurdy-gurdy is a very fussy instrument to make, and there are all sorts of mistakes that you have to avoid. Some of those mistakes (wheel angle, bridge placement, and key spacing to name a few) are irrevocable - you don't find out until you string it up, and you can't fix some of them without starting over. Because it's a kit, you're depending on the person who designed it to have avoided these problems, and on the woodworkers in the shop to have followed the design specifications to the letter. Regrettably, these two things don't always happen.

Good kit instructions that cover everything you need to know to make a concert quality instrument are unrealistically complex to produce, and hence are prohibitively expensive. We often get inquiries about getting the Volksgurdy as a kit. We've thought of doing it and decided against it. The task of writing the instructions, much less redesigning it so it could be assembled as a kit is a daunting one. We have several hundred pages of documentation from when we were first learning how to build them, and what we've learned since then would fill hundreds more. Consequently, I doubt that we will ever produce a kit for sale.

If you're considering building a kit, you need to ask yourself some questions, including some of the ones that you asked earlier.

If you're hoping to have a hurdy-gurdy like Nigel Eaton's or Gilles Chabenat's, it's definitely time to rethink the kit idea. If you're planning to perform professionally on your instrument, you may want to think twice. If you want a drone instrument to play around with at home, the kit may be for you. We have yet to hear a kit hurdy-gurdy that had the full rich sound that we like, and I don't know of any kit instruments except the EMS that has the trompette, which is for us more than half the fun of playing the hurdy-gurdy.

Ben Grossman in Toronto made a very nice-sounding and nice-playing hurdy-gurdy from a Musicmaker's kit. He had put an incredible amount of work into it: he'd replaced the keys, changed the tangents, added a string, added a dog, added a piece on the tailpiece to hold the tirant peg, added a second row of keys, added string rests, added a tailpiece holder to stabilize the chanter bridge, replaced the wheel, shaft and bearings, replaced the handle and crank, changed the keybox top, and added sympathetic strings. It sounded really good, the best I've ever heard from a kit like this. He did a great job, but it was a huge amount of work and experimentation for an instrument that he's still not totally pleased with. He ended up buying a professionally built instrument.

It might be suggested that we're trying to steer you away from a kit so you'll buy one of our instruments instead. We want people to have good instruments that are fun to play and have a good sound, and we know how difficult such instruments are to make. It certainly didn't happen for us on the first try: it took about five years of research, and every instrument we build teaches us something new. We'd rather see a few good hurdy-gurdies out there than a lot of bad ones: there are quite enough of those already.

Here are some kit sources. If you buy and assemble one of these kits, please keep notes, take photos, and send us a review.

See the directory for information on these and other makers and dealers.

Be sure to find out what the vendor's return policy is, in case the kit or instrument doesn't meet your expectations. We've heard that Jerry Brown and the other people at Musikits are very helpful and committed to seeing that you complete the instrument to your satisfaction, but the instrument is inherently limited in scope by its poor design, diatonic keybox, quiet demeanor, and lack of dog. (See How do I know if it's a good hurdy-gurdy?, and other information in the FAQ for comments about strings and the bridge.)

Hughes Dulcimer Company made or is still making a hurdy-gurdy kit as well, similar in shape and design to the Musicmaker's instrument. Initially, Musicmaker's simply bought Hughes kits and sold them on, and later decided (quite correctly) that they would be better off producing the kits themselves. While the Hughes is the cheapest, it's also the hardest, and we really don't recommend it. It's very frustrating and time-consuming to make a playable instrument with this kit. We did it, but it would have been far easier to start from scratch. Specific problems: the shaft and wheel are quite inaccurate, the holes for the keys are often incorrect, in that they don't follow the predicted key positions, the tangents are not very practical, and the bridge is out of position and tends to fall over. (We affectionately call ours the $5000 hurdy-gurdy, because that's how much we spent on tools while we were building it.)


Issues of Authenticity in Hurdy-gurdy Building

The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) is an organization dedicated to the preservation and reenactment of all the arts and sciences found in the world in the period between 650 AD and 1650 AD. The following was originally posted to the Rialto ( in response to a suggestion for a "genuine period" merchant area where only authentic period methods be used for manufacture.

I'd be interested to see how successful such a [period methods] area would be. On the one hand, I'd like to see it happen for educational reasons, and it would be very enjoyable. On the other hand, it would need to be funded by some outside source, because it's just not fiscally viable from a merchanting point of view.

Why not? Here's a small example: My wife and I build hurdy-gurdies. We use modern techniques and tools, with machined bearings and shaft, etc. On occasion we get asked whether we could build one "authentically". I reply, "Sure, if you would like to pay about four times as much." Certainly I could set up a forge and make the shaft by hand. Certainly I could put the shaft in permanently (instead of making it removable). Certainly I could import European wood instead of the combination of local woods and tropical hardwoods that we use. And the result would be an instrument that doesn't work as well, truth be told, and as a consequence the purchaser would be less likely to play it.

But that's not all. All the wood needs to be hand sawn and planed. Can I get iron that's been mined in a period fashion? Am I using authentic fuel for the forge? Can I get wood from trees that were felled by hand, and air dried for many years? Our tools are all modern - can we make period tools? I can't even use a pencil for layout, and in all likelihood I can't use a set of plans either. Where do we stop? It's a marvelous undertaking, but I can't hope to make instruments for sale under these conditions. Perhaps someday I'll embark on some of these, just for the sake of doing it, but I doubt it, because there are too many other interesting problems to address.


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Alden and Cali Hackmann
Olympic Musical Instruments

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