How a Serpent is Made
The complex curved shape and conical bore of the Serpent complicates the instrument maker's job. There are three basic ways of fabricating this shape, and they stem from different schools of thought in different countries.
The original Serpent design originated in France, but was also made elsewhere. The craftsman took a large block of wood, which had dimensions similar to a box big enough to fit the actual instrument, and sculpted the Serpent from it. First the block was split in half along the center of the bore. The inside bore was then carved out using woodworking tools, one half of the bore per half block of wood. This process has been likened to carving a canoe from a split tree trunk. The two halves were then glued back together, followed by cutting the reunited block to the rough double 'S' shape. Finally the craftsman used woodworking tools to refine and round out the outer shape, being careful to avoid cutting through into the inner bore. This was not trivial, since the finished thickness was only about 0.7 cm (0.25")! Finally, the entire outer surface was covered with a layer of leather, usually allowed to shrink for a tight fit. This method of fabrication resulted in delicate yet surprisingly resilient instruments, a number of which are still holding together and functional today.
In England, Serpent makers decided that a different approach was in order. They assembled the instrument from many short conical sections, each with a slight curve. These were shaped from small blocks of wood and then drilled and carved to shape. They fit together in an overlapping fashion, and were held together with staples or similar devices. Leather was often used as a sheath, but another popular covering was made from tightly wrapped cloth strips, like a mummy's bandages, which covered the instrument. The cloth was made stronger and airtight by soaking it in varnish or paint. While easier to make, many instruments fabricated in this fashion are disintegrating or have significant leaks today, due to rusting staples and related problems.
The English Serpent also tended to have tighter bends than the French Serpent, giving it more compact overall dimensions, but placing more stress on the wooden structure. To alleviate this shortcoming, many English Serpents were reinforced with metal bands and rods and braces. This configuration became known as the Military Serpent because of its usefulness in rough environments and compact size suitable for use while marching or riding horseback.
Later in its history, some Serpents were made from brass or similar metals. The fabrication techniques are not unlike those used today in making modern brass instruments, but most of these were experimental and did not catch on.
Other materials have been tried, primarily by modern craftsmen attempting to find easier ways of making Serpents. The structural foam resins, fiberglass and high-tech composites have met with some success. However, good old wood remains the favorite, and due to modern woodworking techniques, the French method of hollowing out a solid block of wood finds favor even for reproduction of English and Military style instruments.
Copyright Paul Schmidt 1997