Buff stop pad size

In my webpage on “singing buff stops” I observe the convenience (easily demonstrated by plain acoustics and recordings) of having the buff pads thicker in the bass and very thin in the treble (by thick and thin I mean the string-touching side, obviously, the rest is irrelevant): this guarantees an even “buffing action” throughout the instrument’s range. It is nothing new, of course: it is the procedure recommended in Hubbard’s HARPSICHORD KIT INSTRUCTIONS book of 1970, p. 63. I have also seen at least one instrument by Hubert Bédard with the buff pads fitted this way.

I observe however that modern makers systematically use same-sized pads throughout.
This means that the buff stop is singing in the bass, but in the treble is a pizzicato, acting as a damper.
I observed this some time ago in a Facebook forum, and Michael Thompson (backed by others) felt offended, saying something that after decades of harpsichord building I was not going to teach him how to make a buff stop …

AFAIK no document from the harpsichord era gives any info about this matter.
My question is: how many extant antique harpsichord have original buff pads, and if so how are they sized?

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I don’t know about French or German school, but the Ruckers buffs seem to be a bit different from what you say. O’ Brien says nothing about buff pads being thinner at the treble, and indeed in his book there are photographs showing pads with no significant variance in thickness. They do change from bass to treble in heigth (10 to 8 mm).

However I’d say that the singing quality owes a lot to other details as well as the thickness of the pads: long or short string? (Ruckers of course had not a long or a short string, but in 2x8s this can be important) How far from the pin? The 4’ damped or undamped when off? How high are the buff pads?
This last seem to be of the utmost importance, Ruckers had a fairly low buff batten (8 mm high), hence the buff pads are fairly high to reach the strings. Being so high (10 mm), they are of course very soft in the point where they touch the string. The material itself was very soft to begin with, says O’ Brien, and this can’t be without consequences on the singing quality.

The Ruckers seem to be the most successful type of buff, but there were others. For example the Antunes 1785 has a pedal-driven buff batten, leather-covered, which raises and push against ALL the strings of both choirs. This I think would lead a much stiffer buff stop because the batten pushes against the string, albeit lined with leather. It can’t possibly be as soft as Ruckers obviously wanted for their buff stops. But I haven’t heard the Antunes buff stop so I can’t say how does it sound.

As a lot of things in harpsichords, if one element is lacking, it must be compensated. So you could have a high buff batten but very soft leather (or maybe thinner!); or you can have same-width pads but on a tapered batten; and so on.
I agree with you that if the batten is high and not tapered, and the buff pads are stiff, and they are the same thickness bass-to-treble, and the 4’ is damped when off, nothing can possibly sing, so I’d prefer to go your way.
And of course, wool or felt doesn’t seem to help.

My 2 cents, the experts will correct me if I said something wrong.

I think the question that needs to be answered first, and there may be more than two corrrect answers, is something like:

What is the sound of the ideal buff stop? (Should it “sing” or sound like a pizzicato, to use Claudio’s examples.)


Another question, which is relevant to how the buff should sound is:

“For which pieces is the buff appropriate?”

I do not think we have the answer to this in the notated repertoire in terms of any instructions when to engage the buff stop.


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We haven’t the answers to these questions. I’d like to think that the more we know and appreciate the repertoire, the style, its idiosincracies, the more we get immersed in the musical language and culture, the more we develop an instinctive sense of how a harpsichord should sound and when is best to use. Or, I surely do hope so.

Current trend like the buff singing, and indeed some schools of making seem to have wanted that (Ruckers). Maybe there isn’t an “ideal” sound of buff, maybe in 1500 people preferred one type, in 1600 another type, in 1700 still another type.


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Yes, but Dom…

We dont know what repertoire the people of the 16C, 17C, 18C used their buff stops for – at least I dont know. Were they trying to emulate the specific tone colour of the lute, or just trying to dampen the sound to be able to play more privately, or what?

I am hoping that someone here can help us get beyond “maybe” – otherwise we are stuck with just doing what pleases our 21C aesthetic. :smile:

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Indeed, I was looking at evidence in extant instruments.

Domenico has rightly pointed that in Ruckers buffs the batten is low, thus the pads are high and are not uniform.

Another thing that intrigues me is that in the English literature the stop is always referred as “buff”, yet most modern makers (but again, not Hubbard and not Bédard) use felt, which potentially dampens more than soft leather.

Personally, I find it difficult to fit any piece to a “pizzicato buff”, and have my own harpsichord (as explained in my wepbage), which has a double buff (one batten with two sets of pads), with one “normal” and another “singing” buff, no pizzicato buff at all: I hate the effect.

We know the Flemish 17th c harpsichords had the buff as standard. Also French and German after about mid 18th century. The stop was referred to in the literature (Adlung and others).
But as Domenico and David say, we know nothing about its use, except two German sources early 18th century (cannot recall now) recommending to use it only solo, not in combinations, and the famous sonata of 1747 of CPE Bach prescribing it in combinations.

My main questions are still unanswered.

  1. Any original buff pads in extant antiques?
  2. Any evidence that the buff pads were all of the same size (thus singing in the bass, pizzicato in the treble, which I do not find particularly attractive) or decreasing in size thus producing a uniform effect (Hubbard-Bédard-DiVeroli way)?

Did they have a buff and a lute stop? If consequently it was the one or the other, we might have a hint.

Just my guess…

The only bit of serious research I know of (though I am very happy to be corrected!) is Grant O’Brien’s Ruckers thesis, where he writes:

All Ruckers harpsichords seem originally to have had a buff stop; a
stop in which soft buff leather pads touch the strings near their
ends, producing a sound which is rapidly damped away like that of the
harp or lute (it is sometimes called the harp stop or the lute stop).
In Ruckers harpsichords the buff stop comprises a bar of beech or
poplar placed against the 8’ nut with soft buff pads (probably
oil-tanned ox or moose leather) about 5.5 mm thick, glued to its top
surface. The pads are usually about 10 mm high in the bass and about
8 mm high in the treble. They are also tapered in width, and are
about 4 mm wide at the top and 6 mm wide at their base. … The buff
stop on Ruckers harpsichords is split near the middle ‘-’ the treble
section projects through the cheek like the registers and can be
operated by reaching around to the side of the instrument. The bass
section of the buff stop was operated by a finger stop like that on
the virginal harpichordium, or by a pin in a block either of which was
glued to the top of the buff bar near the spine. The split
between the two sections of the buff stop occurs in single-manual
harpsichords between the notes f1 and f#1 . The two manuals of the
Ruckers double are at different pitches so that the split in the buff
occurs at a different note (but the same pitch) on each manual.
On doubles the split in the buff occurs at f1 If #1 on the t f,
keyboard and at c 1/c #l on the ‘c’ keyboard.

As with the harpichordium stop in the virginals, the musical use
of the split buff stop is not clearly understood. The virginal
harpichordium extends from C/E to f1, and the buff stop splits between
f1 and f#1 , so that there is a strong musical relationship between
the harpichordium and buff stop. The intention must have been to try
to produce the effect of two different timbres from the one
instrument. Unlike the harpichordium stop which operated only on the
bass and tenor strings (except for the 1581 HR) the buff effect could
be interchanged between bass and treble. As with the harpichordium
the use of a markedly different type of sound in the treble and bass
does not seem appropriate to pieces like fantasias or pavanes, and
was probably used more for fast, light dance pieces. However,
although it is difficult to say that the split buff stop was analogous
with the relatively common organ stops split near the middle of the
keyboard, it is possible that marked contrasts between the treble and
bass sounds were acceptable to the 17th century ear even in the more
serious and ecclesiastical pieces.

He may have expanded this in his later book, but I do not have this.

What we dont know is what the buff stop was called at the time of the Ruckers.

When Claudio say that his buff pads are thinner in the treble, he presumably refers to the dimension along the string; but does O’Brien mean the same dimension in his description?

One might imagine that in a piece like the slow movement of JSB’s Itailian Concerto, the buff might well be employed for the left hand notes, as an accompaniment; but this doesnt work, because in Bach’s slow movement the top note of the LH rises above the lowest note of the RH.


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Le 06/02/2022 14:17, David Pickett via The Jackrail écrit :

or by a pin in a blaff

What’s a blaff?

The OED only knows the verb.

blaff, v. Obs.

[perh. a. Du. and LG. blaffen, an imitative word (cf. baff v.1): cf.
also ME. wlaffen in same sense.]

To bark (as a dog).

David has preceded me with the O’Brien.

One might imagine that in a piece like the slow movement of JSB’s Itailian Concerto, the buff might well be employed for the left hand notes, as an accompaniment; but this doesnt work, because in Bach’s slow movement the top note of the LH rises above the lowest note of the RH.

The Italian concerto is for two-keyboards, isn’t it?
Many players play it on french harpsichord with the buff on the upper keyboard, of course the right hand play the lower keyboard.


It says “a pin in a block”. There is a correction, probably the OCR has misinterpreted.

Corrected. When I copied from the pdf, it rendered block as blaff!


Thanks David! Well from O’Brien we get that buff pads were, perhaps not too much, but certainly larger in the bass than in the treble, confirming the Hubbard-Bédard-DiVeroli way, and not what many makers do at present . . .

Dear Chris: Both 18th Flemish and English harpsichords had both lute and buff. English had the lute, quite obviously, in the upper manual: this was because it was the “uncoupled” alternative, the other upper row “dogleg” being “coupled”. Also, this provided two different types of sound for the upper 8’.
For this reason, the buff was always in the lower manual, so that it provided variety to the lower 8’.

In France the buff only becomes standard in mid 18th century, and not much later the peau-de-buffle appears. This, together with the 4’, provides lots of variety to the lower manual, which is why the buff was mostly applied to the upper manual.

Le 06/02/2022 16:42, Claudio Di Veroli via The Jackrail écrit :

Thanks David! Well from O’Brien we get that buff pads were, perhaps not too much, but certainly larger in the bass than in the treble, confirming the Hubbard-Bédard-DiVeroli way, and not what many makers do at present . . .

What do you mean by “larger”? O’Brien speaks of width, height and

There is (or was) a Delin harpsichord in the Staatliche Institut für Musikforschung in Berlin. I looked at the buff pads some years ago and got permission to touch them! They were wider than I expected and seemed very stiff (solid), though this could have been through their age. I had no way of telling whether they were original

  • David Bedlow

And he spesks of equal thickness and width, only different height bass-to-treble.

It occurs to me that I have no idea what the word buff would suggest as a timbre…