In the living room of the Rockville tract house, two harpsichords stand facing each other, looking like pianos designed by a violin maker.
The instruments, elaborately turned, scrolled and gilded, were crafted in an adjacent room that the previous owners of the house designed for watching television.
Robert Brooke and his wife, Susan Ott, don't watch much TV. When Brooke, a computer programmer for IBM, and Ott, an administrator in the Montgomery County public school system, come home from work they have dinner, change clothes and get to work--sawing, planing, sanding and varnishing the harpsichords they make by hand. A single instrument takes more than a year to complete, and sells for about $10,000.
"The price is less than it's worth, because of my urge to build and my lack of business sense," says Brooke.
Brooke, 47, and Ott, 36, have so many orders that they could build harpsichords full time. But they choose not to. Says Brooke, "I want to be free to say, 'I am tired of building a big Italian harpsichord. I want to build one that's pure Flemish.'"
Brooke has been working for IBM since 1964 and expects to stay there the rest of his life.
"I am not making harpsichords to fill any vacuum . . . ," he says. "I come home looking forward to going to the shop. I get up every morning looking forward to going to IBM."
Ott also has no plans to leave education and is starting an internship as a school psychologist. "My job is mentally demanding," she says, "and I enjoy losing myself in working on a harpsichord."
Brooke lays out the design, cuts and glues. Ott does the sanding, varnishing and keyboard adjustments. She makes many of the small parts.
The couple initially built two harpsichords from kits. "I realized I could do better work myself," Brooke says. Since then, they have built seven harpsichords. "I haven't made an instrument I didn't like," Brooke says. "In every instrument I build, I find a small problem I never solved before."
For instance, Brooke laminated wood for the first time while building the outer case for the Italian harpsichord, which now stands in his living room and which belongs to the Washington Bach Consort.
For the bent side of the other harpsichord, a copy of an instrument used between the 16th and 18th centuries, Brooke built a steam box and cooked the wood for an hour. He removed the wood and had 30 seconds to bend it and to place it in a form that kept it bent at the correct curve. The wood was clamped in that form for at least a month --but upon removal it lost some of its curve. Brooke cooked and bent the wood three times before attaining the proper curve.
"Now I can get it right the first time," he says.
Brooke and Ott have come to believe that no one job could reward them entirely.
"I wish I could do many things," Brooke says. "Renaissance men were wealthy people who could range freely over their many exotic interests. But for me, unfortunately, there isn't enough time."