Doug Berch

Dulcimer Maker And Musician

cropped Dulcimer Builders and Makers 1 23

Month: January 2009

Dulcimer Finishes

Finishing wood enhances the beauty of the wood while protecting it from moisture, dirt and other contaminates. The finish chosen for a  plucked stringed instrument must also be considered for it’s tonal properties.

Before a finish is applied the dulcimer receives final scraping and sanding.

A note here about preparing a surface for finish; modern industrial standards have created an expectation where even hand made items are often expected to look as if they were made by machine and inspected with microscopes.

mass production in a dulcimer factory circa 1929

The hallmarks of hand-craftsmanship such as the occasional tool mark or irregularity are often perceived as flaws.

an early hand made dulcimer collective

Wood, the beautiful organic material of choice for stringed instruments, is often expected to be flat and shiny like a Formica counter top!

This presents woodworkers and luthiers who work by hand with a dilemma; is the goal of the crafts-person to hand-make something that looks like it was made by a machine? Compare this to a calligrapher attempting to write a manuscript by hand that would look like it was printed by a computer!

There is another extreme; some people believe the term “hand-crafted” implies rough or crude work made without care for detail. This is another matter and should not be confused with the organic, natural flaws of materials and work produced by a caring, experienced crafts-person.

I prefer wood to look like wood. I appreciate the grain of wood enough to avoid burying it under acres of plastic or making it look like it is under glass!

I experiment with different finishes but primarily use shellac and  a variety of oil-based varnishes, often in combination.  experimenting with a new dulcimer finish

I am also moving away, quickly, from using any toxic finishing materials and solvents.

a potentially dangerous dulcimer finish

Shellac is traditional, non-toxic and relatively easy to apply. By building several (or many) thin coats very little material is added to the wood. This produces a transparent, hard and protective finish that does not dampen the tone of the dulcimer. A shellac finish is easy to repair as each new coat of shellac dissolves into the previous coat.

Shellac looks beautiful on both hardwoods and softwoods. Shellac also comes in a variety of shades that can be used to accentuate the color of the wood.

Shellac has two potential drawbacks: it scratches more easily than some finishes and it is alcohol soluble. If a dulcimer finished with shellac gets badly scratched or someone leaves a glass of bourbon on their dulcimer it can easily be repaired.

Oil varnish is another traditional finish with a long history of use on musical instruments. Oil varnish should not be confused with raw oils like linseed or tung oil. Raw oils will soak into the wood and often do not fully dry. This can be advantageous on furniture but can deaden the tone of a musical instrument.


Oil varnish is made with linseed or other oils (surprise!) that have been processed and/or mixed with resins and additives to speed drying time, degrees of hardness, color, etc.

Oil varnish adds a deep, lustrous and protective finish. If properly applied it will have little effect on the tone of a dulcimer.

Oil varnish look great on hardwoods but can cause the harder and softer grain of spruce and cedar to “washboard.” I personally think this is a beautiful effect as the wood looks and feels very natural. This light washboard effect also occurs over time to many fine finishes as they continue to cure even if they were originally as flat as glass. If  I prefer a glass smooth surface I will  seal the soundboard with shellac prior to varnishing. Give it a few years and it will develop a beautiful texture anyway.

Depending on the wood and the desired effect I sometimes seal and undercoat a dulcimer, or parts of a dulcimer, with shellac.  On some of my personal dulcimers, or if requested, I will use only shellac on a soundboard.

I prefer applying finish by hand. I use various padding techniques and occasionally brushes depending on what I am working with.

hand applying finish

In most commercial operations finish is sprayed.

If you are going to spray finish, especially lacquers and other toxic substances, please avoid following the example of this finisher of the not-so-distant pass  who is completely disregarding his health and safety while spraying:

spraying finish without appropriate safety gear
The toxic hazard of such work has led many a person down the road of deviant, unexplainable and erratic behavior!

Instead please follow the fine example set by the man below who chooses to use modern state-of-the-art safety equipment:

proper gear for working with hazardous finishing materials

A lesson for us all!

Dulcimer Playing With Extra Frets

Adding extra frets to the traditional diatonic dulcimer fret pattern is nothing new.  Most common are the 6 1/2 fret and the corresponding 13 1/2 fret an octave higher. These two frets are so common that one could say they have become standard issue on most dulcimers. These two frets are standard on the dulcimers I make unless someone requests otherwise.

I believe that it was Howie Mitchell who first added the 6 1/2 fret while teaching himself to play the dulcimer. Thanks to this innovation one can get a C sharp  on the top and bottom string when tuned D-A-D.  This also allows playing  a G sharp on the middle string.

More recently many players are using a 1 1/2  (one and one-half) fret. In D-A-D a 1 1/2 fret will provide  F natural on the top and bottom strings and  C natural on the middle string.

Many years ago, before I used a 1 1/2 fret or even a 6 1/2 fret I added what I call a 1/2 fret to some of my dulcimers.  I call this fret a 1/2 fret because it is placed between the nut and the first fret.

In D-A-D this adds both D Sharp and A Sharp to the fingerboard.

I found it very easy to adjust to having the 1/2 fret on the fingerboard because it was below all the other frets.

The combination of the 1/2 fret and 1 1/2 fret adds a lot of musical possibility to the lower position on the dulcimer fingerboard.


Here is the standard D Major Scale played in D-A-D:

D scale played on a dulcimer

With the addition of the 1/2 and 1 1/2 frets a chromatic scale can be played:

chromatic scale played on a dulcimer

By using the 1 1/2 fret it is easy to play a G Major scale or a D Mixolydian mode in the lower positions while tuned D-A-D:

G Major scale played on a dulcimer in D-A-D

And here are a few chordal possibilities:

a few chords played on the dulcimer

In the first measure are two inversions of a B Major chord. The second measure shows two inversions of a G minor chord and the third measure shows two inversions of a C Major chord.

These are just some of the possibilities. I often play B flat, E flat and other chords while tuned D-A-D using the 1/2 and 1 1/2 frets.

I offer the 1/2 and 1 1/2 frets and any other additional frets as options on my dulcimers.

Two Mountain Dulcimers Nearly Complete

Its a beautiful snowy day. I found the thickness calipers I misplaced. I leave soon to play a very pleasant gig close to home. Life is good.

I spent the morning getting two dulcimers ready for final scraping and sanding. A third is on the bench close behind.

My photographic skills are lacking but this photograph appealed to me even though it does not show the two dulcimers very well:


The photographs don’t show how pretty the curly maple and walnut looks partly due to my lack of photographic skills as well as the lack of finish on the dulcimers. Here are a few more:



And here are some curly cherry sets I’m sorting for the next batch of dulcimers:


Now its time to brush snow off the car and go play.

Speaking of playing, I read once that a reason people don’t take the work musicians do seriously is because it is referred to as playing. Perhaps that is why so many people through the years have felt they were doing me a favor by asking me to work for free?

Frame Saws Make Me Happy

I’ve mentioned before that I prefer using hand tools instead of power tools whenever possible.

My shop is on the second floor of the house and my band saw lives in the garage. I also usually have a 1/2″ blade on the band saw since I primarily  use it for resawing.

I use a few frame saws to eliminate the trip to the garage and/or the need to change the blade on the band saw for the occasional curved cut. I started by using a traditional turning saw. This worked well  but  it was almost a little too much saw for some of the work I was doing.

turning saw

I had tried using a coping saw for the finer work  but found the tool to be disappointing. The frame would flex away from the handle and/or I couldn’t get enough tension on the blade.

I had read somewhere that the Olson coping saw was more rigid and adjustable than some of it’s competitors. I decided to try one today and was very happy with the results.

olson coping saw

By using the turning saw and Olson coping saw I was able to easily rough-shape a dulcimer peghead and support block. Some of this requires cutting through 2 inch thick hardwood.

dulcimer peghead

The support block under the peghead is glued to the end of the dulcimer. It is then profiled to match the taper of the sides of the dulcimer. The curve at it’s end is then cut. The surfaces are cleaned and finished with a plane, rasp, file and small scraper.

The peghead is made separately and then glued to the sloped top of the support block.

Doug Berch & Dulcimer Makers