Doug Berch

Dulcimer Maker And Musician

cropped Dulcimer Builders and Makers 1 23

Month: September 2009

The Will Of The Wood

Wood moves as it will

Lutherie requires precision work with a material that prefers to bend and sway with the weather!

I have learned that it is better to accommodate the will of the wood then to force it to meet my demands. I have tried both approaches and have learned that the will of the wood always wins!

Working with the will of the wood has led to an evolving sense of design and technique that has led at times to both revelation and frustration.

Compromise is possible in certain areas and the result leads to a dulcimer with an organic look and feel that shows it was made from trees by a persons hands.

The natural world has few perfectly flat and straight surfaces. The will of the wood demands that I remember this!

Trees bend and sway. So does wood.

The tolerances of the fingerboard must be precise and remain precise. I can make few compromises here. If the fingerboard becomes inaccurate or warps the dulcimer is no longer a musical instrument capable of satisfying a demanding player.

Again, I have learned that keeping a fingerboard true requires understanding what the wood prefers to do and working with the will of the wood.

Is is straight and flat yet?
On a good day, rather than me working the wood it is the wood that works me!

Curly And Crinkled Shavings

I was recently asked about using back-bevels on a plane blade. Putting a small bevel on the back of the blade effectively increases the angle at which the sharp edge slices the wood. The higher angle causes less (or no) tear-out on tricky or figured hardwoods.

One of my favorite planes is a high angle Chinese smoothing plane. The blade is bedded at about 60 degrees and it can tame the wildest grain. The higher the angle of the blade the harder the plane is to push but it is worth it!

high angle Chinese plane

Sometimes the plane of choice is a standard Stanley/Bailey style  plane. These pitch the blade at 45 degrees which is good for clear, consistent grain but not so great on figured or tricky wood. A back-bevel can offer many choices of cutting angle on these planes.

Today while planing an Adirondack spruce soundboard I noticed that I had a “photo-op” to show the difference in how different pitches of the blade slice the wood.

The #5 plane on the left has no back-bevel; it simply cuts at the 45 degree angle the plane was originally designed for. The blade is sharpened with a pronounced camber and the plane is set for a somewhat heavy cut.

The #4 plane on the right has a 10 degree back-bevel which causes the blade to cut the wood as if it were pitched at 55 degrees. This plane is set up for final smoothing with a tight mouth and a light cut.

two types of shavings

Notice how the #5 produces long, smooth curls while the #4 produces crinkled shavings. The higher cutting angle of the #4 breaks the fibers before they tear. The #5 leaves a decent finish but there is some tear-out here and there, especially when the grain reverses.  The #4, though producing harsher looking shavings, leaves a fine silky finish.

remember to take things lightly

The Okeh Laughing Record

remember to take things lightly!

The Okeh Laughing Record – 1922

[audio:The Okey Laughing Record (1922).mp3]

Friends Of The Mountain Dulcimer

Friends Of  The Mountain Dulcimer is a social network for dulcimer players; think of it as Facebook for people who are mountain dulcimer players, makers and enthusiasts,

There are already well over 100 members and you can be one too!

Friends Of The Mountain Dulcimer Logo

Cherry Dulcimers Are Delicious!

I am often asked which species of wood makes the best sounding dulcimer. Any answer would be very subjective at best. Each tonewood has the potential to become an instrument with a fine, unique voice.

There are some generalizations as to the potential tone of various woods but the outcome is dependent on the design and construction of the instrument.

resawn cherry dulcimer tops, backs and sides

Cherry is fairly dense, heavy and somewhat hard. These are desirable qualities for the back and sides of most stringed instruments. Cherry would not be an obvious choice for the soundboard of most stringed instruments but dulcimers are somewhat unique; they evolved in the Appalachian mountains and were most commonly made using indigenous species of wood.

The tone of a dulcimer with a top, back and sides made from cherry has the potential for warmth in the mid-range and smooth response in the higher registers. The bass tends to be warm but not overpowering.

cherry dulcimer by Doug Berch

Cherry dulcimers have a noticeable smooth sustain that ads to the tone and playability of the instrument.

I use certain thicknesses as guidelines but ultimately each piece of wood and the instrument made with it will be unique. The final thickness and graduation (different thicknesses in different areas) of a cherry soundboard is more critical than with other tonewoods I use; too thick and it sounds lifeless, too thin and it can sound harsh.

After the instrument is assembled I often adjust the thickness of the sides and back as well; each part of the dulcimer has an effect on all the others. The final result is not an assemblage of parts; it is a cohesive musical instrument.

But now I will tell you the real secret to making a good sounding cherry dulcimer.

If I leave milk and cookies in my shop Alphonso the Cherry Fairy appears in the middle of the night and uses his magic to make them sound wonderful!

Alphonso the Cherry Fairy



Doug Berch & Dulcimer Makers

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