Doug Berch

Dulcimer Maker And Musician

cropped Dulcimer Builders and Makers 1 23

Month: November 2009

Dulcimers, Winter and Humidity

This information applies to dulcimers as well as any wooden stringed instrument.

Wood, no matter how well seasoned, will continue to expand and contract with changes in humidity.

wood shrinkage

One of the primary causes of damage to stringed instruments is dehydration. An instrument can dry out in a remarkably short period of time.  As the wood becomes dry it shrinks and sooner or later a seam may separate, the wood may crack, frets and braces might become loose, fingerboards may warp, etc.

During Winter the heat in our homes usually lowers the humidity. If you live in a dry climate you are dealing with low humidity year-round.

There are two ways to keep your instrument from drying out. One method is to humidify your home, or at least the room where you keep your instruments. The other is to use a small humidifier that fits in your instrument or the case and keep the instrument in its case. A combination of humidifying the environment and the instrument inside the case is ideal.

An inexpensive hygrometer can read the humidity within a room or instrument case. I use an electronic hygrometer in my shop that cost less than $30 and it is very accurate.

If you have extra musicians about the house it is also important to keep them from dehydrating during the dry Winter months. Below is an illustration of an appropriate cabinet for storing two musicians and several instruments.

Proper storage of musicians during the dry Winter months.

A bowl of water placed in the cabinet will provide humidity for both the musicians and their instruments.  Also very important is the drilling of several holes in the cabinet to provide air for the enclosed musicians. I regret that I once neglected to do so several Winters ago.


Dulcimers – Finding The Right Wood

I envy my woodworker friends who make things other than musical instruments. Even the pickiest of them often come home from a sawmill with beautiful, usable wood. For stringed instruments the choices quickly narrow down. For most parts of a dulcimer I will only use quarter sawn wood.

Quarter sawn log

I generally have a hard time finding quartered wood because it is more expensive for the mill to cut. Often I may only find the few boards that came out quartered during the sawing process.

Typical sawing pattern

Once I find quartered wood I dig through the piles to find stock of usable dimensions. Often lumber will be too narrow, too short, or too thin to yield enough slices when resawing. After finding quartered lumber of usable dimensions I check the wood for run out, bang on it to get an idea of how resonant it will be, check for flaws, etc. If I’m lucky I’ll find a few pieces that meet my requirements. At that point I look for grain and figure that I find appealing.

Here’s some walnut that will soon be milled for fretboards and other parts.

Quartered walnut that will become dulcimer fretboards and other parts

Once it is squared up and rough sawn I let it age and work out any internal tension that may cause it to warp before bringing it to final dimensions. Usually a certain percentage of the wood, hopefully low, will not prove to be stable enough to use.

I usually do my own resawing on a 14″ bandsaw but recently these two guys, Horatio and Zebediah showed up at my door asking for work. “What kind of work do you do,” I asked. “Resawing wood the old way, the good way, the hard way,” they replied in unison, which kind of  freaked me out a bit.

Resawing lumber

It seemed that fate had stepped in. I was able to help these two joyful wanderers find suitable employment while freeing up some of my time to search for more wood!

Seeing Sound

Illustrations from “Sound” by John Tyndall (1915) via Google Books.




The Tree Book: A Popular Guide To A Knowledge Of The Trees Of North America (1905)

More fun facts to know and tell provided by Google Books.

Walnut from "The Tree Book."

The Tree Book: A Popular Guide To A Knowledge Of The Trees Of North America by Julia Ellen Rogers (1905)

Doug Berch & Dulcimer Makers