Doug Berch

Dulcimer Maker And Musician

cropped Dulcimer Builders and Makers 1 23

Month: April 2010

Birds Of Vermont – Wonderful Wood Carvings

While traveling with my wife’s family we came across The Birds Of Vermont Museum. The museum was closed but we soon came across Bob Spear, the museum’s founder, coming back from a hike in the nearby woods.

Mr. Spear kindly offered to open the museum for us and we were very happy not to have missed seeing the fruits of his 25+ years of bird carving.

Bob Spear

At 90 Bob Spear is still carving away. He also has an apprentice who is helping him complete this massive collection of bird carvings.

Go there if you can!

You can also view some of the museum on-line and watch live birds at the feeder on the bird-cam by going to the museum’s website:

The Birds Of Vermont Museum

When The Dulcimer Shop Becomes A Finishing Room

I have mentioned before that my shop is very small, what realtors would describe as “cozy.” I have enough room to comfortably work on three dulcimers at a time during the primary steps of construction.

As the dulcimers come closer to completion I work on each one individually until it is time for the finishing process to begin. The size of the shop doesn’t really allow much else to take place while I am doing finishing work. I’ve tried and the results were not pretty.

The workbench becomes a finishing table. It usually looks something like this:

Finishing a curly cherry dulcimer

The finishing process takes several days. A lot of the time is taken up by waiting for coats of finish to dry and cure. Drying happens quickly. Curing is the process of the finish hardening and becoming more stable and solid.

Here are two dulcimers taking a break while the finish dries and cures. This gives them time to chat and catch up with each other.

Dulcimers taking a break while the varnish dries

Preparing the dulcimers for finishing is the longest part of the process. This begins in the traditional manner by using scrapers to smooth and clean up most surfaces.

Scraping the sides of a cherry dulcimer

I use sandpaper to clean up most of the tool marks left by planes, scrapers and files. Sanding is a process of making increasingly finer scratches until they can no longer be easily seen. Sanding is also very messy.


A few hundred years ago luthiers did not have sandpaper and they used planes, files and scrapers as their primary tools for preparing surfaces for finishing. The results are beautiful but do not produce the slick and polished look that people have come to expect from modern manufactured items.

Disembodied hands using a card scraper

Handmade objects looked as if they were made by hand and showed signs of the craftsmanship involved in making them. This does not imply that handmade objects looked shoddy; it was a different aesthetic.

I prefer the look of planed and scraped surfaces that show the use of tools used by skilled hands. I am debating whether I will exclusively use these techniques some time in the future.

I use a variety of finishes depending on the wood used and the visual and tonal qualities desired. I usually use shellac and a variety of oil varnishes and varnish oils, often in combination.

I lean towards more or less non-toxic, traditional finishing materials. This choice is again primarily aesthetic; they provide the look and sound I prefer.

But there are other reasons…

I have used modern solvent-based finishes. They work well but can cause interesting short and long-term side-effects.

Once while working with lacquer and lacquer thinner this crowd of happy folks kept showing up.

The happy solvent-based finishing folk

I enjoyed their jovial song and dance but after a while I realized that I was “not in Kansas anymore”, and if I continued using such products getting back here might become increasingly difficult in the future..

Wood Finishing, Comprising Staining, Varnishing, and Polishing, with Engravings and Diagrams (1906)

As I end the day my hands show traces of shellac and oil varnish. This makes me happy. The subtle fragrance of a relatively non-toxic finish drying on a cherry dulcimer fills the air.

Like many who appreciate and practice historic methods of work I read historic books on the subject.

Paul N. Hasluck was an extremely prolific writer in his day. I’ve previously posted links to his book, “Violins and Other Stringed Instruments – How To Make Them

“Wood Finishing, Comprising Staining, Varnishing, and Polishing, with Engravings and Diagrams” is the kind of book from which I always learn a few useful tricks.

Household Varnish Jar

Rubber For French Polishing

Another gem brought to you by The Internet Archive.

Download your copy here: “Wood Finishing, Comprising Staining, Varnishing, and Polishing, with Engravings and Diagrams” by Paul N. Hasluck (1906)


Doug Berch & Dulcimer Makers

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