Music I’d Like To Hear #46
This morning I was preparing the head-block on a custom dulcimer to receive the peghead. The sun was shining through the window and it said, “Hey Doug, this is a great moment to take a photograph.”
My first thoughts were, “The sun is talking to me! Is this a good thing? Should I cut down on coffee? What do I do next?” to which the sun replied, “Just take the picture!”
So smartphone in hand I took this shot of the rig I use to level and square-up the head and end-blocks.
Most of the assembly of my dulcimers takes place on a solera. I clamp a cabinetmaker’s clamp to the solera and use the cabinetmaker’s clamp as a vise to hold the dulcimer. (The last sentence used the word “clamp” three times. I just thought I’d mention that.)
With the dulcimer firmly mounted in the cabinetmaker’s clamp I use a low-angle block plane to level the block where the fretboard, binding, soundboard, back and sides come together. This area of the dulcimer has various parts converging at different angles and the grain is running in all directions. There are also areas where delicate edges could easily get chipped. If these edges get chipped they would look painfully obvious on the finished dulcimer.
I keep the low-angle block plane sharp and set it for a very light cut. The sides, binding and fretboard have already been cut almost flush with the head-block using a saw. This still leaves a bit of overhang that require leveling. I plane these areas from the outside edges towards the center of the block as this prevents chipping. Once these parts are level to the block I make several passes with the plane to assure the entire surface is flat.
I check the flatness of the block using the machinist’s square in the photograph. On a good day the task is complete and I start preparing the peghead assembly for gluing to the body. On other days I lather, rinse, repeat a few times till everything is right.
I could just go to the basement and fire up the disc sander I bought a few years ago but what would be the fun in that? It would be loud and messy and not nearly as much fun as doing it by hand. If I include the time of going downstairs and back upstairs it doesn’t take me much longer to do it by hand anyway.
I encourage anyone who would like to make a dulcimer to do so! I regularly receive requests for advice on making a dulcimer so I thought I’d present some of the suggestions that people have found helpful.
Building a well-designed dulcimer kit can help you understand the basic dimensions of parts and how they go together. If you are new to working with wood or don’t have access to many tools a dulcimer kit will take care of the “heavy lifting” for you. The wooden parts of the kit should already be brought to proper thickness, the fret slots cut, the sides bent, etc. My entry into dulcimer making was through building several kits in the early 1970’s.
Studying as many dulcimers as you can get your hands on will teach you about the variety of design and construction methods used by dulcimer makers.
Gathering ideas from the work of others is a wonderful thing. Plagiarizing the work of others is not a wonderful thing. If you can not come up with your own design I suggest using a set of published plans that give permission to reproduce the instrument. If you want to copy someone else’s work ask for their permission to do so and respect their response.
Here are two books that offer just about everything you need to know to make your first dulcimer:
“Constructing The Mountain Dulcimer” by Dean Kimball
“Dulcimer People” by Jean Ritchie contains a clear and concise chapter on how to make a dulcimer.
Making mistakes is an important part of the learning process so don’t let them discourage you! I suggest having wood on hand for two or three dulcimers so you have easy access to replacement parts should something go wrong. Even experienced luthiers have things go wrong…