Doug Berch

Dulcimer Maker And Musician

cropped Dulcimer Builders and Makers 1 23

Month: October 2013

Music I’d Like To Hear #66

Music I'd Like To Hear #66


A Personal Note

I’ve mentioned before that I have been having adventures with back problems. After waiting a year for my insurance company to decree I was worthy of a needed surgery I had said surgery this past March. There were some complications and recovery was not as advertised.

Two months ago I was feeling about 75% back to myself. I was working in the shop a little more each day. Trained professionals told me I could expect a full recovery within a year and that seemed very likely.

Six weeks ago I started noticing my legs would tire more easily than they had a few weeks before. Then I started having some numbness, pain, and cramping.

An MRI revealed another vertebra was jealous that it didn’t get to play with the surgeon during the previous operation so it is now yelling for attention. “Hey, what about me!” says vertebra L-4. “Why couldn’t you cry for attention before the last surgery!” says Doug.

So friends, I will be having another surgery on November 14th.

I did not know an MRI could be taken while I played the dulcimer. Here is the MRI the surgeon will refer to while operating:

Interior support structure of a dulcimer builder and player.

Here are some of the tools the surgeon will be using. Or are these my tools?

The tools a surgeon will use to fix my back. Wait, those are my tools!

It would be dishonest of me to deny that I have had moments of frustration during the course of this adventure but in general I remain optimistic.

I have been organizing the shop and getting materials together to make it easy to begin making dulcimers after I recover from surgery. Depending on how things go I could be working on a limited basis within a month though it may take longer. I’ll keep you posted.

I have some beautiful sets of walnut, curly maple, Adirondack spruce, sassafras, and butternut ready to become dulcimers. I’ll be sharpening tools and getting everything ready so I can easily work a few minutes here and there as I am able.

I have not been able to work as much during the past few weeks as I had the weeks before but passion always finds an outlet.

I have been studying construction techniques used by those who make classical guitars, romantic guitars and other instruments. These luthiers often use just a few hand tools and rely on skill more than tooling and jigs. This is the direction I lean towards and I am feeling an inner growth spurt that I imagine will express itself in the instruments I make after recovery.

My study has also included musical explorations, primarily while playing mountain dulcimer. Here again I am finding joy in deeper simplicity. Perhaps I will record and upload some music during recovery as I am able.

I have a loving wife and a community of good friends near and far. I love making instruments and playing music. I live indoors and eat every day.

Life is good.


Music I’d Like To Hear #65

Old Time Band with two accordions, fiddle, autoharp and cello.

What’s On The Bench – 10/15/2013

After years of bending dulcimer sides using a heating blanket and bending form I am beginning to prefer the traditional method of bending sides over a hot pipe. I often touch up sides, linings and binding on a hot pipe after they have come off the form because wood has memory and tends to spring back to its original shape.

Bending sides freehand is not difficult but like many things requires developing technique and skill that come with experience. Touching up sides, linings and binding has given me enough practice at the bending iron to feel more comfortable bending freehand from the start.Bending dulcimer sides with a bending ironIn the grainy photo above you can see the ubiquitous electric bending iron used by luthiers around the world. It is basically an aluminum pipe with an internal heating element controlled by a thermostat. This style of bending iron has an oval shape as opposed to the round diameter of the simple hot pipe setup I used in the past. Both work well though the shape of the electric bending iron offers a variety of curved surfaces that makes bending some shapes easier.

The bending iron is heated until drops of water bounce off it. The wood is lightly moistened and the area to to be bent is rubbed against the pipe in a stroking motion until it starts to have a little give. As the wood becomes soft it yields to pressure and can be coaxed into the desired shape.

On the bench is a mold I sometimes use to hold the sides in shape when gluing in linings or putting on a soundboard or back. It is upside down on the bench serving as a template for me to check the sides against as I bend them. The outside of the mold is the same shape as my standard model dulcimer.

My recent preference for bending freehand is due to my continuing appreciation for simple technology that relies on skill more than tooling and jigs. Bending freehand also makes it easy to vary the shape of a dulcimer without the need to build a new bending form each time.

Many of the tried-and-true methods of work used in the past have been replaced in modern times by technical advances that offer consistency, repeatability and accuracy. This is very helpful in a production situation.

As I continue to gain more skill using traditional methods of lutherie I am sometimes surprised by how quickly I can accomplish certain tasks. Over time I suspect I will be bending sides freehand as fast or faster than I have using a heated form.

But speed is not the goal. I enjoy the process of doing what I do.

And on the subject of using tried-and-true methods and tools; these two guys showed up the other day looking for work. I told them I wasn’t hiring, that I was a one person operation and didn’t have enough work to keep them busy.

They said they had they did all their work by hand and had their own tools. They had fallen on hard times and really needed work.

That hit a soft spot in my heart and I decided to let them work around the shop on a trial basis.

If you see any 25 foot long dulcimers you’ll know where they came from.

Tools should be appropriate to the scale of work at hand.


Doug Berch & Dulcimer Makers

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