Dulcimer Making – My Process

My workbench, or as I prefer to call it, my happy place!

My dulcimer making process is consistently inconsistent.

Maybe a better way to say that is my methods and design are in a constant state of evolution.

There are certain measurements and features that need to be precise; fret placement, fretwork, setup, action, bridge compensation, string spacing, etc., but when it comes to exact body shape and size, bracing, thickness or thinness of the top, sides and back, and just about every other detail, they are unique to each dulcimer.

My methods of work suit my temperament. I like to work by feel and intuition, and most of the work is accomplished using traditional hand tools. I like to get intimate and personal with my work, and I let the wood dictate a lot of where the final design is heading.

Because of how I approach dulcimer making, I don’t make parts in bulk. I tried that for a short time, and I found it creatively constraining. I prefer to make each part for each dulcimer, and the proportions of each part are based on all the other parts as the dulcimer comes together. Making a dulcimer is like watching a plant grow.

That’s how I do this. My methodology would be ineffective if I was trying to produce dulcimers in a more economically viable quantity, but anytime I have tried doing production work, even on a small scale, I don’t enjoy the process, as it feels like I am manufacturing rather than crafting, and it is the process of crafting I enjoy and love.

My blog posts have become infrequent, but I regularly post photos of the thrill and adventure of being a dulcimer maker on Instagram.

Working On Dulcimers And Working On My Body

Physical therapy I can relate to!

I just want to let folks know how I’m doing and what I’m up to.

The back surgery in early July went well, and my initial recovery was surprisingly comfortable and easy compared to others I have experienced.

After about six weeks, I was able to do some very light work in the shop, and currently, I am able to work at the bench for a total of two or three hours spread across the easier days.

Physical therapy is helping my body, and being able to do some work in the shop is helping my mind and heart.

That’s about it for now. Fall has arrived here in Michigan, and I can taste Winter coming soon.

You can see current work in progress by following me on Instagram.

Catching Up!

As many bloggers have faced, there comes a time when coming up with something of interest worth posting does not come easily, so this blog has been quiet for several months. In addition, my day-to-day work and related action shots have primarily migrated to my Instagram account, as they don’t often require a lot of verbal content to get the point across. I am looking into ways of having Instagram posts automagically become blog posts.

But life has not been quiet, so I’m taking a moment to catch up on some fun and frolic that has occurred during the last several months.

The biggest news was that my wife Cynthia and I traveled to England and France for three weeks during this past May and June.

The initial impetus for the trip was to visit The Halsway Manor National Centre for Folk Arts to be one of the instructors at an event they hosted jointly with The Nonsuch Dulcimer Club.

Dulcimer players at Halsway Manor National Centre for Folk Arts photo by Jon Warbrick

Going to the UK for a musical adventure is something I have wanted to do since I was a teenager, and this was a wonderful reason to finally cross the pond. I had gotten to know a few people in the UK dulcimer community via social media, but primarily a Mr. John Crocker, who is the man seated on the left in the front row of the photograph. John and I have been corresponding for around 15 years or so and has become someone I felt very close to, and it was wonderful to have the opportunity to have him harass me in person!

Some members of the Nonsuch Dulcimer Club quickly became friends from the moment my wife Cynthia and I were met at the airport. I refrain from mentioning them all, but it is difficult to imagine being more warmly embraced and cared for by any other group of people. I miss them.

The rest of our trip was centered around visiting friends in the UK and France, and through them, we had the opportunity to meet and play music with some other great folks I look forward to getting to know better.

On returning home about three weeks ago, I spent the first week recovering from the trip! The past two weeks have been primarily about getting my ducks in a row prior to a back surgery I will be having tomorrow. Congenital health issues keep life interesting! This will be back surgery number 4, and I plan on asking the hospital if they offer punch cards like coffee shops do, though I’d rather have a free coffee or pastry than another back surgery as my reward!

Here is my latest MRI. You know I must be feeling off because I’m playing hammered dulcimer but forgot to bring my hammers!

Danse Macabre

Though I don’t look forward to having surgery, I do look forward to being able to stand, walk, and work with greater ease following recovery. About a year ago, new symptoms appeared, and non-surgical treatments helped some, but not enough, and the limitations greatly impeded my ability to spend time making dulcimers, which is why I have not had many up for sale this past year. I am thankful for those who were patient and understanding while waiting for a dulcimer, as well as those who are still patient.

I have no complaints. Life unfolds, and I follow, and try my best to enjoy the ride!

Working With What You Have To Work With

This post isn’t about the various tools or materials I use when making dulcimers. It is about working with the body I have to work with.

I was part of a panel discussion last week about how disability affects one as an artist or artisan, and before the event, I was interviewed by a local public radio station.

You can listen to the short interview or read a transcript by following this link.

A Sharpening Stone Known By A Variety Of Names, And What I Like About It

A sharpening stone known by many names

To be clear, it is a type of sharpening stone I will discuss that is known by a variety of names. The two examples of this type of sharpening stone in the photograph are known by the names Gabriella and Giuseppe.

Only kidding. Or am I?

But seriously, these two stones, depending on various times and places throughout history, have been referred to as Turkish Oilstones, Levant Sharpening Stones, names referring to different locations in the historic Levant, such as Syria, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, parts of Turkey, Greece, etc.

The stones in the photo were mined in Crete, and though there are varied opinions whether these Cretan sharpening stones are identical to historic Turkish Oilstones, I have read many have found them to perform similarly. Having not had access to any other stones of this type, I have no opinion on the matter.

I only learned of this type of sharpening stone about a year ago. Though once in common use in many parts of the world, these stones are currently little known in the United States. I was only able to find one source carrying them in the United States (the small one) and the larger one was shipped from a tool merchant in Europe. I wonder if a customs agent was perplexed as to why someone would ship what looks like a worn old cobblestone across the Atlantic!

Here is a reference to this type of stone from “Turning And Mechanical Manipulation“, by Charles Holtzapffel (1856)

“The Turkey Oilstone can hardly be considered as a hone slate, having nothing of a lamellar or schistose appearance. As a whetstone, it surpasses every other known substance, and possesses, in an eminent degree, the property of abrading the hardest steel, and is at the same time of so compact and close a nature, as to resist the pressure necessary for sharpening a graver, or other small instrument of that description. Little more is known of its natural history than that it is found in the interior of Asia Minor, and brought down to Smyrna for sale. The white and black varieties of Turkey oilstone, differ but little in their general characters, the black is, however, somewhat harder, and is imported in larger pieces than the white.”

The examples of Cretan sharpening stones I have both contain fissures, small voids, cracks, and other irregularities. From what I have read, this is typical for this kind of stone. These are natural stones, so rather than thinking of them containing flaws, I think of them as a remarkable substance produced by nature with all the complexity of anything else produced by nature.

These stones are porous, and traditionally, a new stone would be soaked in olive oil for several days to permeate the stone before use. In modern times, some prefer using mineral oil rather than olive oil.

This type of stone also works very well with water as a lubricant, and that is how I choose to use them.

A remarkable quality of these stones is the ability to serve as a moderately coarse sharpening stone as well as a stone fine enough to produce an excellent working edge. I can bear down hard with a chisel, plane blade, or knife without damaging the stone, and the bite of the stone removes metal very quickly. Lighter pressure produces a finer edge.

In addition to how much pressure is used, the surface of the stone can be quickly abraded using another coarse or fine stone, and this both changes the quality of the sharpening surface and creates a slurry of stone particles and water of different consistencies. In the photo, sitting patiently on top of the two Cretan stones, are two small Arkansas stones I use as slurry stones, one being a coarse Washita stone, the other a Hard Arkansas stone. I also occasionally use a diamond sharpening plate to true the surface of the stone and/or to create a slurry.

Being a natural stone, the exact grit is irrelevant, but depending on technique, the surface, slurry, and amount of water, I can quickly get the results I would expect using an 800 grit synthetic waterstone through to about a 4000 grit synthetic waterstone. With a little extra time and care, I can achieve a more finely polished edge like that from a 6000 – 8000 grit synthetic waterstone, but I will often just switch to a finer stone when that need arises.

I still consider myself in the learning stage of using this type of stone, and as happy as I am with them, I look forward to discovering more of what they are capable of. In my day-to-day work in the shop, it is typically my go-to stone for maintaining edges.

I post far more often these days about dulcimer making and the tools of the trade on Instagram, so please feel free to follow me there.

Stay healthy and safe!

Once Again, I’m Back To Work, Slowly But Surely

Dulcimer builder at work

Since I last posted, I’ve spent a lot of time resting, which is contrary to my nature, but combining that with lumbar injections and physical therapy has helped the game of Jenga taking place in my lower back recover well enough to let me return to working at the bench sporadically.

I have to be careful and not push myself too far, which is also against my nature, but slow and steady wins the race.

During the downtime, I rearranged the shop to make working easier, and in the process, I discovered some tools and parts that had gone missing as well as some I had no memory of ever bringing into the shop!

The people waiting for dulcimers have been wonderfully understanding and patient, and I appreciate that immensely. I made it clear that I am working slowly and sporadically and that I can’t give a firm deadline as to when their dulcimer will be ready, should they need or want to get a dulcimer elsewhere and sooner, but they all chose to wait.

So that’s the news from here. I hope you are all staying safe and doing well.

I regularly post updates about work in progress on Instagram, so you might enjoy following me there.

Just Saying Hello

Dulcimers hanging around the shop.

This is a quick post to say hello and let you know why I haven’t posted much lately.

I’m dealing with some lumbar issues once again. Why? Because everyone needs a hobby!

But seriously, I have congenital issues that cause problems with my back, and I have had to rest my back for the last 2 months. The good news is rest has been helping and symptoms have become milder. I had steroidal injections a few weeks ago and will get another in 3 weeks. The hope is that rest, combined with injections, will work well enough to avoid having another back surgery. So far, so good.

Folks waiting for dulcimers have been very understand, and I appreciate their patience. The dulcimers in the above photo have been patiently waiting for me to get back to them, and that will be the first thing I do when I get back to work. I appreciate dulcimers that wait patiently; sometimes they can be impatient and rude when not getting enough attention!

Only kidding. Or am I?

I’m not a person who is wired to sit around and do nothing for extended periods of time, so during a break from making dulcimers, I have been working on the design of a new model of dulcimer. I’ll share more about that when I am able to start work on the prototype.

Another project has been rearranging things in the shop as I am able to help prevent my having to twist and bend as much while working on dulcimers, as that will make it possible for me to get back to work sooner than later.

I miss working in the shop; it is my happy place. But life is big, and life is full, and I am enjoying the ride.

I hope you are doing well and that you are happy and safe.