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.In 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.