Tools I Use To Make Dulcimers – A Miller’s Falls No. 9 Smoothing Plane

A Miller's Falls No. 9 smoothing plane

When I first acquired a Miller’s Falls No.9 smoothing plane, I found the feel in my hand, the weight, and the balance, to be very pleasing and comfortable, however, the seller on the online auction site where I found it did not mention it had been “improved” by cleaning the rust off the body using coarse sandpaper, possibly with a belt sander! The blade was also rusted and pitted, making it unusable. It was quite a mess!

I soon acquired another Miller’s Falls No. 9 plane, I think at an antique mall, with yet another rusted and pitted blade and some missing parts, so I cannibalized parts from both planes and created what some woodworkers refer to as a Frankenplane. In addition, I replaced the useless blade with a Hock plane iron and lever cap. After a little oil on the moving parts and some lapping to remove a slight twist from the sole, I had what has been one of my favorite smoothing planes for the past 20 or so years.

Every wooden part of the dulcimers I make has been touched by this plane.

I once wrote a post about another smoothing plane I referred to as a favorite. Well, when it comes to planes, I am polyamorous, and each plane has a function that is best for particular situations. When it comes to difficult hardwoods that want to tear out, I reach for this one.

I sporadically add a post to this blog, but I regularly document the thrill and adventure of making dulcimers on Instagram.

Random Musings From My Happy Place

When I started blogging in 2007, it was easy to have something I thought interesting enough to inspire writing a post once or twice a week. As time passed, it was not as easy to come up with something I hadn’t shared before, so blog posts became less frequent.

Instagram has made it easy to share a random photo of a work in progress, and that platform seems more suitable for such things, and that has also made finding something to post here more difficult.

This is a common problem in any form of specialized serial media. I have let go of subscribing to most woodworking magazines because though often informative to some degree, there have already been many articles about sharpening a chisel or setting up a plane or learning about the latest and greatest tool or device I should run out and buy, and they no longer held my interest.

I chose not to write blog posts for the sake of creating content, as I am interested in sharing information about making dulcimers and playing music, rather than posting for the sake of promoting a blog.

All that aside, here’s an update on the latest adventures.

Dulcimers in progress on the workbench.

I recently reorganized my workshop, which was akin to combining the fields of archaeology, waste management, and ergonomics into a three-week adventure.

The primary reason for the reorganization was to make working in the 10-foot by 15-foot room “where the magic happens” easier for the parts of my body that do not work as well as they once did. Bending, twisting, and reaching aggravate my back and legs, which in turn aggravates me, and I am trying my best to minimize those motions in order to optimize the amount of time I am able to work at the bench, which for about 12 years, has been less than I would like it to be. My hope is that the new layout will allow me to have a few more hours a day of time in the shop, which I also refer to as “being in my happy place.”

This is also the reason that, at least for now, I am no longer taking advance or custom orders for dulcimers. I think I will be able to make more dulcimers by just making them as I am able, with all the choices of materials and design left up to myself. I enjoy custom work, but for various reasons, it always takes a lot longer. There are also new designs I have in mind for dulcimers and dulcimer-like instruments that I am excited about developing, and I need time for that as well.

Please know that if you are reading this and are waiting for a dulcimer you have ordered, you are indeed on the list!

For some time, I have wanted to post videos of the music I play, and I am almost comfortable enough with the technology to make that work; almost, but not quite! Sometimes, the video and sound quality come out well on the first try, and at other times, several hours of exorcising poltergeists seems to be required to create a simple, presentable video.

In other news, a lone tom turkey wandered through our yard this morning, most likely looking for love. Grass and wildflowers are growing, and days are brighter and longer.

I hope all is going well for you!

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!