Preparing A Dulcimer Fingerboard For Receiving The Frets

Custom dulcimer with ebony fingerboard by Doug Berch

On the bench today is a custom chromatic dulcimer with an ebony fingerboard. The spruce soundboard has been stained and lightly distressed to add some character. I’m a character and so are my dulcimers. So it goes.

Many dulcimer makers fret the fingerboard early in the construction process. It is much easier to install the frets when the fingerboard is separate from the dulcimer; one can hammer or press the frets in without any thought of possibly crushing the dulcimer beneath them!

I know several dulcimer makers who get good results fretting the fingerboard before gluing it to the dulcimer but I prefer fretting the fingerboard after assembling the dulcimer and applying the finish.

Experience has shown me that applying the finish to a dulcimer sometimes results in slight movement of the soundboard and fingerboard. By fretting after applying the finish I can level and/or add relief to the fingerboard and have it come out exactly as I prefer it to be.

I use a scraper and a few sanding blocks to prepare the fingerboard for fretting. The scraps of wood lying on the dulcimer prevent bad, scary things from happening to the soundboard while working on the fingerboard.

The movement of the fingerboard and the correction I am talking about is measured in thousandths of an inch. As a player I find these small increments can make a surprising difference in how much I enjoy playing a dulcimer.

Fretting towards the end of a build requires more work but I am often told my dulcimers are very comfortable and easy to play and this is a part of how I make them that way.

Adding Flavor And Color To A Dulcimer

Adding some age and color to a dulcimer soundboard

Wood is beautiful. Trees work hard to make it. I try not to interfere with the natural beauty of wood. There is nothing I could carve, stain, paint, or inlay that would look better than the wood itself.

Occasionally a piece of tonewood, to my eye, needs a little help showing off its true beauty. Applying the finish to a dulcimer enhances the beauty of the wood but sometimes adding a little extra color can make the grain and figure “pop.”

I add color to a dulcimer, or to part of a dulcimer, using three methods:

  1. Staining the wood.
  2. Adding a touch of color to some coats of the finish.
  3. A combination of both methods.

In the photograph above is a soundboard made from an excellent piece of spruce; light, stiff, and plenty of medullary rays.

I could have left the soundboard as it came from the tree but I thought adding a little color would highlight the beauty of this particular piece of spruce. I also want to simulate some aging; sometimes a piece of wood just looks a little too “new.”

The photograph shows the soundboard after several minutes of applying a water based stain. After preparing the wood for finishing I wipe it down with a wet rag and once dry do the final sanding and burnishing. This helps prevent the grain from rising as I apply the water based stain.

I wipe the soundboard down again with water and rub the stain into the dampened wood with a rag. By moistening the wood the stain is less likely to blotch and it is easier to blend the stain into the wood.

After the wood has fully dried I’ll decide if the color is pleasing or if I will add or remove stain to get the desired look. Since I’m using water based stain I can rub the surface with a wet rag to blend and remove color if need be.

This is a bit like finger-painting!

After arriving at happiness with the color of the stained wood I’ll decide if I want to add any color to the finish; I figure things like that as I go.

Yes, another adventure in dulcimer making!

What’s On The Bench – August 28th, 2018

Fitting the back to a dulcimer.

On the bench is the frame of a cherry dulcimer and the cherry back with spruce braces it will soon receive.  The kerfing on the sides gets notched to receive the ends of the braces and the ends of the braces are trimmed to fit in said notches. Attaching the ends of the braces into the sides adds strength and stability to the dulcimer. I took this photograph just before I began marking the brace locations on the sides with a pencil.

Before gluing the back to the frame I’ll be adding small braces to reinforce the side sound port.

I’m working on two other dulcimers that are several steps farther along. One dulcimer is in the homestretch, another will receive binding as soon as I bend it.

I usually build dulcimers in groups of three or four but each dulcimer is given individual attention and worked on one at a time. This isn’t the most efficient means of production but I am happier with both the process and the results of working in this way.