What’s On The Bench – July 23rd, 2020

Splitting and shaping spruce for dulcimer soundboard bracing

On the bench is the setup I use for making dulcimer soundboard braces.

I use several small, light braces to help control stiffness, tonal response, and protect the area around the soundholes from developing cracks.

I usually use spruce for the soundboard braces regardless of the type of wood used for the soundboard. Spruce is light, stiff, and strong. This is why spruce is often used for making soundboards, boats, and airplanes!

The spruce I use for soundboard braces comes from soundboard off-cuts.

The braces are narrow and thin and get shaved down further after being glued to the soundboard. I have no standard dimensions for bracing; I determine the final size and shape of the braces by how flexible the soundboard feels in my hands and what kind of response it gives when tapped in different areas.

I split the stock for the braces with a knife or chisel. Splitting, as opposed to cutting, assures the grain will run the full length of the brace, making the brace stock as stiff and strong as possible. Some of the braces could be confused for large splinters, so having long, straight grain is, in my opinion, essential for them to do their job well.

After splitting the brace stock, I carve away any rough spots preventing them from being rectangular with a knife or chisel and finish them up on a plane clamped upside down in a vise. The braces are simultaneously cut to length and beveled on the ends with a sharp chisel.

While writing this post, I remembered I had written about this same process before, but over the years my methods have changed and evolved. Such is life, and that’s a good thing.

I regularly post photos of dulcimers in progress on Instagram. I have yet to become a lifestyle influencer, but if you like seeing dulcimers being made, you might enjoy following me there.

What’s On The Bench – June 2nd, 2020

I’ve been busy, so there have been several dulcimers on and off the bench!

Shown is what will become dulcimer#184. I have been saving some interesting pieces of reclaimed wood and decided to use a few for this particular dulcimer.

Dulcimer being made of reclaimed wood.

The back and sides came from a beam that was once part of a barn. A friend who used to have a sawmill nearby knew I was always looking for quartersawn wood, so he gave me a few slices straight from the beam. We were not sure what type of wood it is, possibly birch, but it is light, stiff and pretty in a slightly rustic way.

The soundboard is redwood that came from an old shelf given to me by another friend. It is perfectly quartersawn.

Using reclaimed wood is a way of recycling wood that might have ended up in a fire or a dump. It also is a way of getting one’s hands on old growth timber and/or species that are sometimes no longer available.

Working with reclaimed wood poses some challenges. It is not uncommon to be surprised by a nail, a staple, archaeological remains of an insect civilization, and other oddities while working with it. Sometimes the traces of these oddities add to the unique beauty of the wood, other times they render the wood unusable. I expect more surprises when using reclaimed wood, though any piece of wood tends to yield its mysteries while working with it.

There is history in the dulcimer before it is even built, and that makes me happy.

I regularly post photos of my dulcimer making in progress on Instagram.

Dulcimers In The Time Of COVID-19

Walnut and sassafras dulcimer by Doug Berch

My day-to-day life during the COVID-19 pandemic is in many ways similar to my day-to-day life before the COVID-19 pandemic.

My dulcimer workshop is on the second floor of the house and I have a few power tools in the basement. There are stacks of wood on the porch and in the attic. There is not much of a line between my life and my work and this makes me happy.

As my health allows (an ongoing adventure) I make dulcimers, make music with dulcimers and other instruments, give music lessons via live streaming, go for walks on a nearby trail, and spend a lot of time at home.

My wife has been able to work from home during Michigan’s “Stay-At-Home” order and we easily adjusted to spending more time together during the day. The biggest challenge, which was actually very small, was figuring out how we could both be comfortable in the house while simultaneously talking on the phone or having streaming video chats with people who are not each other. No biggie. We got married years ago because we like being together and that hasn’t changed.

I have been posting less on this blog because, like many bloggers writing about a certain topic for many years, there are fewer new adventures to report. Life and work go on and on.

I have been using Instagram far more for regular updates of work in progress. I am still hoping to post videos of my music here as I get better at making them with my phone. On a good day when the planets are aligned I have been able to record videos where you can see me, the dulcimer being played, and hear the music I’m making with clarity and decent sound quality. Unfortunately, the planets are not aligned on all days and I often get frustrated trying to make a decent video. I’m working on it.

Most importantly, I hope you are well and safe and getting by as well as one can during this strange and challenging time.

We are all in this together. Let’s take care of each other.

But Wait, There’s More! Adventures in Dulcimer Making!

Three dulcimers soon to be finished.

The last adventure in dulcimer making was the decision to take a break from advance orders for dulcimers.

As the New Year unfurled, I went back to work on two dulcimers that had been patiently waiting for completion, started a third dulcimer, and made the first steps towards building the next two in line.

Between having no dulcimers on a list waiting for my attention and owning a body with a back that works far better than it did two years ago (titanium is my friend!) I am delighted with the increase in my productivity.

I’m more or less working on three dulcimers at a time, and that is about as many as I can simultaneously deal with and still enjoy the process. I like to take my time with each dulcimer and let the wood and the dulcimer dictate many of the details.

I start work on three dulcimers at once because most of the early stages of construction involve basic woodworking. Once the bodies are together, I work on each individually.

The three dulcimers in the photograph are basically complete. The finish has been curing and I will soon rub them out, add the tuners, hitch pins, bridges, nuts, and strings and set them up. They will be on my “Dulcimers For Sale” page within a week or so.

To the right of the three dulcimers are the body frames for the next two. I needed something to do while the finish on the other three was drying so I got a head start on the next run.

I regularly post photos of my work in progress on Instagram. Maybe someday I will be an Instagram Lifestyle Influencer! Well, probably not, but I can dream…

And for no particular reason, here is a frog playing a harp.

Henry the frog playing his harp





A New Year And Some New Dulcimer Adventures!

Sassafras and walnut dulcimer in progress.

A year or so ago I had decided to stop taking advance orders for custom dulcimers in order to focus on making more dulcimers to have available for immediate sale.

I did not follow through with this plan.

I would get requests from very nice people to make a dulcimer from a specific type of wood or with a specific number of extra frets or a specific number of strings and found it difficult to say no. 

The experience led to the opportunity to get to know some wonderful people and to make some very nice dulcimers but it also confirmed my reasons for not wanting to take advance orders; I felt the weight of deadlines and was not able to have dulcimers on hand for immediate sale.

My current plan is to once again stop taking advance custom orders so I can use my time to make the best dulcimers I am capable of from a variety of beautiful tonewoods with a variety of string and fretting arrangements and have them available for sale as they are made. 

I made this decision as I shipped the last advance order I had completed just as 2019 came to an end. I felt a sense of joy and relief that I could now go back to making dulcimers completely designed by my own inspiration.

As we enter a new year I have already told some people who wanted to place orders that I will let them know when I have dulcimers available. I have a few dulcimers in progress that I put aside to make time for custom orders and I started 2020 by starting work on the dulcimer in the photograph above. It will not have an owner until it is complete and someone falls in love with it.

I’m also planning on doing some recording this year though I am not sure what form that will take. Rather than making an album I may occasionally release single tracks or videos. 

Since having back surgery #3 I am physically in much better shape and can travel again. This means I might offer more concerts in the future, though again, I am not quite sure what form this will take. I enjoy teaching dulcimer and hammered dulcimer but I enjoy the musical freedom of performing outside the expectations of much of the dulcimer festival circuit. Things will unfold as they will unfold.

But for now, I am a happy man in a happy land with happy chisel in his happy hand and I am happy making dulcimers which should soon start appearing on this site.

You can always see what I’m up to in the shop by following me on Instagram.