Today I went into the studio with the intention of recording a few tunes for a demo. It quickly became clear that this had morphed into an album project. I recorded two songs with the mountain dulcimer and I go back to the studio next week to record several more.I’ll also be recording some tunes on the hammered dulcimer that may become part of an album as well.I’ll keep you posted!
Many stringed instruments traditionally have binding around the edges of the soundboard. The binding protects the exposed end grain of the soundboard from damage. Dulcimer soundboards usually are not bound. I assume this was because many early dulcimer makers were not trained luthiers and they may not have had the tools, technique or inclination to add binding to their instruments.
I like the look of binding on a dulcimer. The binding accents the look of the dulcimer not unlike the way a frame displays a picture. The binding also prevents many of the dents and gouges the edges of most dulcimers collect over time.
A rabbett is routed around the edges of the dulcimer.
The binding is held in place with masking tape until the glue dries.
When the tape is removed the binding is scraped flush with the top and sides. Here’s the bound soundboard.
Of the many tools I use the coffee cup in the photograph is among the most important. That must be why it was on the bench when I took the picture….
Here are a few photos of what I’ve been up to in the shop.
The peg head is sawn to rough shape with a Japanese style saw. Japanese saws cut on the pull stroke so they are easy to control. They also cut with great precision and leave the surface of the wood relatively smooth.
Once the sides are sawn I use a coping saw to cut the curved areas of the peghead and clean them up with a rasp.
Here are the soundboard, neck, fretboard and peghead lying on top of the sides
Making an instrument with good tone, responsiveness and projection requires making the soundboard both light and stiff.
Many types of wood can be used with good results. Often it is the unique weight and feel of a particular piece of wood that makes it suitable for a soundboard. I have had very good results using a variety of hardwoods and softwoods but not every board from a particular species of tree will have the density, weight and stiffness I prefer.
Spruce is by far the most popular tonewood for soundboards and for good reason; it is both light in weight yet very strong. Spruce has been used for making boats and airplanes because of it’s light weight and remarkable strength.
The soundboard needs to be thin and light enough to vibrate yet it also must be strong enough to be structurally stable.
Bracing helps adjust the strength and stiffness of the soundboard and back of a stringed instrument by adding stiffness and support in some areas while allowing the bulk of the soundboard to be thin and vibrate freely.
I do not have a standardized bracing pattern for my soundboards as each piece of wood will present unique qualities that I may choose to adjust when adding bracing.
This soundboard required two braces. The braces are slightly arched and add a slight radius across the width of the soundboard. By bracing a slight radius into the soundboard I can use lighter braces to add strength without adding much weight.
This concept is similar to the design of arches and geodesic domes, the design of the structure itself adds strength without requiring much mass.
The braces are shaved down to remove any unnecessary weight. This is done with a small plane and a chisel or two. I gradually taper and shape the braces until the soundboard has the stiffness and resonance I want with as little mass as possible.
I find shaving the braces to be one of the more critical yet enjoyable aspects of making a dulcimer.
I’m currently building prototypes of the Appalachian dulcimers I will be producing.
First I come up with a concept of what I expect from the instrument.
I prefer an even response and voicing throughout the entire range of the instrument; every string at every fret should speak well.
There is a unique quality in the voice of a well made dulcimer that is both warm yet “hollow.” The tonal color is somewhat similar to a bouzouki or saz.
I also prefer an instrument that has a long, even sustain.
Dulcimers are a relatively quiet instrument. The basic structure of the instrument is responsible for both the tonal color and the lack of strong projection.
I have found that most attempts to make very loud dulcimers require compromising the tonal color I prefer.
I am building dulcimers that strike a balance between the preferred tone and a reasonable amount of volume. You can always use a microphone or a pickup to make an instrument much louder but it will only sound as good as it does when played acoustically.
Dulcimers also have some inherent structural problems that I correct during the design process. The long fretboard running the length of the instrument is prone to warping. This can cause problems with the action and intonation. The fretboards on my instrument are designed to be light, stiff and stay true.