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I was preparing shellac this evening and snapped a few photos because I thought the colors were so pretty.
I’m preparing two types of shellac. The first is dewaxed platina. Platina shellac adds little color to the wood and the wax naturally found in shellac has been removed. The lack of wax allows the shellac to adhere to just about anything. It can be used as a sealer, a complete finish, and above or below coats of almost any other wood finish. This is the type of shellac I have long known, loved, and used successfully.
I’m also preparing button lac so I can experiment with it as I have not used it before. Button lac contains wax and is processed using heat during manufacture. I have heard the heating process makes button lac create a tougher finish and I have heard conflicting information about the wax being a good or a bad thing as far as resistance to moisture. The presence of wax means I can’t use this shellac with other types of finish as the wax would prevent proper adhesion.
I am considering offering a shellac based finish, French polish, on a new model of dulcimer I hope to be making in a few months (more about that soon!) so it is a good time to explore other options the wonderful world of shellac has to offer.
Preparing shellac is simple; the shellac flakes or buttons are mixed with alcohol and once fully dissolved, you have shellac.
I’ll be adding 2 ounces of button lac to 8 ounces of alcohol to make a 2 pound cut. The “cut” is the ratio of shellac to alcohol. I usually make a 2 pound cut of shellac and add more alcohol to some of it when I want a lighter cut.
The dewaxed platina shellac comes in fine flakes that dissolve easily in alcohol. The button lac comes in large buttons, hence the name button lac.
I crushed the button lac with a hammer so it will dissolve quicker. I love the color of this stuff! I look forward to seeing what it looks like on samples of different types of wood.
I have been told it is good to filter out most of the wax from button lac. One method I’ve read about is to wrap the button lac in coffee filters to hold back the wax as the shellac dissolves in alcohol. It sounds like an idea worth trying. If it doesn’t work I’ll try the other method; I’ll let the wax settle to the bottom of the jar and decant the clearer liquid.
The alcohol has been added to the shellac. This photograph was taken a minute or two later. It will be a day or two or three before the shellac is completely dissolved.
This is how the shellac looks about two hours later after being lightly stirred. I’m already seeing wax in the bottom of the jar of button lac so I think I’ll be decanting it once fully dissolved.
It will be interesting to see if I end up using button lac on dulcimers. I will be doing many tests before that happens, if it happens!
You can see relatively frequent photos of my dulcimers in progress by following me on Instagram.
On the bench is a dulcimer getting ready to receive frets. I level and put relief into fingerboards by planing, scraping, and sanding. I first get the fingerboard flat and true and then add a few thousandths of an inch of relief in parts of the fingerboard to assure the action can be set as low as I like without causing string buzz and rattles.
I sometimes prefer to sand a fingerboard to initial flatness and use an aluminum level as a long, accurate sanding block. I checked the level with my machinist’s straightedge and was surprised to find both faces are true and straight. This is not always the case, especially on an inexpensive aluminum level.
In use I can sand with one side of the level and flip the level over to use the other face as a reference for straightness and flatness. The level is wider than my steel machinist’s straightedge so it sits more securely on the fingerboard while I measure relief, etc.
I regularly post photos of dulcimer making in progress on Instagram. You can follow me on Instagram or see my Instagram posts on this page.
Wood is a precious substance.
I try my best to treat wood with the respect it deserves. A tree worked long and hard to grow, often under adverse conditions, and eventually gave its life before becoming pieces of wood.
Trees do not grow with the intention of becoming wood. Trees grow without concern for what will become of them when they die.
I have demanding yet flexible criteria for choosing the wood I use for making dulcimers. When a piece of wood does not meet my criteria it does not mean it is a bad piece of wood; it just doesn’t suit my intended purpose. To call a piece of wood that does not meet one’s particular needs a bad piece of wood is like saying someone is a bad person because they are not the way you want them to be. In either case there is a disconnect from the reality right in front of us.
As with people, the flaws in trees often create beauty. The pain and difficulties of life shape and color growth, inspire adaptation, and instigate changes of direction. What is left behind is a portrait of the journey.
The wood in the photograph came from a walnut board that became a dulcimer several years ago. The grain in this part of the board was far too irregular to use for most parts of a dulcimer. It would not have performed acoustically or structurally in a manner I would appreciate.
These pieces of wood will become overlays on dulcimer pegheads. The pegheads on my dulcimers are strong enough without an overlay so any lack of structural integrity in the overlay will not be an issue. The voids around the bark inclusions will be filled as necessary to create a flat surface. Or maybe not. I haven’t gotten there yet. I’ve done this kind of thing before and I let the wood make the final decision.
There are few things I do to make my dulcimers “pretty.” There is nothing I could do that would be more beautiful than the wood itself.
You can see frequent updates of my dulcimers in progress on Instagram.
On the bench is a chromatic dulcimer having reinforcements glued in to lock the ends of the braces into the sides. The reinforcements add strength to the joinery and makes the inside of the dulcimer look neat. The reinforcements are shy and happy to be hiding under the clamps where they can’t be seen.
While the glue was drying I carved the ramp that goes from behind the bridge (shown by a pencil line) to the end of the dulcimer. I start the ramp by sawing off the waste and continue shaping it with rasps, files, and scrapers. When I placed the fingerboard on the body to double check the length it asked me to take the above photo. Unlike the reinforcements mentioned earlier, the fingerboard is not shy.
I’m currently working on two bespoke chromatic dulcimers. The one above will be in walnut, spruce, and zircote, the other is in oak, spruce, Spanish cedar, and zircote.
I am regularly receiving requests to make fully chromatic dulcimers and they seem to be becoming popular.
I wrote a post about playing hammered dulcimer seated or standing nine years ago. A few things have changed since then.
I firmly believe life throws us many adventures beyond our control but we can usually take control of how we choose to deal with those adventures.
Though I preferred standing while playing hammered dulcimer, some musculoskeletal problems caused me to learn to play while seated. After a number of years I found some helpful treatments and was able to play standing again.
I prefer playing hammered dulcimer while standing because I am able to use more of my body while playing. I can move closer to the dulcimer when reaching for high notes and further away when going towards the low notes and I can shift my body towards the left or right side of the dulcimer as needed. Doing so enables my upper body to work less at getting the hammers where they need to go and makes it much easier to for my hands and arms to control the hammers.
This is what has worked best for me. Your mileage may vary. There is no “right or wrong” or “better or worse” when it comes to playing while seated or standing.
In 2012 my lower back developed some serious problems and standing and walking were difficult, let alone standing to play the hammered dulcimer. I had two options; learn to play while seated again or stop playing hammered dulcimer. Once again, I adjusted to playing while seated.
After seven years and three back surgeries I felt it was time to try playing standing again. I started working out on the hammered dulcimer while standing a few weeks ago and though I find it much easier to play it is taking time for my technique to adjust. I’m getting there.
Today I played my first hammered dulcimer gig in seven years as a vertically upright player. The Cloud Nine hammered dulcimer made by Michael C. Allen in the photo above is a magic bus of a dulcimer. It was a hoot to play it while standing again!
I’m still working out how to best use the damper pedal now that I’m standing again. I have no worries that it will all come together.