Still Life In A Dulcimer Maker’s Shop #6

A dulcimer makers view of the workbench.

I stepped back for a moment while using a spokeshave to trim a soundboard flush with the body of a dulcimer and thought I’d snap a photo and share what I stare at and work with most days.

Almost every step in making a dulcimer happens on the work board clamped in the front vise of the bench. I know the work board is a flat reference surface, it is shaped like a dulcimer which makes it easy to get clamps where they need to go, and it serves as a platform to raise the work to a height I find comfortable.

I remove the work board when I need full use of the bench to plane wood to dimension and saw long pieces of wood so they become shorter pieces of wood.

I regularly use most of the tools in the photo though the racks do get a bit cluttered. The shop is usually cluttered. The floor is often covered with shavings. I thrive in a comfortable and pleasant level of mild chaos. Well, most of the time.

Thanks for stopping by.

Maintenance On A Dulcimer That Gets Played A Lot!

A dulcimer I built a few years was shipped back to me to have a new pickup installed. When I unpacked the dulcimer and took a first look at it I was filled with joy; this dulcimer showed signs it has been played a lot!

I chose to do some maintenance on the frets and fingerboard while the dulcimer was on the bench for the pickup installation.

Worn frets on a dulcimer.

In the photo above you can see extensive wear on the frets. After several years of being played regularly the frets have worn under the strings in the places most used. On dulcimers this is most often seen on the lower frets up to the 5th or 6th fret but can vary depending on the style and technique of the player.

Frets are like tires on a car; they are an important interface that require occasional maintenance as they wear and at times, replacement.

Here’s what the fret looked like after leveling, reshaping, and polishing.

Happy frets after leveling reshaping and polishing.

The owner of this dulcimer plays with a pick and plays hard so there was wear around the strum hollow and in the higher end of the fingerboard. Most players pick or strum in the “sweet spot” that falls over the fingerboard. This area produces what most people consider the most pleasing blend of harmonics and tone. Playing over the fingerboard is also more comfortable for many players because they don’t have to jut their right elbow far to the right to keep their hand over the strum hollow.

Wear on the fretboard. This dulcimer has been played

Many serious players of stringed instruments think of this kind of wear as scars that show where they have been. Some people are horrified when they see wear on their dulcimer but others see it as a badge of honor!

If I make a dulcimer for someone who lets me know they play hard and are concerned about wear I recommend a harder, more wear-resistant wood for the fingerboard. They will still get some wear but it will be milder and less obvious.

Cherry dulcimer after fretwork and some oil on the fingerboard.

After sealing the fingerboard with oil the dulcimer is ready for more adventure!

You can see photos of my work in progress by following me on Instagram.

Preparing Shellac

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.

The stuff shellac is made of.

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.

Weighing two ounces of button lac.

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.

Crushing buttonlac with a hammer.

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.

Crushed buttonlac wrapped in coffee filters to filter out some of the wax.

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 shellac is mixed with alcohol and needs a day or two to fully dissolve.

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.

Shellac disollving in alcohol for about two hours.

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.



What’s On The Bench – August 14th, 2019

An accurate level can be used to check and true a fingerboard.

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.

The Flaws Are The Beauty

The flaws are what often make something beautiful.

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.