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.
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.
I assemble my dulcimer pegheads using two or three parts; a block glued to the head-block of the dulcimer shaped somewhat like the heel on a guitar neck, a peghead that sits on top of the block, and occasionally, a decorative veneer over the top of the peghead.
In the photograph you can see the parts and get an idea of where they will go. This peghead is made of walnut with a highly figured veneer glued over it. The veneer was made from wood that could have become scrap but I try to use every beautiful bit I have around.
The black marking on the peghead veener is black epoxy I used to fill a bark inclusion; a situation where the bark of the tree works its way into the wood, kind of like a tree with an ingrown toenail! The epoxy stabilizes the wood and fills small voids around the bark inclusion. I’ve done this before and it looks natural and beautiful once the epoxy is leveled.
I use a disc sander to clean up some of the mating surfaces but I don’t consider a machine-sanded surface good enough for these joints. Before assembly I will plane and/or scrape the joints so they mate perfectly. If I find a particular joint very tricky to clean up I might lap the parts on finer sandpaper glued to a flat surface and then scrape them from there. Sanding scratches leave small ridges and voids that prevent full wood-to-wood contact. With hide glue I can get a very strong and often invisible joint if I have direct wood-to-wood contact.
Peaking up behind the dulcimer is the mini crock pot that holds a container of fresh and yummy hide glue. The cardboard template gives me the rough shape of the peghead but leaves the final length and shaping of the tip free to be adjusted for the number of tuners or to avoid cutting off a particularly pretty piece of the wood that might fall outside a more standardized pattern.
All of this leads to more work but it’s the stuff that makes me love doing what I do.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.