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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.
On the bench is a curly black walnut dulcimer with a zircote fingerboard. I rarely find black walnut with this kind of figure.
I was going to set up this dulcimer a few days ago but decided it could use another coat of finish. Today I will rub out the finish and start working on the setup. By the weekend this dulcimer will be ready for shipping to its new home.
Zircote has become one of my favorite woods for fingerboards. It is similar to ebony but weighs less and is very strong and stable when quarter sawn. Some pieces show extraordinary figure but a plain looking piece also makes an excellent fingerboard.
As I finish up this dulcimer I’m working on several others. The photo below shows a zircote fingerboard over Spanish cedar (another of my favorite woods) and the raw materials for two more Spanish cedar and zircote fingerboards.
As I always say, the trees do the hard work!
You can see more frequent photos of dulcimers in progress by following me on Instagram.
I don’t always know what to name certain parts of dulcimer anatomy. I glue a block to the end of the dulcimer, shape it, and then glue the peghead to that block. I sometimes refer to this part as the head block but that could also be the name of the end block in the peghead end of the dulcimer.
For today I will refer to the part in question as a peghead support block,. Why not?
In the photograph above I have already shaped one side of the block and have prepared to shape the other. The dulcimer is clamped to the bench and some cardboard is taped to the side to protect it from the edge of saw used to made the cut as shown below.
After sawing away the waste I clean up the work with a block plane, scraper, and file.
There is still carving and shaping to do before the peghead goes on but the rougher aspects of the work are now complete.