Yes, another thrill-packed day in the adventurous life of a dulcimer maker.
Not long ago I wrote about my reasons for no longer taking advance orders for dulcimers. One reason I did not mention in that post was that sometimes things go wrong while making a dulcimer. If it isn’t already sold there is no time constraint to figure out a way to solve the problem.
Last week I was in the home stretch of making a custom baritone dulcimer. There was a small cosmetic problem that revealed itself after applying the first coat of finish, a streak along part of the seam where the fingerboard joined the soundboard. I think that while scraping the side of the fretboard some of the glue-line was revealed and when the finish hit it there was an obvious change in color and refraction of light.
A straightforward method to solve the problem did not present itself.
I thought of a few things I could try but had a feeling they might just make the problem look worse. I was right.
Before I messed with it I showed the dulcimer to my wife, Cynthia. Cynthia has worked at Elderly Instruments for around 40 years and is a purchaser who buys and handles many fine fretted instruments on a daily basis. Whenever I have a concern about a cosmetic issue with a dulcimer I show it to her. She almost always say that what I am concerned about it not an issue and then I can relax.
This time Cynthia said, “I see it, and it isn’t really that bad. It just isn’t up to your usual level of work. I don’t think it will really be a problem for anyone.”
But it was a problem for me so I tried to make it better and made it worse.
I contacted the recipient of this dulcimer and explained the situation. I offered to let them have it while I build another for them. He was fine with waiting a few months for me to make him another.
And that is what I am doing. The photograph above shows the sides and endblocks that will soon be life-long friends.
As for the baritone dulcimer with the cosmetic flaw; I think it is going to be an excellent dulcimer. I am going to stain and overcoat it with black finish. Problem solved, and I always wanted to make a black dulcimer!
I have basic patterns for my dulcimers but the the exact shape and size of each dulcimer varies slightly from one dulcimer to the next. I have embraced a fairly free-form style of building and use very few jigs, forms, and fixtures.
By building free-form I feel like I am sculpting a dulcimer rather than making a bunch of parts and assembling them. The frame of the dulcimer (sides and end blocks) and the fretboard become the reference points for laying out the rest of instrument. I can make small changes to the shape and size of the dulcimer by feel and eye and work with it until everything seems right to me.
The thickness of the top and back and the bracing pattern are determined in a similar manner.
Free-form building is not the most efficient way to make dulcimers in a timely manner. If I made all the parts to a set pattern and assembled them in fixtures I would make more dulcimers in less time but I wouldn’t enjoy the process very much.
These photographs are of a baritone dulcimer in progress. The final shape of the dulcimer is traced on the soundboard and the soundholes are laid out using a template. I have also laid out the placement of the position markers on the fingerboard. A scraper serves as a short straight edge for drawing the layout lines.
Also important are notes to myself to make sure everything goes where it is supposed to go. There is a reason I do this. Guess what happened the last time I didn’t do this!
What began as a custom order has become a new standard model.
When designing this dulcimer I strove for balanced tone and volume between the two fretboards and ease of playability. I am very happy with the results.
The body is based on the basic shape of both my standard and baritone dulcimers. I chose to use a gentle asymmetry in the curves of the sides in relation to each other and an obviously more pronounced asymmetry in the tail end of the dulcimer.
The pegheads are fitted with mandolin tuners. They work very well and guitar tuners seemed a little heavy in proportion to the peghead design.
Before giving this instrument to it’s new owner I played it for several days and soon found myself switching seamlessly between the two fretboards and coming up with some interesting musical ideas.
I have begun making some more of these and I hope I manage to keep one for myself!
The baritone dulcimer is set up to be played in A-E-A and other tunings in that vicinity.
The design of my baritone is similar to my standard model but there are a few differences. The string length for the baritone is 28 1/4″ compared to 25 15/16″ for the standard and it is strung with heavier strings. The shape is based on my standard design but is several inches longer and the sound box is deeper.
Here is a baritone dulcimer behind its standard-sized sibling.
Getting these two dulcimers to sit still for the picture took a lot of work. The baritone kept telling the standard dulcimer that it was bigger so it was in charge. The standard yelled that it was going to tell mom. After they engaged in some pushing and shoving I sternly told them both, “Don’t make me have to stop this workshop!” I snapped the picture quickly before the chaos resumed….