Though the basic pattern is the same, each peghead I make is a little different from the others.
Though the basic pattern is the same, each dulcimer peghead I make is a little different from the others. Sometimes the size and shape of the peghead may vary and/or the more subtle details, like the shape or bevels on the edges, may be unique.
This is in part because I work on the peghead until it looks right to me on the particular dulcimer where it will spend its life. It is also because I thoroughly enjoy working with edge tools and files, and shaping the edges of the peghead present the opportunity to have fun!
For the long edges of the peghead, I begin the bevels with a block plane, on shorter straight sections I begin with a chisel, and on curved areas, I start with a knife.
A small scraper and a file clean things up and round or soften the edges as needed.
I regularly post photos of my work in progress on Instagram.
I make blog posts about the adventurous life of being a dulcimer maker far less often than I used to. There are several reasons for this.
Like many who have been blogging for years, it has been more difficult to find something to write about that I have not previously written about. Often, when writing a post, I’ll see that I have already used the same title in the past, or I have previously covered the topic in another post.
There are times when revisiting a topic makes sense. I am constantly modifying the design of my dulcimers and my methods of work continue to evolve, so sometimes there is something new to be said about it
While working in the shop, I have found it easy to take an occasional photo, and since my camera is my phone, it is easy to add a brief description and post it on Instagram.
I will be continuing this blog, and I plan to make more music related posts in the near future. I now have a decent video camera, and I plan to post videos of my dulcimer playing, dulcimer tablature, instructional videos, etc. There will still occasionally be posts here about dulcimer making, but if the day by day thrills and chills of making dulcimers is of interest to you, I invite you to follow my posts on Instagram.
Some thoughts about the direction I am taking as a dulcimer maker as the year comes to a close.
As the year comes to a close, I have several dulcimers in the home stretch. My dulcimer design continues to evolve, and I have recently begun preparing to build a new model or two or three in addition to my standard and baritone dulcimers.
Over time, I have learned that I was not made for embracing mass production, and I no longer worry about how to make more dulcimers in less time. Instead, I am continually taking steps towards older technology and methods of luthierie, woodworking, and finishing techniques that have stood the test of time. The older methods work well, but some of them (not all) take more time and require skills that appeal to me more than the skills required to use modern technology.
In the coming year, I hope to be using primarily old-school, non-toxic finishes. Tests on wood samples are beautiful visually, and I am near completion on the first dulcimer that will be the test for how a new “old” finish sounds. As I carried the dulcimer across the workshop the other day, I could easily feel voices from the radio resonating in the dulcimer, and that is always a good sign!
I am also honing the skills to leave more wood surfaces as they look and feel straight from a hand tool rather than how they look after sanding. This is common in violin making, but less often seen in modern fretted instruments. Sandpaper will still be a part of my life, but it is not needed as much as one would think. Scrapers and files can leave a lovely surface and are quiet and far less messy.
This is how I like to work. It makes me happy.
I wish you all a happy and healthy Holiday season. Please keep yourself and others safe.
I regularly post about dulcimers in progress on Instagram and you can follow me there for thrills and chills!
On the bench is the setup I use for making dulcimer soundboard braces.
On the bench is the setup I use for making dulcimer soundboard braces.
I use several small, light braces to help control stiffness, tonal response, and protect the area around the soundholes from developing cracks.
I usually use spruce for the soundboard braces regardless of the type of wood used for the soundboard. Spruce is light, stiff, and strong. This is why spruce is often used for making soundboards, boats, and airplanes!
The spruce I use for soundboard braces comes from soundboard off-cuts.
The braces are narrow and thin and get shaved down further after being glued to the soundboard. I have no standard dimensions for bracing; I determine the final size and shape of the braces by how flexible the soundboard feels in my hands and what kind of response it gives when tapped in different areas.
I split the stock for the braces with a knife or chisel. Splitting, as opposed to cutting, assures the grain will run the full length of the brace, making the brace stock as stiff and strong as possible. Some of the braces could be confused for large splinters, so having long, straight grain is, in my opinion, essential for them to do their job well.
After splitting the brace stock, I carve away any rough spots preventing them from being rectangular with a knife or chisel and finish them up on a plane clamped upside down in a vise. The braces are simultaneously cut to length and beveled on the ends with a sharp chisel.
While writing this post, I remembered I had written about this same process before, but over the years my methods have changed and evolved. Such is life, and that’s a good thing.
My day-to-day life during the COVID-19 pandemic is in many ways similar to my day-to-day life before the COVID-19 pandemic.
My dulcimer workshop is on the second floor of the house and I have a few power tools in the basement. There are stacks of wood on the porch and in the attic. There is not much of a line between my life and my work and this makes me happy.
As my health allows (an ongoing adventure) I make dulcimers, make music with dulcimers and other instruments, give music lessons via live streaming, go for walks on a nearby trail, and spend a lot of time at home.
My wife has been able to work from home during Michigan’s “Stay-At-Home” order and we easily adjusted to spending more time together during the day. The biggest challenge, which was actually very small, was figuring out how we could both be comfortable in the house while simultaneously talking on the phone or having streaming video chats with people who are not each other. No biggie. We got married years ago because we like being together and that hasn’t changed.
I have been posting less on this blog because, like many bloggers writing about a certain topic for many years, there are fewer new adventures to report. Life and work go on and on.
I have been using Instagram far more for regular updates of work in progress. I am still hoping to post videos of my music here as I get better at making them with my phone. On a good day when the planets are aligned I have been able to record videos where you can see me, the dulcimer being played, and hear the music I’m making with clarity and decent sound quality. Unfortunately, the planets are not aligned on all days and I often get frustrated trying to make a decent video. I’m working on it.
Most importantly, I hope you are well and safe and getting by as well as one can during this strange and challenging time.
We are all in this together. Let’s take care of each other.
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.