Fall will soon arrive, perhaps my favorite season, and it seemed like a good time to take on some tasks that are easier outside the shop rather than inside the shop.
The front steps of our house is a perfect place to flatten waterstones. I can enjoy a beautiful, sunny day and splash water without trying to avoid making a mess!
Flattening waterstones is a general maintenance task I need to do every few months. The stones become concave after a few weeks of sharpening, and though not a problem for honing an edge, a concave stone doesn’t lend itself to polishing the back of a blade very well.
It just takes a few minutes to flatten waterstones. I draw a few lines on the stones with a pencil, add water, and rub the waterstones against a hard, coarse, flat surface until all the pencil lines are gone.
For years I relied on a cinder block as the hard, coarse and flat surface and it worked well, but a few months ago I bought a stone made specifically for flattening waterstones and it does leave a nicer surface on the stones, though I don’t know if that really matters.
Now it’s time for coffee and a trip back into the dulcimer mine.
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.
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.
Some physical issues make it challenging to do as much planing as I have done in the past. I thought I might have to get a thickness planer and jointer to do some of the work I enjoy doing by hand. After further thought I chose to reconsider my approach to using hand planes.
Until recently I got rid of lumps and bumps, hills and valley, Satan’s minions, and anything else in the way of a smooth, square, flat surface by using a jointer plane early in the process. Using that wonderful, big, long, and heavy plane repeatedly does not make some of my body parts happy anymore so now I take out the lumps and bumps, hills and valley, Satan’s minions, and anything else in the way of a smooth, square, flat surface by relying more on smaller planes and then finish up with the jointer plane.
Either approach has long been in use by woodworkers and luthiers but the latter works better for me now.
I also recently acquired a skewed low-angle block plane with a fence that makes getting the sides of the fingerboard assembly square to fingerboard much easier. I used to leave my fingerboards a little wide so I could true them with the jointer plane and have enough wood to remove in order to get the surface both straight and square; this usually involved some trial and error and the extra wood provided a margin for error. Now I mill my fingerboards a little narrower and after getting the sides straight with the jointer plane the skewed low-angle block plane with a fence lets me square the surface using light, delicate cuts.
All is well in the tiny, happy part of the world that is my workshop.
Last night I realized this blog started in 2007 when I returned to dulcimer making following a 25 year detour. Since then my dulcimer designs and methods of work have continually evolved and this shows no sign of changing. This makes me happy!
As I continue to learn and develop skill with hand tools I am drawn deeper into older methods of work. Shaping wood with sharp tools appeals to me and I find comfort in knowing that if the power goes out I will still be able to work!
In the photograph above I have just finished shaping a spruce back brace. The shaping began with a low-angle block plane, then a finger plane, and finally a scraper. The next step will be tapering the ends of the brace with a chisel and fitting them into the side kerfing.
There was a time I felt obligated to sand back braces because I worried some imaginary person might think my braces looked rough because I “skipped” sanding them. Lately I think differently; I see the small facets on the brace that show I shaped them with edge tools. I see the slight irregularities edge tools leave behind. I see that I had been there and I had done something. Again, this makes me happy.
None of this means I will never sand braces again. It means I like following my intuition and inspiration. Creativity is never static.
Each time I start a new dulcimer or group of dulcimers I take an hour or two and sharpen everything in sight. Occasional stropping keeps my tools sharp but starting a new project is a convenient time to do any necessary grinding and honing.
Since I work in a small shop almost everything happens on the bench. In the photograph above is the setup I use for honing. It is nothing more than a bench hook on which I place my sharpening stones. When not in use the bench hook, diamond stones, and fine water stones live on a shelf and when in use I move it to the bench. The coarse waterstones live in a container of water near by. I usually remember to feed them. I use the same spray bottle I use to mist sides during bending to spritz water on the stones.
I prefer using waterstones because I get a lot of feedback through my fingers while honing and quickly achieve a polished edge. I bought the diamond stones years ago. They are handy when honing a narrow tools that could easily gouge a waterstone but as I have gotten better at using waterstones I rarely need them. When the waterstones need flattening I lap the coarse stones on a cinder block with some water and lap the fine stones on the coarse stones.
On the other end of the bench and not in the photograph is a cherry dulcimer about to receive frets. As I said, everything happens on the bench.
In the photograph above is a small heard of small planes. I really do use all of them though not at the same time. There’s also some small spokeshaves keeping them company.
After shipping a dulcimer this afternoon I got the urge to do some deep reorganization in the workshop. This is never a good idea.
I did some less destructive cleaning and reorganization in the shop several days ago and now I can’t find a few things. My shop may look chaotic but it is my chaos and I understand how it works! Organization does have certain advantages but an organically grown chaos can have its own hidden sense of pattern and structure.
While cleaning and reorganizing these shelves I decided to put the planes I rarely use in storage. There is empty space on the shelves now. This has never happened before. I’m sure it won’t be there for long.
When posting picture of planes on a shelf someone will usually comment that I am storing them blade down. Many believe you should never store a plane blade down because the blade will become dull or get nicked.
These shelves are soft pine that has become wavy and warped. I don’t worry about the soft pine touching the blades and on the larger planes the warp in the shelves often keeps the blades from touching the shelves.
I strop my plane blades and chisels often so one way or the other they rarely become dull.
When I hand plane dulcimer fretboards the challenge is to end up with a long, relatively narrow piece of wood of correct dimensions with all surfaces square and parallel. Occasionally a fretboard ends up out of square, or too narrow, or asymmetrical, or I take off one too many shavings and open a portal releasing the hounds of hell. When this happens I console myself with the knowledge that I have hand-made a very expensive piece of firewood.
In the past I tried various methods to make the process of accurately planing fretboards easier. I put fences on some planes so that, in theory, the plane would leave a surface 90° to the edge referenced by the fence. In practice I found this less accurate than planing freehand. I made a very long shooting board thinking this would make my life easier but alas, it did not.
There is a plane made for fine tuning the edge of a board to get it square that was originally made by Stanley, the #95 block plane; a low angle block plane with a built-in fence. A while back I asked the hive-mind of a Facebook hand tools group if they were happy with their results when using a #95 block plane. As often happens, the reports of happiness and disappointment were equal.
Gary Roberts commented that I should “develop ninja planing skills.” This was excellent advice and was what I was developing all along. Like any skill, it does get easier over time.
Gary is a great guy who is generous with his knowledge of tools, trades, and crafts. Gary reissues rare, out of print books and I recommend you check out his website, Toolemera Press.
In the above photograph are the tools I most often use to dimension fretboards. The long jointer plane (a Stanley #7) does most of the heavy lifting. The small machinist’s square is used to check small, square machinists. Only kidding. I use it to check for squareness as I go.
The caliper lets me know how close I am getting to final dimensions and checks that surfaces are parallel. I make the last passes with the low angle block plane to fine tune angles and dimensions. The card scraper takes care of any small irregularities left by the planes.
There are machines that would make this go very quickly but they take up space I don’t have, cost money I don’t want to spend, and make a lot of noise and mess. I am not opposed to machines and I do have a bandsaw, small table saw, and a few other electric helpers but I love the process and results I get by hand planing. I also get to “touch” every surface of every piece of wood that goes into my dulcimers and that makes me happy.
On the bench are the walnut sides and back of a dulcimer on the verge of becoming intimate.
Before the magic happens I first have to notch the linings in the sides to receive the ends of the back braces. After that the I trim the braces to length and carve the ends to fit into the notches. I do most of this work with the small saw and chisel in the photograph.
After making sure everything fits I’ll add glue and clamps and the two will become one.
Today I did a little work in the shop for the first time since having back surgery on February 5th. It was wonderful being in the shop again!
I did some work on a curly walnut dulcimer that was left close to completion in February. I leveled, crowned, and polished the frets and started working on the nut.
This was gentle work with small tools but after about half an hour my body told me it was in my best interest to stop and to my amazement and surprise I listened! Slow and steady wins the race. A stitch in time has a silver lining. A dark cloud gathers no moss. I’ll stop now.
It will be a month or so before I can begin to work in the shop part-time with some regularity. My body is healing well but there is still a long way to go.
In the photograph is a small piece of micarta that will become the nut for this dulcimer. I use the indentation in the side of a razor blade as a scraper to rough in the rounding of the top of the nut. Add this to the long list of cheap luthier tricks!
That’s the news from here.