Dulcimers In The Time Of COVID-19

Walnut and sassafras dulcimer by Doug Berch

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.

The Flaws Are The Beauty

The flaws are what often make something beautiful.

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.

A Brief And Gentle Reentry Into The Dulcimer Workshop

Luthier's razor blade scraper

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.

The Adventure Continues

Curly walnut dulcimer - Doug Berch

It has been six weeks since having a bi-level lumbar fusion and this morning I entered the shop for the first time since then. The bench was as I had left it with a curly walnut dulcimer awaiting a nut, bridge, tuners, and setup. Also on the bench are some sets of tonewood I resawed before having surgery. These will become the back, sides, and for some, the soundboards for some of the next run of bespoke dulcimers I will be making when the time comes.

It will probably be another 6 weeks before my body is ready for light work. Healing is going well. The surgeon said if I worked for someone else he would have me take three months off but since I am self-employed and can take all the breaks I want I may possibly start a little sooner. I’ll find out for sure in early April.

One large obstacle is getting into the shop itself. My shop is a small room at the top of a steep staircase built before ergonomics were strongly considered when designing houses. At the moment stairs are difficult for me and these stairs are more difficult than others.
My workout for the day.

Here’s the view one sees while climbing the stairs:

Where does the shop begin and end?

Almost to the top of the stairs.

I am thankful for the patience of those waiting for me to make their dulcimers. The good news is that when fully recovered I should be able to spend a lot more time working in the shop than I have been able since this adventure began.

I love my job.

The Latest Adventure

Resawing wood for dulcimers

Just saying hello.

I had back surgery two weeks ago and recovery is going well. I now have two non-adjustable truss rods and some other hardware supporting my lower back.

I’m taking it easy, catching up on reading, watching some series and movies I would normally not have time for, gently exercising and occasionally feeling bored. I’m also reading a lot about lutherie and doing thought experiments about new designs, methods of work, and possibly some new instruments to make.

It will probably be two months or so before I can begin to do some work in the shop. Before surgery I did some of the rough work to prepare for the time I’ll be back at the bench again. In the photograph above is cherry, walnut, and curly ash resawn for some future dulcimers.

Full recovery will take up to a year but if all goes as planned I’ll able to work longer hours making dulcimers than I have for about 5 years. I look forward to that time! I love my job!

My Happy Place

Dulcimer builder's play room.

When I first converted a small bedroom into a workshop my wife Cynthia referred to it as “Doug’s playroom.” She’s right. I have spent many happy hours there.

Loving what you do doesn’t mean there will not be moments of challenge and/or frustration. That’s how life tends to go but if passion fuels the journey you keep on going.

I’m working on a few dulcimers at the moment. Two will be strung and set up next week. In the photograph is a dulcimer that probably won’t be completed before I have back surgery in a few weeks. I’m doing the “heavy lifting” now so I can do the less physically demanding work on the dulcimer when I am able to start working again.

I’ll also be resawing some beautiful cherry, walnut, curly ash, cedar, and cypress for future dulcimers.

Deep Winter has finally come to Central Michigan. Sap has gone to the roots and birds constantly visit the feeder during daylight. Deer and the occasional rabbit leave tracks in the snow outside the house. Cold weather and snow bring quiet to this small piece of the world. I’m happy.

 

 

Chaos, Inspiration, and Dulcimer Making

Curly walnut dulcimer made by Doug Berch

“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”

People who have followed my blog over the years might be aware that in 2012 my lower back decided to suddenly and loudly let me know it was not happy. This experience led to various adventures involving insurance companies, doctors, physical therapists, surgeons, my amazing wife Cynthia, and wonderful friends.

For five years I have been able to work between one-third and half the time in the shop I had previously. This meant I have made far fewer dulcimers and each dulcimer required more gaps in time between start and finish. I have found this frustrating but I also believe everything that happens is a gift, though some gifts I would not have asked for and if possible I would return or exchange them.

One of the gifts of the last 5 years has been the chance to reevaluate what is important to me and how I want to live my life.

Organization is not something that comes naturally to me. A visit to my shop will make this obvious, yet in that small space where I work everything I need is close at hand and I feel comfortable, the kind of comfortable one feels when wearing a favorite old shirt.

Before having to limit my time in the shop I was considering ways of organizing the shop and streamlining my workflow to increase productivity. This felt counterintuitive to my personality but getting out of one’s comfort zone is often a good idea. On the other hand, sometimes one’s comfort zone is just right the way it is.

I am not a production oriented luthier. Before having to slow down I had found a comfortable rhythm of work and enjoyed it. Each time I tried to do more work than felt comfortable either the work suffered for it or I suffered for it. That is not how I choose to live.

Rather than getting more work done circumstances have dictated I get less done. A positive aspect of this has been a chance to “enjoy the scenery” more while working. I have also had time to refine my dulcimer designs, improve some of my hand-tool skills, and study various lutherie traditions. As a result Spanish guitar construction techniques have greatly influenced my methods of work these past few years. Ironically, I have also found ways to streamline workflow and increase productivity!

But really, the inspiration for this blog post is yet another upcoming adventure. In the middle of November I will be having back surgery number 3, a bi-level lumbar fusion that should help ease the most annoying aspects of what I have dealt with.

I will not be able to work in the shop for several months following surgery and when I make my reentry I will be starting out slowly and gently. I’m sure the downtime during recovery will be yet another gift I would not have asked for!

I was hesitant to go public with news of the upcoming surgery at this time but found I have already had to talk about it more than planned. I have had to turn down gigs and tell people inquiring about ordering dulcimers that it will be some time before I will be able to make them.

Once completely recovered I will most likely return to work full-time or something closer to full-time again. That alone will bring a great increase in productivity. I am very much looking forward to that! I love my job.

I also hope to travel again and go to festivals, see friends in distant places, and leap tall buildings in a single bound.

 

The Joy Of Honing

The joy of honing.A few days ago my finest waterstone shattered. I can’t complain; it had given me over ten years of service and was $30 well spent.

This afternoon a replacement waterstone came in the mail and I took it out for a spin.

I find honing an edge to be a relaxing experience and a form of active meditation. These days I do most of my honing freehand so there are no jigs and gizmos to deal with. I like waterstones because I get a lot of tactile feedback on what is going on between the steel and the stone.

I like feeling two surfaces gradually becoming a single, sharp edge.

A blade becomes sharper and I become more relaxed.

 

More Adventures In Dulcimer Making

Baritone Dulcimer in progress

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!