Dulcimer Finishes

Finishing wood enhances the beauty of the wood while protecting it from moisture, dirt and other contaminates. The finish chosen for a  plucked stringed instrument must also be considered for it’s tonal properties.

Before a finish is applied the dulcimer receives final scraping and sanding.

A note here about preparing a surface for finish; modern industrial standards have created an expectation where even hand made items are often expected to look as if they were made by machine and inspected with microscopes.

mass production in a dulcimer factory circa 1929

The hallmarks of hand-craftsmanship such as the occasional tool mark or irregularity are often perceived as flaws.

an early hand made dulcimer collective

Wood, the beautiful organic material of choice for stringed instruments, is often expected to be flat and shiny like a Formica counter top!

This presents woodworkers and luthiers who work by hand with a dilemma; is the goal of the crafts-person to hand-make something that looks like it was made by a machine? Compare this to a calligrapher attempting to write a manuscript by hand that would look like it was printed by a computer!

There is another extreme; some people believe the term “hand-crafted” implies rough or crude work made without care for detail. This is another matter and should not be confused with the organic, natural flaws of materials and work produced by a caring, experienced crafts-person.

I prefer wood to look like wood. I appreciate the grain of wood enough to avoid burying it under acres of plastic or making it look like it is under glass!

I experiment with different finishes but primarily use shellac and  a variety of oil-based varnishes, often in combination.  experimenting with a new dulcimer finish

I am also moving away, quickly, from using any toxic finishing materials and solvents.

a potentially dangerous dulcimer finish

Shellac is traditional, non-toxic and relatively easy to apply. By building several (or many) thin coats very little material is added to the wood. This produces a transparent, hard and protective finish that does not dampen the tone of the dulcimer. A shellac finish is easy to repair as each new coat of shellac dissolves into the previous coat.

Shellac looks beautiful on both hardwoods and softwoods. Shellac also comes in a variety of shades that can be used to accentuate the color of the wood.

Shellac has two potential drawbacks: it scratches more easily than some finishes and it is alcohol soluble. If a dulcimer finished with shellac gets badly scratched or someone leaves a glass of bourbon on their dulcimer it can easily be repaired.

Oil varnish is another traditional finish with a long history of use on musical instruments. Oil varnish should not be confused with raw oils like linseed or tung oil. Raw oils will soak into the wood and often do not fully dry. This can be advantageous on furniture but can deaden the tone of a musical instrument.


Oil varnish is made with linseed or other oils (surprise!) that have been processed and/or mixed with resins and additives to speed drying time, degrees of hardness, color, etc.

Oil varnish adds a deep, lustrous and protective finish. If properly applied it will have little effect on the tone of a dulcimer.

Oil varnish look great on hardwoods but can cause the harder and softer grain of spruce and cedar to “washboard.” I personally think this is a beautiful effect as the wood looks and feels very natural. This light washboard effect also occurs over time to many fine finishes as they continue to cure even if they were originally as flat as glass. If  I prefer a glass smooth surface I will  seal the soundboard with shellac prior to varnishing. Give it a few years and it will develop a beautiful texture anyway.

Depending on the wood and the desired effect I sometimes seal and undercoat a dulcimer, or parts of a dulcimer, with shellac.  On some of my personal dulcimers, or if requested, I will use only shellac on a soundboard.

I prefer applying finish by hand. I use various padding techniques and occasionally brushes depending on what I am working with.

hand applying finish

In most commercial operations finish is sprayed.

If you are going to spray finish, especially lacquers and other toxic substances, please avoid following the example of this finisher of the not-so-distant pass  who is completely disregarding his health and safety while spraying:

spraying finish without appropriate safety gear
The toxic hazard of such work has led many a person down the road of deviant, unexplainable and erratic behavior!

Instead please follow the fine example set by the man below who chooses to use modern state-of-the-art safety equipment:

proper gear for working with hazardous finishing materials

A lesson for us all!

4 thoughts on “Dulcimer Finishes

  1. Hi Denise,

    I am not sure what the best paint would be. First thing would be to find out what type of finish was already on the dulcimer and then research what is compatible.

    Usually drawn or painted decorations on an instrument get applied early in the finishing process. The wood is sealed with shellac or another sealer depending on the finish to be used. Then artwork is applied and the rest of the finish is applied over that.

    If you find out what finish is on the dulcimer you could paint with the appropriate paint and then add more finish over your artwork to protect it.
    I hope this is helpful,


  2. Doug,
    I was recently asked by a friend to paint Noah,s Ark with a rainbow on his dulcimer. I have been trying to find out what kind of paint I would need to do this artwork for him. I would really appreciate any information you could share with me on this subject. I would think it would need to be a special technique in order for it not to rub off of the slick surface on the dulcimer. Thank you for any tips you can give me.


  3. Hi Randy,

    Thanks for a great comment. I remember many years ago I was playing a a somewhat crude fretless banjo that belonged to a friend. A boy came up to me and asked if I could play a “real” banjo.

    What struck me was his choice of words. He said “real” as opposed to store-bought, fancy, professional, etc.

    My response was that what I was playing was a real banjo and that if it wasn’t real I wouldn;t be able to play it.

    He said “You know what I mean.”

    It really struck me how, without even thinking, and object that did not have the slick signs of commercial manufacture did not register as real or valid. Amazing!

    I like the quote you put in your comment. There are a few relatively non-critical design elements in my dulcimers that require more time and hand-work than I sometimes think they are worth; subtle details in how the peghead connects to the body, etc. I just wouldn’t be happy if I left them out to save some time.

    All the best,


  4. Very interesting post, thanks.

    Grant Peterson, who makes Rivendell bicycles, wrote a piece on customer expectations of handmade frames. I stumbled across it several years ago. Your post reminded me so much of Mr. Peterson’s post that I wanted to share, but unfortunately I’m having a hard time finding it again. I’ll keep at it and hopefully get a link to you soon.

    I agree with you. The further we as a people move away from craftsmanship, the more machine like our expectations. The one key element missing is heart and soul. A machine can not create anything “awakened.”

    It reminded me of something I recently read, by Wm. S. Coperthwaite in the book A HANDMADE LIFE: In Search of Simplicity.

    “Industrial production has been a boon in providing many needed things at a lower cost, but unless we are alert we’ll let the machine start teaching us design. For instance, machines can be used to create any form of chair we like, but commercial interests can make more chairs (and more money) if the simplest design *for the machines* is chosen for the production. So we are surrounded by furniture to fit the needs of machines. …Industrial production has so controlled the design of chairs that we now have a difficult time imagining how the form night differ if a chair were handmade.”

    Thanks again for another great post.

    Randy Arnold

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