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.
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.
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.
I stepped back for a moment while using a spokeshave to trim a soundboard flush with the body of a dulcimer and thought I’d snap a photo and share what I stare at and work with most days.
Almost every step in making a dulcimer happens on the work board clamped in the front vise of the bench. I know the work board is a flat reference surface, it is shaped like a dulcimer which makes it easy to get clamps where they need to go, and it serves as a platform to raise the work to a height I find comfortable.
I remove the work board when I need full use of the bench to plane wood to dimension and saw long pieces of wood so they become shorter pieces of wood.
I regularly use most of the tools in the photo though the racks do get a bit cluttered. The shop is usually cluttered. The floor is often covered with shavings. I thrive in a comfortable and pleasant level of mild chaos. Well, most of the time.
I was preparing shellac this evening and snapped a few photos because I thought the colors were so pretty.
I’m preparing two types of shellac. The first is dewaxed platina. Platina shellac adds little color to the wood and the wax naturally found in shellac has been removed. The lack of wax allows the shellac to adhere to just about anything. It can be used as a sealer, a complete finish, and above or below coats of almost any other wood finish. This is the type of shellac I have long known, loved, and used successfully.
I’m also preparing button lac so I can experiment with it as I have not used it before. Button lac contains wax and is processed using heat during manufacture. I have heard the heating process makes button lac create a tougher finish and I have heard conflicting information about the wax being a good or a bad thing as far as resistance to moisture. The presence of wax means I can’t use this shellac with other types of finish as the wax would prevent proper adhesion.
I am considering offering a shellac based finish, French polish, on a new model of dulcimer I hope to be making in a few months (more about that soon!) so it is a good time to explore other options the wonderful world of shellac has to offer.
Preparing shellac is simple; the shellac flakes or buttons are mixed with alcohol and once fully dissolved, you have shellac.
I’ll be adding 2 ounces of button lac to 8 ounces of alcohol to make a 2 pound cut. The “cut” is the ratio of shellac to alcohol. I usually make a 2 pound cut of shellac and add more alcohol to some of it when I want a lighter cut.
The dewaxed platina shellac comes in fine flakes that dissolve easily in alcohol. The button lac comes in large buttons, hence the name button lac.
I crushed the button lac with a hammer so it will dissolve quicker. I love the color of this stuff! I look forward to seeing what it looks like on samples of different types of wood.
I have been told it is good to filter out most of the wax from button lac. One method I’ve read about is to wrap the button lac in coffee filters to hold back the wax as the shellac dissolves in alcohol. It sounds like an idea worth trying. If it doesn’t work I’ll try the other method; I’ll let the wax settle to the bottom of the jar and decant the clearer liquid.
The alcohol has been added to the shellac. This photograph was taken a minute or two later. It will be a day or two or three before the shellac is completely dissolved.
This is how the shellac looks about two hours later after being lightly stirred. I’m already seeing wax in the bottom of the jar of button lac so I think I’ll be decanting it once fully dissolved.
It will be interesting to see if I end up using button lac on dulcimers. I will be doing many tests before that happens, if it happens!
You can see relatively frequent photos of my dulcimers in progress by following me on Instagram.
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.
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.
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.