Further Adventures In Hand Planing

Planing dulcimer fretboards to proper dimensions.

I once wrote about developing the skills to accurately plane parts to proper dimension. I have recently been making some changes to my planing technique to accommodate the capabilities and lack of capabilities of my body.

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.

What’s On The Bench – January 14th, 2019

Shaping dulcimer braces with edge tools.

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.

Happiness Is A Sharp Chisel!

Happiness is a sharp chisel!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.

Well, almost everything.

 

Plane Crazy

Many small planes equal one big plane.

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.

An artsy-fartsy shot of some planes on a shelf.

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.

Young and old planes in love and three dulcimers in progress.

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.

Yes, my life is this fascinating.

What’s On The Bench – October 28th, 2018

Laying out a dulcimer peghead support block.

On the bench is a cherry dulcimer ready to receive its peghead. In the photograph above is the block that gets glued to the end of the dulcimer to support the peghead. Layout lines are in place to guide the process of shaping the block.

Dulcimer peghead in progress.

The block is shaped and the gluing surfaces are flat and true for a perfect butt joint. I said butt, huh, huh, huh… Also in the photograph is the blank that will become the peghead and a cardboard template with the basic shape I’ll be using.

I use hide glue for gluing this joint. I could get an excellent, strong joint without clamping just by using a rub joint but I’m using a jack plane as a weight while the glue dries overnight. It is not necessary but it couldn’t hurt. Rub joints are made by applying glue to two perfectly mated surfaces and gently rubbing the pieces together until the glue begins to stick. After the pieces no longer slide I hold them in place for a minute or two and the joint is complete. As hide glue dries it pulls the joint tightly together.

A glue up that is far less precarious than it looks!

Here you can see the completed joint and a good view of the sound port; a soundhole in the side of the dulcimer. I use sound ports to change the frequency of the air space within the soundbox, get a larger soundhole without removing more material from the soundboard than I prefer, and so the dulcimer can be used as a birdhouse should the need arise.

Preparing A Dulcimer Fingerboard For Receiving The Frets

Custom dulcimer with ebony fingerboard by Doug Berch

On the bench today is a custom chromatic dulcimer with an ebony fingerboard. The spruce soundboard has been stained and lightly distressed to add some character. I’m a character and so are my dulcimers. So it goes.

Many dulcimer makers fret the fingerboard early in the construction process. It is much easier to install the frets when the fingerboard is separate from the dulcimer; one can hammer or press the frets in without any thought of possibly crushing the dulcimer beneath them!

I know several dulcimer makers who get good results fretting the fingerboard before gluing it to the dulcimer but I prefer fretting the fingerboard after assembling the dulcimer and applying the finish.

Experience has shown me that applying the finish to a dulcimer sometimes results in slight movement of the soundboard and fingerboard. By fretting after applying the finish I can level and/or add relief to the fingerboard and have it come out exactly as I prefer it to be.

I use a scraper and a few sanding blocks to prepare the fingerboard for fretting. The scraps of wood lying on the dulcimer prevent bad, scary things from happening to the soundboard while working on the fingerboard.

The movement of the fingerboard and the correction I am talking about is measured in thousandths of an inch. As a player I find these small increments can make a surprising difference in how much I enjoy playing a dulcimer.

Fretting towards the end of a build requires more work but I am often told my dulcimers are very comfortable and easy to play and this is a part of how I make them that way.

Adding Flavor And Color To A Dulcimer

Adding some age and color to a dulcimer soundboard

Wood is beautiful. Trees work hard to make it. I try not to interfere with the natural beauty of wood. There is nothing I could carve, stain, paint, or inlay that would look better than the wood itself.

Occasionally a piece of tonewood, to my eye, needs a little help showing off its true beauty. Applying the finish to a dulcimer enhances the beauty of the wood but sometimes adding a little extra color can make the grain and figure “pop.”

I add color to a dulcimer, or to part of a dulcimer, using three methods:

  1. Staining the wood.
  2. Adding a touch of color to some coats of the finish.
  3. A combination of both methods.

In the photograph above is a soundboard made from an excellent piece of spruce; light, stiff, and plenty of medullary rays.

I could have left the soundboard as it came from the tree but I thought adding a little color would highlight the beauty of this particular piece of spruce. I also want to simulate some aging; sometimes a piece of wood just looks a little too “new.”

The photograph shows the soundboard after several minutes of applying a water based stain. After preparing the wood for finishing I wipe it down with a wet rag and once dry do the final sanding and burnishing. This helps prevent the grain from rising as I apply the water based stain.

I wipe the soundboard down again with water and rub the stain into the dampened wood with a rag. By moistening the wood the stain is less likely to blotch and it is easier to blend the stain into the wood.

After the wood has fully dried I’ll decide if the color is pleasing or if I will add or remove stain to get the desired look. Since I’m using water based stain I can rub the surface with a wet rag to blend and remove color if need be.

This is a bit like finger-painting!

After arriving at happiness with the color of the stained wood I’ll decide if I want to add any color to the finish; I figure things like that as I go.

Yes, another adventure in dulcimer making!

What’s On The Bench – August 28th, 2018

Fitting the back to a dulcimer.

On the bench is the frame of a cherry dulcimer and the cherry back with spruce braces it will soon receive.  The kerfing on the sides gets notched to receive the ends of the braces and the ends of the braces are trimmed to fit in said notches. Attaching the ends of the braces into the sides adds strength and stability to the dulcimer. I took this photograph just before I began marking the brace locations on the sides with a pencil.

Before gluing the back to the frame I’ll be adding small braces to reinforce the side sound port.

I’m working on two other dulcimers that are several steps farther along. One dulcimer is in the homestretch, another will receive binding as soon as I bend it.

I usually build dulcimers in groups of three or four but each dulcimer is given individual attention and worked on one at a time. This isn’t the most efficient means of production but I am happier with both the process and the results of working in this way.

 

What’s On The Bench – August 5th, 2018

Fingerboards for two custom dulcimers.

On the bench are two dulcimer fretboards in cherry.

The one on the left has had the strum hollow cut and refined and the location of the position markers laid out. It also has an ebony end cap in place.  An inset of Spanish cedar is inlaid in the fingerboard just ahead of where a bridge/pickup will go. I find using a softer wood or shim ahead of this type of pickup makes the amplified sound more natural. This fretboard is chromatic up to the 7th fret/first octave and diatonic the rest of the way.

The other fingerboard is fully chromatic. The layout lines for the strum hollow are in place and this one will also have position markers and an ebony end cap

On the right is the glue pot that keeps hide glue warm and happy. The Erlenmeyer flask holds water for adding to the glue as necessary. I picked up the Erlenmeyer flask at a salvage sale because I thought it would be more difficult to knock over than the glass jar I previously used. This has indeed been the case but I still manage to knock it over now and then.