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.
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.