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.

Developing Ninja Planing Skills

Making fluffy shavings is almost as much fun as making a dulcimer!

When I hand plane dulcimer fretboards the challenge is to end up with a long, relatively narrow piece of wood of correct dimensions with all surfaces square and parallel. Occasionally a fretboard ends up out of square, or too narrow, or asymmetrical, or I take off one too many shavings and open a portal releasing the hounds of hell. When this happens I console myself with the knowledge that I have hand-made a very expensive piece of firewood.

In the past I tried various methods to make the process of accurately planing fretboards easier. I put fences on some planes so that, in theory, the plane would leave a surface 90° to the edge referenced by the fence. In practice I found this less accurate than planing freehand. I made a very long shooting board thinking this would make my life easier but alas, it did not.

There is a plane made for fine tuning the edge of a board to get it square that was originally made by Stanley, the #95 block plane; a low angle block plane with a built-in fence. A while back  I asked the hive-mind of a Facebook hand tools group if they were happy with their results when using a #95 block plane. As often happens, the reports of happiness and disappointment were equal.

Gary Roberts commented that I should “develop ninja planing skills.” This was excellent advice and was what I was developing all along. Like any skill, it does get easier over time.

Gary is a great guy who is generous with his knowledge of tools, trades, and crafts. Gary reissues rare, out of print books and I recommend you check out his website, Toolemera Press.

The tools I use to plane a dulcimer fretboard to accurate dimensions.

In the above photograph are the tools I most often use to dimension fretboards. The long jointer plane (a Stanley #7) does most of the heavy lifting. The small machinist’s square is used to check small, square machinists. Only kidding. I use it to check for squareness as I go.

The caliper lets me know how close I am getting to final dimensions and checks that surfaces are parallel. I make the last passes with the low angle block plane to fine tune angles and dimensions. The card scraper takes care of any small irregularities left by the planes.

There are machines that would make this go very quickly but they take up space I don’t have, cost money I don’t want to spend, and make a lot of noise and mess. I am not opposed to machines and I do have a bandsaw, small table saw, and a few other electric helpers but I love the process and results I get by hand planing. I also get to “touch” every surface of every piece of wood that goes into my dulcimers and that makes me happy.

What’s On The Bench – June 22nd, 2018

Fitting back braces into the linings

On the bench are the walnut sides and back of a dulcimer on the verge of becoming intimate.

Before the magic happens I first have to notch the linings in the sides to receive the ends of the back braces. After that the I trim the braces to length and carve the ends to fit into the notches. I do most of this work with the small saw and chisel in the photograph.

After making sure everything fits I’ll add glue and clamps and the two will become one.

Ain’t love grand!

 

What’s On The Bench – May 25th, 2018

Future dulcimers in curly cherry, walnut, and spalted maple

On the bench is some of the wood going into the next run of dulcimers. Two dulcimers will be all cherry, one will have walnut for the back and sides and a spruce soundboard, and another will have spalted maple for the back and sides and a spruce soundboard.

If you look closely at the photograph you will see a triangle with numbers drawn in pencil on some of the cherry. This is an old trick to mark bookmatched wood so the edges line up as intended. After matching the pieces the way I think they look best I draw the triangle and number. The triangle will only look like a triangle if I put the wood back together in the same orientation.  When working with multiple sets sawn from the same stock the number assures the sets are two pieces sawn sequentially. This simple trick has saved me from many headaches!

Speaking of headaches, the General Data Protection Regulations went into effect today. I was confused about how this new law would affect my website so I did some research so I could become more confused. I believe these regulations do not apply to my website or business. People from the EU do come to this site so just to be sure I was being compliant I added the little thing that lets you know this site uses cookies.

Yes, I live a fascinating life.