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!
I’ve been busy, so there have been several dulcimers on and off the bench!
Shown is what will become dulcimer#184. I have been saving some interesting pieces of reclaimed wood and decided to use a few for this particular dulcimer.
The back and sides came from a beam that was once part of a barn. A friend who used to have a sawmill nearby knew I was always looking for quartersawn wood, so he gave me a few slices straight from the beam. We were not sure what type of wood it is, possibly birch, but it is light, stiff and pretty in a slightly rustic way.
The soundboard is redwood that came from an old shelf given to me by another friend. It is perfectly quartersawn.
Using reclaimed wood is a way of recycling wood that might have ended up in a fire or a dump. It also is a way of getting one’s hands on old growth timber and/or species that are sometimes no longer available.
Working with reclaimed wood poses some challenges. It is not uncommon to be surprised by a nail, a staple, archaeological remains of an insect civilization, and other oddities while working with it. Sometimes the traces of these oddities add to the unique beauty of the wood, other times they render the wood unusable. I expect more surprises when using reclaimed wood, though any piece of wood tends to yield its mysteries while working with it.
There is history in the dulcimer before it is even built, and that makes me happy.
I regularly post photos of my dulcimer making in progress on Instagram.
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.
As the New Year unfurled, I went back to work on two dulcimers that had been patiently waiting for completion, started a third dulcimer, and made the first steps towards building the next two in line.
Between having no dulcimers on a list waiting for my attention and owning a body with a back that works far better than it did two years ago (titanium is my friend!) I am delighted with the increase in my productivity.
I’m more or less working on three dulcimers at a time, and that is about as many as I can simultaneously deal with and still enjoy the process. I like to take my time with each dulcimer and let the wood and the dulcimer dictate many of the details.
I start work on three dulcimers at once because most of the early stages of construction involve basic woodworking. Once the bodies are together, I work on each individually.
The three dulcimers in the photograph are basically complete. The finish has been curing and I will soon rub them out, add the tuners, hitch pins, bridges, nuts, and strings and set them up. They will be on my “Dulcimers For Sale” page within a week or so.
To the right of the three dulcimers are the body frames for the next two. I needed something to do while the finish on the other three was drying so I got a head start on the next run.
I regularly post photos of my work in progress on Instagram. Maybe someday I will be an Instagram Lifestyle Influencer! Well, probably not, but I can dream…
And for no particular reason, here is a frog playing a harp.
A year or so ago I had decided to stop taking advance orders for custom dulcimers in order to focus on making more dulcimers to have available for immediate sale.
I did not follow through with this plan.
I would get requests from very nice people to make a dulcimer from a specific type of wood or with a specific number of extra frets or a specific number of strings and found it difficult to say no.
The experience led to the opportunity to get to know some wonderful people and to make some very nice dulcimers but it also confirmed my reasons for not wanting to take advance orders; I felt the weight of deadlines and was not able to have dulcimers on hand for immediate sale.
My current plan is to once again stop taking advance custom orders so I can use my time to make the best dulcimers I am capable of from a variety of beautiful tonewoods with a variety of string and fretting arrangements and have them available for sale as they are made.
I made this decision as I shipped the last advance order I had completed just as 2019 came to an end. I felt a sense of joy and relief that I could now go back to making dulcimers completely designed by my own inspiration.
As we enter a new year I have already told some people who wanted to place orders that I will let them know when I have dulcimers available. I have a few dulcimers in progress that I put aside to make time for custom orders and I started 2020 by starting work on the dulcimer in the photograph above. It will not have an owner until it is complete and someone falls in love with it.
I’m also planning on doing some recording this year though I am not sure what form that will take. Rather than making an album I may occasionally release single tracks or videos.
Since having back surgery #3 I am physically in much better shape and can travel again. This means I might offer more concerts in the future, though again, I am not quite sure what form this will take. I enjoy teaching dulcimer and hammered dulcimer but I enjoy the musical freedom of performing outside the expectations of much of the dulcimer festival circuit. Things will unfold as they will unfold.
But for now, I am a happy man in a happy land with happy chisel in his happy hand and I am happy making dulcimers which should soon start appearing on this site.
A dulcimer I built a few years was shipped back to me to have a new pickup installed. When I unpacked the dulcimer and took a first look at it I was filled with joy; this dulcimer showed signs it has been played a lot!
I chose to do some maintenance on the frets and fingerboard while the dulcimer was on the bench for the pickup installation.
In the photo above you can see extensive wear on the frets. After several years of being played regularly the frets have worn under the strings in the places most used. On dulcimers this is most often seen on the lower frets up to the 5th or 6th fret but can vary depending on the style and technique of the player.
Frets are like tires on a car; they are an important interface that require occasional maintenance as they wear and at times, replacement.
Here’s what the fret looked like after leveling, reshaping, and polishing.
The owner of this dulcimer plays with a pick and plays hard so there was wear around the strum hollow and in the higher end of the fingerboard. Most players pick or strum in the “sweet spot” that falls over the fingerboard. This area produces what most people consider the most pleasing blend of harmonics and tone. Playing over the fingerboard is also more comfortable for many players because they don’t have to jut their right elbow far to the right to keep their hand over the strum hollow.
Many serious players of stringed instruments think of this kind of wear as scars that show where they have been. Some people are horrified when they see wear on their dulcimer but others see it as a badge of honor!
If I make a dulcimer for someone who lets me know they play hard and are concerned about wear I recommend a harder, more wear-resistant wood for the fingerboard. They will still get some wear but it will be milder and less obvious.
After sealing the fingerboard with oil the dulcimer is ready for more adventure!
You can see photos of my work in progress by following me on Instagram.
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.
On the bench is a chromatic dulcimer having reinforcements glued in to lock the ends of the braces into the sides. The reinforcements add strength to the joinery and makes the inside of the dulcimer look neat. The reinforcements are shy and happy to be hiding under the clamps where they can’t be seen.
While the glue was drying I carved the ramp that goes from behind the bridge (shown by a pencil line) to the end of the dulcimer. I start the ramp by sawing off the waste and continue shaping it with rasps, files, and scrapers. When I placed the fingerboard on the body to double check the length it asked me to take the above photo. Unlike the reinforcements mentioned earlier, the fingerboard is not shy.
I’m currently working on two bespoke chromatic dulcimers. The one above will be in walnut, spruce, and zircote, the other is in oak, spruce, Spanish cedar, and zircote.
I am regularly receiving requests to make fully chromatic dulcimers and they seem to be becoming popular.
On the bench is a curly black walnut dulcimer with a zircote fingerboard. I rarely find black walnut with this kind of figure.
I was going to set up this dulcimer a few days ago but decided it could use another coat of finish. Today I will rub out the finish and start working on the setup. By the weekend this dulcimer will be ready for shipping to its new home.
Zircote has become one of my favorite woods for fingerboards. It is similar to ebony but weighs less and is very strong and stable when quarter sawn. Some pieces show extraordinary figure but a plain looking piece also makes an excellent fingerboard.
As I finish up this dulcimer I’m working on several others. The photo below shows a zircote fingerboard over Spanish cedar (another of my favorite woods) and the raw materials for two more Spanish cedar and zircote fingerboards.
As I always say, the trees do the hard work!
You can see more frequent photos of dulcimers in progress by following me on Instagram.
I don’t always know what to name certain parts of dulcimer anatomy. I glue a block to the end of the dulcimer, shape it, and then glue the peghead to that block. I sometimes refer to this part as the head block but that could also be the name of the end block in the peghead end of the dulcimer.
For today I will refer to the part in question as a peghead support block,. Why not?
In the photograph above I have already shaped one side of the block and have prepared to shape the other. The dulcimer is clamped to the bench and some cardboard is taped to the side to protect it from the edge of saw used to made the cut as shown below.
After sawing away the waste I clean up the work with a block plane, scraper, and file.
There is still carving and shaping to do before the peghead goes on but the rougher aspects of the work are now complete.