Dulcimer Maker And Musician

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Category: Hand Tools Page 2 of 10

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.

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!

 

A Brief And Gentle Reentry Into The Dulcimer Workshop

Luthier's razor blade scraper

Today I did a little work in the shop for the first time since having back surgery on February 5th. It was wonderful being in the shop again!

I did some work on a curly walnut dulcimer that was left close to completion in February. I leveled, crowned, and polished the frets and started working on the nut.

This was gentle work with small tools but after about half an hour my body told me it was in my best interest to stop and to my amazement and surprise I listened! Slow and steady wins the race. A stitch in time has a silver lining. A dark cloud gathers no moss.  I’ll stop now.

It will be a month or so before I can begin to work in the shop part-time with some regularity. My body is healing well but there is still a long way to go.

In the photograph is a small piece of micarta that will become the nut for this dulcimer. I use the indentation in the side of a razor blade as a scraper to rough in the rounding of the top of the nut. Add this to the long list of cheap luthier tricks!

That’s the news from here.

Tool Marks

Tool marks

Tool marks bear witness to the work that went in to making something by hand.

When making a forensic study of historic musical instruments it is possible to learn about the tools and methods of work used  in construction by subtle hints left behind.

I have been fortunate to see several collections of early instruments over the years and a few times my enthusiasm led to being admitted to the “inner sanctum” of a museum collection. While working at Elderly Instruments I handled and studied some of the finest vintage fretted instruments made during the last 150 or so years.

The industrial revolution gave the world consistency of reproduction; multiple copies of the same object would look and work identically to any other that came off the assembly line. What was lost was the human touch, the soul that was given to each object by an artisan’s hands.

Many of the fine historic instruments I have studied showed telltale signs of being hand crafted. There were slight inconsistencies in shape and proportion and signs that a skilled hand had executed the work.  These same instruments were not “clean” according to current manufacturing standards. By this I mean the finish did not turn wood into something looking like a laminated counter-top, sound holes and decorative features showed the skill of the maker and not the precision of a cookie cutter.

Tool marks are witnesses and signatures of the hands that made things. I am not referring to careless work or swirls left by machine sanding; I am referring to slight irregularities of cut and line, small marks left in wood by an edge tool showing where parts were hand shaped and fitted, etc.

In my own work as a dulcimer maker I prefer to leave subtle tool marks as they naturally arise.

As an example, the photograph above shows the braces and center reinforcement strip on the back of a dulcimer. I shaped the center strip with a chisel and scraper. Left behind are some slight irregularities in the bevels on the sides of the center strip. I could sand the center strip to perfection but I see no point to it. I am proud of what I accomplished using two simple hand tools and feel no need to hide that in my work by sanding it to oblivion.

Working this way causes me to increasingly develop my skill and confidence using tools. I enjoy that as well.

What’s On The Bench – 11/20/2017

Slotting an ebony dulcimer fingerboard.

On my calendar was recovery from back surgery this past week but there was a change of plans; a dental issue came up and surgery was postponed. Instead I am taking antibiotics and will have minor dental surgery in a week or so. The back surgery will probably be within a month or so after that.

Let it not be said that I don’t know how to have a good time!

I’m a firm believer that what is happening is happening and what is not happening is not happening so I am rolling with it.

In the meantime I am up to my usual tricks and getting some work done in the shop.

In the photograph above is a simple setup for cutting fret slots. The miter box is made from scraps of MDF and the depth stop on the saw is a strip of wood held in place with three colorful spring clamps.  The wooden cam clamps hold the miter box to the work-board and holds the fretboard in place while sawing.

This  low-tech setup works remarkably well.

I have templates for fret patterns I commonly use. The templates eliminate calculating and measuring out the fret positions.

This fingerboard is for a custom chromatic dulcimer with a scale length I have not used before; 743 centimeters! That is a very long string length but is what the person who will be playing this dulcimer prefers.

Since I didn’t have a template for this scale length I had to calculate the fret positions and lay them out on the fingerboard. Fortunately, there is software that does the math. In the 1970’s I had to spend a long time with a calculator to work out fret positions. The constant often used to calculate an equal tempered fretboard, 17.81715385, is still permanently installed in my memory.

I laid out the fret positions using a very accurate ruler, machinist’s square, sharp knife, and patience. I triple checked the measurements before sawing the slots.

Sawing the slots with the miter box was the fun part.

 

 

You Say Dulcimer Fretboard, I Say Dulcimer Fingerboard

Adventures of a dulcimer builderA dulcimer doesn’t have a neck but it has something under the fingerboard that sort of serves as a neck. Calling it a neck doesn’t really make sense but when the dulcimer has a fingerboard on top of the object that shall not be called a neck then appropriate terminology becomes even more confusing.

For no particular reason I refer to the lower portion of the assembly as the fretboard and call the fingerboard overlay the fingerboard. When describing a fretboard with a fingerboard on it I refer to the assembled unit as a fretboard.

In the photograph above I’m gluing the fretboard assembly to a dulcimer soundboard.

The soundboard is clamped to a flat workboard. Two clamps come in from the sides holding scraps of wood that rest against the sides of the fretboard at either end. This makes it easy to accurately place the fretboard in the right spot and helps prevent it from moving while I apply the clamps.

I use an old trick to clamp the full length of the fretboard down using only two clamps. A long, warped piece of wood is used as a clamping caul with the concave side facing down along the length of the fretboard.  When I clamp both ends down the flattening of the warped wood exerts pressure along the entire length of the fretboard.

You can follow more of my my action-packed adventures as a dulcimer maker by following me on Instagram.

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