What’s On The Bench – July 23rd, 2020

Splitting and shaping spruce for dulcimer soundboard bracing

On the bench is the setup I use for making dulcimer soundboard braces.

I use several small, light braces to help control stiffness, tonal response, and protect the area around the soundholes from developing cracks.

I usually use spruce for the soundboard braces regardless of the type of wood used for the soundboard. Spruce is light, stiff, and strong. This is why spruce is often used for making soundboards, boats, and airplanes!

The spruce I use for soundboard braces comes from soundboard off-cuts.

The braces are narrow and thin and get shaved down further after being glued to the soundboard. I have no standard dimensions for bracing; I determine the final size and shape of the braces by how flexible the soundboard feels in my hands and what kind of response it gives when tapped in different areas.

I split the stock for the braces with a knife or chisel. Splitting, as opposed to cutting, assures the grain will run the full length of the brace, making the brace stock as stiff and strong as possible. Some of the braces could be confused for large splinters, so having long, straight grain is, in my opinion, essential for them to do their job well.

After splitting the brace stock, I carve away any rough spots preventing them from being rectangular with a knife or chisel and finish them up on a plane clamped upside down in a vise. The braces are simultaneously cut to length and beveled on the ends with a sharp chisel.

While writing this post, I remembered I had written about this same process before, but over the years my methods have changed and evolved. Such is life, and that’s a good thing.

I regularly post photos of dulcimers in progress on Instagram. I have yet to become a lifestyle influencer, but if you like seeing dulcimers being made, you might enjoy following me there.

What’s On The Bench – June 14th, 2019

This chromatic dulcimer in walnut will have a zircote fingerboard and spruce soundboard.

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.

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.

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 – 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!

 

My Acoustic High-Precision Thickness Planer

My Acoustic High-Precision Thickness Planer

Nothing original here, just an old trick that makes quick, quiet work of squaring and evenly thicknessing wood.

A few drops of super glue temporarily hold two wood runners to the bottom of a plane, in this case a Stanley #5 1/4 for those who care about such details. The plane can not take off wood below the height of the runners so repeatedly planing wood to the same height becomes easy. The top and bottom of the workpiece will also be parallel.

In the photograph I’m planing spruce brace stock for dulcimer backs. The rough brace sits on my planing beam; a flat and straight beam of oak with a bench stop at one end. I use this planing beam when truing and jointing fretboards and fingerboards, thinning bindings, and brace stock. I also use the planing beam as a caul when gluing fingerboards to fretboards.

Yes, it is a fascinating life I lead.

 

Dulcimer Back Braces

Small planesI don’t have a standard pattern for dulcimer back braces. I don’t have a standard pattern for bracing dulcimer soundboards either. The bracing pattern, number of braces, and size of the braces depends on the sound I am after and the wood involved. It would be easier and faster to standardize things but that wouldn’t be any fun at all. I also find the results I get from taking the long route make a big difference in the sound of the dulcimer.

In the photograph above you can see the four planes I use to dimension the back braces. The braces are brought to approximate size and then shaped after being glued to the back. This dulcimer back has three spruce cross braces and a Spanish Cedar reinforcement over the center joint.

After getting the braces roughly to shape I do most of the final shaping with a paring chisel. In the photograph below you can see the paring chisel and the cute little shaving it makes. You can also see what a neat and highly organized workbench looks like.

Walnut dulcimer back, paring chisel, and a very neat bench

After using the paring chisel the shaping of the braces is complete, though sometimes I will sand the braces as in the completed back shown below; it just depends on what I feel like doing. Sometimes I prefer the crisp, clean lines left by edge tools, other times I go for the smooth and rounded look left by sanding.

Walnut dulcimer back with Spanish Cedar and spruce bracing

Next comes fitting the braces into the side linings and gluing the back to the sides.