My dulcimer making process is consistently inconsistent.
Maybe a better way to say that is my methods and design are in a constant state of evolution.
There are certain measurements and features that need to be precise; fret placement, fretwork, setup, action, bridge compensation, string spacing, etc., but when it comes to exact body shape and size, bracing, thickness or thinness of the top, sides and back, and just about every other detail, they are unique to each dulcimer.
My methods of work suit my temperament. I like to work by feel and intuition, and most of the work is accomplished using traditional hand tools. I like to get intimate and personal with my work, and I let the wood dictate a lot of where the final design is heading.
Because of how I approach dulcimer making, I don’t make parts in bulk. I tried that for a short time, and I found it creatively constraining. I prefer to make each part for each dulcimer, and the proportions of each part are based on all the other parts as the dulcimer comes together. Making a dulcimer is like watching a plant grow.
That’s how I do this. My methodology would be ineffective if I was trying to produce dulcimers in a more economically viable quantity, but anytime I have tried doing production work, even on a small scale, I don’t enjoy the process, as it feels like I am manufacturing rather than crafting, and it is the process of crafting I enjoy and love.
My blog posts have become infrequent, but I regularly post photos of the thrill and adventure of being a dulcimer maker on Instagram.
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.
A 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.
I have basic patterns for my dulcimers but the the exact shape and size of each dulcimer varies slightly from one dulcimer to the next. I have embraced a fairly free-form style of building and use very few jigs, forms, and fixtures.
By building free-form I feel like I am sculpting a dulcimer rather than making a bunch of parts and assembling them. The frame of the dulcimer (sides and end blocks) and the fretboard become the reference points for laying out the rest of instrument. I can make small changes to the shape and size of the dulcimer by feel and eye and work with it until everything seems right to me.
The thickness of the top and back and the bracing pattern are determined in a similar manner.
Free-form building is not the most efficient way to make dulcimers in a timely manner. If I made all the parts to a set pattern and assembled them in fixtures I would make more dulcimers in less time but I wouldn’t enjoy the process very much.
These photographs are of a baritone dulcimer in progress. The final shape of the dulcimer is traced on the soundboard and the soundholes are laid out using a template. I have also laid out the placement of the position markers on the fingerboard. A scraper serves as a short straight edge for drawing the layout lines.
Also important are notes to myself to make sure everything goes where it is supposed to go. There is a reason I do this. Guess what happened the last time I didn’t do this!
The air conditioner in my shop died a few days ago.
Aside from keeping the shop from feeling like a literal sweatshop the air conditioner also removes excessive humidity from the Summer air.
Wood is hygroscopic and it is best to make dulcimers in a stable, humidity-controlled environment. The humidity level in my shop is kept at around 45% year round. A dulcimer built at around 45% humidity should remain stable when exposed to higher and lower humidity within reason. Even so, a dulcimer will be happier if it is kept as close to the conditions of the environment in which it was made.
It is important to use a humidifier to keep your dulcimer happy during the dry Winter months when the heat is on or all year round if you live in a desert. A simple instrument humidifier kept in the case is all that is needed. If you like to keep your dulcimers out of their cases then a room humidifier will make both your dulcimers and sinuses happy.
Wood loses moisture much faster than it absorbs moisture and a dulcimer can dry out, crack, warp, and scream for mercy relatively quickly if kept in an overly dry environment. High humidity is usually not as much of an issue on a short term basis but extremes should be avoided.
As a general rule, if you are comfortable then your dulcimer is comfortable.
Last night my wife Cynthia and I bought another air conditioner. When we got home I was too tired to help with installing it. Today Cynthia came home during her lunch break at work to do the heavy lifting of getting the new air conditioner into a window. Cynthia has a good back and I do not. She knew I wanted to get the shop back in working order as soon as possible. Talk about selfless acts of love!
I’ve started work on several dulcimers as the finish cures on another. A finish “drying” and a finish “curing” are two very different things. Many craftspeople learn this difference the hard way at some time in their careers; what seemed to be a dry finish turns out to be dry to the touch but not really hard and permanent. One finds fingerprints in the finish after handling or worse, finish sticks to the inside of a case, rubbing out the finish produces a gummy mess rather than the expected level of sheen, etc. It is one of the initiatory experiences that comes with learning a craft.
In the photograph is a toothing plane on a walnut dulcimer back. Toothing planes have a serrated or “toothed” edge and the blade is set at a very high angle. The toothing plane scrapes and cuts many small shavings and can be pushed with the grain, against the grain, and across the grain without tearing up the wood. Toothing planes make quick work of leveling and flattening wood with tricky grain and figure. They are also very useful when planing thin wood. The serrated lines left on the wood serve as a map showing which areas are flat and which need more attention.
After flattening the surface with the toothing plane I take down the ridges with a smoothing plane or a scraper. On historic instruments traces of a toothing plane having been used can sometimes be seen inside the body of the instrument. This indicates that the outside surface was smoothed and then the thickness was taken down on the inside surface where tool-marks would not be obvious and did not matter.
I do use some common woodworking machines to relieve the drudgery of some tasks and to help prevent wear-and-tear on my body, which is showing signs of wear-and-tear. Still, I do as much as I can by hand because it is how I prefer to work. Sometimes I thickness wood partly by hand and partly by running it through a machine. Sometimes I choose one method or the other. It keeps life interesting.
The dulcimer in the photograph was glued together a few years ago. I know this because the quality of the photograph is better than possible with the camera I am currently using. I also know this because the dulcimer in the photograph is currently being regularly played by its owner. I just happened to have this photograph on hand.
Gluing a dulcimer body together is basically gluing the lid on a box. If I decide I need to open the box it means opening up glue joints. This is certainly possible and something I do when required to perform a major repair. Taking a dulcimer apart after gluing the box closed is never something I look forward to.
Just before gluing everything together I usually have a few pieces of wood outside and inside the dulcimer holding everything in place. Moments before gluing things together I take the pieces of wood out of the inside of the dulcimer.
Earlier today I glued a dulcimer body together. Just after gluing everything together I wondered, “Did I take that piece of wood that was stabilizing the shape of the dulcimer out of the dulcimer before gluing everything together”
After a short panic-filled searching of the bench I saw that indeed I had.