Doug Berch

Dulcimer Maker And Musician

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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.

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.

Free-Form Dulcimer Making

Bartione dulcimer soundboard layoutI 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.

Laying out position markers and soundholes on a baritone dulcimer 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.

Making sure everything is where it belongsAlso 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!

More Exciting Adventures Of A Dulcimer Builder

Wood warping, winding, and shrinking. Don't let this happen to your dulcimer!

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 am a happy and lucky man.

What’s On The Bench – 07/9/2016

Walnut dulcimer back being thicknessed with a toothing planeI’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.

Adventures In Dulcimer Making

Dulcimer being glued together. Is my cell phone in there?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.

Life is wonderful again.

The Spokeshave – The Dulcimer Builder’s Friend

Dulcimer Builder's Friend - The Friendly SpokeshaveLast night I was trimming the back of a dulcimer to meet the sides.

After chopping off the bulk of the overhang with a chisel I switch to spokeshaves. Even though dulcimers do not have spokes one can still shave them with a spokeshave. Do not use shaving cream!

For most of the work I use a flat-bottomed spokeshave but for the curve in the waist and the recurve near the tail I use a round-bottom spokeshave. From there I switch to a scraper to bring the back flush with the sides.

One of the things I enjoy about trimming the back to the sides with a spokeshave is that I get to listen to the resonance of the dulcimer; the friction of the spokeshave against the overhanging back is a bit like bowing a violin.

Trimming the back to meet the sides would be faster if I used an electric router but I don’t enjoy doing it that way. Routers are loud, messy, gnarly little beasts!

My wife Cynthia came home last night and thought she saw a good photo-op.

Doug Berch - Dulcimer Builder and FashionistaI use a cabinetmaker’s clamp clamped on its side to hold the dulcimer while working on the sides.

And yes, fashion is my life.

 

Random Musings

Work has been progressing slowly but surely. Dealing with boring back and shoulder issues  has slowed me down a bit but dulcimer builders are made of strong stuff.

Having to work more slowly is not all bad. I get to savor each step in making a dulcimer a little more. Last night I was working on the tail-end of a fretboard. I sawed the taper with a dozuki saw and finished shaping and cleaning it up with low-angle block planes.

Tail-end of a dulcimer fingerboardThough this ramp is a simple part of the dulcimer, making it involved cleanly planing a bubinga fingerboard, a poplar neck, and a zircote end-cap with the grain running crosswise to the fingerboard. Bubinga is very hard and often has grain that is a little resistant to being planed. Poplar is soft and planes effortlessly. The cross-grain piece of zircote at the end would like to stop the plane dead in it’s tracks!

There once was a time when making this little ramp by hand would have made me shiver with fear. Now it is something I look forward too. Maybe I need to get out more?

Layout lines were made and followed by saw cuts. It took about twenty seconds on a fine Japanese waterstone to get the plane blades up to task. Wispy tricolor shavings came off the planes. To get from layout lines to the finished surface took about 15 minutes.

I do have a funky old disc sander in the basement and this entire operation could have taken a loud and dusty minute or so but what would be the fun in that?

In other news, I have 3 dulcimers under way and wood sorted for the next three. I’m also designing a new dulcimer model and will share news of that journey as it develops.

A few days ago I sorted through wood in the attic and found these two boards of curly walnut. They will soon be resawn and eventually become dulcimers.

Future curly walnut dulcimersThe mosquitoes in the Greater Lansing, Michigan area are gathering with plans for world domination. Wild turkeys, rabbits, deer, and groundhogs visit our yard. Nights are quiet again now that we are a week or so past the 4th of July and happy Americans have grown bored with setting off fireworks.

I am married to a wonderful woman and grateful to share my life with her. We live indoors. We eat everyday.

Life is good!

Curchillo Knives

I am continually drawn to older, simpler, lutherie technology. There are several reasons for this but mostly I am attracted to the older methods because they work well and I enjoy the experience of using them.

With hand tools the craftsperson’s body and skill replace many jigs and machines. Working this way makes me feel like I truly accomplished something every step of the way.

For several months I have been studying and improving the skills of using knives as they apply to being a dulcimer builder. With knives I can cut out tops and backs with cleaner edges than I can with a bandsaw. I can fit parts, trim and clean up hard-to-reach areas, shape braces, relieve edges, and more.

I have long been aware of a style of knife developed and used by guitar makers in the Paracho area of Mexico. These “curchillos knives” have evolved specifically for guitar making.

Curchillo knives are often made by the luthier and I have intended to make one for several years. I just never got around to doing it.

Last week I was having coffee with my friend Paul. Paul is a musician, craftsperson, outdoorsman and all-around wonderful human being. He also makes barrels of sauerkraut every year to give away at Christmas.

I mentioned wanting a curchillo and showed Paul photographs of them in an issue of American Lutherie and he said, “I can make those for you!”

Yesterday Paul and I got together and he gave me these two curchillo knives he made for me from an old saw blade.

Curchillo Knives

I spent about 10 minutes with stones and a strop and both knives take and hold a very sharp edge.

The shape of the blade is perfect for carving and cutting out many dulcimer parts. I am a very happy dulcimer builder!

And I am thankful to have wonderful friends like Paul!

In the future I’ll be posting some of the work I do using these knives!

What’s On The Bench – 9/9/2014

I’ve started work on a few custom dulcimers and took a few photographs of one in the early stages of construction.

Sawing dulcimer sides to length

Once the sides are bent to shape I trim the to length using a bench hook and saw. It may be time for me to make a new bench hook. This one has a lot of mileage on it!

Gluing in the kerfing

The sides are glued to end-blocks and kerfing is glued in place. The kerfing stiffens the sides and provides a larger surface for gluing on the soundboard and back.

Planing kerfing flush with sides

When the glue has dried the clamps are removed and I plane the kerfing flush to the sides. Most of the planing is done with a 101 plane. The tiny 101 plane gets a lot of use in my shop. After planing the kerfing flush with the 101 i switch to a jack plane to true up the surfaces and assure everything that should be flat is indeed flat.

ome helpers working in the dulcimer shop

I found these guys hanging around on the lawn. I figured with hats like these they probably know something about woodworking and lutherie so I put them to work.

 

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