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.

 

What’s On The Bench – 04/29/2014

Last night and this afternoon I found myself bracing the back of a custom walnut dulcimer. I turned around and there I was. It was kind of strange and startling but at least I was getting some work done.

But seriously folks, here are some photographs of a cute little plane I use to rough shape braces.

Shaping dulcimer braces with a cute little rosewood plane

Curly shavings!

I love those little spruce curls!

I don’t have a set bracing pattern for dulcimer soundboards and backs. I also don’t have a standard thickness for tops and backs.

Thicknesses of tops and backs and the number and sizes of braces depends on the particular pieces of wood I am working with. As a dulcimer comes together I make decisions and adjustments to achieve the resonance I desire.

I enjoy this process immensely.

After shaping the back braces I glued in the center reinforcement; a brace that strengthens the center joint of the book-matched back and adds stiffness to the back lengthwise.

A place for everything and everything is someplace.

A few hours later the back is ready to be fitted to the dulcimer.

Dulcimer back waiting for a label.

Note to self: Don’t forget to put a label on the back before gluing it to the dulcimer! (Yes, it has happened!)

 

Shaping Up A Dulcimer Shape

Several years ago I spent weeks fiddling with the shape of my standard model dulcimer. After thinking I had finalized the shape I built several prototypes and again made some changes to the outline; some based on looks, some based on acoustics. I was very happy with the results.

During the months I was unable to work at the bench I spent a lot of time contemplating dulcimer designs and methods of construction. Passion is rarely static. 

Sometimes the process of bending the sides produced subtle variations in the outline of the dulcimer that seemed a little more natural than what I had originally drawn on paper.

I decided to incorporate the results of some of these subtle variations into the outline of my dulcimers, though I may be the only one who notices them! 

Shaping up a dulcimer shape

I have softened the curve leading from the waist to the upper bout and slightly increased the recurve near the tail. 

Let me out of here!

 Passion is rarely static.