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.
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 few hours later the back is ready to be fitted to the dulcimer.
Note to self: Don’t forget to put a label on the back before gluing it to the dulcimer! (Yes, it has happened!)
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!
I have softened the curve leading from the waist to the upper bout and slightly increased the recurve near the tail.
I had just finished bringing a beautiful butternut dulcimer soundboard to final thickness when I noticed some odd-looking marks in the wood. Ends up there was a bit of deep checking inside that wasn’t revealed until I got it to final thickness.
Wood often has flaws and flaws are part of the wood’s beauty. Sometimes the flaw is merely cosmetic and adds beauty to the wood, sometimes the flaw is structural and decreases the strength of the wood.
In this case the flaw was a checked (cracked) area about an inch wide that went completely through the soundboard. This flaw across the grain weakens the top enough to make it unusable.
I am happy I learned this soundboard was unusable before putting the dulcimer together! There are often surprises within a board but I usually find them much earlier in the process. This one almost made it into a dulcimer! I probably would have discovered it before the dulcimer was finished but that would have meant a lot more time and work. It is much easier to replace a soundboard before the dulcimer is put together!
Sometimes wood is very cooperative. In the illustration below a piece of wood is telling a dulcimer maker that it will indeed make a fine dulcimer.Wood that talks often has wonderful resonant qualities. It is important to make sure the wood speaks the proper language for the music you plan on playing on your dulcimer. If you play French dance music you want your dulcimer made out of wood that speaks French, etc.
There is a tradition of shipping logs around the world for many years so the wood becomes multilingual and can play most types of music. All this time and travel makes multilingual dulcimer wood very rare and costly.
I’m currently working on two dulcimers I began this past Fall before the last back surgery. I am so happy to be working again! It will still be a while before I am back to working full-time in the shop, which for a self-employed person who loves his job usually means most-of-the-time, but I am thankful and grateful for what I am now able to do.
The two current dulcimers I’m building both have walnut backs and sides. One will have a butternut soundboard and the other was to have a cedar soundboard but after planing and cleaning up the top I realized it was not cedar but redwood! I have a few sets of redwood I sawed up a few years ago that were unusually hard and stiff for redwood and one of them sneaked into the pile of cedar soundboards when I wasn’t looking. Soundboards do that. I have to keep them in a corral or they end up all over the house.
If I had a better camera and/or took better photographs you would see the fine grain and beautiful color of this soundboard. But use your imagination! Pretty, ain’t it?
Also on the bench is a knife I picked up at an antique mall a few years ago.This knife has a massive brass handle with rosewood scales. The handle has a set screw so the blade can be adjusted for length. The leather strop is a piece of an old guitar strap with some compound on it. Since using a strop I spend more time working and less time sharpening; a moment or two of stropping restores a fine edge and delays the need to hone the tool again.
I have several custom orders I look forward to starting in the near future. In the photograph below my lovely wife Cynthia is helping me sort through my wood stash to find just the right wood for these dulcimers:Life is good!
Today I rang in the New Year a little early; I went back to the bench for the first time since having back surgery 6 weeks ago. I am being careful, listening to my body, and working in short shifts with plenty of down time in between sessions but I amworking again!
The bench shot shows some wood that will become several walnut dulcimers. I have some orders for walnut dulcimers and have had a few more inquiries about dulcimers in walnut. Is some famous celebrity playing a walnut dulcimer?
I had already bent the sides in the photograph but they needed a little touch-up on the hot-pipe to get them just right. The small crock-pot is my glue-pot. When I heated up the glue-pot I knew I was really getting back to work!
I have a few other instruments in the queue and will take on the tasks to make them as I am able.
By having to work slowly and in short installments I find myself focusing more on each small process. I can’t remember the last time I felt such joy in trimming a side to length with a dozuki and bench hook.
For now it is a day at a time with no expectation of how often I can work or how much I will accomplish each time I enter the shop but life is rolling back towards normal.
Well, what I consider normal. Your mileage may vary.
Someone told me that during the healing process a person is running a marathon even while sitting still. This makes sense to me.
I am healing well and i am eager to be in the shop making instruments. What has kept me from doing so is the fatigue that comes after a little physical and mental exertion.
This will pass.
I plan to start work slowly; short installments and lots of time to rest and recover.
It is interesting how multiple requests for dulcimers made from similar woods often come to me at the same time. I currently have several orders for walnut dulcimers and messages from a few people who want to see what I make in walnut once I’m back in production.
I’ve been enjoying digging through my wood stash and sorting sets for the instruments I will soon be making.
After years of bending dulcimer sides using a heating blanket and bending form I am beginning to prefer the traditional method of bending sides over a hot pipe. I often touch up sides, linings and binding on a hot pipe after they have come off the form because wood has memory and tends to spring back to its original shape.
Bending sides freehand is not difficult but like many things requires developing technique and skill that come with experience. Touching up sides, linings and binding has given me enough practice at the bending iron to feel more comfortable bending freehand from the start.In the grainy photo above you can see the ubiquitous electric bending iron used by luthiers around the world. It is basically an aluminum pipe with an internal heating element controlled by a thermostat. This style of bending iron has an oval shape as opposed to the round diameter of the simple hot pipe setup I used in the past. Both work well though the shape of the electric bending iron offers a variety of curved surfaces that makes bending some shapes easier.
The bending iron is heated until drops of water bounce off it. The wood is lightly moistened and the area to to be bent is rubbed against the pipe in a stroking motion until it starts to have a little give. As the wood becomes soft it yields to pressure and can be coaxed into the desired shape.
On the bench is a mold I sometimes use to hold the sides in shape when gluing in linings or putting on a soundboard or back. It is upside down on the bench serving as a template for me to check the sides against as I bend them. The outside of the mold is the same shape as my standard model dulcimer.
My recent preference for bending freehand is due to my continuing appreciation for simple technology that relies on skill more than tooling and jigs. Bending freehand also makes it easy to vary the shape of a dulcimer without the need to build a new bending form each time.
Many of the tried-and-true methods of work used in the past have been replaced in modern times by technical advances that offer consistency, repeatability and accuracy. This is very helpful in a production situation.
As I continue to gain more skill using traditional methods of lutherie I am sometimes surprised by how quickly I can accomplish certain tasks. Over time I suspect I will be bending sides freehand as fast or faster than I have using a heated form.
But speed is not the goal. I enjoy the process of doing what I do.
And on the subject of using tried-and-true methods and tools; these two guys showed up the other day looking for work. I told them I wasn’t hiring, that I was a one person operation and didn’t have enough work to keep them busy.
They said they had they did all their work by hand and had their own tools. They had fallen on hard times and really needed work.
That hit a soft spot in my heart and I decided to let them work around the shop on a trial basis.
If you see any 25 foot long dulcimers you’ll know where they came from.
Some days work-in-progress happens not only on the bench but also under the bench, on the floor, and on and horizontal surface I can find. Today is such a day.
This is my funky-yet-effective side-bender. This bending form uses metal slats and a heating blanket to bend the sides for my standard model dulcimer. For one-of-a-kind instruments I bend sides the old fashioned way using a hot pipe.
Inside the side bender are several pieces of rosewood about to become binding; the trim I sometimes use around the soundboard.
The wood is moistened and as heat penetrates the wood I hear and smell when it will become pliable enough to bend under pressure. Many of us bend under pressure so I do not hold this against the wood. What I do hold against the wood are both the male and female halves of the bending form.
I use three clamps to squeeze everything snug and then turn off the heat. I let the wood cool dry in the side-bender overnight.
Wood has memory and will try to spring back to its original shape. Sometimes the binding or sides coming out of the side-bender need a little touch-up on the hot pipe to assure they hold the desired shape.
A piece of wood can only be hand-planed as flat as the surface beneath it. Even a slight warp in the top of the bench will create a concave or convex surface on the final work.
Part of my regular shop maintenance is planing the top of my bench flat once or twice a year. I am currently unable to do this as it would put too much stress on my back and legs. In a few months I should be able to level the bench top but I have work to do until then!
The stock I needed to plane was long and narrow. It came to me that all I needed was a flat surface long and wide enough to plane the work at hand.
My solution was to take a long 2 X 4 of quartersawn oak I had lying around the shop and turn it into a planing surface. I trued up the surface and drilled a hole for a dowel that serves as a bench stop. I clamped the oak beam to the bench top using bench dogs and the end vise.
This setup worked so well that I will probably keep using it even after I level the bench top!
The plane is my old #7 retrofitted with a thick blade and cap iron.
I had a very good time at The Gateway Dulcimer Festival this past weekend. I taught eight classes on playing mountain dulcimer and performed as part of the Saturday night concert. There were also some late-night conversations with old friends and some new friendships formed. This is the stuff that makes this all worthwhile.
My back and legs are doing much better. I was concerned about driving eight hours each way but my body held up well. I stopped and took breaks, stretched, and enjoyed the ride. Though there is still a way to go the difference in my ability to walk, stand and work has improved significantly during the past month or so. Joy!
This afternoon I am fretting a Claro walnut dulcimer. In the photograph are the three tools I use when hammering frets: a brass hammer, fret cutters, and a small saw for cleaning and checking the depth of the fret slots.
I install the frets on a dulcimer towards the end of the building process. After applying the first two coats of finish I hang the dulcimer up for several days or more so the finish can cure During this time the wood can make any movement it may make as it adjusts to wearing new clothes. Applying finish to the thin and light wood of a dulcimer changes the equilibrium of the wood’s response to the environment.
Though subtle, any slight movement of the wood during this time can alter the flatness of the fingerboard. I can now check and correct any fluctuations that may have occurred in the fretboard before installing the frets.
Many dulcimer makers install the frets before the fretboard gets glued to the body. There is a good reason for this; it is much easier to hammer or press the frets into the fingerboard when one is not concerned about smashing the top of the dulcimer!
I have never been happy with the results I have had when fretting the fingerboard before gluing it to the soundboard. I have tried this and though the results were acceptable I knew I could do better.
Many people comment that my dulcimers are very easy to play. Getting the fingerboard exactly the way I want it to be lays the foundation for making a dulcimer as comfortable to play as possible. If the fingerboard is leveled correctly and the frets are properly installed and leveled I can set up the dulcimer with very low action if that is what the player desires.
I have developed a variety of techniques for fretting without damaging the dulcimer. It is a slow, time-consuming process but in the end I have a dulcimer that plays the way I want it to play.
After installing, leveling, shaping, and polishing the frets I continue with applying the rest of the finish to the dulcimer.