Doug Berch

Dulcimer Maker And Musician

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Binding Dulcimers

Dulcimer Binding ToolsDulcimers traditionally did not have binding. Every time I put binding on a dulcimer I am reminded of this; putting binding on a dulcimer is a lot of work!

Putting binding around the edges of the soundboard, especially a soundboard made of a soft wood, helps prevent dings and chips along the edges. To my design aesthetic binding the soundboard is also like putting a frame on a picture.

I usually do not put binding on the backs of my dulcimers unless someone really wants it.  I don’t think it is necessary to bind the back since it is usually made of hardwood. Also, should the dulcimer ever need major repairs an unbound back simplifies removing the back of the dulcimer to gain access to its innards.

In the photograph above are the hand tools I use when preparing the dulcimer for binding.

In the upper left is a shop-made binding scribe. It consists of a scalpel blade glued and taped to a piece of wood the thickness of the binding that is again glued to a piece of wood that serves as a handle. I use this tool to gently score the binding channel on the soundboard. After the channel is scored I deepen the scored cuts with the scalpel and knife.

I use a simple router jig to remove some of the bulk and then finish up the binding rebate with the small chisel and file. I also use the chisel as a scraper, using my fingers as a depth stop to guide the cut.

After taking the photograph for this post I noticed the fingerboard did not look quite right. I realized I had left out one of the fret slots! It has since been cut and all is right with the world.

Forgetting to cut a fret slot is not a big deal as it is easy to add at anytime. What is a big deal is cutting a fret slot where one is not supposed to be.

Guess how I learned that lesson?


What’s On The Bench 12/18/2016

Sanding dulcimers. The fun never ends.Two dulcimers have been gone over with scrapers and files and now comes sanding. And sanding. And then some more sanding.

I enjoy working with scrapers and files. Sanding is messy and time consuming.

There was a time when most luthiers did not do much sanding. The finished instrument did not have a perfect, homogeneous surface. It looked like wood that was worked by hand with edge tools.

The tool marks and slight unevenness in finish and texture of a scraped and filed instrument is beautiful in my eyes. In our current industrial society many people think wood should look like a photograph of wood more than wood itself.

So I sand my dulcimers.

Still, there will be the occasional tool mark that I don’t sand out. I made this dulcimer. I made that tool mark.  And to me it is beautiful.

By “tool mark” I am referring to a subtle witness that a plane, chisel, scraper or file had been used to work the surface. By “tool mark” I don’t refer to marks left by the sawmill, the bandsaw, a dulcimer-making machine, etc.

For years I have thought of making a sandpaper-free model. I’m sure some people would like it. Or not. Maybe someday.

That’s dulcimer #157 on the bench. The old shaving brush is great for sweeping away dust from all the nooks and crannies.

Not in the photograph is the dust mask I wear while sanding and and air cleaner that sucks the dust out of the air.

You can see photographs of work in progress regularly by following me on Instagram.


What’s On The Bench – 8/23/2013

Today I was preparing wood that will become dulcimer necks and fingerboards. I am also preparing stock for the frame of a contemporary style of begena I am making for my friend and fellow musician Temesgen. You should check out Temesgen’s page and listen to his music!

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.

Dulcimer builder creates a long, thin planing support. What will he think of next?Bench stop made from a dowel

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 love hand planning!

A Dulcimer Ready For A Shave

A Dulcimer Ready For A Shave

The right tool for the right job is a concept open to interpretation. Well, for me it is.

After planes, chisels, rasps, files and scrapers have touched every surface of a dulcimer I cringe a little and reach for sandpaper.

Sandpaper is a disposable and messy tool but like any tool it does it’s intended job well. Minor irregularities, or at least the minor irregularities I don’t want,  magically disappear and rounded edges become silky smooth.

And then there is the dust that gets onto and into everything. Dust, dust, dust. Did I mention the dust?

Some woods have open pores, others have closed pores. Walnut, mahogany and oak are examples of open-pored woods. Cherry, maple and spruce are examples of closed-pored woods.

To get a perfectly flat, even finish with a mirror-like surface the pores on an open pored wood must be filled lest the surface show that there is indeed real wood underneath the finish.

Most of the time I lean towards leaving the pores of open-pored wood as they are, which is open. I like the look and tactile feel of my dulcimers as close to natural wood as possible. I also prefer a satin finish to a gloss finish because in my opinion it lets wood look more like wood.

There are exceptions. Sometimes I like to use a shellac finish and I like the way shellac looks better when the pores are filled.

But I digress…

The Claro walnut dulcimer above is ready for the first coat of finish, which in this case will be varnish. I’m leaving the pores open but after sanding with the finer grits sanding dust becomes embedded deep in the pores and any other nook or cranny it can find. Dust is tenacious stuff.

A few years ago while perusing an antique mall I found a worn-out shaving brush for 50 cents. After vacuuming and wiping down the dulcimer I go over it with the shaving brush and soon any evidence of sandpaper having ever been used disappears.

After brushing the dulcimer gets a good rubdown to burnish the wood and then the finish goes on.

What’s On The Bench – 7/27/2013

It feels great to be working again.

My back and legs continue to heal and I am able work in the shop for short periods several times throughout the day. Trained professionals have told me I can work as long as I stop the moment I notice symptoms becoming aggravated. I keep thinking if I aggravate the symptoms enough they will get annoyed and go away but I keep being told it doesn’t work like that…

To make having to stop working a little more fun I have decided to occasionally do a post of “What’s On The Bench.” Think of it as a dulcimer maker playing musical chairs at the bench. When it is time to stop I grab my phone and snap a photo of what I was just working on.

I started building dulcimer #145 not long before having surgery this past March and have recently picked up where I left off. In this photograph the joint between the peghead and the body of the dulcimer was fitted and smoothed with a chisel and small scraper.

I'm tired of lying on my side. Can I get up now?

The chisel is a quarter-inch Stanley Handyman butt chisel from a set of four I inherited from my father-in-law. It is a great chisel for getting into tight spaces. When i first got these chisels I was impressed with how well they held an edge. These chisels were made during a time when many economy tools marketed to homeowners where often of good quality.

After carving the peghead to body joint flush I cleaned up the marks left by the chisel and smoothed the curves with the small scraper.

Also in the photograph is a cabinetmakers clamp and two cam clamps I use to hold the dulcimer on its side. Someday I will make a vise just for this purpose but the current setup isn’t broken so I haven’t bothered to fix it.

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Doug Berch & Dulcimer Makers