A dulcimer I built a few years was shipped back to me to have a new pickup installed. When I unpacked the dulcimer and took a first look at it I was filled with joy; this dulcimer showed signs it has been played a lot!
I chose to do some maintenance on the frets and fingerboard while the dulcimer was on the bench for the pickup installation.
In the photo above you can see extensive wear on the frets. After several years of being played regularly the frets have worn under the strings in the places most used. On dulcimers this is most often seen on the lower frets up to the 5th or 6th fret but can vary depending on the style and technique of the player.
Frets are like tires on a car; they are an important interface that require occasional maintenance as they wear and at times, replacement.
Here’s what the fret looked like after leveling, reshaping, and polishing.
The owner of this dulcimer plays with a pick and plays hard so there was wear around the strum hollow and in the higher end of the fingerboard. Most players pick or strum in the “sweet spot” that falls over the fingerboard. This area produces what most people consider the most pleasing blend of harmonics and tone. Playing over the fingerboard is also more comfortable for many players because they don’t have to jut their right elbow far to the right to keep their hand over the strum hollow.
Many serious players of stringed instruments think of this kind of wear as scars that show where they have been. Some people are horrified when they see wear on their dulcimer but others see it as a badge of honor!
If I make a dulcimer for someone who lets me know they play hard and are concerned about wear I recommend a harder, more wear-resistant wood for the fingerboard. They will still get some wear but it will be milder and less obvious.
After sealing the fingerboard with oil the dulcimer is ready for more adventure!
You can see photos of my work in progress by following me on Instagram.
On the bench is a dulcimer getting ready to receive frets. I level and put relief into fingerboards by planing, scraping, and sanding. I first get the fingerboard flat and true and then add a few thousandths of an inch of relief in parts of the fingerboard to assure the action can be set as low as I like without causing string buzz and rattles.
I sometimes prefer to sand a fingerboard to initial flatness and use an aluminum level as a long, accurate sanding block. I checked the level with my machinist’s straightedge and was surprised to find both faces are true and straight. This is not always the case, especially on an inexpensive aluminum level.
In use I can sand with one side of the level and flip the level over to use the other face as a reference for straightness and flatness. The level is wider than my steel machinist’s straightedge so it sits more securely on the fingerboard while I measure relief, etc.
I regularly post photos of dulcimer making in progress on Instagram. You can follow me on Instagram or see my Instagram posts on this page.
On the bench is a chromatic dulcimer having reinforcements glued in to lock the ends of the braces into the sides. The reinforcements add strength to the joinery and makes the inside of the dulcimer look neat. The reinforcements are shy and happy to be hiding under the clamps where they can’t be seen.
While the glue was drying I carved the ramp that goes from behind the bridge (shown by a pencil line) to the end of the dulcimer. I start the ramp by sawing off the waste and continue shaping it with rasps, files, and scrapers. When I placed the fingerboard on the body to double check the length it asked me to take the above photo. Unlike the reinforcements mentioned earlier, the fingerboard is not shy.
I’m currently working on two bespoke chromatic dulcimers. The one above will be in walnut, spruce, and zircote, the other is in oak, spruce, Spanish cedar, and zircote.
I am regularly receiving requests to make fully chromatic dulcimers and they seem to be becoming popular.
Some physical issues make it challenging to do as much planing as I have done in the past. I thought I might have to get a thickness planer and jointer to do some of the work I enjoy doing by hand. After further thought I chose to reconsider my approach to using hand planes.
Until recently I got rid of lumps and bumps, hills and valley, Satan’s minions, and anything else in the way of a smooth, square, flat surface by using a jointer plane early in the process. Using that wonderful, big, long, and heavy plane repeatedly does not make some of my body parts happy anymore so now I take out the lumps and bumps, hills and valley, Satan’s minions, and anything else in the way of a smooth, square, flat surface by relying more on smaller planes and then finish up with the jointer plane.
Either approach has long been in use by woodworkers and luthiers but the latter works better for me now.
I also recently acquired a skewed low-angle block plane with a fence that makes getting the sides of the fingerboard assembly square to fingerboard much easier. I used to leave my fingerboards a little wide so I could true them with the jointer plane and have enough wood to remove in order to get the surface both straight and square; this usually involved some trial and error and the extra wood provided a margin for error. Now I mill my fingerboards a little narrower and after getting the sides straight with the jointer plane the skewed low-angle block plane with a fence lets me square the surface using light, delicate cuts.
All is well in the tiny, happy part of the world that is my workshop.
On the bench today is a custom chromatic dulcimer with an ebony fingerboard. The spruce soundboard has been stained and lightly distressed to add some character. I’m a character and so are my dulcimers. So it goes.
Many dulcimer makers fret the fingerboard early in the construction process. It is much easier to install the frets when the fingerboard is separate from the dulcimer; one can hammer or press the frets in without any thought of possibly crushing the dulcimer beneath them!
I know several dulcimer makers who get good results fretting the fingerboard before gluing it to the dulcimer but I prefer fretting the fingerboard after assembling the dulcimer and applying the finish.
Experience has shown me that applying the finish to a dulcimer sometimes results in slight movement of the soundboard and fingerboard. By fretting after applying the finish I can level and/or add relief to the fingerboard and have it come out exactly as I prefer it to be.
I use a scraper and a few sanding blocks to prepare the fingerboard for fretting. The scraps of wood lying on the dulcimer prevent bad, scary things from happening to the soundboard while working on the fingerboard.
The movement of the fingerboard and the correction I am talking about is measured in thousandths of an inch. As a player I find these small increments can make a surprising difference in how much I enjoy playing a dulcimer.
Fretting towards the end of a build requires more work but I am often told my dulcimers are very comfortable and easy to play and this is a part of how I make them that way.
On my calendar was recovery from back surgery this past week but there was a change of plans; a dental issue came up and surgery was postponed. Instead I am taking antibiotics and will have minor dental surgery in a week or so. The back surgery will probably be within a month or so after that.
Let it not be said that I don’t know how to have a good time!
I’m a firm believer that what is happening is happening and what is not happening is not happening so I am rolling with it.
In the meantime I am up to my usual tricks and getting some work done in the shop.
In the photograph above is a simple setup for cutting fret slots. The miter box is made from scraps of MDF and the depth stop on the saw is a strip of wood held in place with three colorful spring clamps. The wooden cam clamps hold the miter box to the work-board and holds the fretboard in place while sawing.
This low-tech setup works remarkably well.
I have templates for fret patterns I commonly use. The templates eliminate calculating and measuring out the fret positions.
This fingerboard is for a custom chromatic dulcimer with a scale length I have not used before; 743 centimeters! That is a very long string length but is what the person who will be playing this dulcimer prefers.
Since I didn’t have a template for this scale length I had to calculate the fret positions and lay them out on the fingerboard. Fortunately, there is software that does the math. In the 1970’s I had to spend a long time with a calculator to work out fret positions. The constant often used to calculate an equal tempered fretboard, 17.81715385, is still permanently installed in my memory.
I laid out the fret positions using a very accurate ruler, machinist’s square, sharp knife, and patience. I triple checked the measurements before sawing the slots.
Sawing the slots with the miter box was the fun part.
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.
Nothing original here, just an old trick that makes quick, quiet work of squaring and evenly thicknessing wood.
A few drops of super glue temporarily hold two wood runners to the bottom of a plane, in this case a Stanley #5 1/4 for those who care about such details. The plane can not take off wood below the height of the runners so repeatedly planing wood to the same height becomes easy. The top and bottom of the workpiece will also be parallel.
In the photograph I’m planing spruce brace stock for dulcimer backs. The rough brace sits on my planing beam; a flat and straight beam of oak with a bench stop at one end. I use this planing beam when truing and jointing fretboards and fingerboards, thinning bindings, and brace stock. I also use the planing beam as a caul when gluing fingerboards to fretboards.
In the photograph above are some of the tools I use when filing frets after they are installed on a dulcimer.
On this dulcimer the ends of the frets have already been filed flush with the sides of the fingerboard. The next step is to assure there are no high or low frets as these are one of the causes of buzzing and other annoyances.
I draw a line along the top of the frets with a marker and lightly file the tops with the flat, fine diamond sharpening stone. When the lines from the marker are gone I know the tops of all the frets are level.
I choose the color of the marker based on the dulcimer’s aura. This one needed blue. Only kidding. Or am I?
The tops of frets need to be round and define a singular point of contact when the string is pressed down behind it. I mark this point by again drawing a line with the marker along the crowns of the frets. I use the triangular file to file the sides of each fret so it slopes towards the line until there is barely a hint of the line left. The corners of the file have had the teeth ground off to help avoid gouging the fingerboard. The metal shield placed around the fret I am working on also helps.
The small metal square is one of several in different sizes I use as straight edges to assure the tops of the frets are still level as work progresses.
The block of wood with a file embedded in it at an angle is used to bevel the ends of the frets. The small, skinny file with the orange handle is used to deburr the corners of the frets at the edge of the fingerboard. The same file is use to round the end of the frets. Skipping this step usually results in blood loss for the player; the ends of the frets become sharp after filing.
After completing all the above the crowns of the frets are further rounded and polished with fine sandpaper, steel wool, and then buffed until they shine.
Beginning dulcimer makers are often perplexed about knowing where to place the frets.
The first step towards getting a dulcimer to play in tune is to have the frets placed properly.
There are many discussions about temperament, scale length, etc.
Most current fretted instruments in the Western world are fretted to play in equal temperament. A dulcimer that is fretted to play using the equal tempered scale will play in tune with most other (Western) instruments.
When I began making dulcimers I was taught to divide the string length by 17.81715385 and the resulting number would be the distance from the nut to the first fret. I would then subtract the distance from the nut to the first fret and divide the remaining string length by 17.81715385.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
I would calculate all the frets for a chromatic fingerboard but only use the ones I needed for a dulcimer. This way I had the measurements for any extra frets I might be installing while making the dulcimer or adding to it in the future.
After doing this for a while someone mentioned that no one would hear the difference if I simply used 17.817. They were right. It saved lots of keystrokes on the calculator.
Now you can easily generate fret positions automagicaly!
Here is a list of some on-line fret placement calculators I have found either useful or interesting.