Doug Berch

Dulcimer Maker And Musician

cropped Dulcimer Builders and Makers 1 23

Tag: Fingerboard Page 1 of 4

Maintenance On A Dulcimer That Gets Played A Lot!

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.

Worn frets on a dulcimer.

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.

Happy frets 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.

Wear on the fretboard. This dulcimer has been played

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.

Cherry dulcimer after fretwork and some oil on the fingerboard.

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.

What’s On The Bench – August 14th, 2019

An accurate level can be used to check and true a fingerboard.

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.

What’s On The Bench – June 14th, 2019

This chromatic dulcimer in walnut will have a zircote fingerboard and spruce soundboard.

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.

Further Adventures In Hand Planing

Planing dulcimer fretboards to proper dimensions.

I once wrote about developing the skills to accurately plane parts to proper dimension. I have recently been making some changes to my planing technique to accommodate the capabilities and lack of capabilities of my body.

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.

Preparing A Dulcimer Fingerboard For Receiving The Frets

Custom dulcimer with ebony fingerboard by Doug Berch

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.

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Doug Berch & Dulcimer Makers