Doug Berch

Dulcimer Maker And Musician

cropped Dulcimer Builders and Makers 1 23

Tag: Fingerboard Page 2 of 4

My Acoustic High-Precision Thickness Planer

My Acoustic High-Precision Thickness Planer

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.

Yes, it is a fascinating life I lead.


What’s On The Bench – Filing Frets

Dulcimer Fretwork

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.

On-Line Fret Placement Calculators

A freshly fretted dulcimer by Doug Berch

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.

Carving A Dulcimer Strum Hollow With Hand Tools

The peace and quiet, plane shavings and the small, granular shavings made by a rasp, the control and finish left by a card scraper; these are some of the joys of making dulcimers using hand tools.

Carving a dulcimer strum hollow by hand

I carve the ramp at the end of the fingerboard with a chisel and finish it with a plane. The strum hollow is carved with a rasp (a Nicholson #50 for those who care about such things) and cleaned up with the scraper.

Time to get back to work!

The Heart Of A Mountain Dulcimer

I consider every component of a dulcimer to be integral to the instrument’s sound, playability, beauty and structural integrity.

The choice of wood, the thickness of the top, back and sides, bracing and other structural elements are unique to each dulcimer I build. I adjust each component as the dulcimer is constructed to bring them into harmony.

Though every part is integral to the final result I consider the fretboard to be the heart of the dulcimer. The fretboard transmits the music within the musician to the body of the dulcimer.

Fingers and fretboard - photo by Mustafa Farhad -

The fretboard is the primary soundboard brace.  It also acts as a bridge and transfers the vibrations of the strings from every fret directly to the soundboard. By altering the material, weight, and mass of the fretboard I can adjust  volume, tone and sustain.

The choice of wood for the fretboard is as critical as the choice of wood for the soundboard. The fretboard needs to be resonant, stable and strong enough to carry the tension of the strings.

I treat the hollowing-out of the fretboard, the carving of the strum-hollow and the shape of the tail-end of the fretboard in a similar manner to shaping the internal braces, thicknessing  the sides and graduating the top and back.

This process takes time but it brings me great joy.

Doug Berch & Dulcimer Makers